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UPI NewsTrack Health and Science News

Satellite gives good news on air pollution

GREENBELT, Md., Dec. 1 (UPI) -- An instrument on a NASA satellite has confirmed major reductions in air pollution by coal power plants in the eastern United States, researchers say.

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The Ozone Monitoring Instrument on the Aura satellite saw reductions in sulfur dioxide, a key air pollutant that contributes to the formation of acid rain and can cause serious health problems, a NASA release said Thursday.

About two-thirds of sulfur dioxide pollution in American air comes from coal power plants, NASA said.

The new measurements demonstrate scientists can use satellites to measure levels of harmful emissions throughout the world, even in regions without adequate ground monitoring systems, researchers said.

Scientists said the decline in sulfur dioxide can be traced to the Clean Air Interstate Rule of 2005 enacted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that called for deep cuts in sulfur dioxide emissions.

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"What we're seeing in these satellite observations represents a major environmental accomplishment," Bryan Bloomer, an EPA scientist familiar with the new satellite observations, said. "This is a huge success story for the EPA and the Clean Air Interstate Rule," he said.


Chemistry can tell a beer's 'home'

SEVILLE, Spain, Dec. 1 (UPI) -- Spanish researchers say they've developed a technique based on chemistry that is 99 percent accurate at revealing the country of origin of beer.

Measuring the content of iron, potassium, phosphates and polyphenols, researchers at the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology correctly identified German, Spanish and Portuguese beers, a foundation release said Thursday.

"Beers can be differentiated from one another according to their country of origin by using parameters linked to raw materials, such as water (metals and negatively charged ions) and the type of hop (polyphenol content)," Jose Marcos Jurado, a chemist at the University of Seville, said.

"The differences can seem very subtle but the model is capable of detecting the relationship between these chemical descriptors and the country of origin of beers," he said.

Authenticity and geographical identification studies are "very important" for the food industry, researchers said, "given that they allow the differentiating characteristics of a product to be established.

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"This can have an impact on their marketing."


Urban soil tests show toxic chemicals

IOWA CITY, Iowa, Dec. 1 (UPI) -- University of Iowa engineers say their study of residential soils in Cedar Rapids is one of only a few such U.S. urban toxic soil studies ever conducted.

The researchers collected soils in downtown residential areas and analyzed them for industrial pollutants known as PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, and chlordanes, a university release said Wednesday.

The measured values were at the provisional threshold recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to perform soil remediation, they said.

Since soil often stores residual amounts of such persistent organic pollutants and because children and others can be exposed on a regular basis, contaminated soil may be a source of concern, UI environmental engineering professor Keri Hornbuckle said.

"Both these chemicals [PCBs and chlordanes] are now banned from production and sale, but are still in our environment because they are nearly non-biodegradable," she said.

PCBs were widely used as coolants, in electrical transformers and in a products ranging from waterproofing compounds to paints and pesticides until they were banned in the 1970s.

Chlordanes were used to control termites in buildings and as insecticides on lawns and gardens, as well as on corn and other crops, before the EPA banned their use in 1988.

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"It is my opinion that we should not use chemicals that are so persistent in any household activity, but it is difficult for the average homeowner to know how to judge this.

"This data is not, but should be, provided on the containers of all the products we purchase," she said.


Aquatic animals may 'sense' imminent quake

GREENBELT, Md., Dec. 1 (UPI) -- Animals may sense chemical changes in groundwater when an earthquake is about to strike, providing a possible warning sign, U.S. and British researchers say.

Scientists began to investigate these possible chemical effects after seeing a colony of toads abandon its pond in L'Aquila, Italy, in 2009 several days before an earthquake, the BBC reported Thursday.

Researchers led by Friedemann Freund from NASA and Rachel Grant from Britain's Open University found animals that live in or near groundwater proved highly sensitive to any changes in its chemistry.

Such sensitivity and subsequent behavior might give clues to signs of an imminent earthquake, they said.

Scientists have been studying the chemical changes that occur when rocks are under extreme stress.

"When you think of all of the many things that are happening to these rocks, it would be weird if the animals weren't affected in some way," Rachel Grant of the Open University said.

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