Thursday, November 19, 2009

Oh the Dumbth!!!

Check out this video posted on the Southern Poverty Law Center's website which originally appeared on CNN a couple of days ago. The reporter, Jim Acosta, takes a closer look at one militia whose numbers are increasing after the election of President Obama.

My question is, where were these fools when Bush 43 was shredding the Constitution?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

We're Doing Something Right

Finally some good news. It looks like a few cities in this country are moving in the right direction. A recent article in Forbes ranks the top 10 cities for the cleanest commutes. Not surprisingly, New York City ranks high at #5.
"... Nearly one-third of the 8.8 million workers in the New York metro area use the system, by far the best rate in the nation. In New York's densest pockets, some 80% of commuters use mass transit. The Big Apple and outlying suburbs are home to nearly half of the nation's 7.5 million mass-transit commuters."
Here's the breakdown:
10. Los Angeles, CA
9. Chicago, IL
7. Portland, OR (tie)
7. Boston, MA
6. Trenton, NJ
5. New York, NY
4. Seattle, WA
3. Washington, DC
2. Honolulu, HI
1. San Francisco, CA

Los Angeles at #10 is a bit unexpected given their sprawl and love of cars. But, as the article explains, their carpool rate is far above the national average and 6.3% of its residents commute via mass transit--again, above the national rate of 5.3%.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Meet Your New Friend....

Aedes albopictus,
The Asian tiger Mosquito

The media has a tendency to look for the 'next big thing'. In terms of infectious diseases, this could be it for Europe and the Americas. It's a virus more exciting than West Nile--it's called the Chikungunya virus. It means "that which bends up". I can imagine news reporters stumbling over the name even as I type.

The virus has been around since at least 1952 when it was discovered in Tanzania. Since 2005, the disease has spread to India, Italy, France and the French Island of Reunion. The Asian tiger mosquito, the vector used by this virus (meaning the way the virus is spread), is already found in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. Within the United States, the mosquito can be found in most southern states, New Jersey, Texas and Minnesota. Like most infectious diseases, our ability to move quickly from country to country via air travel increases the risk that the virus will spread globally.

Researchers are concerned about this virus because unlike West Nile, where 9 out of 10 infected people will show few, if any, symptoms, Chikungunya will make the vast majority of people extremely ill.

This is a very serious disease. Infection may cause fever, headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, rash and joint pain and can even be fatal. Symptoms can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. And of course, there is no vaccine.

Keep your eyes and ears open and your bug spray at hand, as I'm sure we all will be hearing much more about this virus in the weeks and months to come.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Sweet Taste of Stupidity

Remember the good old days when the only worries linked to high fructose corn syrup were obesity and diabetes? Now we get reports like this in Mother Jones. Looks like we might be able to add impaired neurological development and reduced cognitive thinking to the list. A recent study suggests that our beloved national treasure, high fructose corn syrup, may indeed be contaminated with mercury. Sweet.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is widely found in processed foods--sweetened beverages, breads, cereals, breakfast bars, lunch meats, yogurts, soups and condiments to name but a few. Scientists estimate that 1 out of every 10 calories Americans eat comes from HFCS. Given such widespread exposure, one would think that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) might be interested in digging a little deeper to see whether or not there really is cause for concern.

Contamination happens something like this: The process of separating corn starch from the kernel requires the use of lye and some chemical companies manufacture lye using mercury. Health effects vary depending on the type of mercury we are exposed to. And as one might guess, those most at risk for development of negative health outcomes when exposed are children and fetuses. Health effects include impaired cognitive thinking, memory, attention and language difficulties. Exposure also affects the growing brain and nervous system of the developing fetus. A major limitation is that we still do not know which type of mercury contaminated the HFCS. What could really hurt some feelings is the fact the FDA has known about this possible contamination since at least 2005 and has refused to pursue any additional research.

It is important to remember that the FDA:

" the federal agency responsible for ensuring that foods are safe, wholesome and sanitary..."
and that
"FDA also ensures that these products are honestly, accurately and informatively represented to the public."
(quoted from the FDA's website)

Many argue that the FDA fails on both counts and some suggest that the agency is more invested in guarding the profits of major corporate interests than protecting the health of Americans. On the other hand, perhaps the FDA, like other regulatory agencies in the US, is severely underfunded. Or better yet, maybe they are just plain lazy.

There is a bit of good news. Approximately 90% of US manufacturers employ mercury-free production techniques. Unfortunately, 4 US plants and 60% of European production still rely on mercury cell technology and a fair number of our processed foods happen to be imported.

