Month: January 2007

We're all going to die – Indian Glacier Melting edition

Big Melt Threatens India’s Water — Bagla 2007 (112): 1 — ScienceNOW

The massive glaciers of the Himalayas, which hold one of Earth’s largest reserves of snow and ice, have dwindled by one-fifth in the past 4 decades. A team of Indian geologists and remote sensing experts published the alarming news this week–a grim warning that if the trend continues, it could jeopardize the fresh water supply of more than 500 million people in India

Well, still early news, the worst case scenarios come to pass if there is not enough rain during the monsoon to replenish the glaciers. Here’s a concise Yahoo Answers page compiled by an 18 year old Nicaraguan

All states will have increased rainfall except Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu where it will decrease. Extreme precipitation will increase, particularly along the western coast and west central India.

Excerpted from the Stern report… My reading of the Stern report leads to the conclusion that global warming will increase water availability in the subcontinent, but also lead to more extreme rainfall and flood events, increased run off, more soil erosion, landslides, etc. Increased glacial melting will add to this mess. So, I don’t really like the conclusion this science article seems to come to. South Asia is not going to run out of fresh water anytime soon, it’s just going to have a hell of a time dealing with it!

More bad news for Nalgene

Nalgene, and other so called safe hard plastics made from polycarbonates. Read here for background and all previous Bisphenol A postings.

PLoS Genetics – Bisphenol A Exposure In Utero Disrupts Early Oogenesis in the Mouse

In the course of studies to assess the effects of BPA on the mouse oocyte, we have uncovered a novel “grandmaternal” effect: exposure to BPA during pregnancy disturbs oocyte development in unborn female fetuses. When these fetuses reach adulthood, the perturbations are translated into an increase in chromosomally abnormal eggs and embryos. Thus, low-dose BPA exposure during pregnancy has multigenerational consequences; it increases the likelihood of chromosomally abnormal grandchildren. Our studies also provide mechanistic insight, and, surprisingly, suggest that BPA acts in the fetal ovary not by mimicking the actions of estrogen but by interfering with the function of one of the known estrogen receptors. Thus, our data suggest that estrogen plays a far earlier role in oocyte development than previously suspected and, importantly, raise the possibility that a variety of substances—both synthetic and naturally occurring—that mimic the actions of estrogen or act as estrogen antagonists may affect early oocyte development.

Once again, caution is involved in the interpretation of the results, mice are more sensitive than humans to environmental exposures. The heartening part of this, and other recent studies is that work is now being carried out at doses that are more representative of ambient exposures, making results much more relevant. The part in bold is equally interesting. Estrogen is a very powerful hormone that has so many unknown effects on the body (and the mind, presumably :-;)

Indian Supreme Court to Review Hitherto Sacrosanct Laws

BBC NEWS | South Asia | India court opens laws to review

Judges led by the chief justice closed a loophole that has kept some laws from their scrutiny in a part of the constitution called the Ninth Schedule. The Ninth Schedule was created in 1951 to help protect progressive laws on land reform and ending feudalism, but critics say it has since been misused.

Unfortunately, a shortsighted solution to a problem will be misused. Shielding laws from judicial review is good if you have a reform minded  legislative, and an atavistic judiciary, which was presumably the case in 1950s India. Nehru and his parliament, fresh from the independence struggle, and eager to transfer power from the entrenched zamindari system to the proletariat enacted the ninth schedule as part of the first amendment to the constitution.
The judiciary, and I am guessing here (this is a blog, isn’t it!), was probably filled with remnants of the British Raj civil service, and hence full of entrenched interests. The situation is reversed now, with the judiciary (the higher reaches, that is) coming up through the ranks as lawyers, and the politicians, well, being Indian politicians!

Bad law enacted for a good purpose is still bad law, and this judgment will bring some sanity into lawmaking.

BTW, the list of laws that will come under scrutiny is long, it is a bunch of land reform, industry nationalization and tribal rights acts that will not be challenged. Number 116:

116) The Tamil Nadu Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Reservation of Seats in Educational Institutions and of appointments or posts in the Services under the State) Act, 1993 (Tamil Nadu Act 45 of 1994).

This is the one that precipitated the review. This law called for a 69% of all college admissions in government institutions be based on a quota system to benefit “backward castes”. The supreme court had instituted a 50% cap. This law is sure to be challenged and since the protection under the 9th schedule is lost, will surely be overturned.

