Rachel's Democracy & Health News #937

"Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?"

Thursday, December 13, 2007.............Printer-friendly version
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Featured stories in this issue...

Hazardous Chemicals in Synthetic Turf: A Research Review
  Across the country, schools, parks, and private sports
  organizations are installing the "new generation" synthetic turf. It
  is springier than the old AstroTurf and feels more like natural grass.
  But it is made from used tires, which contain toxic chemicals.
Toxic Inaction
  Europe has replaced the U.S. as the leader in regulating chemicals;
  as a result European manufacturers are gaining a competitive advantage
  over American companies.
Environmental Toxin Collects in Breast Milk
  Scientists have discovered the mechanism by which a chemical known
  as perchlorate can collect in breast milk and cause cognitive and
  motor deficits in newborns.
We Have a Decade To Avert Climate Catastrophe, Experts Say
  The international community may have as little as a decade to bring
  greenhouse gases under control or risk catastrophic global warming
  that places millions of people at risk, warns a group of the world's
  leading climate scientists.
Antarctica's Penguins Threatened by Global Warming
  The food web of Antarctica, and thus the survival of penguins and
  many other species, is bound up in the future of the sea ice, which
  has declined 40% in the last 26 years.
Solar Power: The Future's Bright
  It has been a long slow revolution, but finally years of diligent
  research and investment by a group of true believers is beginning to
  pay off. Solar power has finally come of age.


From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #937, Dec. 13, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]


By William Crain and Junfeng (Jim) Zhang

Across the country, schools, parks, and private sports organizations
are installing the "new generation" synthetic turf. It is springier
than the old AstroTurf and feels more like natural grass. However, the
new turf is being installed before there has been thorough research on
its potential health risks. Fortunately, increasing numbers of
research agencies are conducting studies. But as we shall see, the
studies are often limited and reach premature conclusions about the
turf's safety.

Presence of Hazardous Chemicals

Of special concern are the small rubber granules that rest between the
turf's plastic blades of grass. These granules, which are the size of
grains of rice or smaller (0.5 to 3 mm), contribute to the turf's
resiliency. The granules are typically made from large quantities of
recycled rubber tires; between 25,000 and 40,000 scrap tires are used
to produce the granules for a standard soccer field.[1]

Although the tiny granules (sometimes called the "infill") lie between
the plastic blades of grass, they also are common on the surface, so
children and athletes come into frequent contact with them. In fact,
many players have told us that the granules get into their shoes and
wind up in their homes. When we learned that the granules are so
accessible to park users, we decided to test samples of the granules
to see if contained toxic chemicals found in scrap tires.
Specifically, we wondered if they contained any of 15 polycyclic
aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) on the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency priority pollutant list or heavy metals that also can have
toxic effects.

Our first preliminary study[2] analyzed two samples of granules from a
New York City Park. The analyses revealed six PAHs at concentrations
sufficiently high that the New York State Department of Environmental
Conservation (DEC) would have required their removal if the PAHs had
been in contaminated soil sites. The six PAHs were: benzo(a)
anthracene, chrysene, benzo(b)fluoranthene, benzo(a)pyrene, benzo(k)
fluoranthene, and dibenzo(a,h)anthracene. All six are likely to be
carcinogenic to humans.[3]

We also conducted follow-up analyses of granules from two other New
York City Parks, gathering two samples from one park and one sample
from the other park. We detected three of the same PAHs at elevated
levels in at least one of the samples. A particularly hazardous PAH --
dibenzo(a,h)anthracene -- exceeded the DEC soil standard in all three
samples.[4] The results of our studies generally conform to those of
the Norwegian Building Research Institute.[5]

We also found that the granules contained worrisome levels of zinc and
lead.[2] These metals also been detected in research by others,
including the Norwegian Building Research Institute[5] and the
Rochesterians Against the Misuse of Pesticides (RAMP).[6] Zinc isn't
necessarily harmful. In fact, we need some zinc, and it is included in
multivitamin pills. But excessive zinc produces problems such as
stomach cramps and anemia in humans.[7]

Although the detected levels of lead have generally been below
contaminated site soil standards set by the New York Department of
Environmental Conservation (DEC), many health scientists warn against
adding any lead at all to the environment, for even small amounts can
contribute to neurocognitive problems in children.[8]

These preliminary studies only indicated that toxicants are present in
the rubber granules. The more critical question concerns the
bioavailability of the toxicants: Can they leach into the surrounding
environment and harm human and non-human organisms? Can they be
absorbed into the bodies of children and athletes who use the turf

Leaching into Water and Soil

Numerous studies have demonstrated that chemicals in whole tires, tire
shreds, and recycled tire crumbs can leach into water and soil.[9-12]
In addition, many of these studies have demonstrated that the
chemicals harm or kill aquatic life, including algae, minnows, trout,
and frogs.[13] The chemicals also can stunt the growth of land
plants.[13] Researchers have been slower to identify precisely which
chemicals in the rubber produce the toxic effects, but researchers
generally believe that the culprits include metals such as zinc.[9,
13] One investigation implicated PAHs in the death of trout where
rubber tires had been placed in water.[14]

Two studies specifically asked what happens when synthetic turf
granules are placed in water, and both studies found that considerable
zinc was released.[10,11] In a widely cited report funded by a
Candadian tire recycling agency, Birkholz and his colleagues[15]
discovered that ground-up rubber from a flat playground surface killed
aquatic life. Birkholz emphasized that that rubber material was less
toxic if it had been on the playground for more than three months, but
the effects of ageing merit further study; zinc might actually be
released in greater quantities after a few years, as the rubber

Noting that most of the research on damage to non-human organisms has
been conducted in the laboratory, a report by California's Office of
Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) concludes that there is
little risk in real-life, outdoor conditions. Specifically, the OEHHA
concludes that "during rain events" the recycled tire material in play
areas is unlikely to leach toxic chemicals in high enough
concentrations to harm aquatic life.[16] But the OEHHA's conclusion is
speculative; it only cites one study that supports its view. What's
more, the study it cites only examined how water quality was affected
by a tire trench -- not the tiny rubber particles in synthetic turf
that move about and can potentially flow into streams and bodies of
water. A study by FieldTurf Tarkett (Nanterre, France) and French
research agencies also questions the potential harm of leaching, but
FieldTurf Tarkett is the world's largest manufacturer of synthetic
turf, so it's difficult to assess its findings.[17] A recent Dutch
investigation reaches the more sober conclusion that "the leaching of
zinc is a major concern."[18]

Toxic chemicals in rubber material might also leach into human
drinking water. So far, the research on this possibility is sparse.
The OEHHA report observes evidence of increased quantities of toxic
chemicals in groundwater, but the report emphasizes that the
contaminants hadn't spread more than a few meters from the rubber

We will now turn to the possibility that the toxicants in recycled
rubber can be absorbed by children and athletes from play on synthetic
turf surfaces.


