May 2008 Archives

Nanotechnology: Everything that Glitters

The World of Silver Spoons and Golden Specks and All that Disinfects

Did you know that a Hong Kong company makes "Antibacterial Table Ware" that can "prevent people from the following diseases: duodenitis caused by spirillums, virosis hepatitis, dysentery caused by salmonella and food poisoning caused by golden staphylococcus"? Such wishful thinking is common in the product claims featured at the Project For Emerging Nanotechnologies' inventory of available nanotechnologies. (PEN is a collaboration of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts. "Antibacterial Table Ware's" antimicrobial power stems from the "nano silver coating" but the technology has some fine print limitations. During holiday dinner when you're sitting at the table laden with such utensils you would need to urge your mom to "please dawdle", as she ladles the gravy and potatoes onto your plate, so as to give the "Antimicrobial Table Ware" enough time to "kill the attached bacteria and microbial [sic] in ten minutes". (emphasis mine)

The company also makes hairdressing tools that "protect people" from diseases they would (never but for horrendous circumstances) pick up at the beauty parlor, "hairdressing-related infections such as trachoma, conjunctivitis, virosis hepatitis, dermatitis and AIDS." Nanotechnology claims by companies in the US tend to be slightly more responsible, but the precociously labeled products available as imports litter the internet, while regulation and oversight lags behind prolific headfirst investment in the new technologies.

In real life, nanotechnology is not as fantastical as some marketing boasts, but is very impressive. Products incorporate elements that are 1-100 nanometers in length -- a nano being a billionth of a meter, and scientists can change the structure of an element in the lab to give it unique properties. So although Carbon nanotubules can be found in nature, in soot for example, one of the most common carbon nanotubules is produced when scientists vaporize carbon between two carbon electrodes. When you think of carbon you'd probably consider the soft form of it -- graphite, or the very hard form -- diamond; however, from carbon nanotubules, scientists now construct materials that are both very light and incredibly strong -- perhaps a hundred times stronger than steel. Carbon nanontubules are used to make electronic brushes used in engines and for future applications in optics, electronics and material science.

Silver is a proven anti-microbial -- the FDA recently approved silver coated breathing tubes used in ventilators, that may help reduce the risk of pneumonia in hospital settings. Researchers use nanotechnology for drug development and are advancing sophisticated technology to accomplish feats such as delivering drugs to a specific location in the body or building scaffolding for the regeneration of bone, nerves and other body parts. Nanotechnology offers promising advances for almost every field, medicine is just one example. However before much of this promising research yields viable products, nanotechnology will also be relentlessly hyped for selling more mundane items with dubious benefits such as "antimicrobial" socks and refrigerators.

Gilded Age

Nanotechnology products tout anti-bacterial, anti-reflective or stain resistance properties, many of which are not yet proven. Just as flatware marketing preposterously proposes to protect you from infections like Hepatitis A, hundreds of other products collectively promise to erect a magical nanotechnology barrier, a personal missile shield between you and the millions of germs that threaten you.

When you're done sipping your silver nanoparticle preserved soup from your special silver spoon you might want to brush your teeth with "cutting edge toothpaste which innovative nanotechnology is applied", made from "pure nano-sized gold that is highly effective in disinfecting the bacteria in your mouth". And if that company went out of business (likely), you can find some Korean made silver nanotechnology toothpaste that will serve the purpose. The PEN inventory lists hundreds of products with these sorts of thrilling if unsettling properties.

More concerning than blatant labeling for the benefits of nanotechnology however, is the empty labeling from companies which choose not to advertise their nanotechnology because of federal regulations. For instance, the "FresherLonger Miracle Food Storage" containers used to be marketed as "infused with silver nanoparticles that will keep soups, sauces, meats and vegetables "fresher three or even four times longer". Now the same product doesn't mention the silver nanotechnology, only the "airtight silicone-gasket locking system" which helps "retard spoilage". The change in product literature was made to avoid the EPA's regulation of products claiming to be pesticides -- antimicrobials are considered by the EPA to be pesticides.

$50 billion dollars worth of goods incorporating nanotechnology were sold last year, and nanotechnology is entering the consumer marketplace at the rate of 3-4 products a week according to the Project on Emerging Technologies (PEN). There are over 600 consumer products currently on the market, everything from utensils to washing machines to teddy bears, camera lenses, make-up, hearing aids, suntan lotion,clothing, and waterless car washes.


Beyond the veracity of labeling, is consuming particles that can't even be seen under a microscope floating around in your body safe? One skin care product called "DNA Skin Optimizer" notes that "Nano technology was chosen because it makes it possible to place the sensitive ingredients in the form of tiny crystals directly into the cell nucleus" -- which, were it true, is certainly not a comforting prospect. Scientists don't know if how nanoparticles accumulate in the body and what interactions and effects they might have, since there are very few studies on the safety of these products.

