Category Archives: Health

Headline of the day: Cruel congressional craziness


Eugenics in action in the House of Representatives, via the Independent:

Kansas Republican lawmaker says poor people do not want health care

  • In an interview about healthcare with Stat News, Obstetrician Roger Marshall argued that the Affordable Care Act could not be structured to only benefit those with low incomes.
  • “Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us.’ … There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves,” he told the publication.
  • “Just, like, homeless people. … I think just morally, spiritually, socially, (some people) just don’t want health care,” Mr Marshall continued.

Quote of the day: Bernie Sanders on Trump


From and extended interview with Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Guardian:

The bad news, the very bad news is that we have a president who is a pathological liar. I say that not in a partisan way because I have many conservative friends who I disagree with on every issue who are not liars, they believe what they believe. But Trump lies all of the time and I think that is not an accident, there is a reason for that.

He lies in order to undermine the foundations of American democracy. One of the concerns that I have is not just his reactionary economic program of tax breaks to billionaires and devastating cuts to programs that impact the middle class, working families, lower-income people, children, the elderly, the poor, but also his efforts to undermine American democracy in the sense of making wild attacks against the media, that virtually everything that mainstream media says is a lie. And we have reached the stage where a United States congressman named Lamar Smith from Texas – and I’m paraphrasing him but you can look up the quote – said ‘Well, if you want to know the truth the only way you can really get the truth in America is directly from the president.”

And you have a president who has called a judge nominated by George W Bush a “so-called” judge because he issued an opinion differing with the president. He has come up with wild accusations about three to five million illegal people voting in the election which is an attack on every election official in the United States of America and basically suggesting to the American people that the elections do not reflect reality, that the elections are fraudulent.

So what you have is a president who says that what you read and see is fraudulent, that judges are not real judges if they offer an opinion different than him, and that elections are not based on real vote counts but are also fraudulent. You have all that and more going on, which leads to only one conclusion: and that is that the only person in America who stands for the American people, the only person in America who is telling the truth, the only person in America who gets it right is the President of the United States, Donald Trump. And that is unprecedented in American history.

Study: The reasons Americans want pot legalized


Three fifth’s of Americans want pot legalized, and the reasons are ones goof Republicans should be able to support, with backers saying they want week legal for sound economic reasons.

And, of yeah, the cost of devastating lives by sending people to prison for a victimless crime also plays its part.

From the summary of Public perceptions of arguments supporting and opposing recreational marijuana legalization [$35.95 to access], to be published in the June edition of Preventative Medicine:

Respondents rated pro-legalization arguments highlighting beneficial economic and criminal justice consequences as more persuasive than anti-legalization arguments emphasizing adverse public health effects. Respondents were more likely to agree with arguments highlighting legalization’s potential to increase tax revenue (63.9%) and reduce prison overcrowding (62.8%) than arguments emphasizing negative consequences on motor vehicle crashes (51.8%) and youth health (49.6%). The highest rated anti-legalization arguments highlighted the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws (63.0%) and asserted that legalization will fail to eliminate the black market (57.2%). Respondents who endorsed pro-legalization economic and criminal justice arguments were more likely than other respondents to support legalization. Our findings indicate that, on both side of the recreational marijuana legalization debate, there are arguments that resonate with the American public. However, public health risk messages were viewed as less compelling than pro-legalization economic and criminal justice-oriented arguments.

It all boils down to dollars and sense

More on the study from Cornell University:

Four states legalized recreational marijuana in November, nearly doubling the number of states where recreational pot is legal. As more states consider joining them, a range of arguments for and against legalization is swirling around the national conversation.

But which of these arguments resonate most strongly with Americans? It’s the arguments that support legalization, according to a new study co-authored by Jeff Niederdeppe, associate professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

More than 60 percent of people surveyed in the study said they supported legalization because they agreed with arguments saying it would increase tax revenues, create a profitable new industry, reduce prison crowding and lower the cost of law enforcement.

In contrast, fewer people in the study agreed with anti-legalization arguments emphasizing the damage the policy would have on public health. These reasons included that legalization would increase car accidents, hurt youth’s health, expand the marijuana industry, increase crime and threaten moral values.

“The pro arguments are really practical: ‘Give us money and jobs. Keep our prison from being overcrowded, make law enforcement’s job easier,’” said Niederdeppe. “And the con arguments are a little more ideological: ‘This is going to lead to big industry and crime and undermine the fundamental values that make America great.’”

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Chart of the day: World environmental child deaths


From the World Health Organization’s Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment [open access], a graph of the leading environmental causes of childhood deaths worldwide [click on the image to enlarge]:

With the Trump Administration rapidly dismembering the Environmental Protection Agency, a new report reveals just why protecting the environmental saves lives, especially young ones.

From the World Health Organization:

More than 1 in 4 deaths of children under 5 years of age are attributable to unhealthy environments. Every year, environmental risks – such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, and inadequate hygiene – take the lives of 1.7 million children under 5 years, say two new WHO reports.

The first report, Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment [open access] reveals that a large portion of the most common causes of death among children aged 1 month to 5 years – diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia – are preventable by interventions known to reduce environmental risks, such as access to safe water and clean cooking fuels.

