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Monthly Archives: December 2010

President Obama will appear tonight on the Discovery Channel's science-y program, Mythbusters.  This President has made his rounds on the TV circuit, from daytime talkshows to prime-time news interviews to late-night comedy; nearly all of those appearances have been to communicate some policy change or to signal a new push from his administration. And tonight's no different. 

Earlier this week, international standardized test scores, from the Program for International Student Assessment, placed America squarely in the middle (#19) of 33 participating nations.  Shanghai topped all categories, while Mexico brought up the rear.  Though the United States advanced 6 slots from its last assesment in 2006, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says, “We have to see this as a wake-up call.” 

So what better way to sound the educational alarm than have the Commander in Chief do it himself on basic cable's favorite pop science program?  For the uninitiated, Mythbusters is hosted by 2 goateed special effects artists who for the past 8 years, have tested the important questions, like, "can a falling penny kill you?" and "what would really happen if you put a bull in a china shop" and as the President puts it, they "blow things up, which is always cool." The hosts, Adam and Jamie bring the Jackass ethos to the scientific method.  Still, there is a vestige of science, where Newton's laws of physics will at least appear on a whiteboard in one shot.

The episode (clip below) will start with the Mythbusters in the oval office receiving an executive order to bust an age-old-myth: could Archimedes' really have used an array of bronze shields or mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight to incinerate approaching ships during the Siege of Syracuse? 

The hosts have tested this before, but the Presidential challenge calls for a reconstruction that will bring together 500 schoolchildren from the Bay Area in a parabolic line, standing shoulder to shoulder for nearly a mile.

Over half a century ago American students were the leader in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).  The impetus for increased investment in STEM education learning came from a blinking Soviet satellite flying over our heads.  Will Obama's Discovery challenge be the new Sputnik?

Will solar be the force behind our national defense?

Every year, 200,000 Americans die from prescription medication.  Now, Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele of Vanity Fair magazine highlights another reason why American patients should pop their pills with caution.  The article reports that the pharmaceutical industry is increasingly seeking out poor foreign countries that have little regulation such as Bangladesh, Estonia, Tunisia, Romania and parts of China to conduct clinical trials for new drugs intended for U.S. markets.  
These foreign clinical trials have skyrocketed in popularity over the last decade.  According to the Department of Health and Human Services,  in 1990 only 271 clinical trials testing drugs intended for American consumers were performed in foreign countries.  By 2008, these foreign trials have risen almost 2,000% to 6,485.  This year alone, 80% of the applications received by the Food and Drug Administration were for drugs tested in poorly regulated countries.
In addition to lax regulations, it is cheaper to conduct trials and participants are easier to gather in these countries where the majority of participants survive on only a few dollars a day and are eager to be compensated.  Many trial participants are illiterate and do not understand the consent forms.  Some participants believe that they are actually being treated for a disease rather than possibly being given a placebo.  
Pfizer, the largest pharmaceutical manufacturer and twenty other top manufacturers, now conduct one-third of their clinical trials in foreign countries.  The Food and Drug Administration only reviews roughly 1% of domestic clinical trials – as for foreign clinical trials the FDA reviews less than 1%. 
At least one fatal drug called Ketek, an antibiotic used for respiratory tract infections, was approved by the FDA.  Ketek was developed by Aventis Pharmaceuticals, which is now Sanofi-Aventis, in the 1990s and tested primarily in Hungary, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey.   Less than a month before the FDA approved Ketek as safe, American researcher Dr. Anne Kirkman-Campbell, was sentenced to 57 months in prison for falsifying 91% of her Ketek data.  Kirkman-Campbell even enrolled her own office staff to participate in the study.  Despite the falsified data, Ketek won approval by the FDA.  Less than a year after Ketek hit the market, 93 reports of severe adverse reactions such as liver damage were made to the FDA and 12 people died.  The FDA finally applied a black-box warning on Ketek restricting it’s use.
What prescription consumers in the U.S. need to be concerned about is the FDA approving drugs in which the data may be completely unreliable or falsified.  If the FDA is reviewing less than 1% of foreign trials, Americans have little assurance that these drugs are safe.

Read the article on deadly pharmaceuticals here

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been measuring nationwide diabetes occurance and four years started releasing that data.  Since they started the number of cases has steadily risen.  Over at Slate, they turned that data into an interactive map that shows the most saturated places in America.  Some counties' diabetes percentage pushes into the upper teens.  Take a look at the map and consider that nearly twice as many African Americans suffer from diabetes than do white Americans.  Notice any patterns?

WikiLeaks, the infamous whistle blower that leaked thousands of confidential government documents, has given new insight to the U.S. climate strategy for the Copenhagen Accord.  The Copenhagen Accord is the climate agreement that was created as a result of the annual UN climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark last year.  The Copenhagen conference was deemed an "incredible disaster" by EU President, Herman van Rompuy.  Rompuy is also expecting this year's climate conference in Cancun, Mexico to be no better. 
The WikiLeaks documents reveal that the U.S. State Department and the CIA worked together to spy on foreign climate negotiators.  The U.S. threatened foreign countries with bribery and blackmail and withholding aid money if they didn't comply with U.S. strategy.  Ethiopia was amongst the developing nations that the U.S. threatened. On February 2, 2009,  the U.S. State Department sent a cable to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who leads the African Union's climate change negotiations.  The cable had a blunt message from the U.S. saying "sign the accord or the discussion ends now."  Zenawi conceded that Ethiopia would support the Copenhagen Accord but pointed out that President Obama was not honoring a personal assurance of promised aid to the country.  The U.S. also cut aid to Bolivia and Ecuador citing opposition to the Copenhagen Accord.
The Copenhagen Accord serves U.S. interests by forcing China and other major economies into agreeing to reduce their emissions.  The Accord also threatens the extension of the Kyoto Protocol which legally binds rich nations into curbing their pollution.  This factor has led many vulnerable developing nations to strongly oppose the Copenhagen Accord.

