Category Archives: health

Killing the children softly, with the very best of intentions…

The road to hell (which may simply be another name for some of the poorer places on this very earth) is often paved with the best intentions, they say. And this is probably more true of first world funded “development” projects in the third world than of most other human endeavors. The western/northern experts arrive in a poor nation of the global south, with cash and technology in hand, and hearts full of sympathy (let’s give some of them the benefit of the doubt, and politely ignore some not-so-hidden corporate/colonialist agendas), wanting to do something, anything, to alleviate the suffering of the poor natives! They apply their expertise to identify at least one tractable problem, and find a technical solution which should improve quality of human life immensely. And indeed it does! The project is successful, people – especially children – start to live longer, the economy picks up, and the third world nation even begins to experience a miracle of development!!

So far so good.

So where does the killing chidren part come in? Deborah Blum has this sad story from one such “living” experiment – here’s an excerpt:

There’s no surprise – and one might think, no news value – in the fact that prenatal arsenic exposure might pose a serious health risk. Except that this finding doesn’t derive from one more neatly controlled laboratory study. It comes from what I’m going to call a living experiment, in which the test subjects turn out to be human beings and those statistics about infant risk are actually based on tallying up dead children.

To explain: during the 1970s, international aid agencies came up with what seemed like a brilliant plan to stem a plague of water-borne illnesses in the Asian country of Bangladesh. Cholera, typhoid, dysentery were killing citizens by the thousand. As the pathogens responsible lived in surface water, public health officials decided the answer lay in cleaner supplies underground. Aid organizations joined together to install wells in disease-troubled villages, reaching down into the germ-free ground water below. They chose simple, relatively inexpensive tube wells, placed thousands of these over-sized drinking straws into the shallow aquifers.

At first, it seemed to work like a blessing. Infant mortality rates dropped by 50 percent as the rate of water-borne diseases dropped. But by the mid-1990s, a strange epidemic of other illnesses began to appear – some symptoms rather like cholera (lethargy, severe stomach pain, nausea and diarrhea), but others wickedly their own: such as a roughening and darkening of skin, a corrosion appearance of lesions on hands and feet:

Arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh

In fact, as a team of researchers from adjacent India concluded in 1995: classic symptoms of arsenic poisoning. As it turned out, no one had done a good geological survey of the bedrock surrounding the aquifers. And with the best of intentions, the live-saving wells had been drilled into area unusually rich in naturally occurring arsenic.


You really have to read the full story on her blog.

Café Scientifique tonight: Epidemiology of Lung Cancer in the Central Valley

Each year 160,000 Americans die from lung cancer and another 220,000 are diagnosed with the disease. About 85-90% of lung cancer is attributable to cigarette smoking and other tobacco related exposures; however, one in five American adults continue to smoke. Although there has been a decline in smoking during the last several decades, recent national data suggest the decline has leveled off, especially among young adults. In this presentation, the worldwide distribution of lung cancer, state and local patterns of lung cancer will be presented, as well as data on smoking habits and other risk factors for this deadly disease.

For those of you in Fresno tonight – a reminder: the above is the topic for tonight’s talk at the Central Valley Café Scientifique by Dr. Paul Mills of the UCSF-Fresno Medical Education Program. And note that we meet at a new venue tonight. Enjoy – even if some of us regulars have to miss it!

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Scientia Pro Publica #18: the last of the oughties edition!

028CF91C-54C2-4589-B5AF-CDD794950600.jpegWell, this carnival doesn’t really have much to do with the impending end of the oughties decade, but since everybody seems to be going on about it, compiling decadal reviews and best-of lists, I just tossed it up there. Caught your eye, didn’t it? But didn’t turn you off, I hope… 🙂

So, welcome to this (late) winter solstice edition of Scientia Pro Publica, and dig into a fair helping of hearty reading matter to keep you company by the fireside as this winter rolls you over into the double digit years of the new millennium.

