Polar Bears Plagued by Mysterious Illness

Nine polar bears spotted in the Beaufort Sea were found with fur loss and open sores. There is concern among wildlife experts that these symptoms may be related to similar incidents among seals and walruses.

Tests confirmed that the polar bears were suffering from alopecia, a partial or complete loss of hair in areas where hair should be present, and other skin lesions. Aside from the alopecia and skin lesions, the polar bears appeared to be healthy. Although patches of hair loss have been seen among polar bears since 1999, this recent episode has caused concern among wildlife experts because of the high prevalence seen among the recently spotted polar bears and because of the similarity of symptoms seen in sick seals and walruses found in the arctic last  year. As of yet, scientists have been unable to determine whether the recently spotted polar bears are suffering from the same illness as the seals and walruses. However, the veterinary pathologist who has studied the animals noted that the lesions look very similar under a microscope.

Although there have been no reported sightings of dead polar bears from this incident, around 60 seals and several walruses were found dead. Due to the high number of deaths among seals and walruses as a result of this undetermined illness, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared it an “unusual mortality event” (UME) on December 20, 2011. A UME declaration is a special condition under which the federal government can use additional resources in which to investigate. As of right now, the polar bear incident will not be included as part of the (UME) until there is further evidence linking the two incidents.

Tests to determine the cause of the illness has ruled out various bacteria and viruses known to affect marine mammals. In addition, tests have also ruled out two different toxins, known to cause harmful algae blooms, as being the cause of the illness. Although there has been speculation that the symptoms may be related to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, scientists believe this to be unlikely due to the low levels of radiation detected in waters around Alaska where the sick seals and walruses were found. 

Photo credit: public-domain-image.com/fauna-animals-public-domain-images-pictures/bears-public-domain-images-pictures/polar-bear-in-arctic-alaska.jpg.html

Like Gateway Drugs, Certain Foods Can Lead to Bad Eating Habits

Some people find that once they eat certain foods, they can’t stop. Dr. Gary Wenk, Ph.D., author of Your Brain on Food, explains this phenomenon by noting that some foods are similar to gateway drugs in that they have an addictive effect on a person’s mind and body, causing one to crave these foods.

The reason for this is because eating certain foods trigger the reward portion of the brain – the nucleus accumbens – the same area that responds to alcohol and drugs. When the nucleus accumbens is stimulated, dopamine, a “feel-good” chemical, is released, causing a person to become more aware of the food. In addition, eating requires that a person use all of his/her senses. This in turn causes the nervous system to secrete insulin, which causes a drop in a person’s blood glucose and relaxes one’s stomach muscles, fooling the brain into thinking that one needs to eat more to be satiated.

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., a health psychologist at Stanford University, notes that only foods rich in fat or sugar have this effect on the body. This is because saturated fat impairs the brain’s ability to regulate and control appetite and cravings. In addition, a single act of eating fatty or sugary foods can lead to three days of cravings, the average length of time it takes the body to expel the fat from one’s system. As if that were not enough, sugar increases the body’s level of the hormone ghrelin, which is known to activate one’s appetite and increase cravings. Furthermore, eating sugar has been known to enhance one’s memory storage. Therefore, the brain releases endorphins when a person consumes fat or sugar and chemically, these feel-good compounds that are released are similar to morphine!

However, there are ways to avoid cravings for fat and sugar. For instance, research has shown that thinking about a craving uses up so much mental energy that it is hard to think about or do anything else. Therefore, it is suggested that a person who falls victim to unhealthy food cravings occupy their mind with mental exercises, such as sudoku or long division, to distract themselves from the thought of food. If a person has already given in to an unhealthy craving, switching to a healthier snack midway in helps satiate the craving for food. Furthermore, proximity to food influences what a person eats. Therefore, it is recommended that healthier foods be kept nearby whereas, unhealthy foods be stowed away.

Photo credit: public-domain-image.com/miscellaneous/slides/suger-icecream-cones.html

New App Helps Prevent Ships from Colliding with Whales

Thanks to a new app mariners can now be warned when entering areas where the North Atlantic right whale is known to frequent.This innovative app, created for the iPad and iPhone, can help prevent ships from striking and killing the North Atlantic right whale, whose species number anywhere from a meager 300 to 400 individual whales.

