Archive for the ‘public health’ Category

mobile phones and bees

Tuesday, April 17th, 2007

Bees are the key to most of the world’s food. Their seemingly minor act of pollination ensures most of the world’s food crops. In the past year, there’s been a dramatic decrease in North American and European bee populations where, in some places, up to 80 percent of them have simply disappeared. It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which

occurs when a hive’s inhabitants suddenly disappear, leaving only queens, eggs and a few immature workers, like so many apian Mary Celestes. The vanished bees are never found, but thought to die singly far from home.

Th collapse could be due to a wide variety causes, among them parasites, cancer, and even beekeeper practices.

New findings (reported here and here) suggest that the cause is related to cell phone usage. The radiation from mobile devices are interfering with the bees’ ability to home back on their hives.

If the massive bee die-off is due to mobile phones then researchers should be able to find out if it is due to specific radio frequencies. Meanwhile if the causal link is proven then shouldn’t all mobiles be turned off until a solution is found? That would cause a considerable uproar – but being able to feed people is more important. What if the link is associative (a clear link cannot be found but it’s strongly suggestive) or combinatorial (the radio waves in combination with something else is causing the losses). Then will the public give up their cell phones?

I couldn’t find the paper that the articles were referencing. The closest was this from 2004.

Update: Here are the symptoms of CCD

1) In collapsed colonies
# The complete absence of adult bees in colonies, with no or little build up of dead bees in the colonies or in front of those colonies.
# The presence of capped brood in colonies.
# The presence of food stores, both honey and bee bread
i. which is not immediately robbed by other bees
ii. when attacked by hive pests such as wax moth and small hive beetle, the attack is noticeably delayed.

2) In cases where the colony appear to be actively collapsing
# An insufficient workforce to maintain the brood that is present
# The workforce seems to be made up of young adult bees
# The queen is present
# The cluster is reluctant to consume provided feed, such as sugar syrup and protein supplement

This map gives you a sense of the huge impact of CCD in the U.S.:
States reporting CCD in dark brown (March 2007)
(Map Source: Sieber. Data Source: Bee Alert Technology for the attributes and ESRI for the state boundaries)

[Got the idea for the map from the NYTimes, which treats explanations like cell phones as a form of wild-eyed conspiracy.]

google earth and darfur

Tuesday, April 10th, 2007

Google Earth teams up with the US Holocaust Museum to track the enormity of the first genocide of the 21st Century: Darfur in Sudan. There’s a wealth of information, both at the personal and the transnational scales. One can zoom in to see the stories of individual children or zoom out to bear witness to the sheer number of destroyed villages.

burning Darfur village

It would be an easy task to add geographic layers describing the public heath (e.g., water scarcity) and environmental devastation that often accompanies genocides.

distributed computing for curing malaria

Thursday, July 20th, 2006

Nature has a new article on the use of spare computing time to cure malaria. The public is being asked to download software on to their computers so the software can run on their machines while they’re idle. The article explains the need for multiple processers:

The model attempts to individually simulate malaria infection in each of 50,000 to 100,000 people over a lifetime. It simulates how often each individual is bitten, becomes infected and fights off an infection, plus their age, health, changing number of parasites in the blood and level of immunity. It updates this information every 5 days over a population’s lifetime, a computing feat that takes about an hour to tot up on an average PC.

To refine the model, the researchers have to adjust each component multiple times until it best mimics real data collected from infected areas. This means they must run the simulations many thousands of times, eating up thousands of hours of computing time.

This project uses the same approach as the one used to model climate prediction and analyze data in the search for extra-terrestrial life.

Not a bad use for your computer’s idle time: to spare individuals a lifetime of illness.

wireless hazardous to your health

Friday, February 24th, 2006

Lakehead University, in in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, has decided not to install wireless on campus because of health concerns.

The safety of chronic, long-term exposure to electromagnetic energy, of which radio waves are a part, is a hotly contested scientific subject. Researchers have conducted hundreds of studies assessing the health impacts of this form of energy, studying not only radio waves, but related topics, such as microwaves and the electromagnetic fields around electric wiring.

With the profusion of cellphone towers, wireless networks and electricity using electronic devices, exposure levels are rising rapidly across the globe.

But most studies have been unable to prove conclusively that common, everyday exposures are a health hazard. In response, regulatory bodies around the world have usually concluded that there is no reason for public concern.

The university instead will rely on and augment its existing fibre optic network. This actually handles some of the bandwidth problem experienced by universities. Increasingly students expect ubiquitous Internet connectivity — wherever you are on campus, you can connect. They don’t often connect their low bandwidth to the number of users on the network. However, this is becoming a huge strain on campus networks. Increasing capacity is expensive and university IT departments find all sorts of innovative ways to finance the growth, like downloading costs to neighboring academic departments. Wonder why tuition or user fees are going up? Here’s one reason.

