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Science Policy Around the Web January 16th, 2020

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By Andrew H. Beaven, PhD

Facts & Figures 2020 Reports Largest One-year Drop in Cancer Mortality

On January 11, 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer and laryngeal cancer in men, a probable cause of lung cancer in women, and the most important cause of chronic bronchitis. This led to the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 and the Public Health Act of 1969 that required warnings on cigarette packages, banned cigarette advertising in broadcasting media, and called for an annual report on the health consequences of smoking. 

Fifty-six years later, lung cancer is still the leading cause of cancer mortality in the U.S. – accounting for almost one-quarter of all cancer deaths. However, with an ever-increasing understanding of how to treat cancer and America’s general cessation, the American Cancer Society announced a 2.2% drop in the American cancer death rate between 2016 and 2017, the largest single-year drop in cancer mortality (statistics are reported in the American Cancer Society’s peer-reviewed journal, CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians). This substantial mortality rate decrease is primarily attributed to a decrease in lung cancer deaths. Coincidentally, the report aligns with recent legislation raising the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 years old. This legislation was included in the federal year-end legislative package, passed by both houses of Congress, and signed into law on December 20, 2019 by President Donald Trump. The goal of the legislation is to keep tobacco out of teenager’s hands, with the hope that if teens do not start using tobacco early, they will never start using tobacco products.

(Stacy Simon, American Cancer Society)

NASA, NOAA Analyses Reveal 2019 Second Warmest Year on Record

New, independent analyses by U.S. federal agencies NASA and NOAA demonstrate Earth’s continuing warming. Global surface temperatures in 2019 were the second hottest since 1880 when modern recordkeeping began. These results, posted online January 15, continue the concerning trend – the past 5 years have been the warmest of the last 140 years (the hottest year was 2016). NASA and NOAA report temperature on a relative scale based on the mean temperature between 1951–1980. The 2019 anomaly was 1.8 ºF (0.98 ºC) warmer than the 1951–1980 mean. The report makes special note that average global warming does not imply that all areas experience the same warming. For example, NOAA reported that the contiguous 48 U.S. states experienced the 34th warmest year on record, simply giving it a “warmer than average” classification. Meanwhile, Alaska experienced its warmest year on record.

To account for biases, the scientists take into account the varied spacing of the temperature stations, urban heat island effects, data-poor regions, changing weather station locations, and changing measurement practices. Through continuing modeling and statistical analyses, scientists continue to conclude that this rapid uptick in temperature is because of increased greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities.

(Steve Cole, Peter Jacobs, Katherine Brown, NASA)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 16, 2020 at 9:38 am

Plastics, Problems, and Progress

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By:Jedidiah Acott, PhD

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay 

Plastic is a staple of modern society, due in part to its malleable and durable properties, providing an applicability in innumerable contexts. The first plastic – known as Parkesine – was created in 1862 by heating, molding, and cooling organic cellulose; Alexander Parkes found that after processing, Parkesine could maintain a rigid shape. Less than 50 years later, the commercially manufactured synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was introduced at a chemical conference by Leo Hendrik Baekeland. Interest in the material was immediate, and soon Bakelite was widely used in the public sphere. All throughout the 20th century, new synthetic polymers were invented and brought to the industrial forefront, eventually replacing the plastic progenitors. The ubiquitous role of these synthetic plastics fills such a crucial function in modern society, that if one were to ponder the hypothetical state of the world in their absence, then it could seem like they are a cornerstone of necessity. In fact, it would appear we have become so dependent on plastics that some deem the current times as the plastic age of human history. What are the effects of our plastic addiction? This is the burning question that emerges from witnessing these extreme behaviors, and as current conditions display, where there is smoke there is fire.

It is not a stretch to say that plastics interact with almost every sphere of the global ecosystem, and similar to the inert use of mercury in a barometer compared to its’ interaction with human physiology, the consequences of using a material is determined by its context of use. The pure form of synthetic plastics appear to be non-toxic, but the inclusion of additives that leech into the environment alters the organic polymer into a mysterious and possibly dangerous material. Plastic degradation may take a thousand years or more, and as they degrade, microplastics are produced that can be readily consumed by marine organisms. On the ocean surface, microplastics smaller than 1 cm in diameter have been documented to be heavily abundant, and researchers in Honolulu have observed these microplastics to be present within the small shortbill spearfish, a population native to the area. In larger marine life, plastic bags have been found obstructing the digestive tracts of beached whales, and the stomachs of sea turtles. As a testament to the abundance of oceanic plastics, works of art entirely composed of plastic removed from the stomachs of seabirds hangs on the walls of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Honolulu, Hawaii. Another set of researchers predicts that by the year 2050, 99% of all seabird species will have ingested plastics. It is obvious enough that mechanical obstruction can cause issues, but what of the environmental and biological consequences of plastic consumption?

