Category Archives: Science

Silent Spring’s 50th Birthday

A couple of months ago, I wrote a review of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962. In her book, she challenges the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world. I compared her passion for communicating these issues with Josh Fox’s documentary, Gaslands, 2010. 50 years on and nothing has changed, energy companies still have a grip on the policy makers and the policy makers prioritise power and wealth over the safety of the people who elected them.

After writing this review, I have come across many criticisms of Carson, her

Rachel Carson

poetic style of writing and her intent to murder African children . There are even websites dedicated to dismissing Carson’s scientific claims such as rachelwaswrong.org.

 

A recent blog post in TIME, highlighted once more how much backlash Carson received just before her untimely death due to breast cancer in 1964.

Carson was attacked for being a female scientist and like a scene from 1984, was accused of being an accomplice of the communist regime.

”Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her Communist sympathies, like a lot of our writers these days. We can live without birds and animals, but, as the current market slump shows, we cannot live without business. As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs! As long as we have the H-bomb everything will be O.K.

—Letter to the editor of the New Yorker [cited in Smith 2001, 741]”

DDT

Silent Spring highlights the toxic effects of DDT use on animals, particularly birds. After attention was drawn to these concerns, in 1972, the resulting movement succeeded in getting DDT banned in the U.S. Carson’s main critics linked her call of the dangers of DDT to the death of millions in Africa.

DDT had been effective in eradicating malaria- carrying mosquitoes and was sprayed heavily on houses in developing countries. However, due to the over-use of DDT, mosquitoes have developed a enzyme that makes them resistant to the pesticide, proving it useless.

There is no global DDT ban. DDT is indeed banned in the U.S., but malaria isn’t exactly a pressing issue there. Africa didn’t cut back on pesticides, in fact, the opposite occurred. As the pesticide companies got to participate in the United Nations agency through a system called the “Industry Cooperative Program,” they provided advice on pest control, unsurprisingly recommending significant pesticide usage.

These pesticide industries preferred to blame Carson instead of the fact that mosquitoes were becoming resistant to their own product, DDT.

A web page on JunkScience.com features a live Malaria Death Clock next to a photo of Rachel Carson, holding her responsible for more deaths than malaria has caused in total. The website RachelWasWrong.org, features photos of deceased African children along the side of every page.

“At one level, these articles send a comforting message to the developed world: Saving African children is easy. We don’t need to build large aid programs or fund major health initiatives, let alone develop Third World infrastructure or think about larger issues of fairness. No, to save African lives from malaria, we just need to put our wallets away and work to stop the evil environmentalists” (www.fair.org)

Carson simply wanted to bring some balance to the use of powerful chemicals at a time when ecology was barely considered a science and industry had license to do whatever it wanted in the name of progress. She was the first to recognise that these energy and pesticide industries had a terrifying grip on policy.

“If Silent Spring gave birth to the modern green movement, the critical reaction to it created the blueprint for how industry would defend itself against environmentalism.” Whether it’s pesticides, shale gas or tar sands, the battle plan has been the same: question the science, attack the scientists’ credibility and warn of unbearable costs.

However, these costs may not be as unbearable as one might think. And so I’ll finish with a quote from Carolina Lucas, Green Party MP from the Friends of the Earth conference (London, Sept 15th 2012) “what happens if climate change isn’t real and we’ve built a better future for no reason?”

Further reading:

http://www.rachelcarson.org/Biography.aspx#.UGbmqbKPUs0

http://science.time.com/2012/09/25/how-silent-spring-became-the-first-shot-in-the-war-over-the-environment/

http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3186

http://www.environmentandsociety.org/exhibitions/silent-spring/personal-attacks-rachel-carson

The Neurobiology and Ethics of Voluntary Amputation – Mo Costandi

Being a member of an audience of a much higher age group has always interested me when attending talks and debates. These are a group of people who are not afraid to speak out of line, admit when they don’t understand a topic and express their anger when other attendees don’t follow the rules. This makes me think about the behaviour one keeps while attending a talk. As a college student used to lectures, I sit a couple of rows away from the speaker out of the line of sight (a reaction to the avoidance of pop quizzes, I believe).