Right whales are large baleen whales that can grow up to 45 to 55 feet in length and weigh up to 70 tons! Since the late 18th century, the right whale has been hunted to near extinction and is listed as endangered by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The whales were sought after in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries for their oil and baleen, which were used in the making of buggy whips and corsets. Nowadays, entanglement in fishing gear and ship collisions are the biggest threats to right whales. Ships have a hard time seeing the whales, which feed on plankton slicks near the surface of the water. Furthermore, the right whale is often unaware of its surroundings when feeding, creating even more risk of being struck and killed by ships. According to researcher Greg Silber of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, since the 1970s, an average of two North Atlantic right whales are killed annually by ship strikes. Other risks right whales face include climatechange, contaminants, habitat degradation, and noise pollution.

Due to the heavy loss North Atlantic right whales have suffered from hunting, entanglement in fishing gear, and ship collisions, measures and regulations were created in the  mid-2000s to help protect the right whale population. These included mandatory vessel speed restrictions in management areas, recommended shipping routes, and mandatory ship reporting systems, to name a few. Whale alerts were also created to help notify mariners of whale restrictions. Before this new app was created, ships received the notifications via fax machines and VHF transmitters, but if ships did not have the right technology, mariners would fail to receive the alerts. However, with the creation of this new app, mariners who own an iphone or ipad are notified when they enter areas with right whale restrictions. Furthermore, mariners can learn specific regulations by simply clicking on the app. In order to obtain the app, vessels must have either an iPad or iPhone, which can run anywhere from $200 to $400. The vessel must also come equipped with broadband service. However, iPads and iPhones are fairly inexpensive technology to have considering the app’s many benefits for ships.

Currently, the app works by locating the whales’ real-time location using data gathered from special acoustic buoys. The acoustic buoys are able to detect the right whales’ location within a 5 mile radius by picking up on their unique songs. For now, the app only works in New England because that is where the 13 acoustic buoys are located. Nevertheless, this new app may pave the way for future technological advances in protecting marine wildlife. However, for this app to make a difference, the maritime community needs to be aware of its existence. Awareness is key. To learn more about right whales and to see what you can do to help, please visit http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/cetaceans/about/right_whales/north_atlantic_right_whale/.

Photo credit: thewhizzer.blogspot.com/2008_01_01_archive.html

New Data Suggests Women are Spending a Longer Time in Labor than in the Past

A new study on childbirth could have important implications for women who are pregnant. The study determined that women are spending a longer time in labor than they were just 50 years ago.

The study, by Dr. Katherine Laughon, of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and colleagues, compared historical records from 39, 491 women who gave birth from 1959 to 1966, to records of 98,359 women who gave birth during 2002 to 2008.  Interestingly, the data collected showed that women in their first pregnancy, from the contemporary group, took an average of 2.6 hours longer in their first phase of labor than did women from the past group. Women in their second pregnancy also had longer first phases of labor than did women in the past group. The study also found that women in the contemporary group took a longer time in the second stage of labor than did women from the past. However, the difference in time measured in minutes rather than hours for the second phase of labor.

Researchers are perplexed as to why women are spending a longer time in labor than in the past. However, it is believed that epidurals may be one of the reasons why women are spending a longer time in labor. Generally, it has been found that epidurals can prolong labor by 40 to 90 minutes.  Not surprisingly, in the contemporary group, 55% of the women received epidurals during labor compared to only 4% of women in the group from the past.  The amount of women who received oxytocin to strengthen contractions and/or speed up delivery also increased, with 31% of women in the contemporary group receiving the drug compared to only 12% of women from the past group. Additionally, there were more women in the contemporary group who gave birth via cesarean section than in the group from the past. 

The study also took into account differences between the women in the two groups such as age, ethnicity and weight.  The women in the contemporary group tended to be older and heavier than the women in the group from the past.  Notwithstanding these differences, the data still suggested a longer phase of labor for women in the latter group.

As stated above, these new findings can have serious implications for women who are pregnant or who are considering pregnancy because doctors may still be administering oxytocin and other such drugs according to past standards of what is considered “normal” labor time. With this new data, doctors may be advised to wait longer before administering drugs that speed up labor time and/or opting for cesarean section.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/4726887709/

Researchers Discover Flu Gene

A team of international researchers has discovered a genetic variation that can help explain why some people become very ill from the flu virus, while others only suffer minor symptoms.

The gene involved is from the interferon-inducible transmembrane protein family, and is called IFITM3.  People with a variation of the IFITM3 gene are more likely to become extremely ill when plagued by the flu.  According to Abraham Brass, MD, PHD, of Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, IFITM3 enhances the body’s ability to fight off certain strains of the flu virus.