It is well-known that the amazon rainforest serves as a carbon sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide, but lesser known is that sea ice serves a similar function for microplastics. One study shows that as a plastic sink, sea ice traps microplastic particulates at concentrations several orders of magnitude beyond highly contaminated waters. Even if every bit of plastic floating in the ocean were to be removed, there would remain a reservoir of plastic waiting to be re-released into the environment. On one front, increasing ocean acidity threatens the formation of calcium carbonate shells for growing organisms, while on another, plastic waste promotes the colonization of disease-associated pathogenic microbes that threaten coral reefs. In 2017, scientists studying coral reefs provided evidence that corals in contact with plastics increase their risk of disease from 4% to 89%. As one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, coral reefs harbor plants and animals that actively contribute to drug discovery and development for human ailments. The molecules from these organisms have relevance for conditions ranging from cancer and arthritis, to bacterial and viral infections. The present circumstance does not project a promising future for the worlds’ oceans. Ecosystem imbalance, plastic reservoirs, threats to marine life, and microplastics in ocean-derived resources are immediately visible consequences, but are there tangible causes for concern toward the human species in particular?

The current literature surrounding the effects of micro- and nano-plastics on human health is sparse, but a lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. As new knowledge is created, the present paradigms are renovated, and a type of hindsight bias may emerge confounding future generations from the current apathy. A recent study published in Canada measured the contents in a cup of liquid following a normal steeping process using a manufactured plastic tea bag. The researchers found 11.6 billion microplastics, and 3.1 billion nanoplastics in the beverage, several orders of magnitude above the plastic loads reported in other foods. In accordance with this report, the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada issued a statement that no evidence shows harm to human health by microplastics, and that polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and nylon have been deemed safe for use as tea bags for hot food and beverages. Not so long ago cigarettes were claimed as being not harmful by tobacco companies and health professionals. Today though, we have ample evidence to support tobaccos’ role in cancer, heart disease, complications with blood circulation, and addiction. It would be highly irresponsible and quite the historical oversight to lay behind the thin veil of ignorance as justification for allowing plastics to continue polluting our environment and our bodies. Allowing these conditions to become precedent now, and only asking questions later, is actively participating in our own dissolution. Research has already revealed that plastic-derived BPA and DEHP are detrimental to human health, increasing risk for breast and uterine cancer, and interfering with testosterone levels and childhood development. More than enough evidence already points to the need for addressing the plastic crisis with urgency, and as we attempt damage control and eventual reparations, a multi-layered approach may now be the best option.

Equally for climate change and the plastic crisis, the current generation did not create the problem: we inherited it. But because we have also contributed to it, it is our burden to create meaningful solutions and demand institutional changes to prevent continued indifference and destruction toward the world. Several possibilities, such as government policy, institutional accountability, mechanical recycling, clean-up groups, and enzyme-based depolymerization, are already being enacted. In India, 17 states have joined together to “ban the manufacture, use, storage, distribution, sale, import, and transportation of many plastic goods and materials.” Even while making the change, industrial plastic and clothing manufacturers filed a lawsuit challenging the ban. On the basis of adverse effects to businesses, the Indian government gave the companies 3 months to dispose of banned items. A ban on imported recyclables was put into effect by the Chinese government 2017, and in relation to this ban many American counties have cancelled their recycling programs, leaving consumers to throw plastics in the trash, which may actually reduce ocean-bound plastics. Agilyx, a company in Tigard, Oregon has taken a small-scale approach toward the problem. By using chemical plastic depolymerization to break the molecular bonds between plastic polymers, the Oregon company can turn plastic into reusable raw materials. Carbios, a plastic depolymerization startup in France, is using an enzyme specific for the synthetic PET molecule, which the CEO calls a “conceptually…infinite recycling process.” Some studies have shown that chemical recycling may even reduce greenhouse gas emissions, addressing two environmental issues with one method.

