Archive for: September, 2010

Women’s Health: What’s in Your Tap Water? (Part 3 of 3)

Sep 29 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

This is a continuation of the look at the claims of Women's Health article "What's in your tap water?"

Put a cork in it?

In my previous posts, I took a look at the four pollutants that Women's Health highlighted as potential tap water pollutants: chlorination byproducts and bacteria and lead and pharmaceuticals. All are indeed possible tap water contaminants that have the potential to adversely affect your health.  But I think the way the article - really more of a short list - framed the information is really problematic.

Here is the intro:

Think that's clean water coming out of your faucet? Think again. New studies have found a host of nasties in tap water.

There's a lot wrong in that short paragraph: the "nasties" aren't new, the water that comes out of most faucets is clean, and, even if it wasn't, the article doesn't provide any information I could use to find out what's in my tap water.

First off, it's silly to suggest that the information is based on "new studies". The potential dangers of lead pipes has been known since the time of the Roman Empire. Treatments to kill bacteria and other pathogens have been in use  since the late 19th century, and chlorine was first added to water as a disinfectant a century ago. The potential risks associated with the ingestion of chlorination byproducts have been studied for more than 30 years. Over the years it has become less likely that the water you are drinking contains any of those pollutants.

The only fairly recent discovery is the presence of pharmaceuticals and drug by-products in the water supply. As yet there isn't any data demonstrating that these compounds are typically found at high enough levels in drinking water to be a health concern.

Some of you have probably noticed my use of weasel words: it's likely there are lower levels of chlorination byproducts in tap water than there were 30 years ago, and at typical levels the four pollutants aren't a significant health threat. That's because water quality can vary a lot from location to location.

The water coming out of my faucets has a different source and passes through a different treatment plant than the water provided to folks in the next town over. My water might even be different than what's coming from the tap of other homes in my neighborhood, since their plumbing might have a different amount of lead or corrosion.

So while the Women's Health article correctly points out the "nasties" exist, the information they provide can't help you assess the risk in drinking your tap water, and make the pollutants sound like a much bigger problem than they are.

So what is in your tap water?

I'd drink this.

If you are concerned - or curious - there are a couple of ways to find more information about your water.

The EPA requires suppliers that serve at least 100,000 people1 to send an annual water quality report to all customers . Most large water districts have their most recent report available online. See, for example, the reports for Metro Boston, St. Louis, and the East SF Bay Area.  The EPA also has links to other online reports and a database of reported violations of safety standards.

While the EPA-mandated reports can tell you what's in the water when it's distributed, it obviously can't take into account contaminants like lead that can come from the plumbing inside your home.  The only way to determine lead levels is to have your water tested in a laboratory.

Additional information:

EPA Information on home water testing (pdf)

EPA's safe drinking water Hotline (answers general questions about water safety)

EPA Local Drinking Water Information (find a report from your local water supplier)

EPA Safe Drinking Water Information System database (reports violations of EPA drinking water regulations)

USGS report on private well water safety and EPA Private Drinking Water Well information (well water is not part of the public water supply, and is not governed by EPA regulations)

1. I get an annual report from my local water supplier even though it only serves 40,000, and so is not required to mail out a report.  I assume that other smaller water districts do the same.

Is bottled water a good substitute for tap water?

Better bottled?

If an alien landed in Southern California, it might get the impression that drinking water only comes in plastic bottles. Ask around, and many people will tell you that they drink bottled water because it's "healthier" - or at least in some way "better" - than what comes from their faucet.

While bottled water may sometimes taste better, there isn't any evidence that it's any purer or healthier than tap water.  It can even contain the same pollutants, such as chlorination byproducts or bacteria.

That's not particularly surprising, since many of the brands of the bottled water that you find in your supermarket - like Pepsi's Aquafina and Coca-Cola's Dasani - are simply tap water that may (or may not) have gone through an extra round of purification.

To be fair, the Women's Health article doesn't suggest that we should buying bottled water. But since it strongly implies that "our" tap water is full of nasty pollutants, I wouldn't be surprised if some readers thought that was the unspoken take-home message.

Why is that a problem? Bottled water is much much more expensive than tap water and generates tons of plastic waste every year. It's bad for your wallet, bad for your environment and has no special health benefit.  I'm trying to break my own bottled water habit for that reason.

So what can you do?

If you are concerned about lead in your plumbing, the EPA suggests only drinking cold tap water, and, if the faucet has not been used for 6 or more hours, to let the water run briefly before filling up your glass.

