Sunday, 6 November 2011

Insanity in Zanesville

1 baboon, 2 wolves, 2 grizzly bears, 3 mountain lions, 6 black bears, 8 lionesses, 9 lions, 18 Bengal tigers. Indeed a rich count for an impressive menagerie. Unfortunately, all shot dead in Ohio.

For the benefit of those readers who may be unaware: Vietnam war veteran Terry Thompson committed suicide, possibly spurred on by piling debts and a disintegrating marriage. But before this act, he did something unexpected- he released his 55 'exotic' animals from their cages in his Muskingum County Animal Farm in Zanesville and opened the fences. The result was utter chaos, resulting in the police hunting and killing the 49 animals listed above. The surviving six animals (3 leopards, 2 celebes macaques, and a grizzly bear) are being quarantined at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

Google image 'Ohio animals' and you will find quite a many photos of the surreal carnage (which gave me nightmares for a long time). What struck me was how the animals were shot down dead by the police. Majority of the population seemed to justify this action. After all, the deputies didn’t have tranquilisers, it was close to nightfall, and it wasn’t exactly in a middle of nowhere location. But even the use of tranquiliser darts didn’t seem to have much effect- some animals were killed since they charged at them (after all, tranquilisers does take a while to act); others were killed since they might lose sight of the tranquilised animal which might revert to normalcy when the tranquiliser wears off. Yet, I would maintain that the death count could have been significantly lowered by using strong tranquilisers and/or by strategically disabling them. Is the trigger-happy nature so ingrained that the only solution was this carnage?

More disturbing is the fact that a sizeable number of animals were donated to Thompson by owners who found them difficult to manage as adults. And what is much more disturbing is the high incidence of such ‘exotic’ animal owners in the US.
And many are the other questions: whatever spurred Thompson to make such a reckless action? Was it to spite his neighbours and the authority? Or was it just to give them some freedom as his final act? If he was deep in debt, surely selling a few acres of his farm should have been a better option than suicide? And what did these animals do to deserve such a bloody fate?

Sunday, 9 October 2011

A matter of the heart

Some years ago, I accompanied a young relative, a very eager science graduate working on particulate matter, as she conducted her research survey on public perception of particulate matter and its effects in a certain borough of London. Particulate matter (PM) is used to describe solid matter suspended in a gas or liquid phase. In the environment, particulates may occur naturally (as consequence of forest fires, volcanoes, dust storm, sea sprays etc) or via anthropogenic activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels in automobile exhausts and other industrial processes. PM10 is used to describe particles of 10 micrometres or less. Unsurprisingly, densely populated metropolitan areas in developing countries are hot spots for PM. The exercise with my relative was an eye-opener, and also quite fun as we pounced on shoppers, city workers on lunch breaks, pedestrians in Central London etc., armed with our clip boards and ticking or crossing their responses. I enjoyed being the magician’s assistant….but that is another story.

All this came back to me as I read the recent article by Bhaskaran et al, of the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, who studied the effects of air pollution on the risk of heart attack- specifically whether alterations in pollution levels on an hourly timescale affects the short-term risk in urban settings of England and Wales, So what is the novelity in this study? The links between particular matter and heart and lung diseases is documented and there are several publications in these topics.In an earlier post in this site, David discussed a study where PM10 caused increase in blood pressure in traffic controllers in the metropolitan area of Sao Paolo. However, there is a wee difference in what this paper covered: This work considered the overall risk of heart attack in urban settings of England and Wales over very short time frames and it involved a large population size. In essence, this study looked at effects of very short-term exposure (which was not, previously possible due to technology limitations). In this mega-study of over 79000 individuals with a diagnosis of heart attack over three years from 15 cities( including Greater London, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, Bristol, Cardiff, Southampton) the team looked at PM10 and other pollutants such as ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur dioxide over five short periods of up to 72 hours. For the analysis of their results they used statistical modelling approach for single pollutant and multiple pollutants where they adjusted for factors that could influence and otherwise confuse data including ambient temperature, humidity, virus in the atmosphere ( both that for flu and for other infections- respiratory syncytial virus). The researchers found that increase in PM10 levels & NO2 levels was associated increase in risk for heart attacks 1-6 hours post-exposure;.The source of PM10 & NO2 in urban areas is largely from automobile exhausts. Interestingly the increase in immediate risks was followed by reduction in risks at longer lags and therefore they found no net risk increase over 72 hour periods. They found a protective effect for increase in CO & ozone however; there was no change in overall risk over 72 hours leading the team to speculate that ischaemic events that would have occurred soon were advanced by a few hours. Most studies so far had shown the effects after years of chronic exposure and herein lies the difference of this study. A previous small study in Greater Boston with less than 1000 subjects showed an increased risk 1-3 hours after exposure of PM10. The risk was 11% which is higher than that observed in the current study. What do the results mean cumulatively? Remember this was a statistical exercise, though a worthy one. It would still be interesting to explore the physiological, cellular, & molecular basis of organ responses to short-term exposure to PM10 which will further our understanding. It might also be interesting to pursue questions such as, are there individuals of a particular genetic signature who might be prone to the effects of short-term exposure and low doses of PM more than others? the effect of age etc. Are similar trends seen in respiratory disorders? Does PM exposure compound the effects in vulnerable populations? All these questions remain.

But what does the study mean to the society as a whole and what can we do? The results in addition to the existing body of evidence should send warning bells to the world but emerging economies that are mushrooming urban sprawls. The recent UN summit highlighted the importance of non-communicable diseases including cardiovascular disease on the global health. With NCDS (CVDS and cancer) accounting to 36 million of global deaths in 2008 WHO stats, the UN draft resolutionon (dated 16 September 2011) submitted by the President of the General Assembly - political declaration of the high level meeting of the general assembly on the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases -concedes the gravity of the situation and ‘recognizes that prevention must be the cornerstone of the global response to NCDS’ and identified several modifiable factors including diet and tobacco smoke that results in the rise of NCDS and called for ‘reducing their exposures’. These are valid and commendable. However, a glaring omission is the lack of mention of air pollutants contributing to NCDs. In the UN document, the closest air pollution is touched upon is with the reference to pollution from cooking stoves used for indoor cooking and heating. In essence, the enumerated risk factors do not include particulate matter from vehicles!!.

The results in this paper and the other background research cannot be ignored and should prompt usto push for measures for cutting down particulate matter emissions. Prevention is certainly a better option than treatment and cure as the UN draft declaration as well as common sense dictate. Importantly, prevention is something that is easy to achieve, but requires efforts starting from the individual to local to the global.

Bhaskaran K, Hajat S, Armstrong B, Haines A, Herrett E, Wilkinson P, & Smeeth L (2011). The effects of hourly differences in air pollution on the risk of myocardial infarction: case crossover analysis of the MINAP database. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 343 PMID: 21933824

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Seven wonders of the natural world

The beauty of the natural world is simply indescribable. And this makes it all the more difficult to participate in the global campaign (voting via the website of New 7 Wonders of Nature until 11.11.11) on selecting the seven wonders of the natural world from 28 shortlisted contenders.

I was rather spoilt for choices (did expect to find Son Doong Cave of Vietnam and the Aurora Borealis, though) and eventually nominated the Amazon, Iguazu Falls, Angel Falls, Mud volcanoes of Azerbaijan, Dead Sea, Great Barrier Reef, and the underground river in Philippines. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this follows the trend of Eurovision contests, with the voting population choosing. But perhaps pros outweigh the cons: there will be increased awareness of the natural world and, hopefully, increased efforts in preserving these.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Lemurs in London

Green spaces in urban areas are sinks for pollutants from vehicles and source of oxygen. They are also havens where city dwellers can forget their cares and relax amidst the towering trees. Most cities are overpopulated and congested and like pressure cookers; green spaces help the city dwellers to vent steam or just stand and stare and are essential for physical and mental health.

