Monthly Archives: June 2016

Unintended Consequences

Unintended consequences

The mass murder in Orlando has brought the issue of gun control, or more correctly gun safety, to the fore. Liberals want to close the loophole on background checks for gun purchases. If you go to a gun dealer, a background check will be run to determine if you are qualified to own a gun. Even the broadest interpretation of the second amendment doesn’t allow for certain individuals to legally own a gun, just ask anyone convicted of a felony.

The loophole is of course private sales. Anyone who is not a gun dealer can legally sell deadly weapons to anyone else. Individuals are not required to perform a background check. As long as they don’t ask, then they don’t know if a person should be banned from owning a gun and the sale is legal.

And its not hard to get a gun through a private sale. Facebook is full of local buy/sell/swap pages where guns are routinely offered up. Hand guns, shot guns, even assault rifles are all available no questions asked.

This is because at the federal level conservatives think arming everybody is just dandy. They don’t want to close the loopholes in gun sales, and they certainly don’t want to limit the firepower available to the average citizen by banning the sale of so called assault rifles.

Ironically, the insistence on the freedom to own deadly weapons may serve to reduce our freedoms, essentially our privacy, in other ways. Right now Democrats in the Senate are filibustering for legislation which would deny guns to suspected terrorists – those on a no fly list. Although this may sound reasonable, keep in mind that this is an action taken on the suspicion of criminal activity, and anybody can be suspected.

Our insistence on guns for all, and our fear of terrorism is serving to make us less free, not more – An unintended consequence. An even greater risk to freedom is a conservative idea propounded by Newt Gingrich. Newt would like to bring back the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities. The now disgraced committee was first created as a nazi hunting effort in the 1940s, but is best know for communist hunting in the 1950s.

The committee held hearings and questioned thousands of innocent citizens about their possible membership in the communist party. Are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party? Lists of people who were suspected of being communists were prepared and circulated. Black lists were created and circulated which often prevented people from getting or holding a job. Lives were destroyed on the basis of suspicions, not proven facts. The term “fellow traveler” came into widespread use during the reign of the committee. Not only were communists and those suspected of being members of the communist party hounded, but also their family, friends and even neighbors.

Simply substitute terrorist for communist and repeat the sordid past. Our steadfast refusal to take reasonable steps to increase gun safety in this country is having the unintended consequence of decreasing our privacy and ultimately our freedom.

Cell Phones and Cancer, Again

Like the Phoenix rising from ashes, so is the “cell phones cause cancer” meme. The current claim is based on a study done with rats exposed full body for nine hours a day for several months. The result was a statistically significant increase in two types of tumors, gliomas and schwannomas. Gliomas are tumors in glial cells of the brain and are rare, the incidence in 2008 was less than 7 per 100,000. In this study the schwannomas were found in heart cells and are even rarer. Important also was the fact that there was a dose-response relationship. Higher intensity cell phone radiation produced a greater incidence of tumors.

So is it time to keep that phone on speaker and never, never carry it around in your bra? Maybe not, at least the bra part. Where as there were increased tumors observed in male rats, there was no increase in tumors in females regardless of the dose (intensity of radiation.) That in itself is a problem as both male and female rats have glial and schwann cells so why were only the males affected?

The bigger problem with a link between cell phones and cancer is the fact that it is biologically implausible. Cell phones utilize radio waves as do WiFi, TV, microwaves and others. This is the lower energy form of electromagnetic radiation that does not cause ionization and therefore doesn’t cause chemical reactions. A chemical reaction is required to cause a mutation in DNA and hence initiate cancer. Higher energy radiation known as ionizing is a well know cause cancer. Too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the most common cause of cancer. X-rays are also a known cause of cancer.

The history of cell phones and cancer is somewhat odd. In 1989 Susan Reynard , 31, was diagnosed with an astrocytoma, a tumor of the astrocytes which is another type of brain cell. The tumor, in the eyes of her husband resembled the outline of a cell phone – just like she held it to her head. She died in 1992 and her husband sued the phone manufacturer and service provider claiming a causal link between her cell phone use and the tumor which killed her. He lost the suit.

A number of studies with laboratory animals and epidemiological studies with humans have been been conducted over the years with variable outcomes. Studies with animals always suffer from the fact that there may be physiological differences between us and other animals, hence risk factors will be different.

Even without a controlled study the connection between brain cancer and cell phone use seems sketchy. Whereas the incidence of brain cancer has remained relatively steady over the past few decades, use of cell phones has increased several hundred fold. It is estimated that 91% of adults in the US use cell phones.