Obvious next steps should be to 1) determine which form(s) of mercury can be detected in HFCS and 2) compare the mercury levels in found in HFCS to background mercury levels reported in other foods. Given that previous estimates of mercury consumption have never before included HFCS as a possible source of exposure, one would hope that the pursuit of a well-informed risk assessment would be on top of somebody's list. You can be sure, though, that certain industries want no part of it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Now THIS is embarrassing....

Now this really is a shameful way to get a ticket. If you can't outrun a couple of horses, you really shouldn't be driving a car.

Thanks Sofie_Fatale for sharing.....

Friday, May 15, 2009

Not Even Localvores are Safe

Just when you thought it was safe to eat food grown in your own backyard, this article comes out in the New York Times. Beware: lead contaminated soil. Apparently, food grown in soil contaminated with high levels of lead isn’t safe to eat. Go figure.

Of course those who shoulder the major risk burden also happen to be those who did not create the problem:

"Fetuses and small children, because of their rapidly developing nervous systems, are more sensitive to and suffer the most harm from lead exposure. Adverse effects include damage to the brain and nervous system, lower I.Q., behavior problems and slow growth. Adults may suffer cognitive decline, hypertension, nerve disorders, muscle pain and reproductive problems."

But wait. How can this be? Lead was eliminated from paint and gasoline back in the 1970s. How can we still be paying the price several decades later? Unfortunately for us, lead is persistent in the environment. How does soil become contaminated with lead? Though use of leaded gasoline was a big source back in the day, the problem persists with the improper disposal of lead batteries, automotive parts and the demolition of properties/structures containing lead (just to name few). So, those greedy buggers who recently tore down the neighborhood eyesore in favor of the McMansion may have contributed to this threat to their (and/or your) personal food supply. At least we can say this potential risk “knows no socioeconomic boundaries”.

But there is hope.

"…some experts advise planting greens, specifically Indian mustard and spinach, for a couple of seasons as phytoremediation, or plant-based mitigation, before growing crops intended for food. By growing spinach for three months, researchers at the University of Southern Maine lowered the lead count in one garden by 200 p.p.m."

Great news, right? Not so fast.... “Of course, the lead-leaching crop cannot be eaten or composted and must be disposed of as toxic waste.” (emphasis mine)


Monday, May 11, 2009

Fear the Air(line)?

Here is an interesting video I saw online. It deals with a relatively unknown (at least to the public) toxic exposure that can potentially occur during commercial airline flights. The chemical of concern, tricresyl phosphate (TCP), is used as a lubricating compound in jet fuel. It is a known neurotoxin and also happens to be a component of nerve gas. The exposure happens like this: the air that we breathe while on board the aircraft actually comes from the engines through a ‘bleed air’ system. The system works by taking air drawn through the engine, cooling it, then piping the cooled air into the cabin. If there are any faulty or leaky seals inside the engine, the vapors from the hot engine oil can mix with the air that is pumped into the cabin, leading to potentially toxic exposure to passengers and crew.

The immediate health effects are many and resemble intoxication in some affected individuals. Other health outcomes are potentially long-lasting: confusion, uncontrollable shaking, tremors, paralysis and chronic fatigue. The bad news, is that passengers are not the only ones at risk. The crew, including pilots, can also inhale this toxic gas and become impaired during the flight.

The airlines are, of course, resisting monitoring cabin air for this, and other chemicals. Monitoring air quality in the cabins seems like a good idea as first step in safeguarding the public’s health. However, one must ask, what action would they (could they) take if high levels of TCP were detected in cabin air? Are there alternative fuels that could be substituted for what is used now? And how would any changes in operating procedures or fuel used affect the cost of an airline ticket? The last time I flew, I was charged an extra $12 per flight just to choose my seat in advance. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that any action taken by (or against) the airline to confront this issue will come back to bite you in your wallet. Fly the friendly skies…..

Thursday, May 7, 2009

How Can Two Be Too Few?

Just about every environmental problem we currently face can be traced back to overpopulation -- starvation, dwindling natural resources (e.g., clean potable water), the unrelenting demand for energy, loss of nature and biodiversity (e.g., severe overfishing of our oceans), and unlimited streams of pollution and filth that choke our rivers and lungs and contaminate our food supply. There are already more than 6.7 billion people on this planet, with an estimated 3 billion more to come by 2050. As such, I argue, our population growth should be restrained.

