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PEAKS & VALLEYS

Maine bans an additive to gasoline

While Democrats and Republicans traded barbs over the cost of a gallon of gasoline last week, Maine legislators debated the content of gasoline.

In 2007, the state will follow New York and Connecticut in banning methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), an additive that helps reduce air pollution but is also contaminating groundwater all over New England. The suspected carcinogen has been found in 16 percent of public water supplies in Maine, and New Hampshire filed suit last fall against major oil companies after MTBE was found in more than 15 percent of the public water supplies tested.

A 2002 Massachusetts study found traces of MTBE in 190 of 1,400 public water supplies; 61 Bay State towns and water districts have filed suit against oil companies. (In February, state officials closed a Dunkin' Donuts in Rutland after high levels of the additive were found in the water.)

State Representative Demetrius Atsalis, a Democrat of Barnstable, will meet with House leadership this week on a Massachusetts ban. The Maine ban is expected to help create a regional refinery market for MTBE alternatives: "The bigger the market, the less it will cost," says Atsalis.

TEMP. POOLS: "It's kind of a Rodney Dangerfield story," says Yale forestry and environmental studies professer David Skelly, who studies vernal pools, those rangy, shallow ponds you only see this time of year. "Because vernal pools aren't necessarily majestic, people say, `Oh, you mean that swampy hole in my backyard?' " Those swampy holes are prime egg-laying territory for salamanders and woodfrogs, whose evening calls can sound like a flock of ducks. And here's a fun fact: the woodfrog spends the entire New England winter hunkered way down in the mud: "They load themselves up with antifreeze and can go down to many degrees below freezing without dying," says Skelly. Now the frog could be the new canary in the coalmine: Skelly plans to study a possible link between the herbicide atrazine, which is sprayed on cornfields, and deformations found in the limbs of frogs in the Lake Champlain basin of northern Vermont.

INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW: What killed 19th century health nut (and inventor of the graham cracker) Sylvester Graham? His death certificate reads: "Congress waters and tepid baths." (Translation: drinking mineral water and flouting the then-au courant trend of taking cold water baths.) More likely, Graham suffered from exhaustion and other factors, says University of Massachusetts at Amherst sociology professor Douglas Anderton, who is researching cause of death records in Holyoke and Northampton from 1850-1912. Massachusetts was the first to develop a modern system for reporting cause of death; in the period Anderton is covering, theories of cause of death range from "vapors, St. Vitus Dance and low morals" to germ-based theories. "Part of our slow recognition of how severe AIDS was going to be in Africa was that a lot of early deaths were reported as vague diagnoses," says Anderton. "So the issue of false precision and how diseases emerge is an important one."

DOWN SO LONG IT LOOKS LIKE UP: Another Rodney Dangerfield story is the city of Holyoke; it once produced 95 percent of the world's fine writing paper, but the last of such mills recently departed. Its schools have been declared "underperforming," per capita income in the city's Hispanic population is $7,755, and one neighborhood tracked among the nation's 10 poorest in the 2000 census. Still, says Mayor Michael Sullivan, the state Department of Revenue found the city to be in sound fiscal condition because of its budget policies. Says Sullivan: "I tell people it's because we're used to doing with less."

B.J. Roche, who writes from Western Massachusetts, can be reached at peaks@globe.com

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