Also, I appreciate the logical consistency of a university taking a stand on a health issue. Universities talk a lot about protecting the health of their student and staff population. Here they’re taking the precautionary principle under consideration and, in the absense of definitive evidence that the waves are safe, are being proactive. This step won’t make the administration a lot of friends. (Of course, it’s easy for me to say. I’m sitting here in the comfort of my own electromagnetic radiation…)

Read to the last paragraph.

Wikis on flu

Saturday, February 18th, 2006

Check out the wiki that’s tracking bird flu. It’s an amazing resource that provides basic science and tracks the geographic spread of the disease. What someone needs to do is create a Google Maps version of this information.

On the subject of maps, the master site for bird flu maps is the eponymous There you can find out about the Google Earth layer for bird flu. Also, see the European Union site for decent maps.

Maybe it’s not so bad…

Friday, January 27th, 2006

While we all wait in fear for the environmental values of the new conservative government to shine through, our beloved CBC offers up something that could be considered consolation…apparently, Stephen Harper DOES care about the environment! Here is an excerpt:

Harper brought up his asthma during an October 2002 House of Commons debate, when an NDP member of Parliament accused his party of not caring about the environment because it opposed the Kyoto Protocol.

“Mr. Speaker, it always amazes me that a number of Canadians on that side of the spectrum, particularly in the NDP, seem to think they are the only people who have any concerns about living in the environment. I do not know where they think the rest of us live,” Harper said.

“We all have fairly serious concerns about the environment and about our health. In my personal case, we are talking about the contents of the atmosphere and I have been a lifelong sufferer from asthma. I am very concerned about my respiration and how this agreement will affect my respiration.

Obviously, we foolish (marxist even? ha!) environmentalists have nothing to fear. Until clean air becomes an excludable good that is…

You are what you eat

Friday, October 14th, 2005

How do you feel about your food security?

In a tragic, Jared Diamond-esque realization, it might strike you that the entire South American continent hung by an agricultural thread, and then fell. Specifically in the Yucatan Penninsula, with the expansive plots of crops nestled in too-thin dirt, an extended spell of no rain caused the spongey earth to cake up and kill the crops, and, subsequently, the civilization.

So much for Aztec urban planning.

However, we are not immune to similar legendary catastrophes. Much attention has been given to Food Security in recent past. The famous economist T. Homer-Dixon writes much about how resource scarcity, especially food and energy, are the seeds of inter-national conflict and war. With the emergence of high-powered GIS and analysis, a ‘Famin Early Warning System‘ was produced a short while ago to model risks. Attention at the L. D. Earth Obersvatory, Columbia University, has kept global-perspective detail on draughts that can – and will, beyond a shadow of a doubt – re-occur in the near future.

And now, an upcoming lecture:

“Room at the Table for Everyone: Challenges to Global Food Security in the 21st Century.”

Professor Don Smith – Chair, Plant Science Department, McGill University

Friday, October 21, 2005
Redpath Mueum Auditorium

Computers and toothbrushes

Monday, October 3rd, 2005

In the past I’ve talked about the ubiquity of computing. It’s come to this: the Oral B triumph toothbrush, an electric toothbrush with an onboard computer that tells you how long to brush or polish your teeth with its two circular brushheads.

The reviews are good, even if it’s tough to be nagged by a smart-alek toothbrush. And it is packed with computers.

the brush head has another microchip in it, which chatters with the handle’s on-board computer, providing feedback in 13 languages on the LCD. The on-board computer recognizes each user’s brush head by its unique chip, so it can track usage and prompt the user when it’s time to change brush heads.

When you’ve polished enough, an image of a tooth appears on the LCD screen, with an asterisk of light glinting off a corner. And when one has brushed enough with the cleaning head, the LCD screen displays (heaven help us) a smiley face. A little cloying for adults, perhaps, but it should get kids into gear to brush properly.

The brush head also notifies the user every 30 seconds to shift gears and brush another mouth quadrant. It also notifies you when the recommended two minutes lap time has elapsed — very sportsmanlike for the wired (as in orthodontia) prepubescent user.

Welcome to the age of smart devices, that tell you when you’ve run out of coffee, drunk too much, or didn’t gargle enough. Welcome also to the age of hazardous waste in small domestic packages. If you thought it would be difficult to dispose of toothbrushes before because they were composed of multiple plastics, now it’s doubly difficult because that tiny device is stuffed with microprocessors and batteries and all sorts of hazardous waste.

Hello, operator?

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

One phrase that strikes a rich chord in modern science, especially in chaotic systems, is “extreme sensitivity to initial conditions”. With a computer model of protein interactions, a research team at UCSD found that the same few proteins could produce radically alternate outputs from only minor differences in input. The model enabled the team to trace the communications within the cell through inference on the input/output duo, with a fairly complete understanding of the parameters a cell might respond to.

