Notebook > Science
Photo by Michael R. Brown/Florida Today

Scrubbing mission

Science | The space shuttle program may be over, but a massive cleanup effort will have to go on

Issue: "Back to School," Aug. 27, 2011

The July 21 touchdown of the space shuttle Atlantis on Kennedy Space Center's three-mile landing strip in Cape Canaveral, Fla., marked the 135th-and final-flight of a NASA shuttle. The space agency has finally scrubbed the 30-year shuttle program, but it will spend another 30 years cleaning up toxic chemicals on the cape after a half-century of rocket launches.

Florida Today, a local paper, reported that NASA records show 267 sites at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station polluted since the Apollo moon missions of the 1960s, including during the earliest shuttle launches. (Today's launches follow strict environmental rules.) The main contaminant, trichloroethylene ("trike"), was a solvent used to clean rocket engines. In the early days of space flight, workers routinely poured thousands of pounds of trike on the ground to evaporate. Later testing showed it hadn't: Instead, it created underground plumes as deep as 90 feet. The breakdown products of trike can cause cancer and birth defects, and may take 300 years to degrade naturally.

The lingering contaminants are separated from Florida's primary aquifer by a layer of clay, but federal law still requires NASA to clean up: It's been spending $4 million to $10 million a year to purify area groundwater. A new method of dealing with the chemicals involves injecting a mixture of iron dust and corn oil into the ground, which breaks trike into harmless byproducts. It's a promising approach, but the cleanup will cost the agency about $96 million over the next three decades.

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Judgment calls

Lambreth (AP photo by J. Scott Applewhite)

Two federal court decisions in late July had big implications for scientists. In the first, Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., ruled that federal money can fund embryonic stem-cell research. Lamberth had briefly halted taxpayer funding for the research one year ago after plaintiffs argued such grants were illegal, but in his final decision he deferred to a higher court's opinion. The plaintiffs may appeal, but in the meantime Obama administration support of the controversial research is flowing freely.

In the second case, a federal appeals court ruled 2-1 that human genes can, indeed, be patented, reversing a 2010 District Court opinion that had decided such patents were invalid. The case involves patents that biotech company Myriad Genetics holds on two genes known to predict breast and ovarian cancer risk (see "Ownership stakes," July 18, 2009). The court arguments hinge on whether isolated DNA fragments are markedly different from DNA occurring in nature. The Supreme Court could ultimately weigh in.

Picked poison

DPA/Picture-Alliance/Newscom

The African crested rat, a foot-long rodent with bristly hair and black-and-white stripes, has an astonishing self-defense strategy. It chews the bark of a highly toxic tree-long used by African hunters to coat arrow tips-and smears its mouth along a strip of hollow hairs on its back that absorb the poison. When threatened, the rat flares its fur and invites predators to take a sickening and sometimes lethal bite. Researchers reporting on the rat in Proceedings of the Royal Society B aren't sure why the rodent doesn't drop dead itself.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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