In their widely cited report, Birkholz et al. maintained that
inhalation in not "a plausible route of exposure because no volatile
compounds would be expected to remain in the shredded, solid
material."[20] But as Brown[21] observes, this speculation has turned
out to be incorrect. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station
recently found that at 60 deg. C (140 deg. F) -- a temperature that
synthetic turf reaches in the summer -- the rubber granules off-gassed
several hazardous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air.[11]
Three chemicals -- benzothiazole, n-hexadecane, and 4-(t-octyl) phenol
-- are irritants to humans; a fourth chemical, butylated
hydroxyanisole, has many toxic effects and may be carcinogenic to
humans.[22] In addition, in 2006 the Norwegian Institute of Public
Health and Radium Hospital observed that several VOCs were released
from rubber granules in an indoor facility.[23] Others, including
RAMP, also have detected VOCS.[5,6] Although the Norwegian Institute
-- as well as the FieldTurf/French agencies[17] -- play down the
possibility that the chemicals would remain in the air sufficiently
long to cause harm, more research on this question is needed. Research
also is needed on the extent to which rubber granules produce
particulate matter that aggravates asthma.[21]


Because children's bodies are still developing, they are especially
vulnerable to the damaging effects of toxic exposures. Infants and
toddlers are also uniquely susceptible to exposure through ingestion
because they like to put objects into their mouths.[24] When parents
watch games from the sidelines, they frequently let their young
children crawl about on the turf nearby, and the children might pick
up and swallow the rubber granules. Infants and toddlers also might
ingest the granules that wind up in their homes after the games.

Birkholz et al.[15] evaluated the possibility that the ingested crumb
material from flat rubber playground surfaces produces cancer. Based
on the results of in vitro genotoxicity assays, Birkholz et al.
concluded that the risk is negligible; substances extracted from
shredded rubber did not damage DNA or chromosomes. However, the
investigators did not specify the potentially harmful chemicals they
tested. In addition, the fact that the research was funded by the tire
recycling industry raises questions in the minds of many.

OEHHA, whose research was commissioned by the State of California,
examined the extent to which metals, PAHs, and VOCs might be absorbed
through the digestive system. Simulating the environment of the human
stomach, the researchers concluded that risks to human health are de
minimis.[25] But as Brown[26] notes, the researchers explored only the
acute effect of a single ingestion. The researchers acknowledged that
if a child ingested some chemicals repeatedly, the results might be
different. Their data suggest that the ingestion of several metals,
including lead, is of particular concern.

Moreover, the OEHHA investigators only simulated the stomach
environment. There is a need to simulate the digestive process more
completely -- to include the enzymatic actions of saliva and
intestinal fluid as well.

Skin Contact

The results from studies of skin contact are ambiguous. In their main
study of dermal exposure, the OEHHA researchers[27] found that one
PAH, chrysene, can be absorbed from a playground rubber surface onto a
polyester wipe. The authors then estimated that if children engaged in
considerable hand contact with the rubber over several years -- and
sometimes put their hands in their mouths -- the children would
experience an increased cancer risk. This conclusion is based on a
fair amount of speculation, but it alerts us to a danger.

In a 2005 study in Denmark, Nilsson et al. placed synthetic
perspiration on a tractor tire for one hour but failed to find that
any PAHs gravitated to the liquid.[28] However, this study, like the
OEHHA research on dermal exposure, examined relatively large rubber
surfaces (a playground surface and a tire). The results derived from
this approach can be misleading when the actual dermal contact occurs
with the tiny rubber granules in synthetic turf. Tiny particles have
proportionately larger surface areas. Consequently, toxic chemicals
contained in the small granules may be more readily absorbed through
ingestion or skin contact.

A recent Netherlands study[10] examined the urine of football players
after they had "intensive skin contact with rubber crumb on an
artificial field pitch." The urine tests did not "unambiguously"
indicate that PAHs had entered the athletes' bodies. Although this is
important information, similar research needs to be repeated under a
variety of playing conditions and include children.

In Korea, teachers have noticed nose and eye irritation among school
children playing on artificial turf surfaces.[29] Others have called
for research how dermal contact with rubber infill might cause
allergic reactions.[10]


Hazardous chemicals are clearly present in synthetic turf rubber
granules that are made from recycled tires. Some metals in the
granules, including zinc, leach into water and, if they behave like
the metals in other rubber tire material, they can kill aquatic life.
However, it is not yet clear whether this leaching presents a health
risk to humans and other species in ordinary life conditions. It also
is unclear whether the various toxic chemicals in the rubber granules
can be absorbed into the bodies of children and athletes through
inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact. Much more research is needed.
Although some reports have concluded that the risks are minimal, such
conclusions are premature.


[1] A New Turf War: Synthetic Turf in New York City Parks. Special
report, New Yorkers for Parks, Spring, 2006, p. 7. See also FieldTurf
Tarkett, Debunking the Myth of SBR Dangers, p. 2.

[2] Crain, W., and J. Zhang. Hazardous Chemicals in Synthetic Turf.
Rachel's Democracy and Health News, #873, Sept. 21, 2006.

[3] International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Monographs on
the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risk to Humans, PAHs, Vol. 95, 2006.

[4] Crain, W., and J. Zhang. Hazardous Chemicals in Synthetic Turf:
Follow-up Analyses. Rachel's Democracy and Health News, #902, April
12, 2007.

[5] Plesser, T. S. W., and O. J. Lund. Potential health and
environmental effects linked to artificial turf systems -- final
report. Norwegian Building Research Institute (report to the
Norwegian Football Association), 2004.

[6] Rochesterians Against the Misuse of Pesticides. Synthetic Turf
Chemicals, 2007.

[7] ATSDR, ToxFAQs for Zinc, August 2005.

[8] Canfield, R.L., Henderson, C.R., Cory-Slechta, D.A., Cox, C.,
Jusko, T.A., and Lanphear, B.P. Intellectual impairment in children
with blood lead concentrations below 10 micrograms per deciliter. New
England Journal of Medicine, 348, 2003, pp. 1417-1526. Landrigan, P.
Testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public
Works, Washington, DC, Oct. 1, 2002.

[9] Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA),
Evaluation of health effects of recycled waste tires in playground and
track products. Contractor's report to the Integrated Waste Management
Board, State of California (Publication #622-06-013), January, 2007,
pp. 2, 91, 97.

[10] Hofstra, U. Environmental and Health Risks of Rubber Infill.
Summary. INTRON, The Netherlands, February 9, 2007.

[11] Mattina, M. J., M. Isleyen, W. Berger, and S. Ozdemir.
Examination of crumb rubber produced from recycled tires. The
Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, 123 Huntington St., New
Haven, CT 06504. Telephone 203-974-8449.

[12] Chalker-Scott, L. The myth of rubberized landscapes. Puyallup
Research and Extension Center, Washington State University.

[13] OEHHA (see reference 9), pp. 97-102.

[14] Stephenson, E, M. Adolfsson-Erici, et al. Biomarker responses and
chemical analyses in fish indicate leakage of polycyclic aromatic
hydrocarbons and other compounds from car tire rubber. Environmental
Toxicology and Chemistry, 22, 2003, 2926-2931.

[15] Birkholz, D. A., K. L Belton, and T. L. Guldotti. Toxicological
evaluation for the hazard assessment of tire crumb for use in public
playgrounds. J. Air & Waste Manage. Assoc., Volume 53, July 2003, p.

[16] OEHHA (see reference 9), p. 2.

[17] Moretto, R. Environmental and health evaluation of elastomer
granules (virgin and from used tires) on filling in third-generation
artificial turf. Research by FieldTurf Tarkett, Aliapur, and Ademe,
France, 2007.