Humanly-created problems require humanly-created solution, and although the plastic crisis is actively being worked on by engineers, scientists, companies, and governments around the world, international accountability may be a bottle-neck impeding authentic solutions; but with the perseverance of the human spirit, we may even yet clear the streams of pollution toward an unimpeded flow of environmental conscientiousness, and re-forge the bottle into a favorable material for future life of the planet.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

November 23, 2019 at 1:42 pm

Science Policy Around the Web November 19th, 2019

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By: Andrew Wright Bsc

Source: Pixabay

EPA’s ‘secret science’ plan is back, and critics say it’s worse

​The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been exploring new rules on the incorporation of scientific data in its rulemaking process. The so-called “secret science” rules were originally proposed in 2018 under the EPA’s previous administrator Scott Pruitt, and have since been revised by its new administrator Andrew Wheeler in response to harsh criticism from scientific, environmental, and patient groups. Rather than addressing these criticisms to mollify the proposals detractors, the draft of the newly proposed rule, which was leaked to the New York Times, seems to drastically broaden the scope of which data cannot be used. 

According to the 2018 proposed rule, all raw data would have to be made available for studies that assessed a “dose-response” relationship, a bedrock of toxicity research. This could be difficult, if not impossible, when considering patient privacy protection laws and proprietary information requirements that would prevent the dissemination of that data. In the new draft rule, this set of constraints is imposed on all scientific studies used to guide agency procedures, instead of just dose-response studies. The draft also seeks comment on whether these restrictions should be imposed retroactively. According to the draft rule, if the underlying data were not made available, the EPA would be able to “place less weight” or “entirely disregard” those studies.  

While the draft does provide room for a tiered data-sharing approach such as those implemented at the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration and allows for political appointees to provide exemptions, critics worry that these new requirements will effectively remove science from the EPA’s decision-making process.  Thus far, the EPA’s scientific advisory board has not been afforded the opportunity to weigh-in.

(David Malakoff, Science)

‘Insect apocalypse’ poses risk to all life on Earth, conservationists warn

A recent study looking at insect populations in the UK suggests that up to half of all insects have been lost since 1970 and that 40% of all known insect species are facing extinction. Due to the complexity of ecological systems that rely on insect biodiversity to function properly, this level of insect loss could lead to “catastrophic collapse” on a global scale. 

This study demonstrates a similar severity of insect decline as has been seen in other regions around the world. In Puerto Rico, for example, insect biomass has declined between 10 and 60 times and has led to the destruction of its rainforest’s food web. In Germany, 75% of flying insects have vanished in the past 27 years.

Solutions to address what is now considered Earth’s sixth mass extinction event are becoming increasingly complex as failing components of anthropogenic damage to the global ecosystem are beginning to interact. However, conservationists suggest that insect numbers could be rapidly recovered through a combination of pesticide reduction and land management. 

(Damian Carrington, The Guardian)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

November 19, 2019 at 11:59 am

Science Policy Around the Web October 8th, 2019

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By Mary Weston PhD

Image by Andreas Lischka from Pixabay 

A single tea bag can leak billions of pieces of microplastic into your brew

A recently published studyfrom McGill University shows that plastic teabags release billions of plastic micro- and nanoparticles into your tea. Researchers steeped plastic tea bags in 95°C (203°F) water for 5 minutes, finding that a single bag released approximately 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastics. This concentration of plastic particles is thousands of times larger than any other reported food/drink item.

Although tea bags contain food-grade, FDA approved plastics, researchers know little about how plastics can degrade or leach toxic substances when heated above 40C (104F). Based on these new results, the study’s authors conclude that more research needs to be done to both determine how microparticles are released in our foods and the impact those substances have on human health.

To gain insight on the effect of plastic particle exposure, researchers grew water fleas, a common environmental toxicology model system, in the brewed solution, discovering they survived but had both behavioral and developmental abnormalities. While the plastic particle exposure levels these fleas experienced are far greater than what humans would be exposed to, it begs the question of what happens to humans with chronic low-dose exposure over time.

Microplastics are being detected everywhere, from the deepest parts of the ocean to regularly consumed bottled water, and their effect on human health have yet to be seen. One study suggests humans are consuming 5 grams of plastic a week, approximately the weight of a credit card.  However, In their first review of microplastics in tap and bottled water, the WHO asserts that microplastics “don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels,” but also state that knowledge is limited and more research is needed to determine their impact on human health. 

(Rob Picheta, CNN)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

October 8, 2019 at 3:53 pm

Science Policy Around the Web September 20th, 2019

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By Allison Cross, PhD

Image from Flickr

Hunt for Cause of Vaping Illness Suggests Multiple Mechanisms of Damage

A vaping-related respiratory illness has affected nearly 500 individuals across 3 dozen states and has been linked to 6 deaths since the first case was reported back in April. Experts, however, are still uncertain about what is causing the nationwide outbreak and even what the condition is exactly.  

report earlier this month from the FDA suggested they may have identified the source of the problem, vitamin E acetate,  a common contaminate in vaping products.  However, more recent information indicates that no single contaminate was identified in all product samples tested from sick individuals. To date, the only thing found in common among the nearly 500 individuals who have fallen ill is that they recently vaped in the US or its territories.  

