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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Cops return medical-marijuana files taken in raid — but not the pot

Seattle police returned hundreds of patient files and a computer hard drive to Martin Martinez Thursday evening, two days after they raided his University District storefront where he runs a collective and outreach group for medical-marijuana patients.

Prosecutors have told Martinez he won't face any charges and the investigation is now closed.

"Nothing is going to happen. It's done," said Douglas Hiatt, Martinez's lawyer, who went to the Seattle Police Department Thursday to pick up the files and other belongings.

But police have so far refused to return about 12 ounces of marijuana and two bongs seized during Tuesday's bust, Hiatt said.

According to Hiatt, a police-department attorney has promised that the drugs and water pipes won't be destroyed until Hiatt can raise the issue with King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg or take the matter to court.

"It's really the principle — if you have the legal right to have something, the police shouldn't be able to take it away from you and not give it back," Hiatt said.

Dan Donohoe, a spokesman for Satterberg, confirmed the files' return and that Martinez would not face criminal charges but referred questions about the seized marijuana to Seattle police, who couldn't be reached Thursday.

In a written statement, Satterberg said police "acted appropriately" and were right to seize items from Martinez because "they reasonably believed that they showed an effort to distribute marijuana in violation of state law."

But the statement also acknowledges that Martinez, who suffered severe neurological damage in a motorcycle accident in 1986, "is authorized to possess marijuana for medical purposes," and that the amount of pot seized by police was arguably within the 60-day supply limit the state medical-marijuana law provides.

Seattle police searched Martinez's office on Northeast 50th Street after neighbors complained of a strong odor of pot in the building. After obtaining a search warrant, they carted off the pot and the files, which included detailed medical histories and medical-marijuana prescriptions. They also broke down part of a wall in search of marijuana plants. They didn't find any.

Food for thought

Eat your way to a better brain

CHILDREN have a lot to contend with these days, not least a tendency for their pushy parents to force-feed them omega-3 oils at every opportunity. These are supposed to make children brainier, so they are being added to everything from bread, milk and pasta to baby formula and vitamin tablets. But omega-3 is just the tip of the nutritional iceberg; many nutrients have proven cognitive effects, and do so throughout a person’s life, not merely when he is a child.

Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, a fish-loving professor of neurosurgery and physiological science at the University of California, Los Angeles, believes that appropriate changes to a person’s diet can enhance his cognitive abilities, protect his brain from damage and counteract the effects of ageing. Dr Gómez-Pinilla has been studying the effects of food on the brain for years, and has now completed a review, just published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, that has analysed more than 160 studies of food’s effect on the brain. Some foods, he concludes, are like pharmaceutical compounds; their effects are so profound that the mental health of entire countries may be linked to them.

Last year, for example, the Lancet published research showing that folic-acid supplements—sometimes taken by pregnant women—can help those between 50 and 70 years old ward off the cognitive decline that accompanies ageing. In a study lasting three years, Jane Durga, of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and her colleagues found that people taking such supplements did better on measures of memory, information-processing speed and verbal fluency. That, plus evidence that folate deficiency is associated with clinical depression, suggests eating spinach, orange juice and Marmite, which are all rich in folic acid.

Another suggestion from Dr Gómez-Pinilla’s review is that people should eat more antioxidants. That idea is not new. Antioxidants are reckoned by many to protect against the general effects of ageing. Vitamin E, for example, which is found in vegetable oils, nuts and green leafy vegetables, has been linked (in mice) with the retention of memory into old age, and also with longer life.

Dr Gómez-Pinilla, however, gives the antioxidant story a particular twist. The brain, he observes, is peculiarly susceptible to oxidative damage. It consumes a lot of energy, and the reactions that release this energy also generate oxidising chemicals. Moreover, brain tissue contains a great deal of oxidisable material, particularly in the fatty membranes surrounding nerve cells.

