Month: September 2007

Rama's Real – Don't dare dredge his bridge!

satview.gifJust suspend the two officials who had the temerity to say that “religious texts were not evidence that Lord Ram ever existed” I could not have said it better myself, but hey, this is India, where an allegorical tale about a king who is the paragon of virtue and fights a big battle with the evil king of Sri Lanka to reclaim his abducted wife Sita is now the rallying point for a religion not known for its rallying.

BBC NEWS | South Asia | Offer to quit in India gods row:

Officials had presented the argument in court to support construction plans for an area devotees believe has remnants of a bridge built by the Hindu god Ram.

Minister Ambika Soni said she would quit if asked to by the prime minister.

She also confirmed that two directors of the Archaeological Survey of India, which prepared the court affidavit, had been suspended.

In the course of Rama’s battles, he enlists an army of “monkeys” in South India to help him build a bridge between the Southern tip of India and Sri Lanka.

Firstly, this whole army of monkeys thing screams of race differences (Macaca, anyone?). Southern Indians tend to be darker than their Northern brethren thanks to fewer Central Asian influences. There were also quite a few dark tribes in the South. So, if Rama indeed came that far South, it’s likely he enlisted local help from us darkie southerners. Yeah, call us monkeys, will ya!

Secondly, Rama is the least Hindu of all gods. He is a one-dimensional uber god with no faults, vices or weaknesses. He rescues his wife from the clutches of the evil Lankan king, only to make her walk through fire to prove her chastity. She passes this fire test rather easily, after some divine intervention, only to to be summarily banished to the forest (while pregnant, mind you) when aspersions are cast about her chastity by a snarky subject.

Yes, paragon of every patriarchal, women as helpless property loving, godly virtue is our Lord Ram. Hinduism is filled with interesting goddesses and gods, and is replete with tales of cheating gods, philandering goddesses, short tempered goddesses, could these folks not have picked a cool goddess such as Kali, or Durga (ha, same person!)? I guess the reason Rama was picked by the Sangh Parvivar (Parivar means family in Hindi, so saying Sangh Parivar is kinda like saying Corleone family) because he’s a nice stick figure paragon of male virtue that makes for a simplistic and easy rallying cry.

Well, in the classic inverse-inverse pyramid style of blogging, one long rant about Hindu fundamentalism aside, what is all the fuss about? Well, there’s a project to dredge some of the sand bars just off the South Indian coast to open up some shipping lanes and save some time. I had blogged about it quite a while back, there are definitely some environmental concerns. But Rama’s bridge, c’mon!

Musharraf's Wife to Run for President

If you have not been following the soap opera that is Pakistani politics in the last month, you should. Between exiling one corrupt ex-prime minister (Nawaz Sharif) while letting another equally corrupt one to return (Benazir Bhutto), it’s quite a sordid tale.

It now gets worse, with Musharraf’s wife planning to run as a “proxy” candidate, and Nawaz Sharif’s wife trying to do the same, it seems to be a battle of famous wives and mothers.

>Musharraf set to do a Lalu on Pakistan-The United States-World-The Times of India

Military ruler Pervez Musharraf is all set to do a Lalu on the hapless nation, foisting his wife Sehba as a proxy presidential candidate to get around the constitutional and judicial hurdles he faces. Under a formula hammered out under Uncle Sam’s watchful eyes, Sehba Musharraf will be a cover candidate for Musharraf in the upcoming Presidential poll, with or without Benazir Bhutto running for Prime Minister. The military government will also allow exiled prime minister Nawaz Sharief’s wife Kulsoom Nawaz to return to Pakistan and run for election if she wishes maintaining that she is not bound by the exile arrangement that has kept her husband and his brother out of the country.

The “Lalu” reference is to a rather notorious Indian politician, Lalu Prasad Yadav, while mired in corruption charges, put his rather inexperienced wife Rabri Devi in charge of the state he was governing.

I guess, this is one way for women to get to power, though not the best way, I guess. South Asia has had (to my count) 5 elected women heads of state in the last 40 years. They have all been either daughters or wives of men previously in power. More importantly, they have all proven to be their own people in the end.

Indira Gandhi – Daughter of Nehru
Benazir Bhutto – daughter of Zulfikar Bhutto
Khaleda Zia – wife of Ziaur Rehman
Hasina Wazed – Daughter of Mujibur Rehman
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga – Daughter of Solomon Bandaranaike.

Well, while this is strange and dynastic, it is atleast refreshing that the daughters of famous men find power in South Asia. In most other countries, the monarchy is patrilineal!

Men – An Endangered Species due to Endocrine Disruptors.

Why, it’s a girl, how surprising!!

Man-made chemicals blamed as many more girls than boys are born in Arctic | The Guardian | Guardian Unlimited

Twice as many girls as boys are being born in some Arctic villages because of high levels of man-made chemicals in the blood of pregnant women, according to scientists from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (Amap).
The scientists, who say the findings could explain the recent excess of girl babies across much of the northern hemisphere, are widening their investigation across the most acutely affected communities in Russia, Greenland and Canada to try to discover the size of the imbalance in Inuit communities of the far north.

