Public health

  • U.S. farming sector increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks

    America’s farms and agricultural giants are not exempt from cyberattacks, according to officials who spoke at Thursday’s farm-outlook forum hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The farming sector is increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks as farmers and agribusinesses rely more on data, with satellite-guided tractors and algorithm-driven planting services expanding across the U.S. Farm Belt. For industrial farmers, data breaches and manipulation are especially worrisome, considering that many rely on new farm-management services that collect information on soil content and past crop yields to generate planting recommendations.

  • Throwing science at anti-vaxxers just makes them more hardline

    Since the uptick in outbreaks of measles in the United States, those arguing for the right not to vaccinate their children have come under increasing scrutiny. What drives anti-vaxxers is similar to what drives other groups – climate skeptics, for example – which also hold beliefs at odds with conventional scientific thought: It is a process psychologists have called “biased assimilation” — we all regard new information in the light of what we already believe. Research shows that throwing scientific facts at anti-vaxxers is not likely to change minds because the level of knowledge and expertise of the people providing the facts — government, scientists, or journalists, say — was a poor predictor of how much they were trusted on the issue. Instead, what was critical was how much these experts were perceived to have the public’s interests at heart. Researchers who conducted surveys on the issue of pollution, for example, found that groups of people — such as friends and family — who were perceived to want to act in line with the survey respondents’ best interests were highly trusted, even if their expertise on the issue was judged as poor. Rather than lacking scientific facts, anti-vaxxers lack a trust in the establishments which produce and disseminate science.

  • Listeria pathogen is prevalent, persistent in retail delis: Study

    Research shows that standard cleaning procedures in retail delis may not eradicate Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, which can cause a potentially fatal disease in people with vulnerable immune systems. A study found that 6.8 percent of samples taken in fifteen delis before daily operation had begun tested positive for L. monocytogenes. In a second sampling phase, 9.5 percent of samples taken in thirty delis during operation over six months tested positive for the bacteria. In twelve delis, the same subtypes of the bacteria cropped up in several of the monthly samplings, which could mean that L. monocytogenes can persist in growth niches over time.

  • What historic megadroughts in the western U.S. tell us about our climate future

    In an important paper published in Science Advances last week, scientists found that future droughts driven by human-induced global warming could surpass even the driest periods in North America over the past 1,000 years. The scientists combined knowledge of past droughts and future projections in order to compare the projected twenty-first-century states of aridity in the western United States to the megadrought periods over the last millennium. They stitched 1,000 years of paleoclimatic estimates of soil moisture variability derived from tree rings, together with an ensemble of state-of-the-art climate model simulations for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. When they compared the future projections of drought to the past they found that they were more severe and persistent than at any time during the last thousand years, even if they considered only the driest megadrought periods. The findings are sobering, but they are consistent with past experience, the researchers write: “When it comes to drought in the American West, particularly in the Southwest and Central Plains, expect more, worse, and longer events.”

  • Sandia Labs anthrax detector wins national technology transfer award

    Bacillus anthracis, the anthrax bacteria, is found in soils worldwide and can cause serious, often fatal, illness in humans and animals. It can survive in harsh conditions for decades. Humans can be exposed through skin contact, inhalation of spores or eating contaminated meat. Currently, samples for testing must be propagated in a laboratory that uses specialized tools requiring a consistent power supply, something often unavailable in the developing world. Sandia National Laboratories won the Federal Laboratory Consortium’s (FLC) 2015 Award for Excellence in Technology Transfer for a credit-card-size device that can detect bacteria that cause anthrax.

  • New antibiotic offers promise against antibiotic-resistant infections

    Estimates of deaths from methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in the United States range upwards of 19,000 annually. Around 1960, when Staphylococcus aureus developed resistance to first-generation penicillin, methicillin and other second-generation beta-lactam antibiotics were adopted to fight the illness. The modern variants of the bacterium have developed resistance to the four drugs now used to treat it. A team of researchers at the university of Notre Dame has discovered a promising new antibiotic, a vital weapon against disease as pathogens evolve to develop resistance to long-used drugs.

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  • Sierra Leone says millions in Ebola-related funds cannot be accounted for

    Sierra Leone’s national auditor has reported that roughly $5.7 million in internal emergency funds allocated to fight the Ebola epidemic had incomplete or no supporting documentation. Poor record keeping and potential misallocation of funds ultimately led to “a reduction in the quality of service delivery in the health sector,” according to the report, which was presented to Parliament last Friday. That amount represents more than a quarter of the $19 million the government spent on Ebola-related activities between May and October 2014.

