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Doctor who has lost over 100 patients to covid says some deny virus from their deathbeds: ‘I don’t believe you’

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For reassurance, read again the earlier post in which Steven Pinker talks about rationality. Andrea Salcedo reports in the Washington Post (gift article: no paywall):

Matthew Trunsky is used to people being angry at him.

As a pulmonologist and director of the palliative care unit at a Beaumont Health hospital in southeastern Michigan, Trunsky sees some of the facility’s sickest patients and is often the bearer of bad news.

He gets it. No one is prepared to hear a loved one is dying.

But when a well-regarded intensive care unit nurse told him during a recent shift that the wife of an unvaccinated covid patient had berated her when she informed the woman of her husband’s deteriorating condition, Trunsky, who has lost more than 100 patients to the coronavirus, reached his breaking point.

When he got home that evening, he made himself a sandwich and opened Facebook.

Still sporting his black scrubs, he began to vent. He wrote about a critically ill patient who disputed his covid-19 diagnosis. Another threatened to call his lawyer if he wasn’t given ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug that is not approved for treating covid. A third, Trunsky wrote, told the doctor they would rather die than take one of the vaccines.

One demanded a different doctor. “I don’t believe you,” he told the physician.

The physician added: “Of course the answer was to have been vaccinated — but they were not and now they’re angry at the medical community for their failure.”

Trunsky’s post detailing his interactions with eight covid patients and their relatives highlights the resistance and mistreatment some health-care workers across the United States face while caring for patients who have put off or declined getting vaccinated. Trunsky estimates that 9 out of every 10 covid patients he treats are unvaccinated.

His post — a plea for people to get vaccinated — also reveals the physical and emotional toll the pandemic has had on health-care workers, who have been on the front lines for over a year and a half. Roughly 3 out of 10 have considered leaving the profession, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, and about 6 in 10 say stress from the pandemic has harmed their mental health.

Some doctors are refusing to treat unvaccinated patients. Last month,  . . .

Continue reading. No paywall.

What’s odd is that people will refuse to get a thoroughly tested and proven effective covid-19 vaccine as recommended by medical professionals, but will jump at the chance to take a horse medicine because they read something about it on Facebook. (Maybe some have rationality antibodies.)

I saw a cartoon wondering how it was that parents who could not do their kid’s 6th-grade math homework six months ago are now infectious-disease experts.

Written by Leisureguy

24 September 2021 at 2:02 pm

Why doesn’t rationality seem to matter anymore?

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The Harvard Gazette has an excerpt from Rationality: Why It Seems Scarce and Why It Matters,by Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology. It begins:

Rationality ought to be the lodestar for everything we think and do. (If you disagree, are your objections rational?) Yet in an era blessed with unprecedented resources for reasoning, the public sphere is infested with fake news, quack cures, conspiracy theories, and “post-truth” rhetoric. We face deadly threats to our health, our democracy, and the livability of our planet. Though the problems are daunting, solutions exist, and our species has the intellectual wherewithal to find them. Yet among our fiercest problems today is convincing people to accept the solutions when we do find them.

How should we think of human rationality? The cognitive wherewithal to understand the world and bend it to our advantage is not a trophy of Western civilization; it’s the patrimony of our species. The San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa are one of the world’s oldest peoples, and their foraging lifestyle, maintained until recently, offers a glimpse of the ways in which humans spent most of their existence. Hunter-gatherers don’t just chuck spears at passing animals or help themselves to fruit and nuts growing around them. The tracking scientist Louis Liebenberg, who has worked with the San for decades, has described how they owe their survival to a scientific mindset. They reason their way from fragmentary data to remote conclusions with an intuitive grasp of logic, critical thinking, statistical reasoning, correlation and causation, and game theory.

The San track fleeing animals from their hoofprints, effluvia, and other spoor. They distinguish dozens of species by the shapes and spacing of their tracks, aided by their grasp of cause and effect. They may infer that a pointed track comes from an agile springbok, which needs a good grip, whereas a flat-footed track comes from a heavy kudu, which has to support its weight. They then make syllogistic deductions: Steenbok and duiker can be run down in the rainy season because the wet sand forces open their hooves and stiffens their joints; kudu and eland can be run down in the dry season because they tire easily in loose sand.

The San also engage in critical thinking. They know not to trust first impressions and appreciate the dangers of seeing what they want to see. Nor will they accept arguments from authority: Anyone, including a young upstart, may shoot down a conjecture or come up with his own until a consensus emerges from the disputation.

Another critical faculty exercised by the San is distinguishing causation from correlation. Liebenberg recalls: “One tracker, Boroh// xao, told me that when the [lark] sings, it dries out the soil, making the roots good to eat. Afterwards, !Nate and /Uase told me that Boroh// xao was wrong — it is not the bird that dries out the soil, it is the sun that dries out the soil. The bird is only telling them that the soil will dry out in the coming months and that it is the time of the year when the roots are good to eat.”

Yet for all the deadly effectiveness of the San’s technology, they have survived in an unforgiving desert for more than a hundred thousand years without exterminating the animals they depend on. During a drought, they think ahead to what would happen if they killed the last plant or animal of its kind, and they spare members of the threatened species. They tailor conservation plans to the vulnerabilities of plants, which cannot migrate but recover quickly when the rains return, and animals, which can survive a drought but build back numbers slowly.

The sapience of the San makes the puzzle of human rationality acute. Despite our ancient capacity for reason, today we are flooded with reminders of the fallacies and follies of our fellows. Three quarters of Americans believe in at least one phenomenon that defies the laws of science, including psychic healing (55 percent), extrasensory perception (41 percent), haunted houses (37 percent), and ghosts (32 percent) — which also means that people believe in houses haunted by ghosts without believing in ghosts. In social media, fake news (such as Joe Biden Calls Trump Supporters “Dregs of Society” and Florida Man Arrested for Tranquilizing and Raping Alligators in the Everglades) is diffused farther and faster than the truth, and humans are more likely to spread it than bots.

How, then, can we understand this thing called rationality, which would appear to be our birthright yet is so frequently and flagrantly flouted? The starting point is  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

24 September 2021 at 11:49 am

Best mask technique

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No one wants to get Covid. Tara Parker-Pope has an excellent article in the NY Times on a technique that greatly improves the efficacy of a mask. It’s a a gift article, so no paywall.

As new, more contagious variants of the novel coronavirus spread around the world, public health officials are advising us to upgrade our mask protection. One of the easiest ways to do that is to wear two masks at the same time. Here are answers to common questions about the dos and don’ts of double masking.

New variants of the coronavirus are more contagious. It may be that an infected person sheds greater quantities of virus, or it may be that it takes fewer viral particles to make you sick. Either way, a more contagious virus means we need to wear masks that do a better job of trapping infectious particles. Double-masking can improve the fit of your mask by closing gaps around the edges, and it creates multiple layers of protection against droplets coming in or out.

Wearing two disposable surgical masks together is not recommended. A standard surgical mask is a blue, rectangle-shaped mask made of paper-like material. While surgical masks are great filters against viral droplets, they tend to fit poorly, leaving gaps on the sides, which reduces their efficiency. Wearing two at the same time doesn’t solve the fit problem. Adding a cloth mask on top of a surgical mask helps close the gaps and creates a more snug fit. For help choosing a cloth mask, the team at Wirecutter, which is owned by The New York Times, has some recommendations. (The mask in the video is the Graf Lantz Zenbu Organic Cotton Face Mask.)

The N95 mask is the gold standard for medical masks, and the KN95, made in China, is similar. When worn correctly, both masks will filter 95 percent of the hardest-to-trap particles. If you have access to a genuine N95 or KN95 and it fits well, you don’t need to double mask. The problem is that the N95 and KN95 masks still are hard to come by, and the supply chain is loaded with counterfeits. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend double-masking with an N95 or KN95, you need to be sure you have the real thing. If you’re not sure, or it doesn’t fit well, covering it with a cloth mask could help. (Another highly effective medical mask is the KF94, made in Korea. Counterfeits typically are not a problem with KF94s, and if it fits you well, you don’t need to double mask.)

The best way to double mask is to wear a surgical mask as the first layer and cover it with a cloth mask. Tightening your surgical mask is not required, but if it fits poorly, knotting the ear loops and tucking in the corners can improve its filtering efficiency by as much as 20 percent. For a longer demonstration on adjusting the fit of your surgical mask, you can watch this video from UNC Health.

\Do look at the link — there’s a good video of the technique.

Written by Leisureguy

23 September 2021 at 7:35 pm

How dangerous is Africa’s explosive Lake Kivu?

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I would not live near this lake on a bet. Nicola Jones writes in Nature:

On 22 May, one of Africa’s most active volcanoes, Mount Nyiragongo, started spewing lava towards the crowded city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The eruption destroyed several villages, killed dozens of people and forced an estimated 450,000 people to fled their homes.

The volcano has since calmed and the immediate humanitarian crisis has eased. But government officials and scientists have another worry on their minds: something potentially even more dangerous than Mount Nyiragongo.