You can also use a water pitcher with a carbon filter to remove minerals and other impurities. That has the added benefit of allowing the water to stand long enough for chlorination byproducts to evaporate.

And you can not worry too much - water straight from your tap is likely just fine.

Additional Reading

Lalumandier JA and Ayers LW. Fluoride and Bacterial Content of Bottled Water vs. Tap Water. Arch Fam Med. 9:246-250 (2000)     (free full text)

Bottled Water Regulation and the FDA.

National Academy of Sciences & Global Health and Education Foundation: Safe Drinking Water Is Essential

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Be sure to check out all the Women's Health review posts.

7 responses so far

Women’s Health: What’s in your tap water? (Part 2 of 3)

Sep 28 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

This is a continuation of the look at the claims of Women's Health Magazine article "What's in your tap water?"

In yesterday's post, I looked at two "nasties" that might end up in your tap water: chlorination by-products and bacteria. Both are related to the disinfection (or failure of disinfection) of drinking water by public water suppliers.

The two other pollutants listed in the Women's Health article are lead and pharmaceuticals, which I'll look at in a bit more detail below.

Roman Lead Pipe

Nasty Lead

Lead is definitely nasty. There is no question that exposure lead is dangerous, particularly for children:

The main target for lead toxicity is the nervous system, both in adults and children. Long-term exposure of adults can result in decreased performance in some tests that measure functions of the nervous system. It may also cause weakness in fingers, wrists, or ankles. Lead exposure also causes small increases in blood pressure, particularly in middle-aged and older people and can cause anemia. Exposure to high lead levels can severely damage the brain and kidneys in adults or children and ultimately cause death. In pregnant women, high levels of exposure to lead may cause miscarriage.

So definitely bad.

The source of lead contamination in drinking water is usually corrosion of household lead pipes. Lead plumbing is nothing new. More than two thousand years ago, the fountains and baths of Rome were supplied with water traveling through lead pipes.  Fortunately for the Romans, their water contained enough calcium that a crust of limestone formed inside the pipes, preventing lead from leaching into their water supply.1

Over the centuries other communities have not been as lucky. For example, it's estimated that in the early 20th century the use of  lead pipes - particularly new lead pipes that didn't have any mineral encrustations on the inside - increased stillbirth and infant mortality rates as much as 50 percent in some Massachusetts towns.

It's only relatively recently that public health measures have targeted lead plumbing. In 1986 the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act was amended to require "lead free" pipes. While that reduces the risk of lead contamination from the pipes in homes built after 1986, it does not mean that recently-built plumbing systems are necessarily lead free. The EPA warns:

However, new homes are also at risk: even legally “lead-free” plumbing may contain up to 8 percent lead. The most common problem is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures2 which can leach significant amounts of lead into the water, especially hot water.

As scary as that sounds, the primary sources of lead exposure, at least for children, are lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust. Drinking water only accounted for an estimated 10-20 percent of total lead exposure in the general population in 1991. I'd hope that in the 20 years since then the wider use of lead-free (or "lead-free") plumbing has reduced that amount.

But even if you have lead plumbing at home,  Women's Health suggests you can minimize the risk of lead contamination in your tap water.

Lead can seep into water that's been sitting stagnant in pipes, "so run your tap for two minutes to flush it out," says James M. Symons, M.D., author of Plain Talk About Drinking Water. (Rather than waste that water, use it to wash your hands or the dishes.)

Or maybe fill a pitcher with drinking water after washing the dishes. No waste at all that way!

Additional reading:

EPA: Lead in Drinking Water

EPA: Is There Lead in my Drinking Water?

Levin R. et al. Lead Exposures in U.S. Children, 2008: Implications for Prevention. Environ Health Perspect. 116(10): 1285–129 (2008). doi: 10.1289/ehp.11241. (free full text)

1. Unfortunately for the Romans they also used lead cooking vessels and added leaded compounds to their food, and causing widespread lead poisoning, particularly among the Roman elite.
2. A California law (pdf) that went into effect in January limits the amount of lead in the "wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings and fixtures" to 0.25 percent. I wonder if there was a rush to purchase "traditional" brass and bronze fittings before the California law went into effect.

Prescription Drugs

Nasty Pharmaceuticals

In 2008 the  Associated Press investigated whether traces of pharmaceuticals could be found in treated drinking water. What they found looked like a serious problem:

At least one pharmaceutical was detected in tests of treated drinking water supplies for 24 major metropolitan areas, according to an Associated Press survey of 62 major water providers and data obtained from independent researchers.

