August 2005 Archives

Crash Tests for Dummies

Safety Demo If you are a frequent flier you have no doubt ended up in an exit seat, either by default or preference. Perhaps you have assumed that opening exit doors must be (Photo-NASA) intuitive since flight attendants never talk about it too much. Or perhaps you're resigned to the idea that if the plane crashed you wouldn't be worrying about either exit doors or flotation devices.

The Air France crash in Toronto early this month precipitated new public concern about airplane evacuations. Investigations found that only one of the exit doors functioned. Others were blocked by fire, some were considered too dangerous to use, and two of the exit chutes failed to deploy. Although ALL passengers exited intact from one door, this was considered a remarkable feat.

Despite our worst fears, a scan of the National Transportation Safety Board data from all airline crashes and incidents shows that many passengers do survive airplane crashes. Furthermore, research shows that it's not just a random matter, unresolved, except speculation about which end of the airplane will break off in mid-air. Who survives, how, and why they do, turns out to be much more than luck of the draw.

Aircraft evacuation procedures have been studied extensively in the US and abroad, notably by the Civil Aviation Authority in UK using research teams at Cranfield University. The UK studies were started after a devastating crash in Manchester on August 22, 1985 when 55 people died aboard a burning aircraft as the result of a fuel spill during an attempted take-off. Most of the people who died were incapacitated by smoke and toxic gas but a subsequent analysis found that limited access to the exits, non-functioning exits, and competition among passengers significantly hampered evacuation.

The Cranfield group was contracted by the CAA to conduct research following this crash in order to provide data that could be used to guide aircraft safety regulation requirements. The research is on-going and the university has teams of scientists who study parameters like airline seat configuration and flight attendant training to determine the effects on evacuation results. Some of their interesting and apropos studies show how the behavior of passengers alters outcomes of an evacuation, and what happens when the crash atmosphere is simulated by offering incentives to the study subjects.

A KTVU report last Sunday evening (not available online) included footage of airplane exit evacuation studies that showed dramatic differences between two types of evacuation simulations. The report juxtaposed film footage from controlled exit evacuations conducted in the US by the airlines to pass FAA requirements, with evacuations conducted under more "realistic" conditions run by Cranfield University for the CAA.

The US airline evacuations look like nice orderly affairs. An official looking person stands poised on the outside of the test aircraft. On cue, he deftly sweeps aside the cloth prop that stood in for the "exit door" with a practiced flourish. Then bouncy, able-bodied, height-weight proportional study participants - "passengers" - neatly, politely and safely jump out of the aircraft. How safe looking - our fears are assuaged.

The UK study film footage is a different scene. Real doors apparently weigh 65 pounds and need to be wrestled off by a passenger on the inside of the airplane. (In real life situations sometimes passengers haven't been able to remove the doors, either because they don't know how or because the doors are too heavy.) Film footage from the inside of the plane shows the "passengers" scrambling over the tops of seats and each other to get out the exits. It's pure chaos, which doesn't film well because large humans climbing over the top of airline seats in a big, big hurry is an ugly and brutish affair. An outside camera focuses on the exit door where passengers compete to squash through the exit head-first. They get stuck, jammed together in the exit at their hips, unable to budge. Someone, a spotter perhaps, pulls futilely at an arm trying to unlodge the over-eager study volunteers.

In this more alarming simulation the researchers had offered eight dollars to those subjects in the drill who could get out of the aircraft first. It was one of a series of studies run since the Manchester study that vividly captures the type of behavior that that insues if incentives are altered to simulate panic. A study in 1996 published in the International Journal of Aviation Psychology by Muir et al (vol 6, no 1; 1996); found that although:

"blockages adjacent to the exits were more likely to occur when space was at a minimum...serious blockages occurred only when volunteers were competing with one another."

Due to the findings of the group over the years, UK has mandated wider exit rows on their planes. Despite all the research though, situations such as Air France's exit door failures still occur. Some accidents are inevitable. The KTVU report focusing on the aircraft configuration changes, indicated that some of safety the changes initiated by the UK as a result of their research have not been initiated the US.

Various sources offer exit tips for passengers and it turns out that there's quite a few rescue measures that your average airline passenger may not have considered. Some people offer that you should, "keep your cool", but in the next sentence say; "if the aisle is clogged, go over the seats". The FAA suggests that people should remember to wear heavy comfortable shoes and long sleeves flying (in case of fire). If crash landings on the ground seem dicey, evacuating after ditching into water is decidedly not for the faint of heart. In some water evacuation demonstrations they have used professional divers. There are some simple tricks to remember though. Exits in water landings are sometimes botched because people unbuckle their seat belts before the "in-rush of water" has stopped. Sometimes people panic and inflate their vests too soon and therefore can't get out of the exits - don't inflate the vest until after you've exited the plane. When exiting the plane in an emergency the FAA "tips" say never take anything with you . However "overseas travelers" they say, should "carry a survival kit...in your pockets". Once you have escaped to the outside of the aircraft the FAA suggests obliquely; "you should be sure to turn on your emergency locator transmitter". Perhaps that advice is for a flight attendant. If you land in the wilderness the FAA has an even more thorough and slightly more upbeat set of guidelines ('survival is 80% mental'...'don't be afraid of animals'...)

Bon Voyage!

March On Penguins

We were surprised to hear so many kids voices in the theatre for a recent screening of "March of the Penguins" ("La Marche de L'Empereur") since many parent reviewers on Yahoo forewarned movie goers about how inappropriate the content of the movie was for kids.

The film was beautifully shot and relentlessly anthropomorphic. From the opening faraway shot, as distant upright figures walked across a shimmery horizon, the film cajoled us guilefully to feel kinship to these birds - these other bi-pedal creatures - ooh..ahhh - so cute. To encourage the physical mirage and viewer empathy the director chose not to reveal the relative size of the birds until the end credits when some of the film crew are filmed towering over the birds. The soundtrack is equally dedicated to the departure from traditional documentary style, regaling us of bird love and painful family separations.

For those of us sitting in the fifth row of the packed theatre, the sonorous tones of commentator Morgan Freeman were replaced by the chirpy commentary of a three year old perched on his mother's knee inches from our ears. Though his pitch was distinct from Freeman's, the content was similiar and equally thoughtful. In a scene of the penguins walking across the ice (of which there are many - thus the title) he asked; "Are they tired yet?"? In a death scene; "He go to sleep mom right?" And in the mating scene he wondered; "'Day happy mom right?" Which was a little tenuous since as he commented the male had his beak poised over the female's jugular (or where it would be if it were us). The child had no apparent problems with the content whatsoever and in fact his innocence to the emotional differences between birds and man provided credibility to his commentary, whereas the *official* commentary was almost cloying. The appreciative family chorus of ooohs and ahhs showed that at least in some markets, this was a family film.