Last week, however, Nature Nanotechnology published a pilot study suggesting that the safety of carbon nanotubes warrants further investigation. (Poland et al. "Carbon nanotubes introduced into the abdominal cavity of mice show asbestos-like pathogenicity in a pilot study"; doi:10.1038/nnano.2008.111) The researchers subjected the meseothelial lining of the body cavity of mice to carbon nanotubules of varying lengths. Like asbestos, the long fiber carbon nanotubules created an inflammatory response in the mesothelium and scarring, while shorter fibers did not, which indicates (at least) that people who work with carbon nanotubules in manufacturing might be at risk for the same types of problems seen with asbestos exposure.

The environmental risks of this new technology explosion are also unknown but disconcerting. Last month researchers from Arizona State University did some experiments on silver ion containing socks that were marketed for their ability to cut down on foot odor. The researchers washed several brands of socks, and the silver washed out of the socks at various rates. The study motivated concern that the inevitable increase and indiscriminate use of nanotechnology would cast silver into streams and run-off causing environmental damage and endangering the health of species that live in and depend on streams and rivers. Products like Samsung's EPA approved washing machine releases silver ions into every load of wash, a gimmick Samsung calls: "Silver Wash that sterilizes your clothes".

Nanotechnology has broad funding support from Congress and research in this area is flourishing. However scientists and some consumer groups are worried that there are too many unknowns about nanotechnology's safety and that more research should be aimed at investigating the potential hazards. Scientists from industry, environmental groups and academia acknowledge that not only are we producing products with unknown risks without regulation, but that the lack of regulation may cause consumers to become skittish about nanotechnology.

Earlier this month a group of consumer groups recently petitioned the EPA to take a stronger stance on nanotechnology, specifically on products that market silver as a pesticide (antimicrobial). Congress is currently considering legislation on nanotechnology but legislators pared funding for studies on the health and environmental risks of the technology.

The Obama Change Challenge

Barack Obama has wide appeal. Democrats, Republicans, commentators, opponents, they find themselves tagging along, like he's the new cool kid on the block. Sometimes the support is overt. John Edwards endorses him, as does Senator Byrd, Congressman Henry Waxman, and the United Steelworkers. But sometimes an endorsement is more subtle.

When Barack pulled ahead of other Democrat contenders under the banner "Change You Can Believe In", Hillary Clinton decided to adapt his slogan as her own, calling hers "Change and Experience". Clinton promised voters that "change" would happen on "Day One". Same, same, but different.

After springing into "change" mode though, Hillary began leaving audiences around the world spinning with her own image defying change. She morphed from one character to the next, leaving people gasping in her wake. What accent? Southern y'all? Gravely, standing on a flatbed truck? What new activity?

When she was swilling beer and flipping back shots with some Pennsylvanians, she reminded Bill Moyers of Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, specifically the song "Go see what the boys in the back room will have, and them I'll have the same." As time went on Clinton began to remind more people of more movie characters.

Hillary's Change

Hillary herself decided her image resembled the determined boxer in the movie "Rocky", but others had different ideas. To some, she was the Black Knight in Monty Python. To Scranton, Pennsylvania voters, she was the home girl, and then in West Virginia she was a West Virginia girl. But she's no coal miner's daughter, her victory speech in West Virginia reminded one reporter of the character played by Warren Beatty in Reds cheering for a revolution.

I found this tendency to compare Clinton to various movie characters fascinating, since for months I had found myself thinking she was a bit Reese Witherspoon in Election. Over time, I wondered whether she might be more like Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton. While mine were contemporary, human, female characters, however, other depictions were less flattering. Dana Milbank in the Washington Post recently compared the ongoing debate over Clinton's electability to the fate of the parrot in the movie "Monty Python's Flying Circus".

Customer: "That parrot is definitely deceased, and when I purchased it not half an hour ago, you assured me that its total lack of movement was due to it being tired and shagged out following a prolonged squawk."

Pet-shop owner: "Well, he's, he's, ah, probably pining for the fiords."

Customer: (Takes parrot from cage, bangs its head on counter, lets it drop to floor.) "Now, that's what I call a dead parrot."

Pet-shop owner: "No, he's stunned! . . . You stunned him, just as he was wakin' up! Norwegian blues stun easily, Major."

Customer: "He's not pining! He's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He's expired and gone to meet his maker! He's a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! . . . His metabolic processes are now history! He's off the twig! He's kicked the bucket, he's shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible! This is an ex-parrot!"