The source of the pollution is us, as it is cutesily explained in Women's Health:

Every time you pop a pill—whether it's a Tylenol or Xanax— traces of it come out in your pee. And (ick alert!) that urine can eventually find its way back into our tap water.

But its not at all clear what the health risk - if any - the presence of pharmaceuticals presents. The type of chemical contaminants the AP investigation found varied widely from location to location; from acetaminophen, caffeine and cotinine in Atlanta (Tylenol, coffee and cigarettes?) to meprobamate and phenytoin in Los Angeles (anti-anxiety and anticonvulsant meds).

As a recent conference report points out, the concentrations of the pharmaceuticals and drug by-products is quite low:

The primary exposure pathways [of pharmaceuticals] to humans other than those from prescribed dosing are through drinking water at part-per-trillion levels (Stackelberg et al. 2007; Ye et al. 2007), which for typical daily consumption over a lifetime, would provide exposure to individual compounds well below a single therapeutic dose and suggest little threat to human health (Fent et al. 2006), although the effects on pregnant women and their fetuses are still not clear.

The EPA doesn't as yet regulate the levels of such compounds, and there currently isn't an easy way to reduce your possible exposure. The jury is still out on whether this is even something we should worry about health-wise. There's not much we can do but watch what the studies currently in progress turn up over the next few years.

I think a greater concern is the effect of pharmaceuticals and drug by-products on the environment. Wastewater from municipal sewage treatment plants has been shown to disrupt the endocrine systems of fish (causing feminization of male fish), and irrigation with reclaimed water can deposit pharmaceuticals in the soil. We likely won't understand the long-term effects until significant and possibly irreversible damage has been done.

Additional reading:

USA Today: Drugs found in drinking water

FRONTLINE: poisoned waters: how safe's your drinking water?

FRONTLINE: teacher center: teacher guides by film: Poisoned Waters

Rodriguez-Mozaz S and Weinberg HS. Meeting Report: Pharmaceuticals in Water—An Interdisciplinary Approach to a Public Health Challenge. Environ Health Perspect. 118(7): 1016–1020. (2010)  doi: 10.1289/ehp.0901532. (free full text)

EPA: Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products as Pollutants

USGS: What's in Our Wastewaters and Where Does it Go?

- - -

Continued tomorrow: What's really in your water and is bottled water the solution?


Read all the Women's Health review posts.

Top image: Lead pipe to supply water to the Great Bath at Rome Roman Baths by Andrew Dunn on Wikimedia Commons.

Bottom image: National Cancer Institute Visuals Online: Pictured is an array of prescription drugs. The pills are scattered and unarranged. In some photos is a container of birth control pills In the background.

5 responses so far

Colorful Cell Division

Sep 27 2010 Published by under Art & Science

Michele Banks is a self-taught artist whose latest collection of watercolor paintings take their inspiration from mitosis (cell division) as seen through a microscope.

New Scientist has a video profile of the artist and her work:

Anaphase

Prometaphase

For comparison, the images on the right show dividing cells labeled with fluorescent dyes, as seen under a microscope :

Even if her watercolors aren't scientifically perfect, I think Banks does capture the essence of cell division in a lovely way.

Banks sells her "Artologica" collection through Etsy and Makers Market .

Photos of cell division by Roy van Heesbeen on Wikimedia Commons: Prometaphase, Anaphase, Telophase

3 responses so far

Women's Health: What's in Your Tap Water? (Part 1 of 3)

Sep 27 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

Water, water, water

At the suggestion of Scicurious, a bunch of us at Scientopia have decided to take a closer look at the science - both good and bad - behind the articles in the latest issue of Women's Health magazine. Be sure to check out the Scientopia front page where you can find all the Women's Health review posts

We're suffering from a heat wave here in Southern California.  Today the temperature is expected to hit triple digits by mid-afternoon, while the relative humidity is expected to drop to a dry 10%. Dehydration is a serious concern, especially for people who have to spend time outside during the hottest part of the day. It's a lifesaver that clean water is as close as the nearest faucet.

That brings me to the article1 in Women's Health that asks "Think that's clean water coming out of your faucet?" The answer, of course, is that there are a "host of nasties" we should be concerned about. It lists four pollutants that may be found in your tap water: chlorine, lead, bacteria, and hormone and drug by-products, that has a take-home message that we should be very concerned about the toxins in the water we drink.

So should we avoid drinking water from the faucet? or is it scare-mongering? While there are indeed legitimate concerns about the safety of the water supply, I'd say the short piece makes it sound as if contaminated tap water is a much greater problem than it really is.

