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News Briefs

Administration Restructuring Scientific Advisory Committees


The Bush administration has begun a broad restructuring of the scientific advisory committees that guide federal policy in areas such as patient rights and public health, eliminating some committees that were coming to conclusions at odds with the president’s views and in other cases replacing members with handpicked choices.

In the past few weeks, the Department of Health and Human Services has retired two expert committees before their work was complete. One had recommended that the Food and Drug Administration expand its regulation of the increasingly lucrative genetic testing industry, which has so far been free of such oversight. The other committee, which was rethinking federal protections for human research subjects, had drawn the ire of administration supporters on the religious right, according to government sources.

A third committee, which had been assessing the effects of environmental chemicals on human health, has been told that nearly all of its members will be replaced -- in several instances by people with links to the industries that make those chemicals. One new member is a California scientist who helped defend Pacific Gas and Electric against the real-life Erin Brockovich.

The changes are among the first in a gradual restructuring of the system that funnels expert advice to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. That system includes more than 250 committees, each composed of people with scientific, legal or academic expertise who volunteer their services over multiyear terms. The committees typically toil in near anonymity, but they are important because their interpretation of scientific data can sway an agency's approach to health risk and regulation.

Jury Recommends Death Penalty For van Dam Murder Suspect


After five days of deliberations, a jury recommended Monday that David Westerfield be executed for the kidnap and murder of seven-year-old Danielle van Dam, whose disappearance in February turned out to be the first in a string of high-profile child abductions this year.

Westerfield, 50, a self-employed design engineer, showed no emotion as the verdict was read. One of his lawyers leaned over and told him, “I’m so sorry.”

Danielle’s mother, Brenda, cried, and the girl’s father, Damon, shut his eyes. The couple left the courthouse without talking to reporters.

Superior Court Judge William Mudd set Nov. 22 to announce whether he will accept the jury’s recommendation or reduce Westerfield’s sentence to life in prison without parole. Only one death penalty in 10 San Diego cases has been reduced to a life sentence in the past eight years.

Two male jurors, who would not give their full names, told reporters the most damning piece of evidence against Westerfield was the discovery of Danielle’s blood on his jacket. The same jury on Aug. 21 found him guilty of murder, kidnapping and possession of child pornography but was forbidden from discussing the case until Monday.

Study Finds Combination of Three Herbicides May Reduce Fertility


A cocktail of the three most common herbicides used by some 29 million American households to kill dandelions may reduce fertility and induce abortions, according to a study to be published Tuesday in the toxicology journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The results come as the Environmental Protection Agency prepares to review the licensing of one of the chemicals, now used in more than 1,500 lawn care and agricultural products.

In the study, researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Valparaiso, Chile, spiked the drinking water of laboratory mice with weed killer, then charted the animals’ reproductive rates. They found a 20 percent increase in failed pregnancies at extremely low doses -- seven times lower than the maximum allowable rate for U.S. drinking water. University of Wisconsin toxicologist Warren Porter said that his group deliberately selected the sort of weed killer most commonly employed by American homeowners on their lawns. He would not name the brand, other than to say: “We bought it in a hardware store.”

He does, however, name the active ingredients: a mix of three “phenoxy herbicides” called 2,4-D, dicamba, and mecoprop. Typically blended together into weed killers and “weed and feed” products, they kill broad leaf plants such as dandelions while sparing grass and wheat.

Global Crossing Files Reorganization Plan


Global Crossing Ltd. on Monday filed a reorganization plan that predicts the shrunken telecommunications company could emerge from bankruptcy in January and rebound enough to post a profit in 2003.

The company’s projections, while highly conditional, are included in the reorganization plan’s companion disclosure statement, a detailed document that outlines the past, present and future prospects for the firm as well as litigation and other contingencies.

Global Crossing’s disclosure statement also suggests that current Chief Executive John Legere, Chief Financial Officer Dan Cohrs, executive vice president of finance Joe Perrone and other current company executives would be protected from personal liability as part of the reorganization plan. That protection would not include former officers such as Gary Winnick, the company’s longtime chairman and a founder of the company.