That suggests, among other things, the value of a diet rich in berries. These have been shown to have strong antioxidant effects, though only a small number of their constituents have been evaluated in detail. One group that has been evaluated, the polyphenols, has been shown in rodents to reduce oxidative damage and to boost the ability to learn and retain memories. In particular, these chemicals affect changes in response to different types of stimulation in the hippocampus (a part of the brain that is crucial to the formation of long-term memories, and which is the region most affected by Alzheimer’s disease). Another polyphenol, curcumin, has also been shown to have protective effects. It reduces memory deficits in animals with brain damage. It may be no coincidence that in India, where a lot of curcumin is consumed (it is the substance that makes turmeric yellow), Alzheimer’s disease is rarer than elsewhere.

Peas of mind

Though the way antioxidants work in the brain is not well known, Dr Gómez-Pinilla says it is likely they protect the synaptic membranes. Synapses are the junctions between nerve cells, and their action is central to learning and memory. But they are also, he says, the most fragile parts of the brain. And many of the nutrients associated with brain function are known to affect transmission at the synapses.

An omega-3 fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), for example, provides membranes at synaptic regions with “fluidity”—the capacity to transport signals. It also provides “plasticity”—a synapse’s capacity to change. Such changes are the basis of memory. Since 30% of the fatty constituents of nerve-cell membranes are DHA molecules, keeping your DHA levels topped up is part of having a healthy brain. Indeed, according to the studies reviewed by Dr Gómez-Pinilla, the benefits of omega-3s include improved learning and memory, and resistance to depression and bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, attention-deficit disorder and dyslexia.

Omega-3s are found in oily fish such as salmon, as well as in walnuts and kiwi fruit, and there is a strong negative correlation between the extent to which a country consumes fish and its levels of clinical depression. On the Japanese island of Okinawa, for example, people have a strikingly low rate of mental disorder—and Okinawans are notable fish eaters, even by the standards of a piscivorous country like Japan. In contrast, many studies suggest that diets which are rich in trans- and saturated fatty acids, such as those containing a lot of deep-fried foods and butter, have bad effects on cognition. Rodents put on such diets show declines in cognitive performance within weeks.

In the past few years, several studies have looked at the effect of adding omega-3s to people’s diets—particularly those of children. One such, carried out in the British city of Durham, was controversial in that it was funded by a maker of children’s omega-3 supplements and did not include a control group being given a placebo. Despite the publicity this study has received, Ben Goldacre, author of a book called “Bad Science” that includes an investigation of it, says the results will not be released.

Work by other researchers, however, has suggested such supplements do improve the performance and behaviour of school-age children with specific diagnoses such as dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder and developmental co-ordination disorder. Moreover, although more work is needed to elucidate the effects of omega-3s on healthy school-age children, Dr Gómez-Pinilla says that younger children whose mothers took fish-oil supplements (which contain omega-3s) when they were pregnant and while they were breast-feeding do show better cognitive performance than their unsupplemented contemporaries.

Eating well, then, is one key to a healthy brain. But a word of warning—do not overeat. This puts oxidative stress on the brain and risks undoing all the good work those antioxidants have been up to. For those who would like a little practical guidance, The Economist has some suggestions for dinner (see menu). So why not put the Nintendo brain trainer away tonight, and eat your way to intelligence instead?



FDA Lifts Tomatoes Salmonella Warning

WASHINGTON — It's OK to eat all kinds of tomatoes again, the U.S. government declared Thursday _ lifting its salmonella warning on the summer favorites amid signs that the record outbreak, while not over, may finally be slowing.

Hot peppers still get a caution: The people most at risk of salmonella _ including the elderly and people with weak immune systems _ should avoid fresh jalapenos and serranos, and any dishes that may contain them such as fresh salsa, federal health officials advised.

Investigators still don't know what caused the salmonella outbreak, which now has sickened 1,220 people in 42 states _ the earliest falling ill on April 10 and the latest so far on July 4.

