Tuesday, January 05, 2010


Impact Analysis has moved and can be found now at http://impactscienceonline.com/wordpress/. Please update your bookmarks and links accordingly, and I'll see you there.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Doesn't Meet Expectations

The recent episode where the minutes were leaked from the recent meeting of the BPA (bisphenol-A) Joint Trade Association, attended by Coca-Cola, Alcoa, Crown, North American Metal Packaging Alliance, Inc., Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), American Chemistry Council, Del Monte has some moments of humor. I can't say I'm surprised that BPA users turned to an ad campaign over constructive engagement with stakeholders or the shocking alternative of committing to looking for a lower-toxicity or non-toxic alternative for lining canned foods and packaging beverages.

The ham-handedness of the strategizing is surprising though. After reading Trust Us, We’re Experts, I had expected these guys to be a little smoother about their framing: suggesting in so many words that they use fear tactics such as telling consumers they will no longer have access to affordable baby food without BPA; finding "pregnant young mother who would be willing to speak around the country about the benefits of BPA" as their 'holy grail' spokesperson, because they don’t feel they can find a scientific spokesman; directing messages at historically exploited populations including "Hispanic and African Americans and the poor"; and, befriending people that are able to manipulate the legislative process.

My kids are grown, so it’s been awhile since I’ve bought baby food, but isn’t it also packaged in glass jars? Also, a “pregnant young mother” isn’t a spokesman for the safety of BPA. Some nice-looking heading-towards-middle-age mom with an honors student in high school, who could say “look, my kid and I ate food from epoxy resin-lined cans and drunk out of polycarbonate bottles, and my kid is smart and I don’t have breast cancer.” Maybe they couldn’t afford a good communications consultant. There are references to passing the hat to raise the $500K needed for the ad campaign.

It's interesting that you don't see them reaching out to the big plastics manufacturers. The plastics manufacturers might have a parallel effort, or the food container market isn't a big loss to them. It would be interesting to know which, because that might help proponents of a BPA ban in food containers practice a divide and conquer strategy. A total ban on BPA use might not be necessary to have some effective exposure reduction - just phasing out uses such as food containers and dental appliances. I wonder if anyone has done that homework yet (the EU's risk assessment may be a good starting place). Though ACC was in the room, one reason the petrochemical and plastics manufacturers weren’t represented more might be that BPA in food containers isn’t a big portion of their market share.

Another thing that makes the food industry folks appear out of touch is that they don't seem to get social marketing techniques, which might be a good thing because that will slow down their messaging. There’s already a “ban BPA” Facebook page. The activist messaging isn’t that slick yet either, if the clutching-at-their-pearls I’m-shocked-that-industry-is-trying-to-manipulate-us e-mail I got from the Environmental Working Group is any indication (no, I’m not going to bother writing a letter to Coca-Cola telling them to ban BPA; I’m going to continue to not buy their really bad for my health product in un-ecologically sound packaging, which seems to me a better approach to persuade them to change their ways). Hasn’t the activist community thought about accusing these industries of being anti-capitalists, and conspiring to sabotage businesses who are responding to market forces and producing BPA-free products?

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Research Tidbits

Some more quick topics of interest while I labor to generate some real content:

The National Cancer Institute just published a occupational epidemiology study of formaldehyde exposure based on a based on a cohort that’s been followed for over the past 30 years. The study suggests a possible relationship between formaldehyde exposure and leukemia, and possibly Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma. This sounds like a prospective cohort study which would make it some of the strongest epidemiological evidence available. Still, the authors are recommending more follow up and exploration of molecular mechanisms of toxicity. More of the story is forthcoming, once I get a copy of the paper from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute which behind a payment firewall.

Researchers at Michigan University’s School of Public Health have shown that antibiotics in waste water treatment plants are providing an optimal environment for breeding antibiotic-resistant superbugs, which are then discharged to surface water in the effluent. Treatment plants aren’t designed to fully degrade small organic molecules such as antibiotics. I’ve been hearing similar news about effluents from feedlots for cattle operations, where antibiotics are also used. Beyond becoming more thoughtful about using antibiotics (didja hear that livestock industry?), we may start having to land-dispose of them, rather than following the conventional advice of flushing them down the toilet.

Speaking of unintended consequences, silver nanoparticles, which are becoming more common in consumer products to make socks that inhibit odor-causing bacteria, and washing machines that disinfect clothes (where would we be without these technological marvels, I wonder), get discharged in wastewater streams and kill bacteria used for secondary treatment in wastewater treatment plants.

Back to the paper that’s overdue.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Evolution-Proof Insecticides

The title of this article in PLOS-Biology was at first a little scary. Insect resistance to insecticides is the bane of malaria control programs, but I jumped to the conclusion this was talking about making the Anophales mosquito extinct. Wouldn't there be unintended consequences?

Turns out that was an error on my part. The authors put forward an intriguing idea that shows the problem-solving abilities of evolutionary theory (could ID ever come up with something like this? I wonder). Insecticides used in malaria control kill lots of mosquitos, which imposes intense selection pressure for resistance. The females bite and feed on blood, make eggs and lay them in water, every few days. They go through this cycle only a few times before they die. The development cycle of the malaria parasites is longer, so that there will be some biting/feeding/egg laying cycles where the female mosquito is not yet capable of infecting someone with malaria. The authors draw the conclusion from this:

These facts together lead to one of the great ironies of malaria: most mosquitos do not live long enough to transmit the disease.

The strategy then is to only kill mosquitos after they've reproduced, but before the malaria parasites become infective. The goal is to find insecticides that minimize selection pressures by killing only older mosquitos who have had some opportunity to breed. While noone is actually doing this yet, the authors discuss the modes of action of "late-life acting" (or LLA) insecticides and identify the kinds of research needed to test this concept.