The cinematography was spectacular and it was amazing to spend an hour or so scooting along the vast ice landscapes in Antarctica with the Emperor penguins; weebly-wobbly in their walk but surprisingly graceful swimming and ice-surfing on their stomachs. Their yearly routine and fortitude in Antactica is remarkable.

As for the 'bold' affront to documentary standards heralded by some reviewers - the film has no doubt captured a larger market by losing the documenatary genre's claim to reality, however in the attempt to make a family film some details were lost that at least *some* adults and even children would appreciate. In addition to the perspective on size for instance, we wouldn't have minded hearing of things like how penguin metabolism manages such a prolonged fasting or why their defenses against predators as presented in the film evolved to be so rudimentary and sheeplike. Nevertheless, a pretty film. For more pictures, there is this site.

[As the movie makers jaws happily drop at their ever growing number of devoted admirers, The New York Times reports that conservatives appropriate the movie to champion values such as monogamy, virtue...]

Maharashtra's Plastic Bag Ban Effort

| Comments

In the wake of the flooding in the state of Maharashtra, where the city of Mumbai is located, the state government banned the use and sale of plastic bags. The ban would be enforced by fining business owners 5,000Rs for ignoring the offense and individuals 1,000Rs.

During the July floods, plastic bags blocked water drains and exacerbated flooding which resulted in over a thousand deaths. The use of plastic in India is prolific. Unlike some places though, there aren't efficient ways to get rid of the bags, so you find plastic littering landscapes, roadways, and railways. According to an article in the Business Standard, Mumbai produces 7,800 tons of garbage daily - 40 of that is plastic. Considering the light weight of plastic, compared to say, a rotten potato, this is a large percentage of trash.

Can Anyone Not Use Plastic Bags? Anyone?

When we visited an environmental group focused on teaching kids to respect and appreciate the environment, we noticed they wrapped their teaching aids - educational cards - in plastic ziplock bags. Although ziplock bags aren't exactly the same as the micro-thin t-shirt bags, we thought it somewhat ironic. You notice that you're wading through plastic waste. When we asked the organization about their use of the bags, they explained that "we tell them to reuse the bags". Plastic bags are undeniably handy and cheap for everyone --even environmental agencies surrounded by discarded plastic, and that's the challenge.

Maharashtra is not the first state to ban plastic bags. Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Goa, Kerala and Karnataka have restrictions on plastic bag use. Nor is this the first time the ban has been attempted by this state. In 1998 the state tried to ban plastic bags after severe floods but the plastics industry lobbied successfully against the ban.

Although environmentalists applaud the action, the attempt is being met with resolute annoyance from some business quarters as well as the plastics industry. The Business Standard writes that the ban will negatively effect the lucrative state plastic bag industry (Rs 1000 is a crore). They warn that hundreds of thousands of people will be jobless as a result. So, according to Mid-Day Mumbai, The All India Manufacturers' Association (AIPMA) has decided to petition the high court against the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and the Maharashtra government. Retail workers oppose the ban.

Not On Our Watch -- Industry Strikes Back

Other countries have successfully reduced plastic by imposing fines. Ireland put into effect a '"plus tax," a levy of about 20 cents that retail customers have had to pay for each plastic bag since March 2002"'. South Africa (where they were referred to as the "national flower") Kenya, Bangladesh and Bhutan are some of the countries that have taken action to reduce the prevalence plastic bag. As well, according to an article on the subject, "In Australia about 90 percent of retailers have signed up with the government's voluntary program to reduce plastic bag use.". The US has not made a national effort to ban plastic bags, in fact some stores prefer that you use them because they're cheaper. The fines may be a start to reduce the insidious use of plastic bags, but will it counter the convenience of the bags?

When measures to reduce plastic bag use are imposed, manufacturing interests in the United States, such as the American Plastic Council and the Film and Bag Federation urge recycling programs instead. The plastic industry's response sounds remarkably similar to the gun lobby's response when challenged about murder rates and gun ownership (guns don't kill people, people do). As reported by the Seattle Post Intelligencer Rob Krebs, a spokesman for the American Plastics Council, said "Every piece of litter has a human face behind it. If they are a harm to the environment in terms of visual blight, then people need to stop littering."

This organization's site has a plastic bag counter and some other miscellaneous information about the use of plastic bags.

-------------------------------------------------

April 21, 2006: A reader writes to point out the the article said Australia had "banned" plastic bags, this is incorrect. Thanks for pointing out the miswording! We corrected it.

Burma and AIDS - Politics Rules

The Global Fund caused a stir last week by pulling out of Myanmar. The move will phase out funds for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, cutting off 98.4 million dollars slated for the country over the next 5 years. About 12 million dollars has already been disbursed but will most likely be retrieved by the fund.

The agency says that Myanmar's AIDS epidemic is one of the most severe in Southeast Asia and is complicated by concurrent rises in tuberculosis infections and drug resistant cases as well as limited access to anti-retroviral drugs. Infections have spread beyond high-risk populations and now approximately 2% of all pregnant women are infected with HIV. In addition the country has the highest TB rates worldwide according to the agency's figures, and 71% of the population is at risk for malaria, a disease that is responsible for 3,000 deaths and 600,000 victims yearly. The mosquito born disease tops all causes of overall morbidity and mortality and is the biggest cause of death in children under five.

The Global Fund quit its efforts to work with the military junta, because the government has been increasingly restrictive of the agency's goals, has limited access to victims, and interfered with the importation of essential medicines. If Mynamar wanted to work with the Global Fund in the future the organization said; "...there has to be a substantial change in the attitude and in behaviour towards national and international humanitarian work." The world waits.

The dire straits of the public health situation originally motivated the substantial funding allocations, despite the Global Fund's concern that the government wouldn't be transparent or trustworthy enough to use the aid appropriately. When Myanmar backtracked on its promises in several areas the organization finally decided to leave, publically noting that it was Myanmar's actions, not outside pressure, that motivated the agency's decision.

Yet it is impossible to ignore the political background in which the decision was made. The White House, the US Congress and US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice have all voiced frustration at the persistent lack of movement by Myanmar towards democracy. The junta has long been condemned for its violations of human rights. Political prisoner and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi fights resolutely to draw the world's attention to the atrocities, while Myanmar has repeatedly defied threats and warnings from the US, Canada, Japan, Germany and others, habitually making short-lived promises under international threat of sanctions or political ostracism, then retracting its vows later. Most recently it chose to cede its position on the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) rotating chairmanship to "focus its attention on the ongoing national reconciliation and democratization process." Reflexively, individuals and nations are cynical about the sincerity of the statement.