Let us begin, for this is the holiday season, with some thoughts about food: about the diversity of our food sources, about how much we waste, and about how often we are hoist by our own petards in attempting to manage our precious natural – esp. food – resources. Let’s start with Jeremy Cherfas, who has over the past year taken us along on the journeys of N. I. Vavilov, that pioneering explorer and champion of agricultural biodiversity. Vaviblog makes for very interesting reading indeed, especially for someone like me who doesn’t know much about Vavilov. But here, Jeremy rather uncharacteristically lets loose with a rant about the difficulty of pinpointing the exact location of one of Vavilov’s collections in the Sahara, and takes us through the frustrations of finding information in GeneBank and other online databases that are supposed to make the life of the modern keyboard explorer much easier than that of people like Vavilov who, you know, actually went out to the frikking Sahara in pursuit of interesting plants! Without, mind you, GPS or iPhones or laptops, as one of his commenters reminds us. Still, what’s the point of all this talk about making information accessible to everyone if one can’t pinpoint and georeference where Vavilov found a particular plant a century ago? I want my data instantly, don’t you? Well, if you’re carried away by expectations of CSI like speed in modern data acquisition, let Heilochica bring you down to earth with a (hopefully) comprehensible explanation of something complicated!

But let’s stick with Jeremy a while longer and visit his another blasted weblog to read about a recent PLoS paper on how much food is wasted in America; some sobering statistics there, to be sure, plus the disquieting observation that there is no incentive in this country for anyone in the food industry to stop producing, consuming, and wasting food, environmental and human health consequences be damned! Ponder that while you tuck into the holiday treats. And if you have to bake wheat-alternative cookies because you or someone you know is allergic to gluten, Eric Olson shares a scitimes video about Celiac disease, which may be the most under-diagnosed health problem in America today (and something I’d never heard of back home in India!).

Meanwhile, we are losing the sources of biodiversity that form the basis of our food security, even as we blithely overproduce and throw away food! What’s a conservationist to do to change such odd human behavior? Well, not what they did in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, where they encouraged coconut farming as a way to lure people away from fishing in order to relieve pressures on fish stocks! Find out what happened on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, in another post by Jeremy about the law of unintended consequences! Which bring me to the question from one of my own recent posts: what is it with these Pacific island nations and their penchant for such tragicomedies?

Lest you think this carnival is turning into mostly a one-man-show, let me assure you that there is plenty more that came not from Jeremy’s keyboard! For instance, continuing with fishy business, here’s a post that makes this one something of a meta-carnival, a Fishy Friday roundup of fish in tanks! And if you ever found yourself agreeing with Bertie Wooster’s assessment that Jeeves’ superior intellect was a result of a diet rich in fish, you may be underestimating his (Jeeves’ not Wooster’s) neuroplasticity, the subject of a fascinating interview with Michael Merznenich at SharpBrains on the applications of neuroplasticity to keep all our minds sharp even as we age.

Then there is Mama Joules with two poisonous posts: first, a disturbing one about the dangers of lead poisoning in your home, and the still high childhood exposure rate even years after lead based paints were banned in the US. Followed by a lovely introduction to venom & vomit in Tarantulas! Gotta love them.

Given the brouhaha over the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, I’m a bit surprised at the lack of submissions about anthropogenic global warming/climate change! Perhaps we are all over-saturated with COP15 coverage? Still, there is no shortage of controversy, genuine or manufactured, when it comes to climate change, as these two posts show: a kind of curiously provocative post that suggests nuclear energy may still become part of our green energy future – safely(?) (I have a more cynical take on the subject as I think we are addicted enough to energy in our technology-dependent societies that we are near a threshold where the marginal benefit of nuclear energy will outweigh the risks regardless of the environmental consequences. But that’s me being Grinchy again). Meanwhile, challenges us to ignore the pseudo-controversy over climate-gate and consider the climate change problem in the framework of Pascal’s wager: act as if anthropogenic climate change is real because the risks of not believing it are too great! Interesting thought that – and one that James Randi might consider, having rather startlingly fallen prey to AGW denialism in a manner worrisome to his most loyal supporters.

