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Washington Calling

Blue corn ... farm concentrations ... mower pollution ... more
Scripps Howard News Service


May 12, 2007

WASHINGTON -- The collapse of the World Trade Center skyscrapers touched all corners of the country. That's the finding of a study of those who have signed on to the World Trade Center Health Registry, a confidential health survey of those directly affected by the 9/11 terror attacks on the iconic towers -- be they tourists, rescue or recovery workers, students or those on business trips.

The voluntary survey, which is sponsored by the New York City health department, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and hospitals, among others, is an attempt by health-care experts to compare, over time, the health of those in close proximity to the attacks with that of the general population.

Among the more than 70,000 who have enrolled, the report counted registrants from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. They included 1,035 California residents, 156 from Arizona and 128 from Alabama.


Here's a good excuse to get out of mowing the lawn: Push-power lawnmowers expel as much pollution per hour as 11 cars do. Riding mowers spew as much as 34 autos.

So the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed cutting by 35 percent the emissions of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide allowed from not only mowers but also leaf blowers, Weed Whackers and chain saws. Environmentalists trash the proposal as too lax while the small-engine manufacturers say it's too restrictive. The EPA says it will listen to both sides before issuing a final rule next year.


Not only are American farms on a fast path to corporate concentration, but so are agricultural markets. A new University of Missouri study, which Congress is looking at, found that the top four beef packers control 83 percent of the market, while four pork-packing outfits represent 66 percent of that market. Four poultry concerns account for 58 percent of the chicken-and-turkey market.

Ethanol production is the only agricultural sector in which concentration has dropped. In 1987, four companies controlled 73 percent of the market. Today, they represent just 31 percent.


Much maligned as mercenaries and often at odds with U.S. combat forces in Iraq, the thousands of American and other private contractors in Iraq now have an association to advocate for them: the International Contractors Association. Claiming 400 members so far, the group wants to provide a support network, endorse professional standards and negotiate group benefits for the estimated 100,000 private contractors believed to be in Iraq. More than 700 of these workers -- most of whom provide security for officials and firms -- are believed to have died since the war began.


Latest twist on the old online "please help me and I'll give you a cut" scam that, unbelievably, some suckers actually fall for: This one purports to be from a U.S. Army colonel who was sent back to Germany because of the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal. The officer says he was able to smuggle $21.7 million out of Iraq before he was redeployed and, yes indeedy, will share the pot with you if you agree to help him fudge how he came about the ill-gotten gains.


Corn controversies are popping up all over the place. Farmers who grow blue corn, the basis for those trendy tortilla chips and wraps, want Congress to include it in the roster of crops that qualify for federal agricultural subsidies and loans. Their numbers are small -- only about 400 out of the 300,000 corn farmers nationwide -- but would likely grow if the crop got the federal blessing in the farm bill Congress currently is cobbling together. But the U.S. Agriculture Department objects, calling blue corn a specialty product not generally sold in the open market and thus not worthy of joining its white- and yellow-corn cousins under the umbrella of federal support.


Elsewhere in Congress, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller is blasting the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for not protecting workers who make microwave popcorn. At issue is the chemical compound diacetyl, which is key to the popcorn's butter flavoring. The compound has been linked to a severe lung disease that has killed three workers and sickened dozens of others, say Miller and other Democratic lawmakers who want the compound pulled from the market until more tests are done.

OSHA says it will increase its inspections of popcorn manufacturers and is encouraging the 24 states with their own workplace-safety overseers to do the same.

Not to worry, eating the popcorn is safe; it's just making it in the factory that's at issue.


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