London has its fair share of greens paces. There are the big parks such as the Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, Green Park in Central London not to mention Kew gardens which is removed from the heart of the city. But several squares in the city also have enclosed gardens some of which are for public use and others which are for the use for the residents. Unofficial estimates claim that there are more than 3,000 parks and open spaces in the city. Many of the famous parks in London owe their existence to the Victorians who invented and shaped the concept of public parks.

I have never more appreciated the concept of these artificial green spaces than recently. After moving from tranquil and pristine Scotland, I ended up in the heart of the big city. Whilst this was exciting, my journey to work on the tube and the pollution around the area where I lived aggravated respiratory conditions which forced me to search for a greener area. I was fortunate to move to a nice green area in North West London near the Hampstead Heath. The part of the Heath closer to my house is called the Golders Hill Park. It is green , tranquil has manicured lawns , mature trees, and even has a small zoo. During the sweaty summer, it was an oasis. Several times after work I went straight to the park for a stroll to breathe the clean air and unwind. The admittance to the zoo in the Golders Hill Park is free which means everyone can enjoy what the park has to offer. Golders Hill Park zoo owes its existence to the Victorians . It has a herd of deer, collection of butterflies, rare and exotic birds such as laughing kookaburras, ring-tailed lemurs, cavy’s and ring-tailed coatis. The public are also given the chance to adopt the animals.

Whilst I have enjoyed the beauty of the park, and the company of lemurs, I have also noticed that since my move to my new home I have been free of respiratory complaints.

I hope that Londoners carry on with the Victorian traditions of green spaces in the city by creating new ones. I am glad that the entry to the Golders Hill Park is free. Can you put a price to these green spaces I wonder as it is indeed priceless?

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Marine mammals and their future

Marine mammals have borne the brunt of mankind’s unsustainable overexploitation, resulting in population decline and species extinction. Hunting for fur, blubber, and meat in the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in the extinction of three species – the Caribbean monk seal (Monachus tropicalis), Atlantic gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus), and the Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas). The most recent extinction, due to its use in traditional medicine, was that of the Baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) in 2008, a dolphin endemic to the Yangtze River.

In this backdrop, the August 16th edition of PNAS featured an excellent research (it truly is wonderful to come across such), entitled ‘Global distribution and conservation of marine mammals’, by Sandra Pompa and Gerardo Ceballos (National Autonomous University of Mexico) and Paul Ehrlich (Stanford). The mammalian species considered in the study were 129 in total (123 marine and 6 freshwater species), grouped into the orders of Cetacea, Sirenia, and Carnivora (common examples being whales, dolphins, porpoises, otters, seals, and polar bears) .

The researchers created geographic range maps for the 129 species and the map of the water bodies were split into grids of roughly 10,000 km2. They determined the number of species in each grid cell and calculated the total number of cells occupied by each species. Breeding, calving, and feeding grounds, and migratory routes were also factored in. The result was a composite global distribution map of water bodies, revealing locations of ‘global species richness, irreplaceable sites, endemism, and threatened species.'

1. All species can be represented in 20 global key conservation sites that cover at least 10% of the species' geographic range. These sites were determined on the basis: number of species present (species richness), severity of the risk of extinction for each species, and whether the species was endemic to the area.

2. Preserving 9 of such sites (mostly in temperate latitudes located off the coasts of Baja California in Mexico, the Atlantic coast of North America, Peru, Argentina, north-western Africa, South Africa, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand) would protect the habitat of 83.72% (108/129) of marine mammal species (including 5 endemic species) since these have high species richness.

3. The remaining 11 sites (6 freshwater, 5 marine: areas around Hawaiian and Galapagos Islands, Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean, San Felix and Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile, Mediterranean Sea, Lake Baikal in Siberia, Caspian Sea, and major rivers such as the Amazon, Ganges, Indus, and Yang-tze) were tagged ‘irreplaceable key conservation sites’ of great conservation value due to the presence of endemic species, which, consequently, face a greater risk of extinction.
Eg. Galapagos fur seal (A. galapagoensis) and the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus).

4. Strong correlation of marine mammal species richness with human impacts (Spearman rank correlation (rs = 0.693, n = 46,164, P < 0.01 for climate disruption; rs = 0.666, n = 46,164, P < 0.01 for pollution; and rs =0.678, n = 46,164, P < 0.01 for shipping). The existing deterioration of the marine ecosystems due to anthropogenic activities (and the potential for more deterioration not just at these sites but also elsewhere) was evidenced by around 70% percent of most impacted areas being within or near key conservation areas. Factoring in other impacts such as commercial fishing would result in stronger correlation (and perhaps also global climate change, habitat degradation, ocean acidification, exploitation of natural resources such as oil and gas, hunting, tourism, and plastics?)

5. 10% of all marine mammals were considered to be vulnerable, 11% endangered, and 3% critically endangered. The following vulnerable species were identified:

i. Vaquita (a porpoise species), endemic to the Gulf of Baja California, has the most restricted range. Its population has been declining rapidly and there are only 150-300 individuals in the wild (1/5 of the population are killed in gillnets each year).

ii. Sea lions such as the endemic Australian sea lion (Neophoca cinerea) and the Galapagos sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki), and the restricted range New Zealand sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri).

iii. Seals such as the freshwater and endemic Baikal seal (Pusa sibirica), and the endemic Galapagos fur seal (Arctocephalus galapagoensis) and Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi).

iv. Whales at the brink of extinction, such as North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis), due to overharvesting, pollution, bycatch, and exhaustion of prey-species populations.

v. Dolphins such as the endemic New Zealand dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori) and the restricted range Australian Snubfin dolphin (Orcaella heinsohni).

This research could be a useful tool for environmental organisations and governments in identifying conservation areas and anthropogenic threats so as to protect endangered marine mammals and keep the oceans’ ecosystem functional. Mammals hold a lofty position in the food chain- consequently, their population dynamics would affect all other components of an ecosystem (and in human communities, by extension).

Pompa S, Ehrlich PR, & Ceballos G (2011). Global distribution and conservation of marine mammals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108 (33), 13600-5 PMID: 21808012

And the must read:

Image source: Apollo 17

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Mr Wolf, I presume?

Yes, appalling as it sounds, I read the Trinity edition of my alumni magazine only now. One of the stories (pg 13) caught my eye for various reasons.

Those of us who have a long-standing interest in Egyptian mythology would recall Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead, who held the unappealing portfolio of funerals, afterlife, mummification, fate of souls, and protection of the dead and their tombs. This was presumably because Anubis’ animal counterpart, the Egyptian Jackal (Canis aureus lupaster; Hemprich and Ehrenberg, 1833), preferred to occupy burial grounds. C.a.lupaster was considered to be a large, rare subspecies of the golden jackal (Canis aureus; Linn. 1758) even though there has been a historic (ahem) bone of contention over whether it is a jackal or a wolf (given its wolf-like morphology). Ancient Greeks considered these to be smaller versions of the European wolves; evolutionary biologist Thomas Huxley, after comparing the skulls of C.a. lupaster and Indian wolves, considered the species as grey wolf; Walter Ferguson (1981) argued that it was a species of wolf after studying its cranial measurements.

But research published earlier this year by collaborators from Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), University of Oslo, and Addis Ababa University has established the Egyptian jackal’s true skin. When the mitochondrial DNA of the Egyptian jackal was compared with that of the golden jackal, wolves, and wolf-like canids, the results demonstrated that the Egyptian jackal (whether in Egypt or Ethiopia) is (and should be renamed as) an African Wolf, a subspecies of grey wolf or a separate species in itself, which existed alongside the golden jackals and the rare Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis, an unique but endangered species). Furthermore, sequencing of mtDNA from Ethiopian highland golden jackals revealed that these were, in fact, Egyptian jackals (i.e. the African Wolf). African wolves are closely related to the Indian (Canis lupus pallipes) and Himalayan wolves (Canis lupus chanco- with 2.4% divergence).

