Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Chemicals needn't be in large doses to affect you:
“Current testing paradigms are missing important, sensitive endpoints” for human health, they said. “The effects of low doses cannot be predicted by the effects observed at high doses. Thus, fundamental changes in chemical testing and safety determination are needed to protect human health.”
Unfortunately, the problem is that our regulatory framework isn't designed to deal with the issue of low-dose exposures:
Thomas Zoeller, a University of Massachusetts biologist and paper co-author, said that regulatory testing of chemicals for endocrine-disrupting impacts lags behind the growing evidence of the compounds’ health effects, particularly at levels to which people are routinely exposed. “There is a very large disconnect between regulatory toxicology and the modern science of endocrinology that is defining these issues,” said Zoeller.

How much will testing chemicals at low, environmentally relevant levels improve human health, the paper authors ask? While it’s not currently possible to quantify in dollars, current evidence “linking low-dose EDC exposures to a myriad of health problems, diseases, and disorders suggests that the costs of current low-dose exposures are likely to be substantial,” they conclude.
And we barely have a clue about the overall exposure landscape. Though household toxins are potentially everywhere. Though they may be everywhere, as Katelyn reminds us: “With so much emphasis on the ubiquity of chemicals today, let's not forget exposure is still uneven and inequitable.”

Climate change is disrupting the relationships between species:
The real trouble lies in the fact that these changes create mismatches in how species interact. For example, the Stanford biologist Carol Boggs tells the story of the wildflower and the butterfly. Dr. Boggs has been tracking wildflowers and their pollinators for 40 years in the Colorado Rockies. The Mormon Fritillary butterfly (Speyeria mormonia) is a montane species that depends on the nectar of the Aspen Fleabane (Erigeron speciosus) — an alpine wildflower. Warmer springs mean that the flower buds of the Aspen Fleabane are emerging earlier, when frost is still a high risk. That risk translates into an increased incidence of frost damage, fewer wildflowers and fewer butterflies.

Examples like this highlight the fact that wildlife species will need help from us to rescue them from climate change. And we will need to accept that human activities like burning fossil fuels disrupt the well-tuned clockwork of nature. As a result, we need to be willing to both increase our overall energy efficiency and switch to renewable energy sources. At this point, nobody knows how well ecosystems will manage to overcome these timing glitches, but scientists do know that there will be big disruptions.

Where should we be worried about sea-level rise and storm surges? Lots of places, especially Florida. (Be sure to check out the map.) There are some solutions, however — like making the cost of flood insurance reflect the true costs of risk:
Perhaps their single strongest recommendation is to start pricing flood insurance, sold mainly by the National Flood Insurance Program and backstopped by federal taxpayers, at levels that reflect the true risk of coastal storms and incorporate the likelihood of future sea-level rise.

That by itself, one imagines, would cut down on oceanfront construction, since it would raise the running costs of owning coastal property. An interesting left-right coalition is pushing just such a package of measures in Congress.

The coalition includes environmentalists who want to limit coastal building and libertarian groups that want the government to stop using taxpayer money to subsidize it. With the National Flood Insurance Program in serious financial trouble after Hurricane Katrina and other recent disasters, the chances that this group might get something through Congress would seem to be greater than zero.
(Meanwhile, another study shows mixed results for California.)

The sound of silence is disappearing:
An undeveloped swath of land nearly the size of Vermont, Denali should be a haven for natural sound. Enormous stretches of wild country abut the park in every direction save east, where Route 3 connects Fairbanks to Anchorage. One dead-end and mostly unpaved road penetrates the park itself. Yet since 2006, when scientists at Denali began a decade-long effort to collect a month’s worth of acoustic data from more than 60 sites across the park — including a 14,000-foot-high spot on Mount McKinley — Betchkal and his colleagues have recorded only 36 complete days in which the sounds of an internal combustion engine of some sort were absent. Planes are the most common source. Once, in the course of 24 hours, a single recording station captured the buzzing of 78 low-altitude props — the kind used for sightseeing tours; other areas have logged daily averages as high as one sky- or street-traffic sound every 17 minutes. The loudest stretch of the year is summer, when hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to Denali, embarking on helicopter or fixed-wing rides. Snowmobiles are popular with locals, and noise from the highway, the park road and daily passenger trains can travel for miles. That sort of human din, studies are beginning to suggest, is imperiling habitat — in Denali as well as wilderness areas around the world — as surely as a bulldozer or oil spill. But scientists have so little information about what landscapes should sound like without human interference that trying to correct the problem would be like a surgeon’s wielding a scalpel without knowing the parts of the body, let alone his patient’s symptoms. To restore ecosystems to acoustic health, researchers must determine, to the last raindrop, what compositions nature would play without us.