“A polluted environment is a deadly one – particularly for young children,” says Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. “Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water.”

Harmful exposures can start in the mother’s womb and increase the risk of premature birth. Additionally, when infants and pre-schoolers are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke they have an increased risk of pneumonia in childhood, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Top 5 causes of death in children under 5 years linked to the environment

A companion report, Don’t pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children’s health, provides a comprehensive overview of the environment’s impact on children’s health, illustrating the scale of the challenge. Every year:

  • 570 000 children under 5 years die from respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution, and second-hand smoke.
  • 361 000 children under 5 years die due to diarrhoea, as a result of poor access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.
  • 270 000 children die during their first month of life from conditions, including prematurity, which could be prevented through access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene in health facilities as well as reducing air pollution.
  • 200 000 deaths of children under 5 years from malaria could be prevented through environmental actions, such as reducing breeding sites of mosquitoes or covering drinking-water storage.
  • 200 000 children under 5 years die from unintentional injuries attributable to the environment, such as poisoning, falls, and drowning.

Ongoing and emerging environmental threats to children’s health

“A polluted environment results in a heavy toll on the health of our children,” says Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “Investing in the removal of environmental risks to health, such as improving water quality or using cleaner fuels, will result in massive health benefits.”

For example, emerging environmental hazards, such as electronic and electrical waste (such as old mobile phones) that is improperly recycled, expose children to toxins which can lead to reduced intelligence, attention deficits, lung damage, and cancer. The generation of electronic and electrical waste is forecasted to increase by 19% between 2014 and 2018, to 50 million metric tonnes by 2018.

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Headline of the day: What else did you expect?


From the New York Times:

E.P.A. Head Fills Posts With Climate Change Deniers

  • Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who built a career out of suing the agency he now leads, has moved to stock the top offices of the agency with like-minded conservatives — many of them skeptics of climate change and all of them intent on rolling back environmental regulations that they see as overly intrusive and harmful to business.
  • Mr. Pruitt has drawn heavily from the staff of his friend and fellow Oklahoma Republican, Senator James Inhofe, long known as Congress’s most prominent skeptic of climate science. A former Inhofe chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, will be Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff. Another former Inhofe staff member, Byron Brown, will serve as Mr. Jackson’s deputy. Andrew Wheeler, a fossil fuel lobbyist and a former Inhofe chief of staff, is a finalist to be Mr. Pruitt’s deputy, although he requires confirmation to the position by the Senate.
  • To friends and critics, Mr. Pruitt seems intent on building an E.P.A. leadership that is fundamentally at odds with the career officials, scientists and employees who carry out the agency’s missions. That might be a recipe for strife and gridlock at the federal agency tasked to keep safe the nation’s clean air and water while safeguarding the planet’s future.

Quote of the day: U.N. rights chief’s Trump angst


From Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, a statement in his report today to the 34th session of the Human Rights Council:

In the United States of America, I am concerned by the new Administration’s handling of a number of human rights issues. Greater and more consistent leadership is needed to address the recent surge in discrimination, anti-Semitism, and violence against ethnic and religious minorities. Vilification of entire groups such as Mexicans and Muslims, and false claims that migrants commit more crimes than US citizens, are harmful and fuel xenophobic abuses. I am dismayed at attempts by the President to intimidate or undermine journalists and judges. I am also concerned about new immigration policies that ban admission of people from six predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days, as well as policies which greatly expand the number of migrants at immediate risk of deportation – without regard for years spent in the US or family roots. These threaten to vastly increase use of detention, including of children. Expedited deportations could amount to collective expulsions and refoulement [forcible expulsion of refugees to countries where torture or worse is likely — esnl] ], in breach of international law, if undertaken without due process guarantees, including individual assessment. I am especially disturbed by the potential impact of these changes on children, who face being detained, or may see their families torn apart.

U.N experts slam pesticides as a global health threat


And they’re calling for an end to their use and a shift to sustainable agriculture worldwide.

It’s a message we heartily endorse, but it won’t sit well a Trump administration and national legislature dominated by corporate interests.

From the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:

Two United Nations experts are calling for a comprehensive new global treaty to regulate and phase out the use of dangerous pesticides in farming, and move towards sustainable agricultural practices. They say: “excessive use of pesticides are very dangerous to human health, to the environment and it is misleading to claim they are vital  to ensuring food security.”

The Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, and the Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Baskut Tuncak, told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that widely divergent standards of production, use and protection from hazardous pesticides in different countries are creating double standards, which are having a serious impact on human rights.

The Special Rapporteurs pointed to research showing that pesticides were responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year. The overwhelming number of fatalities, some 99%, occurred in developing countries where health, safety and environmental regulations were weaker.

Chronic exposure to pesticides has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, hormone disruption, developmental disorders and sterility. Farmers and agricultural workers, communities living near plantations, indigenous communities and pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure and require special protections.

The experts particularly emphasized the obligation of States to protect the rights of children from hazardous pesticides. They noted the high number of children killed or injured by food contaminated with pesticides, particularly through accidental poisonings, the prevalence of diseases and disabilities linked to chronic exposure at a young age, and reports on the exposure to hazardous pesticides of children working in global food supply chains, which is one of the worst forms of child labour.