Goma sits on the shore of Lake Kivu, a geological anomaly that holds 300 cubic kilometres of dissolved carbon dioxide and 60 cubic kilometres of methane, laced with toxic hydrogen sulfide. The picturesque lake, nestled between the DRC and Rwanda, has the potential to explosively release these gases in a rare phenomenon known as a limnic eruption. That could send a huge pulse of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere: the lake holds the equivalent of 2.6 gigatonnes of CO2, which is equal to about 5% of global annual greenhouse-gas emissions. Even worse, such a disaster could fill the surrounding valley with suffocating and toxic gas, potentially killing millions of people. “It could create one of the worst, if not the worst, natural humanitarian disasters in history,” says Philip Morkel, an engineer and founder of Hydragas Energy, based in North Vancouver, Canada, who is attempting to get funding for a project to remove and utilize gas from the lake.

The 2021 volcanic eruption didn’t trigger a mass release of gases from the lake, and on 1 June, the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) said there was no imminent risk. But, the authorities do think that lava flowed through underground fractures beneath the city of Goma and Lake Kivu itself. A day after the eruption, a tremor seems to have triggered part of a sandbar by the lake to collapse, which might have caused a small release of gases in that spot: some people reported that waters offshore from a prominent hotel looked like they were boiling.

For now, the lake is stable. Although it contains a lot of gas, the concentration would have to double in the region with the most gas for it to reach saturation point. But a strong earthquake or volcanic eruption could potentially trigger a gas release by disrupting the lake’s layered structure or increasing the gas concentrations. And some researchers worry that a disaster might be brought on by human activity, too.

Methane is already being pumped from the lake’s depths and burnt to create much-needed electricity, which most people agree is both a sensible use of local natural resources and a way to make the lake safer by removing some of its gas. The stakes are high: researchers have estimated that the methane in Lake Kivu could be worth up to US$42 billion over 50 years.

But researchers disagree about which method of gas extraction is best, and whether such efforts might eventually disturb the lake in ways that elevate the dangers rather than subduing them. The debate rages even while . . .

Continue reading.

And see also this account of an actual tragedy of this sort: “This Small Lake in Africa Once Killed 1,700 People Overnight, And We Still Don’t Know Why.”

Written by Leisureguy

23 September 2021 at 11:22 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Free Resource for Evidence-Based Nutrition

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Dr. Michael Greger blogs at NutritionFacts.org:

Are you a medical professional interested in sharing resources on healthy eating with your patients or clients? To support your important efforts, we invite you to apply to receive free copies of our Evidence-Based Eating Guide by completing this form.

The Evidence-Based Eating Guide: A Healthy Living Resource from Dr. Greger & NutritionFacts.org is a tool designed to help make the switch to a healthier lifestyle even more simple. It’s easy to understand and filled with information on eating healthier, including a breakdown of Dr. Greger’s Traffic Light Eating, tips for using his Daily Dozen checklist, sample menus, and more.

We hope the guide will help you help your patients or clients improve the length and quality of their lives. (Note: This application is open to health professionals and organizations, but individuals can get the guide for free here.)

Continue reading. There’s more. Emphasis added to note that non-professionals can get a free copy of the guide from this page.

Written by Leisureguy

23 September 2021 at 9:54 am

Inside the Conservative Fever Swamp

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Michael A. Cohen (aka, the other Michael Cohen) has a good post on his site. It begins:

As a general rule, I usually don’t read the right-wing website, Breitbart. It is one of the by-products of having a functioning brain.

But I’m making an exception today because a recent piece on the site offers useful insight into the workings of the conservative mind — and the debilitating ideology of modern conservatism.

Last week Breitbart Editor-at-Large John Nolte penned a piece lamenting that conservatives are not getting vaccinated against COVID-19. He also touted the benefits of getting a shot. These days that kind of language on a right-wing website is to be applauded. But Nolte took his argument in a strange direction: he claims that Republicans are not getting vaccinated because of liberals.

According to Nolte, “leftists like (Howard) Stern and CNNLOL and Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and Anthony Fauci are deliberately looking to manipulate Trump supporters into not getting vaccinated.”

How are they doing this?

“If I wanted to use reverse psychology to convince people not to get a life-saving vaccination, I would do exactly what Stern and the left are doing… I would bully and taunt and mock and ridicule you for not getting vaccinated, knowing the human response would be, Hey, fuck you, I’m never getting vaccinated!” “And why is that a perfectly human response? Because no one ever wants to feel like they are being bullied or ridiculed or mocked or pushed into doing anything.

It’s a helluva thing when a conservative writer takes the position that his fellow ideologues are like immature children who are so super sensitive and insecure that they will refuse to get a life-saving vaccine simply because their political opponents think they should. But that is Nolte’s argument.

It is, in fact, not a 100 percent normal human response to refuse vaccination in this circumstance — particularly if the alternative is death. Less normal is believing that Anthony Fauci, Nancy Pelosi, or Joe Biden are bullying, mocking, or ridiculing conservatives to purposely hasten their deaths. Far less normal is giving a rat’s ass about anything Howard Stern says. Nolte criticizes Stern for mocking anti-vaxxer conservative radio hosts who have died from COVID-19 — and rightfully so. It’s gross. But honestly, who cares? And who in their right mind makes a health care decision based on something that Howard Stern said? According to Nolte, conservatives do.

“No one wants to cave to a piece of shit like that, or a scumbag like Fauci, or any of the scumbags at CNNLOL, so we don’t. And what’s the result? They’re all vaccinated, and we’re not! And when you look at the numbers, the only numbers that matter, which is who’s dying, it’s overwhelmingly the unvaccinated who are dying, and they have just manipulated millions of their political enemies into the unvaccinated camp …

In another column this week, Nolte went a step further and argued that  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

The crazy never stops, and the stupid sinks ever lower.

Written by Leisureguy

22 September 2021 at 5:36 pm

Single Cells Evolve Large Multicellular Forms in Just Two Years

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It’s difficult to deny that evolution happens when it is demonstrated — difficult, but certainly not impossible as Ken Ham (no relation! at all!) will tell you. But it’s interesting to see the big step taken in a laboratory setting. Veronique Greenwood writes in Quanta:

To human eyes, the dominant form of life on Earth is multicellular. These cathedrals of flesh, cellulose or chitin usually take shape by following a sophisticated, endlessly iterated program of development: A single microscopic cell divides, then divides again, and again and again, with each cell taking its place in the emerging tissues, until there is an elephant or a redwood where there was none before.

At least 20 times in life’s history — and possibly several times as often — single-celled organisms have made the leap to multicellularity, evolving to make forms larger than those of their ancestors. In a handful of those instances, multicellularity has gone into overdrive, producing the elaborate organisms known as plants, animals, fungi and some forms of algae. In these life forms, cells have shaped themselves into tissues with different functions — cells of the heart muscle and cells of the bloodstream, cells that hold up the stalk of a wheat plant, cells that photosynthesize. Some cells pass their genes on to the next generation, the germline cells like eggs and sperm, and then there are all the rest, the somatic cells that support the germline in its quest to propagate itself.

But compared to the highly successful simplicity of single-celled life, with its mantra of “eat, divide, repeat,” multicellularity seems convoluted and full of perilous commitments. Questions about what circumstances could have enticed organisms to take this fork in the road millions of years ago on Earth — not once but many times — therefore tantalize scientists from game theorists and paleontologists to biologists tending single-celled organisms in the lab.

Now, the biologist William Ratcliff at the Georgia Institute of Technology and his colleagues report that over the course of nearly two years of evolution, they have induced unicellular yeasts to grow into multicellular clusters of immense size, going from microscopic to branching structures visible to the naked eye. The findings illustrate how such a transition can happen, and they imply intriguing future experiments to see whether these structures develop differentiation — whether cells start to play specialized roles in the drama of life lived together.

Incentives to Be Snowflakes

Nearly a decade ago, scientists who study multicellularity were set abuzz by an experiment performed by Ratcliff, Michael Travisano, and their colleagues at the University of Minnesota. Ratcliff, who was doing his doctoral thesis on cooperation and symbiosis in yeasts, had been chatting with Travisano about multicellularity, and they wondered whether it might be possible to evolve yeast into something multicellular. On a whim, they took tubes of yeast growing in culture, shook them, and selected the ones that settled to the bottom fastest to seed a new culture, over and over again for 60 days.

This simple procedure, as they later described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, rapidly caused the evolution of tiny clumps — yeasts that had evolved to stay attached to each other, the better to survive the selection pressure exerted by the scientists. The researchers subsequently determined that because of a single mutation in ACE2, a transcription factor, the cells did not break apart after they divided, which made them heavier and able to sink faster.

This change in the cells emerged quickly and repeatedly. In less than 30 transfers, one of the tubes exhibited this clumping; within 60 transfers, all of the tubes were doing it. The researchers dubbed the cells snowflake yeast, after the ramifying shapes they saw under the microscope.

