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UPI NewsTrack Health and Science News

Jan. 26, 2011 at 6:30 PM   |   Comments

Report details mercury emissions in Pa.

PITTSBURGH, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- Mercury emissions from Pennsylvania coal-fired power plants, including three ranked in the Top 10 emitters in the nation, pose a serious threat, a report says.

A report by the group PennEnvironment says the emissions are a threat to public health and the environment, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Wednesday.

PennEnvironment's report uses 2009 federal data ranking power plants that emit the most mercury and details the severe and long-lasting health impacts of exposures to children and adults, the newspaper said.

The Keystone coal-fired power plant in Shelocta, Pa., is the second-biggest mercury emitter in the nation, the group says, and the Conemaugh power plant in southern Indiana County ranks fourth.

"Powering our homes should not poison Pennsylvania's kids," Erika Staaf, clean water advocate for PennEnvironment, said. "Mercury pollution from power plants puts our kids and our environment at risk, and we need the Environmental Protection Agency to force these facilities to clean up.

"We might not be the 'tailpipe of the nation' like New England states, but we're right in the middle of all that mercury pollution," Staaf said. "We're not only catching it from Pennsylvania utilities but also from all those other high-ranking states."

The report's release was timed to support the EPA's new standards to limit mercury and other toxic air pollutants, expected in March, proposals that are strongly opposed by the coal and utility industries, the Post-Gazette said.


Study: Humans, orangutans in genetic link

ARHUS, Denmark, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- Though chimpanzees are our closest relatives, humans have some genes more like those of a more distant kin, the orangutan, Danish researchers say.

Researchers Mikkel Schierup and Thomas Mailund of Aarhus University in Denmark set out to examine the genetic variation present in common primate ancestor species, an article in the journal Genome Research reported.

With the addition of the orangutan to the collection of sequenced primate genomes, they examined the DNA sequences contained in them.

"There remains signals of the distant past in DNA," Mailund said, "and our approach is to use such signals to study the genetics of our ancestors."

Mailund and his colleagues looked for regions of the orangutan genome where humans and orangutans are more closely related than humans and chimpanzees.

"[I]n about 0.5 percent of our genome, we are (more closely) related to orangutans than we are to chimpanzees," Mailund said, "and in about 0.5 percent, chimpanzees are (more closely) related to orangutans than us."

Because humans and orangutans split millions of years prior to the human/chimp split, Schierup said, that suggests the ancestral species of human and chimps maintained high genetic diversity, in contrast to the genetic bottleneck humans are believed to have experienced following our divergence from chimps.


Astronomers spot farthest, earliest galaxy

WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- U.S. astronomers say NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has found the most distant object ever seen in the universe, at a distance of 13.2 billion light-years.

Researchers at the Carnegie Observatories say the compact galaxy of blue stars is 150 million more light-years distant than the previous record holder, a Carnegie Institute release said Wednesday.

The distance means astronomers are seeing the galaxy as it existed only 480 million years after the Big Bang, providing insight into the birth of the first stars and galaxies and the evolution of the universe.

"We are thrilled to have discovered this galaxy, but we're equally surprised to have found only one," astronomer Ivo Labbe says. "This tells us that the universe was changing very rapidly in early times."

Previous searches had found 47 galaxies at later times, when the universe was about 650 million years old.

The rate of star birth therefore increased by about 10 times in the interval from 480 million years to 650 million years.

"This is an astonishing increase in such a short period, happening in just 1 percent of the age of the universe," Labbe says.

Astronomers say every step back in time takes closer to the early universe's "formative years" when stars and galaxies were just beginning to emerge in the aftermath of the Big Bang.

"We're moving into a regime where there are big changes afoot," Garth Illingworth of the University of California at Santa Cruz says. "And what it tells us is that if we go back another couple hundred million years toward the Big Bang we'll see absolutely dramatic things happening."


Call for halt to pesticides in bee deaths

LONDON, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- Pesticides implicated in widespread bee deaths should be discontinued in Britain pending scientific evidence about their effects, U.K. politicians were told.

Labor MP Martin Caton told the House of Commons a new generation of "neonicotinoid" pesticides is linked by "a growing weight of science" to insect losses, The Independent reported Wednesday.

"Alarm bells should be ringing" about neonicotinoids, which are "systemic" insecticides present in every part of treated plants, including the pollen and nectar that bees and other pollinators gather, Caton said.

Research in the United States suggests neonicotinoids make honeybees far more vulnerable to diseases, the Independent reported.

Caton called on U.K. Food and Farming Minister Jim Paice to suspend use of neonicotinoids "until the best scientific evidence gives them the all-clear."

The government's position is that the compounds are safe when used properly, even though they have been banned, in varying degrees, in other countries, The Independent reported.

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