As Myanmar has dodged pressure, US policy towards aid - even for the most devastating infectious diseases - has swerved to reflect the political tenor of the administration. The US announced earlier this summer that it wouldn't send HIV/AIDS aid to any country that didn't condemn prostitution, a move decried by many public health officials, and remained resolute in spite of challenges from Brazil, a economic powerhouse compared to most aid recipients. The Global Fund move may be an independent decision but it resonates easily with current US foreign policy trends.

In the larger context there is a general and longstanding debate about aid, fueled by fervent disparate beliefs about its usefulness. Tied and untied aid is granted for various reasons but generally humanitarian aid philosophy tends to fall between two extremes. There are those who insist that all victims - of wars, disease, political malfeasance and natural catastrophe should receive aid regardless of the political context. To do otherwise they insist, is unconscionable. At the other extreme are those who say that aid is futile and too often recipients are characterized as "innocent victims" - when in some horrific situations much of the adult population is culpable. This stance insists that aid money does nothing except further enable entrenchment of systemic problems such as brutal dictatorships, intractable wars, or even natural catastrophes. While the actual approaches taken by governments and NGOs are more often constructed of subtle variations in these extremes its hard to find any compromise that isn't injurious to some parties, usually the most helpless.

Despite one's views, the fact is that hundreds of thousands of people in Myanmar are relentlessly poor, hungry, and will be further devastated by the decision, even when other aid agencies pledge to step in to fill the gap. The rhetoric from US democracy building affiliates like the IRI urges the Myanmar people to free themselves. Says former deputy Secretary of State Lorne Craner: "I will say it's the people inside the country (Burma/Myanmar) that will cause the change - not because Washington wants something, or London wants it". Pragmatic perhaps, except for the perverse reality that a repressed malnourished, demoralized population seems hardly capable of summoning the vigor necessary to demand democracy. We hope for improvements in the medical situation, since AIDS, TB and malaria are largely controllable via technology, but the endless rampage of these diseases, is highly effected by politics of all stripes.

Survey Says: Pop's Out Drugs are In

Parents busy tallying up summer reading lists and preparing for another year of shuttling back and forth to after-school events, overseeing homework, and shopping for appropriate clothes and shoes in larger sizes. One thing they don't have to worry about? Some kids buying soda (pop, if you prefer) in school during certain hours.

The American Beverage Association (ABA) has taken care of it. In the one step forward two steps back world of public education, major soda companies agreed to voluntarily limit soda sales during school hours, indeed - schools will only allow water, sports drinks and juices during school hours. But the ban doesn't apply to high schools, only middle schools. The new rule attracts criticism, since high schoolers buy the most soda is sold. Furthermore, since many schools had already limited soda, the "voluntarily" effort seems like a preemptive jig to evade imposed bans. Juice and sports drinks pack nearly as much of a sugar-punch as soda does.

In other school news: Drug exposure in high schools and middle schools increased, according to a recent study at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). The survey found that 62% of high school students and 28% of middle school students report that peers use or sell drugs, and increase over previous years. The teens say their drug use is largely influenced by their parents attitudes towards drugs and alcohol.

Acronym Required previously commented on childhood obesity and soda and also on the indomitable success of Coca Cola at rebuffing criticism.

Panthers Saved?

Florida Panther In 1958 the state of Florida put the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) on its endangered species list. But in 1967 the state's panther populations dwindled to less than 50. The US government then put the cat on its federal endangered species list. The panther population continued to shrink. Until scientists decided to introduce another panther to the mix to strengthen the population, which was too small and genetically compromised. Will panthers be able to survive the encroachment of highways, houses and businesses within their territory? Will people be able to accommodate this wildcat roaming among their housing developments, interstate highways, homes, and shopping malls?

Shrinking Territory

When humans encroached on panther territory, the dangers were enumerable. Shrinking territory led to panther deaths, smaller populations, inbreeding, genetic defects and higher mortality. Scientists and politicians took unprecedented measures to protect the cats. To stop them from being killed on highways, fences and underpasses were built for them. The federal government reclaimed 25,000 acres for wildlife preservation, and the state reclaimed about 70,000 acres. But one male panther can require hundreds of square miles of territory, so even 100,000 acres of newly acquired panther territory failed to cease mortality rates.

Zoos

Over the years a numerous plans to revive the panthers proved futile. All were highly controversial, like when scientists suggested simply removing the panthers from the wild and breeding them in zoos. The group "Fund For Animals", claimed it was futile to raise panthers in captivity without assuring that they had adequate habitat. Some environmentalists disagreed and thought captivity was the only way to save the animals. State and federal agencies thought the captivity programs were too severe. An article in the St. Petersburg Times from March 21, 1993; "Cat Fight", documented some of the politics surrounding the scheme. To and fro they argued, year after year while various conservation efforts sputtered and failed.

Subspecies

Given the futility of the problem it seemed just as ridiculous when scientists introduced a plan to try to introduce other animals of a different subspecies to the region. Biologists conducted their first trial run in 1988, bringing cougars from Texas cougars (Puma concolor stanleyana) to different reserves in Florida to see if they would survive.

The cougars barely made it. Some were killed, others wandered onto farms looking for food, and many had to be removed and brought back to Texas. The biologists persisted. In 1993 they brought in more cougars, according to an article in the New York Times (May 11, 1993); "Cougars enlisted in Effort to Save the Florida Panther". This time they imported younger animals, and introduced them to their new habitat after hunting season, so that they could establish themselves before being displaced by dogs.

Scientists brought in females instead of males because they required less habitat. Throughout 1993 and 1994 according to various news sources, the animals were brought from Texas, radio labeled, tracked, and promptly removed if they became problematic. Another article in the NYT (November 2, 1999) reported that the introduced panthers had produced quite a few "hybrid" cubs; "Texas Rescue Squad Comes to Aid of Florida Panther".

Throughout the years, as they were shot, killed by traffic, or removed after homeowners complained, the program at times seemed be destined for failure, either logistical failure or by intense lobbying efforts against the experiment. Scientists expressed disapproval. The panthers were doomed without more territory said some, while others insisted that native populations were stable and/or growing, that territory had shrunk and could only support a small population, or that the panthers were "specialized", and would never populate a wider territory. More complained that biodiversity efforts and budget were being wasted on the program or that the hybrid offspring would lose the endangered status of the purebreds.

Will it Work?