Water Treatment Cycle (click for details)

There is no one single source of tap water in the United States2. There are more than 150,000 public water systems in the US, supplying drinking water to the vast majority of Americans. The quality of the water varies depending on the source and the efficiency of local water treatment. But even so, the public drinking water supply is required to meet the safety standards overseen by the  Environmental Protection Agency.

So what do we actually know about the "nasties" in our water supply?  Read on.

Nasty Chlorine

In 1908 Jersey City, New Jersey became the first municipal water system in the United States to disinfect its water supply with chlorine. The treatment is very effective at killing bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Today, a century later, disinfection of drinking water has virtually eliminated water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid fever in the U.S.

The problem is that in addition to killing pathogens, chlorine can chemically react with organic compounds in the water, creating toxic by-products, particularly trihalomethanes (THM). Those are the the "nasties" that the article refers to:

But studies show that long-term exposure to chlorine by-products can lead to miscarriage or birth defects, says Gina Solomon, M.D., a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

That's scary!  But how great is the actual risk?

A search of the recent medical literature turns up some studies that found a relationship between exposure to chlorination by-products and birth defects, and others not so much.  A recent review of the literature found that isn't enough evidence to conclude that the by-products create a significant risk of birth defects.  A  different review, looking at a slightly different set of studies did find a moderate association between chlorination by-products and miscarriages, particularly in women who drink five or more glasses of tap water per day.

So there may be a small risk of drinking tap water during pregnancy. Fortunately, many public water suppliers have begun to use chloramine, rather than chlorine, as a disinfectant. That reduces the total level of disinfection by-products, which is step in the right direction.

You can also help remove the contaminants yourself. Most of the chlorination by-products are volatile, meaning that they will eventually evaporate. The Women's Health article suggests letting the water stand 5 minutes before drinking, but that doesn't seem like nearly long enough to make a difference. The World Health Organization suggests boiling for 5 minutes to remove THM.  You'd probably have to let the water stand at room temperature for several hours to have the same effect.

And if you are seriously concerned, don't forget that showering, bathing and swimming in chlorinated pools likely also contribute to trihalomethane exposure.

Further reading:

Nieuwenhuijsen MJ et al. Chlorination Disinfection By-Products in Drinking Water and Congenital Anomalies: Review and Meta-Analysis. Environ Health Perspect. 2009 October; 117(10): 1486–1493. doi: 10.1289/ehp.0900677.

Bove F. et al. Drinking water contaminants and adverse pregnancy outcomes: a review. Environ Health Perspect. 2002 February; 110(Suppl 1): 61–74. (full text)

Environmental Protection Agency: Basic Information about Disinfection Byproducts in Drinking Water: Total Trihalomethanes, Haloacetic Acids, Bromate, and Chlorite

World Health Organization:  Trihalomethanes in drinking-water (pdf).

Nasty Bacteria

Scanning electron micrograph of E. coli.

Treatment of water with chlorine or other disinfectants kills the microbes that can make you sick. But sometimes water isn't adequately treated and pathogens can end up in your drinking water. Or as Women's Health put it:

Gnarly bacteria like E. coli can make their way into water from human and animal waste that runs into reservoirs from broken pipes and sewage systems.

E.coli infection is spread through ingestion of poop from infected animals or humans, and it can indeed be spread through drinking contaminated water, as well as eating contaminated or by contact with infected individuals. However, it's rare that it finds its way into the water coming out of your tap. Let's look at some numbers.

According to the CDC, in 2005 and 2006 there were a total of 20 disease outbreaks associated with drinking water in the U.S., affecting 612 people. To put that into perspective, that is about 300 people affected by drinking water-associated disease outbreaks per year out of a total U.S. population of roughly 300 million. Even factoring in the likelihood that some small outbreaks went unreported, such outbreaks are rare.

Twelve of those twenty outbreaks - affecting 135 people -  were associated with bacterial contamination. Ten were caused by Legionella in contaminated building plumbing systems; one outbreak was caused by Campylobacter, and a single outbreak was caused by pathogenic E. coli.  The E.coli outbreak affected 60 people at a camp in Oregon that was supplied with inadequately chlorinated river water.

It looks to me that as long as your local water treatment facility is functioning properly, the risk of infection from drinking tap water is extremely low.

Of course for someone who has a compromised immune system or is otherwise vulnerable to infection, even a small risk can pose a danger. Fortunately there is an easy solution: boiling water before drinking it should kill any microbes lurking within.

Further reading:

CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Surveillance Summary:  Surveillance for Waterborne Disease and Outbreaks Associated with Drinking Water and Water not Intended for Drinking --- United States, 2005--2006 (pdf version)

Tomorrow: Lead and pharmaceuticals.