What does this bode for the species? The authors of the PLoS study called for assessing the status of the African wolf. Its previous classification as a subspecies of golden jackals meant being listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN. But since this is now the only grey wolf species in Africa, this could be rare and endangered.


Rueness EK, Asmyhr MG, Sillero-Zubiri C, Macdonald DW, Bekele A, Atickem A, & Stenseth NC (2011). The cryptic African wolf: Canis aureus lupaster is not a golden jackal and is not endemic to Egypt. PloS one, 6 (1) PMID: 21298107

Oxford University's Press Office


Image: Golden jackal by Stig Nygaard

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

More scientific grub on migration

A previous post presented how those characteristic summer chorus of the English countryside may be soon an event of the past. This rapid decrease in the population of migratory birds in the UK was attributed to habitat destruction and other such anthropogenic factors, probably somewhere along the migration corridor. So what does habitat destruction and other anthropogenic influences bode for migrating organisms? Vishwesha Guttal and Iain Couzin, of Princeton University, try to predict this (amongst other interesting stuffs) via models explained in their paper on ‘Social interactions, information use, and the evolution of collective migration’, an interesting read, although a tad too technical for the layman.

Organisms, all along the phyla of the animal kingdom, are believed to migrate as a result of detecting and responding to factors governing resource availability. The foundational theory considers each migrating individual as “‘information processing units’, with interactions amongst them providing collective benefits”, such as improved migratory direction. Should an individual commit an error in the information processing, the aforementioned grouping would average the individual measurements, so as to deduce the mean migratory direction.

These migrating populations have two types of individuals:

-Leaders, who have a higher ability to detect and respond to directional gradient from the environment, but with weak (or none) social skills. They tend to occupy frontal or peripheral positions and expend more energy in trotting off the beaten track and facing dangers such as predators.
-Social individuals, who have strong social skills but weak ability to detect and respond to gradient. However, they utilise the strengths of the leaders for a free ride.

Population density, according to the model, is a crucial leverage factor. Extremely low-density populations (ergo, lesser probability of encountering others) comprises of leaders, thus resulting in solitary migration. Extremely high-density populations results in resident population due to a lack of migration (attributed to frequent ‘collisions among individuals’). It is when leaders and social individuals coexist that collective migration ensues. The bottom-line is that ‘the evolution of the migratory strategy (resident, solitary, or collective) is determined by the ecology of the species (i.e population density, habitat structure, costs and benefits of migration)’. Presumably, there could be other regressors as well....

Anthropogenic factors have been exerting pressures (such as habitat fragmentation and changes in population density) on the existence of many migratory species (examples cited in the paper includes: American bison and its steep decline in its population density; extinction of passenger pigeon) and migratory patterns (Blackcaps becoming resident; Eastern house finch exhibiting the reappearance of lost migration). As habitat fragmentation increased, the individuals adapt their migratory strategy by travelling longer distances to find an appropriate habitat. The researchers’ model predicted that in such cases, paradoxically, the population’s migration ability reduces relatively gradually with increasing habitat fragmentation. The reasoning is that: ‘at high levels of habitat fragmentation, no individuals evolve to be leaders, and therefore, the population loses its migratory ability. Even after restoring the habitat, a population’s migratory ability does not recover at the same habitat quality at which it declined due to the relatively short time scale of these changes’.

Guttal V, & Couzin ID (2010). Social interactions, information use, and the evolution of collective migration. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107 (37), 16172-7 PMID: 20713700

Image Source: The Wandering Angel

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Now potted plants. Next what?

When I read about Goldman Sachs’ HQ in London kicking out ‘pot plants’, as part of a cost-cutting measure, my first reaction was to conjecture how ‘pot plants’ ended up in the investment bank! Jokes apart, Jonathan Sibun (Daily Telegraph) writes that the bank is evicting potted plants since, apparently, many £££s per annum is spent on purchasing and maintaining these plants (I haven’t ever been to the Goldman Sachs HQ, so I haven’t a clue what these plants are- expensive orchids? 10 ft tall palms?). This measure has met opposition from some of the staff who tried to prevent their expulsion. The article goes on to state that,

In some cases, a solution is believed to have been found only after employees agreed to sign forms guaranteeing to take responsibility for particular plants. Many of those plants that were removed are believed to have been given to charities’ (wonder which charities are richer by several potted plants?).

Is there truly the need for such a drastic measure? As is the practice in many offices, employees could have brought their own plants to instil some life in the workplace. Alternatively, employees could maintain the plants- one glass of water per day should suffice, I think. Nothing as demanding as playing with money.

If Goldman Sachs is so keen on cutting overheads, I can think of a few measures which would also help the environment at the same time. But I wonder whether, in time, the bank’s purported CSR practices would be relegated to the backburner as part of these cost-cutting initiatives.


Image Source: © Zak Kendal/cultura/Corbis

Friday, 19 August 2011

Migratory bird species in the UK

I will always maintain that the loveliest spring and summer are experienced in England. Apart from the profusion of flowers and exceptionally pleasant weather, there was always a persistent backdrop of birdsong, regardless of whether I was in town or country, sidewalks or fens. This chorus now stands the danger of disappearing from the British Isles, as explained in the 2010 Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) report which lists the statistics of bird population from 1995 to 2010. But first the good news…

Good news:

- Two warbler species have reached their highest numbers in 15 years: Blackcap (+73%) and Whitethroat (+25%). The Whitethroat population had plummeted in 1969 due to the drought in Sahel (the arid zone south of Sahara where they spend winter), but have now risen probably due to increased rainfall in the region.

-Chiffchaff (+52%).

Bad news:
10 species have experienced a decline in population numbers between 1995 and 2010. Of these, 8 are annual migratory species which spend autumn and winter in sub-Saharan Africa and return to the UK in spring and summer for breeding (viz, turtle dove, cuckoo, nightingale, wood warbler, whinchat, yellow wagtail, pied flycatcher, and spotted flycatcher).

-Turtle dove: a decline of 74%, with 2009-2010 experiencing a slump of -21%.
-Nightingales: decline of -63%, with a -27% fall in the 2010 level from the 2009 levels. Now seen mainly in SE England.
-Wood warblers: -60%
-Whinchats: -55%
- Yellow wagtails: -55%
- Pied flycatcher: -51%
- Cuckoo: decline of -48%; Now more commonly sighted in Scotland than in England.
- Spotted flycatcher: -47%
The two non-migratory species which have shown a marked decline are:
- willow tit (-76%)
-grey partridge (-54%)

The trend is that relatively short-distance migrants (such as Blackcap and Chiffchaff which fly down to southern Spain and Northern Africa, without crossing Sahara) are doing better, whilst those that travel further (such as Turtle Dove, Cuckoo, and Nightingale) are showing a steady decline in population. The reasons are postulated to be habitat destruction (due to anthropogenic factors), desertification, hunting, and repercussions of climate change- but it is most likely to be a combination of many factors. Since the bird species’ migration corridor covers many regions/countries during the course of the year, the manifestation of any such factor anywhere could act as a leverage point.

* I apologise for any mistakes which might occur when one had taken a cocktail of medicines (am battling a wrist sprain, (another) bout of food poisoning, and an exceptionally torturous flu- all at the same time).

