Health, Science

Will Lack Of Superbug Research Lead To Spread Of Super Virus?

Magnified 50,000 times by a scanning electron micrograph this image shows a strain of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that has developed resistance to standard antibiotics.
Magnified 50,000 times by a scanning electron micrograph this image shows a strain of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that has developed resistance to standard antibiotics. Photo: CDC | Janice Haney Carr.

Antimicrobial resistance refers to the development of bacterial strains, which are increasingly resistant to antibiotics, often called superbugs. The issue is well known, and well studied, in humans and livestock and is caused by an overuse of antibiotics in those populations.

Bacteria are notoriously hardy, and capable of evolving at much faster rates that multicellular life, which means they can adapt to antibiotics quite quickly. The problem is that the bacteria have too many opportunities to interact with the antibiotics, and thus develop defenses against them specifically.

According to a new research, while we do study the issue a lot, we don’t study the issue much as it pertains to wildlife. We have a handle on the dangers of antimicrobial resistance in humans or cows, but we know next to nothing about the same issue among deer, birds, fish, or other wildlife. The study found that only 210 other studies had addressed the issue, and so the researchers behind it are recommending that we engage in a great deal more research on the subject.

The threat they see is that the eradication of certain strains in human and livestock populations might not reflect the bacterial growth in the wild, where animals can continue to spread that bacteria, which could in turn lead it back to humans.

The root of the issue is in the contamination of water supplies, the principle way in which these bacteria spread, which is caused chiefly by water treatment systems not doing a good enough job of removing antibiotics and other contaminants from treated water.

The other issue is that we haven’t adopted a One Health model for this problem. The idea behind the One Health model argues that all organisms are interconnected and that the health of humans, animals, or ecosystems more generally, can impact each other. That model has helped to fight back against some viruses, but hasn’t been yet adapted to the study of antimicrobial resistance.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards, Health, Science

Climate Change is Bad for Our Health

Smoke stacks against a sunset
Unsurpisingly, climate change has been found to be bad for human health.
Image: Shutterstock

According to the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, an interdisciplinary group formed by UK-based medical journal The Lancet, climate change has a huge impact on human health. The commission was formed to investigate exactly that fact, and they have recently released a study, the most comprehensive ever done, on the impact climate change has on human health.

In short, the impact is quite negative. The commission argues that climate change is undoing the last half a century of amazing medical advances, for a number of reasons. Most obvious would be carbon emissions, which pump far more CO2 into the atmosphere than the Earth can currently handle. This can lead to all kinds of health problems, not to mention environmental issues. In fact, they suggest that fossil fuels, especially coal, are the worst health factor in the world, but that we could do a lot of good by cutting those things out immediately, or at least as soon as possible.

Another, more subtle threat, is human migration. Migration has always been a part of the human experience, but it brings with it certain problems, especially when large groups of people move quickly to a new place. Diseases spread faster, and resources become scarcer, impacting everyone. As humans render regions unlivable, people will have no choice but to more somewhere else.

Although the various experts who form the commission have a lot of bad news, there is a silver lining. They hope that, by framing climate change as a human health issue, people will be more likely to respond and actually do something about it. Doctors managed to put big tobacco in its place, for example, so maybe they can do the same to big oil and big coal. As they pointed out, a doctor with a sick patient would do something about that patient, not just talk about it once a year, which is pretty much all we’re doing about climate change so far.

Climate Change, Health, Nature, Science

Study Shows Atlantic Set to Cool for Several Decades

Lighthouse on the Atlantic
A recent study suggests that climate change will lower temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean.
Image: Shutterstock

According to a new study by researchers at the University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Center, the global climate is on the verge of a multi-decade temperature change. By combining data from two methods, they have shown that the Atlantic will begin cooling, which could last for several decades.  This will likely result in drier summers in the United Kingdom and Ireland, accelerated sea rise on the coast of the Northeast United States, and drought in the Sahel region of Africa.

Sea-surface temperatures in the Atlantic fluctuate between warm and cold over multiple decades in what is called the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation (AMO), which can have an impact on the scale of 20-30 years. Negative AMO, like what we will be seeing in the near future, is caused by a weakening of the currents that bring warm water north, currents that are influenced by the same atmospheric conditions that determine the direction of the Atlantic jet stream.

The study is based on two sources. The first is RAPID, a system that has been collecting data from the Atlantic meridonal overturning circulation for about a decade. This data is useful, but it only provides a limited time scale, throughout which the strength of the currents has been declining. For a broader view, researchers turned to 100 years of data on sea level. This they got from the National Oceanographic Center’s study of mean sea level, a permanent feature that has been recording that data for a century.

By combining the two data sets, researchers have been able to link AMO to sea level at the coast for the first time. Doing so is an exciting development, as it allows us to learn more about the Atlantic. It also gives us information on sea level and water temperature changes before they happen. Being able to predict, for example, that the Sahel region will likely face droughts over the next few decades can help to prepare the people in that region and reduce starvation and loss of life.

Environmental Hazards, Health

Treatment Is Making Antibiotics in Wastewater Stronger

Wastewater plant
A new study looks at how antibiotics in wastewater affect our health.
Image: Shutterstock

Antibiotics in wastewater is a problem, one that scientists have known about for years. But according to a recent study by Olya Keen, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UNC Charlotte, attempts to break down organic matter in wastewater is actually making those antibiotics stronger.

Chlorine is often added to wastewater in order to remove potentially dangerous organic matter within it. The chlorine is filtered out before that water is allowed to pass through to later stages. Unfortunately, chlorine isn’t able to destroy antibiotics, which pass through without a problem and can end up in streams and other water sources. Once there, these antibiotics interact with bacteria in those water sources, which can eventually develop immunity to those antibiotics.

