Public health

  • Extreme weather exposes the toxic legacy of an industrial past

    The increase in the number and intensity of extreme weather events in the United States carries with it yet another, more insidious danger: it forces to the surface toxic lead from long-shuttered smelters. Lead smelters had mostly closed down in the United States by the 1980s, but they left behind millions of tons of toxic waste. One example: In 2011, Joplin, Missouri suffered a devastating tornado which killed 158 people and flattened much of the city. Decades of lead processing in the Joplin area had created about 150 million tons of toxic wastes, with about 9 million tons still remaining after a federal Superfund cleanup. The 2011 tornado forced some of the buried lead to the surface, forcing Joplin to spend $3.5 million so far on lead clean up. The city now requires builders to test for lead, and clean up any traces, before beginning construction.

  • Scientists urge U.S. to do more to detect, prevent use of bioweapons

    Carefully targeted biological weapons could be as dangerous as nuclear weapons, so the United States should invest more resources in developing technologies to detect them, scientists say. What is especially worrisome is that “The advent of modern molecular genetic technologies is making it increasingly feasible to engineer bioweapons,” says one expert. “It’s making people with even moderate skills able to create threats they couldn’t before.” There is another worry: “A high-tech bioweapon could cost only $1 million to build,” the expert adds. “That’s thousands of times cheaper than going nuclear. Iran’s centrifuges alone cost them billions.”

  • University of Florida Clinical Toxicology Online Graduate Course. Chemical Weapons of Mass Destruction. Arm yourself with knowledge.
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  • Experiments with dangerous bird flu stains pose risk of accidental release

    Experiments creating dangerous flu strain that are transmissible between mammals pose too great a risk to human life from potential release, according to researchers. Although experiments on these so-called novel potential pandemic pathogens (PPPs) are conducted at high levels of biosecurity, the researchers argue that they pose a substantial risk to human life. They are calling for greater scrutiny of experiments that make virulent influenza strains transmissible, and for future studies on flu transmission to use safer and more effective alternative approaches.

  • Dramatic drop in Central Valley wintertime fog threatens California’s agricultural industry

    California’s winter tule fog — hated by drivers, but needed by fruit and nut trees — has declined dramatically over the past three decades, raising a red flag for the state’s multibillion dollar agricultural industry, according to researchers at UC Berkeley. Many crops go through a necessary winter dormant period brought on and maintained by colder temperatures. Tule fog, a thick ground fog that descends upon the state’s Central Valley between late fall and early spring, helps contribute to this winter chill. The findings have implications for the entire country since many of these California crops account for 95 percent of U.S. production.

  • Mustard plants help detect use of chemical weapons

    Making nations comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention requires that scientists can accurately detect the use of chemical warfare agents. Currently they carry out tests on soil from areas where use is suspected. Many nerve agents composed of organo-phosophorous compounds, however, leach from soil over time, removing the evidence of use and making verifying the deployment of chemical weapons like sarin, soman, and VX difficult. Researchers report that white mustard plants can help by allowing detection for up to forty-five days after the chemical weapons were used.

  • Soil bacteria may offer insights into curbing antibiotic resistance

    Drug-resistant bacteria annually sicken two million Americans and kill at least 23,000. Antibiotic-resistant disease now adds $20 billion to annual health-care costs and leads to eight million additional hospital treatment days in the United States. A driving force behind this growing public health threat is the ability of bacteria to share genes that provide antibiotic resistance. Bacteria that naturally live in the soil have a vast collection of genes to fight off antibiotics, but they are much less likely to share these genes, suggesting that most genes from soil bacteria are not poised to contribute to antibiotic resistance in infectious bacteria.

  • Cesium chloride blood irradiators increase dirty bomb risk

    Federal officials want to halt the use of blood irradiators used by hospitals and blood centers to ensure that blood is properly treated before transfusions occur. The irradiation devices contain cesium chloride, a highly radioactive powder which terrorists could use to make a dirty bomb. A 2008 reportby the National Academy of Sciences recommended stopping the licensing of new cesium chloride radiation sources, thereby encouraging the adoption of alternative sources with a less dispersible form of radioactive cesium, including cobalt-60 or X-ray irradiators.

  • Converting light to sound for better weapons detection, medical imaging

    A device that essentially listens for light waves could help open up the last frontier of the electromagnetic spectrum — the terahertz range. So-called T-rays, which are light waves too long for human eyes to see, could help airport security guards find chemical and other weapons. They might let doctors image body tissues with less damage to healthy areas. They could also give astronomers new tools to study planets in other solar systems. Those are just a few possible applications.

  • Border Collies chase away beach contamination

    Gull droppings may be one source of the indicator bacterium Escherichia coli to beach water, which can lead to swim advisories and beach closings. Border Collies are effective at reducing gull congregation on recreational beaches, resulting in lower E. coli abundance in the sand.

  • Bill would encourage development of drugs to treat antibiotic-resistant bacteria

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) reported that two million Americans are infected by antibiotic-resistant pathogens every year, and the pathogens cause 23,000 deaths annually. In 1990, about twenty pharmaceutical companies had large antibiotic research and development programs, but today only three large firms and a few small companies are investing in antibiotic research. A new proposed bill, the Developing an Innovative Strategy for Antimicrobial Resistant Microorganisms Act, would encourage pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs to treat antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

  • Absorbent used in kitty litter may be cause of radiation leaks in U.S. nuke dump

    A wheat-based absorbent often used in kitty litter may be the likely cause of the radiation leak that led to the closure of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant(WIPP), the U.S. only underground nuclear waste repository, according to Jim Conca, a former geochemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory(LANL). Conca noted that EnergySolutions, a Salt Lake City-based company hired to  package radioactive waste at LANL into containers for shipment to the WIPP, switched from using a clay-based absorbent in the storage drums to a wheat-based mixture.

  • Pandemics: who should be given life-saving treatment first? Who should make the decision?

    In the event of a flu pandemic, who should have priority access to life-saving ventilators, and who should make that determination? Few disaster preparedness plans have taken community values regarding allocation into account, but a new study is aiming to change that through public engagement with Maryland residents. “In the event of a healthcare crisis, understanding the community perspective and having citizen buy-in will be critical to avoid compounding the initial disaster with further social upheaval,” says the principal investigator.

  • Better understanding of the 1918 Flu Pandemic aids in better infectious disease response today

    The 1918 Flu Pandemic infected over 500 million people, killing at least fifty million. Now, researchers have analyzed the pandemic in two remote regions of North America, finding that despite their geographical divide, both regions had environmental, nutritional, and economic factors that influenced morbidity during the pandemic. Findings from the research could help improve current health policies.

  • Second MERS case discovered in U.S.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) has confirmed a second U.S. case of MERS, the Middle East respiratory virus which has been circulating on the Arabian Peninsula for the past few months. MERS does not transmit easily from person to person, but in the Middle East, it has infected those close to healthcare personnel taking care of victims. Roughly 539 confirmed cases have been reported to the World Health Organization (WHO); 145 have been fatal; 450 of the confirmed cases were in Saudi Arabia.

  • Large areas of Plains states now drier than during Dust Bowl

    As a result of the drought conditions that have largely remained a constant since 2011, parts of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, as well as northeastern New Mexico and southeaster Colorado, are now drier than they were during the infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s. While experts explain that the possibility of another Dust Bowl is not likely due to modern farming and irrigation techniques which have been enacted as a response in the 1930s, greater erosion due to drought and wind has resulted in a number of vicious dust storms.