Dr. Abraham Brass and his team of researchers first discovered the antiviral role of IFITM3 in genetic screening tests that showed that the gene helped impede the growth of the flu virus, dengue virus, and the West Nile virus in cells.  However, researchers were still unclear as to the role of IFITM3 in living animals and humans.  Therefore, Paul Kellam, PHD, of the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK, and Brass, went on to study the effects of the influenza virus on mice that lacked the gene.  Kellam and Brass found that once these mice were introduced to the influenza virus, they suffered severe symptoms associated with the flu.  Specifically, in the mice lacking the gene, the influenza virus replicated more times and led to severe pneumonia.

Most importantly, after sequencing the genes of 53 patients who were admitted to the hospital for inpatient care due to the pandemic or seasonal flu, researchers found that a larger portion carried a variant of IFITM3 compared to the general population.  Researchers believe that this variant results in a shorter version of the protein, which leaves patients more susceptible to the flu.

This genetic discovery holds great implications for medicine in the future. New medicines and vaccines can be more easily created to target viruses such as H1N1 and the bird flu.  In addition, with genetic screening available, patients who carry the variant of the gene can now be treated with preventative vaccines.  Furthermore, with the discovery of the gene, researchers and professionals in the medical arena will have an advantage in the monitoring and controlling of future flu pandemics.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/36128932@N03/3338845735/

U.S. Intelligence Warns that Global Water Shortage May Lead to War in the Future

The U.S. Intelligence warns that in the coming decades water shortages across the globe will lead to conflict and possibly war between nations.  The report, which was requested by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, notes that within the next ten years the risk of war over water shortages will most likely be minimal; however, beyond 2022, the risk will increase, particularly in areas such the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Many on this planet already suffer from the effects of having very little to no access to clean water.  According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), 884 million people do not have access to clean water and approximately 3.575 million people die from water-related illnesses each year.  The report warns that in the future, water shortages will also be the impetus for war and terrorist attacks.

The report, which is based on a classified National Intelligence Estimate on water security, alleges that corrupt and weak governments, floods, poverty, and scarcity of water could lead to the downfall of a number of states.  In the past, nations have worked on resolving water shortage crises through negotiation, but the report warns that as the problem becomes more severe, water may be used as leverage or as a weapon by terrorist organizations.  The report also says that more powerful upstream nations will have the upper hand (no pun intended) over their neighboring downstream nations, and may try to use water as a means of control.  Furthermore, water-related infrastructure such as dams and reservoirs may more frequently become the target of attacks by terrorists and other threatening forces.

What is concerning is that dozens of nations, such as Botswana, Cambodia, the Congo, Gambia, Sudan, and Syria, obtain water from rivers that flow into bordering nations considered hostile.  Furthermore, there has already been conflict over water among nations in the Middle East such as Israel and Syria.  Although the report failed to mention any specific nations that are at risk for water-related conflict, the report made mention of the Amu Darya in Central Asia, the Brahmaputra and Indus in India and South Asia, the Euphrates and Tigris in the Middle East, the Mekong in China and Southeast Asia, and the Nile in Egypt and Sudan.

Additionally, population growth and an increase in water usage have placed a strain on already existing water resources. According to the World Bank, the global demand for water is doubling every 21 years. Environmental concerns, such as desertification and climate change, raise even more questions and concerns regarding our existing water sources.

Currently, there are several theories and arguments on how to solve the global water shortage crisis.  Some believe that technological advances such as desalination – a process in which saline water is converted into freshwater – is the answer to water shortage crises, whereas others believe that a more business-minded approach is needed.  For instance, the Harvard Middle East Water Project believes that water could be made into a commodity for sale in order that demand and supply are both taken into consideration.

The United States may have come up with the best approach yet: education.  Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who requested the U.S. Intelligence report on water security, has also recently announced the launch of the U.S. Water Partnership, a gathering of 28 public and private organizations to discuss and share their expertise on water management with various countries.

To learn more about the water shortage crisis and to see what you can do to help, please visit: http://water.org/water-crisis/water-facts/water/.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/4727549270/

Feral Swine Pose Problems for Farmers in State of New York

Feral pigs have been plaguing farming communities in New York prompting wildlife managers and researchers to explore various management options, such as poisons, snares, and even aerial shooting, in a bid to control their growing population.  Feral pigs are not commonly found in the northeast due to colder temperatures, but as of late, there have been sightings in 5 of the 62 counties in New York state.

Feral pigs, also referred to as wild boars and feral swine, are nocturnal animals similar in appearance to domesticated swine.  However, unlike their domesticated counterparts, feral pigs are aggressive and can pose an ecological and economical threat.  They have no known natural predators and are known to have voracious appetites.  Feral pigs will feast on crops and vegetables, domestic livestock, ground-nesting birds, fawns, and reptiles.  They are also breeding machines and can start to breed as early as 6 months of age. 