Epidemiological studies look at the relationship between disease and human population factors. The most accurate are prospective studies where a group a people are followed over a long time span to see if there is a correlation with a disease and their exposure. A prospective study concluded in 2011 confirmed this lack of a relationship. Thousands of participants across 13 countries were followed for close to a decade. The was no discernible relationship whatsoever between cell phone use and cancer.

International Trade

President Obama recently traveled to the east side of the pacific rim for an official visit to several countries including Vietnam and Japan. Conservatives feel that he has not been strong enough with foreign affairs and have therefore labeled his trip an apology tour, as if he is there to apologize for past wars.

Realistically this trip is not about the past but rather signals a recognition of the future and the importance of trade with some of the emerging economies of the region. In the past the far east has been thought of as the place where American jobs have gone. Cheap labor, and fewer regulations means goods are cheaper to produce. The countries then turn around and sell these cheaper goods back to us.

As these eastern economies expand with production and trade, money is put into the hands of a growing middle class which could mean customers for our labor force.

This brings us to a proposed trade agreement called the Trans Pacific Partnership. It involves 12 pacific rim countries. On the western side are Canada, the United States, Mexico, Peru and Chili; on the east, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Singapore, and Japan. The foreign ministers of all 12 participant nations signed a draft framework for the trade deal which is meant to reduce tariffs and increase free trade among the partners.

Previous legislation has given President Obama “fast track” authority to negotiate trade deals. The TPP like other trade deals require legislative authorization, but the fast track law means that congress can only vote up or down on a trade deal, rather than endlessly amend or modify a deal.

Considerable controversy surrounds the deal. The left feels that it gives large corporations too much power in trade, at the expense of the environment and worker’s rights. The right, well the right just doesn’t like Obama and is reluctant to give him anything that resembles success. The pressure of an election year only adds to the distrust of the two sides.

Those that do favor the deal suggest that no deal means even less protection for the environment and worker’s rights. The simple fact remains that we live in the time of a global economy. Just because we decide not to participate in trade deals doesn’t mean that the world economy halts. Trade will go on and we will have even less influence.

At the end of World War II, we were the last man standing, the only industrialized economy unscathed by war. Then we could command the global economy. That control has slowly been eroding. Europe, Japan, and now China have expanded their economies and are replacing American goods around the world. Increasingly the pacific rim is becoming a player and if we don’t agree to trade, we will be left further behind.

Chemophobia

Chemophobia is a term, often used pejoratively, to describe an unfounded and generally unnecessary fear of “chemicals.” The quotes are necessary because anything with physical substance is a chemical. The phobia is really just a fear of the unknown or the not well understood. Concern should be about the risk of exposure to those that may be toxic, mutagenic, or harmful in in some way, not all chemicals.

After that leap, it makes more sense as different chemicals or mixtures thereof have different potentials for harm, and those potentials are directly related to the dose. Paracelsus (1493-1541), the father of modern toxicology, coined the phrase “everything is toxic, nothing is toxic, the dose makes the poison.” We are bombarded daily by toxic and even carcinogenic substances but the vast bulk of these are present in such small amounts, that the toxic or carcinogenic dose is immeasurable and no harm can be detected.

Historically there are lots of substances which one should rightly fear and lot of them are natural. A class of compounds known as cyanogenic glycosides can release deadly hydrogen cyanide. Lima Beans contain these compounds but at low enough concentration to have no toxic effect whatsoever. Cassava, a annual root crop in tropical parts of the world, also contain cyanide. Generally consumption is not a problem, but when consumed as a significant portion of the diet the cyanide intake can be large enough to cause paralysis in the extremities, blindness and even death. It’s OK to eat tapioca pudding made from cassava just don’t try to live on it.

People are more often fearful of synthetic materials, as if they’re some how automatically toxic regardless how much or how little one is exposed to. Modern chemical analysis can now measure substances down to concentrations unheard of just a decade or two ago. Just because a synthetic compound can be measured in the body doesn’t necessarily mean that it is causing any harm.

Another contributing factor to chemophobia is the “one small study” problem. A small study will show the harmful effect of something, then the press runs with that as a confirmed truth. Often however, small studies are just plain wrong. The beauty of science is that over time we usually get it right. Larger, more well controlled studies can disprove the purported harmful effects.

The Food and Drug Administration was created at a time when there was a clear and present danger to our supply of food and drugs. The scientific consensus is that they currently do a commendable job of protecting us from harm.

Ironically on area of real risk comes from so called natural nutritional supplements. An exception in the law prevents these agents from oversight by the FDA. Whereas most nutritional supplements are harmless (and by the way useless), some have been found to be adulterated with dangerous levels of natural and synthetic compounds. Illness and even death have come from these unregulated agents.