On September 16th, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention activated its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to help to enhance operations and provide additional support to CDC staff working to identify the cause of the disease.  The CDC advices those concerned about the outbreak to refrain from using e-cigarettes or vaping products.

E-cigarettes and other vaping products have recently been under scrutiny by those concerned about the recent increase in popularity of vaping among adolescents.  Many have been pushing for a ban on flavored e-cigarettes as these products are believed to be deliberately targeting youth.  The recent outbreak has led to renewed calls for a total ban on these and other vaping products.  In response to the outbreak, regulators in New York approved a ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes on Tuesday the 17thand Michigan followed suit on Wednesday.   The health and human services secretary, Alex M. Azar II, also announced that the FDA is outlining a plan for removing flavored e-cigarettes and nicotine pods from the market, though finalizing this ban will take several weeks. 

(Emily Willingham, Scientific American)

Trump’s decision to block California vehicle emissions rules could have a wide impact

California has long struggled to reduce smog in its cities and for almost 4 decades, as a part of the federal Clean Air Act, they have been granted special permission by the EPA to set their own air pollution standards.  This may soon change however as President Trump announced that the administration plans to revoke California’s authority to set its own automotive emissions standards. The Trump administration, instead, aims to set a single national standard for automotive emissions. Many are concerned, however, about the more lenient national standard proposed by the Trump administration. 

Although California is only 1 of 49 states, the implications of revoking California’s authority to set its own emission standard are far reaching.  The Clean Air Act currently allows others states to adopt the standards set by California and, as of today, thirteen other states and Washington DC abide by California’s stricter standards. 

The plan currently proposed by the Trump administration aims to freeze fuel-efficiency standards for all vehicles after 2020.  Experts estimate that this new standard would increase average greenhouse gas emissions from new vehicles by 20% in 2025 compared to the level projected under the current rules.  

California leaders have pledged to challenge the decision by the Trump administration in court.  It is likely that other states and environmental groups will join in support of California and it is possible that the lawsuit makes its way all the way to the supreme court. 

 (Jeff Tollefson, Nature

Written by sciencepolicyforall

September 20, 2019 at 5:44 pm

Science Policy Around the Web August 30th, 2019

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By Andrew Wright, BSc

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

EPA’s controversial ‘secret science’ plan still lacks key details, advisers say

In early 2018 under its previous administrator Scott Pruitt, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first proposed rules to restrict the use of scientific findings whose data and methodologies are not public or cannot be replicated. Following the removal of all sitting Science Advisory Board (SAB) members who receive EPA grants in late 2017 (roughly half of its members) there was concern that environmental experts were being sidelined from EPA decision-making, which the proposed rule seemed to support. While making data public and replicable has merits, the SAB has raised concerns that the proposed rule would make it impossible to use the most accurate information as many environmental studies are long-term ones that assess human exposure to toxins and cannot be ethically or efficiently replicated. Now, under administrator Andrew Wheeler, how this proposed rule will be implemented is still unclear. 

A central concern is how to maintain privacy over personally identifiable information (PII) to comply with existing privacy laws and concerns (such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA). One proffered strategy is to try a tiered approach based of the model currently used by the National Institutes of Health, whereby the more sensitive the PII is, the more restricted its access will be. 

As the SAB has decided to engage in a consultation of the proposed rule, individual members will have their comments written up in a report to be sent to Wheeler but will not have to come to a consensus for the proposed rule to move forward.  

(Sean Reilly, Science (Reprinted from E&E News

 Brazilian Amazon deforestation surges to break August records 

While the recent spate of fires in the Amazon rainforest have been capturing international attention, regular deforestation via cutting and clearing techniques have also been rapidly increasing. In August alone, 430 square miles, or a region the size of Hong Kong, has been cut down. This comes after the July’s loss of 870 square miles, a 275% jump from the previous year.  At the current rate of deforestation Brazil is on track to lose more than 3,800 square miles of rainforest, or an area roughly one and a half times the size of Delaware, this year.

“The August data from Deter is hardly surprising,” said Claudio Angelo of Climate Observatory, referencing the Deter-B satellite that was put into place in 2015 to monitor Brazil’s rainforests. According to him and other representatives from non-governmental organizations, the Bolsonaro government is delivering on its promises to support local industries such as mining, ranching, farming, and logging rather than enforcing environmental protections. 

While this deforestation data is separate from data on forest fires, felled trees are often left to sit and dry before they are lit aflame, leading forest engineers to portend that the fires are going to get worse in the coming months.