Image source: Scott Barrow/Corbis

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Stuck in traffic

As you sit in the rush hour queues, pity the poor guy or girl directing the traffic, and imagine the fumes they are breathing in. In Brazil, with rapidly expanding car ownership, but not necessarily expanding road space, this is an increasing problem.

A recent study* in the city of Santo Andre, part of the metropolitan region of Sao Paulo, focused on traffic controllers. The study focused on male, non smoking, traffic controllers who had been exposed for over 3 years. As the authors note, one criticism of the study is that it might actually underestimate health concerns, as unhealthy controllers were excluded from the test group to achieve homogeneity. Thus the subjects might be constitutively more able to adapt to air pollution, or just have healthier working practices.

The study concentrated on particles in the air (from dust, car exhaust etc) and ozone. The level of particulate matter has fallen in recent years, below the official limits of 50 and 25 ug/m3 for PM10 and PM2.5 respectively (PM 10 and 2.5 are different particle sizes), but that is still considered hazardous by many observers. Road dust accounts for about 30% of air pollution and is mainly composed of PM 10 particles, so the authors concentrated on this size in particular. Furthermore ozone levels are increasing, especially at times of high temperatures and low humidity. High ozone has been associated with cardiovascular disease.

They found that both PM10 particulates and ozone were associated with increased blood pressure, but in different ways. PM10 pollution caused a blood pressure rise almost immediately, which still remained 4 hours later, whilst the effect of ozone delayed for 2 hours of exposure, but was still apparent 5 hours later.

So, the traffic controllers are suffering measurable cardiovascular effects every day, continuing even when the pollution is removed, and in quite a stressful job. It might not end there. The so called "interior diesel" used in some cities such as Santo Andre has a lot more sulphur than the diesel distributed in the main cities (1,200 vs 500 ppm), which has been shown to cause endothelial disfunction, oxidative stress, and probably long term hypertension.

It's a dangerous job, standing in the middle of traffic, in more ways than one.

Sérgio Chiarelli P, Amador Pereira LA, Nascimento Saldiva PH, Ferreira Filho C, Bueno Garcia ML, Ferreira Braga AL, & Conceição Martins L (2011). The association between air pollution and blood pressure in traffic controllers in Santo André, São Paulo, Brazil. Environmental research, 111 (5), 650-5 PMID: 21570068

*P.S. Chiarellietal et al 2011. The association between air pollution and blood pressure in traffic controllers in SantoAndre, Sao Paulo, Brazil Environmental Research 111 650–655

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Development vs Environment

Actioni contrariam semper et æqualem esse reactionem: sive corporum duorum actiones in se mutuo semper esse æquales et in partes contrarias dirigi.

So spells out Newton’s 3rd law of motion, also equally valid in a tug of war between the government and the residents bordering the Veli Lake in Trivandrum district.

It all centers around the construction of a 220-metre long and 100-metre wide ‘breakwater’ at the mouth of the Veli estuary, designed as a flood control scheme under the Rs 12 crore ‘Kerala Sustainable Urban Development Project’. The general aim is to prevent the seasonal formation of a sandbar at the estuary, thus ensuring a continuous flow of water (from Veli Lake, the interconnected Aakulam Lake, feeder canals viz. Parvathy Puthanar, Amayizhanjan, and Chakka, and rivers viz. Karamana and Killi) into the Arabian Sea. The enumerated benefits are:
-control of flooding in the city, especially during the rainy season,
-addressing the rampant problem of aquatic weeds in the Veli and Aakulam lakes,
-removal of water stagnation in the lake, thus improving water quality,
-enabling fishing even during storms (!!!)
-boosting the development of the Veli tourist village.

Local groups are reluctant to view these as ‘benefits’. The Veli and Aakulam lakes (and their feeder canals and rivers) are already plagued by severe water pollution, thanks to garbage dumping and waste water (both domestic and commercial- including hospitals and factories). Furthermore, factories empty their chemical effluents (usually, untreated) either into the lake (and its feeder canals), the estuary, or into the nearby sea. They are concerned that:
-the breakwater would pollute the sea more since many would take advantage of an easy disposal of effluents and waste water,
-this would affect the fish population and, consequently, jeopardise the livelihood of local fishermen,
-scum and solid waste would be deposited on the beaches, affecting the tourism.

Usually, when there is a will (i.e. the government’s), there’s a way. It remains to be seen how this issue will be resolved. The pale yellow patch are the effluents from the factories, thoughtfully dumped into the sea.

Sources: local newspapers

Friday, 29 July 2011

The fine line

Animal-human skirmishes are recurrent occurrences, typically at forest-settlement boundaries. Such examples abound in the forested, mountainous Western Ghats, where the humans have (legally and illegally) established their dwellings and agricultural fields virtually on the doorsteps of the forest inhabitants. Such conflict can be mainly classified into two:

-When humans encroach (mostly unlawfully) into their territories to collect firewood or forest products (including illegal felling of trees and hunting of deer and rabbits).

-When wild animals stray into the settlements and agricultural lands, usually during times of drought when the streams dry up. In the case of Ponmudi, the Kallar river becomes the focus of such skirmishes: the areas bordering the perennial (but relatively shallow) river continue to be fringed with foliage and both parties wage their battle over the resources. This is further aggravated by humans who illegally harvest wild grasses and reeds (Ochlandra travancorica) during the fair weather. This deficiency and destruction of habitat shifts the animal population towards the fertile agricultural lands with consequences such as attacks by gaurs (Bos gaurus), elephants harvesting plantain and coconut trees, wild boars utilising the cultivated tubers, and bears searching for anything edible. It is not uncommon for deer to end up in cooking pots, resulting in leopards retaliating by feasting on goats, calves, and dogs (!). Similarly, jackals target chickens and there are cases of attacks by tigers too.

In the case of urban wildlife, the boundaries become vaguer. Our family home is located in an area supposed to have been a forest around 150-200 years ago (presumably until a manor was constructed for the Chief Secretary of the government). Since then, it has been transformed into a sector of houses (both old and new), most having limited grounds (those which do have what is termed ‘well-maintained’ grounds, i.e. backyards devoid of trees).

In this instance, I cannot state that humans have ejected the resident wildlife out of their territories- such an event would have happened quite a while ago. The area is still frequented by numerous local and migratory bird species, including kingfishers (who were very fond of our outdoor fish ponds), crow pheasants, kites, kestrels, pigeons, cranes, and herons, as well as palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), mongoose (Herpestidae), squirrels, and bats (to name a few). But such peaceful coexistence is not the norm. A neighbour has made the full use of urban wildlife by laying traps for civet cats and mongoose, both of which end up either in his cooking pan or sold for high prices to vendors of quack medicines (civet cat meat is supposedly a cure for asthma).

Snakes tend to reach deplorable ends, regardless of their nature (poisonous or non-poisonous). Even the rat snake (considered to be auspicious) suffers a terrible plight due to mistaken identity. In our grounds, we’ve had kraits (Bungarus coeruleus) and vipers, apart from a regular ‘visitor’ of nearly four decades- a 6-foot hefty cobra (Naja naja). But recently, after being burdened by just too many reports of snakes nesting in an aged clump of golden palm trees in our front garden (next to our verandah), the parents uprooted the thicket and found, to their surprise, a huge nest of vipers. This brings one to the question- where does one draw the line?

Mongoose caught in the trap of our neighbour

Friday, 22 July 2011

Ariel the lion

There has been some degree of e-interest in the case of Ariel the lion. Ariel is a three year old, 140-kg lion, born in Brazil, in an animal shelter belonging to Raquel Borges. Unfortunately, a year ago, what started as a minor case of limping, within days culminated in an inability to move his hind legs. After a surgery to remove a herniated disc, he lost control of his front legs as well.