But Thursday's move, coming as the tomato industry estimates its losses at more than $100 million, doesn't mean that tomatoes harvested in the spring are cleared. It just means that the tomatoes in fields and stores today are safe to eat, said Dr. David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration's food safety chief.

"This is not saying that anybody was absolved," Acheson said. But, "as of today, FDA officials believe that consumers may now enjoy all types of fresh tomatoes available without concern of becoming infected with salmonella Saintpaul," the outbreak strain.

Early on, there was good evidence linking certain raw tomatoes to the sick, Acheson stressed. Yet inspectors haven't found the outbreak strain of salmonella Saintpaul on any farms, in suspect areas of south Florida and parts of Mexico, where they've managed to trace tomatoes thought to have been eaten by patients.

As the outbreak stretched into last month, more evidence emerged against fresh jalapenos _ the FDA's hottest lead for now. The agency sent inspectors to a Mexican packing house that supplied peppers linked to a cluster of those illnesses.

Also still on the suspect list is fresh cilantro.

Separately Thursday, North Carolina officials who were investigating some salmonella Saintpaul cases linked to a Charlotte-area restaurant announced a recall of jalapenos and avacados shipped to that state from a Texas food supply company. More tests are needed to see if the salmonella found in two samples is the outbreak strain, or another variety.

There are signs that the outbreak is slowing, said Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC charted the dates when the ill say they fell sick. Between April and mid-May, illnesses steadily rose. Between May 20 and June 10, the outbreak hit a plateau, with about 33 people a day becoming ill. From June 11 to June 20, that dropped to 19 people a day becoming ill.

Those are the latest available statistics, because it can take two weeks or longer for the CDC to receive confirmation that someone who is sick actually has the implicated salmonella strain.

For every salmonella case the CDC confirms, it estimates there are 30 to 40 more that go undocumented, perhaps because people don't see a doctor or undergo the right testing.

How could two different types of produce be contaminated with what is a rare type of salmonella?

One possibility is that a large farm grew tomatoes in one section and peppers in another, and both went through a common washing station with contaminated water, Acheson said.

"Bear in mind this is not following the trail of a regular old produce outbreak," he said. "There's something else going on here that is a little unusual. You need to think outside the box."

The tomato industry _ which held an unprecedented meeting with FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach and other officials on Monday _ welcomed the announcement.

"We have long been confident that Florida's tomatoes were not associated with the salmonella Saintpaul outbreak," said the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, whose farmers are deciding whether to start planting for a fall tomato harvest. "Tomatoes from Florida's growing regions have been gone from the marketplace for weeks, so they could not have been the source of the contamination."

In Monday's meeting, the industry urged FDA to share more details of its investigation so producers could offer more possibly helpful information. If the sick were more likely to fall ill from chain restaurants than mom-and-pop establishments, for instance, the industry could help point FDA toward different lines of suppliers, explained Kathy Means of the Produce Marketing Association. The FDA promised to consider the request.

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Problems Persist With Red Cross Blood Services

For 15 years, the American Red Cross has been under a federal court order to improve the way it collects and processes blood. Yet, despite $21 million in fines since 2003 and repeated promises to follow procedures intended to ensure the safety of the nation’s blood supply, it continues to fall short.

The situation has proved so frustrating that in January the commissioner of food and drugs attended a Red Cross board meeting — a first for a commissioner — and warned members that they could face criminal charges for their continued failure to bring about compliance, according to three Red Cross officials who attended the meeting and requested anonymity because Red Cross policy prohibits public discussion of its meetings with regulators.

“If fear is a motivator, we’re happy to help out in that way,” said Eric M. Blumberg, deputy general counsel at the Food and Drug Administration, though he declined to confirm what the commissioner, Andrew C. von Eschenbach, said at the meeting.

Some critics, including former Red Cross executives, have even suggested breaking off the blood services operations from the rest of the organization, as the Canadian Red Cross did a decade ago.