Snowflake yeast started out as a side project, but it looked like a promising avenue to explore. “That’s been my life for 10 years since then,” Ratcliff said. The work garnered him collaborators like Eric Libby, a mathematical biologist at Umeå University in Sweden, and Matthew Herron, a research scientist at Georgia Tech, where Ratcliff is now a professor. He had joined the varied ecosystem of researchers trying to understand how multicellular life came about.

It’s easy for us, as the vast architectures of cells that we are, to take it for granted that multicellularity is an unqualified advantage. But as far as we can tell from fossils, life seems to have been cheerfully unicellular for its first billion years. And even today, there are far more unicellular organisms than multicellular ones on the planet. Staying together has serious downsides: A cell’s fate becomes tied to those of the cells around it, so if they die, it may die too. And if a cell does become part of a multicellular collective, it may end up as a somatic cell instead of a germ cell, meaning that it sacrifices the opportunity to pass on its genes directly through reproduction.

There are also questions of competition. “Cells of the same species tend to compete for resources,” said Guy Cooper, a theorist at the University of Oxford. “When you stick a bunch of them together, that competition for resources becomes even stronger. That’s a big cost … so you need a benefit that’s equal or greater on the far side for multicellularity to evolve.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, including videos.

Written by Leisureguy

22 September 2021 at 5:20 pm

All the Biomass of Earth, in One Graphic

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At Visual Capitalist Iman Ghosh writes about an infographic created by Mark Belan:

All the Biomass of Earth, in One Graphic

Our planet supports approximately 8.7 million species, of which over a quarter live in water.

But humans can have a hard time comprehending numbers this big, so it can be difficult to really appreciate the breadth of this incredible diversity of life on Earth.

In order to fully grasp this scale, we draw from research by Bar-On et al. to break down the total composition of the living world, in terms of its biomass, and where we fit into this picture.

Why Carbon?

A “carbon-based life form” might sound like something out of science fiction, but that’s what we and all other living things are.

Carbon is used in complex molecules and compounds—making it an essential part of our biology. That’s why biomass, or the mass of organisms, is typically measured in terms of carbon makeup.

In our visualization, one cube represents 1 million metric tons of carbon, and every thousand of these cubes is equal to 1 Gigaton (Gt C).

Here’s how the numbers stack up in terms of biomass of life on Earth: . . .

There’s more, and here’s the infographic (click to see in new tab, and click that to enlarge the image): Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Leisureguy

22 September 2021 at 10:26 am

Where Do Species Come From?

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During the most recent ice age, glaciers divided an ancestral population of crows; one group became all-black carrion crows, the other hooded crows with gray breasts and bodies.Illustrations by François-Nicolas Martinet / Alamy

Ben Crair has a very interesting article in the New Yorker, which begins:

The evolutionary biologist Jochen Wolf was working from home when we first spoke, in April, 2020. Germany was under lockdown, and his lab, at Ludwig Maximilian University, in Munich, had been closed for weeks. Still, a reminder of his research had followed him from the office. “I have a crow nest right in front of me,” Wolf said, from his rooftop terrace. The nest was well hidden at the top of a tall spruce tree. Through the branches, Wolf could see a female crow sitting on her eggs.

Over the years, Wolf had climbed many similar trees to gather genetic material from crow nests. He had also collected samples from falconers whose goshawks hunt the birds. By comparing the genomes of European crows, Wolf wanted to bring fresh data to one of biology’s oldest and most intractable debates. Scientists have named more than a million different species, but they still argue over how any given species evolves into another and do not even agree on what, exactly, a “species” is. “I have just been comparing definitions of species,” Charles Darwin wrote to a friend, three years before he would publish “On the Origin of Species,” in 1859. “It is really laughable to see what different ideas are prominent in various naturalists’ minds.” To an extent, the same holds true today. It is difficult to find a definition of “species” that works for organisms as different as goshawks and spruce trees. Similarly, it can be hard to draw a line between organisms among whom there are only small differences, such as the goshawks in North America, Europe, and Siberia. Are they separate species, subspecies, or simply locally adapted populations of a single type?

Darwin thought that the blurriness of species boundaries was a clue that the living world was not a divine creation but actually changing over time. He encouraged biologists to treat species as “merely artificial combinations made for convenience,” which would never map perfectly onto nature. “We shall at least be freed from the vain search for the undiscovered and undiscoverable essence of the term species,” he wrote. His imprecision, however, did not sit well with all of his successors. One of the most influential evolutionary biologists of the twentieth century, a German-born ornithologist named Ernst Mayr, attacked Darwin for failing “to solve the problem indicated by the title of his work.” Darwin had shown how natural selection honed a species to its niche, but he’d “never seriously attempted a rigorous analysis of the problem of the multiplication of species, of the splitting of one species into two,” Mayr wrote, in 1963. Mayr, who spent much of his career at Harvard, called speciation “the most important single event in evolution,” and proposed reproductive isolation as an “objective yardstick” for understanding it: individuals of a sexually reproducing species could procreate with one another but not with individuals of other species.

For decades, Mayr’s arguments dominated evolutionary thought. But consensus was crumbling by the two-thousands, when Wolf confronted the species problem. Wolf had learned Mayr’s “biological species concept” as a student, but he’d also discovered dozens of competing species concepts with alternative criteria, such as an animal’s form, ecology, evolutionary history, and ability to recognize potential mates. (Philosophers had joined the debate, too, with head-scratching questions about the ontological status of a species.) “The more you looked into it, the more confused you got,” Wolf said. Mayr had written that “the process of speciation could not be understood until after the nature of species and of geographic variation had been clarified.” But, in time, Wolf had come to believe the opposite: the nature of species could not be understood until the process of speciation—the ebb and flow of genetic differences between populations, and the evolution of reproductive isolation—had been clarified. . . 

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

. . . Beginning in the nineteen-eighties, Tautz had spent his career sequencing DNA, focussing on only a few hundred base pairs at a time. He was looking to see whether DNA might solve the species puzzle. Decades earlier, Mayr had argued that reproductive isolation can only develop in geographic isolation, after an impassable physical barrier, such as a mountain range or a river, divides a population in two; without migration the two populations would evolve into different species that could remain separate even when the barrier dried up or crumbled. This model, which Mayr called allopatric, or other-place, speciation, became the textbook standard of speciation, even though plenty of organisms appeared to have evolved without a geographic barrier. Some African lakes, for example, contain hundreds of species of colorful fish called cichlids; it was hard to imagine each species evolving in isolation, but Mayr and other mid-century leaders of evolutionary biology were dismissive of alternative ideas. (“These species have come into contact only after they had evolved,” Mayr wrote, of the fish.) For Tautz, the question was not whether allopatric speciation was valid—everyone agreed it was—but whether it was the only way species could diversify. “The allopatric paradigm was based on a few facts, a lot of faith, and on paradigmatic despots ruling the field,” he wrote.

In the early nineties, one of Tautz’s students, Ulrich Schliewen, brought him samples of cichlids he had collected from two small crater lakes in Cameroon. There were no barriers in either crater lake, and also no fertile hybrid forms. Either each species had evolved somewhere else and invaded the lake before its source population went extinct, as Mayr claimed, or they had all evolved together in their lake, through a process of sympatric, or same-place, speciation. Schliewen and Tautz sequenced a short snippet of mitochondrial DNA from each fish. By comparing the sequences, they could work their way backward to calculate the time of the organisms’ most recent common ancestor. The results indicated that the two ancestors of the twenty different species had lived and diversified within each lake. It was solid evidence of sympatric speciation. . .

And later:

Beginning in the nineteen-eighties, Tautz had spent his career sequencing DNA, focussing on only a few hundred base pairs at a time. He was looking to see whether DNA might solve the species puzzle. Decades earlier, Mayr had argued that reproductive isolation can only develop in geographic isolation, after an impassable physical barrier, such as a mountain range or a river, divides a population in two; without migration the two populations would evolve into different species that could remain separate even when the barrier dried up or crumbled. This model, which Mayr called allopatric, or other-place, speciation, became the textbook standard of speciation, even though plenty of organisms appeared to have evolved without a geographic barrier. Some African lakes, for example, contain hundreds of species of colorful fish called cichlids; it was hard to imagine each species evolving in isolation, but Mayr and other mid-century leaders of evolutionary biology were dismissive of alternative ideas. (“These species have come into contact only after they had evolved,” Mayr wrote, of the fish.) For Tautz, the question was not whether allopatric speciation was valid—everyone agreed it was—but whether it was the only way species could diversify. “The allopatric paradigm was based on a few facts, a lot of faith, and on paradigmatic despots ruling the field,” he wrote.

In the early nineties, one of Tautz’s students, Ulrich Schliewen, brought him samples of cichlids he had collected from two small crater lakes in Cameroon. There were no barriers in either crater lake, and also no fertile hybrid forms. Either each species had evolved somewhere else and invaded the lake before its source population went extinct, as Mayr claimed, or they had all evolved together in their lake, through a process of sympatric, or same-place, speciation. Schliewen and Tautz sequenced a short snippet of mitochondrial DNA from each fish. By comparing the sequences, they could work their way backward to calculate the time of the organisms’ most recent common ancestor. The results indicated that the two ancestors of the twenty different species had lived and diversified within each lake. It was solid evidence of sympatric speciation.

