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Scientists sound new warning for arsenic in rice
by Staff Writers
Paris, France (AFP) July 22, 2013

Big, stinky 'corpse flower' blooms in Washington
Washington, District Of Columbia (AFP) July 22, 2013 - A towering plant that smells like rotting meat and is native to the Indonesian rainforest was in full bloom in the US capital on Monday, drawing throngs of tourists.

The titan arum, among the world's largest plants, began blooming on Sunday at the United States Botanic Garden, and its petals are expected to stay open for just 24 to 48 hours.

Curator of plants Bill McLaughlin said he first noticed the smell at around 6 pm Sunday.

"I felt a little queasy for awhile and I wasn't able to eat really until about 11 pm last night, after a few hours of air," he told AFP.

At first, the plant gave off heat he could sense with his hand and the smell shot straight up in the air, he said.

After that, an odor bearing heavy notes of roadkill "sort of curls back down, taps you on the shoulder and you look around for something dead," he said.

The flower is eight feet (2.4 meters) tall and smells of decomposing flesh in order to attract pollinators like carrion beetles and dung beetles.

Its blooming is unpredictable, and may happen every few years or every few decades.

Once the petals open fully, the bloom only last 24 to 48 hours before collapsing.

"The plant requires very special conditions, including warm day and night temperatures and high humidity, making Botanic Gardens well suited to support this strange plant outside of its natural range," the garden said in a statement.

The plant was first discovered in 1878 and the last time one bloomed at the US Botanic Garden was in 2007.

"We have had more than 98,000 people come visit from July 11 through July 21... unbelievable number of people!" said garden spokeswoman Laura Condeluci.

Visitors waited in line in soaring summer heat for a chance to see and smell the flower, but some were disappointed that the worst of the stench had already passed.

"Not nearly as smelly as I had hoped," tweeted one visitor named Robin.

European grassland butterflies in decline
Paris, France (AFP) July 22, 2013 - More than half of Europe's main species of grassland butterflies are in sharp decline as a result of habitat loss, the European Environment Agency (EAA) warned on Tuesday.

"Butterfly populations have declined by almost 50 percent, indicating a dramatic loss of grassland biodiversity," it said.

Out of 17 species monitored in 19 countries from 1990 to 2011, eight shrank in population, two remained stable and one increased. The trend was uncertain for the other six, the EAA said.

The report blames intensified agriculture, where monoculture of cereals and pesticides are destructive for biodiversity.

But it also points the finger at the abandonment of meadowland in mountains and marshy regions, especially in eastern and southern Europe. These lands become swiftly overgrown by scrub and woodland, sidelining the plants on which the butterflies depend.

Butterflies are a bellwether of environmental health, as they play a key role in pollination.

"The dramatic decline in grassland butterflies should ring alarm bells," said Hans Bruyninckx, the Copenhagen-based agency's executive director.

"In general, Europe's grassland habitats are shrinking. If we fail to maintain these habitats, we could lose many of these species forever."

The 17 species, counted by volunteers, comprised seven "widespread" species such as the Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus), which is found around Europe, and 10 "specialist" species, such as the Dusky Large Blue (Phengaris nausithous), which is found in cooler regions where there is a food plant called the great burnet.

Rice tainted with high levels of arsenic has been linked to genetic damage that heightens the risk of cancer, a study published on Monday said.

Naturally-occurring arsenic in drinking water is a long-known health hazard, especially in Bangladesh, where tens of millions of people depend on wells drilled in the 1970s.

Scientists have also fretted about rice grown in contaminated groundwater, but this is the first time they have found proof of a risk.

Researchers at Britain's University of Manchester and the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology in Kolkata carried out a probe with the help of 417 villagers in India's West Bengal.

They asked the volunteers to provide details about their lifestyle and amount of rice eaten daily, and to provide samples of cooked rice and their urine.

The volunteers came from three different areas but had a similar diet and socio-economic status. All had a low exposure to arsenic through their drinking water.

The researchers sifted through the urine samples to extract cells from the lining of the urinary tract, which were then analysed for genetic signatures called micronuclei.

Micronuclei are tiny pieces of DNA that are left over from when a cell replicates and fails to copy its genetic code properly.

Previous research has found that the more frequently that cells make a mistake in copying the code, the greater the risk that they will become cancerous. A higher count of micronuclei is thus a barometer of the risk.

What they found was that micronuclei frequency rose with increasing arsenic levels in rice. The trend was true both for men and women and for tobacco and non-tobacco users.

The villagers ate around 500 grammes (1.1 pounds) of rice daily on average. Frequency of micronuclei began above consumption of cooked rice with more than 200 microgrammes of arsenic per kilo.

The study, published in Nature Group's Scientific Reports journal, did not have the scope to monitor the volunteers for health problems.

But it says the findings should sound the alarm for people who consume large daily helpings of rice grown in high-arsenic water areas.

Around the world, this could be as many as several hundred million people, it says.

"Although concerns about arsenic in rice have been raised for some time now, to our knowledge this is the first time a link between consumption or arsenic-bearing rice and genetic damage has been demonstrated," said David Polya, a professor at Manchester's School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, who led the British side of the team.

"It vindicates increasing concerns expressed by the European Food Safety Authority and others about the adequacy of regulation of arsenic in rice," Polya said in a press release

Ashok Giri, who led the Indian side of the team, cautioned against "any panic from the consequences," explaining that any health risks arose from long-term chronic exposure to arsenic.

More than three billion people worldwide eat rice as a staple, according to estimates published last year.

The new study says arsenic levels of 200 microgrammes or more per kilo are found in significant percentages of rice grown in China, Bangladesh, Japan, Pakistan and China as well Europe and the United States.

"This study raises considerable concerns over the threat to human health," it warns.

Independent commentator Parvez Haris, a scientist at the De Montfort University in Leicester, said it was important for people to realise that they do not have to stop eating rice, given its value in nutrition.

"Our own study revealed that some varieties of aromatic rice from Bangladesh are very low in arsenic and can significantly reduce arsenic exposure in humans," he said in an email exchange with AFP.

"Unfortunately, in the absence of regulations requiring labelling of rice packets, showing how much arsenic is present, it would be very difficult for the consumers to select low-arsenic rice from supermarket shelves."

Regulatory bodies should change labelling so that consumers "can make an informed decision," he said.


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