Why do so many of us compare Hillary to movie characters? Is it that we're so unaccustomed to a strong woman in the President role that we have no real comparisons we can make? She's not many female politicians we know, Margaret Thatcher or Nancy Pelosi for instance...Unlike countries where female presidents or prime ministers are the norm, we have few figures to cast from (aside from The West Wing). This is not the first time people have looked to the movies to reflect a reality they can't fathom. People exclaimed that being in lower Manhattan when the terrorists flew into the World Trade Towers was "like being a movie".

Baking Cookies, Making Tea, That's Just Not Me

Some people, like Bill Moyers, welcome the Clinton change, say she's found her voice. Clinton recently spoke on behalf of her gun-owning church-going supporters when Obama "insulted" her working class comrades.

But mere months ago she was hanging out with Bill in the country diner cheerfully wondering idly about Chelsea's whereabouts. Journey's 1981 "Don't Stop Believing" hummed nostalgically in the background. Not too far from Fleetwood Mac's, "Don't Stop", which Bill's theme song, the theme was no change. While the Clintons awkwardly but quaintly attempted to build edge-of-your chair suspense at the diner over her campaign theme, Celine Dion's "You and I", their spoof of the Sopranos seemed one drive-in away from On Golden Pond. After declaring her new change theme, every day forward left quaint 'ole Hillary-and-Bill-at-the-jutebox a little farther in the dust.

Perhaps Hillary has found her voice. Male working class voters are warming to strong women, and maybe women wouldn't be as indignant as they were when she mused back in 1992 on Nightline "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession". This prompted William Safire to offer advise: "You do not defend yourself from a conflict-of-interest charge by insulting a large segment of the voting public." He wrote that Clinton's remarks were: "elitism in action". 16 years later you can say she's absorbed Safire's patronizing lesson. Hillary went on to leap past her 'elitist gaffe' and has since been appeasing voters left and right.

But when she took the Obama change challenge last fall was her intent to prove herself more adept at corralling the "white non-college educated vote"? Is that what Democrats aspire to? Has the change helped her break through a glass ceiling? While some argue yes, other voters and superdelegates have veered over to Obama's side, and he's pulling ahead.

The question remains, why does Clinton remind everyone of fictional movie characters, while Obama reminds everyone of male presidents like John F. Kennedy, or Ronald Reagan (not in ideology, they quickly say), or George H.W. Bush? Hillary may have changed, from picking through old jutebox favorite with hubbie to being one tough bitch who'll obliterate anything in her way. But have we?

Star power

While Clinton strode defiantly, talked stridently, slagged Obama, and sank still lower with her the traveling hillbilly act, Obama coolly brushed it off. He refreshingly acts like he's being himself. An article in the New York Times yesterday quoted a publisher who said Obama's feat was to make millions writing autobiographies..."two books not based on a job of prodigious research or risking one's life as a reporter in Iraq. He has written about himself. Being able to take your own life story and turn it into this incredibly lucrative franchise, it's a stunning fact."

Perhaps Hillary could have taken away another Safire nugget before hiking up her pantsuits with such determination to wade into the rhetorical swamp. Safire's advice to the Clinton's in 1992 for what he gratingly labeled "The Hillary Problem", was a six step solution: "1. Hillary: Stop defining yourself by what you're not." Who is she?

Just as Safire raked Clinton across the coals in 1992, Maureen Dowd recently eviscerated Obama for making comments about arugula and bitterness which made him, in her eyes, a "charter member of the elite". However a lot of working class people I know know arugula quite well. Remind me about the working class cred of New York Times columnist? Aren't they the ones whose capital is hobnobbing with the ruling class in fine restaurants ? If Clinton has progressed to a more modern time, then perhaps media has not.

Republicans' Me-Too Change

As he accumulates endorsements and attracts 75,000 people to his stump speech in Portland, at times he even seems to have the Republican party skipping along after him acting for all intents and purposes like Democrats. The Republicans just launched their new slogan "Change You Deserve" -- hat tip to Obama's "Change We Can Believe In". [update: And an Effexor commercial apparently]

They're out to remind us to keep YOU in Republican, I guess. Do you see a "we" in Republican? Certainly not. If too many Republicans started saying "we", who knows the trouble it would cause? The whole country might slip into socialism, or worse. Would everyone's voice be important, would all votes count? That Obama "we believe" phrasing sounds like the U.S. is a team, like there's no decider in charge. Republicans can't have that.

Republicans may have deduced from polling that people feel like they "deserve" change. But which slogan would you bet on? People may feel like they "deserve" change after the last eight years but McCain will continue the tax breaks and war so what are the Republicans talking about? You know they don't mean "deserve" as in entitlement -- they're virulently opposed to Social Security, safety nets and all that. So then what does "deserve" mean? Anything? And looking at Hillary's record, will the Republicans lose themselves like she did by trying to emulate Barack Obama?