In the Conway Hall, first opened in 1929 and owned by the South Place Ethical Society, members flooded the front of the lecture hall as the rather enthusiastic curator, Norman Bacrac ushered Mo Costandi to the podium.

Mo Costandi, a molecular and developmental neurobiologist come science writer and blogger for The Guardian, gave his talk on ‘The Neurobiology and Ethics of Voluntary Amputation’ detailing the neurological origins and ethical issues arising from Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID). You know it’s a tongue twister when even the speaker can’t say it right.

Costandi began by explaining body awareness. When you close your eyes, how do you know where your feet are? Your hands? Proprioception is the internal sense that tells you where your body parts are without you having to look at them.  This internal body awareness relies on receptors in your joints, muscles, ligaments and connective tissue. They pick up information as muscles bend and stretch as well as when your body is still. Body awareness is dependent on being able to perceive and integrate information coming from all the sense organs.

Like people whose gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth, this condition is when a person’s idea of how they should look does not match their actual physical form. It’s called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) and leads to people seeking amputation of their otherwise healthy limb. Also called Apotemnophilia (latin for amputation loving), the brain sees the offending limb as being foreign and not actually a part of the person, thus the desire to have it removed.

Costandi made reference to a case study in Scotland, where Robert Smith (a surgeon, NOT the lead singer of The Cure) had amputated two legs from two healthy patients at their own requests. This report was over shadowed at the time with news of an English doctor, Harold Shipman, who had a recorded history of 218 murders being positively ascribed to him.

The two patients of Dr. Smith claimed that they had very little success from their treatments by psychiatrists and psychologists over the years. In an interview with Dr. Smith, he claimed “The one concern is that many of these individuals will in fact injure themselves. There are quite a lot of anecdotal reports, largely from the States, of people taking the law into their own hands, lying on a railway line or shooting their legs off with a shotgun.” One of the men who had a healthy limb amputated at a Scottish hospital has revealed that he felt like “a complete person” post-amputation. Kevin Wright had his lower left leg removed by surgeon Robert Smith at Falkirk and District Royal Infirmary in September, 1997. The operation brought to an end, 30 years of desperation for Mr Wright, during which he admitted contemplation of suicide, such was the unhappiness caused by his leg.

The Forth Valley Acute Hospitals NHS Trust’s chairman, Ian Mullen put a ban on such surgery as it would damage the reputation of the hospital.

Costandi stated that this disorder had been first recorded in medical text dating back to 1785 by a French Surgeon, John-Joseph Sue.

Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s principal work is Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie (Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study), which was first published in 1886, popularized the words sadism and masochism. He made the first claims that bodily defects can become fetishes. To discourage lay readers, Krafft-Ebing had deliberately chosen a scientific term for the title of the book and had written parts of it in Latin for the same purpose… just in case people got any ideas.

A lot of cases around this time gave details of men who were sexually attracted to lame women. Psychiatrists claimed that male amputees felt their stump represented the falis, however, Costandi reminds us that that’s a load of bullshit.

With many sufferers claiming little sexual motive, the name Apotemnophilia was changed to Body Integrity Identity Disorder in 2005. Today, there are over 300 documented cases, most of which are male and seek amputation on the left side of the body. More research needs to be conducted to understand these preferences. Each potential amputee is very specific about where they want to the limb to be amputated and have felt this obsessively burning desire to remove their limb from a very early age, ‘’even from the age of three’’.

Magnetoencephalography experiments support the hypothesis that BIID arises from congenital dysfunction of the right superior parietal lobule (where the brain processes touch). In 2011, Paul McGeoch et al. published the results of an experiment in which they were able to obtain MEG images of the parietal lobes for four research subjects, three of whom desired amputation. McGeoch and his co-researchers concluded that the images suggest that “inadequate activation of the right superior parietal lobe (SPL) leads to the unnatural situation in which the sufferers can feel the limb in question being touched without it actually incorporating into their body image, with a resulting desire for amputation.” So even though they felt the touch sensation, they still didn’t believe that limb belonged to them.”

Costandi concluded his talk by bringing in Phantom Limb Syndrome, a sensation, often painful, making the sufferer believe their amputated or missing limb is still attached to their body and is moving appropriately with other body parts. He claimed that 90% of amputees suffer from this condition, however, only 50% of amputees with BIID experience phantom limb syndrome. This further proves Costandi’s point of BIID being a neurological disorder.