The problems, described in more than a dozen publicly available F.D.A. reports — some of which cite hundreds of lapses — include shortcomings in screening donors for possible exposure to diseases; failures to spend enough time swabbing arms before inserting needles; failures to test for syphilis; and failures to discard deficient blood.

In some cases, the lapses have put the recipients of blood at risk for diseases like hepatitis, malaria and syphilis. But according to the food and drug agency, the Red Cross has repeatedly failed to investigate the results of its mistakes, meaning there is no reliable record of whether recipients were harmed by the blood it collected.

The Red Cross, which controls 43 percent of the nation’s blood supply, agrees that it has had quality-control problems and is working to fix them. Both its officials and the drug agency point out that none of the identified problems involve the most serious category of infractions. For instance, the Red Cross does a good job of testing for H.I.V. and hepatitis B, officials on all sides agree. And in general, Red Cross blood is regarded as some of the safest in the world.

Still, the drug agency says, the problems that remain in screening donors and following protocols for collection add unnecessary risk to blood transfusions, almost five million of which were done in 2007, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

“This is a critical piece of the public health infrastructure,” Mary A. Malarkey, director of the Office of Compliance and Biologics Quality at the drug agency, said in an interview. “I know it’s difficult to get so many people trained and properly supervised, but it has to be done.”

This week, the agency sent the Red Cross the results of yet another recent investigation that makes Ms. Malarkey’s point: From December 2006 to April 2008, the Red Cross distributed more than 200 blood products that it had already identified as problematic, according to the investigation report.

A Troubled History

While many Americans see the Red Cross as the ubiquitous organization that responds to disasters big and small, its disaster-relief operation, which spends $400 million to $500 million annually, is small compared with its blood business, which generated $2.1 billion in revenue in the fiscal year that ended in June 2007.

In fact, the Red Cross is the world’s largest single steward of blood, more than twice the size of the second-largest known blood collection operation. The rest of the world’s blood supply is controlled by dozens of smaller organizations, only three of which have ever been under F.D.A.-requested consent decree.

After years of quiet complaints about the Red Cross’s blood business, the F.D.A. reluctantly decided to go public with its concerns in 1993, obtaining a consent decree that required the Red Cross to strengthen quality control and training and improve its ability to identify, investigate and record problems.

“It was one of the hardest things I did as commissioner,” said Dr. David A. Kessler, the F.D.A. commissioner from 1990 to 1997. Dr. Kessler said he had agonized that the move would cause undue alarm.

The news media, however, barely made note of it.

Fifteen years later, that consent decree, toughened in 2003 to allow the F.D.A. to impose fines for failing to properly identify, handle and report quality control problems, has produced only modest improvements, food and drug officials said.

“Leaving aside who’s at fault here, it’s not working,” said Dr. Kessler, now a professor of pediatric medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “Whether it’s that the American Red Cross just doesn’t get it, whether it’s that the relationship between the regulator and regulated is beyond the point of repair is immaterial. It’s just not working.”

Dr. Kessler said Congress should intervene at this point.

Dr. Bernadine Healy, the former chief executive of the Red Cross who made repairing the organization’s blood operations a paramount goal, said the best solution might be to spin off the Red Cross’s blood services.

“Two-thirds of the revenue base of the Red Cross is blood, yet the Red Cross is run by people who think of it as primarily a disaster-relief organization, relegating blood to stepchild status,” Dr. Healy said. “When is the last time you saw a Red Cross fund-raising appeal for money to make the blood supply safer or support its blood research?”

Dr. Healy said she tried to start such a fund-raising program when she ran the Red Cross, but met internal resistance to it.

The Red Cross has toyed with selling off its blood operations, or otherwise decoupling them from its disaster work, but has never done so, in part because of a belief that the billions in revenue from blood has subsidized its disaster operations. But its financial systems are so antiquated that no one really knows.

“I can’t tell you that for sure because I can’t find it out,” said Kevin M. Brown, the Red Cross’s chief operating officer. “I wish I could.”