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1. It's actually not so much an article as a "List Tool", that breaks down a topic into 4 or 6 or 8 pithy points.

2. Women's Health is a U.S. magazine, so I'm assuming they are referring to the U.S. water supply.

4 responses so far

Recent Reading – 9/25/10

Sep 25 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment, Recent Reading

Some interesting blog posts and articles I've read over the past few weeks:

The giant’s shoulders: September 2010 edition (Science history carnival)

Misleading food labels—are you eating what you think you are? | Body Politic

A physicist, a chemist and a zoologist walk into a bar … | Alice Bell @ guardian.co.uk

Alice Bell looks at humour in science and finds it can sometimes be a bad thing. But mostly a good thing

Teacher Evaluation and Test Scores, aleph-nought in a series : Uncertain Principles

There's been a lot of energy expended blogging and writing about the LA Times's investigation of teacher performance in Los Angeles, using "Value Added Modeling," which basically looks at how much a student's scores improved during a year with a given teacher.

The Myth of White Male Geek Rationality | Geek Feminism Blog

People who consider themselves fully rational individuals are ignorant about basic psychology and their own minds. It is easy for white men in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields to perceive themselves as more rational than other groups, because our society associates rationality with whites, men, and STEM professionals.

Blind prejudice – Bad Science

Noola Griffiths is an academic who studies the psychology of music, and she’s published a cracking paper on what women wear, and how that effects your judgement of their performance. The results are predictable; but the context is interesting.Four female musicians were filmed playing in three different outfits: a concert dress, jeans, and a nightclubbing dress. [. . .] For technical proficiency, performers in a concert dress were rated higher than if they were in jeans or a clubbing dress, even though the actual audio performance was exactly the same every time (and played by a separate musician who was never filmed).

Science: Women Are Attracted to Men Who Dance ‘Flamboyantly’ -- Daily Intel

After showing the resulting footage to a group of women, the academics found that the ladies "were most attracted to male dancers who have big, flamboyant moves," according to the AP. "The movements around the head, neck and trunk were the most important," said Nick Neave, one of the study's co-authors. "The good dancers had lots of different movements and used them with flair and creativity."

Nature and Environment

How Much of Wildlife Filmmaking is Staged? | Age of Engagement @ Big Think

You've probably wondered how wildlife filmmakers are able to follow a polar bear and her cub across a year. Or get perfect close-up shots of a bear feasting on a deer carcass. In a new book, veteran wildlife filmmaker Chris Palmer offers an insider's look at the practices (and secrets) of the wildlife film industry. What he describes will surprise you

9/11 Memorial Lights Trap Thousands of Birds | Wired Science

On the evening of the ninth anniversary of 9/11, the twin columns of light projected as a memorial over the World Trade Center site became a source of mystery. Illuminated in the beams were thousands of small white objects, sparkling and spiraling, unlike anything seen on other nights.

Why do we eat chilli? | Jason Goldman @ guardian.co.uk

Healthy, sane humans do not stab themselves in the thighs, or bathe their eyes in lemon juice. So why do we so love to assault one of the most sensitive organs in the human body, the tongue, with what amounts to chemical warfare?
[note that "chilli" refers to hot peppers, not chili stews]

Ants save trees from elephants - The Scientist

Ants known to defend certain species of Acacia trees from elephant predation deter the massive herbivores so effectively that they are impacting entire savanna ecosystems . . .

Ocean of Pseudoscience: Sharks DO get cancer! : Observations of a Nerd

There are a lot of myths out there about the marine world, but by far the one that bothers me the most is the notion that sharks don't get cancer. This simply untrue statement has led to the slaughter of millions of sharks via the industry for shark cartilage pills, which are sold to desperate cancer patients under the false pretense that they can help reduce or cure their illness.

Wolves Are Smart, but Dogs Look Back : The Thoughtful Animal

Previous research has shown that dogs can use lots of different forms of human communicative signals to find food, and they can also inform humans of the location of hidden food, by looking back and forth between that human and a second location. But what is it about dogs that allows them to comprehend and invoke human social communication?

In which I set up a collaboration between a biologist, a farmer and a chimeric chicken | Not Exactly Rocket Science

I get a lot of emails. Most can be casually filed away, but among the spam and fluff from PR agencies, there are occasionally some absolute gems. And so it was that on August 21st, one Paul Sanders saw fit to send me four photos of a chicken.

