Category Archives: Health and Medicine

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

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.

The study is in Science Advances. Here is the abstract, which is pretty clear: Continue reading About 30 Thousand U.S. Newborns At Risk From Fracking per Year?

Why is my poop green?

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?

Gene Therapy Is Starting To Be A Real Thing

Today, the an FDA advisory committee recommended that the FDA approve full clinical trials for a type of gene therapy that addresses a rare genetic condition causing deterioration of the retina. This is found in 8.6×105 of people world wide, so not many. the therapy involves injecting a virus bearing the preferred copy of the gene, the non-broken allele, into the eyeball, where the new gene somehow reduces, stops, and seemingly reverses, the deterioration.

The therapy was previously looked at in a preliminary study with a small sample of people. Here is the abstract from that study: Continue reading Gene Therapy Is Starting To Be A Real Thing

Is my penis too small, too big, or just right?

And by “my” penis I mean “your” penis, of course.

This is a perennial question. For some reason, which I do not understand, the feminist perspective (note: I’m a feminist) is often to belittle the question, but really, that isn’t fair. It is not that difficult to imagine how anyone would come to a question about whether or not a particular organ of the body, the head, the breasts, the butt, the thumb, is somehow out of proportion. The penis is just one of many body parts that people may obsess over, and the larger scale issue of the intersection between physical and mental health should not be put aside for the penis, even if it is the Organ of Continue reading Is my penis too small, too big, or just right?

What happens if I eat mold?

A common concern people have is the outcome of eating food that is moldy. This happens when you are not paying attention to what you are eating and suddenly realize that you just ate half a sandwich made with bread that has some mold on it. Then you go “Oh, crap, I just ate some mold” and then you google it to find out if you are going to die ….
Continue reading What happens if I eat mold?

Is your honey laced with neonicotinoid?

There is a reasonable chance there is. From the current issue of Science:

Growing evidence for global pollinator decline is causing concern for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services maintenance. Neonicotinoid pesticides have been identified or suspected as a key factor responsible for this decline. We assessed the global exposure of pollinators to neonicotinoids by analyzing 198 honey samples from across the world. We found at least one of five tested compounds (acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiacloprid, and thiamethoxam) in 75% of all samples, 45% of samples contained two or more of these compounds, and 10% contained four or five. Our results confirm the exposure of bees to neonicotinoids in their food throughout the world. The coexistence of neonicotinoids and other pesticides may increase harm to pollinators. However, the concentrations detected are below the maximum residue level authorized for human consumption (average ± standard error for positive samples: 1.8 ± 0.56 nanograms per gram).

A worldwide survey of neonicotinoids in honey, by E. Mitchel et al.

Caption for the figure at the top of the post:

Fig. 1 Worldwide contamination of honey by neonicotinoids.
(A) Worldwide distribution of honey contamination by neonicotinoids. White symbols, concentration below quantification levels (LOQ for at least one neonicotinoid; shading indicates the total neonicotinoid concentration (nanograms per gram). Pie chart insets: Relative proportion of overall concentration of each neonicotinoid by continent (legend in bottom inset). (B) Overall percentage of samples with quantifiable amounts of 0, 1, or a cocktail of 2, 3, 4, or 5 individual neonicotinoids. (C) Proportion of samples with 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 individual neonicotinoids in each continent. (D) Rank-concentration distribution of total neonicotinoids in all of the 149 samples in which quantifiable amounts of neonicotinoids were measured.

I’m still … er … digesting this. What do you think?

Avian Influenza in the Mississippi and Pacific Flyways

What is H5N2 Avian Influenza?

H5N2 is a bird influenza virus that is making news. This mainly affects domestic fowl, and in this sense is not a topic central to 10,000 Birds. But, wild birds are part of the story, and the virus itself has changed and has been known to make wild birds ill. And, of course, the reputation of certain species of birds as troublemakers for humans is a problem in bird conservation, so this is worth watching. Here I have a quick summary which I’m afraid lacks a lot of information that we’d like to have but just don’t….

Please click through to read my latest post in 10,000 Birds.

Unless you really know what you are doing stay off the ice!