Does Mo Costandi believe that sufferers of BIID should be granted amputation?

His answer is yes. One way or another, sufferers of BIID will find a way of removing their limb, whether it’s through constructing a DIY guillotine to submersing their limb in dry ice. The better option would be to get it done in a clean, sterile environment with a professional. Successful amputees have felt a better standard of living after surgery and unlike sufferers of Body Dismorphic Disorder (BDD) where they are constantly trying to change their body image, one amputation is usually enough.

When questions went to the floor, a surgeon claimed that he would never cut a limb from a healthy patient, a person also claimed to be suffering from a psychological disorder of tooth ache, causing him to remove teeth. Another statement from the floor claimed that if these people were allowed amputate their healthy limbs they would become a strain on the state, seeking disability benefit.

An incredibly interesting topic… I’m looking forward to the book!

Green Light to Frack in the UK

‘’ Ministers have been advised to allow the controversial practice of fracking for shale gas to be extended in Britain, despite it causing two earthquakes and the emergence of serious doubts over the safety of the wells that have already been drilled,’’ writes Fiona Harvey, Environmental Correspondent for the Guardian in April 2012.

The hydraulic fracturing of shale rock, which has been blamed for causing earthquakes and polluting ground water and has generated fierce opposition from environmentalists, should proceed as long as it is monitored carefully and is accompanied by measures to minimise carbon emissions, said the chairman of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith of Finsbury.

Creating fissures in the bedrock can lead to seismic activity.

Creating fissures in the bedrock can lead to seismic activity.

Cuadrilla Resources, Britain’s first shale gas exploration license holder, claims a 1200km2 area around Blackpool, Preston and Southport contains enough methane to meet national gas demand for at least 65 years, reducing prices for British consumers and creating thousands of jobs. This is said to lead to £120m in business rates being paid to local councils over 30 years, £5-6bln in tax revenues for the government and up to 5,600 new jobs created with an average salary of £55,000.

Cuadrilla Resources, a joint venture between Australian drilling firm AJ Lucas

Mark Miller, Cuadrilla's chief executive "We are pleased that the experts have come to a clear conclusion that it is safe to allow us to resume hydraulic fracturing, following the procedures outlined in the review."

Mark Miller, Cuadrilla’s chief executive
“We are pleased that the experts have come to a clear conclusion that it is safe to allow us to resume hydraulic fracturing, following the procedures outlined in the review.”

and American private equity firm Riverstone, announced a 500m2 area of the Bowland sedimentary rock basin in West Lancashire, for which it holds shale gas exploration licenses. This area holds a total potential resource of 5.66 trillion m3 of natural gas which is more than 10 times the existing UK gas reserves.

Beside the potential danger of contaminating our precious water supplies, greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas operations could be much greater than emissions from conventional gas drilling. This is because more natural gas (methane), which exerts a powerful greenhouse effect in the atmosphere, is likely to escape when the rocks are split to extract it.

Green groups argue that fracking will put carbon-cutting targets out of reach, by locking in high-carbon emitting infrastructure and crowding out investment in renewables. “We should be developing the huge potential of clean British energy from the sun, wind and waves, not more dirty and dangerous fossil fuels,” says executive director of Friends of the Earth, Andy Atkins. The wave of extreme energy extraction methods that is sweeping across the planet, driven by rising energy prices and constrained supplies, is forcing similarly rapid changes in the world around us.

In April last year, around Cuadrilla’s main Blackpool site, there was a tremor measuring magnitude 2.3 and in May one measuring magnitude 1.5. These tremors are enough to be felt but do not in themselves cause serious damage.

Cuadrilla has admitted that operations at its Preese Hall well were responsible for two earth tremors

Cuadrilla has admitted that operations at its Preese Hall well were responsible for two earth tremors

An independent panel commissioned by the government said the controversial method of obtaining natural gas should no longer be permitted unless a strict new system is set up to detect warning tremors in the rock.