[18] Hofstra, U. (see reference 10), p. 5.

[19] OEHHA (see reference 9), p. 95.

[20] Birkholz et al. (see reference 14), p. 904.

[21] Brown, D. Exposures to recycled rubber crumbs used on synthetic
turf fields, playgrounds, and as gardening mulch. Environment and
Human Health, Inc., August, 2007, p. 23.

[22] Brown (see reference 21), p. 8.

[23] Bjorge, C. Norwegian Public Health Report, Artificial Turf
Pitches -- An Assessment of the Health Risks for Football Players,
Prepared by Norwegian Institute of Public Health and the Radium
Hospital, Oslo, January 2006.

[24] Landrigan, P. (see reference 8).

[25] OEHHA (see reference 8), Ch. 6.

[26] Brown (see reference 21), p. 12.

[27] OEHHA (see reference 8), Ch. 7.

[28] Nilsson, N. H., A. Fielberg, and K. Pommer. Emission and
evaluation of health effects of PAHs and aromatic amines. Survey of
Chemical Substances in Consumer Products, no.54. [8 Mbyte PDF]
Danish Ministry of the Environment, 2005.

[29] Brown (see reference 21), p. 20.

Authors' affiliations

William Crain, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at The City College
of New York and president of Citizens for a Green Riverside Park.

Junfeng (Jim) Zhang, Ph.D. is professor and acting chair, Department
of Environmental and Occupational Health, the School of Public Health,
the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and Rutgers
University. jjzhang@eohsi.rutgers.edu

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From: Harper's Magazine (pg. 78), Oct. 1, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]


Why poisonous, unregulated chemicals end up in our blood

By Mark Schapiro

In the late 1990s, citizens of several European countries learned from
newspaper reports that their infants were constantly being exposed to
a host of toxic chemicals. Babies were sleeping in pajamas treated
with cancer-causing flame retardants; they were sucking on bottles
laced with plastic additives believed to alter hormones; their diapers
were glued together with nerve-damaging toxins normally used to kill
algae on the hulls of ships. When European health officials tried to
look into the matter, they were confounded by how little they actually
knew about these and other potentially hazardous chemicals. Regulators
discovered that they had no way of assessing the dangers of long-term
exposure to everyday products. Some manufacturers of baby goods did
not even know what was in their own products, since chemical producers
were under no obligation to tell them. Such data, if it existed at
all, was secreted away in the vaults of chemical companies and had
never been submitted to any government authority.

In the years since those news reports, the nascent science of hio-
monitoring has provided further insight into how the industrial
chemicals that are in clothes, food packaging, cosmetics, toys,
electronics, and just about every modern convenience are actually
lodging in the human body. Greenpeace U.K. released a study in 2005
that found numerous toxic chemicals in the umbilical-cord blood of
European infants. That same year, World Wildlife Fund International
tested the blood of three generations of women from twelve European
countries. The largest number of chemicals -- sixty-three -- was found
in the group of grandmothers. Given the number of years they had had
to accumulate exposure, this result was perhaps not surprising. But
the next-highest level was among their grandchildren, aged twelve to
twenty-eight, who in their short lifetimes had amassed fifty-nine
different toxic chemicals. The blood of a nineteen-year-old Italian,
who later sent me her test results, included brominated flame
retardants, which are potential liver, thyroid, and neurological
toxins that are used to coat many electronics; the pesticides DDT and
lindane, the latter of which is suspected of contributing to breast
and other cancers; perfluorinated chemicals, known carcinogens that
are used as stain- and water-repellents on clothing, furniture, and
non-stick cookware; and artificial musk aromas, found in soaps and
perfumes, that scientists claim can reduce the body's ability to expel
other toxins.

Bio-monitoring tests in the United States have revealed the same
dangerous chemicals making their way into the blood of Americans. In
2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention completed
screening for the presence of 148 toxic chemicals in the blood of a
broad cross section of Americans; it found that the vast majority of
subjects harbored almost all the toxins. In the same year, the CDC's
National Survey on Family Growth concluded that rates of infertility
were rising for women under the age of twenty-five, a spike many
scientists attribute, at least in part, to routine exposure to toxic
chemicals. The Environmental Working Group conducted tests on the
umbilical cords of ten newborns in 2006 and discovered that cancer-
causing, endocrine- disrupting, and gene-mutating chemicals had passed
from the mothers to their fetuses through the placenta.

Up until the 1970s, no country had imposed any meaningful oversight of
the tens of thousands of chemicals that had entered the marketplace
since World War II. Then, in 1976, the U.S. Congress passed the Toxic
Substances Control Act (TSCA), which granted the government the
authority to track industrial chemicals and to place restrictions on
any that proved harmful to humans or the environment. Because the
United States was the world's preeminent economic power, other major
chemical producers -- Germany, France, and Britain -- soon brought
their national regulations into line with TSCA so as not to lose the
U.S. market. Shortly thereafter, Japan and other countries hoping to
conduct trade with the West also had to adopt the central principles
of the law as their own. Thus, America set the rules for chemical
regulation across the globe.

But TSCA came with an enormous loophole, a caveat leveraged into it by
the powerful chemical industry: every chemical already on the market
before 1979 was exempted from the law's primary screening
requirements. Three decades after TSCA came into being, 95 percent of
all chemicals in circulation have never undergone any testing for
toxicity or their impact on the environment. The extent to which TSCA
has failed to regulate hazardous substances is now evident in the bio-
monitoring results in Europe and America.

Europeans have recently decided to do something about all the untested
chemicals that are ending up in their blood. "The assumption among
Americans is, "If it's on the market, it's okay," explained Robert
Donkers, an E.U. official who was asked to review Europe's regulatory
laws after the baby-product scare. "That fantasy is gone in Europe."
Donkers's efforts were the first steps in what became, seven years
later, a new E.U. chemical regulation called REACH -- Registration,
Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals. REACH amounts to a
revolution in how chemicals are managed, and in how production
decisions around the world will be made from now on. Regulations set
by the most powerful countries have quickly become, through trade, the
international standard. And the European Union, with a market of 480
million people stretching across twenty-seven countries, is now
significantly larger than the United States in both population and
wealth; Europe's gross national product surged past that of the United
States in 2005, and the gap increased when two more countries joined
the E.U. earlier this year. The E.U. is now the most significant
trading partner for every continent except Australia. The ripple
effects from this shift in economic power have been one of the great
untold stories of the new century.

Indeed, Europe is now compelling other nations' manufacturers to
conform to regulations that are far more protective of people's health
than those in the United States. Europe has emerged not only as the
world's leading economic power but also as one of its moral leaders.
Those roles were once filled by the United States.

When TSCA took effect in the late 1970s, the United States was seen as
a pioneer of health and environmental regulation. The Environmental
Protection Agency had been established only a few years before, and
the government had recently set standards for fuel economy, hazardous-
waste disposal, and many other factors affecting the country's air and
water quality. Currently, some 42 billion pounds of chemicals are
produced in or brought to America each day, but because of TSCA
exemptions, fewer than 200 of all the chemicals on the market have
ever under-gone any serious risk assessments. Among the 62,000
chemicals the act excused from testing or review were thousands of
highly toxic substances, such as ethyl benzene, a widely used
industrial solvent suspected of being a potent neurotoxin; whole
families of synthetic plastics that are potential carcinogens and
endocrine disrupters; and numerous other chemicals for which there was
little or no information.