Tests failed to diagnose anything and veterinary neurologists from the Hebrew University are to publish their results on Ariel's case later this month. Some hypotheses have been voiced: a debilitating virus, a degenerative/autoimmune disease (potentially affecting his medulla causing the WBCs to attack the normal cells). Other potential causes could be Lactate Dehydrogenase-Elevating Virus which causes extensive destruction of motor neurons (Contag and Plagemann, 1989). One previous study communicated progressive hind limb ataxia, loss of proprioception, and eventual recumbency in five adult cheetahs in an Austrian zoo (Walzer and Kübber-Heiss, 1995), all of which had massive demyelination in their spinal cords. Interesting, the local zoo here in Trivandrum has also battled similar cases (in a leopard and tiger) and similar incidents have been reported in the forests.

His carers have launched a Facebook campaign and website to raise money towards his treatment and upkeep (circa $11,500 per month).

It was illuminating to read some of the responses from the readers, most of whom opined that the owners were cruel and selfish in keeping Ariel alive. As is the viewpoint of many an owner of pets, the consensus edged on euthanising Ariel. Indeed, the animal is in a terrible plight and I commend those who take such diligent care of him. But having been a pet owner for over 25 years, I empathise that it is exceptionally hard to put down a dear pet. Many of my pets (mostly rescued), over the years, have been down similar routes when vets would completely wash their hands off. In many a case, TLC, medicines, perseverance, and patience led them to complete recovery.

Contag, CH and PGW Plagemann (1989). Age-Dependent Poliomyelitis of Mice: Expression of Endogenous Retrovirus Correlates with Cytocidal Replication of Lactate Dehydrogenase-Elevating Virus in Motor Neurons. Journal of Virology, 63 (10), 4362-4369.

Walzer, C and A Kübber-Heiss (1995). Progressive Hind Limb Paralysis in Adult Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus). Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine, 26 (3), 430-435

Monday, 27 June 2011

Yellow gold : Turmeric and its promise

Growing up in Southern India, we cultivated several vegetables and spices in our backyard, one of which was turmeric. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) belongs to the same family as ginger. It is rhizomatous herb and normally pieces of the rhizome are planted in the rainy months of July. In our hands, the plants did not require much care at all. No artificial fertilizers were used nor were the plants watered but only left to the mercy of nature. But our part of South India is blessed with rains anyway, at least then, before the global warming and stuff but that’s another story.

The rhizomes were harvested in the following summer. One signal that it was time for harvest was the death of the leaves. Once this occurred, the root tubers were all plucked out from the soil. This often coincided with the latter half of the summer vacations and was a joyous occasion for us when we were children. The tubers were then washed in water to remove the soil. By the time the mud was washed off our little palms would all be yellow. Imagine our delight when our hands turned read when we tried to wash it away with soap (Turmeric is a PH indicator turning from yellow to red in alkaline conditions). The tubers were then sun dried and pulverized to be used for culinary purposes.

Turmeric occupies a lofty place in Indian culture, well almost like gold. In fact nearly most of South Indian dishes use it as a seasoning. In Ayurveda, it is associated with a manifold health benefits. Apart from using turmeric powder to spice dishes, the fresh root tubers are ground and used as masques on the skin which issupposed to prevented sun induced damage and blemishes. It also plays an important role in auspicious ceremonies like weddings. In many sections of the Indian society the prospective bride and bridegroom have ritual baths with turmeric due to its edifying properties

For the last decade or so, turmeric has moved from the spice cupboards in Indian kitchens to the laboratory benches where researchers are investigating the overwhelming evidence of its' beneficial effects. It is estimated that turmeric has about 100 constituents. 5% of the rhizome comprises of essential oils and 5% curcumin, the latter is the best studied active substance. Curcumin is identified as responsible for most of the biological effects of turmeric although whether turmeric as a whole or curcumin is isolation is most effective is debated. Some believe that turmeric as a whole is superior than curcumin for some conditions ( Indeed, most research activity has centred around curcumin in isolation. Imagine the complexity if the labs were to investigate the individual compounds that make up turmeric.

Turmeric can rightly be called ‘ the mother of all spices’ . In fact evidence indicates that it is anti inflammatory, anti carcinogenic and anti diabetic to name a few of its health benefits. How turmeric exerts is manifold benefits is only starting to unravel as several labs around the world are investigating the molecular mechanisms of curcumin. Limited evidence suggests that turmeric and its active compound, curcumin, are effective for rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases such as psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), inflammatory eye disease and familial adenomatous polyposis. Other inflammatory diseases where turmeric might play an important role are neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis. Indeed these diseases are less common among people living in the Asian subcontinent, where people regularly consume spices.

More in a future post

Check these links that review therapeutic roles curcumin:

Howes MJ, & Perry E (2011). The role of phytochemicals in the treatment and prevention of dementia. Drugs & aging, 28 (6), 439-68 PMID: 21639405

Rajasekaran SA (2011). Therapeutic potential of curcumin in gastrointestinal diseases. World journal of gastrointestinal pathophysiology, 2 (1), 1-14 PMID: 21607160

Wilken R, Veena MS, Wang MB, & Srivatsan ES (2011). Curcumin: A review of anti-cancer properties and therapeutic activity in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Molecular cancer, 10 PMID: 21299897

Park J, & Conteas CN (2010). Anti-carcinogenic properties of curcumin on colorectal cancer. World journal of gastrointestinal oncology, 2 (4), 169-76 PMID: 21160593

Pocernich CB, Bader Lange ML, Sultana R, & Butterfield DA (2011). Nutritional Approaches to Modulate Oxidative Stress in Alzheimer's Disease. Current Alzheimer research PMID: 21605052

Huang J, Plass C, & Gerhäuser C (2010). Cancer Chemoprevention by Targeting the Epigenome. Current drug targets PMID: 21158707

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Dams on the Xingu

On June 1st Dilma Rousseff, the President of Brazil, controversially gave permission for the company Norte Energia to begin building a hydroelectric dam on the Xingu river in the northern state of Para. This follows the granting of a provisional licence in January by the previous president, Lula da Silva, to begin land clearance and road construction, and years of court cases. A total of eleven cases have been filed against the project by the Federal Public Prosecutor, over various irregularities, the last being overturned in February.

Artists impression of the dam

The Belo Monte dam complex will in fact consist of 3 dams. The first, Pimental Dam, will be 36 metres tall, over 6 kilometres long, and will create a lake with a surface area of 129 square miles. This will supply one power station. Two canals will channel water down to another reservoir created by the Belo Monte dam, which will supply another power plant. The Belo Monte dam will be 90 metres tall but only 3.5 kilometres wide, and create a lake of 42 square miles. The whole complex is expected to cost 16 billion US$, with power cables costing a further US$ 2 billion.

For good or ill this is going to affect a lot of people.


On the positive side, an immense amount of energy will be generated, the Belo Monte dam is the third largest hydroelectric project in the world after the Three Gorges Dam in China and the Itaipu dam between Brazil and Paraguay. Itaipu already supplies 19% of Brazil's energy needs and virtually all of Paraguay's. The planned capacity of Belo Monte is unclear, as we will see below, but it is claimed by EletroBras, the state electricity company to at least supply the state of Para (population 7.5 million). This of course is all power that would otherwise have to generated by fossil fuels or nuclear energy. Once built, the running costs will be minimal, and electricity will be provided continuously (well, again, see below) for over 50 years. It's not true that will be no carbon emissions. Studies of other Brazilian dams have found that as the water level falls and rises every year, vegetation flourishes in the tropical climate, only to be submerged and decay, releasing methane. But the amount is probably much less than an equivalent coal fired power station.

The location, with a natural drop in elevation, allows the use of a relatively low wall, and thus smaller reservoir, to generate power requiring a much bigger reservoir elsewhere. Thus, the argument goes, if you are going to have a dam, this is the place to have it.