But, enough with the controversies and bad news. Let’s celebrate the season while we still can, while there still is enough biodiversity to stimulate, delight, and challenge us. For even as we worry about losing species, we continue to discover delightful new ones, like the world’s tiniest orchid that GrrlScientist (matriarch of this carnival) writes about. At the other end of the organismal size spectrum, Kevin Zelnio wonders why we don’t have even larger whales? What keeps the blue whales, for example, from evolving to even larger body sizes? Not the fluid dynamic challenges of using a volkswagen sized heart to pump blood, or the constraints of depending on the tiny krill for food – but a recent paper suggests it may be that their mouths would have to be too big (may already be too big, proportionally) to keep that humongous body fed! That’s why I love reading about evolutionary trade-offs and constraints, and allometry!

Let me leave you with two more posts that share the physical, emotional, and intellectual excitement of studying life on this planet of ours. Over on NCF’s blog eco logic, Manish Chandi describes his unexpected delight in discovering brooding geckos and gorgeous snakes while on a short focused ethnographic research trip to Chowra island in the Nicobar archipelago. And Hielochica expresses her excitement in studying hydrothermal vents – which she considers a mysterious love-child of geology and biology! What could be more fun than that?

So have a happy and safe holiday my friends, and I wish you all a wonderful, productive new year full of many an unexpectedly delightful discovery. And don’t forget to ring in the new year with the next edition of Scientia Pro Publica: issue #19 will be curated by GrrlScientist and Bob O’hara (submit entries per instructions here) and hosted at the latter’s Deep Thoughts and Silliness,

How many unhappy cows did the burger in my child’s happy meal contain?

Not that we ever feed our children any happy meals, but this news report in today’s New York Times is compelling enough to make one want to give up meat entirely and become a vegetarian! Although the fault is hardly the meat’s. Rather, it lies in how that meat is processed and delivered to us in neatly packaged chunks in brightly lit supermarket fridges! It was just such a package that destroyed a young woman’s life as described in the NYT story today (and see this video report if words don’t move you enough):

Stephanie Smith, a children’s dance instructor, thought she had a stomach virus. The aches and cramping were tolerable that first day, and she finished her classes.

Then her diarrhea turned bloody. Her kidneys shut down. Seizures knocked her unconscious. The convulsions grew so relentless that doctors had to put her in a coma for nine weeks. When she emerged, she could no longer walk. The affliction had ravaged her nervous system and left her paralyzed.

Ms. Smith, 22, was found to have a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli, which Minnesota officials traced to the hamburger that her mother had grilled for their Sunday dinner in early fall 2007.

So what exactly did that seemingly innocuous home-cooked “angus beef” hamburger contain (besides the bacteria that sent the young woman to the hospital)? Check out this astonishing graphic accompanying the article. Not quite what you might guess if you try to visualize how beef might be ground up to make a burger patty in any normal, sane kind of process. But we live in insanely industrial times, so:

Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.

The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.

Using a combination of sources — a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger — allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.

Aren’t the scales of modern industrial food production just mind-boggling? Think about this the next time you bite into a hamburger: how many cows’ body parts am I eating? which bits of the cow? and what other meat derivative is in there besides cow? Holy cow!!

There are many reasons advanced for vegetarianism, from ethical to environmental ones, and this story (especially the NYT video) makes for a particularly graphic example to turn people off meat. I can’t say I’m going to revert to vegetarianism myself (I grew up as one in India), but this only reinforces our increasing attempts to avoid mass produced meat products! If we can’t visualize the path of our dinner meats from individual well-raised animals from their farms all the way to the curry on our plates, we are safer off not eating that meat, aren’t we?