The EPA is actually allowed to place restrictions on the chemicals
grandfathered onto the market if the substances present an
"unreasonable risk to human health." In order to demonstrate this
risk, however, the agency must surmount tremendous legal and
administrative obstacles. The EPA is required to weigh the "costs to
industry" of any regulation, and it is obliged to impose restrictions
that are the "least burdensome" to chemical manufacturers. According
to a 2005 Government Accountability Office analysis, the EPA relies
too heavily on industry test data when making safety assessments and
allows companies to keep critical data from the public through
"indiscriminate" claims that information is proprietary. Even for
those few new chemicals brought to market after TSCA, the screening
record is not reassuring. Ninety days before commercial-scale
production of a chemical begins, manufacturers are required to provide
the EPA with all exposure and toxicity data. Theoretically, this
information enables the agency to determine whether regulatory action
is warranted before chemicals hit the market. But according to the
EPA's own figures, 85 percent of the notifications submitted contain
no health data.

One result of this industry-friendly screening is that the EPA has
banned only five chemicals since its inception in 1970. For a brief
time the banned list included a sixth substance: asbestos. In 1989,
the EPA prohibited nearly all uses of asbestos, which it classified as
a "known carcinogen." The chemical industry challenged the agency,
however, and in 1990 a federal court vacated the ban, asserting that
the EPA had neither met TSCA's requirement that the conclusive dangers
of the chemical should exceed its perceived usefulness nor
demonstrated that the ban was the "least burdensome alternative" for
eliminating the "unreasonable risk" of exposure. The EPA has not acted
to ban a chemical since that decision, even though other countries
have outlawed asbestos and numerous toxins that are still in use in
the United States. (Since 2004, the E.U. has banned entire categories
of hazardous chemicals from use in cosmetics, toys, electronics, and
other consumer goods.) By making it easier to hang on to old chemicals
than to develop new ones, TSCA provides no incentive for manufacturers
to create less toxic alternatives. The absence of even minimal
toxicity data insulates the industry from the normal supply-demand
dynamic of the market; consumers, in other words, have no means of
expressing their potential preference for a less toxic substitute.
Chemical companies have spent lavishly to preserve these lax
standards. Since 1996, the industry has contributed $47 million to
federal election campaigns, and it pays about $30 million each year to
lobbyists in Washington. Lynn Goldman, who served as assistant
administrator for toxic substances at the EPA from 1993 to 1998, told
me that she and her colleagues knew TSCA was largely ineffectual.
"There were thousands of chemicals out there, and we didn't know what
they were. We weren't able to get the data, weren't able to assess the
risks, nothing." Goldman recalls a party held in Washington to
commemorate TSCA's twentieth anniversary. "Someone from the chemical
industry got up to salute TSCA and said, 'This is the perfect statute.
I wish every law could be like TSCA.'"

The primary target of Europe's new chemical regulation is the more
than 60,000 compounds TSCA allowed to stay on the market without
testing. Under REACH, these chemicals will have to he registered,
evaluated for toxicity, and authorized before being permitted to
remain in use. Fifteen hundred chemicals are expected to be placed on
a 2008 list of "substances of very high concern." These toxins, which
are known to cause cancer, alter genes, and affect fertility, will be
the first to be removed from the market unless producers are able to
prove that they can be "adequately controlled." In addition to
assessing chemicals in their raw form, REACH also extends to the
endless array of consumer goods that utilize these compounds; thus,
tens of thousands of "downstream users," from construction companies
to tennis-shoe manufacturers and fashion houses, will be forced to
find out and report what chemicals are in their products and what
effects they have on human health and the environment.

By the end of 2008, the first sets of risk data are to be submitted to
the E.U. Manufacturers will then have ten more years to complete what
amounts to a scientific cataloguing of the chemical makeup of the
global economy. Whereas U.S. regulators are forced to find
scientifically improbable definitive evidence of toxic exposure before
acting, REACH acts on the basis of precaution. European authorities
consider the inherent toxicity of a substance and, based on an
accumulation of evidence, determine whether its potential to cause
harm is great enough to remove it from circulation. Unlike TSCA, REACH
places the burden of proof on manufacturers, who must demonstrate that
their chemicals can he used safely. The law also proposes to
drastically limit the amount of health-related data that companies can
claim as proprietary.

Critics of stricter chemical regulations have long contended that the
price of compliance would be far too steep. But the E.U. estimated
that REACH would cost European chemical manufacturers about $4 billion
over fourteen years -- a figure that amounts to less than 1 percent of
their combined yearly revenue. The E.U. further calculated that these
expenses would be repaid many times over by the resulting health
benefits. According to their figures, REACH would prevent some 4,500
occupational cancer cases each year and reduce European health-care
costs from ailments related to chemical exposure by $69 billion over
the next three decades. Moreover, by establishing what will be the
first open, actually free market in chemicals, in which informed
consumers will be able to make decisions as to what risks they are
willing to take, REACH promotes new research into the development of
safer chemicals. Chemists have already come up with substitutes for
some of the most problematic toxic chemicals on the market, and the
E.U. estimates that its environmental initiatives have spawned
billions of dollars in "green" industries and technologies.

U.S. companies could be put at a serious competitive disadvantage if
they do not acknowledge the changes taking place across the Atlantic.
Americans are already losing ground to Europeans in the chemical
business, having slipped in the past decade from a trade surplus with
European manufacturers to a more than $28 billion deficit.

That deficit promises to increase as environmentally aware consumers
are given the opportunity to choose between European goods with
chemicals that have undergone toxicity screening and American goods
with unscreened chemicals. Because American companies interested in
exporting to the E.U. will also have to supply toxicity data to the
European authorities, REACH does present opportunities for U.S.
consumers. Not only will these chemicals he subject to their first-
ever health- and environmental-impact review but the findings will
then be available on the European Chemical Agency's website. At that
point, U.S. consumers may no longer choose to use untested American

The American public, along with the American media, has so far been
mostly oblivious to the new chemical regulations coming out of Europe.
The Bush Administration and U.S. manufacturers, however, have been
fixated on it for years. REACH is far more than just another foreign
ban of a specific chemical with which U.S. industry will have to
contend; it strikes at the fundamental belief that the United States
decides what can and cannot be contained in the goods sold all over
the world. So as REACH was being debated in the European Parliament
from 2003 to 2006, the U.S. government and the nation's industries
teamed up to undertake an unprecedented international lobbying effort
to kill or radically weaken the proposal.

