2013 - %3, January

Pet Fish Could Give You Freaky Antibiotic-Resistant Skin Diseases

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 11:19 AM EST

Have a freshwater fish tank at home? Stop petting Nemo and Wanda for a minute, and take a deep breath. Ornamental fish in the US, many of which come from Asia, are hosting antibiotic-resistant bacteria which could spread diseases to their human owners, a new report put out by researchers at Oregon State University reveals.

"The range of resistance is often quite disturbing," the authors wrote in their report, which was published in the January edition of the Journal of Fish Diseases. "Imported ornamental fish are commonly colonized with bacterial species of potential human and animal harm."

The researchers examined 32 freshwater fish, including common household species like neon tetras, cory catfish, and flame gouramis. They found that the fish, which came from Colombia, Florida and Singapore, had antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could potentially spread to humans, including Staphylococcus, which causes Staph infections of the skin; Aeromonas, which gives you stomach flu symptoms; and a type of Mycobacterium that causes skin lesions (not to be confused with the kind that breeds tuberculosis.)

The fish were most resistant to the antibiotics Tetracycline, which is used to treat infections like chlamydia in humans, and Bactrim, which is often used to treat women's urinary tract infections and bronchitis. The authors point out in the report that "this is not surprising considering the widespread use of these classes [of antibiotics] in the ornamental fish industry." However, the researchers also found that the fish were resistant to some antibiotics that aren't commonly used. "We don't know why that is, it could be industry testing that's going on somewhere,"  Tim Miller-Morgan, a veterinary aquatics specialist with Oregon State University who co-authored the report, told Mother Jones. The report notes that frequent and unregulated use of antibiotics is a growing problem in the ornamental fish industry, which is worth about $900 million. 

But there is good news: Miller-Morgan says that "the overall risk to human from these infected fish is low," although he suggests that individuals who have compromised immune systems consult their doctors, and people with open wounds refrain from cleaning their fish tanks. "You just need to be aware," he says. "I wouldn't stop keeping ornamental fish."

But if, after reading this report, you're hell-bent on getting rid of Goldy and Phish, you can always copy what the scientists did: Kill them "via decapitation followed by exsanguination" and then cut out their kidneys.* "This is the quickest, most humane way to kill the fish," given that "results can be compromised when an anesthetic is used," Miller-Morgan says. 

This is why I'm not a biologist.

*Please don't actually do this to your pets. 

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Corn on MSNBC: Right-Wingers Warn of "Civil War" Over Second Amendment

Wed Jan. 16, 2013 10:39 AM EST

As President Obama got ready to release his proposals on gun reform Wednesday, the right wing was continuing its freak-out over alleged "threats" to the Second Amendment. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Obama is acting like a "king" by proposing executive orders on firearms, and there have been multiple threats to impeach Obama for such action, and calls for "civil war" from the right-wing talk show people.

Mother Jones' DC bureau chief David Corn joined The Daily Beast's Bob Shrum on MSNBC's The Ed Show with Ed Schultz to talk about the dangers of this kind of rhetoric.

For more of David Corn's stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Ken Salazar, Obama's Secretary of the Interior, Is Heading Home

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 10:34 AM EST

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Wednesday morning that he will not be sticking around for President Obama's second term. Instead, he's heading home, he said. "Colorado is and will always be my home," he said in a statement. "I look forward to returning to my family and Colorado after eight years in Washington, D.C."

Salazar had a rough four years at DOI. He came in pledging to "clean up the mess" at one of the most problem-plagued federal agencies. But he hit a number of snags—including the Deepwater Horizon spill early in his time at Interior, which was blamed at least in part on failed oversight. Other problems related more to political backlash from Republicans who objected to DOI's land protection efforts—which seemed to surprise the former senator from Colorado.