And later:

Konrad Lorenz, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist from Austria, formalized the study of animal behavior, or ethology, in the middle of the twentieth century. Lorenz’s most famous insight came when he hatched and raised a clutch of goslings. Not only did the young birds treat him as their mother, but, when they matured, they sought out human mates. Lorenz realized the geese had no innate sexual preference; rather, they learned to recognize appropriate mates by imprinting on their parents in the first days of their lives.

Crows and most other birds also imprint. Wolf has come to think that this might be the mechanism of their speciation. If carrion crows imprint on carrion crows and hooded crows imprint on hooded crows, then the occasional hybrid, who looks like neither, will be disadvantaged when it comes to finding mates. This process of “social marginalization,” Wolf believes, may be enough to create effective reproductive isolation, even though the birds’ genomes are perfectly compatible. (In genetic terms, the crows’ imprinting ends up putting divergent selection pressure on chromosome eighteen and nowhere else, allowing the rest of the genome to homogenize.) He now wants to find out just how long this mechanism has been operating. Crow bones are common in ancient human trash piles—“eating crow” used to be more than just a figure of speech—and, by sequencing the DNA from these bones, Wolf hopes to determine whether cavemen ate hooded crows in Eastern Europe and carrion crows in Western Europe, reconstructing the birds’ speciation continuum with data points stretching back thousands of years.

The entire article is worth reading.

Written by Leisureguy

21 September 2021 at 5:52 pm

How Farming with Horses Makes Better Wine

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Sophia McDonald writes in SevenFifty Daily:

As a child growing up in Champagne, Christophe Baron would ride his bike down a dirt road to visit his grandparents and pass a lush green field where a woman regularly rode a large white horse. That animal made a big impression on a small boy, and he vowed that someday, he would live and work with animals, too.

Baron went on to found Cayuse Vineyards in Washington’s Walla Walla Valley, followed by a project he calls Horsepower Vineyards, where much of the vineyard work is done with teams of Percheron and Belgian draft horses. After harvest, the horses pull the cultivators that cover the vines’ crowns with soil to keep them warm. In the spring, they power the plows that pull the soil back, aerate the ground, and cut down weeds.

Using horses at his biodynamic vineyard produces higher-quality wines, Baron believes, and he’s not the only one. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti recently reintroduced horses at its vineyards to help decrease soil compaction as well.

Beyond the practical reasons for driving horse teams through vineyards, there is also a desire among some to keep the craft and tradition of horse viticulture alive. “There’s something irreplaceable and really authentic about using horses,” says Horsepower’s equine and vineyard manager Joel Sokoloff. “We do it because it’s a choice to farm in a much more artisanal and ancestral way.”

Working with animals instead of machines means treading more gently on the earth and farming at a less frenetic, more traditional pace. “We live in a world where everything is the same, where everything goes fast,” Baron says. “It’s always more, more, more.”

But farming with horses is not just slower—it’s more time-consuming and expensive. “It makes no economic sense to farm with horses,” says Charline Drappier, the deputy director of Champagne Drappier, whose family started using Ardennais horses on its 71-acre organic vineyard to till, remove weeds, and aerate the soil about 15 years ago. “It’s a real investment, but it’s pure investment for very little productivity.”

Horses can also be a dangerous liability to owners who don’t understand how to work them. “Sometimes people see this very romantic picture of horses as gentle giants,” says Stephen Hagen, the owner of Antiquum Farm at the southern end of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, who previously farmed his vineyards with horses for several years and has been working with them since he was a teenager. “The truth is there’s nothing more dangerous you can do—besides maybe bull riding—than hooking farming implements to the back of two 2,000-pound horses and farming with them. That’s especially true when you’re working horses in the physical constraints of a vineyard. There’s a high degree of caution and skill that’s necessary.”

What Horses Do that Machines Can’t

Cultivators drawn by four-legged critters rather than steel-and-rubber farm equipment make for a much more tactile, gentle experience for the ground and the vine, says Sokoloff. “You can feel through your hands and through the cultivator every stone you hit and every soil change.” If a tractor snags a vine, the driver will never feel it. Someone driving a team of horses is more likely to, and can stop before they tear the plant from the ground.

Even passing through the vineyard 14 times a year, horses put less . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

21 September 2021 at 11:05 am

Salty Diet Helps Gut Bugs Fight Cancer in Mice

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A while back I cut way back on my salt intake — and I overdid it, which resulted in woozy spells. Salt is in fact a necessary nutrient, but like many nutrients, too little and too much are both bad news (cf. iodine, zinc, iron, vitamin A, and so on). So I resumed a moderate salt intake. I still buy no-salt-added canned tomatoes, vegetable stock, and canned beans, and I don’t eat highly processed foods or bread or cheese, all of which are high in salt. But I do add a modest amount of salt in cooking, and that has worked.

Sophie Fessl has an interesting article in The Scientist on some unexpected benefits of salt in the diet:

In mice, a diet high in salt suppresses tumor growth—but only when gut microbes are there to stimulate immune cells, a September 10 study in Science Advances reports. The findings raise tantalizing questions about the role of diet and gut microbes in human cancers, and may point to new avenues for therapeutic development.

While the study isn’t the first to connect a high-salt diet to shrinking tumors, “[the authors] have shown a unique mechanistic role of high salt induced gut microbiome changes as the central phenomenon behind their observed anti-cancer effect,” writes Venkataswarup Tiriveedhi, a biologist at Tennessee State University who has studied the effect of salt on cancer progression but was not involved in the study, in an email to The Scientist.

Amit Awasthi, an immunologist with the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute in India and corresponding author of the study, says he and his colleagues pursued this line of inquiry because previous research had linked high salt intake with autoimmune diseases, suggesting that increased salt stimulates immune cells. Meanwhile, tumors are well known to grow in immune-suppressive environments. Awasthi recalls wondering with his team: “If we put salt in the mice’s diet, maybe [the immune system in] the tumor environment becomes activated,” suppressing cancerous growth.

Indeed, a 2019 Frontiers in Immunology study from a European team led by Hasselt University immunologist Markus Kleinewietfeld reported that high-salt diets inhibited tumor growth in mice. When Awasthi and his colleagues carried out similar experiments, implanting mice with B16F10 skin melanoma cells and then feeding the tumor transplant mice diets with different salt levels, they got similar results: tumors grew slower in mice who were fed a high-salt diet.

That led to what Awasthi calls an “obvious question”: How does the immune system respond to dietary salt? To answer that, the team dissected the tumor sites and found that immune cells known as natural killer (NK) cells were enriched in the mice fed the high-salt diet compared with mice fed diets with normal or slightly elevated salt levels. When the NK cells were removed, the high-salt diet no longer led to tumor regression—an effect that wasn’t seen after depleting both T and B cells.

To drill into why salt had this effect on NK cells, Awasthi and his colleagues looked in the literature and found studies reporting that high-salt diets alter the gut microbiome, as well as others that found the gut microbiome modulates patients’ response to cancer immunotherapy. To test for a role of the resident gut bacteria in the effects of a high-salt diet on cancer growth, the researchers gave the mice antibiotics before feeding them the different diets. Sure enough, a high-salt diet no longer suppressed tumor growth. But that wasn’t all: when the team transplanted fecal material from mice fed a high-salt diet into microbe-free mice, they were surprised to find that tumors shrank, Awasthi recalls.

See “Does the Microbiome Help the Body Fight Cancer?”

The researchers looked at the diversity of species in the mice’s gut and saw an increased abundance of Bifidobacterium species in mice fed a high-salt diet. Moreover, the tumors of these mice showed a sixfold increase in Bifidobacterium abundance compared with the tumors of mice on a normal diet. According to Awasthi, that suggests “Bifidobacterium is leaking out from the gut and actually reaching the tumor site,” likely the result of salt-induced gut permeability.

In mice fed a normal diet, injection of Bifidobacterium into tumors led to tumor regression, an effect that disappeared if the researchers removed the animals’ NK cells, they reported. Awasthi says that might mean there’s a way to capitalize on the tumor-fighting qualities of a high-salt diet while avoiding the potential downsides, such as autoimmune issues or hypertension: “we can replace the salt with the Bifidobacterium.

Kleinewietfeld says the new study is in line with  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2021 at 6:23 pm

New Evidence of Corruption at Epa Chemicals Division

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Sharon Lerner reports in the Intercept:

Scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency have provided The Intercept with new information showing that senior staff have made chemicals appear safer — sometimes dodging restrictions on their use — by minimizing the estimates of how much is released into the environment.

The EPA gauges the potential risk posed by a chemical using two measures: how toxic the agency considers it and how much of the substance the public will likely be exposed to. Whistleblowers from the EPA’s New Chemicals Division have already provided The Intercept with evidence that managers and other officials were pressuring them to assess chemicals to be less toxic than they actually are — and sometimes removing references to their harms from chemical assessments.