Aluminium at Barcarena

Approximately 18,000 jobs will be created by the construction project, and another 25,000 indirectly, although of course most of these will cease when construction is finished. More long term will be aluminium processing plants powered by the dam, with a view to export to China. The planned Brazilian-Chinese bauxite processing plant at Barcarena, Para, will be the largest in the world. There are also existing Japanese and American plants which will be expanded. This gives Brazil a much higher value export product than simple ore.


The disadvantages can be divided into social, practical and environmental.

For a start over 20,000 people will be directly displaced. These people will need to be resettled. Then there are the people downstream, mainly from the Juruna and Arara tribes. As they will not be directly affected they have not been offered resettlement, but as the river is a major food supply and transport network, falling levels will possibly cause displacement anyway. This will probably be exasapated by increased levels of water borne diseases from more stagnant pools. In fact, the vast majority affected by this project will be indigenous peoples, and this has aroused a lot of resentment, and threats of violence.

In contrast, an estimated 100,000 migrants from other parts of Brazil will enter the area. It is not clear what infrastructure will be in place to support them.


A number of studies have cast doubt on the economic viability of the project. The ex-President of Sapesp, the Sao Paulo state water company , has claimed it will be one of the most inefficient hydroelectric power projects in Brazilian history. Mainly because of the seasonal nature of water supply via the Xingu river, so that it will be at 30% capacity or less from June to October.
Actually there is a solution to that - another dam. Although the intention is vehemently denied, a further dam at Altamira up stream would create a 2,000 sq mile lake and a year round water supply, making the whole project much more viable. It would also displace another estimated 25,000 people. The long term intention to build another dam would be easier to dismiss if the turbine capacity of the planned power stations were not considerably more than the likely water flow.

Another artists impression


Construction of the dam required an environmental licence from IBAMA, the Brazilian environmental agency, and this was granted in February 2010. Controversially. Two IBAMA presidents and at least two senior officials have resigned claiming undue government pressure to approve the licence. Even now, the licence is technically provisional with many requirements yet to be met before a full licence can be granted, but that is moot as a judge has ruled that work can commence without a full licence.

Large amounts of forest will inevitably be lost. One concern is the loss of biodiversity as a number of species are found only within the area affected by the dam, and it is extremely unlikely they would survive the drying out and/or flooding of their habitats. This apparently includes the Plant eating piranha Ossubtus xinguense (actually it's omnivorous and will eat worms and shrimps) and the Xingu poison dart frog Allobates crombie, amongst others.

What is certain is that it is not just the area under the construction that will be affected. The influx of tens of thousands of migrants will consume a huge area of forest for building of homes and roads, and then farm land to support them.

Further Reading

Fearnside, P. (2006). Dams in the Amazon: Belo Monte and Brazil’s Hydroelectric Development of the Xingu River Basin Environmental Management, 38 (1), 16-27 DOI: 10.1007/s00267-005-0113-6

Sousa Júnior, W.C. and Reid, J. 2010. Uncertainties in Amazon hydropower development: Risk scenarios and environmental issues around the Belo Monte dam. Water Alternatives 3, 249-268

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Painting with the same brush: herbal medicine

Britons spend 4.5 billion GBP (60 billion GBP worldwide) on alternative medicine treatments, with the 150,000 alternative therapists in the UK being visited by one in five UK residents.

The above is a fact gleaned from the Economist, one of my favourite magazines which occupy a lofty position along with National Geographic, Nature, PNAS, and Science. They have, however, a rather interesting (and persistent) stance on alternative medicine: ‘Virtually all alternative medicine is bunk; but the placebo effect is rather interesting’.

Alternative medicine is a comprehensive term referring to a mish mash of traditional, indigenous, and unconventional medical practices such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, chiropractic, homeopathy, reflexology, reiki, and many more. Indeed, some of the practices does merit healthy scepticism. I cannot deny that there are quacks in alternative medicine and that many (if not all) do exaggerate the supposed benefits of the drugs/treatments. But then, all conventional medicine cannot be discarded as dangerous chemicals and expensive treatments which expand the bank accounts of GPs and pharmas. Neither can all unconventional medicine be discarded as outdated, bizarre, and toxic. It is up to the patient to make a well-informed decision. But it is highly debatable whether herbal medicine/ethnopharmacology should be painted with the same brush.

The Economist grudgingly admits that a few treatment (‘mostly herbs containing active drug molecules, do have proven benefits’). Yet, their conclusion is that it is none other than the placebo effect, i.e. ‘the strange and inadequately explained tendency of certain medical conditions to respond to anything the patient thinks is directed at treating them, even when the treatment in question could not possibly have a direct effect on the disease’. In other words, a treatment, per se, would have no effect on the condition, but the belief in its efficacy works wonders, resulting in somatic changes. Apparently, this works most effectively with psychological problems (or anything pertaining to emotions) such as depression and pain. And ‘the alternative-medicine industry plainly excels as a placebo delivery service’. The article concludes by pointing out that practitioners of conventional medicine could be less clinically detached, and more caring and attentive to the patient.

The fact is that many (not ‘few’ as claimed by the Economist) of the conventional medicines are/were derived from herbal products (Analgesics such as Aspirin from Salix, Morphine, Codeine from Papaver somniferum; Digitalin from Digitalis purpurea; Malarial drugs such as Quinine from Cinchona and Artemsinin from Artemisia annua; Reserpine from Rauwolfia serpentina; Physostigmine from Physostigma venenosum; Tubocurarine from Chondrodendron; for cancer-Vinblastine/Vincristine from Catharanthus roseus/Vinca rosea, Etoposide from Podophyllum, Paclitaxel/Docetaxel/Taxol from Taxus, Combretastatins from Combretum caffrum….. to state a few).

Many such herbal remedies have been used since time immemorial in indigenous medicines around the world. Indeed, adopting these remedies directly may pose the concerns of drug toxicology, side effects, and general effectiveness. It is equally likely that their effects may not be significant, whilst studies by pharmas (on their chemically synthesised products) might show significant results (one must not overlook the importance of sample size in getting significant results!). Furthermore, pharmas have more than sufficient capital to invest in large-scale research to test drug efficacy and toxicology prior to clinical trials. An ethnopharmacological research team lacks such resources.

Ma et al (2005) identified plant-derived medicines as becoming the next major commercial development in biotechnology. Their abstract states: ‘The advantages they offer in terms of production scale and economy, product safety, ease of storage and distribution cannot be matched by any current commercial system; they also provide the most promising opportunity to supply low-cost drugs and vaccines to the developing world’. Perhaps one emphatic evidence is in the form of the numerous clinical trials being conducted in the US on plant-derived medicines .

Conventional drugs too have side effects which we often overlook- after all, we blindly trust our GPs, believing that any medicine prescribed is fool-proof (reading the medicine's own fine print should throw at least some light on this). Extracting the active ingredients from a herb (thanks to coming across its usage in some traditional medicine), commercialising it and reaping the benefits, only to criticise the practice which had already identified its benefits centuries ago- a dog biting the hand that feeds?

What next? Chucking out vegetables?

References :
Ma, J. K-C., Chikwamba, R., Sparrow, P., Fischer, R., Mahoney, R., and R.M. Twyman (2005). Plant-derived pharmaceuticals – the road forward. Trends in Plant Science, Vol. 10, Issue 12, pp. 580-585.

Alternative medicine: Trust me, I've got a licence

Regulating alternative medicine: But does it work?