The experts warn that certain pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and pose a threat to the entire ecological system on which food production depends. The excessive use of pesticides contaminates soil and water sources, causing loss of biodiversity, destroying the natural enemies of pests, and reducing the nutritional value of food. The impact of such overuse also imposes staggering costs on national economies around the world.

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The tragedy of Trump/Big Oil’s war on the EPA


We spent a good many years covering environmental issues, including the role played by corporations and the nation’s largest university system in building on polluted land.

We were first stirred to concern for our impact on the environment in 1962 when we read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that inspired the rise of the modern environmental movement in the last half of the 20th Century.

The movement became so significant that a Reoubkican President [and a loathed one at that] created the Environmental Protection Agency,

And while Donald Trump may share a leak paranoia with Agent Orange, he’s anything but Richard Nixon when it comes to the environment.

An agency dismembered

While Trump and many of his appointees called for outright elimination of the EPA, realism set in.

That and the beginning of the death by a thousand cuts, starting with a story from Newsweek written as the initial proposed budget cuts were revealed:

The proposal, sent to the EPA [last week], would cut into grants that support American Indian tribes and energy efficiency initiatives, according to the source, who read the document to Reuters.

State grants for lead cleanup, for example, would be cut 30 percent to $9.8 million. Grants to help native tribes combat pollution would be cut 30 percent to $45.8 million. An EPA climate protection program on cutting emissions of greenhouse gases like methane that contribute to global warming would be cut 70 percent to $29 million.

The proposal would cut funding for the brownfields industrial site cleanup program by 42 percent to $14.7 million. It would also reduce funding for enforcing pollution laws by 11 percent to $153 million.

The budget did not cut state revolving funds for programs, that Congress tapped last year to provide aid to Flint, Michigan, for its lead pollution crisis.

All staff at a research program, called Global Change Research, as well as 37 other programs would be cut under the plan.

As Bloomberg notes:

More than 40 percent of EPA’s budget – about $3.5 billion – is dedicated to state and tribal grants used to pay for staff and support an array of programs, including initiatives that protect drinking water. State clean air and water programs also benefit.

That means the disproportionate burden will fall on states, most of which have Republican-controlled legislatures and chief executives.

So it’s unlikely most states will replace the lost funds, and layoffs will ensue.

Also impacted will be city government, losing both federal funds and monies from the states.

Given that the burdens of pollution fall disproportionately on the poor, life expectancies may decline.

Hey, but he’s makin’ Ahmurka great agin, ain’t he?

Ain’t he?

The latest development: Still more cuts

Needless to say, climate research is involved.

Scientific American puts it i context:

The administration is seeking a nearly 20 percent cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s budget, including to its satellite division, The Washington Post reported. That includes significant cuts to the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, which has produced research that disproved the notion of a global warming pause. NOAA’s satellites provide invaluable data on climate change that are used by researchers throughout the world. The NOAA cuts target the Office of Ocean and Atmospheric Research, which conducts the bulk of the agency’s climate research.

That’s on top of proposed reductions to climate research at U.S. EPA, including a 40 percent cut to the Office of Research and Development, which runs much of EPA’s major research. The cuts specify work on climate change, air and water quality, and chemical safety. The Trump administration also has proposed 20 percent staffing reduction at EPA.

More than a dozen federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the Interior Department and the Department of Energy, conduct climate research. Further cuts are expected, particularly at NASA, which develops and launches the satellites that provide invaluable information on climate change used throughout the world. President Trump has called global warming a “hoax,” and some congressional Republicans pushing for climate science cuts have falsely claimed that federal scientists are engaged in a massive conspiracy to defraud the American public into thinking that human activity is causing the planet to warm.

About a third of the American economy relies on weather, climate and natural hazard data, said Chris McEntee, president of the American Geophysical Union, the nation’s largest scientific organization. She said much of the federal scientific research and data comes from multiple agencies working together, so cutting one will have a ripple effect.

“It’s not just one agency, it’s a holistic view here, and cutting one piece also has an impact on the whole enterprise of what we get out of science from the federal government that enables us to have the kinds of tools and information we need to protect the infrastructure, to protect lives, to protect public safety, and to give us knowledge and information to make a more effective economy and country,” she said.

After the jump, more cuts, the threats to a massive database and efforts to preserve them, and a case of class war. . . Continue reading

Chart of the day II: Illegal drug use in Europe


Figures for 2015, via the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction [click on the image to enlarge]:

Why are we fat? Republicans, Democrats disagree


If the recent elections have taught us anything, it’s that Democrats and Republicans are so deeply divided that one might reasonably argue that the system has broken down, with folks of great wealth fueling the divisions for their own ends.

So how deeply divided are the two parties?

Well, they can’t even agree on what makes folks fat.

It’s that old nature/nurture divide that lurks beneath so much of political divisiveness, with the Republicans arguing that Calvinism, with its doctrine of predestination, rules at the bathroom scales, while Democrats argue that it’s something fueled by the environment.

From the University of Kansas:

People’s political leanings and their own weight shape opinions on obesity-related public policies, according to a new study by two University of Kansas researchers.