The prevailing opinion prior to this study was that computational models would be hard-pressed to predict cellular function based on outside signals, which is exactly what these new findings have accomplished. The image on their news release says it all:

Obvious implications for this uncovering of “hidden conversations in the cell’s wiring” lie with a cell-sourced problems, such as treatments of cancer which start by increasing immune functions. With a delicate drug tool, it is possible to “interfere with one of the pathological functions of the proteins, but leave the healthy functions intact.”

Population growth and environmental degradation

Monday, September 19th, 2005

We tend to treat population growth and environmental degradation as though it were a one-way causal street, namely population growth causes environmental degradation. However, there is no lasting empirical evidence that has affirmed this claim.

However, there is ample evidence–to be scientifically correct, not causative evidence but ample associative evidence–that environmental degradation negatively impacts population growth. One example is endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) that interfere with the sexual development of animals. A study just published by the University of Ottawa reports on the impacts of exposure to high levels of one such EDC, hexachlorobenzenes (HCBs), on the sex selection of children. The study tracked over time the number of boys and girls born in a native community in Sarnia, Ontario. The Aamjiwnaang community live next to the Sarina-Lambert Chemical Valley, a complex of petrochemical, polymer, and chemical industrial plants.

The authors tracked the sex ratio from 1984 to 2003. From 1984 to 1992, the ratio of boys to girls was about 1. But something happened in the mid-1990s and the ratio of boys to girls declined. These were not minor differences in the sex ratio: from 1999 to 2003, half as many boys as girls were born to members of the Aamjiwnaang community. The authors are not sure why the rate declined when it did–they do not have longitudinal data on environmental quality. However, a 1996 soil study found high concentrations of both inorganic and organic contaminants. Among the organics, high levels of HCBs were found in the soil.

If you’re interested, the full text of the study is available here. It’s an easy, albeit alarming, read. In addition to effects on human population, the study also reviews the endocrine disruption in local wildlife in the region.

Many EDCs are essential to computer production. See related post on the impacts of brominated flame retardants.

Eight ways to save the world

Sunday, September 18th, 2005

The World Summit meeting recently concluded at the United Nations. Sadly, the leaders from the 191 countries came nowhere close on their original promise to deliver on the eight Millenium Development Goals by 2015.

A series of articles in the Guardian Newspaper reminds us (a) how easily achievable the Millenium Development Goals actually are, and (b) how inextricably joined are environmental protection and poverty alleviation. Eight ways to save the world is also a photography exhibit in London, which illustrates the development goals (the main page of the Guardian series contains examples of the photos). Below are the eight goals, linked to their associated Guardian articles.

  1. To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. To give all children a primary school education
  3. To promote gender equality and empower women
  4. To reduce by two thirds the mortality rate among children under five
  5. To improve maternal health
  6. To combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases
  7. To ensure environmental sustainability
  8. To develop a global partnership.

Toxic dust

Friday, September 9th, 2005

Is your computer emitting dust? According to a recent study by several environmental groups, “toxic dust” has been found on computer processors and monitors. The highest level of toxins found was a form of polybrominated diphenyl ethers called deca-BDE. deca-BDE is the most widely used fire retardant chemicals in computing manufacturing.

The study found that computers are likely to be a significant source of deca-BDE exposure in the dust of homes, offices, schools and universities. deca-BDE is linked to reproductive and neurological disorders. Worse yet, the substance is bioaccumulative so the multiple exposures add up over time.

This is not only significant for humans, particularly for nursing mothers, but also for animals:

Also of great concern is the alarming fact that the concentrations of deca-BDE found in peregrine falcons approach those concentrations reported to have caused neurological damage in mice. So, like penta- and octa-BDE before it, manufacturers’ claims that the biological uptake of deca-BDE would not occur, certainly not in high concentrations, have not only proven to be false, but deca-BDE itself has been documented as having caused harm in lab research.

The recent study, by Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Computer TakeBack Campaign and Clean Production Action, is the first study to find brominated flame retardants on the surfaces of computing devices in homes and offices.

oasis in a toxic world

Monday, July 11th, 2005

The NYTimes reports that one Arizona town provides an “oasis in a toxic world”

Snowflake (a town named for early settlers named Erastus Snow and William Flake) became a home for those suffering from chemical sensitivities in 1988, when Bruce McCreary, the electrical engineer, arrived here from Mesa. The year before, he said, chemicals in the aircraft factory where he worked had left him almost totally disabled.

About two dozen other people with multiple chemical sensitivities (M.C.S., or “environmental illness”) have joined him, and Mr. McCreary helps them construct houses without the plastics and glues that are the mainstays of modern home building. They bought their home sites for $500 to $1,000 an acre.