However it seems like the program is actually working. Pimm et al recently publicized a research paper forthcoming in Animal Conservation (2006); "The Genetic Rescue of the Florida Panther", which challenges some of the opposing beliefs. The authors show that hybrid panthers have successfully moved into new territory. They acknowledge that their counts of species seem almost unbelievable -- they count 3 times more hybrids surviving then purebreds, but explain that hybrid cubs appear to be heartier than the indigenous populations. Females hybrids survive longer then purebred panthers but males don't. While their study offers support for this type of population survival intervention, the authors don't jump to conclusions about the success of such genetic introductions. Rather they acknowledge that it's a complicated issue and that arguments on both sides are "logically compelling". According to the Duke University press release

"Pimm was himself skeptical about the success of such a rescue attempt in his 1991 book, "The Balance of Nature? Ecological issues in the conservation of species and communities." He acknowledged in his interview and in the new paper that 'I was wrong.'"

As the re-population efforts progress, another long held idea brought into question is the notion of a separate "Florida panther" species. In the popular press, most accounts now refer to both subspecies as "panthers" rather then drawing a distinction between the Florida cats as "panthers", and the Texas cats as "cougars". The original distinction was based on dubious calculation about geographical territory that led to people to believe in the rather special species of Florida panthers, as opposed to the "common" cougars. Although there are genetic distinctions between the cats, scientists like Dr. Stephen O'Brien showed that historically, the cougars range extended throughout America, and that while humans in certain areas claimed to have distinct populations of "cougars", or "panthers", or "jaguar", or "puma", all were subspecies that shared descendants.

[More on the Florida Panther:] PloS Biology Has an article on conservation efforts of the Panther here

Lions and Tigers and Bears: Tough Elevator Pitch

Researchers at Cornell University propose that the US plains should be home to mammals such as lions, elephants, camels, extinct animals that that roamed parts of the Americas. Their scheme, called "Pleistocene re-wilding", was presented in this week's journal Nature (Vol. 436, No. 7053); "Re-wilding North America". The Financial Times Science Briefing (emphasis on brief) reports that Harry Greene, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and one of the authors, said about the program:

"If we only have 10 minutes to present this idea, people think we're nuts, but if people hear the one-hour version they realize they haven't thought about this as much as we have."

Apparently the authors will test their theory with a pilot study that will reintroduce the endangered Bolson tortoise on a private ranch in New Mexico. The tortoise once thrived in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico but now can be found only in New Mexico.

The authors propose re-wilding as a way to encourage biodiversity. In a National Geographic interview they explain their reasoning:

"The ecological justification is restoring these important species [and their] interactions. We know that these animals play a really important role in how they interact with the environment-through predation, for example and how they maintain biodiversity. A lot of that was lost 13,000 years ago in North America when we lost most of our large mammals."

They have faced some criticism, and admit that changing people's attitudes about the idea might take some time. Fitting then, that they start with the tortoise.

Hedging Their Bets: Doctors, Pharmas and Investors

Enthusiastic Reporters, Doctors and Investment Firms

The Seattle Times recently published an investigative report; "Drug Researchers Leak Secrets to Wall Street", alleging that doctors sell confidential drug information to investment firms who acquire the data for their "elite" clients. Apparently, the informational consultations are set up by "matchmakers", companies that pair Wall Street firms, especially hedge funds, with doctors involved in clinical trials. The article echoes some of the concerns of a recent article in the June issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which warned that when doctors engaged in such consulting, potential conflict of interest and ethical issues were bound to occur, either intentionally or unwittingly.

The Seattle Times bested the JAMA article by adding journalistic flourish -- names, numbers, and drama -- to JAMA's account. The authors claim to have found 26 cases of illicit liaisons between pharmas and investment banks. According to the account, "the largest matchmaker, the Gerson Lehrman Group "claimed to have 60,000 doctors available to speak to Wall Street, double the number from three years earlier." They conclude that the doctors "violate confidentiality agreements they sign before drug companies allow the drug testing to begin".

Naturally, the Seattle Times article set off a flurry of concern and activity in the medical, journalism and political communities. This week UCLA announced an investigation of the doctor, Robert A. Figlin, MD, who was featured in the article. Representative Jay Inslee (D-WA) has asked the House Energy and Commerce Committee to hold hearings about the Seattle Times evidence. Also this week Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), asked Attorney General Aberto R. Gonzales and Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to investigate the claims, and as well the New York Times published its own investigative article.

The potential ethical issues in the Times article are legion. Premature drug information disclosure can potentially skew clinical trials and bias stock trading on Wall Street, not to mention enable short term speculation based on insider information. But while the potential for abuse obviously exists, not everyone agrees with the authors' suppositions. Mark Gerson of the Gerson Lehrman Group wrote a lengthy objection letter to the Seattle Times editor that was also published on his company's website. His response, though predictable, made a valid point:

"I was surprised that [one of the authors] ignored facts and arguments that were inconvenient to his story...most notably the value - to physicians, investors, even patients - of adding independent and objective perspectives to the investment decision-making process."

The Gerson letter explains in detail the benefits of expert science evaluations for potential drugs and fairly points out that doctors offer valuable insight into disease and treatments that is beneficial to the process. People are better able to evaluate a drug based on criteria other then how well it's marketed. Of course Gerson's letter is defensive, but it does appear that reporters repeatedly left information that would have provided readers with a more balanced view of the issues. This is not to deny a serious issues. Doctors do consult for drug companies and can influence the outcome of a drug. The alliance is potentially dangerous.

The journalists obtained a tape of a phone consultation between a doctor and some investors. The purpose of the consult was for the doctor to answer questions about "two potential new drugs for kidney cancer: Sutent, a Pfizer drug for which he was a principal researcher, and Sorafenib, a drug that he monitored the safety of for Onyx Pharmaceuticals.". The authors highlight selections from the exchange in their article and try to use this as evidence to bolster their allegations. However a more thorough look at what they present throws doubt on their story.

Although Seattle Times points out the doctor's associations with the two companies, they omit to mention other significant credentials that would change the tone of their story. He's an award winning UCLA professor, clinician and prolific researcher, who has authored over 150 research papers and 30 book chapters. His website mentions that he's listed in many *Who's Whos* of "the West", "Science and Engineering", "Medicine and Healthcare", "America" and "the World" (whose lists, we don't know). He also co-authored a textbook; "Renal and Adrenal Tumors: Biology and Management". His credentials are relevant to the story because he was consulting about angiogenesis inhibiting drugs that could potentially treat renal tumors.

The authors report an exchange from July 18 conference call related to the potential efficacy of the drugs and suggest illicit behavior:

"Figlin also was asked to "handicap" the results of one of the drug trials. In particular, one hedge-fund manager asked whether Onyx would be able to show that its kidney-cancer drug, Sorafenib, had a "survival benefit", that is "that patients taking Sorafenib were living longer. A survival benefit is the gold standard for a cancer drug's success."