PFOA emissions from Non stick cookware and Popcorn Bags

Important research coming out of NY. See here for previous PFOA posts. Perfluorinated compounds are used in the manufacture of Teflon, and are bioaccumulative. The theory is that the salts left over in the manufacture (residuals) are offgassing during use, and exposing consumers to bioaccumulative compounds.

Cast Iron, anyone!!

Quantitation of Gas-Phase Perfluoroalkyl Surfactants and Fluorotelomer Alcohols Released from Nonstick Cookware and Microwave Popcorn Bags

Fluoropolymer dispersions are used for coating certain cookware products and food-contact packaging to impart oil and water repellency. Since salts of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are used as a processing aid in the manufacture of many fluoropolymers, it is necessary to determine if these compounds are still present as residuals after the process used to coat nonstick cookware or packaging, and could be released during typical cooking conditions. In this study, we identified and measured perfluoroalkyl carboxylates (PFCAs), particularly PFOA, and fluorotelomer alcohols (FTOHs; 6:2 FTOH and 8:2 FTOH), released from nonstick cookware into the gas phase under normal cooking temperatures (179 to 233 C surface temperature). PFOA was released into the gas phase at 7-337 ng (11-503 pg/cm2) per pan from four brands of nonstick frying pans. 6:2 FTOH and 8:2 FTOH were found in the gas phase of four brands of frying pans, and the sources of FTOHs released from nonstick cookware are under investigation. We observed a significant decrease in gas-phase PFOA following repeated use of one brand of pan, whereas the other brand did not show a significant reduction in PFOA release following multiple uses. PFOA was found at >5 ng during the fourth use of both brands of pans. FTOHs were not found after the second use of either brand of pans. PFOA was found at 5-34 ng in the vapors produced from a prepacked microwave popcorn bag. PFOA was not found in the vapors produced from plain white corn kernels popped in a polypropylene container. 6:2 FTOH and 8:2 FTOH were measured in the vapors produced from one brand of prepacked microwave popcorn at 223 ± 37 ng and 258 ± 36 ng per bag, respectively, but not measured at >20 ng (LOQ) in the other two brands. On the packaging surface of one brand of microwave popcorn several PFCAs, including C5-C12, 6:2 FTOH, and 8:2 FTOH, were found at concentrations in the order of 0.5-6.0 ng/cm2. This study suggests that residual PFOA is not completely removed during the fabrication process of the nonstick coating for cookware. They remain as residuals on the surface and may be off-gassed when heated at normal cooking temperatures.

More later.

Industry Funding may Bias Nutritional Health Research

Not a truly surprising finding, given the enormous profits at stake for the Nestle’s of the world.

PLoS Medicine – Relationship between Funding Source and Conclusion among Nutrition-Related Scientific Articles

Funding source was significantly related to conclusions when considering all article types (p = 0.037). For interventional studies, the proportion with unfavorable conclusions was 0% for all industry funding versus 37% for no industry funding (p = 0.009). The odds ratio of a favorable versus unfavorable conclusion was 7.61 (95% confidence interval 1.27 to 45.73), comparing articles with all industry funding to no industry funding. Conclusions: Industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favor of sponsors’ products, with potentially significant implications for public health.

Note the zero, as in, the number of unfavorable conclusions in wholly industry funded interventional studies.

interventional study—if humans consumed, or if human tissue was exposed to, a food or food component with the intention of measuring a biological response

Well, not surprising. You can exert much tighter control on an interventional study where you control most of the variables. Seems like there’s some predestination going on here!

What do the authors think is going on here?

(1) Industrial sponsors may fund only those studies that they believe will present their products in a favorable light, or their competitors’ products in an unfavorable light. In support of this possibility, all studies funded entirely by industry were characterized as “benefit” or “antagonism” with regard to the product under study (none were characterized as “no relationship”). That is, industrial organizations do not seem to sponsor articles about products in which they have no financial interest. (2) Investigators might formulate hypotheses, design studies, or analyze data in ways that are consistent with the financial interests of their industrial sponsors. (3) Industrial sponsors or investigators may choose to delay or not publish findings that have negative implications to the sponsor’s product. (4) Authors of scientific reviews may search and interpret the literature selectively, in ways consistent with the sponsor’s interests. (5) Scientific reviews arising from industry-supported scientific symposia, often published as journal supplements, may over- or under-represent certain viewpoints, if presenters whose opinions conflict with the sponsor’s financial interests are not invited to participate.