The townspeople are worried because a recent real estate boom may cause people without MCS to locate in the town. The newer residents may choose to use pesticides on their lawns or build driveways with asphalt.

Apparently, many of the residents are also sensitive to electromagnetic fields (EMF) and have erected elaborate devices so that they can operate electrial devices, watch TV, and access the Internet. The Aarticle links to a multimedia show that describes the lengths to which they’ll go to minimize contact with EMF.

computer, build me a cure

Saturday, June 18th, 2005

In the fight against cancer, computing is a handy tool for drawing conclusions about various treatments. Of the various emerging areas of computing application, two are particularly ‘engaging’.

Using laser-scanning confocal microscopy, cross-sections of animal (that is, mouse or gerbil) tissue can be vacuumed of non-blood-vessel matter, leaving behind a 3D matrix of the blood network surrounding fat cells… by playing with the blood supply, one can destroy fat cells, and this principle extends to cancer cells quite nicely. Pretty 2D picture of a 3D model. Working as a technician at Harvard, I got to contort and rotate these models that the UNIX workstation spat out all day, one after another… but the mathematical analysis of the space between blood vessels and the growing/ shrinking of vessels was left to the machine.

And, more with nanotech, of course – computer models of special nanoparticles are constructed, which direct the spiting-out of the physical molecules, and testing ensues in the blood stream. The objective is to beat the speed of cancer cells, infiltrating their cell walls. A colorful model and a short write-up.

Will we become extinct?

Sunday, May 15th, 2005

Here’s an interesting take on extinction: We will genetically modify ourselves sufficiently that we are no longer Homo sapiens sapiens.

Conversely, by modifying ourselves, we will make ourselves extinction-proof.

Check out the alternate forms of humans at Human evolution at the crossroads: Genetics, cybernetics complicate forecast for species

I’m opting for astran.

DIY Debibrillator

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2005

Philips Medical Systems Technology has plans to sell a home defibrillator. That’s right: if your spouse or child or friend’s heart has stopped beating, you could grease up the paddles and jumpstart their heart . Not surprisingly, there are concerns.

some doctors and other emergency medicine experts are skeptical of the product making that promise – HeartStart Home, which at a list price of $1,995 is the first external heart defibrillator for sale without a prescription.

External defibrillators in the hands of trained professionals can and do save thousands of lives each year. That it is why they have made their way beyond emergency rooms and ambulances to be widely installed at airports, gyms and other public places.

But some medical workers and doctors say they fear that having a device like HeartStart in the house might delay calls to 911 to seek the dispatch of an emergency medical service team.

Anyway, great conversation piece for dinner guests. Additionally, you now can justify all those hours of watching ER.

Computer Simulations

Thursday, April 21st, 2005

This is kind of neat: NRC researchers together with New Brunswick are using computer simulations to help plan for drastic events, such as massive power outages, and terrorist attacks…unfortunately they do not go into more detail about the computer software they are using, nor how the system works. I guess that’s private info. But it’s nice to know that there is continued research in the field…better safe than sorry, right?

human cloning = computer use?

Wednesday, April 20th, 2005

After reading this article about human cloning. I got thinking about just what we use computers for. The article is about harvesting organs from “made to order” humans. In essence, if one of your organs breaks down, it would be easier for you to find a new one, or have a new one found for you.

My question is, are we using computers as substitute brains? I realize that this may seem like a pretty bizarre question, but seriously, is it that we find our brains can’t work fast enough or think of enough ideas on their own that we must turn to computers – to check our spelling, to check our grammar, to translate things from one language to another, or to reserach ideas?

Is it that there should be just as big of an ethical concern regarding computers for use by brains as for cloning humans for new organs?

You have to log on to stay healthy

Wednesday, April 20th, 2005

The US Department of Agriculture has launched a new food pyramid. It’s actually kind of cool. They have an introductory video and a separate site that allows you to track your own food intake over the year compared to your level of physical activity. Usually, the US government is a fairly slow innovator when it comes to technology–a late adopter–but this time it’s ahead in terms of promoting public health.

However, as a Washington Post article reports, you have to log on to stay healthy. Considering that obesity is concentrated among the poor, the people most likely to benefit from something like this may be the least likely to access it.

Of computer bugs and public health

Monday, April 11th, 2005

I just found an article in the globe and mail about the potential hazards to hospital patients in having computers in patient-care areas. Apparently, computer keyboards are great places for viruses (real life ones) to make homes. one hospital in toronto had to throw out all of their keyboards during one virus outbreak.. the viruses that hospitals are worried about are genearlly only found in hospitals but have the potential to be lethal. the study that was reported conclusively recommends increased handwashing after computer use in hospitals!! more work needs to be done to dertermine how much cleaning (i.e. germicides and such) keyboards can handle.

Here is the article