Now new documents, including meeting summaries, internal emails, and screenshots from the EPA’s computer system, along with interviews with whistleblowers and other EPA scientists, show that the agency’s New Chemicals Division has avoided calculating the exposure to — and thus the risk posed by — hundreds of chemicals and have repeatedly resisted calls to change that policy even after scientists have shown that it puts the public at risk.

Call It “Negligible”

Since 1995, the EPA has operated under the assumption that chemicals emitted below certain cutoff levels are safe. Whether a toxic chemical is emitted through the smokestacks of an industrial plant, via leaks in its machinery, or from a leaky landfill into groundwater, the agency requires scientists to quantify the precise risk posed by the chemical only if the release (and thus likely human exposure) reaches certain thresholds. If the releases from both smokestacks and leaks are below the thresholds, the chemical is given a pass. In recent years, however, scientists have shown that some of the chemicals allowed onto the market using this loophole do in fact present a danger, particularly to the people living in “fence-line communities” near industrial plants.

In 2018, several EPA scientists became worried that the use of these exposure thresholds could leave the public vulnerable to health risks. Their concern was heightened by an email that a manager in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics sent in October of that year, instructing the scientists to change the language they used to classify chemicals that were exempted from risk calculation because they were deemed to have low exposure levels. Up to that point, they had described them in reports as “below modeling thresholds.” From then on, the manager explained, the scientists were to include the words “expects to be negligible” — a phrase that implies there’s no reason for concern.

Several scientists who worked on calculating chemical risks believed that there was in fact reason for concern and that the use of the thresholds leaves the public vulnerable to health effects, including cancer. And after being instructed to refer to exposures they hadn’t actually measured or modeled as “negligible,” the scientists proposed dropping or lowering the cutoffs and running the calculations for each individual chemical — a task that would add only minutes to the assessment process. But the managers refused to heed their request, which would have not only changed how chemicals were assessed moving forward but would have also had implications for hundreds of assessments in the past.

“They told us that the use of the thresholds was a policy decision and, as such, we could not simply stop applying them,” one of the scientists who worked in the office explained to The Intercept.

The issue resurfaced in May 2020 when a scientist presented the case of a single chemical the agency was then considering allowing onto the market. Although it fell into the “negligible” category using the cutoffs that had been set decades previously, when the scientists calculated the exposure levels using an alternate EPA model, which is designed to gauge the risk of airborne chemicals, it became clear that the chemical did pose a risk of damaging the human nervous system. The chemical is still going through the approval process.

In February, a small group of scientists reviewed the safety thresholds set by the EPA for all of the 368 new chemicals submitted to the agency in 2020. They found that more than half could pose risks even in cases in which the agency had already described exposure as “negligible” and thus had not calculated specific risk. Again, the scientists brought the exposure threshold issue to the attention of managers in the New Chemicals Division, briefing them on their analysis and requesting that the use of the outdated cutoffs be stopped. But they received no response to their proposal. Seven months later, the thresholds remain in use and the risk posed by chemicals deemed to have low exposure levels is still not being calculated and included in chemical assessments, according to EPA scientists who spoke with The Intercept.

The internal struggles over exposure present yet another example of managers and senior staff working to undermine the agency’s mission, according to the EPA scientists. “Our work on new chemicals often felt like an exercise in finding ways to approve new chemicals rather than reviewing them for approval,” said one of two scientists who filed new disclosures to the EPA inspector general on August 31 about the issue. The detailed account of corruption within the New Chemicals Division that four whistleblowers previously submitted to members of Congress, the EPA inspector general, and The Intercept also included information on the ongoing problems caused by the use of the exposure thresholds.”

“It all comes down to money,” said Kyla Bennett, director of science policy for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, the organization representing the whistleblowers, who pointed out that risk values above the agency’s accepted cutoffs require the EPA to impose limits that may make a chemical harder to use — and sell. “Companies don’t want warning labels, they don’t want restrictions.”

It’s unclear why some senior staff and managers within the EPA’s New Chemicals Division seem to feel an obligation not to burden the companies they regulate with restrictions. “That’s the $64,000 question,” said Bennett, who pointed out that EPA staffers may enhance their post-agency job prospects within the industry if they stay in the good graces of chemical companies. She also noted that managers’ performance within the division is assessed partly based on how many chemicals they approve. “The bean counting is driving their actions,” said Bennett. “The performance metrics should be, how many chemicals did you prevent from going onto the market, rather than how many did you get onto the market.”

In response to questions about this story, the EPA  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and no paywall.

Written by Leisureguy

19 September 2021 at 4:42 pm

Food fraud and counterfeit cotton: The detectives untangling the global supply chain

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Samanth Subramanian reports in the Guardian:

Five years ago, the textile giant Welspun found itself mired in a scandal that hinged on a single word: “Egyptian”. At the time, Welspun was manufacturing more than 45m metres of cotton sheets every year – enough to tie a ribbon around the Earth and still have fabric left over for a giant bow. It supplied acres of bed linen to the likes of Walmart and Target, and among the most expensive were those advertised as “100% Egyptian cotton”. For decades, cotton from Egypt has claimed a reputation for being the world’s finest, its fibres so long and silky that it can be spun into soft, luxurious cloth. In Welpsun’s label, the word “Egyptian” was a boast and a promise.

But the label couldn’t always be trusted, it turned out. In 2016, Target carried out an internal investigation that led to a startling discovery: roughly 750,000 of its Welspun “Egyptian cotton” sheets and pillowcases were made with an inferior kind of cotton that didn’t come from Egypt at all. After Target offered its customers refunds and ended its relationship with Welspun, the effects rippled through the industry. Other retailers, checking their bed linen, also found Welspun sheets falsely claiming to be Egyptian cotton. Walmart, which was sued by shoppers who had bought Welspun’s “Egyptian cotton” products, refused to stock Welspun sheets any more. A week after Target made its discoveries public, Welspun had lost more than $700m from its market value. It was cataclysmic for the company.

Blindsided, Welspun struggled to understand what had gone wrong, but working that out wasn’t easy. The cotton business is labyrinthine, and the supply chains of products – running from the source farm to the shop shelf – have grown increasingly complex. A T-shirt sold in New Delhi might be made of cotton grown in India, blended with other cotton from Australia, spun into yarn in Vietnam, woven into cloth in Turkey, sown and cut in Portugal, bought by a Norwegian company and shipped back to India – and that’s a relatively simple supply chain. For years, Welspun had been buying raw cotton, yarn and whole cloth, all claiming to be of Egyptian origin, from dozens of vendors. The source of the fiasco might have been a mistake – a mislabelled shipment of cotton yarn, perhaps – or it might have been deliberate fraud by some remote supplier. Either way, it was lost in the maze.

In the thick of its crisis, Welspun sought out a company named Oritain. Founded in 2008, in the town of Dunedin in New Zealand, Oritain is a kind of forensic detective agency – a supply-chain CSI. Its work, which takes us into the heart of modern commerce, depends upon a basic truth about our planet. The Earth is so geologically diverse that, in a location’s soil or water, the precise concentrations of elements often turns out to be unique to that region. That singular mix of elements works its way into the crops from the region as well, so that cotton grown in the south of the US has a different combination of elements compared to cotton from Egypt – each combination distinct, like a signature.

Prof Russell Frew, the geochemist who co-founded Oritain, had been studying element analysis at the University of Otago when he recognised how his research could address a major commercial problem. Fraudulent products sit on shop shelves everywhere. When they’re detected, they trigger fierce controversies, like the time in 2013, when British and Irish authorities found horse meat liberally mixed into “beef” patties. But for every headline-grabbing deception, there are countless unnoticed ones. Sugar syrup is blended into organic honey. “New Zealand lamb chops” come from Chinese feedlot animals; extra virgin olive oil is cut with cheap, inferior oil; T-shirts are stitched out of cotton grown on forced-labour farms. Labels often lie. The counterfeit food game alone is worth $49bn a year.

These deceits, Frew realised, could be sniffed out by element analysis: hence Oritain. The company’s clients include well known brands such as Primark, but also industry bodies such as Cotton USA and Meat Promotion Wales. All of them are keen to avoid nasty surprises of the kind that Welspun experienced, the kind that can burn up the bottom line or sink a range of products – the low-quality supermarket steak masquerading as prime Welsh beef, say, or the pair of socks that turns out to be made with cotton from Xinjiang, in China, where factories are suspected of using captive labour.

Oritain promises to determine with 95% accuracy if a coffee bean or a cut of meat is really from the source advertised on its label. Some items are easier to analyse than others. “Tea is a . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

18 September 2021 at 11:57 am

When Wall Street came to coal country: how a big-money gamble scarred Appalachia

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Mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia

Evan Osnos reports in the Guardian:

Once or twice a generation, Americans rediscover Appalachia. Sometimes, they come to it through caricature – the cartoon strip Li’l Abner or the child beauty pageant star Honey Boo Boo or, more recently, Buckwild, a reality show about West Virginia teenagers, which MTV broadcast with subtitles. Occasionally, the encounter is more compassionate. In 1962, the social critic Michael Harrington published The Other America, which called attention to what he described as a “vicious circle of poverty” that “twists and deforms the spirit”.

