Archive for the ‘Health’ Category
Here’s the story. Note that it has a huge potential market as Baby Boomers hit the Golden Years, hard. So: scam? or not?
The US has been bombarded for decades with statement and arguments about the benefits of capitalism, how it fosters innovation and efficiency and entrepreneurship, but we see much less about the costs. Most people are aware that there is no such thing as a free lunch (a sentiment capitalists in general strongly endorse), but we don’t often get a direct look at the tab we run up eating capitalism’s lunch. We see glimpses: the high price and low quality of care (in general) at for-profit hospitals compared to non-profit hospitals, the communities devastated and sometimes destroyed when a corporation moves all the jobs to some region that pays lower wages (thus boosting corporate profits), and so on.
In The Chronicle of Higher Education Steve Kolowich inteviews Marc Edwards, who describes the costs of the capitalizing of science in academia:
When Marc Edwards opens his mouth, dangerous things come out.
In 2003 the Virginia Tech civil-engineering professor said that there was lead in the Washington, D.C., water supply, and that the city had been poisoning its residents. He was right.
Last fall he said there was lead in the water in Flint, Mich., despite the reassurances of state and local authorities that the water was safe. He was right about that, too.
Working with residents of Flint, Mr. Edwards led a study that revealed that the elevated lead levels in people’s homes were not isolated incidents but a result of a systemic problem that had been ignored by state scientists. He has since been appointed to a task force to help fix those problems in Flint. In a vote of confidence, residents last month tagged a local landmark with a note to the powers that be: “You want our trust??? We want Va Tech!!!”
But being right in these cases has not made Mr. Edwards happy. Vindicated or not, the professor says his trials over the last decade and a half have cost him friends, professional networks, and thousands of dollars of his own money.
The infrastructural problems go beyond the public utilities of certain American cities, he says. In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Edwards said that the systems built to support scientists do not reward moral courage and that the university pipeline contains toxins of its own — which, if ignored, will corrode public faith in science.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Q. I just came back from Flint, and it may not come as a surprise to you that you’re something of a folk hero there. What do you think about that?
A. It’s a natural byproduct of science conducted as a public good. Normal people really appreciate good science that’s done in their interest. They stepped forward as citizen scientists to explore what was happening to them and to their community, we provided some funding and the technical and analytical expertise, and they did all the work. I think that work speaks for itself.
Q. Scientific studies by university-affiliated researchers, namely you and Mona Hanna-Attisha, were a big part of what broke this case open. On the other hand, it took a Flint resident writing to a professor in Virginia to start the process of finding out that there was lead in the drinking water. Do you see this as an academic success story or a cautionary tale?
A. I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index— and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.
This is something that I’m upset about deeply. I’ve kind of dedicated my career to try to raise awareness about this. I’m losing a lot of friends. People don’t want to hear this. But we have to get this fixed, and fixed fast, or else we are going to lose this symbiotic relationship with the public. They will stop supporting us.
Q. Do you have any sense that perverse incentive structures prevented scientists from exposing the problem in Flint sooner?
A. Yes, I do. In Flint the agencies paid to protect these people weren’t solving the problem. They were the problem. What faculty person out there is going to take on their state, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?
I don’t blame anyone, because I know the culture of academia. You are your funding network as a professor. You can destroy that network that took you 25 years to build with one word. I’ve done it. When was the last time you heard anyone in academia publicly criticize a funding agency, no matter how outrageous their behavior? We just don’t do these things.
If an environmental injustice is occurring, someone in a government agency is not doing their job. Everyone we wanted to partner said, Well, this sounds really cool, but we want to work with the government. We want to work with the city. And I’m like, You’re living in a fantasy land, because these people are the problem.
Q. Now that your hypothesis has been vindicated, and the government has its tail between its legs, a lot of researchers are interested.
A. And I hope that they’re interested for the right reasons. But there’s now money — a lot of money — on the table.
Q. Not as much as some of them would like. I heard a lot of people say they thought that a zero might have been missing from the grant moneythat the University of Michigan made available.
A. Right. But the expectation is that there’s tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars that are going to be made available by these agencies. And some part of that will be directed toward research, so we now have a financial incentive to get involved. I hate to sound cynical about it. I know these folks have good intentions. But it doesn’t change the fact that, Where were we as academics for all this time before it became financially in our interest to help? Where were we?
