January 2006 Archives

Making Bottled Water Tap Water

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People have many reasons for drinking bottled water, some are aesthetic - it's a trendy habit; and some are health based - they don't like the taste of tap water or they're squeamish about the number of chemicals in the water. Fluoride has long been added to drinking water to prevent tooth decay, especially in children. However, there are a fair number of opponents to the practice who claim that fluoride is a public health hazard, a toxicant, and responsible for many health problems perhaps even bone cancer in youth.

Now several some people and apparently some dentists are claiming that the reason that there has been a rise in cavities in young children these days is because they are drinking bottled water, not tap water. They suggest adding fluoride to bottled water to give it the protective effect of tap water. Some, but not all the news "reports" are from industry trade groups.

But what about sugar? "Per capita consumption of sugars rose a whopping 28 percent in just 15 years, to 53 teaspoons a day by 1997." Sugar consumption has skyrocketed amoung children and contributes significantly to dental caries as well as diabetes. The Wisconsin Dental Association (WDA) is clear that when teenage boys drink an average of 3 sodas a day and teenage girls drink an average of 2 sodas per day, soda is the root of tooth decay:

"Alarmingly, one 12-ounce can of regular soda contains approximately 40 grams of sugar or the equivalent of 10 teaspoons. Drinking sodas at that rate and constantly bathing teeth in the sugary liquid can cause very rapid deterioration of tooth structure in a very short amount of time"; says one report, and kids with "'previously very healthy mouths'" come in and "'it looks like a bomb went off'"...

However the media seems to disassociate the two trends. Even the American Dental Association seems to make two recommendations: Here, the ADA suggests adding fluoride to water, and here the ADA suggests that consuming sugary drinks constantly -- even for babies -- promotes dental caries.

PFOC: Likely Carcinogen

An independent panel is advising the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) used in Teflon© is a "likely human carcinogen".

The word "likely" was chosen by the panel instead of the word "suggested". The EPA had proposed "suggested human carcinogen", a milder version, based their opinion that the results of studies showing that rats subjected to high doses of PFOA develop liver tumors only "suggested" a risk to humans. This isn't the only toxicity study, there is a long history of studies buoying these health findings.

According to the Environmental Protection Group (EWG) the panel suggested two primary goals for the FDA:

  • "Consider immune and nervous system effects on animals in its study of possible human health risks."
  • "Use a more health-protective and scientifically valid approach to studying human health risks from the chemical."

Perhaps coincidentally, or not, Dupont recently announced in a press release that they were agreeing to voluntary reductions of PFOA in consumer products and industrial emissions. Some argue that there are loopholes in these preemtive moves.

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Acronym Required previously wrote about Teflon in "Slick Company Stands behind Teflon©" and "Dupont, the Teflon© company".

Will Loose Lips - Or Global Warming - Sink Ships?

The New York Times recounts muzzling by the Bush administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of scientists who attempt to publicize unfavorable climate information. Dr. James Hansen reportedly had his communications with the public and press stifled when he elucidated the realities of global warming and urged the public to call for the reduction of carbon fuels that contribute to the phenomena.

Some of Dr. Hansen's talks are available for download at Columbia University. Despite the pressure, Dr. Hansen still managed miscellaneous speaking and writing engagements such as: "Is There Still Time to Avoid 'Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference' With Global Climate? A Tribute to Charles David Keeling".

Dr. Keeling studied carbon dioxide contributions to global warming before he passed away last year. He worked to provide ground-breaking atmospheric research and had monitored atmospheric carbon dioxide levels since 1958. The Keeling Curve" shows progressively higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide that correlate to human activity. It is this activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels, that contributes to the greenhouse effect and global warming that we have only just begun to experience. Keeling received the 2001 National Medal of Science from President George W. Bush for lifetime science research achievement.

In his tribute to Dr. Keeling, Dr. Hansen outlines research on global warming and polar melting as well as the predictable impacts on ecosystems. He stresses that aggressive action must be taken now in order to marginally reduce emissions and stabilize the climate. The Bush administration's stance on emissions depends on voluntary reductions rather than regulation. This position is widely criticized by politicians and scientists who span the political spectrum, including these six EPA chiefs. On its face, Dr. Hansen's most 'radical' observation is rather ordinary:

"There is little merit in casting blame for inaction, unless it helps point toward a solution. It seems to me that special interests have been a roadblock wielding undue influence over policymakers. The special interests seek to maintain short-term profits with little regard to either the long-term impact on the planet that will be inherited by our children and grandchildren or the long-term economic well-being of our country.
The public, if well-informed, has the ability to override the influence of special interests, and the public has shown that they feel a stewardship toward the Earth and all of its inhabitants¹. Scientists can play a useful role in they help communicate the climate change story to the public in a credible understandable fashion."

If this is "inflammatory", then from a democratic perspective, the Bush administration seems pathologically sensitive to mundane observation. Some other day we might frame this as good news, but not today. Hansen also relayed to the New York Times that an interview with PBS was denied, that he was threatened and advised that 'his supervisors would stand in for him in media interviews'. Dr. Hansen's experience is not unique, the Times reports, media contacts with many scientists are now chaperoned.

Dean Acosta, deputy assistant administrator for public affairs at NASA does not see this as censorship. He said to the New York Times:

"'We promote openness and we speak with the facts'".

He added:

'The restrictions on Dr. Hansen applied to all [NASA] personel'... 'policy statements should be left to policy makers and appointed spokesman'.

The article is the sort of "he said", "she said" type of expository that leaves the reader somewhat challenged to sort out precisely what's going on. However, moving into the sixth year of this administration, the montage is familiar if at the same time rationally foreign and alarming.

The idea that scientists should stay out of politics is not foreign, many who claim to be reasonable folks argue similarly. They assert (when being forthright), that scientists don't know enough about ethics, history or politics to be involved with public policy. It's bunk, but when it crops up it signals the inevitable subversion of science to an agenda that necessitates such a distorted caricature. In the portrayal scientists are better left in their labs waiting for the signal to do another experiment. They're cloistered away where according to the portrayal, they scribble their inscrutable formulas on blackboards while wearing formless white coats, their thick, thick glasses sliding heavily down their noses, with their pocket protectors, their old shoes and painstakingly circumspect explanations for absolutely everything.

Scientists are not, nor ever have been automatons - though the caricature is periodically revived for convenience. When scientists are removed from policy decision-making, caricatured as unfit for the public, geeky, or one-off, when their ideas are labeled politically disruptive, it has historically signalled a governments' wanton distortion of reality for their own agenda. The public should first demand that the scientists be heard, not subsumed by a committee toeing a political agenda that doesn't serve their interests.

Is what we are currently seeing "the politicization of science"? I argue that it's not. The "politicization of science" is euphemistic label for a political movement that is perhaps alien to those in the U.S. We are more familiar with notions of free speech and first amendment rights. It's sinister view perhaps, but the scientists and intelligentsia are routinely banished from participating in the political process. They're often the first to go, sometimes it has been a temporary political fix, other times it has been a more permanent or lethal muffling. There was "bourgeois biology" in Russia, psychology in China, doctors in Cambodia...

This is not the politicization of science because science is naturally and unavoidably political. In the U.S., science is arguably more independent of government then some countries, but it is still highly political. Grants historically come from the government. Grants are competitive and the stringent approval process is purportedly based on science but inculcated and ruled by politics. Achieving the vaulted position that is needed by scientists before they even vie for grants necessitates years of clambering over other scientists. By the time one reaches the prestigious post of Assistant Scientist, the average researcher has run around so many circles and jumped through so many flaming political hoops that even well-trained circus animals would be tired.

Science and politics have always been entwined. Politicians have historically coauthored science progress. This is not a bad thing. The reason that the U.S. has been successful in science is because politicians have enabled the infrastructure that supports science. Science needs politicians just as the world needs science. Moreover, the world needs citizens, politicians and scientists who are part of the political and processes, who truly understand scientific processes. Process is not always facile but we can't afford for it not to be excluded from understanding.

Was Dr. Hansen making "policy statements" or was he commenting about his observations of politics, as we do, as is any citizens right? The challenge to the public servants is if they're denied their role as servant to the "public" and told instead to serve some ideology. This subverts any professional, but especially scientists. What we are seeing now is a new type of government. New for us perhaps, but not new to world history. We need to recognize it as such.

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¹ We don't necessarily agree that "the public, if well-informed, has the ability to override the influence of special interests." Why? One reason -- the interests of "the public" are not aligned that's why we have a representative government.

