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October 2001
Vol. 10, No. 10, pp 12, 14.
 
 
 
Update
Business

Employment drops again. After a rise in July, U.S. chemical employment fell once more in August, according to the latest seasonally adjusted date from the U.S. Department of Labor. Chemical employment in August totaled 1,034,000, down 4000 from July and off 2000 from August 2000. The number of production workers declined by 3000 from July and 10,000 from August of last year to 564,000. The government reports the average workweek at 42.2 hours, down from 42.7 hours in July and 42.3 hours in August 2000. Thus, the Department of Labor’s index of aggregate weekly hours of production—a product of the number of production workers and the hours they work—dropped to 97.3 (1982 = 100) from 98.3 the previous month and from last August’s 99.2. (C&EN, Sept. 17, 2001, p 14)

Chemical Shipments Increase Slightly. July chemical shipments increased modestly from the previous month, but were still well below July 2000 levels, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The data show chemical shipments rising 0.8% from June to a value of $35.4 billion. However, shipments were still down 5.1% from July of last year. Inventories were almost unchanged in July, falling a mere 0.1% from the previous month, but they rose 0.7% from the same month a year earlier. Thus, the inventories-to-shipments ratio fell to 1.45 from 1.47 in June, the highest the ratio had been since sometime before 1992. In July of last year, the ratio was 1.37. (C&EN, Sept. 10, 2001, p 15)

Trade Surplus Still Falling. On the heels of the latest foreign trade data from the government, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) released a forecast that shows slowing growth in overseas trade for the U.S. chemical industry for the remainder of this year and little improvement in the chemical trade surplus next year. In the first 6 months of the year, U.S. Department of Commerce data show chemical exports increased 7.0% from the same period in 2000 to $41.6 billion, but imports rose a much faster 14% to $40.3 billion, driving the surplus down 63% to $1.3 billion. Accentuating this depressing news, ACC doesn’t see much improvement anytime soon. (C&EN, Sept. 3, 2001, p 12)

Government

EU Restricts Flame Retardants. Three brominated flame retardants suspected of being endocrine disrupters face stiffer regulation in the European Union (EU) because they are believed to pose risks to human health and the environment. The European Parliament voted to ban pentabromodiphenyl ether, which is used to fireproof polyurethane. Under the ban, the maximum permitted level of residue of this chemical allowed in other substances is 0.1%. The Parliament also called for a ban by 2006 on octabromodiphenyl ether, used in office equipment and domestic electrical appliances, and on the flame retardant decabromodiphenyl ether. The ban on decabromodiphenyl ether will not take effect if the EU’s final risk assessment shows that it is not harmful. All three chemicals have been detected in human milk. (C&EN, Sept. 17, 2001, p 33)

Science Funding Shortfall. Two recent studies from the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) confirm that the Bush administration’s proposed science and technology budget continues the downward trend in federal funding, which dates back to 1993. As spending levels for research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) soared 66% from fiscal year (FY) 1994 to FY 2001, research funding at all other agencies increased a miserly 1.7% during the same time period, according to the reports. Physical science and engineering fields were particularly hard hit, with FY 1999 funding levels in some of these fields down 20% or more from FY 1993 levels. Under the administration’s proposal, the NIH research budget gets an 11.3% boost over FY 2001, whereas other nonhealth-related agencies would see an overall drop of 3.4%, less than FY 1994, the reports find. Specifically, funding for science and technology would decrease 3.7% at the National Science Foundation, 1.7% at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 6.8% at the Department of Energy, 8.5% at the Environmental Protection Agency, 8% at the Department of the Interior, and 9.9% at the Department of Agriculture. (Anal. Chem., Sept. 1, 2001, p 477A)

FDA Publishes DEHP Risk Assessment. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Devices and Radiological Health has published its review of the potential health risks patients face from di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) leaching from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) medical devices. Based on literature reviews, the panel examined a variety of medical procedures using PVC devices and generally concludes that patient exposures to DEHP were below the levels that could be expected to cause adverse effects. The exception was that children, especially infants, undergoing certain medical procedures, may represent a population at increased risk from the effects of DEHP, the review concludes. The FDA panel emphasizes that this review is a first step in the assessment process and that other factors, such as the availability of alternatives to DEHP and PVC, must be considered as part of an overall risk management strategy for this issue. The Phthalate Esters Panel of the ACC, representing the major makers of phthalate esters, said in response to the review that it believes DEHP is safe for use in a variety of medical devices and that any alternative materials must be held up to the same high standards and performance. The report is on the Web at www.fda.gov/cdrh/newpg.html. (C&EN, Sept. 10, 2001, p 21)