The authors quote a part of the exchange:

QUESTION: "And your bet is ...that there will be a survival benefit?"

FIGLIN: "That's a good question. My bet - am I betting with your money or mine? - my bet is that there will be a survival benefit."

So according to the authors, the fact that Figlin "bet" that there would be a "survival benefit" suggests foul play. Smoking gun in hand, the the Seattle Times called Figlin and "quizzed" him about the information the transcript. Here's what they printed:

"In an interview with The Times after the call, Figlin...said he sees nothing wrong with talking to Wall Street investors as long as doctors discuss only publicly available information. "I don't think it's appropriate for the physician to ever discuss things that are unpublished, or anecdotal", including any prediction of a drug's survival benefit, he said."

The Seattle Times article alleges that the information was confidential and insinuates that Figlin was duplicitous in his answers.

"When asked about his prediction of a survival benefit during the July 18 call, Figlin said he was just expressing his hope for its success. "I take care of hundreds of kidney-cancer patients, and I'd like to finally have an agent that demonstrates a survival advantage. If they then take that information and decide, "Oh, Figlin thinks the trial is positive,' then they are extracting information and making conclusions on their own dime.""

When Doctors Bias Drugs? Or When Reporters Think They Do?

The question is, was Figlin sharing inside information as the Times says? Actually, no. An online search yields lots of relevant information about both drugs, which is and always has been public. Whether the Times' authors were aware of the information and ignored it, misunderstood the information, were not aware of it, or simply differ in their opinion is unknown. But data from clinical trials of both drugs was presented at the American Society for Clinical Oncology's (ASCO) annual meeting in San Francisco in May, 2005, several months before the conference call. Presentations and abstracts from both Pfizer and Onyx/Bayer are also available on the ASCO website.

Finally, the ASCO meeting's "2005 Best of ASCO San Francisco" talk, was actually presented by Dr. Figlin, (20 minute talk linked above). He highlighted the two drug trials within the context of the unique biology of kidney angiogenesis, other available treatments, toxicity data, and relevant patient populations. Figlin clearly outlined the results of the ongoing trials and the apparent pros and cons for both Sutent and Sorafenib. For the Onyx/Bayer Phase III Sorafenib trial results, he explicitly notes that the trial was "built as a survival trial". A slide states the primary objective, which was: "To compare the overall survival of patient treated with Sorafenib versus placebo".

The "target conclusions" were:

"Sorafenib significantly prolongs PFS [Progression-Free Survival Benefit] (24 weeks) compared with placeblo (12 weeks) in advanced RCC. PFS benefit is evident in all subsets of patients evaluated."

All of this information was summarized in several science publications as well as in general investor and biotechnology news. While these results don't predict "survival benefit", they should easily clue the astute investor in to the relative potential of both the drugs.

The authors portray the doctor's associations with other doctors as unscrupulous:

"[Figlin] said he had talked about "generally available" information but acknowledged he may have discussed information he heard from other doctors on the studies".

Figlin no doubt talked with the doctors because he presented their clinical trials' results at a meeting of physicians. The doctors were presumably present at the meeting, and they are all in the same subspecialty. One would assume that Figlin probably "discussed information" with them.

The Seattle Times also implied that Figlin's revelation about the schedule of Pfizer's FDA application to the investors at the meeting was secret information that benefited those in the conference call. They claim that when Onyx/Bayer filed for FDA approval, most investors, except those in the conference call, were in the dark about Pfizer's plans for FDA approval:

"The value of Figlin's information became obvious two days later (July 21), when Pfizer let slip that it had not yet filed with the FDA. Analysts who had not been on the call with Figlin put out research reports speculating that Pfizer was losing its cancer-drug race with Onyx. That day Onyx shares rose $2.94 or 12 percent on heavy volume."

However again, the authors overemphasize a view of the exchange that supports their story. Is it a biased view? As "The Street" wrote, in in an article about Pfizer and Onyx/Bayer after their ASCO presentations in May, "the companies plan to file for FDA approval of the treatment." Whether this was a rumor or not, in May, months before according to the ASCO data, some writer and editor capably predicted that both companies would file FDA applications.

Drug Stocks -- How Not To Influence Them

Although the science (or the doctor's opinion of it) is important, it isn't the only thing that determines the stock price. Both companies had existing histories and reputations, and industry analysts issued strong opinions about both stocks continuously up to "the conference call". We should question the assumption that any one person, even an MD, has the information needed to predict drug efficacy at these stages of drug development. The business news available on the internet in May immediately following the ASCO conference, offered just as complete read of the tea leaves and each stock's potential fortune as the speculations of the doctor in the conference call on July 18th, months later.

The Seattle Times authors suggest that potential profits could be reaped from the information that the doctor provided, but their data is merely speculative at this point. While the stock did increase in price and volume Pfizer's (PFE) volume also doubled the same day. Bayer's (BAY) volume also increased. Short term profits could surely be gamed on this stock, but before judging this, there are questions outstanding. Perhaps one would ask: Did people profit from the trade through personal investments in the companies? What other variables were influencing the stock that day? What were other analysts saying? Was the conference all that relevant, and is a $2.94 change in stock price (13% looks like alot when the price and volume are paltry to begin with) truly significant in a volatile stock such as Onyx, compared to say 33%, or $13, which is how much the stock fell one day in October 2004 -- just because.

No doubt the article reveals a regulatory weakness in the current system. Clearly, the Seattle Times authors stirred up an important issue. But with the incomplete set of facts they offer, one could make up several disparate stories that fit the data. For instance one could say that the doctor focused on these two new drugs at the meeting over existing or other emerging candidate drugs (which were also presented and available) and in doing so biased doctors opinions about both drugs, before they were even thoroughly proven in clinical trials. Furthermore, can the authors be so sure who was actually disadvantaged by the conference call? Are they sure the investors who didn't sit in on the conference call were really worse off? Perhaps it was the "elite" investors, who are paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for information that was largely available three months earlier who are being *scammed*, rather then the savvier investors who followed the news back in May and could adjust their portfolios accordingly.

While the probable abilities of a small group of people to profit greedily and unethically off market fluctuations is clear but unproven, it is more certain that the doctor was being frank when he asked who's money he was betting.

Hopes For Avian Flu Vaccine

Health officals announced this week that an H5N1 vaccine had been developed at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Researchers have been working on a vaccine since 2000, using a technique called reverse genetics, and the current clinical trials started last spring. The New York Times Sunday edition featured an article on the vaccine with graphics. The gist of the study is that an increasing dose of the vaccine produced a commensurate antibody response in data from about a quarter of the clinical trials 452 subjects.

