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August 2001
Vol. 10, No. 08, pp 10, 12.

April’s Tumbling Trade Surplus. The volatility in the U.S. chemical trade continued in April, as the trade surplus plummeted after a big percentage gain in March. According to the latest data from the Commerce Department, the surplus for chemicals and products was just $80.0 million in April, down 88.0% from March and off 89.4% from April of last year. In March, the surplus grew 137.1% from the previous month and was up 50.3% year-to-year. Chemical exports in April totaled $6.8 billion, 10.4% below the March level, but up 6.0% from April 2000. Imports, which totaled $6.72 billion, declined 3.0% from March but were up 18.8% from the same month last year. (C&EN, July 2, 2001, p 9)

Chemical Industry Facts and Figures. Last year seemed a relatively quiet time for the chemical industry. The U.S. industry saw few big mergers or restructurings. The industry grew in the U.S., albiet slowly, and around the world. But under the surface, there were rumblings that set the stage for the downturn that is occurring worldwide this year, and the United States seems to have led the way. For instance, higher feedstock costs and slower demand growth, which seem to have first appeared in the United States, are making their way everywhere. The result is that, just when the worldwide chemical industry seemed poised for a good period of growth, it has begun to slip again. These are some of the conclusions that can be gleaned from the data that are included in this year’s Facts & Figures for the Chemical Industry. (C&EN, June 25, 2001, p 42)

Declining Chemical Output in May. U.S. chemical production fell in May to its lowest level since August 1997, according to the latest seasonally adjusted information from the Federal Reserve Board. The government data show that the industrial production index for chemicals and products declined 1.3% from April to 117.4 (1992 = 100) and was down 7.0% from May of last year. This lower output caused a decline in the government’s estimate of seasonally adjusted capacity utilization, which at 71.2% was down from 72.1% in April and from 77.5% in the same month a year ago. (C&EN, June 25, 2001, p 15)


Polyvinyl Chloride Plasticizer Poses Little Risk of Injury for Most Children. A scientific panel convened by the Consumer Product Safety Commission has concluded that the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plasticizer diisononyl phthalate (DINP) does not pose a risk to humans. Even though DINP causes cancer and reproductive malformations in rodents, exposures are so low that it cannot plausibly increase such risks in humans, according to the panel. DINP is used as a plasticizer in PVC toys and in other products. Children who spend about three hours a day mouthing PVC toys softened with DINP receive the greatest exposures, ingesting as much as 0.28 mg of DINP per kilogram of body weight per day, the panel says. The acceptable daily intake is 0.12 mg per kg per day. Therefore, for those children who routinely mouth DINP-plasticized toys for 75 minutes per day or more, “there may be a DINP risk,” the panel says. But for the majority of children, exposure to DINP from PVC toys would “pose a minimal or nonexistent risk of injury,” the panel concludes. (C&EN, June 25, 2001, p 12)

Firms Volunteer To Test 20 Chemicals under EPA Program. More than 35 chemical companies will voluntarily evaluate 20 chemicals for potential health effects in children, according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC). Known as the Voluntary Children’s Chemical Evaluation Program (VCCEP), the pilot project will test a new approach to chemical evaluation, an approach the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers a potential model for future assessments. EPA announced the program in the December 26, 2000, Federal Register, when it asked companies to volunteer by June 25 to test 23 chemicals. Three of the chemicals have yet to attract volunteer companies. Children have a high likelihood of exposure to the 20 chemicals to be tested, which include acetone, benzene, decabromodiphenyl ether, decane, ethylbenzene, ethylene dichloride, p-dioxane, and toluene. (C&EN, July 2, 2001, p 20)

Air Pollution Review Begins. Four public hearings have been set by EPA to gather views about “new source review” (NSR), a regulation that requires large companies to install the best air pollution control equipment available when building a new plant or making a modification that increases emissions from an existing one. The hearings are part of a 90-day review ordered by the President as part of the administration’s national energy plan. The review will focus on NSR’s impact on investments in new power plant and refinery capacity, energy efficiency, and the environment. In the past few years, EPA, the U.S. Department of Justice, and states have begun legal actions against refineries and electricity generators for failure to comply with NSR. For background material, see www.epa.gov/air/nsr-review. EPA will meet with industrial representatives, environmental groups, and state officials, then issue a report to the President this month. (C&EN, July 2, 2001, p 20)

A New ACS Division? At the August 2001 ACS National Meeting in Chicago, board members are expected to vote in favor of creating a new ACS division focused on laboratory automation. The new division will stem from a partnership with the Lab Robotics Interest Group (LRIG; http://lab-robotics.org), a grassroots organization based in Martinsville, NJ, which began 14 years ago as a topical group of the North Jersey section of ACS. The long-term vision for the new ACS Laboratory Automation Division is to run more productive meetings, increase member and vendor participation, and continue to provide researchers in the drug discovery/high-throughput screening market with cutting-edge instruments. (Anal. Chem. July 1, 2001, p 356A)