I wrote a profile of Salazar for High Country News last year that looked at his tenure and his desire to return to the West:

Salazar is nothing if not a measured man, as today's event demonstrates. He speaks slowly and deliberately, throwing in colloquial quips. His policies tend to be equally moderate, and it's hard to get him to say anything remotely controversial. More than one reporter has wondered if he's intentionally boring in public. That's probably another reason every story about Salazar relies on his hat for color; it's usually the only showy thing about him. He looks shorter, and thinner, without it. It's hard to picture him putting a boot to anyone's neck, as he threatened to do to BP at the height of the 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill. Even the policies that most rankle his Republican critics have hardly been radical. In his three years as secretary, though, he's watched the middle ground shift radically beneath him. His work at Interior often seems to be an endless exercise in trying to find it once again.
You can tell the struggle is wearing on him by the wistfulness with which he discusses the West. When asked whether he would spend a second term at Interior, his response is vague. "I'm there for the foreseeable future," he says. "Looking beyond that, I don't know."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 16, 2013

Wed Jan. 16, 2013 10:26 AM EST
Security force team members for Provincial Reconstruction Team Farah wait for a UH-60 Blackhawk medevac helicopter to land before moving a simulated casualty during medical evacuation training on FOB Farah, Jan. 9. U.S. Navy photo by HMC Josh Ives.

Pregnant? That Might Get You Arrested

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 9:43 AM EST

Abortion continues to be a hot-button issue in the US, as dozens of states have passed measures to limit women's access to the procedure. But even women who want to be pregnant are not free of legal restraints on their bodies, as a new paper in the Journal of Health, Politics, Policy and Law demonstrates. In many instances, women have been arrested, institutionalized, or subjected to unwanted medical interventions due to their pregnancies.

The paper looks at 413 criminal and civil cases from 1973 to 2005 in which women were subject to legal action related to their unborn children. In all the cases, the women were deprived of their own civil liberties by legal authorities claiming to seek protection of the fetus. Many dealt with charges related to drug or alcohol use during pregnancy, refusing to follow doctor's orders, or for miscarriages that were blamed on their actions (even if there was little to no evidence to prove that those actions led to the miscarriage).

In a piece at RH Reality Check, the paper's authors detail some of the examples they found in their search of legal and public records, as well as media accounts. Here are just a few of them they include: 

  • A Louisiana woman was charged with murder and spent approximately a year in jail before her counsel was able to show that what was deemed a murder of a fetus or newborn was actually a miscarriage that resulted from medication given to her by a health care provider.
  • In Texas, a pregnant woman who sometimes smoked marijuana to ease nausea and boost her appetite gave birth to healthy twins. She was arrested for delivery of a controlled substance to a minor.
  • A doctor in Wisconsin had concerns about a woman's plans to have her birth attended by a midwife. As a result, a civil court order of protective custody for the woman's fetus was obtained. The order authorized the sheriff’s department to take the woman into custody, transport her to a hospital, and subject her to involuntary testing and medical treatment.

Fifty-two percent of the women in the cases they found  were African American. Seventy-one percent were likely low income, as they were represented by indigent defense in the legal case. Sixty-nine percent were under the age of 30, and 56 percent were in the South. And, lest you think these are mostly old cases, they found more than 25 in 2005, the last year included in the paper. The authors also said that, while not included in this research, they are aware of at least 250 cases since 2005.

"It's a system of law in which pregnant women are treated as an underclass."

The authors argue that the issues at play here are greater than reproductive choice, but about women's rights.

"What we saw was not just a limitation on abortion or reproductive rights, or even the deprivation of civil liberties, but the denial of pregnant woman of virtually every right," said Lynn M. Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women and the lead author of the study in a call with reporters on Tuesday. "It's a system of law in which pregnant women are treated as an underclass."

They also note that many women were charged under state-level laws dealing with fetal homicide—or "feticide"—laws that were, in theory, designed to protect pregnant women from acts of violence and are now in place in 38 states. But rather than dealing with criminal acts against the women, they've been used to prosecute the women themselves.

Paltrow and coauthor Jeanne Flavin, a sociology professor at Fordham University, also related their findings to the so-called "personhood" movement, an extreme anti-abortion effort that has sought to grant fertilized eggs the same rights as adult humans. While no states have passed that type of law, many are using other legal measures that, in practice, grant fetuses precedent over the rights of the women carrying them. "The question isn't 'Are you for or against abortion?'" said Paltrow. "It's, 'Do you believe that upon becoming pregnant, women become an underclass?'"