Although the study provides some proof of concept, researchers who were told about the results caution about being overly optimistic for a couple of reasons. The first is that like other viruses (flu and HIV), H5N1 mutates rapidly, so that the strain that the vaccine is derived from may not match an epidemic strain, meaning the vaccine wouldn't protect against all strains necessarily. In fact the strain used to make this vaccine is significantly less virulent then the strain that is currently active in Asia.

The second reason, according to the article, is that the dose needed for a vaccination in these trials is many times what is usually needed for a flu vaccine - two doses of approximately 90 micrograms given 4 weeks apart. Typical flu vaccines use two doses of 15 micrograms, which means that stockpiles would have to be significantly larger then they are now.

An interesting feature of these reports was that they were announced by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in newspaper interviews ahead of the full study results- perhaps because of the mounting fears about the spread of the disease in Asia. Usually research results are peer reviewed ahead of general news publication.

Up in Smoke: High School Science Labs

| Comments

The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded a report from the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) that concludes high school students have shoddy science lab experiences. The study suggested labs need to be included in science education, designed with clear learning outcomes in mind, be interactive, and include learning about the scientific process. The study adds fodder to the call for US schools to step up efforts to increase competitiveness and understanding in math and science.

"In an increasingly complex, high-tech society, U.S. high school graduates need a basic understanding of science and technology to lead productive lives, the report says. To improve their understanding, most science laboratory experiences must be reformed."

Of course improving science education is complicated by school funding challenges, and confusion about which science curricula to teach.

Research, Politics and Working Less

In Friday's New York Times, Paul Krugman explains a bit about how science becomes misconstrued by opposing interests in "Design for Confusion". Krugman suggests that the same interests that conspired to craft "supply-side economics" in the soft sciences, are now chiseling away at "hard" sciences such as climate change research and evolution research. Following the political endgame to promote private sector interests, corporations, politicians and religious interests collectively erode the legitimacy of real science. He concludes that this cabal has just enough power to cast doubts on our faith of science research and that they might succeed in "banishing Darwin from the classroom".

Krugman cites several reasons why such doubts gain traction with people. He notes that people "don't know the difference between research and advocacy". Reporters often don't know either, he adds, and when they they do "the conventions of he-said-she-said" journalism get in the way... He also says: "Finally, the self-policing nature of science- scientific truth is determined by peer review, not public opinion - can be exploited by skilled purveyors of cultural resentment."

According to Krugman, people are to susceptible to suggestions that all the evidence for global warming might be a fluke. Flummoxed, they become convinced that the slyly named "intelligent design" suffices for understanding evolution through subjects like chemistry, physics, archeology.

Understanding a field of science in order to be able to evaluate original research can require intense study. "Findings" presented in a research papers can span pages of technical minutiae and reference dozens of other research papers. Research journals themselves are as challenged as they are flooded with data and embattled about their increasingly lucrative role in science or medical foundations. Despite these barriers, someone who wants to learn can get background information on the internet. Science is increasingly accessible to everyone.

It's not just knowing the facts and subtleties of a subject area though. Science knowledge like all knowledge, is subject to the mores of society. Evolution has always had a tenuous place in education, as religious leaders have historically challenged educators about what curriculum to teach. Likewise with politicians, and last week was no different, as the Financial Times stated, perhaps tongue in cheek in "Bush Wants Alternatives To Darwinism Taught in School" (August 3, 2005). The Financial Times added that his comments: "threaten to place him outside the mainstream of scientific opinion and align him more closely with social conservatives and with "creationists" who challenge Darwinism on religious grounds"

We have long recognized that corporations will dispute scientific evidence if it threatens their market, as they have with global warming, tobacco, chemicals, plastics, asbestos, etc. However, there are many legitimate and subtle reasons that controversy in science seems to be so easily generated and the facts so routinely obfuscated. It's much more then general confusion about what's "fake research" and what's real research. "Real" research can be just as confusing, misleading or off-base.

Furthermore, simple myths about science are perpetuated that distort understanding. For instance, peer review does not "determine" the "truth" in science, data does. Peers check the methodology used in a study and hopefully go over statistics to check for data validity and reliability- do the methods proposed to test the question actually test the question, are there controls, do the results generated answer the question...etc.

"Peers" are simply other researchers with complementary experience that enables them to critique the data. Rigorous peer review should also happen in the lab and with colleagues, not only during the publication process. This is not to say that peer review is perfect or that post-docs don't often bear the brunt of it, but the real process has an important purpose in science that could be better understood by non-scientists. Moreover the word "TRUTHS", is inappropriate, it unnecessarily freights science, scientists and research with a significance that distorts both the process and its place in society. Here's more information on peer research.

But who has time for these details? We all struggle under deadlines- if not for our jobs then to mow the lawn or help with homework. It isn't only science that we need to fact check, it's bills, diagnosis', and product ratings. If science is written through layers of history, funding shortages, select methodology, result sifting, journalistic and editorial review, politics, and economics, so is your bosses promotion and your health care plan.

Always pressed for time, we look to the media to fact check for us, to synthesize information. To understand how science knowledge is perceived, one must look beyond journalists to the role the media plays in the portrayal of science. Day to day science is commonly far from newsworthy. New technology may avail tools to to look at organisms, cells, reactions, or planets in a different light or an easier way. However while everyone hopes that their next experiment or serendipitous discovery will precipitate a sea change in the field, more often progress in science is infinitesimal if not glacially paced. This fact doesn't slow down the slew of "new" findings splashed across front page, often with no context for the studies that preceded them. Acronym Required has in the past month or two reviewed some of this reporting. Many newspapers do their best to be responsible, but the "he-said-she-said" that Krugman paints as problematic should be employed more rigorously in media to orient readers to the context of science.

At the same time, "fake science" should be presented as such. Why does the media present "fake" science as science? Are they simply confused as Krugman suggests, or attached to getting an opposing opinion? Or in addition is it a business decision - don't alienate the readers who believe in Big Foot? We suspect the latter. The largest news channels are always there, as they were recently when scientists in Calgary announced the DNA analysis of "Big Foots" hair.

Editorial decisions are just that, and can be very subtle. To illustrate, we'll digress with a simple example. Krugman's recent (August 1, 2005) article in New York Times, on the difference between the working hours the French vs. Americans and why Americans work more. Said Krugman: "I've been looking at a new study of international differences in working hours by Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser, at Harvard, and Bruce Sacerdote, at Dartmouth. The study's main point is that differences in government regulations". His editorial is interesting and leads one to believe that the European governments are more empathetic to family values and passing family friendly laws. But if one reads the Economist , one can get a different conclusion about the same article: "Rather than blaming culture or taxes, Messrs Alesina, Glaeser and Sacerdote instead credit trade unions."

