Tuesday, November 25, 2008

U.N. Reports Pollution Threat in Asia

NY Times

November 14, 2008


BEIJING — A noxious cocktail of soot, smog and toxic chemicals is blotting out the sun, fouling the lungs of millions of people and altering weather patterns in large parts of Asia, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations.

The byproduct of automobiles, slash-and-burn agriculture, cooking on dung or wood fires and coal-fired power plants, these plumes rise over southern Africa, the Amazon basin and North America. But they are most pronounced in Asia, where so-called atmospheric brown clouds are dramatically reducing sunlight in many Chinese cities and leading to decreased crop yields in swaths of rural India, say a team of more than a dozen scientists who have been studying the problem since 2002.

“The imperative to act has never been clearer,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, in Beijing, which the report identified as one of the world’s most polluted cities, and where the report was released.

The brownish haze, sometimes in a layer more than a mile thick and clearly visible from airplanes, stretches from the Arabian Peninsula to the Yellow Sea. In the spring, it sweeps past North and South Korea and Japan. Sometimes the cloud drifts as far east as California.

The report identified 13 cities as brown-cloud hot spots, among them Bangkok, Cairo, New Delhi, Tehran and Seoul, South Korea.

It was issued on a day when Beijing’s own famously polluted skies were unusually clear. On Wednesday, by contrast, the capital was shrouded in a thick, throat-stinging haze that is the byproduct of heavy industry, coal-burning home heaters and the 3.5 million cars that clog the city’s roads.

Last month, the government reintroduced some of the traffic restrictions that were imposed on Beijing during the Olympics; the rules forced private cars to stay off the road one day a week and sidelined 30 percent of government vehicles on any given day. Over all, officials say the new measures have removed 800,000 cars from the roads.

According to the United Nations report, smog blocks from 10 percent to 25 percent of the sunlight that should be reaching the city’s streets. The report also singled out the southern city of Guangzhou, where soot and dust have dimmed natural light by 20 percent since the 1970s.

In fact, the scientists who worked on the report said the blanket of haze might be temporarily offsetting some warming from the simultaneous buildup of greenhouse gases by reflecting solar energy away from the earth. Greenhouse gases, by contrast, tend to trap the warmth of the sun and lead to a rise in ocean temperatures.

Climate scientists say that similar plumes from industrialization of wealthy countries after World War II probably blunted global warming through the 1970s. Pollution laws largely removed that pall.

Rain can cleanse the skies, but some of the black grime that falls to earth ends up on the surface of the Himalayan glaciers that are the source of water for billions of people in China, India and Pakistan. As a result, the glaciers that feed into the Yangtze, Ganges, Indus and Yellow Rivers are absorbing more sunlight and melting more rapidly, researchers say.

According to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, these glaciers have shrunk by 5 percent since the 1950s and, at the current rate of retreat, could shrink by an additional 75 percent by 2050.

“We used to think of this brown cloud as a regional problem, but now we realize its impact is much greater,” said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, who led the United Nations scientific panel. “When we see the smog one day and not the next, it just means it’s blown somewhere else.”

Although the clouds’ overall impact is not entirely understood, Mr. Ramanathan, a professor of climate and ocean sciences at the University of California, San Diego, said they might be affecting precipitation in parts of India and Southeast Asia, where monsoon rainfall has been decreasing in recent decades, and central China, where devastating floods have become more frequent.

He said that some studies suggested that the plumes of soot that blot out the sun have led to a 5 percent decline in the growth rate of rice harvests across Asia since the 1960s.

For those who breathe the toxic mix, the impact can be deadly. Henning Rodhe, a professor of chemical meteorology at Stockholm University, estimates that 340,000 people in China and India die each year from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases that can be traced to the emissions from coal-burning factories, diesel trucks and wood-burning stoves. “The impacts on health alone is a reason to reduce these brown clouds,” he said.

Andrew C. Revkin contributed reporting from New York.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bernard Weinstein, Who Studied Causes of Cancer, Dies at 78

NY Times

November 16, 2008


Dr. I. Bernard Weinstein, a researcher and top administrator at Columbia University who advanced the study of how pollutants and other environmental factors can cause cancer, died on Nov. 3 in Manhattan, where he lived. He was 78.

The cause was kidney disease, his family said.

At Columbia, where he headed the Comprehensive Cancer Center from 1985 to 1996, Dr. Weinstein investigated chemical sources of cancer and how cancers can progress in stages and over time at the molecular and cellular levels.

A former student, Richard Axel, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2004, said that as early as the 1970s, Dr. Weinstein had made an important connection in recognizing that carcinogens in the environment would most likely have molecular targets in the body.

Dr. Weinstein and others investigated the cancer-causing properties of a common chemical, benzo(a)pyrene, which is found in tobacco smoke, car exhaust and charbroiled foods. He later studied cancers related to the class of compounds called nitrosamines, which are used in processed meats and pickled food products.