Read more about what the WikiLeaks document reveal.

For years, researchers have studied cell phone radiation, pesticides and genetically modified crops as possible causes for widespread decline in bee populations.  Since 2006, 20 to 40 percent of the honeybee population in the U.S. has disappeared and Army scientists from Maryland and bee experts from the University of Montana have come together with another possible explanation.
A virus coupled with a fungus may be the culprit ailing the bees.  Bee experts were already aware that suffering colonies had high numbers of diseased members but the disease was unknown.
Researchers believe that once infected, the bees fly away from the colony to die alone making autopsies very difficult.  To make up for this, the scientists had to learn to mash up dead bees into "bee mush." The resulting mush was then examined for bacteria, virus and other clues as to what might be ailing the declining bee colonies.
The U.S. military provided a new software program that helped researchers detect special proteins of microscopic life forms such as bacteria or viruses.  This software is traditionally used to help soldiers detect biological threats in warfare. 
The donated equipment enabled researchers to find the virus-fungus culprit.  Researchers are not exactly sure how the disease works to kill the bees but evidence suggests that it works to destroy the bee's gut.
A possible solution to disease infected bee colonies may be anti-fungal protection.  Scientists will likely recommend this if further research proves the study's findings.

According to UNAIDS 2009 report, worldwide some 60 million people have been infected, with 25 million deaths, and 14 million orphaned children in southern Africa alone.  Today the global community acknowledges the severity of this pandemic and rallies to address it.  The White House released its three key goals, domestically: reducing the number of new infections; increasing access to care and optimizing health outcomes for people living with HIV; and reducing HIV-related health disparities.  Internationally, President Obama has pledged $4 billion for 2011-2013 to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.  This pledge represents a 38% increase in U.S. support for the Global Fund. 

The Senate has passed the Food Safety and Modernization Act by a 73-25 margin on Tuesday, November 30th.  The legislation is being hailed by food safety advocates as the "most important food-safety legislation in a generation." The Food and Drug Administration has been granted a whole new set of powers such as being able to enforce food recalls and increase inspections.

After a wave of recent food contaminations in eggs, spinach and peanut butter, Congress was able to pull together bipartisan support for the bill.  87 million Americans fall ill and 5,700 die each year due to contaminated food.  
The $1.4 billion legislation allows the FDA to issue mandatory food recalls rather than only being able to request manufacturers to do so.  The agency may also now set new food safety standards for raw produce and increase inspections of domestic food facilities to once every three years and inspect foreign food facilities.  

Despite the fact that the FDA oversees 80% of the nation's meat including seafood, dairy and canned foods, the legislation does not have any provisions for meat or poultry, which continues to be regulated by the Department of Agriculture.  

Small farmers, who were amongst some of the opponents to the bill, were able to win exemption in the legislation.  Farmers with sales $500,000 or less or those who sell half their food to consumers within 275 miles are exempt from the provisions in the bill.  

The bill is expected to cause a slight increase in food prices since food manufacturers will most likely pass on stricter regulation costs onto consumers.  However, the FDA argues the bill will save manufacturer's the costs of having to recall contaminated food.  

Plastic bottles and bags are traditionally derived from petroleum but with consumers wanting environmentally friendly alternatives, researches have tried everything from corn to wood chips to algae trying to find a greener way to produce plastic.  Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have discovered a more efficient way to turn biomass into plastic products with a method called pyrolysis.  

Pyrolysis is when organic matter such as wood chips or corn stalks are dried, ground and flash heated to 1022 degrees Fahrenheit in a chamber with no oxygen, this is so the biomass doesn't burn.  The biomass becomes a gray mixture of gases and liquids called "coke."  Less refreshing than Coca-Cola, this coke refers to coal distilled into a solid, high carbon biomass. Once the gases cool and condense, they become mixed with the liquids forming a mixture of oils.  These oils only cost $1 to produce and have the same energy potential as a gallon of gas. 

However, two factors make pyrolysis oil unsuitable for industrial use.  First, oxygen-rich acids in the oil make it highly corrosive which would eat through traditional engines and storage containers.  Two, the oil must be further broken down into smaller hydrocarbon chains that are more commonly used to make industrial chemicals.
Researchers have been testing combination of hydrogen and catalysts called zeolites to improve the efficiency of pyrolysis.  One combination gave promising results.  By reacting the pyrolysis oil with hydrogen over a ruthenium and platinum catalyst, they were able to replace the corrosive oxygen in the acids with hydrogen.  Typically, most of the catalysts tested were only able to break down 20% of the hydrocarbon chains leaving the rest to be unsuitable for use.  But, the ruthenium and platinum catalyst was able to break down 60% of the large hydrocarbon chain into five chemicals: toulene, benzene, xylene, propylene and ethylene.    These chemicals are five out of seven key starting chemicals that form the building blocks that propel the $400 billion petrochemical industry.
This breakthrough in technology provides an environmentally friendly way to produce fuel and plastic products that is efficient.  Pyrolysis oil has the potential save millions of gallons of crude oil by giving multinational corporations the option between using fuel or plastic products derived from crude oil or a host of naturally derived sources.