Mr. Brown noted, however, that the blood business was an integral part of the Red Cross. “It is consistent with our overall mission, which is saving lives,” he said. “Having an ample and safe blood supply is critical to that mission.”

Failing to Act

The frustrations of dealing with the Red Cross are illustrated by the story of Michelle Hoyte, a whistle-blower who was first ignored, then dismissed.

Ms. Hoyte led a team of auditors who conducted a routine visit to the Red Cross blood services operation in Philadelphia in 2004. The team discovered that the facility, with the approval of a senior executive at the national headquarters in Washington, had decided not to recall some 600 units of blood collected using improper methods.

Such mistakes must be reported in writing to the F.D.A. within 15 days of detection, and the blood must be recalled. But Ms. Hoyte spent six months pleading with various supervisors to report the problem, first identified on Dec 18, 2003. Then she was fired.

“It wasn’t just that I thought it was the right thing for them to do; they are required to tell the F.D.A. under the terms of the consent decree,” Ms. Hoyte, who worked for the F.D.A. before joining the Red Cross, said in an interview. “They didn’t want to hear it.”

Ms. Hoyte, who unsuccessfully sued the Red Cross for wrongful termination, had received “excellent performance appraisals,” according to the lawsuit, and received a bonus and merit raise in the two years before her firing.

The Red Cross contends that her dismissal had nothing to do with her insistence on abiding by the court order. It said in court papers that she had been warned of shortcomings in her performance.

The Red Cross also defended its handling of the episode. “They followed the process and did what they should have done,” said Eva Quinley, the senior vice president for quality and regulatory affairs at the Red Cross.

But the Red Cross did not recall the components produced from that blood until Feb. 23, 2005, 14 months after the problem was discovered, according to an F.D.A. report. By then, those components would have been used or discarded, and whether they caused any problems for patients is unknown.

Determining how often, if ever, blood supplied by the Red Cross has been responsible for serious health problems is difficult. F.D.A. documents rarely spell out the consequences of the failures they catalogue, a reflection, to some degree, of the agency’s concern about alarming the public. But often they simply do not know. “Patients who get blood transfusions tend to be pretty sick,” Dr. Healy said. “If they spike a fever post-transfusion, no one is likely to suspect that the blood caused it.”

Various records of F.D.A. inspections and correspondence with the Red Cross highlight poor follow-up, including falsified records.

On Nov. 19, 2001, for example, a patient receiving blood bought from the Red Cross’s greater Chesapeake and Potomac region, which serves the Washington area, died of hepatitis, according to an F.D.A. report. The agency concluded that the Red Cross had failed to perform a thorough investigation.

Furthermore, the drug agency found that the Red Cross had failed to investigate 134 cases of suspected post-transfusion hepatitis that occurred across all its regions from January 2000 to June 2002.

Ms. Quinley said procedures had been changed since then in an effort to ensure that such cases would be investigated.

Until 1991, Red Cross blood operations were largely controlled by its regional chapters, which operated 53 blood centers in vastly different and often idiosyncratic ways. That year, Elizabeth Dole, then chief executive of the Red Cross, announced a sweeping overhaul that wrested control of the blood operations from the chapters and reorganized them into 10 regions, which were expected to adhere to a uniform set of standards and procedures.

That event is still referred to among many at the Red Cross as “the Divorce,” a measure of the organization’s entrenched culture.

While Mrs. Dole won praise for taking a bold step to address a long history of sloppy testing and record keeping that raised concerns among regulators and the public about blood being potentially contaminated with H.I.V., chapters and their staff and volunteers saw it as an effort by the national headquarters to control the vast amount of money the blood services generate.

That legacy persists.

“We have never truly moved away from independence to national, central standards,” said J. Chris Hrouda, executive vice president and a 20-year veteran of the Red Cross’s biomedical services, as the blood operations are known.