Since the Amazon rainforest generates its own weather patterns, studies have demonstrates the possibility that after 40% deforestation has occurred, the biome may irreversibly convert to savannah. This could impact global weather patterns, affected Brazilian weather most severely. However, recent estimates place that tipping point closer to 20-25% due to the synergistic effects of climate change. According to the World Wildlife Fund, approximately 17% of the rainforest has been lost in the past 50 years, putting uncontrollable forest conversion much closer than previously assumed.

(Jonathan Watts, The Guardian

Written by sciencepolicyforall

August 30, 2019 at 11:08 am

Science Policy Around the Web – July 12th, 2019

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By Mohor Sengupta, Ph.D.

Source: Maxpixel

CDC made a synthetic Ebola virus to test treatments. It worked

During the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in Guinea, West Africa, infectious samples containing the virus were shared by local government with international scientific communities. Using these materials, Dr. Gary Kobinger and his team developed and tested the efficacy of a monoclonal antibody vaccine at the Canadian National Laboratory. The same vaccine, ZMapp, and other therapies are currently being deployed in the most recent Ebola outbreak, which is the second largest outbreak so far. Beginning in ] 2018 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), this outbreak is still on the roll. Unfortunately, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not have any viral samples this time, meaning they were unable to test the efficacy of ZMapp and other drugs against the recent viral strain. 

Scientists at the CDC, led by Dr. Laura McMullan, constructed an artificial virus from the sequence of the current strain shared by DRC’s National Biomedical Research Institute (INRB). The group used the sequence data to perform reverse genetics and generate the authentic Ebola virus that’s currently infecting scores of people in Ituri and North Kivu provinces of DRC. 

“It takes a lot of resources and a lot of money and a lot of energy to make a cloned virus by reverse genetics. And it would be so much easier if somebody had just sent the isolate”, Dr. Thomas Geisbert, who is not involved in the work, said. 

The CDC group established the efficacy of current treatments (a drug called Remdesivir and the vaccine ZMapp) on the viral strain by using their artificial virus for all the tests. Their work was published Tuesday in the journal Lancet.

For all four Ebola outbreaks that the DRC has seen, healthcare authorities have not shared viral specimens with foreign Ebola researchers. Instead, the whole genome sequence was provided every time. With the whole genome sequence data, the Lancet paper noted that there are at least two Ebola strains in DRC that have independently crossed into the human population.  

Reasons for not sharing viral samples by DRC are not known but it is a roadblock to rapid and efficient treatments in affected geographical regions. McMullan said that shipping of samples across such large distances is often a logistical issue and requires permission from several authorities and coordination of many people. 

 (Helen Branswell, STAT)

Plastic Has A Big Carbon Footprint — But That Isn’t The Whole Story

We are all too familiar with ghastly images of dead whales with plastic-filled stomachs. These images are compounded by pictures of how much waste is generated, such as a picture of a twenty-story high mound of plastic trash in a developing country that appeared in a recent news article. While there is worldwide concern about how to eliminate use of plastics, there is very little discussion about the environmental impact of the materials that will replace plastic. 

Plastic has a high carbon footprint. In a recent report the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) has broken down the individual steps of greenhouse gas production, from the beginning of plastic production until it ends up incinerated as a waste. Manufactured from oil and natural gas, plastic production adds to carbon footprint right from its cradle when gases and oils leak into the environment. Subsequently, delivery of raw materials to the production sites further add to the burden. Being among the most energy intensive materials to produce, plastic production takes a heavy toll on energy, water and electricity. Finally, when plastics are incinerated, greenhouse gases end up in the environment. 

But what about the materials that commonly substitute for plastic, such as paper, compostable plastic, canvas or glass? What is their carbon footprint in production stages? Research by several independent groups has revealed that these materials leave an even larger carbon footprint during their production. Data have shown that polyethylene plastic bags not only used lesser fuel and energy throughout production, they also emitted fewer global-warming gases and left lesser mass of solid wastes, when compared with paper bags and with compostable plastic bags. Being more durable than other materials, use of polyethylene bags are more energy friendly than use of paper bags. 

Research done on behalf of the American Chemistry Council has shown that replacing plastic would eventually do more harm to the environment than their use. Finally, consumer habits count. If people don’t reuse plastics, then its advantages over paper cease to exist. Of course, the problem of permanent waste and global health consequences are issues that cannot be overlooked. The solution might lie in using plastics more wisely and re-using them as much as possible. 

(Christopher Joyce, NPR

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 12, 2019 at 3:18 pm

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