Improving Information Extraction. The rapid advancement of science and technology depends on how efficiently knowledge, including both infrastructure (from authors, journals, and institutions) and thematic (technical thrusts, relationships) information, is extracted from the literature. Questions of interest center around which science and technology is being performed, who is performing it, where is it being performed, and what messages and undiscovered information can be extracted from the literature. Expert analysts can then judge what is not being done and recommend what should be done differently. In the past, the technical community used the thorough but inefficient approach of visually scanning printed and electronic technical literature to identify relevant documents, and then reading them to extract the information. New techniques now semi-automatically preselect relevant literature and order the technical concepts and their relationships, providing a framework for an integrated analysis. These techniques are encompassed under the umbrella of science and technology text mining. (Anal. Chem. July 1, 2001, p 370A)

Detecting Living Cryptosporidium. The protozoan parasite Cryptosporidium parvum, usually found in water, can be life-threatening to people with impaired immune systems and may cause serious gastrointestinal illness in healthy people. The parasite’s oocysts are not killed by standard disinfection methods such as chlorination and have caused major outbreaks of illness in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. The standard procedure to detect C. parvum oocysts is staining with fluorescent antibodies and identification under a microscope. However, this approach often incorrectly estimates the number of organisms because it doesn’t distinguish between living and dead parasites. Researchers at Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) have come up with a quick, sensitive, test-strip-based method to detect small amounts of living oocysts via the binding of amplified RNA to oligonucleotides immobilized on liposomes. The method takes advantage of the fact that only living organisms produce RNA. The test takes only 8–10 min, although extracting the RNA from the organisms and performing the RNA amplification takes an additional 2–3 h. (Anal. Chem. July 1, 2001, p 354A)

Do You See What I SEA? In an effort to push protein NMR studies beyond the current molecular weight limit of 30–50 kDa (see “NMR: Dealing with Deuterons”), researchers at Triad Therapeutics Inc. (San Diego) and the University of Wisconsin (Madison) have developed a new NMR method that limits the amino acid signals to those of protein surface residues. This work is based on the belief that therapeutically relevant interactions occur at or near the surface of a protein and that signals from internal residues merely act to clutter up the structural analysis (resonance overlap). Treating a perdeuterated 71 kDa protein with a pulse sequence called solvent-exposed amides with transverse relaxation optimized spectroscopy (SEA-TROSY), the researchers silenced the signal from amide protons while exciting the water protons that surround the protein. The magnetization from the water protons then transferred to the surface-exposed amides, and signals from the relaxing amide protons were measured. These signals give the researchers information about the superficial conformation of the protein and, when the protein is combined with potential ligands, indicate the binding mode and therapeutic activity of these compounds. “By focusing our analysis on small areas of the protein,” says Stephen Coutts, Triad Therapeutics president and COO, “we are bypassing the need to solve whole protein structures, adding speed and efficiency to drug design.” The new method allows structural biologists and drug designers to push the envelope of protein biochemistry just a little bit farther, and removes the need for selective labeling protocols. (J. Am. Chem. Soc., May 16, 2001, p 4633)


EPA Honors Green Innovations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) presented its annual Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge awards to four companies and one academic researcher on June 25. The EPA began conferring these awards in 1996 to encourage the development of technologies that reduce pollution at its sources. The “Academic” award went to professor Chao-Jun Li from Tulane University (New Orleans) for designing an array of catalyzed reactions that can be accomplished in water, avoiding more toxic organic solvent conditions. The “Small Business” award winner was Eden Bioscience Corp. (Bothell, WA), which has developed a means for applying nontoxic harpin proteins to stimulate plant growth and defenses without altering the plants’ DNA, while still reducing reliance on conventional agricultural chemicals. Bayer Corp. (Pittsburgh) and Bayer AG (Leverkusen, Germany) picked up the “Alternative Synthetic Pathways” honor for the synthesis of a biodegradable, nontoxic chelating agent, sodium iminodisuccinate, which has shown excellent chelating capabilities. The “Alternative Reaction Condition” award was presented to Novozymes North America, Inc. (Franklin, NC) for designing an enzymatic process that greatly improves on the environmental and economic aspects of conventional cotton textile treatments. And, finally, PPG Industries (Cleveland) received the “Designing Safer Chemicals” award for establishing yttrium as a safe and effective material for cationic electrocoating to replace the toxic lead coatings that are currently used for automotive applications.

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