Nor did anyone anticipate the cost and difficulty of the reorganization, current and former executives said. At first the project was budgeted at $120 million, but the cost of developing a centralized database has run to at least $1 billion so far, according to estimates by former executives. The database would make it easier to track down flawed blood components and to flag donors who have been previously screened out because of diseases or travel to places where malaria is common.

“There is no system to meet our needs,” Mr. Hrouda said. “We are six times the size of the next-largest blood operations, and clearly that’s a hindrance.”

A small company in Paris, Mak-System International Group, is working to create such a system, but Mr. Hrouda had no estimate of when it would be up and running.

Thus, the Red Cross’s current blood operations, 36 regions grouped into seven divisions served by five testing laboratories, are still controlled by different systems that cannot easily “talk” to one another.

In the meantime, the Red Cross has incorporated technology intended to help it prevent mistakes when blood is collected.

The most frequent errors cited by F.D.A. investigators involve failing to ask donors questions that would reveal their ineligibility to give blood. For instance, an interviewer forgets to ask a donor whether he has traveled in an area where malaria is a problem. So increasingly, donors fill out online questionnaires, which helps ensure that all required questions are answered.

Blood collection is also error prone, governed as it is by strictly prescribed procedures. After phlebotomists locate a vein, they must scrub a 3-inch-by-3-inch area with antiseptic soap for 30 seconds, then use an antiseptic swab and, starting at the point where they will insert the needle, work outwards in concentric circles. They must then allow the area to dry for precisely 30 seconds before inserting the needle.

To improve that process, Red Cross phlebotomists recently began wearing electronic devices that time each of those steps.

The organization is also improving oversight on the mobile units used to collect roughly 80 percent of the blood it processes by assigning full-time supervisors.

Such measures, however, are undercut by high turnover among employees, who are paid little better than minimum wage, former executives say.

Mr. Hrouda said there was no plan to address high turnover. “We think we’re able to recruit people at the wages we pay and are good at training them,” he said.

The F.D.A., however, sees the main problem differently. “Size is no longer an excuse,” said Mr. Blumberg, the agency’s deputy general counsel.

Ms. Malarkey, of the F.D.A.’s Office of Compliance and Biologics Quality, said: “Right now, the biggest issue confronting the Red Cross is what we refer to as their problem management. They have standard operating procedures by which they should be able to investigate, evaluate, correct and control to prevent recurrence of the issues we have identified again and again, but they have a lot of difficulty implementing those procedures and, frankly, in having people follow them.”

Ms. Malarkey said a recent “adverse determination letter,” the process through which the F.D.A. informs the Red Cross of violations it has identified and demands payment of fines, illustrated her point.

In that letter, dated Feb. 8, the drug agency listed 113 “events” involving 4,094 flawed blood components that were recalled by 15 of the Red Cross’s 36 regions. The recalls occurred largely from April 15, 2003, to April 15, 2006. (It is not uncommon for letters to list hundreds of infractions — one 2005 letter identified more than 22,000 flawed blood components that were recalled — and recalls do not mean every blood product is returned.)

“We are not seeing what we were seeing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, where unsuitable blood was routinely being released,” Ms. Malarkey said, “but they still need to make more progress, and we would like to see that progress made quickly.”

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Study: Fuel cell cars still 15 years away at best

DETROIT -- Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are still 15 years away from becoming a viable business for automakers even if they overcome remaining technical hurdles and the U.S. government provides massive subsidies, a government-funded report said Thursday.

Under a best-case scenario, automakers will only be able to sell about 2 million electric vehicles powered by fuel cells by 2020, according to the study by the National Research Council. That would mean that less than 1 percent of the vehicles on U.S. roads by that date would be powered by fuel cells.

In 2003, President Bush had proposed spending $1.2 billion to develop fuel cells and infrastructure. At that time, Bush said the first cars driven by American children born in that year and reaching driving age by 2020 could be fuel cell vehicles.

In 2005, Congress asked the National Research Council to study how much federal spending and other support would be needed to shift a "significant percentage" of new cars to fuel-cell technology by 2020.