Listen to Oprah/Jenny McCarthy and help out the terrorists: don’t vaccinate your children

The anti-vaccination movement has really gone mainstream big time lately, with new celebrity spokesbimbos like Jenny McCarthy now being endorsed by the mighty Oprah! Even a recent episode of the venerable TV show Law and Order (SVU, I think) raised the issue by putting an anti-vaccination parent on trial for causing the death of another child due to measles. It was great that L&O took the rational position on this, but they don’t have Oprah’s reach, surely! If Oprah gets explicitly behind the anti-vaccination woo, the rest of us, esp. those who understand the science, must shudder at the likely consequences. Indeed we are already shuddering at the rising death toll from diseases we should have eradicated by now because we have vaccines that work against them!

Much has been written in the science blogosphere about this lately, and many are trying to sway Oprah away from the woo to consider the actual science. It amazes me that this unscientific movement has gained such traction among the populace of countries that are otherwise at the forefront of science, bastions of western civilization: places like the US and the UK! Why so many in these countries are unscientific is, of course, a much larger question, so I’ll just let you ponder that on your own for now. But I do wonder: what are the less knowledgeable populations in developing countries to make of this anti-vaccination movement? Does the celebrity woo of well-fed blond bimbos like McCarthy carry more weight with a parent in rural India or Africa over the sight of undernourished kids in their own communities hobbling around on polio-afflicted legs? Is it that western parents have forgotten, within a generation or so, what Measles, Polio, Whooping Cough, etc. really are like? I’m not that old (well, my daughters will dispute that) but even I do remember the last few fires from Smallpox raging through communities where I grew up in India, before it was eradicated in the 70s through vaccination. I can still see the pock-marked faces of survivors, some of whom are still alive in India. Indeed, I’m reminded of the value of vaccines every other day when my wife talks to her mother whose health is deteriorating daily due in no small part to complications from Post-Polio Syndrome! So it really is mystifying to me that there are parents around me who don’t want to vaccinate their children – even if it puts not only their own, but other children at risk by reducing herd immunity. The argument for vaccination is so strong, and the few studies touting their lack of safety have so little support and/or have been so discredited, that I am genuinely puzzled by the irrationality (and selfishness) of these parents. If you are still unsure about the rational argument on this, you really should read this Open Letter to Oprah, which lays it out clearly – and do what you can to keep raising this question until Oprah starts listening.

And while you read that letter, let me raise another spectre, of another group of bogeymen who might get behind the anti-vaccination movement enthusiastically: the terrorists, especially those bent upon “mass destruction” through biological weapons!! Seems to me that the anti-vaccination movement, if successful, will only make their jobs easier: if we lose our herd immunity, then they don’t need to spend much money inventing/pursuing new bioweapons at all – even good old measles might do the trick! How easy it would be to release some of these old viruses and cause an epidemic if more parents stop vaccinating their children. So if you are swayed by the fear-mongering of celebrities like McCarthy, pause for a moment to ask if Osama (or whomever’s next in line) might not be chuckling in their cave about the irrationality of the “modern” west for making their job easier! Should we bo doing some reverse fear-mongering of our own to counter the antivax hysteria? If swine-flu raised so much fear in the public here, why do these old viruses with a proven killer track record not scare these parents into vaccinating their babies? Why isn’t this vaccination debate being framed yet in “national security” terms? Which side of this debate is Jack Bauer on??!!

A perfect storm for viruses

According to Nathan Wolfe, a virus hunter interviewed last week in another TED Q&A, “We’ve created a perfect storm for viruses”. An excerpt:

SARS, avian flu, swine flu … what’s going on here? Why are we suddenly seeing so many more outbreaks of viruses from animals?