Dr. Axel, now a professor of biochemistry, molecular biophysics and pathology at Columbia, said, “Bernard Weinstein’s knowledge of emerging molecular genetics was combined with his research on the chemical causes of cancer to help in the creation of a new field, the field of molecular epidemiology.”

In the 1990s, Dr. Weinstein and others looked at the mechanism of a gene, known as cyclin D1, and its role in encouraging the growth of cancers of the stomach, breast, prostate and esophagus. The researchers found that irregularities of the gene could lead to a rise in cancer cells and the formation of tumors.

Their findings led to a theory that drugs might be developed to curtail the expression of cyclin D1 and to control abnormalities in cells that could otherwise result in cancer. Such drugs have yet to be found.

I. Bernard Weinstein was born in Madison, Wis. He earned his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Wisconsin before conducting research at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. Weinstein was named an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia in 1961 and a professor in 1973. He also directed the division of environmental sciences at Columbia’s school of public health from 1978 to 1990 and continued to hold appointments at Columbia in medicine, genetics and public health until his death.

He was a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and in 1990 and 1991 was president of the American Association for Cancer Research.

Dr. Weinstein is survived by his wife of 54 years, the former Joan Anker.

He is also survived by a son, Matthew, of Manhattan; two daughters, Claudia, of Manhattan, and Tamara, of Atlanta; and two grandchildren.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How to Fix a Flat

NY Times

November 12, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist


Last September, I was in a hotel room watching CNBC early one morning. They were interviewing Bob Nardelli, the C.E.O. of Chrysler, and he was explaining why the auto industry, at that time, needed $25 billion in loan guarantees. It wasn’t a bailout, he said. It was a way to enable the car companies to retool for innovation. I could not help but shout back at the TV screen: “We have to subsidize Detroit so that it will innovate? What business were you people in other than innovation?” If we give you another $25 billion, will you also do accounting?

How could these companies be so bad for so long? Clearly the combination of a very un-innovative business culture, visionless management and overly generous labor contracts explains a lot of it. It led to a situation whereby General Motors could make money only by selling big, gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s and trucks. Therefore, instead of focusing on making money by innovating around fuel efficiency, productivity and design, G.M. threw way too much energy into lobbying and maneuvering to protect its gas guzzlers.

This included striking special deals with Congress that allowed the Detroit automakers to count the mileage of gas guzzlers as being less than they really were — provided they made some cars flex-fuel capable for ethanol. It included special offers of $1.99-a-gallon gasoline for a year to any customer who purchased a gas guzzler. And it included endless lobbying to block Congress from raising the miles-per-gallon requirements. The result was an industry that became brain dead.

Nothing typified this more than statements like those of Bob Lutz, G.M.’s vice chairman. He has been quoted as saying that hybrids like the Toyota Prius “make no economic sense.” And, in February, D Magazine of Dallas quoted him as saying that global warming “is a total crock of [expletive].”

These are the guys taxpayers are being asked to bail out.

And please, spare me the alligator tears about G.M.’s health care costs. Sure, they are outrageous. “But then why did G.M. refuse to lift a finger to support a national health care program when Hillary Clinton was pushing for it?” asks Dan Becker, a top environmental lobbyist.

Not every automaker is at death’s door. Look at this article that ran two weeks ago on autochannel.com: “ALLISTON, Ontario, Canada — Honda of Canada Mfg. officially opened its newest investment in Canada — a state-of-the art $154 million engine plant. The new facility will produce 200,000 fuel-efficient four-cylinder engines annually for Civic production in response to growing North American demand for vehicles that provide excellent fuel economy.”

The blame for this travesty not only belongs to the auto executives, but must be shared equally with the entire Michigan delegation in the House and Senate, virtually all of whom, year after year, voted however the Detroit automakers and unions instructed them to vote. That shielded General Motors, Ford and Chrysler from environmental concerns, mileage concerns and the full impact of global competition that could have forced Detroit to adapt long ago.

Indeed, if and when they do have to bury Detroit, I hope that all the current and past representatives and senators from Michigan have to serve as pallbearers. And no one has earned the “honor” of chief pallbearer more than the Michigan Representative John Dingell, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who is more responsible for protecting Detroit to death than any single legislator.

O.K., now that I have all that off my chest, what do we do? I am as terrified as anyone of the domino effect on industry and workers if G.M. were to collapse. But if we are going to use taxpayer money to rescue Detroit, then it should be done along the lines proposed in The Wall Street Journal on Monday by Paul Ingrassia, a former Detroit bureau chief for that paper.

“In return for any direct government aid,” he wrote, “the board and the management [of G.M.] should go. Shareholders should lose their paltry remaining equity. And a government-appointed receiver — someone hard-nosed and nonpolitical — should have broad power to revamp G.M. with a viable business plan and return it to a private operation as soon as possible. That will mean tearing up existing contracts with unions, dealers and suppliers, closing some operations and selling others and downsizing the company ... Giving G.M. a blank check — which the company and the United Auto Workers union badly want, and which Washington will be tempted to grant — would be an enormous mistake.”