The assault came from an assortment of government and industry
offices. A memo that circulated at the State Department's Bureau of
European and Eurasian Affairs denounced REACH as too "costly,
burdensome, and complex" for industry to follow. If chemicals were put
through the rigors of review, a Commerce Department brief warned,
"hundreds of thousands of Americans could be thrown out of their
jobs." U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick submitted a protest
to the World Trade Organization asserting that REACH amounted to a
"non-tariff" barrier to foreign exporters. A delegation of State
Department officials joined two Dow Chemical executives in Athens to
lobby the Greeks, who then held the presidency of the European Union.
Colin Powell himself sent out a seven-page cable to U.S. embassies
throughout the world claiming that REACH "could present obstacles to
trade" and cost American chemical producers tens of billions of
dollars in lost exports. At the same time, Washington sent emissaries
to such new E.U. members as Hungary, Poland, Estonia, and the Czech
Republic-formerly Communist countries where environmental
consciousness was far less developed than in Western Europe -- in an
effort to peel off support within the E.U. by claiming that REACH
would hurt European firms competing in foreign markets. The State
Department also recruited a coalition of allies to oppose REACH from
countries heavily reliant on exports; pleas went out to Brazil, India,
Japan, Malaysia, South Africa, and others to develop a "coordinated
outreach" strategy among "E.U. trading partners." In E.U.
parliamentary hearings on REACH that I attended, I was able to
identify lobbyists not only for the U.S. and European chemical
industries but also for such downstream chemical users as cement,
automobile, textile, and pharmaceutical companies.

The U.S. lobbying effort amounted to an historic intrusion into
European affairs. Robert Donkers, who in 2003 was stationed in the
United States to explain REACH to Americans, invited me to consider
the reverse scenario: European officials descending on Washington to
lobby against a hill being considered in Congress. "It wouldn't he
tolerated," he said. "We wouldn't last ten minutes!" By early 2006,
REACH had already undergone a rewrite by the European Commission and
had passed its first reading in the parliament.

Nearly a thousand amendments had been voted on and consolidated.
Environmentalists in Europe felt the standards had already been
weakened in significant ways. Priority had been put on "high-volume
chemicals" produced in excess of a thousand tons a year, with
diminishing data requirements as the volume declined; broad exemptions
were issued for certain plastics. But REACH still retained its core
principles: that thousands of existing chemicals would be reviewed for
their toxicity, that the data from those reviews would be made public,
and that responsibility for demonstrating a chemical's safety would
rest with the manufacturers.

In Washington, however, President Bush signaled that the struggle was
far from over. He sent C. Boyden Gray to Brussels in February as the
new U.S. ambassador to the E.U. A veteran Republican operative and an
heir to the R. J. Reynolds tobacco fortune, Gray had spent a career in
and out of government rewriting the rules of environmental oversight
to reduce the burden on business. As general counsel to the first
President Bush, he helped transform how the EPA and other federal
agencies were managed so that cost-benefit analyses would be given
precedence over risk-based decisions. "This is the beast we have
confined and tamed," he told me, referring to his success in limiting
U.S. regulatory laws.

One of Gray's first public undertakings as ambassador began at AmCham
E.U., an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Brussels. Am-
Cham E.U. lobbies the E.U. on behalf of 140 U.S. companies, including
Apple, Boeing, Dow, DuPont, General Motors, and McDonald's.
Environmental policies are one of their top concerns. In June 2006,
Gray orchestrated a joint press release, from the United States and
twelve other countries, that objected to REACH's hazard- based system
for assessing risks and called for weakening its registration
requirements. That press release, it turns out, was written at the
offices of AmCham E.U. and sent from the U.S. Mission in Brussels. One
morning that June, I received a leaked copy of the original draft,
which, thanks to Microsoft tracking software, included the editorial
changes that were written into the document as it made its way through
various readers. Where AmCham E.U.'s address had once been now ran the
imprimatur of the United States Mission to the European Union. This
edit and others offered a rare glimpse into the routine merging of the
U.S. government with American corporations. When U.S. Representative
Henry Waxman conducted an investigation into the Bush Administration's
efforts to undermine REACH, he unearthed dozens of pages of diplomatic
cable traffic showing how the government had coordinated its efforts
with those of industry. Talking points, lobbying junkets, statistics
(many of them proven inaccurate) had been shared. Instead of
considering these reforms on their merits, or revising its own failed
regulations, our government demonstrated once again that it puts
business interests ahead of the safety of its own -- and the world's
-- citizens.

The European Parliament finally voted to approve REACH on December 13,
2006. By February, the U.S. Department of Commerce, which had lobbied
so vigorously against the proposed regulation, was hosting a seminar
in Charlotte, North Carolina, to explain to companies doing business
in Europe how to comply with the law intended to protect Europeans. It
was the first of a series of sessions to be held with American
businesses across the country. In the same month, representatives from
the Pentagon, defense contractors, U.S. scientists, and California
state officials met in Monterey to discuss the effects REACH would
have on military hardware being used on U.S. bases in Europe. Several
major American electronics and cosmetics companies are already
reformulating their products to meet the new E.U. standards. And
DuPont, Dow, and other large U.S. chemical manufacturers are busy
preparing toxicity data to submit to the E.U. In many instances,
smaller American chemical companies and most downstream manufacturers
that utilize chemicals will have to purchase this data from the big
corporations, which now stand to profit from the REACH strictures.

Many American states, tired of waiting for direction from Washington,
are now looking to Brussels for ideas on environmental reform.
California, Massachusetts, and New York have begun exploring the
possibility of implementing elements of REACH in their state
regulations; Maine and Washington have cited Europe's precedent in
their efforts to ban particular chemicals, such as those poly-
brominated flame retardants found in children's sleepwear. Elsewhere
in the world, governments have worked to bring their own policies into
line with REACH. The Chinese Ministry of Commerce had REACH translated
into Mandarin within days of its passage. European consultants also
traveled to China to show industry and government officials there what
exporters will have to do to abide by the chemical regulations. The
Europeans were willing to aid their competitors in China, with whom
they have a significant trade deficit, because just about anything
made in Chinese factories can end up in the hands of Europeans. To
protect its population, Europe is working backward, toward the
potential sources of future chemical contamination. European
consultants also fanned out to Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, South
Korea, Thailand, and other major players in the world economy. And in
the upcoming year, Robert Donkers, who had long tried to forewarn
American businesses of this tectonic shift in environmental influence,
is expected to be transferred to India, where he will be advising that
up-and-coming economic powerhouse.

The European Union is demanding that its industries take
responsibility for the collateral health damages that its products may
cause, and it is doing so with innovations that are leading the world.
In the process, American consumers are being put in a position that
would have been unimaginable as little as a decade ago. Shortly after
the EPA was founded, the United States imposed domestic restrictions
on some of the most dangerous pesticides and other chemicals, and U.S.
companies responded by exporting millions of pounds of these toxins to
Third World countries, where such regulations didn't exist. The irony
is that our nation's steady retreat from environmental leadership
means it may soon be-come a dumping ground for chemicals deemed too
hazardous by more progressive countries. Meanwhile, Americans may also
be the incidental beneficiaries of protective standards created by the
government of a foreign country in which they have no say. In recent
years the United States has opposed a multitude of environmental and
human-rights initiatives that have gained international legitimacy
without its participation. Indeed, this country is no longer where it
likes to imagine itself to be -- at the axis of influence around which
the rest of the world revolves.

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From: HealthDay, Dec. 7, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]


Perchlorate can then be passed on to nursing infants, rat study shows

By Carolyn Colwell, HealthDay Reporter

Scientists have discovered the mechanism by which a chemical known as
perchlorate can collect in breast milk and cause cognitive and motor
deficits in newborns.