  • Removing iron from contaminated water

    High concentrations of dissolved iron from abandoned coal mines in Pennsylvania have been contaminating some of the Pennsylvania’s streams and rivers for many years, potentially affecting aquatic habitats and drinking water for millions of residents. To combat this problem, a team of Penn State researchers has proposed a method to eliminate much of the iron before it reaches the waterways.

  • Warming pushes Western U.S. toward driest period in 1,000 years

    Study warns of unprecedented risk of drought in twenty-first century. Today, eleven of the past fourteen years have been drought years in much of the American West, including California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona and across the Southern Plains to Texas and Oklahoma. The current drought directly affects more than sixty-four million people in the Southwest and Southern Plains, and many more are indirectly affected because of the impacts on agricultural regions. A new study predicts that during the second half of the twenty-first century, the U.S. Southwest and Great Plains will face persistent drought worse than anything seen in times ancient or modern, with the drying conditions “driven primarily” by human-induced global warming.

  • Closing the high seas to fishing would benefit fish stocks without hurting industry

    The world’s high seas should be closed to fishing, argues a new study. The world’s oceans are separated into exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and the high seas. EEZs are the coastal areas that are within 200 nautical miles of maritime countries that maintain the rights to the resources in these waters. Less than 1 percent of the global landings come from fish caught only in the high seas. The bulk of the world’s fisheries actually come from fish stocks that straddle both areas.

  • U.K. military examined feasibility, impact of terrorists using weaponized Ebola virus

    At the height of the Ebola crisis in West Africa last year, British military experts were asked to investigate the feasibility and likely impact of a an Ebola virus “weaponized” by terrorists. The report was prepared last October, and the U.K. Ministry of Defense on Friday released a heavily redacted version of it. The report identified three potential scenarios of terrorists exploiting the Ebola virus for bioterrorism. Details of the first scenario are completely blacked out, as are most of details of the second scenario, which is described as “logistically and technically challenging for a non-state group to undertake.” The third scenario, the details of which are also mostly redacted, was described as the “most technically challenging.”

  • The water industry needs to join the fight against superbugs

    The fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria — so-called “superbugs” — is a huge challenge, one that the World Health Organization has described as a grave global problem. The problem of antibiotic resistance is being exacerbated worldwide by the pollution of waste water with leftover drugs, providing breeding grounds for resistant bacteria and their genes. The problem can persist for years, constantly refreshed by new discharges of both drugs and of resistant bacteria themselves, shed by people and animals. It is time for the health and water industries to strike a bargain. Health professionals need to be aware of the need for pharmaceuticals to be managed as organic and persistent pollutants. Tackling hot spots in “source control” such as hospitals and clinics could make significant inroads on the amount of waste drugs entering treatment plants. The water industry should ensure that treatment plants are operating under optimal conditions and that the older ones are either replaced or upgraded.

  • Measles outbreak sparks bid to strengthen California vaccine law

    State lawmakers in California introduced legislation Wednesday that would require children to be fully vaccinated before going to school, a response to a measles outbreak that started in Southern California and has reached 107 cases in fourteen states. California is one of nineteen states that allow parents to enroll their children in school unvaccinated through a “personal belief exemption” to public health laws. The outbreak of measles that began in December in Anaheim’s Disneyland amusement park has spread more quickly in communities where many parents claim the exemption.

  • Levels of mercury in Hawaiian yellowfin tuna increasing

    Mercury is a toxic trace metal that can accumulate to high concentrations in fish, posing a health risk to people who eat large, predatory marine fish such as swordfish and tuna. In the open ocean, the principal source of mercury is atmospheric deposition from human activities, especially emissions from coal-fired power plants and artisanal gold mining. Mercury concentrations in Hawaiian yellowfin tuna are increasing at a rate of 3.8 percent or more per year, according to a new study, which suggests rising atmospheric levels of the toxic substance are to blame.

  • Dangerous levels of arsenic found in many U.S. wells

    Naturally occurring arsenic in private wells threatens people in many U.S. states and parts of Canada, according to new studies. The studies, focused mainly on New England but applicable elsewhere, say private wells present continuing risks due to almost nonexistent regulation in most states, homeowner inaction, and inadequate mitigation measures. The reports also shed new light on the geologic mechanisms behind the contamination. The studies come amid new evidence that even low doses of arsenic may reduce IQ in children, in addition to well documented risks of heart disease, cancer, and reduced lung function.