Sex and the Single Chromosome | ScienceMatters @ Berkeley

Is there value to sex? For higher organisms, absolutely. Animals, plants and fungi that reproduce only by cloning are scarce as hen’s teeth, suggesting the gene shuffling of sex pays handsome dividends.

Seedlessness | Oscillator

Many species of figs are pollinated by symbiotic wasps, but there are other fig varieties that develop edible, seedless figs through a process called parthenocarpy. A dominant mutation in the plant allows unfertilized flowers to stay on the tree and develop into yummy figs. While these seedless fruits are delicious, the plants that produce them are sterile, able to reproduce only through human intervention.

Top Photomicrographs of Life Beginning | Wired Science (beautiful embryo photography)

The Worm In Your Brain | The Loom

One of the most fascinating things about the history of life is the way distantly related species can look alike. In some cases, the similarities are superficial, and in other cases they are signs of a common ancestry. And sometimes–as in the case of our brain and the brains of worms–it’s a little of both.

Health and Medicine

Where does the myth of a gene for things like intelligence come from? | Dorothy Bishop @ guardian.co.uk

I recently received an email from a company called MyGeneProfile: "By discovering your child's inborn talents & personality traits, it can surely provide a great head start to groom your child in the right way ... our Inborn Talent Genetic Test has 99.8% accuracy." [. . . ] The company relies on a widespread assumption that people's mental and physical attributes are predictable from their genes. So where does this belief come from, and is it wrong?

The many weaknesses of ovulation studies | By Jessica Grose @ Slate Magazine

Sure, some of these ovulation studies have a legitimate goal: They are meant to explore whether women subtly advertise their fertility. Unlike other primates, human females don't make it explicit when they're ovulating. But then there are the studies that are just about figuring out how to get women to shop more. The study from last month, about the "sexier clothing" ovulating women buy, is Exhibit A. It was conducted by marketing researchers.

How culture can invert genetic risk | Mind Hacks

Neuron Culture has a fantastic piece on how a long touted ‘depression gene’ turned out to reduce the risk of mood problems in people in East Asians and why we can’t always understand genetic effects on behaviour without understanding culture.

The secret history of psychedelic psychiatry | Neurophilosophy

...  it is now well known that the United States Army experimented with LSD on willing and unwilling military personnel and civilians. Less well known is the work of a group of psychiatrists working in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, who pioneered the use of LSD as a treatment for alcoholism, and claimed that it produced unprecedented rates of recovery.

Aspartame – Truth vs Fiction | Science-Based Medicine

The notion that aspartame is unsafe has been circulating almost since it first appeared, and like rumors and misinformation have a tendency to do, fears surrounding aspartame have taken on a life of their own.

Does your brain know you’re drinking Diet? | Neurotic Physiology

The question comes down to this: are the same areas of the brain activated when you drink sugary drinks as opposed to drinks sweetened with non-caloric sweetener? And does this VARY by the SIZE of the tasting you are doing?

Obese, but metabolically healthy: Is weight loss detrimental? | Obesity Panacea

[part 5 of a 5-part series]

Lots of Ink: Gene therapy seems to almost cure one young man of beta-thalassemia |Knight Science Journalism Tracker

Ordinarily news stories that herald a promising new treatment based on the recovery of one patient would raise eyebrows and elicit heavy grumbling from experienced medical reporters. That’s not statistics, it’s not science, it’s just something for researchers to follow up but not bother reporters about until they have something solid. But this case may deserve forbearance.

The man who encourages the sick and dying to drink industrial bleach | Martin Robbins @ guardian.co.uk

When 15-year-old Rhys Morgan was diagnosed with Crohn's disease a few months ago he turned to the internet for help, and came across the Crohn's Disease Forum, a website offering support to patients.. . .He followed the site for a while and noticed a disturbing undercurrent of people trying to push alternative medicines to members. One product in particular was called Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS), and its website claimed it cured cancer, Aids, malaria, and basically most things short of actual death.

See also: Moderators of a medical forum hide safety warning about drinking what is effectively bleach | Alice in Galaxyland

Excessive work hours: a serious safety hazards for workers | The Pump Handle

Among the compelling evidence provided are studies demonstrating significantly diminished mental acuity for sleep-deprived medical residents at levels comparable to 0.05% blood alcohol levels.

Mom and Pop Parenting: Determinism Strikes Again | Wonderland

The paper is, indeed, interesting and provocative. Which makes it a double shame that the Times coverage is so woefully incomplete. Belkin’s answer for “Why Mothers and Fathers Play Differently” is oxytocin. And…oxytocin. And did I mention oxytocin?

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Dance your PhD: How does your brain analyze incoming visual information?