For more than 40 years, scientists have used radio telescopes to probe starry regions trillions of miles away for sounds of alien life. But only in the past five years or so have they been able to reliably record monthslong stretches of audio in the wildernesses of Earth. Last March, a group of ecologists and engineers taking advantage of advances in collecting, storing and analyzing vast quantities of digital data declared a new field of science: soundscape ecology. Other disciplines have long observed how various sounds affect people and individual animal species, but no one, they argued in the journal Bioscience, has yet studied the interconnected sounds of whole ecosystems. Soundscapes — composed of biological utterances like birdcalls, geophysical commotions like wind and running water and anthropogenic noises like motors — are “an acoustic reflection of the patterns and processes of the landscape,” the paper’s lead author, Bryan Pijanowski, an ecologist at Purdue University, told me. “And if we can take sound samples and develop appropriate metrics, we might be able to say, ‘Hey, this is a healthy landscape and this is an unhealthy landscape.’ ”

Indeed, though soundscape ecology has hardly begun, natural soundscapes already face a crisis. Humans have irrevocably altered the acoustics of the entire globe — and our racket continues to spread. Missing or altered voices in a soundscape tend to indicate broader environmental problems. For instance, at least one invasive species, the red-billed leiothrix of East Asia, appears to use its clamorous chatter to drown out the native European blackbird in Northern Italy. Noise can mask mating calls, cause stress and prevent animals from hearing alarms, the stirrings of prey and other useful survival cues. And as climate change prompts a shift in creatures’ migration schedules, circadian rhythms and preferred habitats — reshuffling the where and when of their calls — soundscapes are altered, too. Soundscape ecologists hope they can save some ecosystems, but they also realize they will bear witness to many finales. “There may be some very unique soundscapes around the world that — just through normal human activities — would be lost forever,” Pijanowski says — unless he and colleagues can record them before they disappear. An even more critical task, he thinks, is alerting people to the way “soundscapes provide us with a sense of place” and an emotional bond with the natural world that is unraveling. As children, our grandparents could hope to swim in a lake or lie in a meadow for whole afternoons without hearing a motorboat, car or plane; today the engineless hour is all but extinct, and we’ve grown accustomed to constant, mild auditory intrusions. “Humans are becoming an increasingly more urban species, and so we’re surrounding ourselves with concrete and buildings” and “the low hum of the urban landscape,” Pijanowski says. “We’re kind of severing the acoustic link that humans have with nature.”

Higher ed is increasingly unaffordable. Mike Konczal proposes some solutions:
What vision should we advance in response? Rebuilding what used to exist—something we should call the social democratic vision. This is the vision in the California Master Plan for Higher Education: one were college is free and grants and loans cover supplemental expenses for the poor. Higher ed would be broadly accessible, with a variety of options ranging from elite schools to community colleges.

Beyond ensuring equality of opportunity, another advantage of this approach is that it would help stop cost inflation. Free public universities would function like the proposed “public option” of healthcare reform. If increased demand for higher education is causing cost inflation, then spending money to reduce tuition at public universities will reduce tuition at private universities by causing them to hold down tuition to compete. This public option would reduce informational problems by creating a baseline of quality that new institutions have to compete with, allowing for a smoother transition to new competitors. And it allows for democratic control over one of the basic elements of human existence—how we gather information and share it among ourselves.

This isn’t to romanticize the past. As always, this egalitarian vision of education is an incomplete project. The past set-up privileged certain groups over others. Its socioeconomic shape piggybacks off the dysfunctional K-12 education system. It doesn’t address the collapsing wages and bargaining power of labor more broadly. And much of the past justification for college accessibility had less to do with the normative claims of social democracy and more with the practical, militarized needs of Cold War infrastructure.

But this shouldn’t stop us from reclaiming the good from the bad, and calling for a reinvestment in public education in an era of mass privatization. Reclaiming this project of broadly accessible and public higher education is as essential a part of rebuilding education as reducing the harsh legal regime associated with student loans. True public education builds the future, contains costs, and provides access in a way that the new privatized regime is failing to do.
(With aid at pubic universities dwindling and costs increasing, it's now more expensive for a student from an upper middle class family to attend Cal State or a UC school than it would be to attend Harvard. It used to be that public support made up for endowment size at public institutions. No longer. UPDATE: The president of Cal State-Long Beach disagrees, though deceptively uses average tuition paid numbers to make his case.)