Actually, Republicans — no matter how much they weigh —  believe eating and lifestyle habits cause obesity, the research found.

But among Democrats there is more of a dividing line, said Mark Joslyn, professor of political science. Those who identify themselves as overweight are more likely to believe genetic factors cause obesity.

“Self-reported overweight people were significantly more likely to believe obesity is caused by genetics than normal weight people,” Joslyn said. “The belief that obesity is due to genetics tends to remove blame. Obesity is not a choice, some would argue, but rather people are simply genetically wired to be obese. In this way, overweight people are motivated to believe in the genetics-obesity link. We found normal weight people were not so motivated.”

Joslyn and Don Haider-Markel, chair and professor of the Department of Political Science, published their findings [$36 to read] recently in the journal American Politics Research.

The research could have important implications for policymakers, especially at the local and state levels that tend to focus on public health interventions, either through appealing to healthy lifestyles by constructing biking and walking paths to encourage exercise or by passing stricter regulations on food and drinks, such as demanding publication of calorie counts and levying taxes on soft drinks.

Former New York City Mayor — and billionaire — Michael Bloomberg has donated millions of dollars to fund pro-soda tax initiatives in major cities. Berkeley, California, and Philadelphia are among those that have passed them in recent years. Obesity rates have risen recently in the United States, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2015 that 71 percent of adults were overweight and more than 17 percent of youths were obese.

Still, most Americans oppose bans on large-size drinks and higher soda taxes, Joslyn said, which is likely a disparity between the perception of the problem and support for government intervention. Those who have argued against soda taxes, for example, often refer to a “nanny state,” blaming government intervention when they perceive personal choice is causing the problem.

For policymakers, as obesity rates continue to climb and the debate surrounding how to make people healthier continues, the genetic attribution as a cause may continue to rise as well, which could influence people’s opposition to certain practices.

“To the extent that genetic attributions increase in popularity, stronger opposition to discriminatory hiring practices by weight can be expected,” Joslyn said.

Also, it’s likely the issue remains politicized because most Republicans are inclined to support individual blame for obesity and not supportive of government regulations.

Finally, while the soda taxes have gained much attention, most government action recently does seem to be directed toward changing people’s individual behavior, such as developing public spaces to encourage fitness and ways to discourage unhealthy eating habits, like publication of calorie counts.

“If obesity persists in the face of such initiatives, blame and discrimination of obese people is likely to continue,” Joslyn said. “On the other hand, if governments treat obesity similar to diseases that afflict the population, as circumstances beyond the control of individuals, then individual blame and discrimination may diminish.”

Program notes

The genome dynamically interacts with the environment as chemical switches that regulate gene expression receive cues from stress, diet, behavior, toxins and other factors. Epigenetics is the study of these reactions and the factors that influence them.

So what’s it all about?

From Scientific American:

In a study published in late 2011 in Nature, Stanford University geneticist Anne Brunet and colleagues described a series of experiments that caused nematodes raised under the same environmental conditions to experience dramatically different lifespans. Some individuals were exceptionally long-lived, and their descendants, through three generations, also enjoyed long lives. Clearly, the longevity advantage was inherited. And yet, the worms, both short- and long-lived, were genetically identical.

This type of finding—an inherited difference that cannot be explained by variations in genes themselves—has become increasingly common, in part because scientists now know that genes are not the only authors of inheritance. There are ghostwriters, too. At first glance, these scribes seem quite ordinary—methyl, acetyl, and phosphoryl groups, clinging to proteins associated with DNA, or sometimes even to DNA itself, looking like freeloaders at best. Their form is far from the elegant tendrils of DNA that make up genes, and they are fleeting, in a sense, erasable, very unlike genes, which have been passed down through generations for millions of years. But they do lurk, and silently, they exert their power, modifying DNA and controlling genes, influencing the chaos of nucleic and amino acids. And it is for this reason that many scientists consider the discovery of these entities in the late 20th century as a turning point in our understanding of heredity, as possibly one of the greatest revolutions in modern biology—the rise of epigenetics.

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New robot breed needed for Fukushima reactors.


Given that the the radiation from a fuel melt-through has rendered one of the plant’s quake-shattered reactors so hot that the radiation is killing the robots sent to insect the damage.

From Japan Today:

The head of decommissioning for the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant said Thursday that more creativity is needed in developing robots to locate and assess the condition of melted fuel rods.

A robot sent inside the No. 2 reactor containment vessel last month could not reach as close to the core area as was hoped for because it was blocked by deposits, believed to be a mixture of melted fuel and broken pieces of structures inside. Naohiro Masuda, president of Fukushima Daiichi Decommissioning, said he wants another probe sent in before deciding on methods to remove the reactor’s debris.

The No. 2 reactor is one of the Fukushima reactors that melted down following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), needs to know the melted fuel’s exact location as well as structural damage in each of the three wrecked reactors to figure out the best and safest ways to remove the fuel. Probes must rely on remote-controlled robots because radiation levels are too high for humans to survive.

Despite the incomplete probe missions, officials have said they want to stick to their schedule to determine the removal methods this summer and start work in 2021.

