Health officials have a new suspect in the E. coli outbreak that has killed 22 people and sickened more than 2,200 across Europe: bean sprouts
. Test results today are expected to link the outbreak to sprouts from a single farm in northern Germany, potentially offering clarity in a crisis that has bedeviled authorities for weeks. But the mystery is still far from solved, because even if bean sprouts are confirmed as the culprit, it won't be easy to figure out how they were contaminated in the first place. E. coli normally lives in mammals' digestive tracts, and while it can be spread by manure fertilizers, none were used on this sprout farm. "The salad sprouts are grown only from seeds and water, and they aren't fertilized at all," the farm's managing director tells the BBC. "There aren't any animal fertilizers used in other areas on the farm, either."
Cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce had all faced suspicion before the spotlight fell on sprouts this weekend, and until today's test results are final, authorities are cautious about drawing conclusions. "While we have strong and clear indications that a farm in Uelzen is involved, we have to wait for the official lab results," German Health Minister Daniel Bahr said late Sunday, referring to a town south of Hamburg. "Until then, we cannot give an all-clear." Bahr probably couldn't give an all-clear for at least another week anyway — health officials say more cases of the E. coli infection are likely to pop up for days, as contaminated sprouts may have already been delivered to restaurants and grocery stores across Germany. The farm in question was shut down Sunday and all of its produce was recalled, including fresh herbs, fruits, flowers and potatoes, the AP reports. A total of 18 different sprout varieties from the farm are now under suspicion, including those of mung beans, broccoli, peas, chickpeas, garlic lentils and radishes.
While no manure was used to fertilize the suspected sprouts, they were grown using steam in 100-degree barrels, conditions that a local agriculture minister calls an "ideal" breeding ground for all types of bacteria. That may explain how they proliferated, but it offers little insight on where they came from, the BBC reports — in fact, they still might have originated somewhere other than the farm in Uelzen. "E. coli can stick tightly to the surface of seeds needed to make sprouts, and they can lay dormant on the seeds for months. During germination the population of bugs can expand 100,000 fold," clinical microbiologist Stephen Smith tells the BBC. "However, and this is probably the key to the German outbreak, the bacteria are inside the sprout tube as well as outside. Thus washing probably had no effect. The bottom line is that it is crucial to source where the seeds came from and recall any stock."
California is among the states trying to blaze a trail toward clean energy, but as the Los Angeles Times reports today, that trail is becoming increasingly littered with dead eagles and other threatened birds. The Bay Area's Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, for example, has been killing 67 golden eagles every year for three decades, tainting the benefits of emissions-free electricity the wind farm has been providing to thousands of homes since the 1980s.
"It would take 167 pairs of local nesting golden eagles to produce enough young to compensate for their mortality rate related to wind energy production," says field biologist Doug Bell, manager of the East Bay Regional Park District's wildlife program. "We only have 60 pairs." Wind turbines kill thousands of birds and bats across the U.S. every year, raising serious ecological concerns about a form of renewable energy that's supposed to be helping mitigate ecological damage caused by coal-fired power plants. And now that Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a new law mandating that a third of California's electricity come from renewable sources by 2020, the Golden State is poised to become a laboratory for figuring out how green energy can safely co-exist not just with golden eagles, but with all forms of winged wildlife.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows some incidental mortality and disturbance of eagles at wind farms, the Times reports, as long as operators take steps to reduce the losses. These measures can include replacing older turbines with newer, bird-friendlier models, removing turbines from the paths of hunting raptors, and turning off certain turbines during periods of heavy bird migration. No wind-energy company so far has been prosecuted for killing birds under the Migratory Bird Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act or the Endangered Species Act, but some bird activists say it may only be a matter of time if bird deaths don't slow down soon. "We taxpayers have spent millions of dollars saving the California condor from extinction," says Gary George, spokesman for Audubon California. "How's the public going to feel about wind energy if a condor hits the turbines?"
After staying quiet for half a century, the Puyehue volcano in southern Chile awoke in a fury Sunday, pumping out an ash cloud 6 miles high and 3 miles wide, according to Chilean authorities. The eruption led some 3,500 people to evacuate nearby cities, and winds have pushed the expanding ash cloud across the Andes Mountains, forcing the Argentine tourist town of San Carlos de Bariloche to close its airport, New Scientist reports. Scientists believe the sudden outburst may be related to last year's magnitude-8.8 earthquake off the Chilean coast.
The Argentinean health ministry has sent face masks and eye drops to the affected region, the BBC reports, hoping to preempt health problems from falling ash. Chilean officials are also closely monitoring the ash cloud's behavior, especially after a wind shift Sunday sent ash streaming back across the Andes. "The situation is very complicated," says Santiago Rozas, mayor of Lago Ranco, about 40 miles north of the volcano range. "The shift [of wind direction] means that we will have a rain of ash, with damage for the population and a threat to smallholder farming." This is the volcano chain's first serious bout of activity since 1960, when an eruption was preceded by a major earthquake. Chile is one of the most volcanically active countries on Earth, with more than 3,000 volcanoes total and about 80 active ones, and some geologists suspect this most recent eruption may have been triggered by last year's earthquake off the coast of Santiago.
"People have seen that volcanic activity can be triggered within 100 kilometers of the earthquake, though no one knows the mechanisms behind this," University of Oxford geologist David Pyle tells New Scientist. "The 2010 earthquake meant a fault system 500 km long slipped by a few meters at a depth of 20-30 km." Such a shift could have compressed the magma under the volcano, Pyle suggests, making it more likely to erupt. And following the earthquake that devastated Japan in March, Pyle adds that the Pacific Rim can likely expect more volcanism in the next 6 to 12 months. "I'd expect to see an increase in the number of eruptions, but the net effect won't be much different from the typical background activity of these volcanoes," he says.
The 2011 Atlantic hurricane season is less than a week old, but the Caribbean Sea is already churning to life, AccuWeather reports, mirrored by a similar burst of activity in the eastern Pacific. A center of low pressure has begun swirling in the central Caribbean, about 175 miles south of Grand Cayman, and has grown increasingly organized during the past 36 hours. The National Hurricane Center gives the system a 40 percent chance of developing into a tropical cyclone, and as wind shear fades, AccuWeather projects it could strengthen into a tropical depression sometime this week. If it does strengthen further, it would be christened "Arlene," the first named storm of 2011.
Meanwhile, the Pacific cyclone season is gearing up, too, with a low-pressure system spinning about 450 miles south of Acapulco, Mexico. It could develop into a tropical depression within the next 24 hours, according to AccuWeather meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski, and some computer models even show it reaching hurricane strength. Its projected path would most likely keep it over open waters in the eastern Pacific, Pydynowski reports, although a turn toward the western tip of central Mexico is still a possibility. The Pacific hurricane season typically gets started before the Atlantic one, with an average start date of June 9. The first tropical storm normally forms in the Atlantic Basin around July 10.
Regardless of whether the Atlantic low-pressure system turns into a named storm, it will almost certainly bring heavy rain and winds to some Caribbean islands, with a risk of flash floods and mudslides in Jamaica, southeastern Cuba and Hispaniola. Most projections of the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season foresee an above-average summer — the National Hurricane Center expects 18 named storms to develop, including three to six major hurricanes. The seasonal average is 11 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes.
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Photo (bean sprouts in Germany): ZUMA Press
Photo (wind turbines): Joshua Winchell/USFWS
Photo (Chilean volcano on June 5): ZUMA Press
Image (Atlantic hurricane map): NHC