Hottest.April.Ever

While conservatives in several states are tearing their hair out over transgender bathroom issues and passing laws to the same and Donald Trump is ranting about Hillary coming for your guns, a more pervasive real issue is pounding on the front door.

For the seventh straight month, and the third strait year, it’s the hottest ever recorded on planet earth. Whether you use actual thermometer readings, or proxies for temperature such as freeze-thaw dates, the answer is the same. Whether you use land based or sea surface temperatures, the answer is the same. Whether you use ground based or satellite data, the answer is always the same.

It’s hotter than ever and more importantly, it’s getting hotter faster than ever. That is the really scary part. The earth’s average temperature has changed radically over time. It has been hotter and it has been colder, but never in the past 800,000 years has the temperature of the earth been warmer nor changed as rapidly as it has in the last couple of centuries. And the rate of change is accelerating.

This planetary cycle is driven by our continuing to flood the atmosphere with certain gases, called radiatively forcing gases which trap heat and hence warm the surface of the planet. It’s really not very complex science, and most of the world’s scientists understand.

The time period arbitrarily chosen as a baseline is 1950-1980. If we call that zero, then the temperature In in April was hotter than ever. New data from NASA, the agency that put man on the moon, and maintains people in space on the International Space Station, show that the average combined land and sea temperatures for April were 1.11 degrees Celsius (2.00 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the baseline. That is the average. It was much hotter near the poles (here in Bullfrog Valley it was actually a little cooler as I recall but BFV is not the rest of the world.)

In locations such as Alaska, Russian Siberia, and Greenland, the difference was as much as 4 C (> 7 degrees Fahrenheit). “The interesting thing is the scale at which we’re breaking records,” said Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “It’s clearly all heading in the wrong direction.”

The saddest and most maddening thing is that this is nothing new or surprising. Scientists around the planet have been beating the drum, loudly, since the 1980s. Our climate is in crisis and we need to act now. Every day we delay means more costs to our children both in dollars and a loss in biological richness. Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist warned of the possibility of global warming in a paper published in 1896, On the Influence of Carbonic Acid [Carbon Dioxide] in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.

Forewarned is forearmed, if we will just listen.

Fracking Yeas and Nays

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a process which has been around for over 60 years but because of recent technological changes is being used to increase production of oil and gas. Basically a fluid is pumped underground under high pressure causing the substrate to fracture which allows oil and gas to move more readily through the fissures created into the well and up to the surface.

The historical precedent goes back to the post civil war era. Civil war veteran Col Roberts received a patent for a method to increase production in oil wells that involved dropping a nitroglycerin filled “torpedo” down the well shaft. The explosion would fracture the formation, increasing oil production.

Hydraulic fracturing began about 1950. The recent fracking boom is the result of a combination of advances to the technology including directional drilling and the use of “proppants” like sand and glass beads which prop open the fractures. The technique was pioneered here in the US but its use is rapidly expanding around the world.

There is no question that it is a hot button issue. Some claim that it is a useful, even necessary way to produce fuels for a growing economy. Others suggest the the environmental problems associated with the technique are so untoward as to require banning its use.

Natural gas, regardless of its source, has been called the Prince of Fuels. Among fossil fuels it is by far and away the cleanest burning. It has essentially none of the noxious impurities like sulfur and heavy metals that occur in both coal and oil. It also has a considerable advantage in that it produces more energy for the amount of carbon dioxide produced. Older coal fired power plants have been closing across the country, due in part to it replacement by natural gas plants. Natural gas could even replace liquid fuels for transportation as compressed natural gas (CNG) or by catalytic conversion to a liquid fuel.

Natural gas can be burned in turbines to generate electricity. Gas turbines are ideal as a source of rapidly dispatchable energy that combines well with intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar panels. If the wind blows hard, you idle the turbines, light wind, power up just a few, no wind, turn ’em all on. Over half the natural gas produced in the US comes from fracking.

There are however serious downsides. Fracturing requires a toxic witches brew of hydraulic fluids and some suggest that these pollutants in the fluids have found their way into groundwater. Although it is not hard to imagine how this could happen, the evidence of it actually happening is scant. A more clearly defined problem is the cluster of shallow earthquakes that correlate well with spent fracking fluid reinjection sites. Once the fluid has been used it is disposed of by permanent injection into wells. This fluid under pressure lubricates the subterranean rock layers allowing them to move, hence earthquakes.

Natural gas, essentially methane, is itself a potent contributor to global warming. A final negative is the growing evidence that fugitive emissions from gas production and transmission facilities is a serious contributor to global warming.

These negatives are not insurmountable. Better well casing and location limitations can minimize the risk of ground water pollution. Reprocessing of used fluids, rather than injection will end the earthquake issue, and simply “tightening up” the production and transmission facilities will lessen the fugitive emissions.