Q. Now, of course, when you walk around Flint and ask people about the reassurances they’re hearing now, they don’t believe anybody. When is it appropriate for academics to be skeptical of an official narrative when that narrative is coming from scientific authorities? Surely the answer can’t be “all of the time.”
A. I’m really surprised how emotional this interview is making me, and I’ve given several hundred interviews. What these agencies did in [the Washington, D.C., case] was the most fundamental betrayal of public trust that I’ve ever seen. When I realized what they had done, as a scientist, I was just outraged and appalled.
I grew up worshiping at the altar of science, and in my wildest dreams I never thought scientists would behave this way. The only way I can construct a worldview that accommodates this is to say, These people are unscientific. Science should be about pursuing the truth and helping people. If you’re doing it for any other reason, you really ought to question your motives.
Unfortunately, in general, academic research and scientists in this country are no longer deserving of the public trust. We’re not.
Q. I think of that rock with the spray paint on it that says, “You want our trust??? We want Va Tech!!!” That’s a vote of confidence in you at the expense of confidence in anybody else. Is that a happy piece of graffiti in your eyes? . . .
Jimmy Carter has reason to be proud of this great accomplishment. Nell Frizzell reports at Motherboard:
The image of a serpent twisting around a staff is probably medicine’s most enduring icon; we wear it on medical alert bracelets, hang it in doctors’ surgeries, and print it on healthcare documents. But the story behind the so-called fiery serpent is, at least according to former US President Jimmy Carter, almost over.
Since 1986, incidences of Guinea worm disease have reduced from 3.5 million to just 22. Read that again—just twenty-two. It’s a drop so enormous that medical experts believe Guinea worm disease is on the brink of becoming the second ever human disease to be completely eradicated through human endeavour, the first being smallpox in 1980.
This week, The UK’s Department for International Development announced a £4.5 million partnership ($6.6 million) to support the Carter Center’s Guinea Worm Eradication Programme. Following the announcement, Carter took to the stage in the gloriously camp, gilt-edged Queen’s Robing Room at the House of Lords on Wednesday evening to speak about his 30 years spent battling the disease.
For centuries, the only treatment for Guinea worm has been to wait for the parasite, which breeds unseen in stagnant water, to burrow out of human skin, then wrap it around a stick and slowly wind it out of the body like a blistering cotton reel over 20 days. This is one theory of where we get the snake around a staff symbol from—a worm and a stick. The process of extracting Guinea worm is not only as unpleasant as it sounds (the worms grow up to a metre long and can break out anywhere on the body, sometimes with as many as 81 emerging from a single person, according to one representative of the Carter Center) but the lesions can often lead to secondary bacterial infections. In short, getting Guinea worms out of your body is every David Kronenberg nightmare made flesh.
The eradication of Guinea worm disease is, in his own words, former President Jimmy Carter’s “most satisfying achievement.” In 1988, just a few years after leaving the White House, Carter travelled to Ghana where he saw a woman holding what he thought was a baby in her arms. As he moved closer, he realised that what this woman was holding was in fact her right breast; a Guinea worm was emerging from her body through her nipple, creating a searing blister and untold tissue damage. As there is no known cure for Guinea worm disease, the focus had to instead be on prevention; educating what Carter described in his lecture last night as “the poorest of all people, but who are as intelligent, ambitious and as hard-working as we are.”
The science behind the programme is so simple that it can be communicated in a cartoon. A special water filtration system—which looks like little more than a large fine-weave hair net fitted over a bucket—cleans water of the copepods or “water fleas” that carry the Guinea worm larvae. In Nigeria, which had 656,000 cases back in 1988 at the beginning of the programme and now has none, 6 million square metres of a special fibre were created to filter people’s drinking water without rotting in the damp, tropical conditions. In countries like South Sudan, where people frequently move around to access water, the Carter Center gives out special straws, worn around your neck like a pendant, to filter water as you drink it.
Back in 1986, there was no YouTube, no television, and little radio to be found in the countries worst affected by Guinea worm disease. So the medical experts involved in the programme turned to cartoons—posters and picture books showing how Guinea worm disease is contracted and how to filter your drinking water. These pictures have now become so widespread that they can even be found printed on the cloth that people use to sew t-shirts, dresses and shirts—literally a walking advertisement for the public health programme. . .
Gruesome photo of a guinea-worm extraction from someone’s foot is shown at the link.