Yes, I have to post the “stay off the ice” post early this year. There have been several instances over recent weeks of folks wandering onto the ice and needing to be rescued (the most recent, here). This is not yet ice season. That hardish water you see on the surface is like that one person you briefly dated in college … way to thin and very temporary. (Uncharacteristic joke but somehow I couldn’t stop myself.)

Anyway, this is a fictionalized version of a true story recently told to me by two of the people involved. All the names of those still living have been changed. Please do not let this happen to you.

~~~~~

No one is sure why Fred took the chance he took that day, but when Elmer saw him flailing in the icy water surrounded by black ice 300 yards out in Medicine Lake, he did not at that time think to divine his motivations for being there. Fred, an old man who had been ice fishing for dozens of generations of fish and two or three generations of more mortal men, had gone out on the black ice where he should not have been, and now that he had broken through, he’d have only minutes before his body temperature chilled down enough for him to fall unavoidably to sleep, then slip into the water and drown, or just shut down and die.

“Black ice,” by the way, is the term used for ice that is thin and clear enough that you can see the dark waters of the lake beneath it, and it is almost always too thin to walk on. On this particular day on Medicine lake, there had been storms and the air temperature was a bit high, causing much of the lake to be slushy on the surface of ice normally thick enough to hold anglers, ice houses, even pickups. Perhaps Fred had thought the black ice was just dirty slush.

In any event, Elmer knew he needed to act quickly else Fred would not survive. He remembered that moments ago, on his way out on the lake, he had passed a 15 foot long 2×4. Chances are pretty good someone had put this long piece of wood out there as a precaution, for the very purpose for which Elmer was about to use it.

Elmer quickly fetched the 2×4, and headed toward Fred. As he got closer, he lay on the ice and crawled several feet forward, pushing the wood ahead of him.

“Grab the 2×4!!!” shouted Elmer. Seeing the squared off end of salvation looming into view, Fred grabbed it. Then, as Elmer started to pull backwards on the wood, the weight of the two men bore down on the tenuous linear connection between them and the 2 x 4 sliced through the ice like a wire cheese cutter through medium cheddar. The weight on Fred’s side made Elmer see-saw upwards, and as he came back down he thought he was going to crash through the ice himself.

But Elmer settled gently enough on the ice to not break it, and laying face down stopped to count his lucky stars that the ice was holding, for the moment.

But he was indeed on thin ice in thinking that the ice was thick enough for his mass, and suddenly the ice stopped holding and before he could say “Uffda” Elmer was in the freezing lake surrounded by little irregular ice cubes and slush, feeling a lot like a slice of grapefruit in a bowl of Sangria. Doomed grapefruit.

Fortunately for Elmer, Knute Thimson happened to be watching this fiasco from the remains of his ice house a few hundred yards along the lake. Knute had been inspecting his former ice house, which had been blown to bits in the storm, and he had just set about the job of picking up the pieces, wondering if it would be better to try to put it all back together, or if he should just bring what was now essentially litter home and borrow his cousin’s ice house. His cousin, a missionary working in Africa, only used his ice house for about one week every two years when he would come home for the holidays. Even then, he’d only use it for a day or two.

As Knute instinctively started trekking across the ice towards the scene of Fred and Elmer’s plight, these thoughts faded into the background as thoughts of what to do about the current situation began to form. At first, Knute had no idea what his rescue strategy should be. In a different sort of universe, not the one we actually live in, he may have thought, “Damn. I wish cell phones had been invented, I’d call the Sheriff.” And just as he was not having this thought, he stumbled over the four by four foot pallet that made up the base of his own former ice house. It had blown quite far in the windy storm, and it was wide and flat and made of wood, which floats.

Knute picked up one side of the pallet and dragged it towards Elmer, increasing his pace to as much of a jog has he could manage on the slushy ice. As he neared Elmer, he dropped to his knees, still moving forward, and slid the pallet around in front of him. Knute and the pallet then slid a few more feet forward, with Knute’s feet pedaling hard to make that happen, and the edge of the pallet came to within Elmer’s reach. It looked like a rescue technique he had been practicing for decades, but really, it was just his instincts, a bit of good luck, and physics working, for once, in his favor.