Used since the 1940s to manufacture explosives and rocket fuel, the
contaminant is still widely present in the water and food supply,
experts say.

And high concentrations of perchlorate in breast milk can be passed to
an infant and affect it's ability to manufacture essential thyroid
hormone, the new study suggests. Perchlorate can also lessen the
amount of iodide available to a mother to pass on to her infant, and a
baby needs iodide to produce thyroid hormones.

"The deficit of thyroid hormone is particularly delicate if it's at
the beginning of life because the central nervous system has not
completely matured," said study author Dr. Nancy Carrasco, a professor
of molecular pharmacology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in
New York City.

Thyroid hormones are "absolutely critical" for the development and
maturation of the central nervous system, skeletal muscles and lungs,
she explained.

In laboratory and rat research, Carrasco's team found that perchlorate
limited the amount of iodide transported to a mother's mammary glands.
The only source of iodide a baby typically has is mother's milk, she

Her team discovered that perchlorate accumulates in mother's milk, but
before this study, "we didn't know it would be passed on as actively
to the baby," she said.

Carrasco and her colleagues at Einstein and at Johns Hopkins
University reached this conclusion after experimental studies on how
sodium iodide carries perchlorate to, and concentrates it in, mammary

The next steps in this research will include animal studies looking at
the effects of perchlorate exposure during pregnancy, she said.

The debate continues on how much perchlorate is a high and harmful
concentration, Carrasco said. But scientists have long known that
iodide deficiency contributes to lowered IQ.

The new finding is relevant to the Environmental Protection Agency's
standards for acceptable perchlorate levels, added R. Thomas Zoeller,
a professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who
has served on the EPA's peer review panels for the assessment of

At the time the current safety standards were established, the EPA was
not thinking about how perchlorate is concentrated in breast milk, he

Zoeller said the study's discovery of how perchlorate is transported
to breast milk is important to setting safety standards because
perchlorate has a half-life of about eight hours and doesn't
accumulate in the body. But because of the new findings, "we no longer
have to debate whether perchlorate is being concentrated in milk," he
added. "We have enough data to know that this is a very dangerous

Large studies need to be done to confirm the findings, Zoeller added.

It's now "enormously important to find out if perchlorate in [breast]
milk is affecting thyroid hormones in infants," he said. Such a study
would be difficult to conduct because it would involve drawing blood
from 1- and 2-week old infants, Zoeller said.

Tyrone Hayes, a professor of integrative biology at the University of
California at Berkeley, said the discovery of a mechanism by which
perchlorate can be transmitted to nursing infants is important.

"I think probably the most obvious significance is that we have a very
common contaminant in the environment that has a profound negative
impact, and that the most profound impact is on humans that don't have
a choice at a critical development stage that can impact the rest of
their lives," he said.

The Environmental Protection Agency has more on perchlorate.

SOURCES: Nancy Carrasco, M.D., professor, molecular pharmacology,
Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University, New York
City; Tyrone Hayes, Ph.D., professor, integrative biology, University
of California at Berkeley; R. Thomas Zoeller, Ph.D, professor,
biology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; December 3-7, 2007,
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online

Copyright 2007 ScoutNews, LLC.

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From: Toronto Globe and Mail, Dec. 6, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]


Greenhouse gases must be brought under control or millions face
'extreme events'

By Martin Mittelstaedt, Environment Reporter

The international community may have as little as a decade to bring
greenhouse gases under control or risk catastrophic global warming
that places millions of people at risk, warns a group of the world's
leading climate scientists.

In a declaration released today in Bali, Indonesia, where
representatives from about 180 countries are attending a UN conference
on climate change, the scientists say emissions need to peak and then
start to decline within the next 10 to 15 years as a first step, and
then be cut in half by 2050 from the level prevailing in 1990.

If releases aren't curbed soon, "millions of people will be at risk
from extreme events, such as heat waves, drought, floods and storms;
our coasts and cities will be threatened by rising sea levels; and
many ecosystems, plants and animal species will be in serious danger
of extinction," the scientists say in their declaration.

More than 200 leading researchers -- many of the world's pre-eminent
climate scientists, including seven from Canada -- endorsed the
statement. Its release was timed to put heat on the negotiators at the
Bali climate-change talks.

An ill wind blows

Government officials from the countries taking part in the Bali talks
have been meeting this week, but starting next week, with the arrival
of ministers and other elected officials, the pace of the talks is
expected to quicken. The leaders are trying to lay the groundwork for
plans to curb greenhouse-gas emissions after the Kyoto Protocol
expires at the end of 2012.

The declaration was organized by scientists at the Climate Change
Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney,

Andrew Weaver, a climatologist from the University of Victoria who
signed the declaration, said it was prompted because many scientists
have become alarmed at the precariousness of the world's weather
system, and want to convey a sense of urgency to politicians about the
need to do something to prevent dangerous changes.

Scientists are usually an "argumentative bunch" who "can't even agree
on the time of day," yet more than 200 agreed to sign the statement,
Dr. Weaver said in an e-mail. "I think it is a testament to the
urgency of dealing with global warming."

(The text of the declaration is posted at http://www.climate.un

The declaration says emissions need to peak and start falling in the
10-to 15-year time frame to keep global temperatures from rising more
than two degrees. That is a level beyond which many scientists fear
widespread species extinctions would occur, along with harm to the
massive Greenland ice sheet, whose melting would lead to extensive
flooding in low-lying coastal areas.

Temperatures rose about 0.7 degrees Celsius during the 20th Century
due to human activity.

To hold temperatures to a two-degree increase, greenhouse-gas
concentrations will have to be stabilized at a level "well below" 450
parts per million, if all harmful gases are measured in terms of
carbon dioxide, the declaration says. The current reading is about 430
parts per million.

Biologist John Smol of Queen's University in Kingston and one of the
signatories, said he thinks scientists have done a good job alerting
the public to the threat posed by climate change, but he worries that
political squabbling at the talks may delay action.

Copyright Copyright 2007 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc.

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From: Reuters, Dec. 11, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]


By Sugita Katyal

NUSA DUA, Indonesia -- Antarctica's penguin population has slumped
because of global warming as melting ice has destroyed nesting sites
and reduced their sources of food, a WWF report (6 Mbyte PDF) said
on Tuesday.

The Antarctic peninsula is warming five times faster than the average
in the rest of the world, affecting four penguin species -- the
emperor penguin, the largest and the grandest in the world, the
gentoo, chinstrap and adelie, it said.

"The Antarctic penguins already have a long march behind them," Anna
Reynolds, deputy director of WWF's Global Climate Change Programme,
said in a statement at the Bali climate talks.

"Now it seems these icons of the Antarctic will have to face an
extremely tough battle to adapt to the unprecedented rate of climate

The report, "Antarctic Penguins and Climate Change", said sea ice
covered 40 per cent less area than it did 26 years ago off the West
Antarctic Peninsula, leading to a fall in stocks of krill, the main
source of food for the chinstrap and gentoo penguins.

In the northwestern coast of the Antarctic peninsula, where warming
has been fastest, populations of adelie penguins have dropped by 65
percent over the past 25 years, it said.

The number of chinstraps decreased by 30 to 66 percent in some
colonies, as less food made it more difficult for the young to
survive, while the emperor penguin has seen some of its colonies halve
in size over the past half a century.