General Motors Corp, Honda Motor Co and other automakers are in the process of testing limited fleets of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars.

Advocates see the still-emerging technology as a way to cut oil use and carbon dioxide emissions since fuel cells combine stored hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity. As a result, fuel-cell vehicles emit only water vapor.

But many environmental advocates argue that hybrids and fully battery-powered electric vehicles, such as the upcoming Chevrolet Volt from GM, are the most reliable and cheapest ways to reduce oil consumption in the short term.

Success for fuel-cell technology hinges on building facilities to generate, transport and store hydrogen at filling stations. It will also require automakers to build cheap and durable hydrogen vehicles that consumers want to buy.

Another challenge is that the key ingredient in fuel cell stacks is platinum, an expensive metal that represents almost 60 percent of the cost of producing a fuel cell.

The study found that future platinum supply was a critical issue in forward projections of fuel cell costs.

ELECTRIC CAR OPTION IGNORED

The study concluded that the best way to reduce oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions over the next 20 years would be a range of alternatives, including hybrids and improvements in the efficiency of gas-powered combustion engines.

"We shouldn't be picking winners and losers in these technologies because they will probably all be important in the future," said Michael Ramage, a retired Exxon Mobil researcher who chaired the fuel-cell study committee.

To jump-start the fuel-cell market, the U.S. government needs to provide $55 billion in subsidies to the technology over the next decade and a half, according to the study.

That could be accomplished if the government opts for fuel-cell technology in half of the vehicles it uses in its fleets, effectively buying thousands of cars as a subsidy to the industry, Ramage said.

"There needs to be substantial and sustainable government help to just to make this happen, just as there is for ethanol," he said.

Paul Scott, a co-founder of Plug In America, a California-based nonprofit organization that advocates rechargeable cars, said the study showed federal policy needed to shift toward support for electric vehicles.

"It's obviously ridiculous to put all the emphasis on a technology that's decades away when our needs are imminent," Scott said.

GM now has a test group of about 100 fuel-cell-powered Chevy Equinox SUVs on the road that the automaker calls the largest experimental fleet of its kind. The company is now on the fourth generation of this technology.

Honda has begun leasing up to 200 of its FCX Clarity fuel-cell vehicles in Southern California. The automaker is charging $600 monthly for the car, which represents a fraction of its cost for the company.

Cars and light trucks, including SUVs, account for about 44 percent of the oil used in the U.S. economy and more than 20 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted.
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Introducing the World's Fastest EV


The guys at Shelby Supercars know a thing or two about defying odds and breaking records. Back in September, the fledgling company's 1,183-HP Ultimate Aero jacked top-speed bragging rights from Bugatti's 16-Cylinder, $1.8 million Veyron. But the Aero's limited to just 50 examples, so the drawing board is particularly important to the West Richland, Washington-based manufacturer. Along with the 220 mph luxury sedan it's got in the pipeline, SSC has announced plans to build a top-speed, 100 percent green supercar.

Details are scarce, but SSC says an Ultimate Aero EV prototype will be ready by February and it plans to roll out four production models by December. The company describes the Tesla destroyer as a "pollution-free, engineering marvel with an exotic supercar exterior."

"I think we can do it faster, leaner and cleaner than any other manufacturer," says company founder Jerod Shelby.

We know that at least one 500-HP electric motor is planned. SSC is exploring a twin-motor configuration that would yield twice the power while still emitting zilch. Rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive variants also are on the table. Particularly interesting is the power source for the drive train, which is said to allow for extended time between charging. That seems logical and realistic enough, but SSC went on to mention the possibility of several years between charging. Needless to say, several industry pundits think SSC has gone mad.

If SSC's product plans and top-speed credentials are giving you goosebumps, now might be the time to invest. For the first time, SSC is opening themselves up to outside capital. The American supercar maker says most of the private investment will be spent on Ultimate Aero EV.