Let's hope someone gives it a try.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Quick Links

Some topics of interest I’ve run across, while I try to generate some real content:

Ok, so hexavalent chromium is carcinogenic when you ingest it in drinking water. Just what we need, another chemical we’ll find difficult to make decisions about. That needs a little bit of context, but it’s taking awhile to create.

Climate modeling goes local. This has a lot of promise – increasing the usability of climate modeling for decision-making; building more acceptance of the need for action to mitigate climate change. More details can be found here. The EPA grant seems to have run out, and hopefully these folks can find some more funding.

Huffington Post is exasperating because it’s 95 percent a waste of my time, but will produce gems like this the remaining 5 percent of the time, so it’s just marginally useful enough for me to keep checking into it. We’re going to need initiatives such as the Pileus Project because, according to Joe Romm, the mainstream media sure seem to be agents of disinformation when it comes to climate change issues.

Matt Nisbet must think that Monsanto needs help framing itself as a sustainability company.

DDT is really bad for human health and should be used sparingly. I was taught that was true for all pesticides, but I guess the lesson hasn’t sunk in yet. What’s surprising is how active health effects research is with DDT.

Have to run. The paper I’m overdue on isn’t going to write itself.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Culture War, Obesity and the New Puritans

I almost forgot I’m a blogger. Nah, not really, but it’s been difficult to keep up lately. I write longer posts, and want to take care to do the homework, so that I’m not producing something that’s misleading. For example, take this recent post by Paul Campos over at Lawyers, Guns and Money. Paul objects to the idea that public health measures involving promoting changes in lifestyle, specifically with what we eat or drink, might help reduce health care costs, or as he says it:

[i]n any case the notion we can cut health care costs significantly by getting people to drink less soda and eat fewer Doritos is unsupported by any evidence.

Riffing off of a post by Matthew Yglesias, Campos also makes lifestyle intervention – public health matters an outpost in the culture war, putting those of us who are interested in the social benefits of exercise and healthy eating into the bin of “cultural Puritanism. We’ll put aside for a moment the point that equating “puritan” with someone who disapproves of pleasure is a bit of historical misdirection. You can even find some evidence for his point that long-term health care costs are driven by old age and not lifestyle choices.

Last year, RIVM published a study modeling lifetime health care costs for cohorts of obese people, smokers and “healthy living” folks, defined as non-smokers with BMIs between 18.5 and 25. The results were that annual health care costs were highest for obese people earlier in life, until age 56, and were highest for smokers in later years. However, the overall highest lifetime health care costs were for the healthy-living folks. Life expectancy from age 20 is reduced by 5 years in obese people and 7 years in smokers. Healthy-living people live on to incur greater medical expenses, more than compensating for the expenditures related to smoking or obesity.

So, I should start smoking again and eat like this to do my part to control health care costs. However, before you shout “gotcha”, take a look at the commentary traveling along with this article. Compare a lean and obese population with the same age and sex distribution, and the latter will have greater health-care costs throughout life. So during the productive adult years of your life, when you should be spending money on other things, such as books, vacations and family, your're spending it on health care. There are other costs associated with obesity such as absences from work and lost productivity, in addition to health care costs. In the UK, these extra costs are estimated to be about four times as great in obese than in lean people.

The problem in the health care debate that no-one seems to want to talk about is that people want to live forever, and it in those years at the end where the health care costs are highest. However, living longer shouldn’t be the goal, rather maximizing the number of years free of disease burden. For me at least, I’d rather not be clomping around on knee or hip replacements, being treated for diabetes or putting up with erectile dysfunction.

Holding ED at bay. . . ok, now we’re getting to why I really pay attention to exercise and what I eat. I’m so transparent. See you in the gym.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Journalism is Dead, Long Live Journalism (Part I)

Ever since I read Breaking the News by James Fallows, I’ve had carried around this sense of unease about how media and professional journalists were executing their roles in a democratic society. In particular, whenever I encountered a newspaper or magazine story about my own little niche, toxic chemicals and the adverse effects associated with them, I often came away feeling dissatisfied that the writer didn’t get it quite right. Still, where would blogging be without newspapers?

We may find out soon, because the number of failing newspapers is piling up. Clay Shirky has written an essay about how the internet is shredding newspaper business models. According to Dr. Shirky, it wasn’t that newspapers didn’t see the internet coming. It’s just that all of the plans and ideas for business models at a time when technology supported freely passing around content, had unraveled, until the unthinkable scenario – newspapers becoming obsolete – started becoming more real. We’re observing a revolution, in which the old rules (“we can still make people pay for our content”) no longer apply.

Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world was increasingly resembling the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors.

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored
en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.

Essentially, the problem being solved by a publishing industry, making information available to the public, has gone away presumably with the onset of the internet. It might not be so easy, though. Newspapers benefit society as a whole (even if “you’ll miss us when we’re gone” isn’t much of a business model), and it’s difficult to say what’s going to replace them. Two key points are: 1) we should be experimenting with lots of forms of newsgathering, and 2) journalism has always been subsidized, by advertisers, by someone rich with an axe to grind (think Randolph Hearst or Richard Mellon Scaipe), or these days, by ordinary people donating our time. As Dr. Shirky notes, there are models that seem to be working, such as Consumer Reports and NPR, ProPublica and WikiLeaks; I’d add SourceWatch to that list too. There are going to be gaps, such as who’s going to go investigative reporting, something that has to be someone’s day job backed by an organization with some clout so that reporters get their phone calls returned. In the end, what we need is journalism, not newspapers. I wouldn’t call myself a journalist, but in some ways I have to wonder if what I’m doing as a blogger represents a piece of the future for environmental journalism.