Around the turn of this century, hedge funds in New York and its environs took a growing interest in coalmines. Coal never had huge appeal to Wall Street investors – mines were dirty, old-fashioned and bound up by union contracts that made them difficult to buy and sell. But in the late 1990s, the growing economies of Asia began to consume more and more energy, which investors predicted would drive up demand halfway around the world, in Appalachia. In 1997, the Hobet mine, a 25-year-old operation in rural West Virginia, was acquired for the first time by a public company, Arch Coal. It embarked on a major expansion, dynamiting mountaintops and dumping the debris into rivers and streams. As the Hobet mine grew, it consumed the ridges and communities around it. Seen from the air, the mine came to resemble a giant grey amoeba – 22 miles from end to end – eating its way across the mountains.

Up close, the effects were far more intimate. When Wall Street came to coal country, it triggered a cascade of repercussions that were largely invisible to the outside world but of existential importance to people nearby.

Down a hillside from the Hobet mine, the Caudill family had lived and hunted and farmed for a century. Their homeplace, as they called it, was 30 hectares (75 acres) of woods and water. The Caudills were hardly critics of mining; many were miners themselves. John Caudill was an explosives expert until one day, in the 30s, a blast went off early and left him blind. His mining days were over, but his land was abundant, and John and his wife went on to have 10 children. They grew potatoes, corn, lettuce, tomatoes, beets and beans; they hunted game in the forests and foraged for berries and ginseng. Behind the house, a hill was dense with hemlocks, ferns and peach trees.

One by one, the Caudill kids grew up and left for school and work. They settled into the surrounding towns, but stayed close enough to return to the homeplace on weekends. John’s grandson, Jerry Thompson, grew up a half-hour down a dirt road. “I could probably count on one hand the number of Sundays I missed,” he said. His grandmother’s menu never changed: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn and cake. “You’d just wander the property for hours. I would have a lot of cousins there, and we would ramble through the barns and climb up the mountains and wade in the creek and hunt for crawdads.”

Before long, the Hobet mine surrounded the land on three sides, and Arch Coal wanted to buy the Caudills out. Some were eager to sell. “We’re not wealthy people, and some of us are better off than others,” Thompson said. One cousin told him, “I’ve got two boys I got to put through college. I can’t pass this up because I’ll never see $50,000 again.” He thought, “He’s right; it was a good decision for him.”

In the end, nine family members agreed to sell, but six refused, and Jerry was one of them. Arch sued all of them, arguing that storing coalmine debris constituted, in legal terms, “the highest and best use of the property”. The case reached the West Virginia supreme court, where a justice asked, sceptically, “The highest and best use of the land is dumping?”

Phil Melick, a lawyer for the company, replied: “It has become that.” He added: “The use of land changes over time. The value of land changes over time.”

Surely, the justice said, the family’s value of the property was not simply economic? It was, Melick maintained. “It has to be measured economically,” he said, “or it can’t be measured at all.”


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To their surprise, the Caudills won their case, after a fashion. They could keep 10 hectares – but the victory was fleeting. Beneath their feet, the land was becoming unrecognisable. Chemicals produced by the mountaintop mine were redrawing the landscape in a bizarre tableau. In streams, the leaves and sticks developed a thick copper crust from the buildup of carbonate, and rocks turned an inky black from deposits of manganese. In the Mud River, which ran beside the Caudills’ property, a US Forest Service biologist collected fish larvae with two eyes on one side of the head. He traced the disfigurements to selenium, a byproduct of mining, and warned, in a report, of an ecosystem “on the brink of a major toxic event”. (In 2010, the journal Science published a study of 78 West Virginia streams near mountaintop-removal mines, which found that nearly all of them had elevated levels of selenium.)

This was more than just the usual tradeoff between profit and pollution, another turn in the cycle of industry and cleanup. Mountaintop removal was, fundamentally, a more destructive realm of technology. It had barely existed until the 90s, and it took some time before scientists could measure the effects on the land and the people. For ecologists, the southern Appalachians was a singular domain – one of the most productive, diverse temperate hardwood forests on the planet. For aeons, the hills had contained more species of salamander than anywhere else, and a lush canopy that attracts neotropical migratory birds across thousands of miles to hatch their next generation. But a mountaintop mine altered the land from top to bottom: after blasting off the peaks – which miners call the “overburden” – bulldozers pushed the debris down the hillsides, where it blanketed the streams and rivers. Rainwater filtered down through a strange human-made stew of metal, pyrite, sulphur, silica, salts and coal, exposed to the air for the first time. The rain mingled with the chemicals and percolated down the hills, funnelling into the brooks and streams and, finally, into the rivers on the valley floor, which sustained the people of southern West Virginia. 

Emily Bernhardt, a Duke University biologist, who spent years tracking the effects of the Hobet mine, told me: “The aquatic insects coming out of these streams are loaded with selenium, and then the spiders that are eating them become loaded with selenium, and it causes deformities in fish and birds.” The effects distorted the food chain. Normally, tiny insects hatched in the water would fly into the woods, sustaining toads, turtles and birds. But downstream, scientists discovered that some species had been replaced by flies usually found in wastewater treatment plants. By 2009, the damage was impossible to ignore. In a typical study, biologists tracking a migratory bird called the cerulean warbler found that its population had fallen by 82% in 40 years. The 2010 report in Science concluded that the impacts of mountaintop-removal mining on water, biodiversity and forest productivity were “pervasive and irreversible”. Mountaintop mines had buried more than 1,000 miles of streams across Appalachia, and, according to the EPA, altered 2,200 sq miles of land – an area bigger than Delaware.

Before long, scientists discovered impacts on the people, too. Each explosion at the top of a mountain released elements usually kept underground – lead, arsenic, selenium, manganese. The dust floated down on to the drinking water, the back-yard furniture, and through the open windows. Researchers led by Michael Hendryx, a professor of public health at West Virginia University, published startling links between mountaintop mines and health problems of those in proximity to it, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects. Between 1979 and 2005, the 70 Appalachian counties that relied most on mining had recorded, on average, more than 2,000 excess deaths each year. Viewed one way, those deaths were the cost of progress, the price of prosperity that coal could bring. But Hendryx also debunked that argument: the deaths cost $41bn a year in expenses and lost income, which was $18bn more than coal had earned the counties in salaries, tax revenue and other economic benefits. Even in the pure economic terms that the companies used, Hendryx observed, mountaintop mining had been a terrible deal for the people who lived there.


.
O
ne afternoon, I hiked up through the woods behind the Caudills’ house to see the changes in the land. By law, mines are required to “remediate” their terrain, returning it to an approximation of its former condition. But, far from the public eye, the standards can be comically lax. After climbing through the trees for a while, I emerged into a sun-drenched bowl of . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

18 September 2021 at 11:26 am

Is the Three-Minute Song Bad for Music?

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Ted Gioia has a very interesting video, along with a transcript that includes at the end some additional thoughts that didn’t get mentioned in the video. Here’s the video, but click the link for the transcript and the additional thoughts.

Written by Leisureguy

17 September 2021 at 2:51 pm

Old Rockin’ Chair’s Got Me … and it does a world of good.

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A reader reminded me (thanks, Joanne!) that rocking chairs have significant health benefits. And those are not all — there are more. And specifically for elderly women. (Some overlap will be seen. You can find more with a search.)

Moreover, rocking chairs can be not only comfortable and healthful but also beautiful (example at right from Brian Boggs Handmade Furniture, profiled in Craftsmanship magazine).

At one time, every front porch — remember those — had at least one rocking chair, and the front porch at the general store would have a line of them. There’s no doubt that they are relaxing — a grateful pause in the hurly-burly of daily life — and they they actually carry serious health benefits when used consistently over time is a big bonus. (I found it reassuring that inthe first article linked above it was stated that dementia patients improved by having less agitation and greater calmness after using a rocking chair for six weeks. That time span — not an instant change, but a gradual change, at the speed of growth — makes intuitive sense, whereas a claim of instant improvement would arouse suspicion as being contrary to the nature of rocking-chair time.)

At any rate, the season of gifts is not far off, and it occurs to me that a good rocking chair would be an excellent gift to oneself or even to another. 

Written by Leisureguy

17 September 2021 at 12:36 pm

No wish to disturb, but civilization will crumble within a generation: Not a single G20 country is in line with the Paris Agreement on climate

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It’s very much as if large organizations — governments and major corporations — are not concerned that climate change is going to decimate the civilized world. And the reason is pretty clear: they don’t care. Note that I am not saying that the persons do not care. It’s the organizations that do not care. Organizations are memeplexes — complex structures made of memes, with their own imperatives and goals, independent of the collection of hosts (human persons) whose minds together make up the meme structure.

3M is a very old company (founded 119 years ago), and it has an distinct culture. That company and culture has persisted/lived through several generations of managers and employees because — just as “you” exist independent of the cells in your body, which are live, die, and are replaced as years go by — the organization exists independent of the specific personnel in it at any particular time. Memes (and memplexes) have their own drives and directions, and those are not always beneficial to their human hosts.