Several concerns arise over the proliferation of feral pigs including the threat they pose to other wildlife.  For instance, the state of Wisconsin has had problems with feral swine competing with their native white-tailed deer, and in other states, there have been population declines in quail and wild turkey because of wild pigs.  Furthermore, feral pigs can also carry and transmit diseases and parasites to other animals and humans.  Diseases such as brucellosis, pseudorabies, and tuberculosis are of especial concern to farmers and veterinarians, who come into close contact with animals on a regular basis.  Brucellosis is an infectious bacterial disease that can cause abdominal pain, fatigue, fever, muscle and joint pain, and weakness.  In addition, brucellosis can be chronic and can last for years.  On the contrary, pseudorabies does not cause illness in humans, but can be transmitted to cats, dogs, cattle, and sheep and can often be fatal.

State officials in New York have set their sights on controlling the wild boar population that has popped up in parts of New York.  Feral pigs were first spotted around a decade ago in Onondaga and Cortland County.  It is believed that there are about a few hundred feral pigs in the state of New York and an estimated five million feral pigs in the United States, with high concentrations in Alabama, California, Florida, and Texas.

Ed Reed, a wildlife biologist for New York state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, notes that there is an urgency to control feral pig populations because once they have settled in a particular area, it is extremely difficult to completely eradicate them.  In addition, feral pigs are smart and can sometimes even outwit traps.  In New York, hunting rules have been relaxed in order to control the wild pig population.  For instance, on the Department of Environmental Conservation’s web site, it has been declared that hunters with small game licenses may shoot and even keep any number of wild pigs at any time.  So far, state officials in New York have settled on trapping feral swine given that it is difficult to hunt them because of their nocturnal nature.

Photo credit: dnr.wi.gov/org/land/wildlife/PUBL/wlnotebook/Pig.htm

Nitrate Contamination of Groundwater Much Cause for Concern

A new study by researchers at the University of California, Davis have found troubling data indicating severe nitrate contamination of groundwater in farming communities in Central California.

Researchers have found that around 10% of the 2.6 million people residing in the Salinas Valley and Tulare Lake Basin might be drinking nitrate contaminated water.  And the researchers warn that if nothing is done 80% of residents will face health and financial risks stemming from the contamination.

Nitrate contamination can cause a slew of health problems including birth defects, hair loss, skin rashes, stomach and gastrointestinal cancer, and thyroid cancer.  Nitrate contamination has also been linked to blue-baby syndrome (also referred to as methemoglobinemia), a blood disorder found in infants six months of age or younger.  Blue-baby syndrome prevents blood cells from absorbing oxygen and can be fatal if not treated.

Nitrates form when nitrogen from ammonia reacts with water.  Common sources of nitrates include the use and production of fertilizers and the burning of fossil fuels.  Not surprisingly, agriculture is the biggest contributor to the nitrate contamination problem.  For example, the U.C. Davis study found that 96% of nitrate contamination came from agriculture, whereas only 4% was found to come from food processing, landscaping, septic systems, and water treatment plants among other sources.

Angela Schroeter, agricultural regulatory program manager for the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, warns that the problem is more severe than previously thought.  Nitrate contamination will not only affect people’s health, but will also exact a heavy financial toll on citizens.  Researchers predict that residents and utilities will pay $20 million to $36 million per year towards water treatment and alternative sources of water for the next 20 years and counting.

What is even more disturbing is that current nitrate contamination of groundwater most likely occurred decades ago, which signifies that even if contamination were to be reduced, groundwater would still remain polluted for years to come.  In addition, removal of nitrates from groundwater is no easy process and is also very expensive.  One solution, called “pump and fertilize” requires pulling nitrate-saturated water out of the ground and applying it to crops at a specific time to achieve complete nitrate uptake.  Other solutions include placing a fee on fertilizer sales and increasing “mill fees” on fertilizer production.  To learn more and to see how you can help, please visit http://www.wri.org.

Photo credit: peakwater.org/tag/water-pollution/

Hydraulic Fracturing Related to Seismic Activity in Ohio

Hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) has been linked to several earthquakes in the Youngstown, Ohio area starting in March, 2011.  The earthquakes ranged in magnitude from 2.1 to 4.0, with a 4.0 quake occurring on New Year’s Eve that has prompted Ohio Governor John Kasich to order a moratorium on six of the Class II deep injection wells in and around the Youngstown area.