Now, Elmer could reach the pallet, drag himself up onto the edge of the ice, causing the ice to fracture, falling part way through, with Knute drawing the pallet backwards, Elmer one again pulling himself forward and falling through again, in what must have looked like a Minnesota version of the Sisyphus myth but with a pallet instead of a rock and a lake instead of a mountain.

But the men were not planning to do this for eternity. Both knew that as they inched along the ice, dragging and crashing, dragging and crashing, they would eventually reach a place where there would lend a firmer hold. So they continued this effort, grimly holding to the belief that they would survive, fighting off the sense of embarrassment that often accompanies near death experiences.

Elsewhere, in a nearby parking lot, just about the time that Elmer was see-sawing on the 2×4 with Fred, Ollie Olsen, just arrived at the lake, was observing the splashing and hearing the yelling and figuring out that something was wrong. It is said by many that a man is either very strong or very smart, but Ollie defied that rule. He was a giant of a man and as sharp as they come. He calculated that he was too far from the black ice to help, too big to get very close, but since he was standing next to his car he could drive quickly to Sadie’s Eatery, just down the road, and call for help. As he yanked the break and signal wires free and popped the ball to disencumber his vehicle of the ice-house toting trailer, the thought may or may not have occurred to him that it would be nice if cell phones existed already. And he jumped in his vehicle, an Azure Blue 1966 GMC Suburban, and overcoming a strong sense of wrongness, exceeded the speed limit to hasten his arrival at the phone booth in Sadie’s parking lot.

The fire department was very close by, and the men there were just coming back from a false alarm at the newly built Middle School (the wiring on the alarm system was bad), so they were still wearing their heavy rubber coats, big black and yellow boots, and red firemen hats when the alarm rang and the captain said “There’s two ice fishermen through the ice on Medicine, north side. You and you, go down there and check it out. Take the pumper,” pointing to the two most experienced men on the force, whom the chief figured would best handle a form of rescue they had not done before. The chief himself hopped in his bright red “Chief” vehicle and headed for the lake ahead of the fire truck. Ice rescues were rare in these parts. By this time of year, you could normally drive the Hook and Ladder Truck across the ice, but the last few years the winters had been unusually warm and the ice unusually weak. The chief had been half expecting something like this to happen on this unseasonably warm winter day.

So just as Elmer was being dragged, pallet by pallet, away from weak ice by Knute, and just as Fred had stopped flailing, and switched to the strategy of floating quietly on his back as he waited to die, strongly regretting that he had given up smoking just a month before, two firemen were hustling to develop a rescue strategy from their vantage point in the nearby parking lot.

“Get that boat,” yelled the chief, pointing from a position about 20 feet onto the lake. He was referring to an overturned 14 foot row boat on the back (or front, depending on how you define it) lawn of a nearby cabin.

The men raced towards the boat, not far away at all, grabbed it and slid it towards the black ice as fast as they could. The chief caught up to them dragging a large coil of hemp rope, and ordered them to momentarily stop. He tied the rope to the metal loop on the front of the boat, and tossed the coil skillfully across the ice back toward shore, and waved the men onwards. As the boat slid closer to the black ice, the chief ordered Henry Roy, the smallest of the two, to get in and lie flat on the bottom, to distribute his wight, while the other fireman and the chief shoved the boat out onto the black ice as hard as they could. In seconds, the boat crashed through the ice and there was now clear water between the rescue boat and poor old Fred, and a rope payed out towards the shore, which the chief passed to the other fireman, telling him to back off and hold the rope from a position on solid ice.

At this moment, Henry Roy noticed the sound of water pouring into the boat from the back. On inspection he discovered that the owner of the boat had removed the drain plug in the aft gunwale, probably as a precaution to prevent theft of the boat (certainly not to drain winter precipitation out of the craft, as it was already set upside down on cinder blocks). Henry took off his left fireman’s glove and stuffed the thumb into the hole, which slowed the leak enough to make it a lower priority. This was training. Take the worst aspect of the ongoing disaster and do what you can to lower its priority, then take the new worst thing and work on that. For a moment that had been the boat sinking, and now, it was Fred.