Now, I realize that not all countries are on equal ground here. Folks repeatedly argue that some countries, predominantly in Central and Eastern Europe (e.g., Ukraine, Germany, Italy), are experiencing negative population growth, while others, primarily in Africa and the Middle East, a growth explosion. Negative growth may result in increased economic insecurity as demographics shift from a population with a large foundation of young productive workers--workers whose productivity is the foundation of support for a country’s social programs--to one with a large number of retired and elderly citizens.

There are also arguments made by those who have religious beliefs that reject use of contraception. They do not believe in birth control. What do you say to these folks? I’m not sure how to reason with these groups, some so dogmatic in their values, that they would preach abstinence-only sex education instead of condom use to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections (e.g., HIV) in Africa--even when the population most at risk is women, the majority being married.

Educated people have difficulty discussing this topic without becoming overly emotional. ‘Enough!’ a friend recently said, cutting me off when discussing this topic over dinner, ‘some people just want big families.’ In the interest of the greater good, for the betterment of the planet as a whole, perhaps--just maybe--some of our wants and desires should be curbed. Who is to say that just because we want something, we should be able to have it--be able to do it? Why are people so threatened when you suggest that the number of children a family has, be limited? Exactly why is this idea so controversial?

Back in the day, large families made sense. Perhaps you needed more hands to help make ends meet on the farm, for example. Infant and child mortality were high thanks to the infectious diseases (unopposed by antibiotics) that ran roughshod through unprotected populations. But our ability to extend life, sometimes through extraordinary medical interventions, has caused the number of humans on this planet to swell. From a global perspective, the trends are clear. Our planet, in terms of the number of humans it can carry, is stretched to its limits.

A 2008 article in Salon reported on the topic of population control and is one of the most balanced discussions I’ve seen. Approximately 40 years ago, the average family size consisted of five children. This number has fallen in recent years to approximately 2.6 per family. Why the decline? Better access to family planning services (e.g., contraception, abortion) and increased educational and occupational opportunities for women are thought to be major contributors. When given the choice, women do appear to make appropriate decisions regarding family size.

There’s no question that the problems surrounding overpopulation and limited resources are complex. Unbalanced consumption is also a huge factor contributing to the perils facing this planet. The United States has the third largest population with over 300 million people. However, when you consider our consumption levels, we surpass countries like China and India, both with population levels over one billion. In the end, there is no benefit gained by reducing population numbers if consumption levels continue to grow unchecked.

The solution I support isn’t based on financial ability, class or race. It is not eugenics. It is based simply on a number. Replace yourselves--you and your partner. Replace yourselves and then stop reproducing. Limit your offspring to two children. After that, feel free to add to your family by adopting a child who desperately needs a loving home.

In the end, nature will take care of itself. I believe we can see this happening before our very eyes. How else do you explain increasing infertility rates, the dramatic rise in autoimmune diseases, the reemergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria and the constant warnings to limit our fish consumption due to mercury contamination (to name just a few)? Just think, if we don’t begin to address our wicked ways and show a little restraint, nature will steer us in a certain direction--kicking and screaming--whether we like it or not. Nature will limit our ability to reproduce. Nature will see to it that we die young. Nature will throw at us increasingly virulent and pathogenic infectious diseases to limit our numbers and cull the herd. I truly believe that we should limit our population growth, not because planet Earth requires it for survival--this planet will continue to exist no matter what we do. We should take this proactive step to help ensure our place on it.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bachmann Speaks. Again.

(MPR Photo/Chris Kelleher)

Ah, looks like she’s at it again. The last big Michele Bachmann foot-in-mouth episode occurred in 2008 during a televised call to the media to investigate members of congress (including then presidential candidate Barack Obama) for ‘perceived anti-American’ bias.

Now, she’s linking the swine flu outbreak in the United States to Democrats. Apparently in her comments to conservative media outfit Pajamas TV, this Republican Representative ‘finds it an interesting coincidence that the last swine flu outbreak in the US occurred under a Democratic president.’

Looks like this Republi’con’ has got some more book learnin’ to do. Gerald Ford, a Republican, was our president at the onset of the last swine flu outbreak back in 1976. On the bright side, at least she’s not ‘blaming this on President Obama.’ Progress at last!!!

Infectious disease outbreaks are serious business. The real danger with this latest flu outbreak is that the current virus will continue to evolve as it passes from person to person--potentially becoming more virulent over time. The last thing we need is some crazy, off-the-wall politician attempting to distract us by inserting politics into the serious work of public health surveillance and disease containment.

Perhaps this really isn’t a serious problem worthy of Bachmann’s attention. Given her Christian fundamentalist views which question the existence of evolution (she supports teaching intelligent design in public schools), why would she concern herself with evolving or mutating viruses? If she’s right, then we really have nothing to worry about.