Not if some people can help it. David Brooks suggests that Obama is actually co-opting Republican politics. Brooks grilled Barack Obama after George Bush described the candidate's foreign policy statements regarding Hezbollah as "appeasement." Not grilled as in Chris Matthews and Mark Green, on Crossfire, mind you, but as in conservative NYT columnist grilled. Brooks writes in "Obama Admires Bush" that he wondered whether Obama would really consider approaching Hezbollah diplomatically as George W. Bush implied last week. If so, the pundit said, affably of course, "[h]e's off in Noam Chompskyland".

No, when they spoke, Obama "reaffirmed" for him that Hezbollah is "not a legitimate political party", but a "destabilizing organization...", supported by "Iran and Syria". Brooks goes on to explain some details of Obama's foreign policy before concluding (seemingly approvingly) that it reminds him of George G.W. Bush's approach to foreign relations.

So which brand will win? Will Barack Obama prevail by being "himself" as the Republicans dance around chanting "me-too" change? Or will the Republicans win by making it look like they have all the ideas?

Ursidae Diplomacy

Erstwhile Panda Diplomacy?

In an article on China's panda diplomacy last week, the Financial Times included a photo of Japan's famed Ling Ling surrounded by flowers and bamboo shoots. Japan's beloved panda, a 16 year resident of Tokyo's Ueno Zoo, had died of kidney and heart failure and the debate in Japan surrounded how Ling Ling would be replaced. Various Japanese officials expressed reservations about Chinese President Yu's offer to replace the panda with two new ones, especially when the $1 million rental fee was revealed. ("Panda diplomacy loses charm amid Sino-Japanese mistrust", May 12th, Financial Times).

Critics advised the Japanese government not to trust the panda overtures in light of China's environmental problems, food-safety, natural resource claims, and anti-Japanese sentiment. Panda proponents on the other hand, like the head of the Ueno Zoo, pointed out the benefits and reasonableness of Yu's offer - as he put it to the Financial Times - "'It is not like renting videos"'.

Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) are an endangered species in the Ursidae family. So called panda diplomacy has been around since Chinese emperors were giving pandas to governments but China revived the practice by presenting President Nixon with two pandas. When China started charging rent for pandas a successful suit from the World Wildlife Fund demanded that US government payments be channeled to increasing panda populations in the wild.

The pandas' appeal to zoo visitors is unambiguous, profitable, and beneficial to the panda. But although the Chinese has long been supplying pandas to Japan, the current Japan/China dilemma lead some international press to wonder whether Ling Ling's death marked the end of a more optimistic era between the two countries.

Thumbs Up...Panda's Alive and Well

When the earthquake struck Sichuan province people were relieved to hear the news that the giant pandas were safe at China's Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. At another panda reserve even closer to the earthquake epicenter, the Wolong Nature Reserve, the plight of the pandas and nearby villagers was unknown for days. Those in the global panda community who had visited the center and spent time with the Wolong pandas and their caretakers became increasingly worried.

Finally bad and good news came. Some of the villages around the reserve did not fare well, homes were destroyed and people perished when the 7.9 temblor struck the mountainous region.

The pandas at the Wolong reserve were OK, despite the massive earthquake and ongoing "aftershocks" that surpassed the average Chicago "earthquake". A Chinese news article ( reported that a group of American and British tourists stranded at the Wolong panda reserve when the earthquake hit were also safe after being helped by a resourceful local army, kind villagers, humor, television and traditional Tibetan dancing (the latter, actually seems like a standard for Chinese Panda tours advertised on the web).

Panda diplomacy seems alive and well.

On to Polar Bear Diplomacy?

The endangered pandas seem to have it lucky compared to polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Also in the Ursidae family, polar bears were recently designated by the US Fish and Wildlife service as "threatened". The agency lists a species as threatened if they're likely to become "endangered" and the melting Arctic makes this so. The new label was welcomed by some and criticized by others who thought the polar bear should be listed as "endangered". The LA Times reported this week that small towns like Churchill, Manitoba will see an influx of tourists because of the government's new polar bear status. Although Canada hasn't turned official attention to the polar bears, the U.S. designation will increase awareness.

Tiny Species Diplomacy?

Most threatened or endangered species ( ignored) emerge not fuzzy, cute, or mammal -- to their peril. Many are not even large enough to see and these more discreet species will just disappear.

A report released by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL)called the Living Planet Index, produced by the ZSL, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Global Footprint Network, tracked 4,000 populations of 1,500 species over 35 years. The census found that by 2005 the populations had decreased by a third, a decline "unprecedented since the extinction of the dinosaurs".


Acronym Required last wrote about China's pandas before in "Panda Baby". We wrote about endangered species here and elsewhere.