In the communities of Greenland and eastern Russia monitored so far, the ratio was found to be two girls to one boy. In one village in Greenland only girls have been born.

Why are the upper latitudes especially vulnerable? Two reasons, firstly, atmospheric currents carry pollutants from the Mid-Latitudes (i.e the US, China and Europe) to the higher latitudes of the Arctic. Secondly, the pollutants they measured, PCBs, are persistent and stable (which is why they were used in the first place) and accumulate in the fat tissue of animals. So, predator fish on top of the food chain (the large oily ones) tend to accumulate a lot of these compounds. When you live in the Arctic, you tend to eat a lot of fish. So, these people are getting slammed.

I tell you, Children of Men is not as far fetched as it sounds! Though I think the high levels these people accumulated in their system may not be representative of the rest of the world (vegetarian diets, for instance would be lower in persistent pollutants unless you consumed a ton of milk products), it is still a very scary story.

Chip Implants Linked to Animal Tumors

Thinking about implanting an RFID microchip under your skin? Don’t do it! Why would the FDA approve something that was linked to cancers in rats?

Chip Implants Linked to Animal Tumors – washingtonpost.com:

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved implanting microchips in humans, the manufacturer said it would save lives, letting doctors scan the tiny transponders to access patients’ medical records almost instantly. The FDA found ‘reasonable assurance’ the device was safe, and a sub-agency even called it one of 2005’s top ‘innovative technologies.’

But neither the company nor the regulators publicly mentioned this: A series of veterinary and toxicology studies, dating to the mid-1990s, stated that chip implants had ‘induced’ malignant tumors in some lab mice and rats.

‘The transponders were the cause of the tumors,’ said Keith Johnson, a retired toxicologic pathologist, explaining in a phone interview the findings of a 1996 study he led at the Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich.

Leading cancer specialists reviewed the research for The Associated Press and, while cautioning that animal test results do not necessarily apply to humans, said the findings troubled them. Some said they would not allow family members to receive implants, and all urged further research before the glass-encased transponders are widely implanted in people.

To date, about 2,000 of the so-called radio frequency identification, or RFID, devices have been implanted in humans worldwide, according to VeriChip Corp. The company, which sees a target market of 45 million Americans for its medical monitoring chips, insists the devices are safe, as does its parent company, Applied Digital Solutions, of Delray Beach, Fla.

Diacetyl Media Coverage Rant

06Sep07Capture.jpgFeel free to disregard if you don’t like rants, but the NY Times story of one man’s at-home exposure to diacetyl and the resulting case of bronchiolitis obliterans has made the most emailed list as of 06-Sep-07, and propelled diacetyl into the big time. Now, anyone who keeps half an eye on occupational health issues (or reads the pump handle) would have known that at least 5 workers in the flavoring industry had died of this disease, and many many more were afflicted by bronchiolitis obliterans. Yet, the press completely ignored this issue. As soon as one person had the same problem at home, it suddenly became a frontpage issue, causing all kinds of backpedalling by Conagra and big popcorn (gotta love that phrase!!).

There is a casual and systemic disregard for blue collar worker’s rights in this country, starting from an institutional distaste for unions, lack of health coverage, job security, pensions, playing one set of workers against the other, using selectively and arbitrarily enforced immigration laws to keep workers pliant, putting industry executives and lobbyists in charge of agencies that are supposed to keep workers’ welfare in mind, stressing “voluntary” regulation. failing to react to new information, I could go on and on, but you know the deal.

Why is it that the US national press can identify so much easier with one isolated case of popcorn lung while having ignored all the other occupational exposure cases? I am just a scientist, no sociologist/economist/anthropologist, but it seems to me that the press here is way too white collar and just cannot relate to the average agricultural/industrial worker. The average journalist is a white man with a journalism major from a reputable school who cut his chops doing unpaid work for the school paper. These kinds of educational and apprenticeship requirements filter the journalist worker pool to a rather homogeneous white, middle class tepidity. Because the average journalist can’t identify with issues faced by blue collar America, there’s this unstated assumption that somehow, their lives are hard and fraught with danger and uncertainty, but they don’t really deserve much better, it’s their lot in life. It’s probably because they did not study hard enough or were smart enough.

As usual, there are no easy answers. I would say Agitate, Agitate, Agitate!! But what do I know about blue collar America? People are working so hard to make ends meet without a safety net or anyone looking out for them that they have just about enough energy to get through the day and face the next one.

Virus Implicated In Colony Collapse Disorder In Bees

This is a potentially important find, but as usual, I feel the need to stress that at this point in time, as the scientists did too, that they correlated the presence of this virus with the prevalence of Colony Collapse Disorder. It is likely that this virus, while being a contributing factor, is not the only cause. Other contributors may include stress, the fact that these bee hives are transported thousands of miles, etc.

But, great detective work by this collaborative team of academics, American government scientists and one for-profit company.