So it seems to be with climate change: we humans will suffer greatly, but we seem powerless to change the direction of the memes that have evolved in human culture. (A good read in this connection is Susan Blackmore’s talk “Dangerous Memes; or, What the Pandorans let loose.”)

Ivana Kottasová reports for CNN:

None of the world’s major economies — including the entire G20 — have a climate plan that meets their obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement, according to an analysis published Wednesday, despite scientists’ warning that deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions are needed now.

The watchdog Climate Action Tracker (CAT) analyzed the policies of 36 countries, as well as the 27-nation European Union, and found that all major economies were off track to contain global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The countries together make up 80% of the world’s emissions.

The analysis also included some low-emissions countries, and found that the Gambia was the only nation among all 37 to be “1.5 compatible.” As the study only included a few smaller emitters, it’s possible there are other developing countries in the world on track as well.

Under the 2015 Paris accord, more than 190 countries agreed to limit the increase in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures — ideally to 1.5 degrees. Scientists have said 2 degrees is a critical threshold for some of the Earth’s ecosystems, and is one that would also trigger more catastrophic extreme weather events.

The report comes less than two months ahead of UN-brokered international climate talks in Glasgow, known as COP26. The event’s president, British MP Alok Sharma, has said he hopes to “keep 1.5 alive” as a global warming limit.

CAT reported that progress had stalled after dozens of world leaders made ambitious new pledges to slash greenhouse gas emissions during the US President Joe Biden’s Climate Leaders’ Summit in April.
“In May, after the Climate Leaders’ Summit and the Petersburg dialogue, we reported that there appeared to be good momentum with new climate action commitments,” said Niklas Höhne, a founding partner of the NewClimate Institute, a CAT partner.

“But since then, there has been little to no improvement: nothing is moving,” he said. “Anyone would think they have all the time in the world, when in fact the opposite is the case.”

Six countries, including the UK, have an overall climate policy that is “nearly sufficient,” according to the report, meaning they are not yet consistent with 1.5-degree alignment but could be with small improvements. The UK’s targets are in line with 1.5 degrees, but its policies in practice don’t meet the benchmark.
The overall climate plans of the US, European Union and Japan are not sufficient to reach the 1.5-degree goal, the analysis found, saying that while their domestic targets are relatively close to where they need to be, their international policies are not.

CAT had previously categorized the US as “critically insufficient” — the worst category — under former President Donald Trump, who formally withdrew the country from the Paris Agreement shortly before the end of his term.
The United States’ domestic emission-cutting target has since been upgraded to “almost sufficient.” However, the US is still insufficient in CAT’s “fair share” target rating, which takes into account the country’s “responsibility and capability.” . . .

Continue reading, though it’s depressing. There’s quite a bit more.

See also “Global Update: Climate target updates slow as science demands action,” which offers technical detail of our approaching doom.

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2021 at 4:57 pm

A Boy Went to a COVID-Swamped ER. He Waited for Hours. Then His Appendix Burst.

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Those who refuse to get the COVID vaccine and refuse to wear masks are putting not just themselves at risk but others as well. Refusing to heed public health measures is an aggressive act against society that is also a danger to self.

Jenny Deam reports in ProPublica:

What first struck Nathaniel Osborn when he and his wife took their son, Seth, to the emergency room this summer was how packed the waiting room was for a Wednesday at 1 p.m.

The Florida hospital’s emergency room was so crowded there weren’t enough chairs for the family to all sit as they waited. And waited.

Hours passed and 12-year-old Seth’s condition worsened, his body quivering from the pain shooting across his lower belly. Osborn said his wife asked why it was taking so long to be seen. A nurse rolled her eyes and muttered, “COVID.”

Seth was finally diagnosed with appendicitis more than six hours after arriving at Cleveland Clinic Martin Health North Hospital in late July. Around midnight, he was taken by ambulance to a sister hospital about a half-hour away that was better equipped to perform pediatric emergency surgery, his father said.

But by the time the doctor operated in the early morning hours, Seth’s appendix had burst — a potentially fatal complication.

As the nation’s hospitals fill and emergency rooms overflow with critically ill COVID-19 patients, it is the non-COVID-19 patients, like Seth, who have become collateral damage. They, too, need emergency care, but the sheer number of COVID-19 cases is crowding them out. Treatment has often been delayed as ERs scramble to find a bed that may be hundreds of miles away.

Some health officials now worry about looming ethical decisions. Last week, Idaho activated a “crisis standard of care,” which one official described as a “last resort.” It allows overwhelmed hospitals to ration care, including “in rare cases, ventilator (breathing machines) or intensive care unit (ICU) beds may need to be used for those who are most likely to survive, while patients who are not likely to survive may not be able to receive one,” the state’s website said.

The federal government’s latest data shows Alabama is at 100% of its intensive care unit capacity, with Texas, Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas at more than 90% ICU capacity. Florida is just under 90%.

It’s the COVID-19 cases that are dominating. In Georgia, 62% of the ICU beds are now filled with just COVID-19 patients. In Texas, the percentage is nearly half.

To have so many ICU beds pressed into service for a single diagnosis is “unheard of,” said Dr. Hasan Kakli, an emergency room physician at Bellville Medical Center in Bellville, Texas, about an hour from Houston. “It’s approaching apocalyptic.”

In Texas, state data released Monday showed there were only 319 adult and 104 pediatric staffed ICU beds available across a state of 29 million people.

Hospitals need to hold some ICU beds for other patients, such as those recovering from major surgery or other critical conditions such as stroke, trauma or heart failure.

“This is not just a COVID issue,” said Dr. Normaliz Rodriguez, pediatric emergency physician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. “This is an everyone issue.”

While the latest hospital crisis echoes previous pandemic spikes, there are troubling differences this time around.

Before, localized COVID-19 hot spots led to bed shortages, but there were usually hospitals in the region not as affected that could accept a transfer.

Now, as the highly contagious delta variant envelops swaths of low-vaccination states all at once, it becomes harder to find nearby hospitals that are not slammed.

“Wait times can now be measured in days,” said Darrell Pile, CEO of the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council, which helps coordinate patient transfers across a 25-county region.

Recently, Dr. Cedric Dark, a Houston emergency physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said he saw a critically ill COVID-19 patient waiting in the emergency room for an ICU bed to open. The doctor worked eight hours, went home and came in the next day. The patient was still waiting. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and no paywall.

And from another report:

Enyart is at least the fifth conservative radio talk-show host to have died of covid-19 in the last six weeks after speaking out against vaccination and masking. The others are Marc Bernier, 65, a longtime host in Florida; Phil Valentine, 61, a popular host in Tennessee; Jimmy DeYoung, 81, a nationally syndicated Christian preacher also based in Tennessee; and Dick Farrel, 65, who had worked for stations in Miami and Palm Beach, Fla., as well as for the conservative Newsmax TV channel.

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2021 at 1:27 pm

How indoor air quality affects human health and cognition

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Douglas Starr writes in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):

Joseph Allen runs a major public health research project at Harvard University, probing how indoor air quality affects human health and cognition. He consults with companies on ventilation and air filtration, and during the pandemic he became a prominent voice on public health, writing dozens of op-eds criticizing early guidance from health authorities and debunking misconceptions about how the virus spreads. But none of it would have happened if he hadn’t washed out as an FBI recruit.

The son of a New York City homicide detective who opened his own investigative agency, Allen spent his teens and 20s helping with the family business. He did surveillance, undercover work, computer forensics, and skiptrace—tracking down people who left town to avoid alimony. Eventually he took over the agency, leading investigations and supervising eight agents.

“I enjoyed the work and thought it was challenging,” Allen recalls. But part of him always wanted to be a scientist. He majored in environmental science at Boston College, and in his late 20s, still torn, he began to apply to graduate school even as he started the process to become an FBI agent. After 2 years of interviews and testing, the last step was a routine polygraph test. He failed the first round—the trick questions he was asked were so obvious that he could not take them seriously. So FBI flew in one of its toughest examiners from Iraq—a hulking, jackbooted guy who got right in Allen’s face, screaming that he knew he was lying. But Allen kept cool, and after a while, the interrogator stormed out and slammed the door.

“I thought he would come back in the room and say, ‘Congratulations,’ cause I’m thinking I’m crushing it,” Allen recalls. “But they failed me because they said I employed countermeasures.” FBI apparently didn’t want an agent who couldn’t be unnerved by a polygraph test. And that solved Allen’s career dilemma. “I guarantee I’m the only public health student ever to fail an FBI lie detector polygraph in the morning and start graduate school a few hours later,” Allen says. But his investigative instincts never left him.

A tall, athletic-looking man with a bald head and stylish stubble, Allen directs the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where he studies the effects of toxic gases emitted from furniture, carpets, and paints; stale air; and high levels of carbon dioxide. Years of studies by Allen and others have shown poorly circulated air in buildings impairs our ability to think clearly and creatively. Considering that we spend more than 90% of our lifetimes indoors, those findings have implications for personal well-being—and for businesses concerned about their bottom line.