Aid for China and Myanmar

China's Transparency

China's 7.8 earthquake continues to bring bad news with heart-breaking collapses of schools and too many people trapped under fallen cement. However by all counts, China has improved its handling of the earthquake compared to previous disasters. Communication is critical in a disaster but difficult. During Hurricane Katrina, even in the middle of the worst of the storm, a few intrepid residents and journalists hunkered down in New Orleans and provided on-line updates. The US government responded, but governments' ineffective communications held up disaster efforts. Even with the most modern technology, medical and logistics support, in accessible terrain and with an outpouring of support, Katrina proved challenging. In countries with less infrastructure and less effective government the communication situation is measurably or immeasurably worse. In lieu of information, rumors run rampant.

The dearth of information is a breeding ground for rumors. Not too ago death tolls were considered a state secret in China. China has been notoriously non-transparent dealing with critical problems like infectious diseases, such as SARS, Avian Flu, Streptoccocus Suis, and even the "blue-ear disease" that killed millions of pigs and contributed to the pig shortage considered to be one part of the world-wide heparin contamination fall-out.

While China was at first guarded in dealing with this earthquake, it has since invited foreign aid from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, some of whom have sent specially trained groups to China. China's new acceptance of outside help defies a tradition of doing it all themselves. Their initial nationalist reaction seemed to be on display in the beginning, when China announced: "Faced with the disaster, we have become still more united, still more cohesive, still more composed and still more sure of ourselves, and such spirit and strength constitute the invincible, priceless assets of the Chinese nation" Then they seemed to move from their defensive starting position.

China spent considerable effort informing citizens about the progress of the recovery. But when the disaster struck, rumors about the cause of the disaster clogged the internet and they continue today, rumors that the Chinese government failed to warn about the earthquake, that a chemical plant blew up, a damn broke, that tap water was turned off by the government -- a rumor a minute. Yesterday, China punished 17 "rumormongers" with anything from reprimands to jail terms. The country urges people to stop spreading rumors, saying that "[r]umours will stop at those who are brave and upstanding". China tells people to listen to the government: "We have the most accurate and authoritative information. Believe only what we say." So much government information has previously been faulty though these new message seem a touch unrealistic.

Many observers think the upcoming Olympics provides incentive for an effective leadership front. China is aiming to improve its record for dealing with disasters, and so tries to be transparent, or look transparent, even as disturbing news continues -- 2 dams are in danger of bursting and 391 dams are in "dangerous condition".

The Washington Post writes today that China's control of communications tightened on Thursday, with the government all be blocks access to the worst hit regions. Especially unwanted were foreign reporters.

In Poor Taste

Unlike China, Myanmar is trying not to be transparent, so although rumors abound, the country is so closed that we never even hear most of them. All access is now blocked to the Irrawaddy delta and military checkpoints are increasingly difficult to circumvent. The International Herald Tribune reports that the World Food Program delivered thousands of high-energy biscuits to the south, but that many had "been stolen, or replaced with cheap crackers". The story is somewhat confirmed, but there are conflicting reports. Myanmar does have a 400,000 strong army to feed and no one wants a hungry army, especially if your feeling like an endangered junta.

The biscuit rumor had it that Myanmar was passing out "low-quality" biscuits and stashing the World Food Program's donated High Energy Bisquits (HEB). This is unfortunate, especially since HEB's don't have a culinary standard you'd want to descend too far from. The biscuits are packaged in "strong cardboard cartons in which packages of 100 individual packages "100 of these are to be stuffed in one carton box". Here's the ingredients of one HEB:

Composition: Energy: 450 kcal, Moisture: 4.5% minimum, Protein: 10-15 g, Fat: 15 g Sugar: 10-15 g maximum. "10 to 20 g each, shelf life of 18 to 24 months, manufactured in conformity with US or EU food for human consumption."

These are valuable for their emergency purpose, containing calcium and magnesium, as well as vitamins. But why would Myanmar switch out these biscuits when they have their own (celebrated) biscuit factories? When the Myanmar Biscuit Factory of the Circus Foodstuff Cooperative Ltd had it's grand opening, according to a government website news item, the Auditor-General, deputy ministers, departmental heads, officials of the Ministry of Cooperatives and Secretary-3 of the State Peace and Development Council Lt-Gen Win Myint attended. Wouldn't their own biscuits store nicely? In the context of western governments' relative transparency, technology, convoys of aid, and trucks that run all by themselves without being pushed by a team of monks, we can only imagine how dire Burma has become. How can a country that's trying to deploy aid to a couple of million people with six helicopters be so defiant?