Enviro Crusader Turns Pro-GMO, Anti-Organic—And Anti-Logic

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 6:06 AM EST
Mark Lynas at Oxford: "I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough. So my conclusion here today is very clear: the GM debate is over. It is finished."

Earlier this month, Mark Lynas, a prominent UK environmentalist and author, delivered a blunt attack (text here; video below the fold) on critics of agricultural biotechnology at a farming conference at Oxford University. Reviewing the development of his opinions on GMOs, Lynas reports that back in the '90s, he had an instant emotional reaction against them. He saw the situation like this: "Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us." And so he "helped to start the anti-GM movement," and "spent several years ripping up GM crops." Then, in the process of researching climate change, he "discovered science"; and soon after, he reports, he "discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths," which he goes on to list.

Lynas is quite correct that the backlash against GMOs is often clouded by emotion. He points out that even today, certain GMO critics murmur darkly about Monsanto's "terminator" seeds, designed to produce sterile offspring so farmers can't replant saved seeds. Actually, Monsanto itself swore off ever using the terminator trait back in 1999, declaring it shared "many of the concerns of small landholder farmers" who opposed it. The GMO seed industry protects its traits through patents and contracts, not genetics.

But he veers off course by portraying such fringe critics of GMOs as the driving force of an "anti-science movement" to block the novel technology. He dismisses the idea that reasonable people might disagree about the merits of GMOs. "[M]y conclusion here today is very clear," he declares. "The GM debate is over. It is finished."

For Lynas, GM technology now represents the height of rationality applied to agriculture, while organic represents the opposite:

If you think about it, the organic movement is at its heart a rejectionist one. It doesn’t accept many modern technologies on principle. Like the Amish in Pennsylvania, who froze their technology with the horse and cart in 1850, the organic movement essentially freezes its technology in somewhere around 1950, and for no better reason.

For me, despite its merits as a corrective to knee-jerk GMO opposition, Lynas' speech reads like a rant: an attempt not to spark conversation and debate, but rather to end it. If you agree with him, you are pro-science and guided by reason; if you disagree, you are anti-science and (as he puts it) "blinded by romantic nostalgia for the traditional farming of the past."

"Any scientists working for the Union of Concerned Scientists leave their credentials at the door," charged Lynas.

I found plenty to argue with in Lynas' depiction of organic ag and whether we need GMOs to "feed the world"—here's my take on that—but beyond the novelty of the very public conversion of a former anti-GM campaigner, I didn't find much to chew on in the speech, even though it inspired glowing coverage from the likes of The Economist, the veteran climate reporter Andy Revkin, The New Yorker's Michael Specter, and Mark Tercek, CEO of the Nature Conservancy. Swaddling himself in the rubric of science, Lynas came off to me in his speech as a curiously unscientific thinker—someone who once spouted dogmatic certainties against GMOs and now spouts them in favor. I have no problem with changes in mind; but lack of nuance and bullheaded self-assuredness are always tedious, no matter what view one is espousing.

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Happy Birthday to Roe v. Wade—What's Left of It

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 6:06 AM EST

The Guttmacher Institute has released some handy infographics for the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling, which made abortion legal nationwide and sparked a relentless campaign by religious conservatives to chip away at a women's ability to obtain one. Consider, for example, Kate Sheppard's recent profile of Americans United for Life, the anti-abortion group perhaps most responsible for a barrage of new state laws that have thrown up fresh obstacles for women seeking an abortion. Next slide, please.

 

Mother Jones has been way out front on the story of how the pro-life crowd has circumvented Roe v. Wade with a state-by-state approach. Sarah Blustain delivered this award-winning profile of pro-life lawyer Harold Cassidy, who has successfully promoted state-level legislation by arguing, counterintuitively, that abortion violates women's rights. These interactive maps of state abortion restrictions were quickly made obsolete thanks to a torrent of new legislation in 2011 and 2012 in Virginia, Michigan, Mississippi, Arizona, and many other states. So over the top were some of the laws passed or proposed during those two years that Democratic legislators responded with farcical bills—like a proposal requiring rectal exams for men seeking Viagra prescriptions. But these laws are no joke. