Document Order Criticized

Two senior Democrats wrote Attorney General John D. Ashcroft yesterday alleging that the Justice Department was attempting to "erode the public's right to know" by ordering the destruction of documents at federal library depositories.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) also asked Ashcroft to explain the rationale for the order, which was rescinded late last month after an outcry from the American Library Association and other library advocates.

A June directive from the Criminal Division would have required 1,300 libraries that specialize in government documents to destroy information on asset forfeiture procedures, including the text of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, according to the library association. Justice Department officials maintained that the documents were for internal use only and had been distributed by mistake.

"Given the Administration's penchant for secrecy, we fear that this action was yet another attempt to erode the public's right to know," Conyers and Leahy wrote.

State Pollution Warnings Up

More than one-third of the nation's lakes and nearly one-fourth of its rivers contain fish that may be contaminated with mercury, dioxin, PCBs and pesticides, the Environmental Protection Agency said.

The EPA released a list of advisories issued by states that monitor lakes and rivers for pollution levels affecting fish caught during recreational and sport fishing but not deep-sea commercial fishing. The EPA national list for 2003 shows 48 states issued 3,094 advisories -- up from 2,800 the previous year -- because of polluted fish. Wyoming and Alaska had no such monitoring.

"It's about trout, not tuna. It's about what you catch on the shore," not what you buy off the shelf, EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt said.

Leavitt emphasized that monitoring by state officials is increasing, while pollution levels, particularly from mercury, are dropping. But he also said that nearly every time state officials check for pollution, they find it, meaning eventually almost the entire United States could have fish advisories.

NIH Targets Obesity in U.S.

The National Institutes of Health said it is launching a campaign to fight obesity, which now affects almost two-thirds of the U.S. population and threatens to overtake smoking as the leading cause of death.

NIH calls for targeting obesity at several levels, including behavioral and environmental changes such as better city planning to encourage exercise; developing better drugs and surgical approaches; and discovering and fighting the ways obesity causes diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, and translating the research into something people can use.

An estimated 65 percent of Americans are overweight and 31 percent are obese, meaning they are at serious risk of disease from their fat. Obesity has an estimated $117 billion a year impact in direct medical costs and indirect costs such as wages lost because of illness, the NIH said.

The NIH invested $378.6 million in obesity research in fiscal 2003 and will spend $400.1 million in 2004.

-- Compiled from reports by staff writer Dan Eggen and news services