According to reports the death toll may be greater than 200,000 at this point, and the international community has become increasingly apoplectic. A group of Nobel Laureates recently requested that western governments provide humanitarian aid. France has warned that Burma is committing a Burma then called France's big ship carrying aid sitting of its coast a warship, in what the Bangkok Post called a "clear sign of paranoia". A UN emissary, John Holmes will travel again to Burma with a third letter from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the Myanmar senior general, who refuses to talk to Ban. Thailand has sent a small team of doctors to Burma and an international team of disaster assessors is also on its way. As the crisis becomes worse, not a few people hope for assertive action on behalf of the Burmese citizens. Lack of transparency leads to rumors, paranoia, secrecy, lack of accountability, lack of humanity.

Burma: "A Catastophe Within A Catastrophe"

The Myanmar Effect

"'A Catastrophe Within A Catastrophe'". That's how French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner described the "junta's uncooperativeness", after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Burmese city of Rangoon and the Irrawaddy Delta last week. The political struggles between the obstinate Myanmar military junta and international aid groups and governments trying to help Burma dominate the news. The German paper Spiegel shows a map of areas submerged in the storm earlier this week. The Guardian spoke to Mark Canning, ambassador to Britain, who warned that "authoritative estimates of the numbers of dead and missing ranged between 63,000 and 100,000, and up to 1.9 million were now vulnerable to water-borne disease, hunger and lack of drinkable water. 'So you can do the maths and you will see how quickly this thing can get larger'".

The International Red Cross and other agencies report that there aid is getting through to people who need it --a statement that will encourage donors -- but if that is remotely true, the aid is stretched very thin. The junta has confiscated food and equipment from the UN World Food Programme, refused to grant visas to aid workers, and said that it will only accept cash and material aid, not labor. The Guardian quoted the US ambassador to Thailand, Eric John, who noted in a somewhat awkward analogy that food without distribution capabilities would be like "dropping a lot of orchestral instruments on the ground and expecting a symphony to come out of it."

Let Them Eat Rotting Rice

In Burma, equipment and tools are forever scarce, as are all other resources. The military junta takes food from villagers even on "good" days, that is, when the government is merely tyrannical, incompetent and brutal but not faced with the aftermath of a massive cyclone that has ripped through a mangrove-stripped delta of rice paddies, leaving in its path face-down floating bodies and individuals desperately searching the rubble for their kin. Given the everyday actions of the junta, it should be no surprise that the government confiscates international food sent for Nargis victims -- that's just what they do. Nor should it surprise us that the government isn't ashamed to dole out supplies with the names of generals written on boxes -- before news cameras -- in some twisted "propaganda exercise", as the International Herald Tribune called it.

The military junta's political shenanigans are to be expected.The rulers are by all accounts paranoid as well as brutal, tenaciously controlling the population via the only methods they know, violence and manipulation. The Free Burma Rangers 1, a group profiled here by The Economist, lists the junta's habitual human violations, offenses that often target minority groups like the Karen. The group accuses the military of everything from stealing supplies to burning villagers out of their villages, to forcing unpaid villagers to clear land, build roads, and walk in front of bulldozers clearing land-mined areas.

Always wrangling to increase its power, the Myanmar military relentlessly pursues its goals, even as citizens are left struggling in the wake of the cyclone without water, food or medicine. The government insisted on holding a referendum to increase its power yesterday, and the military spent considerable effort coercing, forcing and bribing people to vote "yes". With mind blowing cynicism, the leaders had their pictures snapped with their fancy-dressed wives, casting their votes for what all outsiders call a "sham" election, while hundreds of thousands of "people with almost no clothes battl[e] it out to survive" -- as one Indian pilot reported on the situation after he flew an aid sortie and traveled through the Irrawaddy Delta.

China, Thailand and India have the most potential for nudging the junta towards accepting responsibility but it's unclear how much sway these governments hold. China has the closest economic ties to Burma apparently, but what incentive it has to mediate? It's own abuse of Tibetans and minorities and its interest in Burma's resources, not to mention its habit of not "interfering", leaves us skeptical. India reports sporadically about its stance on the situation, while Burma's neighbor Thailand, for its part, will send a diplomatic team to Myanmar. Thailand was obviously disturbed to see media films showing Thailand's aid boxes plastered over with labels indicating they were gifts from the junta's generals.

What the junta is actually giving in aid, the Associated Press reports is "minuscule rations of rice and oil", in some places one cup of rice per day per family. AP says many people are simply "clustered on roadsides hoping for handouts," and that desperate pleas -- "[t]he words "'Help us!'" [written] in chalk on the side of one home", are evidence of the level of despair.

Aid First?