All good points. Remember next time you read an article in the paper about how exercise is much more important in determining obesity compared to your average sugary drink. Remember that a 12 Oz can of coke contains 39 grams of sugar, or 8 teaspoons worth!

Pollution vs. Development? Hardly!

It’s clean air vs. TV in poor India village – International Herald Tribune

Across the developing world, cheap diesel generators from China and elsewhere have become a favorite way to make electricity. They power everything from irrigation pumps to television sets, allowing growing numbers of rural villages in many poor countries to grow more crops and connect to the wider world.

The headline sucks, clean air vs. TV is not really the choice here. Is the implication that third worlders somehow need to make this a “choice”? It’s not as if the rest of the world has to make this “choice”! They do seem to have both. This is a situation where poor choices are made because of poor infrastructure. Other than the headline, it is a good article because it makes all the right points:

  1. Lack of infrastructure – No centralized power to remote areas
  2. Well meaning, but poorly executed subsidies – Cheap Diesel and Kerosene
  3. Subsidy induced corruption – Diesel/Kerosene pilfering
  4. Top down approaches to development – Throw the money, pay no attention to local experts, don’t follow up, then blame the lazy villagers!
  5. Competition for scarce resources with developed countries – Germany will outpay India for photovoltaics every time.

Biomass burning as an alternative to diesel?

Given the popularity of generators, perhaps the most promising alternative is a new type like the one at the edge of the village that contributes much less to air pollution and global warming. It burns a common local weed instead of diesel, costs half as much to operate, emits less pollution and contributes less to global warming.

The main material is dhaincha, a weed commonly grown in India to restore nitrogen to depleted soils. The dhaincha grows 10 feet tall in just four months, with a three-inch-thick green stalk. Wood from shrubs and trees is used when there is not enough dhaincha.

I am not a big fan of biomass burning, but using a weed that can be replanted repeatedly seems fairly harmless, especially compared to burning diesel.

The project has succeeded partly because it has the active backing of one landlord family, the Sharans. Family members have gone on to successful business careers in big Indian cities and in Europe, and have dedicated themselves to helping their home village.

Local involvement, especially by authority figures goes a long way in rural India.
China does suggests another way forward.

China has tried another approach: supplementing an expansion of electricity from coal-fired power plants with cheap rooftop solar water heaters that channel water through thin pipes crisscrossing a shiny surface.

Close to 5,000 small Chinese companies sell these simple water heaters, and together they have made China the world’s largest market for solar water heaters, with 60 percent of the global market and more than 30 million households using the systems, said Eric Martinot, a renewable energy expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Not so hot during the monsoon, I guess! I remember a friend of mine having a solar heater in their home in the 1980’s. Their company used to make them, so it is old technology, with price being the prime barrier. It will work as a supplemental source, not as the prime source.

Clearly, the wider availability and ubiquity of consumer electronics, and electricity-dependent agriculture has outpaced India’s, and to a lesser extent, China’s power infrastructure. It is easy to make a billion television, it’s not quite so easy to keep them powered!

Perchlorate Coverup?

Pentagon pressured EPA on perchlorate

The federal government has been inconsistent and at times intentionally silent on how much perchlorate is safe in drinking water. As a result, environmental groups contend, defense contractors and the government have been indefinitely shielded from cleanup costs while infants and pregnant women are exposed to a chemical that impairs thyroid function and can slow infant brain development.

Perchlorate is the oxidizing component of rocket fuel that has been proven to interfere with thyroid function at low levels. The defense department is probably the single largest source of localized contamination. So, expecting the EPA (politically appointed head) to regulate the defense department (politically appointed head) is a little naive.

Industry advocates argue that the science on perchlorate is not precise enough to warrant strong — and extremely costly — remedies.

Ah, where would we be without the plutocracy-protectionary principle!

Violence in North East India

ULFA attack has WB, Bihar on alert : ULFA, Assam, violence, Bengal : IBNLive.com : CNN-IBN

In a brutal backtracking, after gunning down 17 non-Assamese workers on Friday in the Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts, the ULFA went on a rampage on Saturday gunning down migrant workers from Bihar and Bengal.