There was a single, broken oar under the boat when it was fetched, and the fireman had tossed it in when they upturned it, so Henry Roy used it to move closer and closer to Fred. Finally, he got close enough, turned the stern towards the dying, freezing man, and signaled his colleagues to hold the rope fast. It made sense to put the smallest man on the boat that needed to slide some distance across the ice to reach the opening in which Fred was trapped, but now it would have been nice to have a larger, stronger man to drag Fred out of the water. But when Henry Roy knelt awkwardly in the freezing water between the stern and the back seat, and grabbed Fred by the jacket with his ungloved hand and his arm pit with the other hand, he found Fred to be very much lighter than he expected, even wet. Still, when Henry Roy put his full strength into dragging the old man into the boat, the stern gunwale came dangerously close to the waterline, and as Fred’s limpish body slid into the fishing boat, a lot of water came in with him. And somehow, the glove popped out of the drain hole, though Henry Roy did not notice that right away.

By this time, there were several more developments. First, Knute had managed to drag Elmer to ice thick enough to hold their weight, then with both men squirming and frog kicking from a prone position, they went ten feet or so farther, and finally the two of them were able to get to their knees and crawl, leaving the pallet behind. They crawled another 30 feet or so, then stood, and began to wander about, shaky-legged and shivering but alive. The air temperature was actually warm enough that Elmer didn’t feel a need to get to a warm place. By this time, realizing that the overall situation was pretty much out of control, the chief had called for more help, and a second fire truck and two ambulances were arriving on the scene.

Also arriving on the scene were the local TV station reporters, with a camera crew. Someone had seen the commotion from across the lake and called the story in to the tip line. Meanwhile, Elmer’s wife, Emma, wondering where her husband was (he had been due home for lunch) had by happenstance turned on the TV to see if she could catch a noon time weather report, just as the cameras were training, a “live Special Report” on her husband being escorted to an ambulance where he would be stripped down and wrapped in silver Space Blankets.

“Darn it,” she might have thought. “Why haven’t they invented cell phones, so I would not have to be the last person to know about this!”

Fred was now out of the lake, which meant that the chilling effect of contact with water (which conducts heat very well compare to air) was reduced, so the threat of hypothermia was less than it had been. But the air was cold, his clothing was wet, the boat was 20 percent full of water, and for some reason, appeared to be sinking, so he was still very much at risk of drifting into the ultimate sleep of sleeps. And just as Henry Roy realized that his glove must have fallen out of the drain hole, he felt the boat lurch as though it had been bumped by something from behind.

After a half second of confusion, Henry Roy realized that his colleagues, the chief and the other fireman, were tugging on the rope, trying to pull it out of the hole in the lake onto the ice. Soon enough, the boat was pushing on the edge of crumbled and cracked ice and slush, but the two firemen could not manage to move it farther. Henry Roy re-stuffed his glove into the drain hole, and moved Old Fred to the back seat to raise the bow, and moved aft with the broken oar, which he proceeded to use as a sort of ice pick pulling the boat forward onto the ice.

But, alas, the pulling of two men on one end of the rope and the flailing and stabbing with the broken oar on the other end made for great TV News footage, but did not move the boat more than a few inches. Fred, meanwhile, sank off the back seat onto the bottom of the boat, sitting in the icy water, and began to curl up to sleep. If he was not soon stripped down and Space Blanketed, in a warm ambulance, this would be his last fishing trip.

The other firemen and ambulance personnel were several hundred feet along the lake shore watching this, and started to discuss the idea of moving the fire truck to a different location to deploy the winch and cable, to drag the boat out of the water. Just as they started to take action to put this plan into effect, Ollie Olsen had an idea. Ollie had returned to the scene of the rescue after making his call, then stopped into Sadies Eatery to ask the three or four customers if they happen to have blankets in their cars that he could take to the rescue scene. Being Minnesota and Winter, they all did. Joe Patterson had the wool felt blanket his father had brought back from World War II. Mary and Duwayne Lundstrom had an old double knit quilt and a pretty new poly-filled comforter in their back seat to keep the kids warm, as the heater in their old Buick was on the fritz. There were two or three other blankets as well, and Ollie collected them all up and drove back to the lake. He watched the chief and the firemen with the boat for a while, and observed the ambulance guys taking Elmer into their care, realizing that they had ample blankets and he had wasted his time at Sadie’s. And then, just as Fred could be seen sinking to the keel of the stranded boat, and the reserve firemen were slowly heading to their truck to move it over and get the winch working, it occurred to Ollie that he could help in another way.

