Category Archives: Health and Medicine

Difference and Disease: Excellent new book on medicine and race in the 18th century British empire

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Suman Seth is associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, at Cornell. He is an historian of science, and studies medicine, race, and colonialism (and dabbles as well in quantum theory). In his new book, Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire, Seth takes on a fascinating subject that all of us who have worked in tropical regions but with a western (or northern) perspective have thought about, one way or another.

As Europeans, and Seth is concerned mainly with the British, explored and conquered, colonizing and creating the empire on which the sun could never set no matter how hard it tried, they got sick. They also observed other people getting sick. And, they encountered a wide range of physiological or biosocial phenomena that were unfamiliar and often linked (in real or in the head) to disease. A key cultural imperative of British Colonials as to racialize their explanations for things, including disease. The science available through the 18th and 19th century was inadequate to address questions that kept rising. Like, why did a Brit get sick on his first visit to a plantation in Jamaica, but on return a few years later, did not get as sick? If you have a model where people of different races have specific diseases and immunities in their very nature, how do you explain that sort of phenomenon? How might the widely held, or at least somewhat widely held, concept of polygenism, have explained things? This is an early version of the multi-regional hypothesis, but more extreme, in which god created each type of human independently where we find them, and we are all different species. (Agassiz, with his advanced but highly imperfect geological understanding, thought the earth was totally frozen over with each ice age, and repopulated with these polygenetic populations of not just humans, but all the organisms, after each thaw).

Seth weaves together considerations of slavery and abolition, colonialism, race, geography, gender, and illness. This is an academic book, but at the same time, something of a page turner. Anyone interested in disease, colonial history, and race, will want to re-excavate the British colonial world, looking at disease, illness, and racial thinking, with Suman Seth as your guide. I highly recommend this book.


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What is that red line inside my toilet?

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And how do I get rid of it?

Here are some theories of what this red line is caused by. The last one is the correct one, but I include the first two because they are examples of wrongness, and we are all about that on the Internet, aren’t we?

The first explanation, historically, is that the red substance found in damp places, which today include the inside of your toilet or other places in your bathroom or kitchen, but in those days (before porcelain toilets) included other human-made as well as natural locations, is that this is the blood of Christ. This wass especially thought to be true when this red substances was found on bread, and especially when the bread was the Eucharist, the piece of bread that Catholics believe is the actual body of Jesus Christ, which you then eat. Blood coming out of anything linked to Christ, especially the actual body of Christ in the form of a wafer of bread, is about as intense as it gets if you are a Medieval Christian.

The second explanation, the one I see all the time today, is that there is something wrong with the water supply. We often see the red film or line forming in toilet bowls, or behind the fixture on your sink, or in showers or tubs, blamed on the poor quality of the city water supply, and often, this theory links the red substance to iron in the water causing rust.

The red substance of which we speak here is not rust, and it is not blood of any kind. It is Prodigiosin, a red pigment. When you see this red pigment, you are actually looking at a very likely thriving and living colony of the bacterium Serratia marcescens.

Serratia marcescens can be a human pathogen. It is responsible for a percent or two of the known hospital based bacterial infections that have become such a problem. It affects children more than adults, can cause urinary tract infections, and sometimes it exists as strains that are resistant to bacteria.

The military in the US and UK used Serratia marcescens as a “harmless” bacterium in germ warfare trials, between 1950 and 1980. This made sense because it was thought to not cause disease, but being red, was easy to find and spot in a culture to test the efficacy of germ warfare delivery devices. Serratia marcescens was, therefore, spread across the San Francisco Bay region once, and a large area of England. In the case of San Francisco, it may have caused a spike in certain illnesses, and may have killed at least one person. In any event, it turns out it is not harmless.

Serratia marcescens is not the blood of Christ, and it is also not from your water supply. It is fairly ubiquitous so it can come from the air, from your body, from wherever. It probably does NOT come from your water supply because living Serratia marcescens would be killed in routine water treatment.

