Monthly Archives: February 2019

Medicare for All

It shouldn’t be this hard, really. Just about every country in the developed world has some form of universal healthcare, managed by a central authority. Management varies, the degree of supplemental private insurance varies, and the degree of coverage varies, but one factor is common to all the others: it works. Everybody gets coverage, outcomes are better, and the total cost is lower.

The arguments against universal healthcare here in the United States are numerous and generally are all wrong. One of the sillier arguments is that you can’t compare the success in smaller countries with our more populous country. Nonsense, anyone that knows about healthcare coverage knows that the larger the insured pool, the more predictable the costs, and hence the lower the costs.

The most common argument is we just can’t afford it. Michael Bloomberg, billionaire and occasional wannabe presidential candidate proclaimed that “Medicare for all would bankrupt us for a very long time.” Nonsense, it’s not bankrupting European or Asian countries, why should it bankrupt us?

As a percentage of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP,) We have, hands down, the most expensive system in the world. For example most European Countries, Canada, Japan, and Australia all have costs in the 10 to 12 percent range, where we spend over 17 %. And they cover everybody, we don’t.

Another argument is that the coverage “there” is not as good as here. It depends on what metric but if you compare the broadest of categories we lose every time. In life expectancy, we don’t even break the top 25. We are far behind the likes of Greece and Canada. How about infant mortality, surely we take care of our neonates. Not nearly as well as most of the others. Our infant mortality rate is twice or more than the rate of Europe. Our rate is even higher than Cuba’s! Maternal mortality rates are even worse. We have on the order of 7 times as many women dying compared to Finland, and about 3 times as many as the average of the rest of the developed world.

Some claim they don’t want some faceless bureaucrat determining their healthcare, but what is the alternative? As a comparison, where do you think the interests lie for an investor in a for-profit insurance company? Why did it take government intervention to ensure coverage for people with preexisting conditions?

We can pay for it through our income taxes. Any increase in taxes will be offset by decreases in the need for private insurance. To ease the transition we can introduce it starting with the most important, childbirth. Prenatal/maternal care should be THE pro-life issue, then the children are kept in the system as they age.

At the other end of the system, we should lower the age for the introduction of Medicare. Currently, most healthcare insurance is provided through the workplace. In the gig economy, lose your job – lose your insurance. It is more difficult and takes more time for quinqua- or sexa- genarians to find a job.

A final argument to debunk is that our government just can’t do the job. Nonsense, our government is as good as or better than that of France, or Great Britain or Germany, right? As the most prosperous democracy, we can do this.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Recycling Woes

There are problems with recycling both locally and nationally. Recycling nationally is being impacted by global politics. Until recently China bought much of our recyclable material. Of late however, they have decided that for both domestic reasons and reasons relating to the trade wars that they will no longer be buying our material. Without that international market the price of some recyclables has been plummeting.

Meanwhile waste has been showing up throughout the biosphere, from vast “islands” of bulk plastics in certain regions of the oceans to microplastics in the guts and even flesh of ocean fish and invertebrates.

Locally, the county has recently decided that the provision of recycling bins in London, Dover, and Hector is too expensive. The only alternative now is for everybody to haul recyclable materials an extra 25 or so miles to the county shop in Russellville. Previously, the bins were available at all hours every day. The county shop location is only open during business hours.

Even in Russellville, recycling is less effective for those without curbside pickup. The city of Russellville’s site at Recycle Works now collects recyclable materials in large open bins with no separation of the material. Previously, enclosed bins with compartments for the different materials were employed. Now, everything is thrown together in the open bins and thus exposed to the weather. This results in much lower yields of usable recyclable material and more waste that must then be hauled off to a landfill.

Again the argument is one of cost. It is cheaper to utilize the open bins, even though the process is less effective. On a recent visit to Recycle Works, I saw a large screen TV and what appeared to be some food waste commingled with the actual recyclable material.

Without recycling opportunities in rural areas, it is likely that we will see an increase in wastes, including recyclables, being dumped in the bar ditches of back roads and ravines. Out of sight, out of mind?

There certainly were some problems with some misuse of the recycle bins. Essentially the bins have been utilized for trash dumping. But abandonment of the process will not make the problem go away. Wouldn’t enclosed bins both rurally and in Russellville be less likely to be abused as trash depots? In this day and age, simple video monitors could be employed. This would help with enforcement of existing laws against littering.

This is a public health matter. I think most the people of Pope county want to do the right thing. The people want waste properly managed and recycling opportunities maintained. In the long run, educating and assisting the public in recycling is going to yield a better outcome at a lower cost.

Better still is to reduce the amount of waste going into the system. Container deposit laws ensure a much greater return of materials for recycling. In Arkansas, several attempts at deposit legislation over the past decade have failed to become law. New bills will be introduced in 2019.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Biofuel from Seaweed

A relatively new contender for a source for biofuels, ethanol from seaweed, has come to the fore. Ethanol is blended with gasoline, commonly a ten percent blend in gasoline or less frequently E-85, a blend of eighty-five percent ethanol with fifteen percent gasoline. The latter is used extensively in Brazil. First a little background on making ethanol by traditional means.

The most common method for making fuel ethanol is fermentation of sugar with yeast. The sugar itself can be had directly from sugar cane, sugar beets or various fruit juices or indirectly from any source of starch such as grains or potatoes. Enzymes obtained from malted barley convert the large polymeric starch into small molecules which the yeast can use as a substrate for fermentation. The process has been known for over five thousand years. The oldest evidence of writing is cuneiform tablets found in modern day Iraq, then known as Sumeria. Some of these ancient tablets have records for beer production and distribution.

Virtually all ethanol produced in the United States is derived from corn and that is a problem on several levels. First and foremost is the fact that the process of capturing energy from sunlight is very inefficient compared to solar panels or wind turbines. Large swathes of land must be dedicated to energy production which otherwise would be suitable for food production. Ethanol from corn also consumes large amounts of fresh water and degrades the soil over time.

Ethanol can hypothetically be produced from plant fiber (cellulose) rather than starch, hence waste plant matter such as grass clippings and leaves could be turned into fuel. Although cellulosic ethanol has been studied intensely for decades, no commercial production has yet been achieved.

Now back to ethanol from seaweed. It’s recently been reported that ethanol can be made from seaweed using a genetically engineered bacteria. This is possible because the chemistry of seaweed is fundamentally different from land plants. Seaweed is comprised of large alginate molecules rather than cellulose or starch.

E. Coli, a bacteria common in the intestines of mammals and birds has been modified so that it has the enzymes necessary to disassemble the seaweed. This releases small molecules similar to sugar just as barley malt releases sugar from starch. A second modification of the genes in the bacteria allow metabolic processes that convert the sugar equivalent to ethanol, hence acting like yeast.

There are a number of advantages to the use of seaweed for fuel production. There is no diversion of food crops to fuel production. Seaweed can be harvested as a perennial crop from coastal areas or salt marshes so there is no impact on freshwater or land erosion. Seaweed production could even have a positive effect in certain coastal areas. Fertilizer runoff from the grain belt ends up in the Mississippi and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. This nutrient-laden water causes unwanted algae blooms which consume oxygen and create a “dead zone.” If seaweed were farmed in this location it could absorb the nutrients for its growth and then be harvested for fuel production- a win-win situation.

Next time you have a little sake (the ethanol portion ) with your sushi (the wrapper part) consider that it could be coming from the same seaweed, all the while cleaning the environment.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University