10 things about the Flint tragedy, from Michael Moore, including the use of Flint for live-ammunition military exercises
Michael Moore reports:
News of the poisoned water crisis in Flint has reached a wide audience around the world. The basics are now known: the Republican governor, Rick Snyder, nullified the free elections in Flint, deposed the mayor and city council, then appointed his own man to run the city. To save money, they decided to unhook the people of Flint from their fresh water drinking source, Lake Huron, and instead, make the public drink from the toxic Flint River. When the governor’s office discovered just how toxic the water was, they decided to keep quiet about it and covered up the extent of the damage being done to Flint’s residents, most notably the lead affecting the children, causing irreversible and permanent brain damage. Citizen activists uncovered these actions, and the governor now faces growing cries to resign or be arrested.
Here are ten things that you probably don’t know about this crisis because the media, having come to the story so late, can only process so much. But if you live in Flint or the State of Michigan as I do, you know all to well that what the greater public has been told only scratches the surface.
- While the Children in Flint Were Given Poisoned Water to Drink, General Motors Was Given a Special Hookup to the Clean Water. A few months after Governor Snyder removed Flint from the clean fresh water we had been drinking for decades, the brass from General Motors went to him and complained that the Flint River water was causing their car parts to corrode when being washed on the assembly line. The Governor was appalled to hear that GM property was being damaged, so he jumped through a number of hoops and quietly spent $440,000 to hook GM back up to the Lake Huron water, while keeping the rest of Flint on the Flint River water. Which means that while the children in Flint were drinking lead-filled water, there was one — and only one — address in Flint that got clean water: the GM factory.
- For Just $100 a Day, This Crisis Could’ve Been Prevented. Federal law requires that water systems which are sent through lead pipes must contain an additive that seals the lead into the pipe and prevents it from leaching into the water. Someone at the beginning suggested to the Governor that they add this anti-corrosive element to the water coming out of the Flint River. “How much would that cost?” came the question. “$100 a day for three months,” was the answer. I guess that was too much, so, in order to save $9,000, the state government said f*** it — and as a result the State may now end up having to pay upwards of $1.5 billion to fix the mess.
- There’s More Than the Lead in Flint’s Water. In addition to exposing every child in the city of Flint to lead poisoning on a daily basis, there appears to be a number of other diseases we may be hearing about in the months ahead. The number of cases in Flint of Legionnaires Disease has increased tenfold since the switch to the river water. Eighty-seven people have come down with it, and at least ten have died. In the five years before the river water, not a single person in Flint had died of Legionnaires Disease. Doctors are now discovering that another half-dozen toxins are being found in the blood of Flint’s citizens, causing concern that there are other health catastrophes which may soon come to light.
- People’s Homes in Flint Are Now Worth Nothing Because They Cant Be Sold. Would you buy a house in Flint right now? Who would? So every homeowner in Flint is stuck with a house that’s now worth nothing. That’s a total home value of $2.4 billion down the economic drain. People in Flint, one of the poorest cities in the U.S., don’t have much to their name, and for many their only asset is their home. So, in addition to being poisoned, they have now a net worth of zero. (And as for employment, who is going to move jobs or start a company in Flint under these conditions? No one.) Has Flint’s future just been flushed down that river?
- While They Were Being Poisoned, They Were Also Being Bombed. Here’s a story which has received little or no coverage outside of Flint. During these two years of water contamination, residents in Flint have had to contend with a decision made by the Pentagon to use Flint for target practice. Literally. Actual unannounced military exercises – complete with live ammo and explosives – were conducted last year inside the city of Flint. The army decided to practice urban warfare on Flint, making use of the thousands of abandoned homes which they could drop bombs on. Streets with dilapidated homes had rocket-propelled grenades fired upon them. For weeks, an undisclosed number of army troops pretended Flint was Baghdad or Damascus and basically had at it. It sounded as if the city was under attack from an invading army or from terrorists. People were shocked this could be going on in their neighborhoods. Wait – did I say “people?” I meant, Flint people. As with the Governor, it was OK to abuse a community that held no political power or money to fight back. BOOM!
- The Wife of the Governor’s Chief of Staff Is a Spokeswoman for Nestle, Michigan’s Largest Owner of Private Water Reserves. . .
I want some confirmation on some of this: the Army practicing urban warfare with live ammunition seems incredible.
