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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)

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January 16, 2020 at 9:38 am

Science Policy Around the Web January 14th, 2020

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By Thomas Dannenhoffer-Lafage, PhD

Image by Pexels from Pixabay 

The FDA Announces Two More Antacid Recalls Due to Cancer Risk

The FDA has recently announced voluntary recalls of two prescription forms of ranitidine produced by the generic drug companies Appco Pharma and Northwind Pharmaceuticals. The recall was announced because the drug may contain unsafe levels of N-Nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), a carcinogen. The FDA had announced in September that it discovered the drug contained NDMA but did not advise consumers to discontinue use of the drug. Ranitidine – commonly known as Zantac – is prescribed to 15 million Americans and is taken by millions more in over-the-counter versions. The drug was recently removed from the shelves of several retailers as a precaution. Zantac was once the best-selling drug in the world. 

The discovery of NDMA in ranitidine occurred when a mail order pharmacy company Valisure tested a ranitidine syrup. When the syrup tested positive for NDMA, Valisure tested other products containing ranitidine and found the same high amount of the carcinogen. Their findings were then reported to the FDA. According to the CEO of Valisure, the presence of NDMA in ranitidine could be due to chemical stability issues. 

The FDA did not recall the drug at that time because of the extreme conditions of the tests and claimed that less extreme conditions resulted in much smaller amounts of NDMA. Valisure also claimed that NDMA was found in high amounts in tests meant to simulate gastric fluid. However, when the FDA performed a similar test, they found no formation of NDMA. This may be due to the lack of sodium nitrate in the FDA’s tests. The FDA acknowledged this issue in testing by warning consumers to avoid food containing high amounts of sodium nitrate such as  processed meats if they wish to continue taking ranitidine. The FDA has also mentioned that the levels of NDMA found in ranitidine were comparable to what might be found in smoked or grilled meats.  

Several lawsuits have been filed asserting that Zantac has caused cases of cancer. However, experts point out that the likelihood of any individual getting cancer from taking the heartburn medicine is low. 

(Michele Cohen Marill, WIRED)

EPA Aims to Reduce Truck Pollution, and Avert Tougher State Controls

The Trump administration has announced a proposed rule change to tighten the pollution caused by trucks. Initiated by EPA head Andrew Wheeler, the new rule will limit emissions of nitrogen dioxide, which has been linked to asthma and lung disease. The change is predicted to curb nitrogen dioxide pollution more than current regulations, but will likely fall short of what is necessary to significantly prevent respiratory illness. 

The administration seems to be following the lead of the trucking industry, which lobbied for a new national regulation that will override state’s ability to implement their own rules, especially those of California. The EPA’s current rule, enacted in 2001, on nitrogen dioxide pollution from heavy-duty highway trucks required trucks to cut emissions by 95 percent over 10 years. This resulted in a 40-percent drop in nitrogen dioxide emissions across the nation. Although no law requires the EPA ruling to be updated, the Obama administration’s EPA had examined further cuts. The cuts were petitioned for by public health organizations and aimed to reduce emissions by another 90 percent by about 2025. California had begun the legal process to make such proposed cuts a reality, but Trump revoked California’s legal authority to set tighter standards on tailpipe emissions. 

This revocation has lead the EPA to move forward on the new rule that would only reduce emission by 25 percent to 50 percent. The trucking industry has pointed out that the current administration has gone to great lengths to understand how the EPA regulations affects them, something that was not standard practice under previous administrations. However, representatives from the American Lung Association have lamented that the current administration is not taking as much advice from major health and environmental groups as compared to previous administrations. 

(Carol Davenport, New York Times)

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January 14, 2020 at 10:30 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)

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October 8, 2019 at 3:53 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

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August 30, 2019 at 11:08 am

Science Policy Around the Web – June 14th, 2019

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By: Andrew Wright BSc

Image by David Mark from Pixabay 

The Pentagon emits more greenhouse gases than Portugal, study finds 

A recent study published by Brown University quantified the Pentagon’s total greenhouse gas emissions from 2001 to 2017 using estimates from the Department of Energy and fuel consumption data. The results demonstrated that during the time period studied, the Pentagon’s emissions were “in any one year…greater than many smaller countries‘ greenhouse gas emissions”. In 2017 alone, the Pentagon output 59 metric tons of CO2, ranking it higher than Sweden (42 metric tons), Portugal (55 metric tons) , or North Korea (58 metric tons). The Pentagon’s energy consumption is largely from air emissions (~55%) and diesel use (~14%), while the rest is dedicated to powering and heating military facilities.

Were it to be considered a standalone country, the Pentagon would be the 55th largest contributor of CO2 emissions, according to the study’s author Neta Crawford. In a separate article, she noted ”…the Department of Defense is the U.S. government’s largest fossil fuel consumer, accounting for between 77% and 80% of all federal government energy consumption since 2001″. While measures have been put into place by the Pentagon to reduce its emissions in recent years, given the threat assessment the Pentagon produced that warns fully two-thirds of military installations in the U.S. are or will be at risk due to climate change, further efforts may be needed.