What's the conservative response to our “moral crisis”?:
Greed is a human given. But there are institutions that reward greed, or turn the other way, or both, and institutions that discourage it. Among the institutions that reward it are the same institutions who built an entire economic system on fraudulent paper; found ingenious ways of packaging that paper in order to disguise its fraudulence; succeeded in convincing the federal government that it would be good to dampen bank regulations; clamped quantitative values on worthless paper so that, once monetized, it could be “securitized” and exported. Many of these are among the graduates of our presumably finest (in any case most exclusive) universities. Some, no doubt, attended institutions which insist that their students sign honor codes.

I daresay that never in human history have there been so many business school courses on ethics; or so many people who believe that they have been born again into a personal relation with Jesus Christ. At the same time, never have so many citizens been in prison or on parole or probation. We are a punitive nation when it comes to marijuana, especially in the hands of blue-collar people and most especially hands that are not white. We are also, at the same time, a nation of white-collar scofflaws.

Some questions for conservatives: Do you believe there is a moral crisis in a country where such conduct is rewarded (until the bubble bursts)? If so, do you support tight regulations of the banks concerned? Why don’t your political candidates support such regulations? Why don’t they want to punish the criminals? (Are they soft on crime?) If those criminal-harboring enterprises should not be broken up, why not? (Gangs that sell marijuana are broken up.) Why shouldn’t there be national hearings on the management structures that cultivated these violations of law? Will you go to shareholder meetings and vote your shares in favor of punishing responsible bank officials? (Here’s a wild though mild idea: deprive them of bonuses.) Do you think that multiculturalism is at the root of this moral crisis? Sex-role confusion? Abortion?

On the militarization of our society in the post-9/11 world:
All told, the federal government has appropriated about $635 billion, accounting for inflation, for homeland security-related activities and equipment since the 9/11 attacks. To conclude, though, that “the police” have become increasingly militarized casts too narrow a net. The truth is that virtually the entire apparatus of government has been mobilized and militarized right down to the university campus.

Perhaps the pepper spray used on Occupy demonstrators last November at University of California-Davis wasn’t directly paid for by the federal government. But those who used it work closely with Homeland Security and the FBI “in developing prevention strategies that threaten campus life, property, and environments,” as UC Davis’s Comprehensive Emergency and Continuity Management Plan puts it.

Government budgets at every level now include allocations aimed at fighting an ephemeral “War on Terror” in the United States. A vast surveillance and military buildup has taken place nationwide to conduct a pseudo-war against what can be imagined, not what we actually face. The costs of this effort, started by the Bush administration and promoted faithfully by the Obama administration, have been, and continue to be, virtually incalculable. In the process, public service and the public imagination have been weaponized.

Krugman explains why we need Obamacare:
The act is aimed ... at Americans who fall through the cracks, either going without coverage or relying on the miserably malfunctioning individual, “non-group” insurance market.

The fact is that individual health insurance, as currently constituted, just doesn’t work. If insurers are left free to deny coverage at will — as they are in, say, California — they offer cheap policies to the young and healthy (and try to yank coverage if you get sick) but refuse to cover anyone likely to need expensive care. Yet simply requiring that insurers cover people with pre-existing conditions, as in New York, doesn’t work either: premiums are sky-high because only the sick buy insurance.

The solution — originally proposed, believe it or not, by analysts at the ultra-right-wing Heritage Foundation — is a three-legged stool of regulation and subsidies. As in New York, insurers are required to cover everyone; in return, everyone is required to buy insurance, so that healthy as well as sick people are in the risk pool. Finally, subsidies make those mandated insurance purchases affordable for lower-income families.

Can such a system work? It’s already working! Massachusetts enacted a very similar reform six years ago — yes, while Mitt Romney was governor. Jonathan Gruber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who played a key role in developing both the local and the national reforms (and has published an illustrated guide to reform) has surveyed the results — and finds that Romneycare is working pretty much as advertised. The number of people without insurance has dropped sharply, the quality of care hasn’t suffered, and the program’s cost has been very close to initial projections.

Oh, and the budgetary cost per newly insured resident of Massachusetts was actually lower than the projected cost per American insured by the Affordable Care Act.


As I said, the reform is mainly aimed at Americans who fall through the cracks in our current system — an important goal in its own right. But what makes reform truly urgent is the fact that the cracks are rapidly getting wider, because fewer and fewer jobs come with health benefits; employment-based coverage actually declined even during the “Bush boom” of 2003 to 2007, and has plunged since.

What this means is that the Affordable Care Act is the only thing protecting us from an imminent surge in the number of Americans who can’t afford essential care. So this reform had better survive — because if it doesn’t, many Americans who need health care won’t.