Warmer temperatures and stronger winds mean the penguins had to raise
their chicks on increasingly thinner sea ice which tends to break off
early while many eggs and chicks have been blown away before they were
able to survive on their own.

Scientists have predicted that global temperatures could rise sharply
this century, raising world sea levels and bringing more extreme

A 2005 study showed that most glaciers on the Antarctic peninsular
were in headlong retreat because of climate change -- and the speed
was rising. Scientists say that most of the rest of the ice on the
giant continent seems to be stable.

"The food web of Antarctica, and thus the survival of penguins and
many other species, is bound up in the future of the sea ice," said
James P. Leape, director general of WWF International.

"After such a long march to Bali, ministers must now commit to sharp
reductions in carbon emissions for industrialized countries, to
protect Antarctica and safeguard the health of the planet."

(Editing by Alister Doyle)

Copyright Reuters2007

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From: New Scientist (pg. 32), Dec. 8, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]


By Bennett Daviss

In theory, solving the world's energy problems should be pretty
straightforward. Locate a piece of sun-drenched land about half the
size of Texas, find a way to capture just 20 per cent of the solar
energy that falls there and bingo -- problem solved. You have enough
power to replace the world's entire energy needs using the cleanest,
most renewable resource there is.

Can it really be that easy? For years, supporters of solar power have
heralded every new technical breakthrough as a revolution in the
making. Yet time and again it has failed to materialise, largely
because the technology was too expensive and inefficient and, unlike
alternatives such as nuclear and wind power, no substantial subsidies
were available to kick-start a mass transition to solar energy. This
time things are different. A confluence of political will, economic
pressure and technological advances suggests that we are on the brink
of an era of solar power.

The prospect of relying on the sun for all our power demands --
conservatively estimated at 15 terawatts in 2005 -- is finally
becoming realistic thanks to the rising price of fossil fuels, an
almost universal acceptance of the damage they cause, plus mushrooming
investment in the development of solar cells and steady advances in
their efficiency. The tried-and-tested method of using the heat of the
sun to generate electricity is already hitting the big time (see
sidebar, "Hot Power"), but the really big breakthroughs are happening
in photovoltaic (PV) cells.


Sidebar: Hot power

Exotic photovoltaic materials aren't the only way to convert sunlight
into electricity. Over the past few decades, techniques have been
developed that use mirrors to concentrate the sun's rays and convert
the heat this generates into electricity on a commercial scale.

The most widely used so far is the solar trough concentrator system.
Rows of parabolic mirrors track the sun, focusing its energy onto
tubes filled with a fluid such as oil or water. The liquid is heated
to around 400 deg. C and circulated to a conventional steam turbine to
generate electricity. Solar trough systems convert roughly 20 per cent
of the sun's heat they capture into electricity, comparable with some
commercial photovoltaic cells, but at a fraction of the cost.

In the late 1980s, nine parabolic-trough energy farms were built in
the Nevada desert. Together covering just over 1 square kilometre,
they produced 354 megawatts of electricity. Plans to expand the farm
were abandoned in the early 1990s when the price of fossil fuels
slumped, but they kept supplying power to the grid. Now, with energy
prices on the rise, plans are being drawn up to revive the technology.
In December 2005 the first trough system built in the US since 1988
was switched on in Seguaro, Arizona. It is capable of generating 1
megawatt of power.

An alternative to the trough system is the solar tower, pictured
above, in which a field of flat mirrors track the sun and reflect its
rays onto water pipes. The water boils, generating steam that drives a
turbine. This approach achieves an efficiency of around 15 per cent.
The first commercial solar tower, with a capacity of 11 megawatts, was
completed in 2005 near Seville in Spain. Construction of a second
tower, capable of generating 20 megawatts, began last year.

New solar tower designs replace the water with molten salts (for
example, a mix of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate) which can be
heated to 600 deg. C. The heat can be used immediately to produce
steam to drive a turbine, or stored and used overnight or when clouds
block the sun.

Another method uses dish-shaped mirrors around 10 metres in diameter
to focus solar energy onto a Stirling engine, which contains a gas
that expands under heating and so drives a generator. At 24 per cent,
its efficiency beats all other solar concentrator systems. In 2005,
the California Public Utilities Commission, the state body responsible
for regulating private power stations, gave the go-ahead for the
world's biggest solar dish concentrator farm to be built in the Mojave
desert, north-east of Los Angeles. When completed in 2010, its 20,000-
dish array will generate 500 megawatts.


Ever since the first photovoltaic (PV) cell was created by Bell Labs
in 1954, the efficiency with which a cell can convert light into
electricity has been the technology's Achilles' heel. The problem is
rooted in the way PV cells work. At the heart of every PV cell is a
semiconducting material, which when struck by a photon liberates an
electron. This can be guided by a conductor into a circuit, leaving
behind a "hole" which is filled by another electron from the other end
of the circuit, creating an electric current (see Diagram).

Photons from the sun arrive at the semiconductor sporting many
different energies, not all of which will liberate an electron. Each
semiconducting material has a characteristic "band gap" -- an energy
value which photons must exceed if they are to dislodge the
semiconductor's electrons. If the photons are too weak they pass
through the material, and if they are too energetic then only part of
their energy is converted into electricity, the rest into heat. Some
are just right, and the closer the photons are to matching the band
gap, the greater the efficiency of the PV cell.

Bell Labs discovered that silicon, which is cheap and easy to produce,
has one of the best band gaps for the spectrum of photon energies in
sunlight. Even so, their first cell had an efficiency of only 6 per
cent. For a long time improvements were piecemeal, inching up to the
mid-teens at best, and at a cost only military and space exploration
programmes could afford. The past decade has seen a sea change as
inexpensive cells with an efficiency of 20 per cent have become a
commercial reality, while in the lab efficiencies are leaping forward
still further.

Last year, Allen Barnett and colleagues at the University of Delaware,
Newark, set a new record with a design that achieved 42.8 per cent
energy conversion efficiency. Barnett says 50 per cent efficiency on a
commercial scale is now within reach. Such designs, married to modern
manufacturing techniques, mean costs are falling fast too.

As a result, in parts of Japan, California and Italy, where the retail
price of electricity is among the world's highest, the cost of solar-
generated electricity is now close to, and in some cases matches, that
of electricity generated from natural gas and nuclear power, says
Michael Rogol, a solar industry analyst with Photon Consulting, based
in Aachen, Germany. For example, in the US the average price of
conventionally generated electricity is around 10 cents per kilowatt-
hour. The cost of solar-generated electricity has fallen to roughly
double that. This has created a booming market for PV cells -- now
growing by around 35 per cent annually -- and private investors are
starting to take a serious interest. The value of stocks in companies
whose business focuses primarily on solar power has grown from $40
billion in January 2006 to more than $140 billion today, making solar
power the fastest-growing sector in the global marketplace.