Ollie stepped down out of the parking lot, sliding off the bank of the lake shore, and picked his way through the rocks and reeds protruding from the frozen lake. He then headed gingerly across the ice towards the chief and his fireman, who were just about to give up on pulling the sinking 12 foot row boat out of water hole in which it was hopelessly trapped.

Ollie walked right past the two men at the end of the rope, and arms raised, the giant man sidestepped into the hemp lifeline, pushing it sideways with his hip. Then he reached down and grasped the rope in his giant hand pulling it to his right, and turning half way around, grabbed with his other hand the rope behind him. Then he did a single, slow, gargantuan pirouette to wrap the rope around himself twice The chief and his fireman at first got a bit of rope burn from the resulting tug, then dropped the line entirely, amazed, glancing at each other not quite sure what to do.

Ollie then turned his back to the boat and started to walk. His huge frame obtained nearly a 33 degree angle off the surface of the ice, his knee occasionally touching the slush and snow, as he took one powerful lurching yet very very short step after another, knowing he was being effective by the sound of aluminum boat crunching and sliding against ice and slush. After he had moved four feet he stopped and turned, and seeing the bow of the boat several feet in the air over the edge of the ice, he threw himself forward, landing face first on the ice, a Herculean effort that brought the bow crashing down, dragging the first third of the boat onto more solid, yet still crumbling, ice. Getting to his hands and knees, he crawled, the rope still fast around him and held firmly in both hands, two more feet forward then stood again and walked two more paces. Then, as all present watched in amazement, he twisted around, and for the next 30 seconds, turned more or less in place, like a Paul Bunyan size fishing reel, winding the line up on his body, pulling the line onto himself, maintaining a taught line, sliding the boat ever closer to the two firemen who were now between Ollie and the boat, one on each side of the line, watching, gawking, amazed and relieved.

“If only I had one of those cell phones” might have thought the chief in a different kind of universe, “The kind with a little video camera … this would be totally viral on You Tube.”

Eventually, Fred and Henry Roy were on firm ice. The drain hole in the back of the boat peed a steady stream of chilled water that retraced the route the boat had taken from it’s watery trap. Ambulance crews descended on Fred, wrapping him in wool blankets and bundling him on a gurney. He would be stripped and Space Blanketed out of camera range and away from the peering eyes of the 20 or so gawkers who by now lined the shore, inside the second ambulance, while on his way to North Memorial.

In the end, Fred lived and Ollie was given a Citizen Accomplishment Medal by the County Commissioner. There had already been discussions at the state level about increasing responsiveness to ice-break emergencies, and eventually lake rescues became the responsibility of each county in the state, and municipal fire companies obtained special ice rescue equipment. Today, in Minnesota, if you’re trapped on the ice, rescue teams will be there quickly and will know what to do, and fewer people die than otherwise might. Yet people still do die on the ice every year, because they go where they shouldn’t be and do what they shouldn’t do.

Eventually, cell phones were invented and everyone in this story got one, except Fred, who took up smoking again the very evening of the rescue and died at an old age of natural causes before the good kind of cell phones were available. Emma got a cell phone as soon as it was possible and gave it to Elmer, who to this day calls Emma whenever he arrives at a lake to fish, summer or winter, to let her know which lake he’s at and when he’ll be home for dinner.

Does it matter what’s in a placebo?

Yes, it does matter what is in a placebo (as well as how it is administered, and so on) because the placebo is an important part of the experimental protocol used in pharmaceutical research. Before we get to why this question has even been raised, and an interesting point or two about it, lets quickly cover what a placebo really is.
Continue reading Does it matter what’s in a placebo?