Disasters such as Cyclone Nargis exaggerate and bring into stark relief dysfunctional politics. They also present a quandary for international communities. A few years ago, Acronym Required wrote about the Global Fund withdrawing its AIDS program in Burma due to difficulties working with the junta. At the time we commented on the conflicted ideas about providing aid to the repressed citizens of brutal regimes. The AIDS crisis in Burma is serious and any country's bad governance will make a public health or natural disaster recovery infinitely more dire. As we've often documented, politics can worsen the death toll of AIDS or avian flu pandemic, an earthquake, cyclone or tsunami.

The world has experienced enough natural disasters in the past couple of years to know the difficulty of getting help to stricken populations. In the U.S., the government was challenged to evacuate survivors swiftly enough and to deliver aid and essentials in a timely way after Hurricane Katrina. Rescue and supply delivery is increasingly daunting in remote locations of the world, like SE Asia where the tsunami victims were hard to reach, and during the Kashmir earthquake. And in these situations the affected countries welcomed aid. 2

The international community is forever torn because there is no good answer. Try to support the citizens in spite of the government? Or condemn and punish the government, which further increases the suffering of the people? The current situation in Burma intensifies the unforgiving choices of this dilemma.

Given the Myanmar junta's treatment of the country's people, its hard not to advocate political change. But that's problematic, since governments around the world acknowledge that the Burmese in the stricken areas are in dire need of the most basic necessities now, not "democracy".

Barbara Bush, who back in 2007 advised that the US would impose sanctions on the Myanmar military government if it did not moving toward democracy "within the next couple of days", used the publicity of last weeks' cyclone to reiterate her displeasure with the military junta. The move was widely criticized by 'those in the aid community who know better', since it could only increase the paranoia of the highly paranoid holed-up-in-the-middle-of-the-jungle junta. Yet is restraining from beating people over the head when they say "no" such a challenging notion that it's only available to those in the aid community? You'd think the emerging White House diplomat would carry some insight about this from her second grade teacher experience, or her experience listening to why the US denied aid from Cuba during Hurricane Katrina, or even because her diplomatic threats to Myanmar never motivated the junta to budge before. You'd think she'd deliver a more nuanced diplomatic entreaty. Now apparently, Mrs. Bush seems to have backed off and Secretary Rice is left to insist that Burma Aid Is About Saving Lives, Not About Politics.

Of course, the White House always sends mixed messages. While Mrs. Bush lectured Myanmar from the podium in the past few years and the Bush administration imposed sanctions, for instance by cutting off the bank accounts of the junta, companies like Chevron provide a lifeline to the regime . Chevron runs a gas line through the country that is reportedly aggressively guarded by the junta.

"Tear Down the Bamboo Curtain"

So wrote the Financial Times last fall, and The Australian today. As if the western nations could just summon some erstwhile off-duty troops to parachute into Myanmar, China's neighbor and ally, to take care of this troublesome situation. The press loves to chant a rallying cry for "freedom", and "democracy", and no doubt could not restrain itself from referencing what is now relived in popular dream-talk as Reagan's great coup: the tearing down of the wall. It's the business of news to engage fantasies and so these headlines are relentlessly fantastic.

Reporters ask questions like: "Could there be a silver lining to the cyclone's clouds?" Time magazine wrote hopefully, "for decades, outsiders have searched for a way to pry open Burma's secretive regime". As if this is some natural evolution of government, when actually China, Russia and a host of other countries prove that power may be more instinctively and securely amassed via non-democratic and brutish governance. And so, spooked but with aid pouring in, after 40 years, Myanmar hunkers down to give its citizens and the world, more of the same. Tons of high-energy biscuits energy bars can go a long way in a junta that was days ago 'reduced' to stealing rice from villagers.

The Myanmar junta is of course defiant in the face of the international democracy criers, defending its own deadly actions by saying that the US government's response to Katrina was also slow. Seeing the same shaky (optimistic?) parallel, a dean from the University of Vermont, in an editorial for the Daily Times of Pakistan, offered: "This may also be a time for alerting the world to the grave inequalities in the country, just as Katrina was a wake-up call for the world to see the plight of impoverished African-Americans in Louisiana." Ah, silver linings.

It's hard to imagine that there would be "sides" in the midst of such a disaster, or that politicians would take the opportunity to push political points of view, but of course they do, even in the enlightened western democracies. In the Financial Times yesterday, Christopher Caldwell from the Weekly Standard took the opportunity to reconstruct the events of the Katrina aftermath altogether, with the truth defying statement: "that the US failed in part because it was too constitutional, too deferential to the prerogatives of the state of Louisiana, is not something anyone remembers or cares about any more." ("Disasters and Dictatorships"). "Too constitutional" -- that's Orwellian.

While countries like the US and France now try to muffle their instinctive calls for democracy, other countries will take a different lesson from the cyclone and in the US commentators will frame the disaster for their own ends. If nothing else, attempts to shape and rewrite history are universal.