This story shows a very ugly aspect of the Michigan government’s view of its responsibilities and suggests to me that criminal penalties are in order. Liam Stack reports in the NY Times:
Throughout most of 2015, the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder told the residents of Flint, Mich., that their tap water was safe to drink. But emails released on Thursday suggest the state was concerned about its own employees’ exposure to the city’s water as early as January of last year, even arranging for purified water to be provided at a state office building there.
The emails depict an exchange that month between employees of two state departments that expresses concern about the water’s safety within the Michigan government long before Mr. Snyder acknowledged to residents in the fall that there was a problem.
The correspondence — between employees of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget — was obtained by a liberal advocacy group, Progress Michigan. The news was reported on Thursday by The Detroit Free Press.
Lonnie Scott, the executive director of Progress Michigan, accused the state government of valuing the well-being of its employees more than that of Flint’s residents.
“While residents were being told to relax and not worry about the water, the Snyder administration was taking steps to limit exposure in its own building,” Mr. Scott said in a statement.
The emails, he added, show that “the response was not only late and so far ineffective, but it was also unequal.”
The email exchange began on Jan. 9, 2015, when Jeanette Doll, an employee of the management and budget department, which oversees state buildings, wrote to Jennifer Wolf, an employee of the environmental department, to forward her a “facility notification” regarding the State Office Building in Flint.
The management and budget department had recently been told by city officials that the tap water no longer met safety standards, the document said. It wanted to reassure employees of the state office that it would provide coolers of purified water.
“While the city of Flint states that correction actions are not necessary, D.T.M.B. is in the process of providing a water cooler on each occupied floor, positioned near the water fountain, so you can choose which water to drink,” the notification said. “The coolers will arrive today and will be provided as long as the public water does not meet treatment requirements.”
Ms. Doll sent the notification to Ms. Wolf with a question attached: Would the environmental department be able to determine by March 1, 2015, whether the tap water contained unsafe levels of trihalomethanes, or T.T.H.M., a by-product of chlorine that had been added to the water to kill coliform bacteria?
Ms. Doll’s email was forwarded at least twice by environmental department employees, according to the email thread. One of the recipients was Stephen Busch, a district manager in the department’s drinking water division who was responsible for Flint.
“Steve, appears certain state departments are concerned with Flint’s WQ,” wrote Michael Prsyby, an engineer in the department, using an abbreviation for water quality.
Mr. Busch has since been reassigned within the department and has no role in resolving the water crisis, according to The Detroit Free Press. . . .
From a very interesting article by Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley on how poorly the caloric content of food is actually known:
In 2013, researchers in Jeffrey Gordon’s lab at Washington University tracked down pairs of twins of whom one was obese and one lean. He took gut microbes from each, and inserted them into the intestines of microbe-free mice. Mice that got microbes from an obese twin gained weight; the others remained lean, despite eating the exact same diet. “That was really striking,” said Peter Turnbaugh, who used to work with Gordon and now heads his own lab at the University of California, San Francisco. “It suggested for the first time that these microbes might actually be contributing to the energy that we gain from our diet.”
Wrangham and his colleagues have since shown that cooking unlaces microscopic structures that bind energy in foods, reducing the work our gut would otherwise have to do. It effectively outsources digestion to ovens and frying pans. Wrangham found that mice fed raw peanuts, for instance, lost significantly more weight than mice fed the equivalent amount of roasted peanut butter. The same effect holds true for meat: there are many more usable calories in a burger than in steak tartare. Different cooking methods matter, too. In 2015, Sri Lankan scientists discovered that they could more than halve the available calories in rice by adding coconut oil during cooking and then cooling the rice in the refrigerator.
There’s also the problem that no two people are identical. Differences in height, body fat, liver size, levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and other factors influence the energy required to maintain the body’s basic functions. Between two people of the same sex, weight and age, this number may differ by up to 600 calories a day – over a quarter of the recommended intake for a moderately active woman. Even something as seemingly insignificant as the time at which we eat may affect how we process energy. In one recent study, researchers found that mice fed a high-fat diet between 9am and 5pm gained 28 per cent less weight than mice fed the exact same food across a 24-hour period. The researchers suggested that irregular feedings affect the circadian cycle of the liver and the way it metabolises food, thus influencing overall energy balance. Such differences would not emerge under the feeding schedules in the Beltsville experiments.