Earlier probes have suggested worse-than-anticipated challenges for the plant’s cleanup, which is expected to take decades. During the No. 2 reactor probe in early February, the “scorpion” robot crawler stalled after its total radiation exposure reached its limit in two hours, one-fifth of what was anticipated.

Greek doctors stage an anti-austerity walkout


Physicians at state-owned hospitals walked off the job Thursday, protesting pay and benefit cuts imposed as the latest round of Troika-imposed austerity draws imminent.

From euronews:

Doctors in Greek state hospitals have walked out in protest against social security changes that will see their pensions reduced and contributions increased.

Hundreds of medical staff took to the streets in Athens as run down hospitals are cutting off vital drugs, limiting non-urgent operations and rationing basic materials.

In its seventh year of deep recession, Greece is trapped under Europe’s biggest public debt burden.

State hospital doctor, Afrodite Renviou, said: “We will not accept the notion that we lost what we lost. We will fight to claim back our losses, and furthermore we will remain alert and vigilant because the government is about to further escalate its assault on our incomes.”

Another doctor, Gerasimos Roubis, said: “We doctors are also victims of the havoc the economic crisis created with the country’s creditors demanding wage cuts. Our only option is to join forces with the rest of the society and fight back.”

Quote of the day: A scientist who loved his weed


The late Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan was a phenomenon.

As a 2014 retrospective in Smithsonian Magazine described him:

No one has ever explained space, in all its bewildering glory, as well as Sagan did. He’s been gone now for nearly two decades, but people old enough to remember him will easily be able to summon his voice, his fondness for the word “billions” and his boyish enthusiasm for understanding the universe we’re so lucky to live in.

He led a feverish existence, with multiple careers tumbling over one another, as if he knew he wouldn’t live to an old age. Among other things, he served as an astronomy professor at Cornell, wrote more than a dozen books, worked on NASA robotic missions, edited the scientific journal Icarus and somehow found time to park himself, repeatedly, arguably compulsively, in front of TV cameras. He was the house astronomer, basically, on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Then, in an astonishing burst of energy in his mid-40s, he co-created and hosted a 13-part PBS television series, “Cosmos.” It aired in the fall of 1980 and ultimately reached hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Sagan was the most famous scientist in America—the face of science itself.

A mutually flattering encounter

We had the great pleasure of meeting him more than 40 years ago, when we were both attending a conference at Cal Tech.

We were seated at a dinner when we heard Sagan’s very distinctive voice from the next table. Turning to confirm that, yes, it was indeed the famous astronomer himself, we were seized by an impulse.

In our decades of journalism, we interviewed a fair number of celebrities and famous folk from all spheres of life, but when on our own time when we encountered famous folk in public, we left them alone, respecting their privacy.

But something that evening made us break the rule, so we got up and wandered over to Sagan.

“Excuse me, Dr. Sagan,” we said, “I just want to say that, as a writer, I am I am in awe of your work.”

Then the tables were abruptly turned.

“Richard Brenneman. . .are you the fellow who writes Psientific American?”

The publication in question was a monthly newsletter I then wrote for the Sacramento Skeptics Society, a group of scientists, academics, and lay folk devoted to the pursuit of critical thinking. The publication also featured a lengthy column I assembled monthly of idiotic headlines from major newspapers uncritically reporting pseudoscientific claims, enhanced by some satirical commentary.

We confessed that we were, indeed, the author in question.

Sagan broke out in a huge grin.

“Wonderful!,” he said. “I can’t wait to read it every month. It’s wonderful.”

Imagine that, we thought, Carl Sagan and yours truly, a mutual admiration society.

We exchanged a few more compliments, then we headed back to our own table.

That was our first and only encounter with Carl Sagan, but it’s a moment we’ll always treasures.

It wasn’t until years later that we found out that we shared another fondness with Dr. Sagan, and that for something illegal.

Carl Sagan loved his cannabis

Lester Grinspoon is one of the nation’s leading experts on psychiatry, and now serves as Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, where he taught for more than four decades, and known for, among his decades of research dispelling myths about marijuana and advocating for liberalization of laws limiting research and use of the herb.

In an 25 September 2015 interview with MintPress News, Grinspoon explained how he came to be interested in the subject one day in 1966:

During my anti-Vietnam activism I met Carl Sagan and he and I became very good friends. When I met Carl Sagan I was convinced that cannabis was a very harmful drug. Going to his house one day I discovered that he smoked cannabis and so did many of his friends. Now these were not unsophisticated people and I tried to tell Carl how harmful marijuana was but he responded in a joyful manner that it wasn’t harmful at all.

With this experience came the idea of writing a paper which would summarize the medical scientific basis for the marijuana prohibition. At that time marijuana prohibition was leading to the arrest of 300.000 people, mainly young people, a year of which 89% for simple possession. For me it became important that this prohibition was justified.

It was in the library of the Medical School that I found out that I was completely wrong about the harmfulness effects of marijuana. Not only was it not harmful it was remarkably nontoxic, and the drug itself was not causing harm to the user but the policy of arresting people did. Some went to prison for having it and others saw their career goals compromised.