Unique, Small, Vertebrate Found

Zoologists published research this week describing the smallest vertebrate, a new genus of miniature fish in a peat bog in Sumatra, Indonesia. The fish, Paedocypris progenetic, is one of two new species of the new genus described by the scientists in the article. One female of the species measured one millimeter smaller then the next smallest vertebrate (at 7.9 millimeters). The fish are transparent (like the zebrafish embryos, or glassfish), live in peat bogs that have a pH of 3.0 (very acidic), and have unique fins ("bizarre grasping fins"). The scientists said they first discovered the fish in 1996. The Indonesian scientists were joined in their research by Zoologists at the the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research in Singapore as well as scientists at the the Natural History Museum and the Max Planck Institute.

This find is an example of evolutionary miniaturization, which is especially common in fish and generally includes a more simplified nervous system, skeletal system and body features. The species characterized in this study are unusual in several ways. In particular they have more complex pelvic girdle and indications of unique reproductive features. The fish are in the carp family (Cyprinidae), and of the ray-finned fish order (Cypriniformes). Transparent fish evade predators because they don't cast shadows or reflect light, especially if they stay still. This particular species doesn't swim very much.

Scientists used to think that peat bogs were too acidic to support life, but scientists have recently found there is a wide variety of fauna in peat bogs, including many species of miniature fishes. Unfortunately these peat bogs are dwindling ecosystems due to development and recent forest fires. The authors note:

"Many of the peat swamps we surveyed throughout Southeast Asia no longer exist and their fauna is eradicated. Populations of all the highly endemic and stenotopic miniature fishes of peat swamps have decreased or collapsed or are extirpated."

Acronym Required previously wrote about a small hominin, Homo florensis, that once inhabited the island of Flores in Indonesia.

The Microbes Win

One way scientists look for potential therapeutic drugs is to isolate microbial strains from soils, plants, barks, marine plants and other environmental sources. Researchers isolate bacteria from the mediums then grow the individual strains in special media, ferment then extract the chemicals from the bacteria and test them for biochemical activity. Assays developed for this purpose detect whether the strain produces compounds that could be useful for drug development. Many antibiotics have been developed from screening bacteria and fungi this way and actinomycetes in particular have proven fruitful for drug development. Dozens of different antibiotics, have been developed from actinomycetes especially Streptomyces.

Now scientists at McMaster Universtiy in Ontario have turned these screening experiments around to ask: How many bacterial strains isolated from soil that look like actinomycetes show antibiotic resistance? Many, they found in a study published in Science last week. The scientists isolated 480 morphologically unique spore-forming bacteria, primarily Streptomyces, and tested them for antibiotic resistance against 21 natural and synthetic antibiotics. Every strain was resistant to seven or eight antibiotics - even the newest drugs - and two strains were resistant to 15 types of antibiotics. They found about 200 different antibiotic resistant profiles.

In some ways this is not surprising. Bacteria adapt to prodigiously unfavorable environments and over millions of years have devised a myriad of mechanisms to perfect this adaptation. They disable antibiotics with enzymes, block them from entering their outer membranes, pump them out via efflux mechanisms in their membranes, change the structure of potentially lethal drugs, and muddle the antibiotic target via point mutations. Bacteria like some gram-positive Clostridium and Bacillus species resort to their endospore form in order to survive boiling, complete dessication, high pressure, radiation, acceleration, acidity, and other harsh, abhorrent and seemingly unsurvivable conditions. Gram-negative bacteria often acquire resistance through plasmids that carry antibiotic genes and can be transferred within and across species, as well as perhaps swapped with other plasmids hosted in other bacteria. Actinomycetes are gram-positive, do not form endospores and seem to acquire antibiotic resistance via genomic adaptation, but that hardly limits their antibiotic resistance options.

In the 1970's, scientists did previous work in this area achieved similar results -- if for different ends. Researchers suspected that increased use of antibiotics for disease and agriculture might alter the environment. P Van Dijck and H van de Voorde, for example, tested 29 strains from multiple species across various concentrations of 21 antimicrobial compounds and found that only a small subset of bacteria were sensitive to antibiotics, whereas most showed resistance. Their conclusion? "Spilled antimicrobial agents have little chance of causing an alteration in the microbial ecology. (Applied Environmental Microbiology; March, 1976). While they correctly surmised that microbes had adapted a tremendous capacity to survive, they predicted incorrectly that further antibiotic use would not increase the resistance of populations.