Hopefully, the Myanmar military junta, weakened to the point that is convinced that it will lose control by letting aid workers in, will come to its senses and realize that in it's own best interests to save some of its people.

In the meantime, to help with aid efforts, various groups are accepting donations for Burma. Google gave a million dollars in matching aid (updated 05-17) and Doctors Without Borders, Unicef , and many others.


1This group lists itself as a "multi-ethnic humanitarian service movement".

2With the exception of India which initially rejected international help after the tsunami.

Acronym Required has published several articles on Hurricane Katrina and FEMA and AIDS and Burma.

Depleted Uranium, Not a Problem. But Now a Fungal Solution

For years, the defense ministries of states like the US, Canada and the UK have denied that exposure to depleted uranium (DU) produce negative health effects. At the same time, the conduct research looking for ways to render DU less toxic. Their latest hope comes in the form of the humble mushroom.

Depleted uranium is a byproduct of uranium 238 (U238) enrichment and contains a higher percentage of U235, a more fissile isotope that makes DU useful in the production of nuclear weapons and energy. This depleted byproduct is 1.7 times the density of lead, and because of its durability, has been used extensively by militaries for things like armor piercing projectiles and anti-tank weapons. During the Iraq and Balkans wars, when vehicles and weapons clashed together, dust from depleted uranium was released. Bullets made with the depleted uranium were scattered in battle, and shrapnel was strewn about and embedded in soldiers' wounds. Depleted uranium ordnance now lies scattered throughout previous war zones where children play and civilians attempt to carry on their lives.

Humans and other species are exposed to depleted uranium not only during war, but via dust in the air around weapons factories and in groundwater near firing test ranges. At a test range in Solway, Scotland scientists find worms carrying uranium isotopes. All of this exposure could prove toxic to animals and humans.

Depleted uranium is not as radioactive as U235 but it is suspected of causing various illnesses, from cancer, immune disorders like Gulf War Syndrome, and even birth defects in offspring born of soldiers who inhale or ingest it. In lab animals, depleted uranium is a teratogen and carcinogen which can affect various mammalian systems. Although some point to the deteriorating health of returning soldiers as proof of the dangers, the dangers of DU, governments and militaries, generally don't medical, and recognize the danger. Even as evidence accumulates, militaries still claim DU safety. The US Department of Defense says:

  • "The health effects of uranium have been studied extensively for over 50 years."
  • "The Department of Defense has comprehensively studied the environmental fate of depleted uranium both before and after the Gulf War."
  • "Fortunately, DU is only mildly radioactive emitting alpha and beta particles, and gamma rays.....The risk of chemical toxicity is also minimal because there is little likelihood that sufficient quantities of DU could be inhaled or ingested to cause a heavy metal concern."
  • "Since the Gulf War, the DoD has dramatically stepped up its emphasis on increasing soldier and leader awareness of the hazards associated with the battlefield use of depleted uranium..." through training, handbooks and "support materials".
  • "...there is no reason to believe that other exposed Service members have any elevated risk to their health due to their DU exposures."

Similarly, the Ministry of Defense (MOD) for the UK has repeatedly asserted minimal health effects from exposure to depleted uranium. But confusingly, the MOD gave warning cards to all UK servicemen deployed to Iraq, which stated possible health effects of DU. The Ministry of Defense suggests that it's reducing use of DU, and offered some DU inventory details: "In 2003, during the recent Iraq conflict, UK tanks expended 1.9 tonnes of DU ammunition and none has been fired since the official ending of the conflict." The MOD urged soldiers to get monitored for depleted uranium, but after testing the urine of returning servicemen the Ministry of Defense told papers in 2006 that "no evidence of DU was found in their urine". Critics question the sensitivity of their tests.

Clearly, the effects of depleted uranium are still disputed and perhaps not a problem but new research suggests a potential solution. Scientists have discovered a fungus that will break down depleted uranium to a less toxic mineral, research sponsored in part by the Ministry of Defense, produced by scientists at the University of Dundee in Scotland and published in the recent issue of Current Biology. They describe how a plant symbiotic fungus can be grown on the surface of depleted uranium, where it will transform the depleted uranium into uranyl phosphate minerals, a more stable form of the metal that is less likely to be absorbed into plants, animals and water. The mycorrhizal fungi live in the roots of plants, where it transforms carbon into nutrients that plants use. Moisture in the air helps the fungi cover the surface of the metal, which accelerates the corrosion process of the uranium. The resulting products can be take up by the fungi or broken down to less toxic uranium holding minerals. The fungi could be used for various bioremediation projects in uranium polluted soils. In business they warn never to point out a problem unless you have a solution. Maybe the military follows a business protocol.

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