Sep 24 2010 Published by under Art & Science, Brain & Behavior

The finalists in the 2010 Dance Your Ph.D. contest have been announced. The competition is open to all science PhDs (or soon-to-be-PhDs) willing submit a video of a dance interpretation of their PhD thesis. And yes, the author of the thesis has to be one of the dancers.

A finalist for each category - Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Social Science - was announced last week. The finalist in biology was "How does your brain analyze incoming visual information?", by Utrecht University gradutate student Maartje de Jong.

She explains:

We tend to believe what we see with our eyes is real and accurate. What we often do not realize is that our eyes register only a reflection of the outside world. To reconstruct reality from this reflection we have to rely on inferences and assumptions. It is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle without any knowledge about the whole picture. Our brain does this without our conscious awareness. In a split second it organizes and interprets incoming visual information to form a stable and meaningful image of the world around us.

[. . . snip . . . ]

Our video explains the basics of how the brain analyzes visual information. You see a man (‘the observer’) watching a movie-clip on his laptop. The visual information presented on his laptop is registered by his eyes and translated into neural signals that enter his brain. Through dance we portray what happens inside the observer’s brain. The leading dancer in the video, who can be recognized by the brain depicted on his clothing, represents the observer’s internal neural factors, such as his goals and experiences. The dancers with an information-icon depicted on their clothing (‘the i-dancers’) represent the incoming visual information.

Read the rest of the explanation of her research - and the dance - here.

Check out the the finalists' videos and vote for your favorite at ScienceNOW. The overall winner will be announced on October 19th at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York.

You can watch all the entries on the Gonzo Labs web site.

2 responses so far

Light and Darkness: How to Sleep

Sep 15 2010 Published by under Brain & Behavior

Jessa Gamble is an award-winning science writer based in Yellowknife, Canada, just a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle. Because of Yellowknife's high latitude, the length  of daylight  varies widely during the year - from 5 hours in December to 20 hours in June.

The cultural adaptation of traditional subarctic cultures to that dramatic seasonal variation in day length is how she begins her discussion of natural human sleep cycles in her brief TED talk:

As Gamble notes, before artificial light became common in people's homes, most people did not sleep in an unbroken eight hour block. Instead they went to bed at dusk, slept four hours or so, had a couple hours of wakefulness (used for meditation, sex, study or work), and then returned to sleep until dawn.

As a night owl, I find it hard to imagine going to bed when the sun goes down. Even if I wanted to change my sleeping habits, unless my husband and friends also changed their schedules along with mine,  I would find it socially isolating to hit the sack at 8pm. And that doesn't even take into account the difficulty of finding a truly dark place to sleep so early in the evening. Living in a suburb laced with street lights, it doesn't ever get completely dark outside.

I doubt I'm alone in thinking that "natural" sleep patterns aren't easily compatible with modern life. What Gamble suggests is that we should consider the cost of that attitude to our mental well being.

Gamble's book about the daily rhythms of life in different cultures - The Siesta and the Midnight Sun - will be published by Viking Canada in March 2011.

For a primer on human sleep patterns, you check out "Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sleep (But Were Too Afraid To Ask)" at the old Blog Around the Clock.

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Reporting California Roadkill

Sep 13 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

Scientists at the University of California at Davis Road Ecology Center and Information Center for the Environment have developed the California Roadkill Observation System to help track animals killed on roads. The ultimate goal

They are asking the public to help add information to their roadkill map, both by reporting the location and type of animal killed. Photos are encouraged, and the web site includes a list of common California animals (which would be much more useful if it were illustrated).

Most of the current reports are for the San Francisco Bay Area, but reports from anywhere in California are welcome.

There is also similar roadkill map for the state of Maine, created in collaboration with the Maine Audubon Society.

Add a California roadkill observation. There's also a printable form (pdf) that you can keep in your car.
Add a Maine roadkill observation
(via Google Maps Mania)

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Flip Over a Rock Day: Life Above the Ground

Sep 12 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

International Rock-Flipping Day, White OutToday is International Flip Over a Rock Day, so I decided it was a perfect opportunity to explore a  local flood basin.  It's presumably been left as open space to help protect the surrounding housing development from the occasional torrential rains that can hit the area in fall and early spring.

Here's what the area looks like:

satellite view

view from the ground

I went out about 1:30 PM, figuring that most critters would be hunkered down somewhere cool - like under a rock -  to escape the 90° heat. Since the area has plenty of snakes, scorpions, and poisonous spiders, I took due caution while flipping over the stones.