I would add other conditions: Any car company that gets taxpayer money must demonstrate a plan for transforming every vehicle in its fleet to a hybrid-electric engine with flex-fuel capability, so its entire fleet can also run on next generation cellulosic ethanol.

Lastly, somebody ought to call Steve Jobs, who doesn’t need to be bribed to do innovation, and ask him if he’d like to do national service and run a car company for a year. I’d bet it wouldn’t take him much longer than that to come up with the G.M. iCar.

Monday, November 03, 2008

New pellet technology boiling Fort Kent diner

Bangor Daily News

By Julia Bayly

Special to the NEWS

FORT KENT, Maine — Peter Pinette is not the least bit disturbed that his new pellet stove seems smarter than some people. In fact, he finds it a bit comforting.

“It was created by some smart people,” Pinette said of the newly installed Bosch Thermotechnologies pellet burner and boiler system. “It’s a result of the evolution of technology in this country that’s now being directed toward alternative fuels and energy.”

Pinette, owner of Rock’s Diner, knew he had to do something about his heating bill when oil began flirting with $5 a gallon in northern Maine.

At the time, he was considering converting his system to coal-fired when a customer suggested he check out a new line of pellet burners and boilers coming out of Maine Energy Systems in Bethel.

“I went down [in July] to look it over and saw one in [Maine Energy Systems’] founder’s home running all by itself,” Pinette said. “It was just a sweet unit.”

The level of automation is what makes the Bosch system so attractive, according to Pinette.

The system itself is really two units married into one — a pellet burner manufactured by the Swedish firm Janfire and the boiler made by the German company Bosch.

“Nine months ago this system did not exist,” Pinette said. “Now it’s Maine Energy Systems’ vision to bring them into Maine and New England.”

Les Otten, former ski industry mogul and part owner of the Boston Red Sox who invested $10 million of his own money to launch the company, founded Maine Energy Systems in 2007.

Maine Energy Systems began importing the pellet-fueled boilers and burners from Europe last summer.

For Pinette, it was love at first sight.

“I asked right off how to get one,” he said.

Turned out, since there were no dealers of the systems north of Portland, Pinette’s best option was to step up and fill that void.

So earlier this fall he and local plumbing contractor John Plourde traveled to Bethel for a training program on the system’s technology and installation procedures.

“The first 50 units that arrived in this country were sold right away,” Pinette said. “In early September we got one of them.”

The unit sits in the basement of the diner several feet away from a homemade hopper capable of storing up to 1 ton of wood pellets.

Given the Janfire burner’s track record, once Pinette fired it up for the first time he’ll never need to touch it again for six months.

Pinette explained that the burner has an automatic augur-feed system, automatic self-cleaning feature, and in the event of power loss, it rapidly restarts itself when the power comes back on.

“We use a lot of hot water here for cooking, doing dishes and cleaning,” Pinette said. “We are already seeing a savings.”

Based on his own analysis of oil needed to heat the diner’s water, Pinette said he was spending up to $17 a day this summer when oil hit its peak price.

That figure dropped to $7 a day once he converted to wood pellets.

“Even if oil goes down below $2 a gallon, this system will save me money,” he said. “The way prices are right now, I’ll probably see a payback in two years.”

Pinette said there has been a fair amount of interest in his new boiler-burner unit, and his new venture — Aroostook Energy Alternatives — is working with Maine Energy Systems to bring the units into the area.

A unit large enough to supply his business’ hot water needs now runs around $10,000. A residential unit would cost around $9,000.

“A typical home installation and setup would probably run around $12,000,” Pinette said. “I know it’s pricey, but once it’s in, the unit is completely automatic and clean with no dust and little ash produced.”

In the event of a power outage, the unit shuts itself down and, once power is restored, runs a self-diagnostic and restarts on its own.

As far as any maintenance, Pinette said accumulated ash must be cleaned out, and the inside of the boiler vacuumed periodically.

“This is something the homeowners can do themselves or call in a technician,” he said. “It should be done every two or three tons of pellets.”

Pinette is relying on John Plourde for all plumbing installation needs for the system and his own training plus firsthand knowledge of the unit.

“We are able to set these up as a team,” he said.

As for pellets, despite widespread concerns of shortages, Pinette said he has done the research, and there are plenty of pellets to go around.

In fact, he sees the day in the not too distant future when a truck loaded with pellets backs up to a homeowner’s basement door and delivers bulk pellets directly into a dry storage hopper.

Maine has approved the units for use with approved chimneys used with oil furnaces, and they are both ASME-certified and UL-approved.

“This is not new technology, but it is new to the state of Maine,” Pinette said. “In many ways we are behind the rest of the world, [and] we need to catch up.”

For information on the units, visit www.maineenergysystems.com.