One result of Grinspooon’s work was the 1971 publication by Harvard University Press of his book, Marihuana Reconsidered, which included a number of fascinating essays, including by a a rousing paean to pot by a mysterious “Mr. X,” penned two years earlier for the book.

Only after Sagan’s death in 1996 did Grinspoon reveal that “Mr. X” was Carl Sagan.

And that brings us to our quote of the day

From Carl Sagan, writing as “Mr. X” in Marihuana Reconsidered:

When I’m high I can penetrate into the past, recall childhood memories, friends, relatives, playthings, streets, smells, sounds, and tastes from a vanished era. I can reconstruct the actual occurrences in childhood events only half understood at the time. Many but not all my cannabis trips have somewhere in them a symbolism significant to me which I won’t attempt to describe here, a kind of mandala embossed on the high. Free-associating to this mandala, both visually and as plays on words, has produced a very rich array of insights.

There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we’re down the next day. Some of the hardest work I’ve ever done has been to put such insights down on tape or in writing. The problem is that ten even more interesting ideas or images have to be lost in the effort of recording one. It is easy to understand why someone might think it’s a waste of effort going to all that trouble to set the thought down, a kind of intrusion of the Protestant Ethic. But since I live almost all my life down I’ve made the effort – successfully, I think. Incidentally, I find that reasonably good insights can be remembered the next day, but only if some effort has been made to set them down another way. If I write the insight down or tell it to someone, then I can remember it with no assistance the following morning; but if I merely say to myself that I must make an effort to remember, I never do.

I find that most of the insights I achieve when high are into social issues, an area of creative scholarship very different from the one I am generally known for. I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of gaussian distribution curves. It was a point obvious in a way, but rarely talked about. I drew the curves in soap on the shower wall, and went to write the idea down. One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written eleven short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics. Because of problems of space, I can’t go into the details of these essays, but from all external signs, such as public reactions and expert commentary, they seem to contain valid insights. I have used them in university commencement addresses, public lectures, and in my books.

Fukushima student survivors bullied in Tokyo


If there’s anything that the recent elections have taught us, it’s that fear leads to violence.

And fear is easily aroused through reckless talk about others we associate with danger, even more so when the objects of are fear are immigrants from a land associated with danger.

The immigrants don’t have to come from other lands or even look different than we do.

Which brings us to our story.

From the Japan Times:

Fresh cases of bullying have been reported targeting children who evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture amid the nuclear disaster that started in 2011, this time in Tokyo.

According to Tokyo Saigai Shien Netto (Tossnet), a group of lawyers supporting Fukushima evacuees, three schoolchildren who moved to Tokyo in the wake of the triple core meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant were subjected to bullying at an elementary school in Chiyoda Ward between 2011 and 2015.

According to the group, one elementary school student and two others who now study at a junior high school were called names repeatedly, with classmates shunning them by saying radiation might spread from them. One of them recalled being called kin (germ).

The group on Monday reported the incidents as cases of bullying to the board of education in Chiyoda Ward. The board of education says it had not been aware of the incidents and will look into facts surrounding them.

WHO lists drug-resitant bacteria fight priorities


Following up on our earlier post about the soaring rates of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in children comes word from the World Health Organization of a new catalog on the rising number of drug-repellent microbes, setting priorities for development of new medical treatments:

WHO today published its first ever list of antibiotic-resistant “priority pathogens” – a catalogue of 12 families of bacteria that pose the greatest threat to human health.

The list was drawn up in a bid to guide and promote research and development (R&D) of new antibiotics, as part of WHO’s efforts to address growing global resistance to antimicrobial medicines.

The list highlights in particular the threat of gram-negative bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics. These bacteria have built-in abilities to find new ways to resist treatment and can pass along genetic material that allows other bacteria to become drug-resistant as well.

“This list is a new tool to ensure R&D responds to urgent public health needs,” says Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Innovation. “Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options. If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time.”

The WHO list is divided into three categories according to the urgency of need for new antibiotics: critical, high and medium priority.

The most critical group of all includes multidrug resistant bacteria that pose a particular threat in hospitals, nursing homes, and among patients whose care requires devices such as ventilators and blood catheters. They include Acinetobacter, Pseudomonas and various Enterobacteriaceae (including Klebsiella, E. coli, Serratia, and Proteus). They can cause severe and often deadly infections such as bloodstream infections and pneumonia.

These bacteria have become resistant to a large number of antibiotics, including carbapenems and third generation cephalosporins – the best available antibiotics for treating multi-drug resistant bacteria.

The second and third tiers in the list – the high and medium priority categories – contain other increasingly drug-resistant bacteria that cause more common diseases such as gonorrhoea and food poisoning caused by salmonella.

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Child antibiotic-resistant infections soar 700%


The Enterobacteriaceae are members a family of bacteria that don’t thrive in the open air, proliferating instead in water, soil, and the digestive tracts of larger animals. Like, say, us.

While many Enterobacteriaceae are helpful in digesting what we eat, others are much more nasty, including Salmonella, Escherichia coli, and Yersinia pestis [cause of the bubonic plague].