Keen and her students isolated doxycycline, which is one of the more commonly used classes of antibiotic, for the study. They found that not only does chlorine not kill the antibiotic, it actually makes it stronger by changing its chemical makeup and creating new antibiotics.

As more antibiotics get out into the wild, bacteria will have the time and the room to adapt to them and become immune, resulting in bacteria that humans and other animals cannot fight off. This doesn’t normally happen with patients taking antibiotics, as the bacteria don’t have time to create enough generations to adapt and end up dying off.

The antibiotics in wastewater get there in a variety of ways. Any not broken down in the human body can end up being released through bodily waste, but many individuals and even hospitals dump old or expired antibiotics down the toilet, which is part of the problem. Runoff from factories and labs producing antibiotics contributes to the problem as well.

Keen’s research will give us more insight into the problem, and she hopes that it will lead to better solutions for removing antibiotics from wastewater or preventing them from entering it in the first place.

Health, Nature, Science

Bill Nye is Changing His Mind About GMOs

Bill Nye the Science Guy
Bill Nye has revised his opinion on GMOS.
Image: s_bukley /

Recently, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) visited Monsanto, and after spending time with their scientists, he has decided to revise the chapter on genetically modified foods in his book Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation.

In the first edition of the book, which came out in November of 2014, Nye argued that we couldn’t rule out potential environmental or health hazards of GMO crops down the line and essentially came down against them. After looking more closely at the science, though, he’s decided that they’re okay for now and can even be better for the environment and for human consumption than non-GMO crops.

Genetically modified crops are not new. Humans have been selectively breeding plants for nearly 10,000 years, since the advent of agriculture, in order to get the largest, best tasting, and easiest to grow crops we can. The corn you buy in the grocery store or at a farmer’s market doesn’t exist in nature. The difference between these food sources and GMO crops is that the process of creating them took much longer. Scientists can create modern genetically modified food in a couple of years instead of a couple millennia.

Numerous studies have shown that the GMO crops on the market are safe to eat. They’re designed to need fewer pesticides—which is good for the environment—and to grow larger and quicker. All these things result in more abundant, cheaper food, which is great for people who don’t have a lot of money. “Organic” crops grown on small farms that use only natural fertilizers and the like are great, but they can also be very expensive, being priced out of the range of lower income families, who need access to those fruits and vegetables.

Bill Nye is doing what scientists are supposed to do: drawing conclusions based on evidence, and modifying those conclusions when faced with new evidence. The revised edition of Undeniable, with the new chapter on GMOs, doesn’t have a publication date yet, but is expected to be out in the fall of 2015.


Climate Change, Conservation, Environmental Hazards, Health

Chinese Documentary on Air Pollution Rocks the Internet

Beijing covered in heavy smog
A new documentary takes a hard look at air pollution in China.
Image: axz700 /

Former state television reporter Chai Jing has created a documentary on air pollution being hailed as this generation’s Silent Spring. The 104-minute film shows Chai presenting in TED Talk-style format her experiences as an expectant mother who went on to investigate the history and effects of smog on the population of China.

Released last Saturday, the film, “Under the Dome,” has racked up 100 million views on major Chinese video portals Tencent and Youku, and it has resulted in 280 million posts on Sina Weibo, a microblogging site.

Chai’s investigative reporting looks at China’s air pollution as compared to that of London and Los Angeles, as well as critically reviewing China’s reliance on fossil fuels, heavy industry, and its lax enforcement of environmental laws.

“I’d never felt afraid of pollution before and never wore a mask no matter where,” Chai said in the video. “But when you carry a life in you, what she breathes, eats, and drinks are all your responsibility, then you feel the fear.”

Chai’s daughter was born with a benign tumor, which she suggests was caused by Chai’s exposure to air pollution. Though the tumor was successfully removed, it spurred Chai to make this public statement about the effects of pollution.

The video’s reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Though some question the science about smog’s effect on her daughter, the video has not been blocked by the government. In fact, the new minister of environmental protection, Chen Jining, publically praised the video, saying it reminded him of Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring.

Economic effects occurred almost as soon as the video was released. As of today, more than a dozen stocks for companies dealing with pollutant treatment, air quality monitoring, and green technology have skyrocketed, several rising 10% and exceeding the daily trading limit. These include Sail Hero, Top Resource Conservation Engineering, LongKing Environmental, and Create Technology & Science.

Conservation, Eco-friendly, FDA, Health, Sustainability

Dietary Guidelines Suggest Less Meat, More Plants

Basket of fruits and veggies
The latest government dietary guidelines suggest we consume more plants and less meat.
Image: Shutterstock

Previous worries about the potential dietary guidelines from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee were realized on February 19, when the DGAC released its suggestions. They called for Americans to eat less meat, watch their sodium intake, and consider the environment when choosing foods to consume.

“The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains,” the report said.

This marks the first time the DGAC has incorporated environmental concerns in its suggestions; in particular, looking at how food production, processing, and consumption affect the environment

Reactions from the meat industry have prompted the committee to soften their approach to suggestions regarding meat, making sure to point out that lean red meats can be part of a healthy diet.

“We’re not saying that people need to become vegans,” said Miriam Nelson, a committee member and professor at Tufts University. “But we are saying that people need to eat less meat.”

The report was made public as a 571-page document encouraging the consumption of less animal-based and more plant-based foods.

Ultimately, the US Department of Agriculture decides which suggestions to adopt and which to set aside; however, traditionally, the DGAC suggestions have had a heavy influence on food policies in major institutions and schools. The USDA’s final recommendations are only produced once every five years, and will be officially released by the end of 2015. The public is invited to view and comment on the guidelines through April 8.