 (Sebastien Malo, Reuters

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June 14, 2019 at 3:58 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – March 12, 2019

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By Andrew Wright, BSc

Source: Pixabay

The war on ‘prediabetes’ could be a boon for pharma—but is it good medicine?

Diabetes is highly prevalent in the United States, affectingnearly 10% of the US populationand accounting for approximately 80,000 deaths every year. While the pursuit to reduce or mollify the societal and economic impact of this disease is undoubtedly necessary in a country where fully 39.8% of adults are obese, there are some who wonder if such efforts have slipped into problematic territory. 

            Similar to how the introduction of pain as a fifth vital signhelped to unintentionally spur on the devastating opioid crisis, there is fear that the expanding diagnostic criterion of prediabetes could lead to the familiar territory of unnecessary treatment. For one, the risk of prediabetic patients developing diabetes from year to year is low: just under 2% according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  At the same time the methods of treatment for prediabetes, designed to prevent progression to the full disease, are not particularly effective in achieving that goal. While a 2009 study demonstrated that exercise intervention or metformin, a common drug used to treat diabetes, did prevent some prediabetic patients from transitioning to full diabetes, methodological concerns have been raised with the authors’ results. One of the major issues is that the study used high risk patients at the upper end of the prediabetic spectrum, which is significant given that the American Diabetes Association (ADA) reduced the lower threshold of what counts as prediabetes around the same time. Of these “less” prediabetic patients, many never transition to the full disease. This suggests at the very least that treating these patients, especially pharmacologically, is not necessary or beneficial.

            Despite these issues being raised, there is a worrying trend of medical professionals doing just that. While no drug has been approved to treat prediabetes, doctors are continuing to treat prediabetic patients with diabetes drugs by prescribing them off-label at the recommendation of the ADA. Not only does this include metformin, which has its own difficult side-effects, but also several medications with “black box” labels that denote severe risks. Particularly when one considers that those who progress to full diabetes will be treated with these same drugs as their condition worsens, using them prophylactically is likely overzealous.

            Finally, there have been concerns raised about financial conflicts of interest, to which the medical and pharmaceutical industry are certainly not strangers. The companies behind the most prominent diabetes drugs have gifted millions of dollars to those in positions of influence at the ADA and other medical institutions. Perhaps as a result, while international groups such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have rejected prediabetes as a condition outright, the American medical community seems to be falling in line with the diagnosis. When top-down societal changes to reduce obesity may a be more effective means to reduce diabetes according to the WHO, the over-medicalization of prediabetes could ultimately do more harm than good.

(Charles Piller, Science)

Microplastic pollution revealed ‘absolutely everywhere’ by new research

With estimates that the ocean will have more plastic than fishby weight by 2050, it should come as no surprise that global plastic pollution is becoming rapidly untenable.  It is well understood that plastic does not biodegrade, but rather breaks down into increasingly smaller pieces know as microplastics. These pieces of plastic can become so small that they can be ingested by zooplankton, one of the fundamental building blocks of the marine food chain, which means they eventually make their way to the human digestive system.  

            While the problem was previously thought to be relegated to the worst polluted waterways and places like pacific vortexes (colloquially known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”), recent studies have shown that microplastic pollution is so pervasive that pieces are found in every area tested. This includes freshwater bodies in the United Kingdom, groundwater supplies in the United States, the Yangtze river, off the coast of Spain, and in tap water around the world.

            The problem is not relegated to shallow water bodies either, with microplastics being found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench at levels of up to 2,200 pieces per liter of sediment. While these levels of contamination are undoubtedly perilous to wildlife, the affect they might have on humans is unclear. However, research from the National University of Singapore has demonstrated that microplastics harbor both bacteria that cause coral bleaching and those that cause gastroenteritis.  Further,  the possibility remains for chemicals contained in microplastics such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are carcinogenic, to cause deleterious health effects as chronic exposure leads to cumulative effects. What is clear is that without some method of reducing plastic pollution or monumental cleanup efforts, microplastics will become a troubling global burden in the years to come.

(Damian Carrington, The Guardian)

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March 12, 2019 at 4:53 pm

Intellectual property theft and its effects on US-China trade relations

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By: Neetu Gulati, Ph.D.

Source:Wikimedia

China and the US are currently in the midst of a trade war that, if not resolved my March 1, 2019, will lead to another increase in tariffs by the US. This trade war, which started over the US accusing China of stealing intellectual property from American companies, has already affected the economy of the two countries and could have global effects. The US has evidence that information including biomedical research breakthroughs, technological advances, and food product formulations have been stolen. In response to these illicit trade practices, the US imposed tariffs on Chinese imports, leading to the beginning of the trade war.

