Friday, January 04, 2019

Bay Area Air Quality and Brain Damage Convo

This post is inspired by a Facebook exchange I had the other day... I will paraphrase and not name names

The original poster was lamenting that not enough people were wearing masks, and don't seem to care, so I said how about telling people that smoke inhalation causes brain damage right away. Another poster said I was being extreme, and could I back that up?

I decided to see if I could. My logic for this is as follows: smoke inhalation leads to particulate inhalation (PM2.5 and PM10), also toxin inhalation (burning cars and buildings generates many things, I would expect) both of which impair respiratory function. Impaired respiratory function causes a lack of oxygen in the blood, which in turn causes loss of oxygen to the brain. The brain being the most exquisitely sensitive tissue to oxygen loss, gets damaged.
As the mother of an asthmatic kid, this link was hammered into my head repeatedly by ER nurses and doctors, and while yes, a developing brain is more of a risk, I expect this holds true throughout our lives.

SO, to the reference material:

Brain Damage Following Smoke Inhalation and Skin Burn

In this article, they actually exposed sheep to smoke inhalation (and skin burns), and then measured the damage to brain tissue and found it. This is the most solid evidence I was able to find of a direct scientific experiment, albeit on sheep.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Every day is the beginning of the end. Sometimes the end of the day is just the beginning.

 March 1, 2013: I'm in a post-industrial city, it's grey and snowing, and there are students in acid washed jeans; my brain insists on playing Bon Jovi as the soundtrack. The IMF declares that the US failure to resolve budget issues is going to change the world's economy, and not in a good way. Strange objects have started appearing in my office: a piece of circuitry last week, hand-penned invitations, a new-in-box dry eraser this morning. Is this a Gibson novel?

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Of Great Apes and Girl Scouts

In 2011, I got riled up about misrepresentation, and Nature decided not to print my letter... as cookie season descends upon us again, I thought I'd just put this out there in the blogosphere. Sometimes a pub is not the point.
[I must point out that I think weblinks have moved, and that this blog platform seems to be horribly buggy at the moment... hopefully that won't undermine this piece]

Of Great Apes and Girl Scouts

Dear Sirs

A campaign to preserve the endangered Orangutan (Pongo spp.) through reduction in palm oil consumption has arisen in the USA through a very unusual path: the Girl Scouts. Two Girl Scouts in Michigan, Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, conducted a project in 2007 on Orangutans in Borneo, for their Girl Scout Bronze Award. They discovered that palm oil plantations were responsible for Orangutan habitat destruction, and that Girl Scout cookies were chock full of palm oil. In March, Rainforest Action Network (RAN) partnered with the 15 year-old Girl Scouts in petitioning Girl Scouts USA (GSUSA) to remove palm oil responsible for tropical deforestation from the cookies1. As part of this campaign, RAN has helped develop a new Girl Scout Merit Badge - the Rainforest Hero Badge - which involves research and campaigning for the cause. 

In the US, Girl Scouts and their cookies are a national cultural icon, and GSUSA provides an education opportunity for young women, promoting values such as leadership. As a conservation biologist, I am thrilled to see this campaign with such a large and iconic force behind it. However, in reading the merit badge materials I came across the words "...the survival of humankind’s closest  relative, orangutans."2 The genetic evidence for the closest relative of humans has gone back and forth in the literature 3-5, and will no doubt continue to be contentious as long as we are interested in our evolutionary history. In a brief email to RAN, I suggested they use more conservative language, including orangutans in a group: "great apes, our closest relatives". They have no intention of changing the wording. 

This, therefore, is my dilemma: a great cause, supported by contended information3, facing the enormity of multinational corporations such as Cargill and Kellogg. If climate change science faces bombastic scrutiny and incessant attempts at discreditation, surely this will be similarly scorned for lack of scientific accuracy? Will this undermine the credibility of the cause? Do I encourage my little sister to get this merit badge and campaign for the cause, or do I wax academic about the correct phylogeny of the Hominidae?

1          Surtherlin, L. & Schaeffer, A. Girl Scouts: Cookies Cut Down Rainforests <> (2011).

2          Network, R. A. Rainforest Hero Badge Kit, <> (2011).

3          Lehtonen, S., Sääksjärvi, I. E., Ruokolainen, K. & Tuomisto, H. Who is the closest extant cousin of humans? Total-evidence approach to hominid phylogenetics via simultaneous optimization. Journal of Biogeography 38, 805-808 (2011).

4          Grehan, J. R. & Schwartz, J. H. Evolution of the second orangutan: phylogeny and biogeography of hominid origins. Journal of Biogeography 36, 1823-1844 (2009).

5          Locke, D. P. et al. Comparative and demographic analysis of orang-utan genomes. Nature 469, 529-533 (2011).