So do get rid of it. Most people don’t need to worry. It is not that pathogenic. But children may be somewhat susceptible, and anyone immune compromised is at risk. Experts concerned with infectious disease don’t have this in their toilets at home.

Do not scrub the Serratia marcescens from your porcelain devices using a metal scrubber. That will ruin the porcelain finish and create crevices and scratches at the microscopic level. Bacterial such as Serratia marcescens love those crevices and scratches.

Do not put bleach in the back of your toilet system. That will ruin metal and rubber parts and cause leaks.

Do use a bleach based cleaner in the toilet bowl, on the sink in the shower, etc. to clean away this red stuff.

Clean it up where you see it, and do a general cleaning of the entire kitchen and bathroom — all of your kitchens and bathrooms and places this stuff is seen in your house — at about the same time. Maybe you’ll get all of it, or most of it, and it won’t come back or it will take a long time to reappear. If you clean a red spot here or there in your bathroom but not all of the at once, it will migrate back to where you removed it more quickly. If you wipe away the line around your toilet bowl but ignore the underside of the rim (that yucky area you can’t see without doing a Kavanaugh) it will come back.

But really, it is going to come back no matter what, eventually. Perhaps you should frequently use a brush without cleaning fluid, and occasionally a bleach-based substance on a brush, to clean these areas on a more regular basis than you are doing now. Chances are you see the red rim around your toilet water in the bathroom you hardly use, and do not see it in the toilet in the bathroom you usually use and thus clean regularly. What you should be doing is cleaning unused toilets in your house on a regular basis (weekly, bi-monthly, whatever) instead of ignoring them.

There is, of course, rust in some water, and that may be what you’ve got. But rust is not pink and does not form that line around the edge quite the same way. Medieval Catholics knew about rust, and thought this red stuff was blood. They just don’t look the same.

Serratia marcescens will, of course, coat the entire surface of the underwater part of your toilet but it tends to concentrate around the edge due to evaporation. It is also left behind when tiny puddles form, say, in the built-in soap dish in your shower or behind suction cups that are meant to hold stuff up in the shower, or behind the fixtures on your bathroom sink, etc.

I personally use one of these (though you might prefer this style) in the bathroom, and yes, I admit, I use this to clean both parts of the shower (down on the floor) and the bathroom (changing brushes, of course).


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Aderlt Murvie Actas: Testing the Damaged Goods Hypothesis

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This post was originally published on December 3, 2012. Since it is now fairly old research, it may not be that important, but since I did go through the trouble of writing it, and people took the trouble to comment on it, I see no reason to delete the post.

Yet, hpph;r (move your fingers to the left one and type those letters to see what I said there) has determined this post to be a violation of norms. I changed the title of the post and replaced a few other words in it so their bothered bot will not be bothered, and reposted the post below. Note that I’ve added the earlier comments as screen grabs at the bottom of the post


A study has just come out in the Journal of when-mommy-and-daddy-really-love-each-other-and-want-to-show-it Research comparing various psychological and lifestyle measures of women who act in pornographic films with matched sets of women who do not.

There is a pretty clear association between negative attitudes towards pornography and negative assessments of the quality of life for actresses in the pornography genre. Studies have shown that those who regarded pornography as harmful to society also believed that those acting in the films must not like their work. Studies have also shown that people tend to believe that porn stars have serxual and physical abuse in their backgrounds at a higher rate than the general population. Conversely, people who have more positive attitudes towards pornography also seem to have a more positive attitude about porn actresses. As a whole, the research that involved asking people what they thought about pornography and those who participated on the stage in making it painted a picture that has become known as the “Damaged Goods Hypothesis.”

The damaged goods hypothesis posits that female performers in the adult entertainment industry have higher rates of childhood serx abuse (CSA), psychological problems, and drug use compared to the typical woman.

The purpose of the study at hand was to test this hypothesis. Among the numerous data collected for each participant, the following especially salient questions were asked: Continue reading Aderlt Murvie Actas: Testing the Damaged Goods Hypothesis


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DO NOT PANIC ABOUT PLASTIC IN THE MICROWAVES!!!!