One can verify the originating article's intention on-line -- briefly, the researchers assert that trade unions swept across Europe after the 1973 oil crisis chanting "work less, work for all", and that in the decade following, union pressure led to government regulations that accommodate fewer hours in Europe. The Krugman/NYT choice is subtle, but why did they completely omit the word "union"? It seems relevant, and Krugman has time and time again said things like: "And-dare we say it?-we should in general oppose privatization plans if they are likely to destroy public sector unions. After all, people on the right tend to favor privatization for exactly the same reason."

Who knows why Krugman or the editors chose the words they did but it altered the conclusion of the paper. You will gain something from the editorial, but not the study's true conclusion. If you know about supply-side economics history, the liberal contempt for unions, you could speculate that New York Times is averse to conflict in this area? Whatever the reason for that editorial slant, it wasn't because the authors of the original paper weren't clear or because the journalist misunderstood the facts. The direct influence of religion, politics, education, or corporate interest didn't change the words. We may never know why they chose the words they did, though admittedly we covet the time of French, are relieved to know we're not so lazy, and if we had the time ourselves, maybe we'd figure it all out.

Modeling Epidemics

Researchers published articles in the journals Science and Nature this week, that attempt to predict the outcome of a potential avian influenza A (H5N1) virus pandemic and containment response in South East Asia. The two groups were Ira M. Longini et al. of Emory University; who wrote, "Containing Pandemic Influenza at the Source", for this week's August 3, 2005 online issue of Nature (subscription), and Neil M Ferguson et al. who published, "Strategies for containing an Emerging Influenza Pandemic in Southeast Asia", in this week's August 5, 2005 issue of Science(subscription).

Both groups had similiar results. They used mathematical and statistical models to predict disease containment outcomes based on various estimates of how quickly the virus would reproduce and how fast and effective the response with anti-viral prophalactics would need to be to contain the disease. The basic reproductive number "R0" (the zero should be subscript), quantifies the transmissibility of a pathogen. It is the number of secondary cases generated by a primary case if the entire population is susceptible. The goal of containment is to reduce the spread of the disease to R0<1. If R0>1 then the disease can spread.

Disease chains can be eliminated by decreasing the social contact rates, reducing the spread via infected individuals, and reducing the susceptibility of uninfected individuals by vaccination or antiviral prophylaxis. Successful hypothetical containment in this research necessitated effective and accurate public health information and response, potential quarantines, anti-virals and vaccinations if possible.

The Nature team used the population of Thailand (85 million) to model the epidemic, while the Science group also looked at Thailand but focused their study. The groups stressed that the models would only succeed if they were based on accurate assumptions, for instance R0 needs to be accurately determined, which is challenging during real time epidemics. As well, a treatment plan needs to be in action when the infected group is still very small (like 40 people). The treatment radius around the initial outbreak needs to be correctly assessed for the antiviral distribution to be effective. So if a 5 mile radius of individuals is treated but there are a significant number of undiagnosed cases in a 20 mile radius, the strategy will fail. The rapid response that is required is arguably easier to affect in a rural area as opposed to a large urban population.

Other important parameters include getting accurate initial surveillance to identify infection agent and the relative virulence of the strain- different strains can cause vastly different physiological responses. Considerations like the relative ease and lower cost of social containment, a strategy that provides antivirals only to those who come into contact with infected individuals, need to be weighed against the risks of limiting the treatments to these individuals.

These are only some of many conditions and assumptions amoung many directions that an outbreak could take. Both teams churned through hundreds of scenarios to arrive at their predictions. The Science group estimated that if R0 were <1.6 then 100,000 to 1 million vaccinations would be needed to contain an epidemic. The Nature group estimated that 3 million drug courses should be available to contain an outbreak as if the basic reproductive number (R0) were <2.

Under certain conditions both groups predicted that a human epidemic could be contained, however many scientists are highly skeptical. The clear concern is that the best case scenario that accomodates all the conditions that the researchers predict nessecitates very precise estimates and circumstances during an actual outbreak. Otherwise public health officials will not get accurate enough information to take the appropriate response.

Generating data to predict public health measures is valuable, which is why the studies have recieved so much attention. In addition to the biological data though, a lot is also dependent on cooperation and trust within and between the political systems of the countries effected, as well as their ability to communicate honestly, openly and frankly with global resources such as the WHO and CDC. SARS (Severe Accute Respiratory Response) and H5N1 both initiated in China. The international public health community criticized the country's response to SARS, that allegedly included cover-up, obfuscation and false assurances by the government. Of course, reportedly, China thinks differently. China has also been questioned about certain aspects of its response to the The H5N1 virus, which is suspected to have initiated in China in 1996. One troubling response was the the widespread and inappropriate use of antivirals recommended by the Chinese government that were then used as prophalactics in an attempt to contain the virus. An action widely suspected to have increased the resistance of the virus.

The pig infection that is currently active in China is linked to Streptococcus suis II has also prompted less than transparent reactions, including reports of banned media access. As well, the outbreak has followed an unpredictable infection course for this bacterium, that has infectious disease scientists concerned that the bacteria has either mutated or mixed with another bacteria or virus to acquire increased lethality.

Each of these diseases have been fairly well contained, but variables like those illustrated in these examples can make all the difference in the success of containment. Tamiflu, is manufactured by Roche Laboratories and is the current anti-viral that would be used in such a scenario. The World Health Organization (WHO) currently has about 195,000 courses of the drug and is negotiating to obtain a total of one million.

Organics, Water, and Trash in The Media - Scorning

Trashing Those who Recycle

There is a common theme emerging among writers who label people who choose organic food, recycling, or clean tasting water as mentally challenged, insensitive, selfish and crass, not to mention economically imprudent. It's not unusual that as the popularity of organics, recycling, or bottled water grows, these choices more frequently come under attack. Articles are generally written to appeal to readers' opinions rather than to inform them, and no story is constructed without some bias. However the problem with editorializing issues this way, is that the authors succeed more in generating controversy around their own rather personal lifestyle choices, than delving into issues more germane to sustainable environment.

A couple of weeks ago a New York Times Book Review of "Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash" , was fairly neutral except for a parting shot in the final paragraph where the NYT author questions the author Elizabeth Royte for her time management skills and intelligence:

"...her jumping-off point seems to be the idea that our best, highest use as human beings is to keep our ''garbage footprint'' to a minimum. That is a value judgment, because minimizing waste -- sorting trash, composting, cooking from scratch rather than relying on dinners in microwaveable dishes -- takes time, and time is a currency. Royte sounds smart; it's hard for the reader not to wonder what else she might have done with all those hours she spent washing out her used yogurt containers."