Hydraulic fracturing is a highly controversial process in which large amounts of a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals are pumped underground to release natural gases from beneath the earth’s surface.  Municipal water treatment plants are not able to remove some of the contaminants found in the chemically laced water and therefore, the fluid is sometimes re-injected into the ground.  Although geologists believe that induced seismic activity is rare, it can occur under certain circumstances.  After thorough investigation of the geological formations and well activity in the Youngstown area, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources believe that the injection of high-pressure fluid into a well near an underground fault led to the occurrence of the seismic events. 

Evidence linking fracking to the seismic activities in the Youngstown area include the fact that the earthquakes occurred less than one mile from the well and that the energy company in charge of the disposal of the wastewater asked for increases in the maximum injection pressure on two different occasions at Northstar 1, the well linked to the Youngstown quakes.

There are around 200 deep wells in the state of Ohio, 177 of those which are used for the disposal of oil and gas waste. The deep wells are around 9,000 feet deep and are used during the hydraulic fracturing process.  202 million barrels of oilfield fluids have been disposed of in the state of Ohio since 1983.  However, the disposal wells in Ohio make up only one percent of the 150,000 disposal wells in the United States.  2 billion gallons of oil and gas waste are disposed of on a daily basis in the United States!

The seismic events, which have occurred in an area not known for such activity, has not surprised some people.  For instance, Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser for the Environmental Defense Fund’s energy program, noted a similar occurrence of a 4.7 magnitude earthquake in Arkansas on Feb. 27, 2011.  Anderson believes that the re-injection of wastewater into deep injection wells is what is causing the seismic activities to occur rather than the process of hydraulic fracturing itself.

Due to the findings linking the injection of high-pressure fluid into wells to the recent seismic events in Ohio, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has declared new regulations for the transportation and disposal of wastewater. These include requiring operators to document and hand-over geological data before drilling, including knowledge of geological fault lines in the area, and the installation of advanced pressure and monitoring devices.  In addition, the new regulations prohibit the drilling of any new wells into affected rock formation.

Hydraulic fracturing is reputed by some to be a financially viable way to extract natural gas.  However, the environmental and health costs associated with hydraulic fracturing may not be worth it in the end.  In order to ensure the well-being of the environment, more stringent regulations on hydraulic fracturing and the re-injection of wastewater into deep injection wells needs to be implemented.  In order to take a stand and create change, please become a registered voter in order to voice your opinion on matters such as hydraulic fracturing.

Photo credit: evs.anl.gov/project/dsp_fsdetail_new.cfm?id=118

Seattle, WA Plans Development of Harvestable “Food Forest”

Seattle, WA, home to the Space Needle and Pike’s Place Market, is preparing to develop its largest-ever harvestable “food forest.”  The park will offer urbanites the chance to pick and consume fresh fruits and vegetables from the communal forest.

The idea to create a harvestable food forest originated from a group of environmentally-minded individuals interested in the concept of a communal garden that offered residents locally grown crops.  A proposal was made to city officials in 2010 to create the “food forest” in the neighborhood of Beacon Hill.  City officials have agreed to the idea and declared the year 2010 the “year of urban agriculture.”

This won’t be the first time the city has helped develop and maintain a community garden and nor is it the only city which has invested in the irony of urban agriculture.  Portland, OR, Pittsburgh, PA, and Syracuse, NY are three other cities with their own take on the concept of a “food forest.”  For example, in Syracuse, NY, vacant lots have been allocated for the use of vegetable gardens to be tended by teens, and Pittsburgh has its own food forest created two years ago that includes fruit-bearing berry bushes and pear trees.

The “food forest” will start out at two acres, but will expand to cover seven acres of land in the ethnically diverse Beacon Hill neighborhood.  The “food forest” will be located next to apartment complexes, a driving range, a lawn bowling club, a sports park, and a busy road.  Furthermore, the food forest will only be three miles away from Seattle’s downtown core.  The city has put aside $100,000 for the development of the first two acres.  Although the “food forest” has not been advertised by the city as becoming the largest one in the country, folks such as Greg Herlihy, who helped with the initial design of the park, believe it will be the largest in the nation.

The “food forest” will be different from an orchard in that it will consist of and rely on a variety of plants, trees, and vegetation, much like a forest eco-system.  Developers will plant fruit and nut tress on the upper level and  annuals, berry shrubs, and edible perennials on the lower levels.  Companion plants will also be added to the mix to help attract beneficial insects and manage pests.

Photo credit: m.wikitravel.org/en/USA