The controversial drilling method is now likely to be given the green light with Ministers set to accept the advice that it could be extended with new controls

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published an independent expert report recommending measures to mitigate the risks of seismic tremors from hydraulic fracturing. An effective monitoring system and a traffic light control regime are among measures recommended by the report

The report recommends the following measures to mitigate the risk of any damaging seismic activity from future shale gas operations in the Bowland Basin:

  • That the hydraulic fracturing procedure should include a smaller pre-injection and monitoring stage.
  • That an effective monitoring system to provide near real-time locations and magnitudes of any seismic events should be part of any future hydraulic fracturing operations.
  • That future fracking operations for shale gas should be subject to a “traffic light” control regime. A red light at activity levels of magnitude of 0.5 or above means fracking should be stopped and remedial action taken. Unusual seismic activity, even at lower levels, should be carefully assessed before operations proceed.

Estimates of the amount of shale gas in the UK vary widely. Cuadrilla puts the potential resources in Lancashire alone at 200 trillion cubic feet – an amount that could supply the whole of the UK’s gas needs for more than five decades.

In order to wring the maximum from the UK’s resources, there will need to be six to eight wells per square mile around each of the tens of sites to be explored, including as many as 800 in Lancashire and more in areas such as Sussex.

But using more conservative methods, the British Geological Survey put the likely resources at 4.7 trillion cubic feet, one-40th of the company’s figure. Even then, only about 5% to 10% of that figure is likely to be recoverable.

What is the energy minister’s response to this?

Member of the Conservative Party, also bought a castle in Scotland for £2.5 million

Member of the Conservative Party, also bought a castle in Scotland for £2.5 million

Energy Minister, Charles Hendry believes that the proposed operations in the UK are safe. He claims that shale gas drilling in the UK is governed by one of the most robust and stringent regulatory frameworks in the world.

Each fracking application must go through the local planning application process and before any drilling occurs, proposals must also be scrutinised by the Environment Agency to make sure there is no risk to the environment, and in particular to water sources; by the health and safety executive for safety; and by the DECC to ensure best use is made of the resources.

As part of this process, operators are required to disclose the content of fracking fluids to the Environment Agency. Cuadrilla has published this information and nearly all, 99.96%, of the fluid used has been made up of fresh water and sand. The remaining 0.04% was made from polyacrylamide, commonly used in cosmetics. Other additives which might be used in future operations include hydrochloric acid, typically at a concentration of 0.125% or biocide at a concentration of 0.0005%, which can be used if needed to purify the water used in the process.

The House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee agree that there was no evidence that fracking poses a direct risk to underground water aquifers, provided the drilling well is constructed properly.

Promoters of shale gas concentrate on debunking the water contamination theory but fail to mention the carbon footprint of shale gas extraction and burning.

Minister Hendry feels that if we reduce our dependence on foreign fuel, it’ll buy us more time to invest in renewable energies and nuclear power, however, he’s not ruling out coal and gas in the future. As an energy source, fracking “potentially ticks the boxes on energy security, on availability and on cost”.

I find it most unlikely that the government has any real grasp on this.

Shining a Light on Pollution

Hormones, such as estrogen found in water supplies have been seen to cause feminization of aquatic animals, reducing fertility. Other studies have suggested that long term exposure to low levels of estrogens in drinking water may adversely affect human health.

Zebrafish that have been genetically modified to contain Green Florescent Proteins sensitive to estrogen can detect the effects of low concentrations of estrogenic endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) present in our waterways. Until now, it has been known that environmental estrogens alter hormone signalling in the body that can induce reproductive abnormalities in humans and wildlife. In 2002, a team at Mahavir Hospital and Research Centre, Hyderabad, India, showed how estrogen in the environment causes male infertility. They evaluated semen parameters such as ejaculate volume and sperm count of 21 infertile men and 32 control men, finding that environmental estrogens were present in the semen of infertile men.

But does estrogen affect other areas besides the reproductive system?

In January 2007, Song Houyan and Zhong Tao, two professors at Fudan’s molecular medicine lab, Beijing, cloned estrogen-sensitive genes and injected them into the fertile eggs of zebrafish. The genetically modified fish becomes a biosensor by glowing green when placed in water that is polluted by estrogen. This small tropical fish has become one of the favoured animal model systems for studying gene function, as they have transparent embryos, making it easier to see morphological changes during development. This transparency also means researchers can make use of a naturally fluorescing protein called GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein) – which can be used to label individual cells, organs or even organelles.