For most of the seven decades we’ve spent on planet Earth, a dose of penicillin or some of the other antibiotics developed since would provide a reliable cure,

But no longer, because overuse of antibiotics both in human medicine and in industrial animal agriculture and the failure of patients to take full courses of prescribed and unprescribed medications have given rise to bacteria capable of withstanding all those medications.

In just eight years, starting in 2007, the rate of antibiotic-resistant Enterobacteriaceae in U.S. children has soared a shocking 700 percent.

From Case Western University:

The adage that kids are growing up too fast these days has yet another locus of applicability.

In a new, first-of-its-kind study, researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine have found a 700-percent surge in infections caused by bacteria from the Enterobacteriaceae family resistant to multiple kinds of antibiotics among children in the US. These antibiotic resistant infections are in turn linked to longer hospital stays and potentially greater risk of death.

The research, published [an astounding $251 to read — esnl] in the March issue of the Journal of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, is the first known effort to comprehensively examine the problem of multi-drug resistant infections among patients under 18 admitted to US children’s hospitals with Enterobacteriaceae infections. Earlier studies focused mainly on adults, while some looked at young people in more limited geographical areas, such as individual hospitals or cities, or used more limited surveillance data.

“There is a clear and alarming upswing throughout this country of antibiotic resistant Enterobacteriaceae infections in kids and teens,” said lead author Sharon B. Meropol, MD, PhD, a pediatrician and epidemiologist at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland. “This makes it harder to effectively treat our patients’ infections. The problem is compounded because there are fewer antibiotics approved for young people than adults to begin with. Health care providers have to make sure we only prescribe antibiotics when they’re really needed. It’s also essential to stop using antibiotics in healthy agricultural animals.”

In the retrospective study, Meropol and co-authors Allison A. Haupt, MSPH, and Sara M. Debanne, PhD, both from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, analyzed medical data from nearly 94,000 patients under the age of 18 years diagnosed with Enterobacteriaceae-associated infections at 48 children’s hospitals throughout the US. The average age was 4.1 years. Enterobacteriaceae are a family of bacteria; some types are harmless, but they also include such pathogens as Salmonella and Escherichia coli; Enterobacteriaceae are responsible for a rising proportion of serious bacterial infections in children.

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John Oliver tackles the GOP war on Obamacare


In the latest episode of his HBO series, John Oliver casts a suspicious eye at the Republican rhetoric surrounding their attack of the Affordable Care Act.

It’d be hilarious were the Republicans not seemingly bent on killing off the poor.

Obamacare: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Program notes:

Congressional Republicans could soon vote to repeal Obamacare. John Oliver explores why their replacement plans are similar to a thong.

Why Donald Trump could win his war on the EPA


Founded in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency is the one positive legacy left by Richard M. Nixon, one of America’s worst Republican Presidents, the only one forced to resign in disgrace because of his criminal conduct.

The agency, charged with protecting folks from the worst environmental ravages wrought by corporations and developers, the EPA has played a major role in cleaning up the nation’s worst environmental disasters and preventing others.

But with prominent members of the Trump administration opposed to the agency’s vary existence, California legislators announced new measures this week designed to replace threatened federal regulations with new state counterparts.

From the Sacramento Bee:

Fearing a federal rollback of longstanding protections for air quality, clean water, endangered species and workers’ rights, California Democrats are pursuing legislation that would cement those environmental and labor regulations in state law.

The trio of bills announced Thursday also seek to use state authority to block private development of federal lands in California and extend some safeguards to federal whistleblowers.

“Californians can’t afford to go back to the days of unregulated pollution,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said at a press conference. “So we’re not going to let this administration or any other undermine our progress.”

>snip<

De León and other state senators who joined him Thursday pointed to a litany of developments over recent months that compelled them to act: Trump calling climate change a hoax; proposals to eliminate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; the confirmation of Scott Pruitt, who as attorney general of Oklahoma repeatedly sued the EPA, to lead the agency.

But nationally the threat remains

And it’s very real, with the Trumpies presented with uniquely circumstances boding ill for our world and our descendants.

University of Florida Professor Emeritus of Political Science Walter A. Rosenbaum is uniquely suited to address the threat, being both an internationally recognized academic environmentalist and a former Special Assistant to the EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Policy Planning.

What follows is his analysis, Why Trump’s EPA is far more vulnerable to attack than Reagan’s or Bush’s, an essay written for The Conversation, an open-source academic journal written in conversational English:

For people concerned with environmental protection, including many EPA employees, there is broad agreement: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in deep trouble.

The Trump administration has begun the third, most formidable White House-led attempt in EPA’s brief history to diminish the agency’s regulatory capacity.

Scott Pruitt, Trump’s newly appointed EPA administrator, is a harsh critic and self-described “leading advocate against EPA’s activist agenda.” Pruitt’s intention to reduce EPA’s budget, workforce and authority is powerfully fortified by President Donald Trump’s own determination to repeal major EPA regulations like the Obama’s Clean Power Plan and Climate Action Plan.

Previous presidents have tried to scale back the work of the EPA, but as a former EPA staff member and researcher in environmental policy and politics, I believe the current administration is likely to seriously degrade EPA’s authority and enforcement capacity.