Medicine: There is no alternative

Image: Gingko biloba (© Creativ Studio Heinemann/Westend61/Corbis)

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Super bugs and Super sleuths : E.coli outbreak in Europe

Earlier this week on Monday came reports from Germany that 6 people who consumed raw vegetables were killed and hundreds rendered ill . Initial investigations pointed towards consumptions of raw cucumber, lettuce and tomatoes. The fatalities were attributed to hemolytic-uremic syndrome, or HUS, from E. Coli. Since then, more people have died and the infection has spread to different parts of Europe . Cases have been reported from Sweden, Austria, Denmark, France, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. At the initial stages opinions about whether the strain was new differed between scientists. Scientists at the Beijing Genomic Institute called it a new "super-toxic" E. coli strain whilst the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that it was a known strain.

Today the WHO announced that the German strain was novel and that it had never been isolated before in humans. With the death toll having risen to 18, whilst over 1000 people remain ill, German scientists are desperately trying to sequence the bacterial genome. The news from WHO also indicates that the strain had never been found in any animals which signifies that it could have come directly from the environment into humans. The scientific community is awaiting with bated breath for the results from sequencing of the genome of this deadly strain of bacteria . The sequence of this strain of E.coli might explain the differential infection pattern observed- the bacteria is mostly infecting adults, and generally women.

Emergence of super-bugs are of grave concern. In April, the Lancet reported bacteria carrying a gene that confers resistance to a major class of antibiotics identified in samples of drinking water and sewage effluents from New Delhi. This gene blaNDM-1 encodes the enzyme New Delhi metallo-β-lactamase 1 (NDM-1). Bacteria can pass genes easily through plasmids. The enzyme blocks the activity of a range of antibiotics. NDM-1-positive strains of both species have previously been found in hospitals in India and Pakistan and have already been seen in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in patients, some of whom had previously been in hospitals in the Indian subcontinent.

The problem with virulent bacteria as with most infectious agents is that it is hard to be confined. As of now, the source of the German E.coli strain has not been pin pointed. With bacterial outbreaks such as this there is nothing called a ‘local problem’ but a ‘global problem’ and combating it requires a concerted effort where the blame game doesn’t help much.


German E. coli outbreak caused by previously unknown strain (Nature, June 2nd, 2011)

World health officials scramble to stem deadly E. coli outbreak (CNN, June 2nd, 2011)

EHEC outbreak: Rare strain of E. coli unknown in previous outbreaks (WHO, June 2nd, 2011)

Kumarasamy KK, Toleman MA, Walsh TR, Bagaria J, Butt F, Balakrishnan R, Chaudhary U, Doumith M, Giske CG, Irfan S, Krishnan P, Kumar AV, Maharjan S, Mushtaq S, Noorie T, Paterson DL, Pearson A, Perry C, Pike R, Rao B, Ray U, Sarma JB, Sharma M, Sheridan E, Thirunarayan MA, Turton J, Upadhyay S, Warner M, Welfare W, Livermore DM, & Woodford N (2010). Emergence of a new antibiotic resistance mechanism in India, Pakistan, and the UK: a molecular, biological, and epidemiological study. The Lancet infectious diseases, 10 (9), 597-602 PMID: 20705517

Poirel L, Hombrouck-Alet C, Freneaux C, Bernabeu S, & Nordmann P (2010). Global spread of New Delhi metallo-β-lactamase 1. The Lancet infectious diseases, 10 (12) PMID: 21109172

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Perception of Corruption

During a recent dataset trawling expedition for a statistics project, I came across the aggregate indictor of corruption- the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Transparency International (TI) defines corruption as ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain, whether it be in public or private sector’. The 2010 CPI measures the public sector corruption perceived to exist in 178 nation states, scoring countries on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 10 (very sale), using sources such as Asian Development Bank, World Bank, Economist Intelligence Unit, Freedom House, Global Insight, IMD, and World Economic Forum. Only 26.40% of the countries ranked have an index score above 5; 62.93% have an index score below 4. The top 10 ranked countries are Denmark, New Zealand, Singapore, Finland, Sweden, Canada, Netherlands, Australia, Switzerland, and Norway. UK is ranked 20 (ranked 10th out of 30 EU countries), India is at 87 (also ranked 16th out of 33 Asia-Pacific countries), whilst Brazil is 69. The bottom-dwellers are Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Burundi, Chad, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Somalia. The perceived corruption of 9 countries improved (i.e. corruption was perceived to have decreased) from 2009 to 2010, which includes Bhutan, Haiti, and Qatar. Interestingly, those which deteriorated include Greece, Hungary, Italy, and the United States. Corruption casts its shade on environmental matters as well, especially in public sector. Corrupt governmental officials might deliberate throw up complex bureaucratic bottlenecks unless appeased with green notes. In the case of illegal land encroachments, one often finds that high powers-that-be happily play along with this, for the simple reason that there is a new swimming pool in their backyard. It is not uncommon to see reroutement of funds too. Whether the CPI is a fool-proof indicator remains debatable since the countries are ranked according to the perception of corruption; such qualitative methodologies (conducted via questionnaires on the public seeking their perception of an activity which usually happens under wraps) can suffer from many biases. For instance, the perceived definition of ‘corruption’ would vary in each country (and possibly, each different parts of the country); what might seem corrupt in one country, might be acceptable elsewhere! Comparing CPI indexes of the past (available since 1995) is of no benefit in identifying perceived change in the perceptions of corruption, since it is probable that the data over the years may not be comparable, given the wide range of changes (and/or errors) in sampling, methodology, measuring, and sources (as is in the case of CPI). What it does provide is a rough overview of how matters are perceived as: the reality might be less melodramatic... or harsher.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Waste lands

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgModern cities generate huge amounts of rubbish, and disposing of this is one of the most pressing environmental problems. One can bury it of course, or burn it in incinerators, or just dump it in a big pile just outside the city. This is the approach chosen for the Jardim Gramacho in Rio, Brazil, one of the worlds largest rubbish dumps, which is the subject of the Oscar nominated film, Waste Land.*

Seventy percent of Rio's rubbish arrives at Jardim Gramacho, which is an astonishing 7,000 tons every day. In a rich country with few people, trash can be passed through automated factories which remove the most valuable materials for recycling. Brazil is a not-so-rich country with a lot of people, but recycling still takes place, on a massive scale. Thousands of scavengers ("catedores") clamber over the rubbish very day - an estimated 3,000 people, supporting 13,000 men women and children. About 200 tons of material is recycled daily, 50% plastic, 21% metal and 16% paper, though metal is preferred as the most vulnerable.

The catedores, incidentally, don't necessarily conform to the expected stereotype. A survey in 2004** found 90% could read and write, and 79% own their own homes. The catedores are also reported as feeling a certain amount of pride in their efforts, contrasting with other job options such as drug trafficking or prostitution.

Well so far so good, the system does generate meaningful employment and recycling is a good thing, but obviously there is a price.

In the 2004 survey, although 70% used gloves only 0.9 use masks. Over 20% reported "colds or flu" in the previous 6 months and 10% had respiratory problems, whilst 45% had had conjunctivitis at some time in their past. There is also the ever present risk of cuts from glass, falling objects and burns, as well as bites from the mosquitoes which thrive in the marshes nearby, with 23% having had dengue fever. Interestingly, only 13% of those interviewed actually regarded their work as responsible for these problems, as opposed to their life in general. They may have had a point. Collecting rubbish will never make you rich, only 50% in 2004 lived in homes connected to the sewage network and ironically, about a third have no rubbish collection at home and have to burn rubbish or dump it in local waterways.