George W. Bush has acknowledged this new dawn, setting aside $168
million of federal funds for the Solar America Initiative, a research
programme that aims to make the cost of PV technology competitive with
other energy technologies in the US by 2015. Rogol thinks Bush's
target is achievable. He says the cost of manufacturing PV equipment
has fallen to the point where, in some places, PV-generated
electricity could already be produced for less than conventional
electricity. Manufacture PV cells at $1 per watt of generating
capacity and the cost should be competitive everywhere.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its less than cloudless skies, one of the
countries leading the solar revolution is Germany. In November 2003,
amid rising oil and gas prices and growing concern over global
warming, its parliament agreed a "feed-in tariff" programme, which
guarantees a market for solar power. Anyone who produces electricity
from solar power can sell it to the national grid for between $0.45
and $0.57 per kilowatt-hour, which is almost three times what
consumers pay for their electricity, roughly $0.19 per kilowatt-hour.
Germany's power-generating companies are required by law to pay this
premium, which is guaranteed until 2024. This guarantee has spurred
enterprising individuals to invest in solar panels, confident of
earning back the cost of their systems and possibly turning a profit.
Today there are over 300,000 PV systems in Germany, mostly on the
rooftops of homes and small businesses, and Germany is the world's
fastest-growing PV market. It has 55 per cent of the world's installed
base of PV panels and can generate around 3 gigawatts of electricity
from solar energy, equivalent to between three and five conventional
power stations.

Last year, following in Germany's footsteps, Italy and Spain launched
their own tariff programmes, while the California Solar Initiative
earmarked $2.8 billion for cash incentives that will subsidise new PV
installations to the tune of up to $2.50 per watt, with the aim of
creating 3 gigawatts of capacity by 2016. By the end of 2008, 20
nations will have similar tariff programmes for solar power, Rogol

The hope is that by spurring demand, these subsidies will also
stimulate PV research and manufacturing technology, driving down
costs. This may help speed the development of existing PV
technologies, but could also drive the industry down a blind alley, as
silicon PVs may soon reach their theoretical efficiency limit of about
30 per cent. Yet according to Martin Green at the University of New
South Wales, Australia, it should be possible to create cells from
other materials with a 74 per cent efficiency limit. And while
subsidies go some way to stimulating the market, most analysts agree
that the cost of existing PV cells is too high for the technology to
hit the mainstream.

That's why researchers have been looking at alternative designs. One
of the cheapest cells to manufacture is the thin-film cell, in which
semiconductor compounds are sprayed onto a flexible substrate. Thin-
film cells use as little as 1 per cent of the volume of materials that
ordinary PV cells demand, and the band gap of the cells can be
improved by adjusting the proportions of the ingredients that form the
film. For example, cells that use a low-cost blend of copper, indium,
a pinch of gallium, and selenium (CIGS), have already achieved an
efficiency of around 19 per cent in lab tests. The material's
efficiency is so high relative to its cost that researchers have
shifted their attention from boosting CIGS's photon-collecting power
to slashing the cost of producing the cells. This could enable the
technology to deliver grid-competitive electricity within five years.

Grand designs

One innovation aimed at improving mainstream solar-cell design is the
use of lenses to focus and amplify the amount of light hitting the PV
material. Among the most successful designs to incorporate a
concentrating lens is one created by Soliant Energy, a California
start-up company staffed by scientists formerly at NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory. Its PV module is a box holding rows of half-
pipes, like gutters facing skywards. The trough of each half-pipe is
lined with a strip of PV material, while the open side of the pipe is
covered with an acrylic lens that concentrates sunlight by a factor of
500. This slashes the quantity of PV material required for a given
power output, and thus the cost of the cell.

The company's next generation of PV modules will couple concentrators
with PV crystals made by Spectrolab, Boeing's subsidiary which
engineers PV materials for NASA space probes. With efficiencies of up
to 40 per cent, these alternative materials are twice as good as
current silicon PV cells, says Brad Hines, Soliant's founder and chief
technology officer. The downside is that they cost 100 times as much,
but Soliant has found a way of using just a sliver of the amount used
in spacecraft solar cells, keeping them affordable.

Barnett's record-breaking cell also uses a concentrator, but it only
needs to intensify the light by a factor of 20. The real breakthrough
in Barnett's design is to split the incoming light into separate
beams, each containing a narrow range of wavelengths. These are each
directed into materials optimised to convert those frequencies into

Light entering the cell first falls onto PV material that absorbs
high-energy wavelengths of light up to 500 nanometres. Longer
wavelengths slip through to a dichroic mirror -- a material that
reflects certain wavelengths while allowing others to pass through it.
Here, light with wavelengths of between 500 and 900 nanometres is
reflected onto one photovoltaic stack, while wavelengths longer than
900 nanometres pass through the mirror and fall onto another stack
(see Diagram).

Barnett's group is stepping back to let engineers at DuPont and other
companies take on the task of producing a prototype. The US Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency has committed $33 million to the
project, while cash from private investors could bring the total
investment to as much as $100 million. Barnett says PV modules based
on the new design could be up to 50 per cent efficient and should go
on sale within five years, costing under $2 per watt.

There are yet more ambitious plans to build cheap, efficient PV cells.
Several groups worldwide are now working with nanocrystals called
quantum dots (see New Scientist, 27 May 2006, p 44) with the aim of
developing low-cost PV cells with an efficiency of 42 per cent. The
nanocrystal's special properties mean one photon of light will release
up to four electrons.

Martin Green, one of the leaders in the field, is designing quantum
dots to match specific light spectra and so make them more energy
efficient. He wants to address a specific problem with conventional
solar cells: some of the energy supplied by an incoming photon is lost
as heat. Green is designing "hot carrier" cells that should transfer
more of the energy from the photon to the electron, producing a higher
output voltage. "In principle, a hot carrier cell would have an
efficiency quite close to the 74 per cent limit," he says.

The challenge in creating a hot carrier cell is collecting the
electrons quickly, before they move around the semiconducting material
and lose their energy. That would mean creating a semiconductor shot
through with nanowires or other collectors that would gather up
electrons as soon as they are liberated from atoms -- a requirement
that could send manufacturing costs skyrocketing. "So far," Green
acknowledges, "we don't know how to do that."

Allen Heeger, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is
trying another approach. The co-inventor of plastics that can conduct
electricity, Heeger has created a semiconducting plastic which allows
incoming photons to liberate electrons, just as in silicon and other
photovoltaic materials. In July, Heeger unveiled a two-layer polymer
PV stack that reached 6.5 per cent efficiency, a record for plastic
solar cells.

The promise of plastic PV cells, Heeger points out, is that they
could be manufactured using a kind of printing process "similar to the
way newspapers are printed", because all the materials they are made
of are soluble. "We have a goal of getting to 10 per cent efficiency
and eventually well beyond that," he says, but he's not too bothered
about efficiency. "The critical comparison is dollars per watt," he
says. "Even if our efficiency is lower than silicon, the cost per watt
could still be better because this is such a low-cost manufacturing

And perhaps that's where the true promise of solar power lies, not in
expensive high-efficiency cells, but in clever new designs that are
dirt cheap to produce. It has been a long slow revolution, but finally
years of diligent research and investment by a group of true believers
is beginning to pay off. Solar power has finally come of age.

Energy and Fuels -- Learn more about the looming energy crisis in our
comprehensive special report.

Climate Change -- Want to know more about global warming: the science,
impacts and political debate? Visit our continually updated special

Bennett Daviss is a science writer in New Hampshire From issue 2633 of
New Scientist magazine, 08 December 2007, page 32-37

Copyright Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

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