In 1978 researchers tested sludge samples from the notoriously polluted New York Bight. The bacteria populations in the sewage and effluent contaminated water were far more resistant to mercury and certain antibiotics like ampicillin than the control microbial populations.

Bacteria have the advantage of millions of years, so humans have yet to discover many adaptations that bacteria are capable of. We often only notice what scrappy adaptors bacteria are with the demise of something we value, a recreational lake or when they compromise our health. Since only a small percentage of bacteria are pathogenic or wind-up crossing our paths in man-altered ecosystems our knowledge will expand.

All in all, it seems intuitive that soil bacteria which thrive in the company of organisms from which we produce most of our antibiotics, are would be resistant to many antibiotics. The Science authors show the scope of antibiotic resistance in this species and demonstrate the amount of work involved with acquiring this type of information. They confirm that antibiotic resistance mechanisms in natural environments are the same as in clinics. They don't speculate about the overall rate of resistance and interactions between species. Their study suggests that researchers should look more to organisms in the environment for predictions about how antibiotic resistance will evolve in medical settings.

We gain appreciation for natural antibiotic resistance, and can speculate that natural products screening and antibiotic synthesis will yield antibiotics of only limited therapeutic longevity. At the same time, the protection our antibiotics have offered to us so far remains impressive. The Sisyphean challenge of antibiotic resistance is ominous. But while antibiotic resistance may not bode well for humans who spend time in hospitals, the bacteria will continue to thrive on Earth. Despite widespread fretting about the dire straits of the 'planet's' ecosystem, we can be assured that some life will continue to thrive in whatever conditions we leave the planet.

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Update: A reader points out that a short overview of this study was aired on NPR. Gerry Wright, the chair of the Department of Biochemistry (and other positions) at McMaster University talked about the study for 7 minutes and 4 seconds on NPR January 20th. Wright says that the study might be useful for scientists developing drugs who could screen new candidates against potential soil resistance. Although this is interesting, some of the drugs trounced by the resistant microbes of the study have actually been highly effective in clinics despite the existence of microbes that resist them. What if they had decided not to develop them based on their suspected susceptibility to resistance?

Diabetes, Heavy Living and Lite Reading

Diabetes is an international concern but the U.S. is leading the way in number of cases and attention to the problem. The CDC estimates that almost 21 million Americans are diabetic. Increasingly the diagnosis is Type II diabetes that has more behavioral causes, as opposed to Type I diabetes, in which patients have more of a genetic predisposition to the disease. In addition, many more people have high blood sugar that is a precursor to diabetes. Doctors and the public are alarmed it seems.

The New York Times has a recent series on the subject, and two of these articles are listed in the 5 "most e-mailed" articles in the past 24 hours. First there is "Bad Blood: Diabetes and Its Awful Toll Quietly Emerge as a Crisis". Next, "Bad Blood: Living at an Epicenter of Diabetes, Defiance and Despair." The gravely titled articles describe the ravages of the epidemic disease. The usual suspects are to blame for the "crisis", such as fast food, aversion to exercise, poverty, television and calorie-rich eating.

However perhaps despair's not your cup of tea so early in the year. In that case you can gobble up 2 of the 5 "most e-mailed articles" of the past 7 days : "Recipe: Crusty Macaroni and Cheese" or "The Winter Cook: Macaroni and Lots of Cheese". These are also part of a series, that includes "Recipe: Creamy Macaroni and Cheese". A few weeks ago the paper also featured "Mac and Cheese That Thinks Outside the Box". That piece described macaroni and cheese, "sold frozen in generous 9-by-13-inch pans...[a] single pan is $65 including shipping". This is evidently for those who are not on a budget, but who still eshew vegetables in favor of carbs and fat in a plain, leaden and lumpy extravaganza. 'Live richly', as they say.

In "...Macaroni and Lots of Cheese", we learn the recipe's secret in the final line; "[t]he moral of the story: [w]hen in doubt, add more cheese". Perfect. More cheese means less carbs, proportionally speaking that is. That must make the dish a candidate for some Atkins-derivative diet? From the e-mail statistics, readers evidently like to be alarmed, but at the same time don't deign from lapping up "comfort food". Rest assured that in the diabetes stories the word "moral" was nowhere to be found.

It's not all futile of course, this leads naturally to the next series, probably something like: "Cardiovascular Disease Silently, Stealthily Stalks".

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