The vanished majorities

This latest assault on EPA is more menacing than previous ones in part because of today’s Republican-led Congress. The Democratic congressional majorities forestalled most past White House efforts to impair the agency’s rulemaking and protected EPA from prolonged damage to its enforcement capability.

Presidents Ronald Reagan (1981-1988) and George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) both sought to cut back EPA’s regulatory activism. Reagan was fixated on governmental deregulation and EPA was a favorite target. His powerful assault on EPA’s authority began with the appointment of Anne Gorsuch, an outspoken EPA critic, as EPA administrator. Gorsuch populated the agency’s leadership positions with like-minded reformers and supervised progressive reductions in EPA’s budget, especially for EPA’s critically important enforcement division, and hobbled the agency’s rule-making – a key step in the regulatory process – while reducing scientific support services.

Bush’s forays against EPA authority were milder, consisting primarily of progressive budget cuts, impaired rule-making and disengagement from international environmental activism.

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Ending gay marriage could increase teen suicides


As triumphant Republican lawmakers, now controlling the national legislature and the legislatures of 32 states, we can expect action of promises to end same-sex marriage,

But, if successful, will those efforts lead to a spike in teen suicides?

That’s to conclusion of a new scientific study released today.

From the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health:

The implementation of state laws legalizing same-sex marriage was associated with a significant reduction in the rate of suicide attempts among high school students—and an even greater reduction among gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents, new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health research suggests.

The researchers, whose work was published today in JAMA Pediatrics [open access], estimate that state-level same-sex marriage policies were associated with more than 134,000 fewer adolescent suicide attempts per year. The study compared states that passed laws allowing same-sex marriage through January 2015 to states that did not enact state-level legalization. A Supreme Court decision made same-sex marriage federal law in June 2015.

The findings show the effect that social policies can have on behavior, the researchers say.

“These are high school students, so they aren’t getting married any time soon, for the most part,” says study leader Julia Raifman, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Epidemiology at the Bloomberg School. “Still, permitting same-sex marriage reduces structural stigma associated with sexual orientation. There may be something about having equal rights—even if they have no immediate plans to take advantage of them—that makes students feel less stigmatized and more hopeful for the future.”

Suicide is the second-most common cause of death among people ages 15 to 24 in the United States, trailing only unintentional injury. U.S. suicide rates have been rising, and data indicate that rates of suicide attempts requiring medical attention among adolescents increased 47 percent between 2009 and 2015.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual high school students are at particular risk. In the new study, 29 percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual high school students reported attempting suicide in the previous year as compared to 6 percent of heterosexual teens.

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Chart of the day: What makes us feel stressed


From Stress in America™: Coping with Change [open access]:

blog-stress

Another new report offers some meaningful insight into the reasons the White House is now occupied by the Orange Abomination.

Each of us suffers from stress to one degree or another, be it from our health, our family life, our friends, or any one the myriad factors at play in our lives.

But some stresses are more general, emotional themes at work in communities states, and nations.

And those external stresses and the anxieties we feel because of them, the ones held in common by so many,  offer a fertile medium for ideological contagion by folks skilled at manipulating fears and capitalizing on the mass anxieties they mobilize.

A new study from the American Psychological Association looks at the fears held in common, and the stressors they reveal are precoisely the fears Donald Trump aroused, mobilized, and exploited in his drive to win the Oval Office:

Two-thirds of Americans say they are stressed about the future of our nation, including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans, according to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) report Stress in America™: Coping with Change. [open access].

More than half of Americans (57 percent) say the current political climate is a very or somewhat significant source of stress, and nearly half (49 percent) say the same about the outcome of the election, according to an APA poll conducted in January.

While Democrats were more likely than Republicans (72 percent vs. 26 percent) to report the outcome of the 2016 presidential election as a significant source of stress, a majority of Republicans (59 percent) said the future of the nation was a significant source of stress for them, compared with 76 percent of Democrats.

“The stress we’re seeing around political issues is deeply concerning, because it’s hard for Americans to get away from it,” said Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, APA’s executive director for professional practice . “We’re surrounded by conversations, news and social media that constantly remind us of the issues that are stressing us the most.”

Nordal also noted that while APA is seeing continued stress around politics, the survey also showed an increased number of people reporting that acts of terrorism, police violence toward minorities and personal safety are adding to their stress levels.

These results come on the heels of APA survey results released last fall that found 52 percent of Americans reported that the presidential election was a significant source of stress. That survey was conducted online in August 2016 among 3,511 adults 18+ living in the U.S. by Harris Poll on behalf of the APA. To better understand these political stressors and assess potential long-term effects, APA commissioned an additional survey, conducted online by Harris Poll in early January 2017, among 1,019 adults ages 18+ who reside in the U.S. , asking adults once again to rate the sources of their stress, including the political climate, the future of our nation and the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Between August 2016 and January 2017, the overall average reported stress level of Americans rose from 4.8 to 5.1, on a scale where 1 means little or no stress and 10 means a great deal of stress, according to the APA survey. This represents the first significant increase in the 10 years since the Stress in America survey began. At the same time, more Americans said that they experienced physical and emotional symptoms of stress in the prior month, health symptoms that the APA warns could have long-term consequences.

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