And what did I find? Unfortunately, no interesting critters under the rocks I overturned. Maybe I didn't pick large enough stones, or perhaps the local fauna has a better way of staying cool.  Since part of IRFD participation is sharing what we did find, here are a couple of photos (click to enlarge):

Under a shaded rock

The rock I flipped under the shade of a live oak appeared to have only compressed leaves underneath.

Under a rock in the sun

I flipped over a number of rocks sitting in the sun, and there was nothing visible underneath except soil and more rocks.  Here's another example:

Under another rock

There may have been something under the rocks more interesting than gravelly soil and the occasional plant detritus, but I couldn't spot it. I did put the rocks back in their original positions, just in case it was a hideaway.

But that doesn't mean I didn't see anything interesting on my little hike. There were lots of lizards darting from the shade of one shrub to another, a squirrel that apparently had made a home in one of the trees, bees gathering pollen, and a number of other buggy creatures.  There were holes in the ground which likely provide cool homes for some kind of critter - likely snakes. And of course there were lots of plants - trees and shrubs and cacti.

A few more photos:

Century Plant

Century Plant,  likely either Agave parrryi or Agave americana

California Sycamore

California sycamore is Platanus racemosa

Bee on a "Desert Tea"

What I've identified as "desert tea" is likely Ephedra californica (California ephedra) or Ephedra aspera. Note that the North American varieties of Ephedra lack the ephedrine alkaloids that make the "Old World" species so drugalicious.

Cholla?

The "cholla" cactus is likely Cylindropuntia californica (snake cholla). More photos at CalPhotos.

Live Oak

"California live oak" or "Coast live oak" is Quercus agrifolia

So while I didn't find anything interesting under the rocks, I did get to take a closer look at what's living in my neighborhood.  It was well worth it.

I've tried to properly identify the plants, but they are mostly educated guesses.  Corrections are welcome.

(Thanks to Greg Laden for pointing out Flip Over a Rock Day)

Images: All photos by me ©2010.

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2010 Cohn Medical Science Writing Prize Goes to Marilynn Marchione

Sep 10 2010 Published by under Medicine

This year's Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting went to Marilynn Marchione of the Associated Press.  The annual award is presented by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.  From the CASW press release :

Marchione’s wide-ranging daily and in-depth consumer health coverage has sought to bring medical science findings to readers in a way that is relevant to their own health choices. She was recognized for her insight and narrative skills as reflected in stories on the overuse of diagnostic radiation, the hazards of alternative medicine, the plight of severely wounded U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq, a preview of the world’s first face transplants, and the dangers of soda increasing obesity.

As Paul Raeburn of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker points out, the wide distribution of AP articles makes Marchione's achievement particularly significant:

As Dan Haney, a former Cohn Prize winner and medical editor of the AP puts it, Marchione’s stories “are clear, nuanced, graceful and dead-on accurate.” That’s no small praise from Haney, a master of the art himself. And when the AP is nuanced, graceful, and dead-on accurate, the consequences are huge. We used to say at the AP that we reached a billion readers or listeners a day. For all I know, it could be twice that now. Whatever it is, Marchione’s reporting is enlightening and serving a vast populace.

By virtue of both her position and her ability, she has a huge influence on medical reporting in the U.S. and around the world.

Considering that a lot of health news reported in the main stream media (at least what I usually see) seems to be minimally reworked press releases, it's refreshing to see a writer with "insight and narrative skills" whose work is broadly distributed.

A few of Marchione's articles:

  • 60% of cancer patients try nontraditional medicines, supplements

    Some people who try unproven remedies risk only money. But people with cancer can lose their only chance of beating the disease by skipping conventional treatment or by mixing in other therapies. Even harmless-sounding vitamins and "natural" supplements can interfere with cancer medicines or affect hormones that help cancer grow.

  • Genetic disease testing leads some adults not to have kids

    Genetic testing pushes hot-button issues: abortion, embryo destruction and worries about eugenics — selective breeding to rid a population of unwanted traits. Yet it is touching a growing number of people

  • How far would you go for your son? Vet's parents find out

    Joseph Briseno Jr., Eva's 27-year-old son, is one of the most severely wounded soldiers ever to survive. A bullet to the back of his head in a Baghdad marketplace in 2003 left him paralyzed, brain-damaged and blind, but awake and aware of his condition.Eva takes care of "Jay" in her suburban Virginia home where the family room has been transformed into an intensive care unit, with the breathing machine and tubes he needs to stay alive. Try to imagine this life.

You can get an RSS feed of Marchione's articles through Google News (identical articles are clustered together, so you shouldn't see the same ones dozens of times.)

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