The debate over Komen has receded over the past few weeks, but this piece from the height of the storm should still be required reading on Komen's fetishization of screening and how their view flies in the face of science:
“What’s key to surviving breast cancer? YOU. Get screened now,” the ad says. The unmistakeable takeaway? It’s your fault if you die of cancer. The blurb below the big arrow explains why. “Early detection saves lives. The 5-year survival rate for breast cancer when caught early is 98%. When it’s not? 23%.”

If only it were that simple. As I’ve written previously here, the notion that breast cancer is a uniformly progressive disease that starts small and only grows and spreads if you don’t stop it in time is flat out wrong. I call it breast cancer’s false narrative, and it’s a fairy tale that Komen has relentlessly perpetuated.

It was a mistake that most everyone made in the early days. When mammography was new and breast cancer had not yet become a discussion for the dinner table, it really did seem like all it would take to stop breast cancer was awareness and vigilant screening. The thing about the false narrative is that it makes intuitive sense–a tumor starts as one rogue cell that grows out of control, eventually becoming a palpable tumor that gets bigger and bigger until it escapes its local environment and becomes metastatic, the deadly trait that’s necessary to kill you. And this story has a grain of truth to it—it’s just that it’s far more complicated than that.

Years of research have led scientists to discover that breast tumors are not all alike. Some are fast moving and aggressive, others are never fated to metastasize. The problem is that right now we don’t have a surefire way to predict in advance whether a cancer will spread or how aggressive it might become. (Scientists are working on the problem though.)

Some breast cancers will never become invasive and don’t need treatment. These are the ones most apt to be found on a screening mammogram, and they’re the ones that make people such devoted advocates of mammography. H. Gilbert Welch of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, calls this the overdiagnosis paradox. Overdiagnosis is what happens when a mammogram finds an indolent cancer. A healthy person whose life was never threatened by breast cancer is suddenly turned into a cancer survivor. She thinks the mammogram saved her life, and so she becomes an advocate of the test.

Some cancers behave just the opposite of these slow-growing, indolent ones. Researchers now know that some cancers are extremely aggressive from the start. There’s simply no such thing as “early” detection for these cancers. By the time they’re detectable by any of our existing methods, they’ve already metastasized. These are the really awful, most deadly cancers, and screening mammograms will not stop them.

Then there are cancers that fall somewhere in between the two extremes. These are the ones most likely to be helped by screening mammography, and they’re the lives that mammography saves. How many? For women age 50 to 70, routine screening mammography decreases mortality by 15 to 20% (numbers are lower for younger women). One thousand women in their 50′s have to be screened for 10 years for a single life to be saved.

So let’s recap. Getting “screened now,” as the Komen ad instructs can lead to three possible outcomes. One, it finds a cancer than never needed finding. You go from being a healthy person to a cancer survivor, and if you got the mammogram because of Komen’s prodding, you probably become a Komen supporter. Perhaps a staunch one, because hey—they saved your life and now you have a happy story to share with other supporters. Another possibility is that the mammogram finds a cancer that’s the really bad kind, but you die anyway. You probably don’t die later than you would have without the mammogram, but it might look that way because of a problem called “lead time bias.” The third possibility is that you find a cancer that’s amenable to treatment and instead of dying like you would without treatment, your life is saved. Here again, you’re grateful to Komen, and in this case, your life truly was saved.

Right now, breast cancer screening sucks. It’s not very effective, and if you measure it solely based on the number of lives saved versus healthy people unnecessarily subjected to cancer treatments, it seems to cause more harm than good. For every life saved, about 10 more lives are unnecessarily turned upside down by a cancer diagnosis that will only harm them. In a study published online in November, Danish researchers concluded that, “Avoiding getting screening mammograms reduces the risk of becoming a breast cancer patient by one-third.”

But it’s not quite that simple. Some people really are helped by mammography screening, and if you’re the one helped, it’s hard to discount that one life. Right now mammography is the best tool we have. Welch, who has spent more time than probably anyone else in America studying this issue, has deemed the decision about whether or not to get breast cancer screening a “close call.”

Reasonable women can decide that for them, the potential benefits outweigh the risks. Other reasonable women will decide that for them, the risks outweigh the potential benefits.

Komen isn’t wrong to encourage women to consider mammography. But they’re dead wrong to imply that “the key to surviving breast cancer” is “you” and the difference between a 98% survival rate and a 23% one is vigilance on the part of the victim. This message flies in the face of basic cancer biology.