So how did we get here? 2019 marks forty years of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, which officially began on January 1, 1979. Since relations began, the two countries have benefited from ongoing trade, and China has become the largest goods trading partner with the US. Bilateral economic relations have increased from $33 billion in 1992 to over $772 billion in goods and services in 2017.  Despite strong economic ties, relations between the two countries have come under strain in recent years. The US State Department has identified concerns over military conflict in the South China Sea, counter-intelligence and security issues, and the trade deficit, among other issues. These issues came to a head in April 2018 when President Donald J. Trump issued a statement that China had stolen America’s intellectual property and engaged in illegal trade practices. In response, the US imposed additional tariffs on approximately $50 billion worth of Chinese imports. China then countered with tariffs on US imports, and thus a trade war between the two countries began.

To understand how intellectual property, or IP, fits into the trade war, it is important to first understand what it is. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, IP “refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce.” More simply, IP is something created or invented through human intellect, but not necessarily a tangible product. These products often have important scientific implications, as the umbrella of IP can cover genetically engineered crops, newly developed technologies and software, and new therapeutics, just to name a few. IP is legally protected through means such as patents, trademarks, and copyright, which allow people to gain recognition and financial benefits from their creations. These protections are country-specific, and the US Patent and Trademark Office gives guidance about protecting IP overseas, including in China. The process of transferring IP from the creator to another entity, often for distribution purposes, is known as technology transfer. This process is at the heart of the accusation of theft of American IP.

According to a seven-month long investigation done by the United States Trade Representative (USTR), China’s unreasonable technology transfer policies meant they did not live up to the commitments made when joining the World Trade Organization. The report found that Chinese laws require foreign companies to create joint ventures with domestic Chinese companies in order to sell goods within the country. The investigation by USTR found that “China’s regulatory authorities do not allow U.S. companies to make their own decisions about technology transfer and the assignment or licensing of intellectual property rights.  Instead, they continue to require or pressure foreign companies to transfer technology as a condition for securing investment or other approvals.” By pushing for technology transfer, these laws opened up American companies to theft of their IP. Stolen IP has included things like software code for a wind turbine, genetically modified corn seeds, the idea behind a robot named Tappy, and even the formulation for the chemical that makes Oreo filling white.

Beyond stealing information for goods entering China, it is also possible that Chinese workers in the United States may be stealing IP and sending it back to their home country. For example, a Chinese scientist known as ‘China’s Elon Musk’ was accused by his former research advisor of stealing research done at Duke University and replicating it in China for his own gain. A former assistant director of counterintelligence at the FBI suspects that the Chinese scientist was sent by the Chinese government intentionally to steal IP. This was not an isolated incident, either. According to a report from an advisory committee to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), research institutions in the US may have fallen victim to a small number of foreign researchers associated with China’s “Talents Recruitment Program,” which the National Intelligence Council identified as an effort to “to facilitate the legal and illicit transfer of US technology, intellectual property and know-how.” This comes mere months after the NIH announced that it had identified undisclosed financial conflicts between US researchers and foreign governments. Without giving details of specific countries, NIH Director Francis Collins reported to a Senate Committee hearing that “the robustness of the biomedical research enterprise is under constant threat.” Nevertheless, these threats should not hinder the research enterprise. During a hearing in April 2018, House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith remarked, “on the one hand, we must maintain the open and collaborative nature of academic research and development. On the other, we must protect our research and development from actors who seek to do us harm.”

The balance between research collaboration and theft is delicate. Information sharing is increasingly necessary as scientific pursuits become more interdisciplinary in nature, and can lead to more productivity in research. However, voluntary collaboration is different from unwilling or coerced transfer of ideas. The ability of US scientists and entrepreneurs to innovate and create new IP is an important driver of the American economy, and further allows for the ability to research new scientific pursuits. Not only does IP theft undermine the incentive and ability for Americans to innovate, it has had drastic negative effects on the American economy, with annual losses estimated to be between $225 billion and $600 billion according to a report put out by the IP Commission. These losses directly affect those who own and/or license IP, as well as those who are associated with these companies or individuals. This can then lead to downsizing or cutting jobs, further harming American science and technology industries. It is for this reason that the US responded so strongly against the evidence of IP theft.

In response to the accusations from the US, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to resolve the “reasonable concerns” of the US regarding IP practices. The Chinese government announced punishments that could restrict Chinese companies from state funding support due to IP theft and at the G20 Summit in December 2018, the Presidents of the two nations agreed to a 90-day financial truce, which will end March 1, 2019. 

The two countries are currently working on a trade deal to end the escalating tariffs, which would lessen tensions between the world’s two largest economies. The US wants China to commit to buying more American goods and services, and to agree to end the practice of requiring American companies to give technology transfers in order to do business in China. Without hashing out details, China has agreed to increase imports of U.S. agriculture, energy, industrial products and services. Delegations from the two countries will meet again in mid-February in China to continue negotiating. Trump was optimistic that the two nations would be able to make a deal before the deadline, saying, “I believe that a lot of the biggest points are going to be agreed to by me and him.”  

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February 7, 2019 at 9:39 pm