ScienceDaily: Virus Implicated In Colony Collapse Disorder In Bees

A team led by scientists from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Pennsylvania State University, the USDA Agricultural Research Service, University of Arizona, and 454 Life Sciences has found a significant connection between the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) and colony collapse disorder (CCD) in honey bees.

The findings, an important step in addressing the disorder that is decimating bee colonies across the country, are published in the journal Science.

In colony collapse disorder, honey bee colonies inexplicably lose all of their worker bees. CCD has resulted in a loss of 50-90% of colonies in beekeeping operations across the U.S.

I was just thinking I should check on the progress of scientists towards finding a cause for this issue, seems like I did not have to!

Shaming People into Pooping Indoors

Meanwhile, in the other India, people still poop outdoors…

Using shame to change sanitary habits – Los Angeles Times

Every morning before sunrise, Ravi Shankar Singh, a cheerful man known to his neighbors as “Luv” Singh, sets out to patrol the potholed roads and rice fields of this north Indian village. He carries a whistle and a flashlight. He sings while he walks. The village’s self-appointed sanitation guardian, Singh is on the lookout for anyone squatting in the fields or alleys, using the cover of darkness to do what millions of people have always done across India: defecate outdoors. After years of programs to increase the number of latrines in villages, the government still has not managed to eradicate a practice that is cited in the spread of water-borne illnesses and parasites, such as diarrhea and hookworms. Critics say the obstacle is not so much the shortage of latrines, though that, too, remains a problem for nearly half of India’s rural population. The main challenge is getting people to use the facilities they have. Singh says he’s found a way. When he spots someone squatting, he lets loose with a blast on his whistle. Or shines his light on the offender. Or both.

This is clearly a serious public health issue and one that is linked to many avoidable deaths from disease. I am not sure if blowing whistles at people is an ethical way to do it. In a country where actual toilet facilities are still rare, and the people who grew up in this scarcity have internalized the fact that they have to “externalize” their poop, just providing facilities and shaming them is not enough.

Just as with most things in India, no easy answers, I guess the right combination of education (especially targeting the young), enforcement through fines, and most importantly, saturation coverage of clean and easily available toilets would eventually work.  But it will take time, and of course, public urination is a completely  different beast!

Diacetyl hits the big time

It’s well known that occupational exposure to various pollutants including pesticides, manufacturing raw materials, and in this case, flavoring agents, is a serious problem affecting millions of factory and farm workers all over the world.

Which is why it is interesting when one case of a man contracting an illness possibly linked to at-home diacetyl exposure makes much more splashy news than the well documented cases of many workers dying of such exposure at work. It is unfortunate, but people working at factories and in farms are somehow expected to handle higher levels of exposure and risk. The assumption is that they are protected by agencies such as OSHA, and that they will provided with protective wear, etc. But, when the agencies drop the ball on protecting workers, it takes an “escape” of the incident into the ambient realm for the news agencies to pick it up as a headline.

I guess the good thing now is that this diacetyl issue is blown open, and should result in reform, because alternatives are available.

Doctor Links a Man’s Illness to a Microwave Popcorn Habit – New York Times

A fondness for microwave buttered popcorn may have led a 53-year-old Colorado man to develop a serious lung condition that until now has been found only in people working in popcorn plants.

Lung specialists and even a top industry official say the case, the first of its kind, raises serious concerns about the safety of microwave butter-flavored popcorn.

“We’ve all been working on the workplace safety side of this, but the potential for consumer exposure is very concerning,” said John B. Hallagan, general counsel for the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States, a trade association of companies that make butter flavorings for popcorn producers. “Are there other cases out there? There could be.”

A spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration said that the agency was considering the case as part of a review of the safety of diacetyl, which adds the buttery taste to many microwave popcorns, including Orville Redenbacher and Act II.

Meanwhile, ConAgra, the biggest manufacturer of popcorn, announces plans to drop diacetyl at some undetermined “later date”. Weird, their website’s currently down!

The Pump handle and Diacetyl

The Pump Handle looks at the response of various government agencies (notionally charged with protecting American people) to increasing information about the danger of diacetyl exposure, certainly to workers in the flavoring industry, and recently, to consumers of microwave popcorn. An excellent post, deserves wider reading!


Popcorn Lung Coming to Your Kitchen? The FDA Doesn’t Want to Know « The Pump Handle

The CDC, FDA, OSHA, EPA – federal agencies charged with protecting public health – each received a letter in July alerting them to the possible serious respiratory hazard to consumers who breathe in fumes from their artificially butter-flavored microwave popcorn. The warning should have resulted in some action by these agencies, but instead, they’ve done virtually nothing.

It appears that the Bush Administration’s efforts to destroy the regulatory system are succeeding; the agencies seem unable to mount a response to information that a well-functioning regulatory system would immediately pursue. The agencies aren’t even trying to connect the dots.

Read on. I moved to the US in 1997 and I’ve noticed a stark difference in the performance of the government agencies named here. I have no doubt that the agencies will eventually bounce back under the right circumstances, but it is disheartening how far agencies such as the EPA, once regarded as models of well run government (at least to a developing country!) have fallen.