Between 2004 to 2009, Komen allocated 47% of it $1.54 billion toward education and screening. Much of its education messaging promotes the same false narrative as its ads, which means they are not only not furthering the search for a cure, they are harming the cause. By implying that the solution to breast cancer is screening, Komen distracts attention from the real problem, which is that way too many women (and men) are still dying of breast cancer, and screening is not saving them. We still can’t prevent breast cancer, because we don’t know what causes it.
And as much as I like them, that makes me a bit skeptical as to whether Fuck Cancer is taking the right approach.

I'm not alone: colon cancer is on the rise among young adults.

In a new survey, colon cancer patients younger than 50 and those with low incomes or unemployed were most likely to experience severe financial hardships as a result of the treatments meant to save their lives.”

Supporters of the ACA shouldn't forget about making the argument for a fundamental right to health care.

Unless they're required to do so, insurers will never cover those of us with pre-existing conditions.

How does your state rate when it comes to covering colorectal screenings?

Sure, we're three months in to 2012, but it's not too late to buy a Colondar.

Big Pharma's R&D costs aren't nearly as high as they claim.

Carl Zimmer takes a look at advances in medical science and false expectations.

Emissions from land change make the mining of oil sands look even worse.
Ecosystem services, shade-grown cacao, and a partial win-win.

Americans don't like the idea of regulations, but they don't seem to mind specific regulations.

Perhaps we should rename George Mason University by its more accurate name: Koch Brothers University.

California attempts to go sustainable.

Better global governance to deal with our myriad global environmental challenges, please.

Alex Steffen on intergenerational equity.

Paranoid conspiracy theories about the UN, sustainability, and New World Order reach the Tennessee House and also Texas.

Cities can't take on the challenge of global warming on their own.

Our water infrastructure is falling apart.

Water in China: my friend Britt discusses China's huge South-North Water Diversion Project.

On defending science and its epistemological principles.

Says the GOP: “No, we don't hate women; we just hate immigrants, gays, native Americans, the rest of those undesirables, and sure as hell don't think battered women should have access to legal remedies.”

And, of course, the contrarians over at Slate find a way to blame the Dems for the GOP's misogynistic nonsense. Wonkette has a great, snarky take-down.

Linking women's health, development, and climate change.

On loving abortion.

Maddow on the GOP's laws on ladyparts.

Corey Robin dissects “birth control McCarthyism.”

Margaret Talbot tries to understand the GOP's War On Women.

The financial costs of including birth control in insurance plans?: Zero.

In case you missed the censored Doonesbury comics, here they are.

The landmark settlement re: the harassment and bullying of gay students in the Anoka-Hennepin school district and why it matters.

What to make of the Mike Daisey/This American Life story? Some wise thoughts over at The Edge of the American West and also from David Carr. Mark Engler chimes in with a thoughtful response, as well.

Ethan Zuckerman chimes in with more thoughts on Kony 2012.

Nobel Peace Prize-winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf doesn't care much for gay people and has no problem with criminalizing them. Despicable.

A primer on Trayvon Martin.

Another primer on Trayvon Martin.

Charles Blow on Trayvon Martin.

Trayvon and white privilege.

Unfortunately, Florida's “Stand Your Ground” law makes prosecution difficult.

Pity the white man who's a police officer because his life is so hard.

Yes, the Justice Department should be investigating the NYPD for shredding the Constitution.

Sadly, a majority of New Yorkers stands for ignorance and unconstitutionality.

The state of Virginia has DNA tests that would exonerate people who have been found guilty of crimes they didn't commit; inexplicably they're not sharing this information.

The NSA is expanding its capacity to spy on you.

Double-standards and the motives of the Afghan shooter.

And now we're providing support to the imprisonment of journalists.

The legacy of the War on Terror: a war on the Constitution.

The Americanization of India: “The American promise of renewal and reinvention is deeply seductive — but, as I have learned since coming back home, it is also profoundly menacing.”

Anti-Putin punk rock. (And more here.)

Bittman: meat'll kill ya.

Fast Food Nation: 10 years later.

Fake chicken worth eating?

Bittman on denying the cruelty of how we treat animals.

An interview with environmental justice activist Majora Carter from a few years ago that's still worth reading:

The benefits of bilingualism.

Jhumpa Lahiri on the craft of writing.

Margaret Atwood and Twitter.

Who called out the banks?


During March Madness, it's probably worth remembering just how sketchy the entire enterprise is, especially so far as recruiting goes.

Your Quote Of The Day, from Terrell Suggs: “They say we were giving [Tebow] a hard time because he's a Christian. No, that's not it! We were giving him a hard time because he was terrible.”

Yesterday was World Water Day. Pictures! We're still lagging on the sanitation front.

Pictures of spiders! Fleeing floods!

Jack White on SNL:

Eric Harland, Avashai Cohen, and scrap metal:

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