One last point. Several cities such as Salvador and Recife, in northern Brazil, dump their rubbish near the airport, a text book example of an idea that "seemed a good idea at the time". After all nobody wants to live right next to a busy airport. Unfortunately, whilst people won't, vultures will. Black vultures are flourishing on the easily available food, and birds and planes do not mix. Bird strikes have more than doubled in Brazil in the past decade, and about half the cases involve vultures. Whilst a jet airliner might shrug off a hit from a sparrow, vultures are big weighing up to 2.5 kg and at least two two planes have been forced to make emergency landing after pilots were injured by vultures crashing into their windscreens. So far there have been no fatalities, but the potential is there and relocating or even killing the vultures has had limited success.

As Wagner Fischer, coordinator of the wildlife management department at IBAMA, the Brazilian federal environmental oversight agency, is quoted as saying***, “What if you have a bunch of house flies in your home?, is it better to kill or relocate the flies or clean your house?”

* The film incidentally follows artist Vik Muniz creating art from recycled materials, in collaboration with various catadores (hunters). It's a tribute to Muniz's talent that he has generated a very successful career from such unlikely material, including even the title sequence of the recent hugely popular Brazilian soap, Passione.

** Porto, M, Junca, D, Goncalves, R Filhote, M. (2004).
Garbage, work, and health: a case study of garbage pickers at the metropolitan landfill in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Cad. Saúde Pública [online]. vol.20, n.6, pp. 1503-1514. ISSN 0102-311X. doi: 10.1590/S0102-311X2004000600007.


Porto MF, Juncá DC, Gonçalves Rde S, & Filhote MI (2004). [Garbage, work, and health: a case study of garbage pickers at the metropolitan landfill in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil]. Cadernos de saude publica / Ministerio da Saude, Fundacao Oswaldo Cruz, Escola Nacional de Saude Publica, 20 (6), 1503-14 PMID: 15608851

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Formula 1’s new green cloak

Formula 1’s (F1) foray into the carbon-reduction drives may not have exactly been a bombshell since it is in vogue to don a green cloak and hail this environmentally efficient attitude of reducing carbon footprint.

Trucost’s finds:
Trucost, an environmental consultancy, had conducted an exhaustive research on the full range of activities performed by and within F1 teams and their suppliers. Unsurprisingly, the carbon emissions arising from the testing and racing of F1 cars is only a small proportion (0.29%) of the total carbon chocked up by F1 as a whole (215,588 tonnes per annum in 2009, the majority being attributable to the production and supply of raw materials and parts at 50%, electricity consumption at 30%, as well as transport of team and equipment from race to race at 14%). Trucost’s environmental research analysis suggested measures to decrease carbon emissions- ergo, the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA, which comprises of all 12 current Formula One Teams) has commenced a comprehensive and externally audited carbon emissions reduction programme. It is anticipated (by Martin Whitmarch, Chairman of FOTA and Team Principal of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes) that F1 will have reduced its total carbon emissions by 12.4% compared with the 2009.

FOTA’s aims:
A small step, but some step nonetheless towards cutting the total carbon emissions of the sport. The ultimate stated aim is to address environmental problems and benefit mankind in the long run. This is to be achieved by developing new automotive technologies which may be, in time, introduced in consumer production cars. Consequently, from 2013, all entrants have to obey technical regulations, such as fitting the F1 cars with fuel efficient engines and powertrains. Furthermore, F1’s regulations will be revised to enhance and incentivise further reduction of fuel consumption and enhancement of fuel efficiency (apparently, the amount of fuel which can be used by each team could be restricted).

Therefore, the major sources of emissions reductions come from reduced electricity consumption (16.95%), reduced operational fuel use (17.92%), and reduced expenditure on parts and raw materials (20.25%).

Tips on reaching the chequered flag (apart from those stated by FOTA):

- As of yet, F1 held 19 races in 2010, around the world, and in no particular order- starting at Bahrain in March and ending at Abu Dhabi in November. As a result, there is a significant of zig-zagged travelling and carting of teams and equipment around the world, from race to race, by air, road, rail, and sea- not to overlook the devoted fans and spectators from around the world. So races could be conducted in a systematic manner, for instance, an itinerary which starts in Europe, then moves on to the Middle Eastern races at Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, and then the Asian races (Chinese, Malaysian, Singaporean, Japanese and Korean GP). Or a more austere option would be to conduct the races solely in one continent per annum.

- Decrease the number of teams.

- Alternatively, decrease the number of races.

- Imposing emissions cap on each team.

- Conducting a GP solely with green technology (this will also popularize such consumer cars).

- Use ethanol as fuel (examples being Australia’s V8 SuperCar series which uses 80% ethanol and Indy Racing which uses 100% ethanol). However, this opens a can of worms. Producing ethanol does require more energy input. Furthermore, there is an increased risk of deforestation (especially rainforests) so as to provide area for corn cultivation. If existing agricultural lands are utilised for biofuel cultivation, there could be an increase in food prices (and such affects the poor more detrimentally). A feasible solution is if biofuel is made from crop wastes or sourced by cultivation in wastelands.

- Use less(er) fuels. From my former days as an F1 fanatic, I seem to remember that teams were always keen on lesser fuel, for more fuel implies more weight, which implies slow(er) car, a veritable harakiri in a sport where every millisecond counts.

- The electricity used (also for lighting up the tracks) could be sourced from solar/wind/tidal- the former an excellent option in the Middle Eastern and Asian races.

- No more races held at night (I believe, this is the case at Singapore and Abu Dhabi).

- F1 is bound to consume a significant amount of water as well- therefore, rain water could be harvested for non-drinking purposes.

- Planting innumerable rows of trees around the F1 circuits- trees are, after all, carbon sinks.

- Creation of energy efficient and clean/green technologies (which could be translated to consumer cars), which also implies something akin to starting from scratch.

Force behind the force:
One of the drivers behind this step of FOTA is pressure from sponsors who are increasingly keen to be associated with a ‘green product’. So is it just green washing to smoothen ruffled feathers?

More likely is the possibility that this new green mantle is all thanks to new austerity measures, the consequence of the financial stress faced by F1 as a result of the recession.

My other two cents:
I would like to see how the earmarked 12.4% carbon emissions cut can be achieved.

Secondly, it does seem as if FOTA’s current plans/suggestions are targeting the measly 0.3% of emissions contributable to racing and testing of F1 cars. Shouldn’t the focus be placed on the remaining 99.7% of emissions and their sources?

Whilst teams such as Lotus and McLaren (the first to achieve a Carbon Trust certification for ‘achieving annual savings of more than 1500 tonnes of CO2 emissions) have whole-heartedly accepted the new rules, Ferrari’s disgruntled attitude towards the new cloak does make wonder whether this entire greening is a conscious change towards efficiency and environmental responsibility.

What also significantly irks me is that whilst F1 lays focus on carbon emissions, they are totally overlooking the pollutants, especially NOx and particulates (likely to be emitted from a myriad of sources, including F1 engines).

I wonder whether, as in a domino effect, F1’s new stance would inspire its fans to adopt an environmentally friendly outlook. And is it too much to hope that they wouldn’t be using petrol-based transportation to reach the race tracks? Hopefully, the future might be bright, but not be orange, but green.
Image source: Pete Keen / Free Digital

Quo vadis Sasthamkotta?

The overexploited Sasthamkotta Lake, one of the 25 Ramsar sites in India, is now facing another lethal threat, all thanks to a new drinking water scheme, the Chavara-Panmana Water Supply Scheme, due to be commissioned on January 12th despite warnings by expert committee that the lake cannot bear up further abuse.

Ideally, the outflow from a water body should be limited to 60% of its inflow: as of yet, Sasthamcotta Lake’s outflow has exceeded 70% of its inflow (37.5 million litres per day is utilised to supply Kollam district + additional 12 million litres per day under the new scheme). The Water Resources Minister, however, maintains that this new water supply scheme will not affect the lake since there is sufficient water. Is the Ramsar Site heading towards its demise?


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