Assam is a state in North East India bordering West Bengal, and Bangladesh, and there has always been a lot of tension between the ethnic Assamese and Banglas from both sides of the border. The United Liberation Front of  Asom (ULFA)  purports to  speak for the Assamese and has been waging a violent armed struggle. Unfortunately, they are not really powerful enough to take on the Indian army and usually take their frustrations out on innocent day laborers. The Assamese feel that Banglas and Biharis are coming into their state and taking their jobs and disrupting their culture. Like any other ethnic situation in India, it is complex, messy, and with no “right” or “easy” solutions. Clearly, increased development in neighboring states would keep the Banglas and Biharis from moving.  But, thanks to its oil reserves, the jobs are in Assam. The Indian army has been active in this area as a counter insurgency force since the ’80s. Complicating the matter are the mountainous  terrain and the remoteness of most of these attacks.

EU outpaces United States on Chemical safety

Dog bites man news o’ the day!

ScienceDaily: European Union Outpaces United States On Chemical Safety

In the 1970s and ’80s, the United States effectively set many global product standards for consumer and environmental protection. Today, Europe is playing this role, while U.S. government and industry oppose the resulting standards in Europe and in international arenas.

The size of the European market (more than 485 million citizens) will push manufacturers in the United States and Asia to meet European standards and will increase the availability of “green” products globally, contend the authors. Additionally, the new toxic risk information generated by REACH may allow environmental advocates in the United States and elsewhere to focus their efforts with specific, supportable data.

Amen to that, you can either lead, or be forced to follow. EU policies are far from perfect, and as vulnerable to politics, hypocrisy and competing interests as any other “country’s” policies. But, you can never fault them for lack of effort, and they do not seem to have suffered from any consequences to using the precautionary principle.

When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

Not so hard to grasp. But here’s the precautionary principle the US of A uses. I propose calling it the plutocracy-protectionary principleTM.

When a proposed regulation raises threats of harm to the short term shareholder returns of an industry, precautionary measures to oppose this regulation must be taken even if cause and effect relationships are clearly established, or if scientific research has shown the opposite effect to the industry claim being made.

Great News, but Innovative, Really?

The “innovation” in this approach is not scientific, but economic.

Cheap drugs for poor nations | Guardian Weekly | Guardian Unlimited

Improvements they devise to the molecular structure of an existing, expensive drug turn it technically into a new medicine that is no longer under a 20-year patent to a multinational drug company and can be made and sold cheaply. The process has the potential to undermine the monopoly of the big drug companies and bring cheaper drugs not only to poor countries but back to the UK.

Okay, I may be missing something here, but this is not a scientifically innovative strategy. They are called Me-Too drugs. Pharma has been doing this for years. Read this article in the Stanford Medicine Magazine about exactly how this is done.

Nexium illustrates the drug makers’ strategy. Many chemicals come in two versions, each a mirror image of the other: an L-isomer and an R-isomer. (The “L” is for left, the “R” is for right.) Nexium’s predecessor Prilosec is a mixture of both isomers. When Prilosec’s patent expired in 2001, the drug maker was ready with Nexium, which contains only the L-isomer.

Is Nexium better? So far,

there’s no convincing evidence that it is, says Stanford drug industry watcher Randall Stafford, MD, PhD.

This is a well known and well used strategy. The Government Accounting Office (GAO) recently released a study which concluded that 68% of all drugs developed in the US between 1993 and 2004 were Me-Toos.

So, what is “innovative” and “revolutionary” about this approach is that non-profits are driving the drug development. By outsourcing the entire clinical trial to India, substantial savings are to be had. By not having to fund the US shareholders’ need for huge profits, enormous company overhead, high salaries, multi million dollar executive bonuses and marketing expenses that US/European pharma require, cost savings are potentially huge.

The downside? Well, unless the studies are run according to US/EU GLP/GMP guidelines, data quality, and therefore, drug safety can be suspect. The pedigree of the people involved in this effort makes it unlikely that the data is going to be suspect. If their ultimate aim is to sell these drugs in England, then they will have to meet the most stringent standards available.

Of course, these drugs will never hit the US of A. I can already hear the fear mongering, the safety doubts being raised, the “terrorists may get their hands on your pill” bogey, etc. But, Americans can afford to pay for their drugs more than your average Indian suffering from Hepatitis C can. Once the already teetering (by first world standards, of course!) healthcare system in the US gets closer to collapse (by first world standards, of course!), some of these “innovations” will become more viable in this most reactionary of countries.

I hope this model is proven to be viable.