Viruses have always passed from humans to animals. In fact, the vast majority of human diseases have animal origins. But the human population is different from what it once was. For most of our history, we lived in geographically disparate populations. So viruses could enter from animals into humans, spread locally and go extinct. But the human population has gone through a connectivity explosion. All humans on the planet are now connected to each other spatially and temporally in a way that’s unprecedented in the history of vertebrate biology. Humans — as well as our domestic animals and wild animals we trade — move around the planet at biological warp speed. This provides new opportunities for viruses that would have gone extinct locally to have the population density fuel they need to establish themselves and spread globally.

We’ve created a “perfect storm” for viruses. And we’ll continue to see — as we have in the past few years — a whole range of new animal diseases as outbreaks in human populations. But we have to stop being surprised by them. Right now, global public health is like cardiology in the ’50s — just waiting for the heart attack, without understanding why they occur or the many ways to monitor for them, detect them early and ultimately prevent them. Swine flu is not an anomaly. We know that swine flu — like the vast majority of new outbreaks — comes from animals. We should be monitoring those animals and the humans that come into contact with them, so we can catch these viruses early, before they infect major cities and spread throughout the world.

And here’s Wolfe’s TED talk:

Laurie Garrett on Flu pandemics, past and future

Courtesy of TED, we have some useful media bringing typically well-informed perspectives on the flu now unfolding. Let’s start of with a Q&A with Laurie Garrett, author of “The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance”:

TED took 20 minutes with Laurie Garrett this afternoon to follow up on her TEDTalk from 2007, posted today, about pandemic flu. Garrett is the author of The Coming Plague, and a fellow on the Council for Foreign Relations who studied global health and emerging diseases. (As you can imagine, she is very busy this week.) We asked Garrett: What has changed since the last pandemic panic, 2007’s avian flu? What does she worry about now? And really, should we not wash our hands?

Read her responses on the TED website.

TED has also posted video of a lecture Garrett gave in 2007:

In 2007, as the world worried about a possible avian flu epidemic, Laurie Garrett, author of “The Coming Plague,” gave this powerful talk to a small TED University audience. Her insights from past pandemics are suddenly more relevant than ever.

Passing gas relieves pressure…

Blood pressure, that is! Yes! Who knew:

A smelly rotten-egg gas in farts controls blood pressure in mice, a new study finds.

The unpleasant aroma of the gas, called hydrogen sulfide (H2S), can be a little too familiar, as it is expelled by bacteria living in the human colon and eventually makes its way, well, out.

The new research found that cells lining mice’s blood vessels naturally make the gas and this action can help keep the rodents’ blood pressure low by relaxing the blood vessels to prevent hypertension (high blood pressure). This gas is “no doubt” produced in cells lining human blood vessels too, the researchers said.

“Now that we know hydrogen sulfide’s role in regulating blood pressure, it may be possible to design drug therapies that enhance its formation as an alternative to the current methods of treatment for hypertension,” said Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Solomon H. Snyder, M.D., a co-author of the study detailed in the Oct. 24th issue of the journal Science.

[via The Stink in Farts Controls Blood Pressure | LiveScience]

I wonder if this provides any basis for the use of black salt as recommended in Ayurvedic medicine for lowering blood pressure. Black salt contains H2S, and does help relieve intestinal gas and heartburn, but I don’t know if it can actually get into blood vessels where the above effect seems to work. Maybe the ancients were on to something after all? Even if they had no clue how it actually worked, classifying it as a “cooling” element, they did link it to lowered blood-pressure. Either way, black salt sure tastes good in my chaat!

And sorry guys, this still doesn’t give us any easy excuse for passing gas…

[Hat-tip: Smoke Signals]

The value of a human life vs. the cost of environmental regulation

In case you hadn’t heard, under the Bush administration, human life (well, at least that of Americans) has become about a million dollars cheaper (according to their own agency, the EPA)! Here’s a clear explanation of why this is so great, in terms of environmental risk management:

Surely you don’t want society to spend more money protecting your health and environment any more than what the EPA thinks you are worth, do you? And by this calculus, it must make perfect sense for the cries of the Bhopal victims to go unheeded, for what are they worth, exactly, if even American lives are being devalued?