The author suggests that in order to recycle one needs to be flush with time and insouciant enough to waste it. One wonders if or why he took the time to actually digest Roytes' painstakingly researched garbage expository, since he seems so focused on perfunctorily discounting the gritty essence of her account. He could have just as easily contributed to the discussion about recycling programs by suggesting ways they could be improved, questioning if recycling tempts complacency about personal waste creation, or any other legitimate controversies. Why did he focus his energy on the book author's time involved "washing out a yogurt container[s]"? Time-consuming? I pity the person too frenzied to wash out a yogurt container. How do they find time to take a shower?

Water Wars

In today's New York Times Tom Standage reports in Bad to The Last Drop that his "water tasting" with friends proved that tap water tastes as good as bottled water. For his entertainment, he drank the water then "cleansed the palette" with wine. A few months ago Michael Skapinker wrote a like-themed article in the Financial Times in "The Boom in Organic Food Sales Defies Science and Sense."(May 18, 2005). He too reported on a water tasting contests and concluded scathingly:

"In 1997, The Sunday Times assembled a panel which failed to tell the difference between tap and bottled water. One panel member commended a glass of water for its "fresh, sweet lemony aroma", only to learn that it came from a tap in some Birmingham public toilets."

These articles strain to convince the audience that bottled water is the same as tap water, and that even if tap water is loaded with chemicals, you will die some other way: "You will also have to wear a gas mask in the shower, and when unloading the dishwasher.", says the NYT. And what if 200 year old pipes are so clogged with metal debris that your water truly its too off-putting to drink? Since both Standage and Skapinker report from London, so perhaps their opinions are geographically relevant, however many people drink bottled or filtered water rather then their community's water because their tap water is unsafe, because there are odorous chlorine or chemical flavors in their water, or because it comes out of the tap brown or yellow or filled with lead from pipes.

Interestingly the author okays drinking bottled water in countries where the water 'may not be safe'. But if anyone were to witness the mountains of plastic waste littering the landscape of some developing countries they wouldn't think of buying and discarding a plastic bottle there, since these countries are often especially unable to deal with the growing piles of waste. In some remote towns in Nepal, for lack of any other disposal method, they make retaining walls out of plastic bottles leftover from trekkers, who could more cheaply use filters.

The New York Times author makes some very good points. Bottled water comes in plastic bottles that are not good for the environment and not necessarily good for animals. Siphoning water from one place to another endangers some water sources and uses energy. But he neatly overlooks the options that the real facts present. How could the municipal water systems be improved? Can more water use be localized? Can a filter accomplish the same goal as plastic bottled water with less devastation to the environment? His main point though, goes on step further. He suggests:

"Of course, tap water is not so abundant in the developing world. And that is ultimately why I find the illogical enthusiasm for bottled water not simply peculiar, but distasteful."

He continues:

"Clean water could be provided to everyone on earth for an outlay of $1.7 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute. Improving sanitation, which is just as important, would cost a further $9.3 billion per year. This is less than a quarter of global annual spending on bottled water.....The logical response, for those of us in the developed world, is to stop spending money on bottled water and to give the money to water charities."

Again, his sentiments are compelling. In a global system one would be naive to claim there is no links between our consumer decisions and global consequences, or that there is no irony to our gluttonous consumption in light of obvious suffering. However is his solution plausible? Water issues are acutely linked to corporate draining of water supplies, commoditization of water, privatization, international disputes over water, or drought brought on by global warming. While it would be a positive step to 'stop drinking water out of plastic bottles'; confusing the issue by cluck-clucking that our desire for clean water is inconsiderate to the rest of the world, misses the point.

Organic Food

The 'self-satisfied snob' theme is popular. In Don't Get Fresh With Me!", a recent editorial in the New York Times, the critic waggles a pointed finger at those who choose organic food:

"What makes the snobbery of the organic movement more insidious is that it equates privilege not only with good taste, but also with good ethics. Eat wild Brazil nuts and save the rainforest. Buy more expensive organic fruit for your children and fight the national epidemic of childhood obesity. Support a local farmer and give economic power to responsible stewards of sustainable agriculture. There's nothing wrong with any of these choices, but they do require time and money."

The author omits the fact that not long ago, all food was grown "organically". Methods of food industrialization and the yield driven techniques of the "Green Revolution" then changed our concept of agriculture. The organic movement that is "sweeping the country" is 30 years old. Despite the truths in her anecdote about saving rainforests, the author is essentially criticizing marketing not flawed thinking on the part of organic food consumers. I'm sure we could have a field day with the marketing for her brand of boxed breakfast cereal or her frozen dinner or her canned spaghetti. Is it wrong that marketing promotes rainforests? Furthermore, organic doesn't necessarily equate to expensive. Food in small communities is often obtained very economically locally and organically. These affordable options, co-ops for instance, allow anyone to participate - and do.

In addition to consumer accessibility and affordability, growing food organically turns out to be better for the environment. A recent study done in the UK, where 3% of the farmland is organic, found that organic farms are more biodiverse, with almost twice as many plant species as well as more birds and bats. Organic food is more nutrient rich and chemical free, therefore it's healthier. The economics of organic farming gives incentives to farmers to produce food organically.

There is no shortage of issues that consumers can be taken to task for. Organic food and recycling are fortunate options in our capitalist world, and if capitalism works to produce industries that work in parallel to the environment, then minuscule increments of time and money are trivial sacrifices for the benefits we gain from these options. We should focus on how these choices can be improved, because denigrating those who chose to try to live more responsibility only seems self-serving.

Concern in China about Streptococcus suis

In Sichuan, China, Streptococcus suis has infected 198 people and killed 36 (numbers being updated frequently). This is a dramatic increase from the 17 killed and 41 more infected that Nature reported on July 25.

Streptococcus suis is common in pigs, but rare in humans, so the outbreak has scientists worried about whether the bacteria has mutated. Symptoms in humans include flu-like symptoms, deafness, bruises, high fever, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, coma. Most of those who have been infected are farmers who butchered infected pigs or sheep.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Chinese officials say they have a good handle on the disease. China public health officials are sending and making vaccines to send to the area, and are distributing notices to farmers who may be affected. They have also set up roadside quarantine stations to stop dead pigs from reaching markets.

Scientists and public health officials are speculating about whether the outbreak has occurred via human to human transmission. Experts worry that because of the rapid transmission as well as reported human to human cases more may be involved than S.suis.

In a related article about Avian Flu in China last month Acronym Required mentioned WHO reports that the H5N1 strain of the virus (not the S. suis bacterium) was capable of being transmitted via pigs, which would potentially lead to a species jump to humans.

follow us on twitter!

Archives