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OK, there is a report just out that suggests that we are playing too fast and loose with food additives and other chemicals, and that we might want to draw back on some of that. Fine. We should maybe.

But I’ve already seen this report misconstrued, with panic ensued. I’ve seen people suggest that we should no longer use microwaves for food. Or that we should not dishwash plastic or put plastic containers in the microwave. And some other stuff.

For both of those behaviors, the concern is the potentially harmful BPA getting out into our food. If you put BPA laced objects in the microwave of dishwasher, that could be a problem.

The thing is, if you’ve been paying attention to BPAs all along, then you probaby don’t have BPA laced water bottles or microwavable containers, so there is NOTHING TO SEE HERE. Typical “Tupperware” (never actually Tupperware) wares typically don’t have BPA. Most water bottles don’t either.

Here’s the thing. This report covers a LOT of things, not just BPAs, not just microwaving things or cleaning water bottles. And, the report is pretty easy to read and very clear. Well, the whole issue of what to do and not do is not necessarily clear, but you can easily figure out what they are getting at.

There are two sources. Read them, and then you’ll know what all the buzz is about. An overview from the American Association of Pediatrics is here. The policy statement itself is here.

There are items of concern here, but if you simply stop using plastic in the microwave and think you are done, chance are that a) you did something useless and b) you are missing something important.

Read the darn thing!


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Brain microbiome

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Human brains, presumably mammal brains in general, do not have microbiomes. If they did, they would look like Donald Sutherland in that movie.

Also, a microbiome is not the same thing as an infection. A microbiome is a mutualistic (or similar) ecology of multi-celled organisms or part thereof (like, your gut or your eyeballs or something) and microbes, probably including multiple species or varieties. Brains do not have that. If there are microbes in the brain it is an infection.

There is some interesting research out there possibly linking infections and Alzheimers. It is unfortunately being couched in terms of microbiomes. Why? Mainly because science reporters are generally not scientists, so they don’t bump on errors like that? Maybe. But in this case, there seems to be an actual project that claims to be actually mapping out the brain’s microbiome, including “helpful” organisms.

Here is the article from the Harvard Gazette

And here is a Twitter Feed confirming what I say above.

If you have evidence to the contrary please post it below.


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A human built lung has been successfully transplanted into an individual.

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The individual is a pig, and one of several where things didn’t go so well, but this is a fairly spectacular result.

This isn’t a lung developed from scratch, quite. A lung is taken from a donor pig. That pig, of course, loses its lung and presumably is converted to other uses such as ham. That lung is then sripped of cells and liquid tissues, leaving just the connected tissues that make up a sort of non-cellular skeleton.

This skeleton is then seeded with cells and growth factors and such, and the cells find their proper location and re-constitute a pig lung.

This is not an ideal scenario for a lung transplant in a human, but it is a step in the right direction. The way it would work for humans is probably like this: You get a pig lung and remove the cells and blood. You get some cells from the recipient and bio-engineer them. Perhaps you remove the genes that cause the recipient to have a bad lung to begin with. You further bio-engineer the lungs to properly divide and propagate and migrate, to move the correct locations with the pig-lung-skeleton. Then you stick that lung in the recipient and sis-bam-boom, new lung.

The summary from the original paper:

Lungs are complex organs to engineer: They contain multiple specialized cell types in extracellular matrix with a unique architecture that must maintain compliance during respiration. Nichols et al. tackled the challenges of vascular perfusion, recellularization, and engraftment of tissue-engineered lungs in a clinically relevant pig model. Nanoparticle and hydrogel delivery of growth factors promoted cell adhesion to whole decellularized pig lung scaffolds. Autologous cell–seeded bioengineered lungs showed vascular perfusion via collateral circulation within 2 weeks after transplantation. The transplanted bioengineered lungs became aerated and developed native lung-like microbiomes. One pig had no respiratory symptoms when euthanized a full 2 months after transplant. This work represents a considerable advance in the lung tissue engineering field and brings tissue-engineered lungs closer to the realm of clinical possibility.