In a report by scientists at the University of Exeter this year ‘’Biosensor Zebrafish Provide New Insights into Potential Health Effects of Environmental Estrogens’’, Environmental Health Perspectives, the team used cloned estrogen-sensitive genes in zebrafish to detect the affect of environmental estrogens on signalling mechanisms in a whole body system rather than just the reproductive system. This study was led by Okhyun Lee at the College of Life and Environment Sciences, University of Exeter. The team found that exposure of the zebrafish larvae to endocrine disrupting chemicals induced specific Green Florescent Protein expressions in a wide variety of tissues including the liver, hearth and skeletal muscle. These tissues had not been established previously as targets for estrogen in fish. It was also observed that tissues reacted differently to different chemicals suggesting different potential health defects.

Through this study, the team at Exeter have developed a powerful new model for the understanding of toxicological effects, mechanisms and health impacts of environmental estrogens in vertebrates.

An Accidental Placebo Effect

It’s close to bed time and myself and Ms. Thomas march to the kettle to prepare for our traditional tea and a chat before we go our separate ways. We did not expect the revelation we were about to encounter. I slipped a chai tea bag into my mug and left and room, Thomas call’s from the kitchen ‘you switchin’ to chai?’ I reply with a sense of sensibility, ‘I better!’ after all, work in the morning.

Without hesitation, she slips a chai tea bag into the second mug and before her very eyes; two cups of chai tea have been prepared. Thomas doesn’t drink chai tea. We laugh at the confusion as she takes a sip of the hot beverage she had not planned on consuming. Our chat is directed towards tea and Thomas ponders why I drink chai tea at night whereas I’d normally opt for a good ole’ cup of Barry’s during the daylight hours. I refer to the fact that the caffeine in teas keeps me awake all night, but, to be honest never checked if there was any caffeine in chai tea to begin with. Either way, I’ve never had a problem sleeping after a cup so my question was answered.

Tea is another common source of caffeine. Although tea contains more caffeine than coffee (by dry weight), a typical serving contains much less, as tea is normally brewed much weaker.

Knowing I had Google open, the curiosity grew too much for me and I consulted the web for ease of mind. To my absolute surprise (and most likely not to others) I find that chai tea has roughly the same about of caffeine per mug as your regular cup. ‘Crap!’ I cried ‘Now I won’t be able to sleep tonight.’ Thomas pulls a puzzled expression on her face and replies ‘Because NOW you know chai tea has caffeine in it?’

Another conversation ending in laughing hysterically.

But is caffeine keeping me up at night because I think it should? Is it all in my head?

Caffeine, like most drugs affects people differently, depending on weight, degree of tolerance, time of day, dosage and so on. But we all recognise that feeling of alertness after a strong cup of coffee or maybe that jittery feeling after a bit too much.

What gives us this alertness?

Caffeine crosses the blood-brain barrier and stimulates the Central Nervous System (CNS). By doing this, it blocks an enzyme called Adenosine whose properties are to suppress neural activity and increase blood flow, causing relaxation. When caffeine takes the place of Adenosine we get that kick that has us running to work, ready to start a new day.

So what side effects should we expect besides the energy boost? We could be resulted to feelings of irritability, insomnia, dizziness, headaches, restlessness and if we consume more frequently, a higher tolerance, addiction and nasty withdrawal symptoms.

So how come I found it easier to sleep when I thought chai tea had no caffeine in it?

A paper called Caffeine expectancies influence the subjective and behavioural effects of caffeine (Harrell PTJuliano LM.) answers my exact question.

Caffeine is a pyscoactive drug and should be avoided at night, however, your mind is a powerful stimulant as well, so you’re probably not getting as much as a boost as you think you are. During the study all subjects were told they were drinking real coffee, whereas, half were on decaffeinated coffee (the placebo). The study showed that subjects on the decaf preformed just as well on cognitive tasks as the subjects not taking the placebo.

So there you go, maybe I am giving caffeine more credit than it’s worth and I have no reason to be lying awake all night… is it 4a.m already?