“Joe has always had a unique understanding of this range of domains—from how buildings work, to environmental exposure assessment, to making connections with health outcomes,” says Brent Stephens, chair of the Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “There’s not a tremendous number of people in this world that have worked on that whole spectrum.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, the previously esoteric field of indoor air quality suddenly became the focus of widespread concern. Like many of his colleagues, Allen jumped into the fray, advising school systems, police departments, entertainment companies, the Boston Symphony, and a host of other entities on how to make their indoor air healthier, during the pandemic and afterward.

“COVID really changed the conversation,” says Matt Murray, vice president of leasing at Boston Properties, the largest publicly traded developer in the United States and one of Allen’s consulting clients. Before the pandemic, the company would have to explain to bored executives why they should pay attention to indoor air. “Now, the CEOs are all saying, ‘What filters do you use? How you process the air you bring into the workspace?’” Murray says. “And we’re ready for those conversations because we’ve been working with Joe.”

AFTER HE FAILED his FBI exam, Allen became a different kind of sleuth. For his doctoral thesis at the Boston University School of Public Health, he investigated toxic flame-retardant chemicals released into the air by furniture, and found they were nearly ubiquitous. (The chemicals were later banned.) After graduation he got a job with a consulting firm, where he investigated problems such as toxic emissions from drywall and outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, which is caused by bacteria that grow in plumbing and become aerosolized by ventilation systems, showers, or even flushed toilets. Those investigations introduced him to “sick building syndrome,” a problem first identified in the 1970s in which the occupants experience fatigue, itchy eyes, headaches, and other symptoms. Exactly what causes these ailments isn’t clear, but exposure to contaminated air is a likely culprit. Allen became convinced that the building you work in can have more impact on your health than your doctor.

In 2014, Allen accepted a position at Harvard, where he soon turned his attention to how the indoor environment can affect people’s cognitive abilities. Many of us have struggled to pay attention during a long staff meeting in a stuffy conference room. Research by Allen and others suggests that lassitude may not be due solely to boredom, but also to the carbon dioxide (CO2)-rich conference room air.

Ever since the energy shocks of the 1970s, buildings in the United States have been made as airtight and energy-efficient as possible. The result was a buildup of toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and exhaled CO2. “Green building standards” introduced in the late ’90s focused on reducing toxic materials and making buildings healthier as well as more sustainable, but they didn’t prioritize indoor air quality and ultimately did little to improve it.

In a multiyear series of experiments, Allen and his team have investigated the consequences. In the first study, published in 2015, they had 24 white-collar volunteers spend six working days in environmentally controlled office spaces at Syracuse University’s Total Indoor Environmental Quality Laboratory. On various days the experimenters would alter ventilation rates and levels of CO2 and VOCs. Each afternoon the volunteers were tested on their ability to think analytically and react to a crisis. (One test, for example put the volunteer in the role of a small-town mayor trying to react to an emergency.) All tests were double-blind: Neither the volunteers nor the study personnel knew that day’s environmental conditions.

The results were dramatic. When  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more — and it’s important.

The Clean Air Act should be extended to indoor air quality in businesses — and in some instances, OSHA also should be involved. Or, of course, we could just trust businesses to take seriously the health and well-being of their employees and customers. (Just joking — good one, eh?)

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2021 at 11:15 am

It’s Not Just Us: Even American Animals Are Getting Fatter

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David Epstein had an interesting article back in October 2013. I came across it this morning. It begins:

Everyone knows Americans are fat and getting fatter, and everyone thinks they know why: more eating and less moving.

But the “big two” factors may not be the whole story. Consider this: Animals have been getting fatter too. The National Pet Obesity Survey recently reported that more than 50 percent of cats and dogs—that’s more than 80 million pets—are overweight or obese. Pets have gotten so plump that there’s now a National Pet Obesity Awareness Day. (It was Wednesday.) Lap dogs and comatose cats aren’t alone in the fat animal kingdom. Animals in strictly controlled research laboratories that have enforced the same diet and lifestyle for decades are also ballooning.

In 2010, an international team of scientists published findings that two dozen animal populations—all cared for by or living near humans—had been rapidly fattening in recent decades. “Canaries in the Coal Mine,” they titled the paper, and the “canaries” most closely genetically related to humans—chimps—showed the most troubling trend. Between 1985 and 2005, the male and female chimps studied experienced 33.2 and 37.2 percent weight gains, respectively. Their odds of obesity increased more than 10-fold.

To be sure, some of the chimp obesity crisis may be caused by the big two. According to Joseph Kemnitz, director of the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, animal welfare laws passed in recent decades have led caretakers to strive to make animals happier, often employing a method known to any parent of a toddler: plying them with sugary food. “All animals love to eat, and you can make them happy by giving them food,” Kemnitz said. “We have to be careful how much of that kind of enrichment we give them. They might be happier, but not healthier.”

And because they don’t have to forage for the food, non-human primates get less exercise. Orangutans, who Kemnitz says are rather indolent even in their native habitats in Borneo and Sumatra, have in captivity developed the physique of spreading batter.

Still, in “Canaries in the Coal Mine,” the scientists write that, more recently, the chimps studied were “living in highly controlled environments with nearly constant living conditions and diets,” so their continued fattening in stable circumstances was a surprise. The same goes for lab rats, which have been living and eating the same way for thirty years.

The potential causes of animal obesity are legion: ranging from increased rates of certain infections to stress from captivity. Antibiotics might increase obesity by killing off beneficial bacteria. “Some bacteria in our intestines are associated with weight gain,” Kemnitz said. “Others might provide a protective effect.”

But feral rats studied around Baltimore have gotten fatter, and they don’t suffer the stress of captivity, nor have they received antibiotics. Increasingly, scientists are turning their attention toward factors that humans and the wild and captive animals that live around them have in common: air, soil, and water, and the hormone-altering chemicals that pollute them.

Hormones are the body’s chemical messengers, released by a particular gland or organ but capable of affecting cells all over the body. While hormones such as testosterone and estrogen help make men masculine and women feminine, they and other hormones are involved in a vast array of functions. Altering or impeding hormones can cause systemic effects, such as weight gain.

More than a decade ago, Paula Baille-Hamilton, a visiting fellow at Stirling University in Scotland who studies toxicology and human metabolism, started perusing scientific literature for chemicals that might promote obesity. She turned up so many papers containing evidence of chemical-induced obesity in animals (often, she says, passed off by study authors as a fluke in their work) that it took her three years to organize evidence for the aptly titled 2002 review paper: “Chemical Toxins: A Hypothesis to Explain the Global Obesity Epidemic.” “I found evidence of chemicals that affect every aspect of our metabolism,” Baille-Hamilton said. Carbamates, which are used in insecticides and fungicides, can suppress the level of physical activity in mice. Phthalates are used to give flexibility to plastics and are found in a wide array of scented products, from perfume to shampoo. In people, they alter metabolism and have been found in higher concentrations in heavier men and women.

In men, phthalates interfere with the normal action of testosterone, an important hormone for maintaining healthy body composition. Phthalate exposure in males has been associated with a suite of traits symptomatic of low testosterone, from lower sperm count to greater heft. (Interference with testosterone may also explain why baby boys of mothers with higher phthalate levels have shorter anogenital distances, that is, the distance between the rectum and the scrotum. Call it what you want, fellas, but if you have a ruler handy and find that your AGD is shorter than two inches, you probably have a smaller penis volume and a markedly higher risk of infertility.)

Baille-Hamilton’s work highlights evidence that weight gain can be influenced by endocrine disruptors, chemicals that mimic and can interfere with the natural hormone system.

A variety of flame retardants have been implicated in endocrine disruption, and one chemical originally developed as a flame retardant—brominated vegetable oil, or BVO—is banned in Europe and Japan but is prevalent in citrusy soft drinks in the U.S. Earlier this year, Gatorade ditched BVO, but it’s still in Mountain Dew and other drinks made by Gatorade’s parent company, PepsiCo. (Many doctors would argue that for weight gain, the sugar in those drinks is the primary concern.) PepsiCo did not respond to a request for comment, but shortly after the Gatorade decision was made a company spokeswoman said it was because “some consumers have a negative perception of BVO in Gatorade.”

And then there are the newly found zombie chemicals, which share a nasty habit—rising from the dead at night—with their eponymous horror flick villains. The anabolic steroid trenbolone acetate is used as a growth promoter in cattle in the U.S., and its endocrine disrupting metabolites—which wind up in agricultural run-off water—were thought to degrade quickly upon exposure to sunlight. Until last month, when researchers published results in Science showing that the metabolites reconstitute themselves in the dark. . .

Continue reading. Endocrine disruptors — for example, the microscopic plastic particles now commonly found in seafood — are very bad because their effect is amplified by natural bodily processes: a tiny amount can have a large effect.

Written by Leisureguy

14 September 2021 at 1:41 pm

Posted in Daily life, Food, Health, Science

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