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If your toddler falls from your window, will it necessarily die?

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It is that time of year again. Children falling out the window awareness week is every week in the spring and early summer. Here is a repost about this topic, still relevant, because kids still keep falling out the window.


No! A surprising number of toddlers who manage to get their way through a window opening to fall to the pavement below live. Something just over three thousand toddlers do this every year in the US.
Continue reading If your toddler falls from your window, will it necessarily die?


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NPR: For Every Woman Who Dies In Childbirth In The U.S., 70 More Come Close

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This latest in a series of reports from NPR is out.

Over the past year, NPR and ProPublica have been investigating why American mothers die in childbirth at a far higher rate than in all other developed countries.

A mother giving birth in the U.S. is about three times as likely to die as a mother in Britain and Canada.

In the course of our reporting, another disturbing statistic emerged: For every American woman who dies from childbirth, 70 nearly die. That adds up to more than 50,000 women who suffer “severe maternal morbidity” from childbirth each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A patient safety group, the Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health, came up with an even higher figure. After conducting an in-depth study of devastating complications in hospitals in four states, it put the nationwide number at around 80,000.

I’m not going into great detail about this, but I do want to make a few related salient points. Continue reading NPR: For Every Woman Who Dies In Childbirth In The U.S., 70 More Come Close


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Leopards Eat Feral Dogs, Limiting Rabies

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I heard a story from a reliable source, who in turn heard it from a fairly reliable source. So believe it or not:

One day a resident of a Nairobi, Kenya — a fairly well off person who liked to collect things — called the police to report that his leopard had gotten out.

So, the police called around and got some leopard traps. Not hard in a place like Nairobi.

They put a dozen, maybe two dozen, traps around the area, in town.

That night and the next, they caught a half dozen or so leopards. None of them were the missing animal. All the caught leopards were wild. Continue reading Leopards Eat Feral Dogs, Limiting Rabies


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This Year’s Super Bowl Controversy Will Be …

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… I’m not sure. We will see if anyone takes a knee, or if Pink has a wardrobe malfunction. I’m sure there will be controversial ads (there is already a controversy about the bro-osity factor being so large during a #MeToo year). My wife actually knows several people who will be performing during half time, but that is not a big surprise because Minnesota is a very small town, dontcha know. Hey, Jimm Fallon stopped by at the Salzers, up in Champlin, for hot dish two nights ago. Anyway, I don’t expect the Wayzata (not pronounced way zatt ah) dance team to do anything tricky.

I will be keeping an eye on one thing, though… Continue reading This Year’s Super Bowl Controversy Will Be …


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Trump Gives CDC List of Verbotene Wörter

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The Trump administration has sent the CDC a list of words that they are verboten … er, sorry, forbidden, not sure why I keep reverting to the language of the FATHERLAND! … anyway, words that the CDC if forbidden to use in describing their budgetary needs.

The list includes these words: Continue reading Trump Gives CDC List of Verbotene Wörter


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About 30 Thousand U.S. Newborns At Risk From Fracking per Year?

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A new study based in Pennsylvania measured health indicators of children born far, near, and very near, fracking sites. The study showed an effect that reached out to about 3 kilometers, but that was much stronger within about 1 kilometer, from fracking sites. The effects included lower birth weight and similar differences that are associated with in utero stress.

Given this finding, it is estimated that about 29,000 newborns are born in fracking danger zones per year in the US. Continue reading About 30 Thousand U.S. Newborns At Risk From Fracking per Year?


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Why is my poop green?

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As a science blogger, I hear a lot of interesting questions, and this is one of the more interesting questions I’ve heard in a while. It is, I’m sure, rather disconcerting to notice that your feces are the color of a corroded penny, and not know why. Or, if your feces are the usual brown color that our species tends to produce, perhaps you’d like to know how to make your poop green for Saint Patrick’s day. Either way, read on:
Continue reading Why is my poop green?


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