SciTech

New Technique for Faster Identification of Toxic Molds. Researchers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are pilot-testing a DNA-based technique for monitoring dust and air for molds as part of a U.S. Housing and Urban Development study. The technique is a fluorescent probe-based detection of fungal spores in indoor dust samples using DNA polymerase chain reaction technology. It produces results in a few hours to a few days—considerably faster than the existing microscopic inspection of cultured and plated fungal samples, which take at least 10 days. (Environ. Sci. Technol., Sept. 1, 2001, p 358A)

Detecting Cryptosporidium on a Chip. Scientists at Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a microfluidic chip to detect Cryptosporidium parvum. The chip uses a hybridization scheme in which mRNA amplified by nucleic-acid-sequence-based amplification is sandwiched between capture probes and reporter probes in a microfluidic channel. The reporter probes are labeled with carboxyfluoroscein-filled liposomes, which generate a much stronger fluorescent signal than single fluorophores for increased sensitivity. Integrating the assay onto a chip reduces the amount of reagent and sample needed. The researchers say the approach can be modified to detect other pathogens. (Environ. Sci. Technol., Sept. 1, 2001, p 362A)

Solid-State NMR and TNT. Nitroaromatics and their decomposition products are notorious environmental toxins often found in soil at army munitions depots and agricultural chemical sites. Trinitrotoluene (TNT) content in soil has been studied by several methods, but researchers at Louisiana State University (Baton Rouge) and the University of Louisiana-Monroe are the first to use solid-state 2H magic angle spinning (MAS) NMR to identify how TNT is absorbed into clays and soils. Soil from an arsenal plant in Childersburg, AL, and samples of montmorillonite clays and quartz were each mixed with 22 mmol/kg of TNT-d3 and TNT-d5. Tracking TNT’s deuterated methyl group led to distinguishing three discrete molecular motions. The unique spinning sideband pattern for each mode identifies the interaction between TNT and minerals in the samples and demonstrates similar binding in the soil and K10-montmorillonite clay. The proposed binding mechanism includes n–pi electron donor–acceptor coordination of the clay’s siloxane oxygens to TNT’s aromatic ring in a coplanar arrangement. The researchers say that 2H MAS NMR works well for these types of samples because it is compatible with soils and moisture content, sensitive to molecular motion, and has a refocusing feature to remove the noise created by environmental samples. (Anal. Chem., Sept. 1, 2001, p 471A)

Probing Heterogeneous Electron Transfer. Professor Allen J. Bard and colleagues at The University of Texas–Austin investigated the intimate details of electron transfer at the interface between two immiscible electrolyte solutions, showing that the kinetics can be explained by one of two theories. In addition, they demonstrated the power of scanning electrochemical microscopy (SECM) to make measurements, even in traditionally “electrochemistry-unfriendly” solvents such as benzene. At question is whether the electron-transfer kinetics at the liquid–liquid interface follows Butler–Volmer (BV) theory. The researchers find that to be the case to an extent. However, as the driving force increased, the experimental rate constants decreased with increasing overpotential, thereby deviating from BV theory. The kinetic data are instead explained by Marcus theory, which predicts an “inverted region” where rate decreases with greater driving force. Finally, because SECM can obtain measurements in low-permittivity solvents without the addition of large amounts of electrolyte, the technique proves to be useful for studying the effects of high ionic strength on heterogenous electron-transfer kinetics. (Anal. Chem. Sept. 1, 2001, p 471A)

Protective Roles of Antibodies. A collaborative group has discovered that antibodies may have a previously unknown function: catalyzing the formation of hydrogen peroxide from singlet oxygen and water. The cleanup of singlet oxygen—produced metabolically or by exposure of oxygen to light—may serve to protect cells from its potentially toxic effects. And the production of highly reactive hydrogen peroxide suggests that antibodies may have the ability to kill pathogens directly, in addition to their known indirect role in marking pathogens for destruction by other immune system components. The work was carried out by researchers at Scripps Research Institute (LaJolla, CA), the California Institute of Technology (Pasadena), and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Zurich). The researchers identified a conserved site in the antibody structure where the catalytic process is most likely activated and proposed that the reaction proceeds via a dihydrogen trioxide intermediate never before observed in biological systems. (C&EN, Sept. 10, 2001, p 29)

Honors

ACS National Awards Announced. The American Chemical Society’s (ACS) national award winners for 2002 were recently announced. Most of the awardees will receive their honors at the 2002 ACS Spring National Meeting in Orlando. FL. For a complete list of the winners, go to www.chemistry.org/awards. (C&EN, Aug. 27, 2001, p 70)

Edith Turi Grant Awarded. Mettler-Toledo (Columbus, OH) has awarded its 2001 Thermal Analysis Education grant to Brian C. Benicewicz and Chang Y. Ryu of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Rensselaer, NY) for their work in polymer characterization. The award was presented at the ACS fall national meeting in Chicago in August.

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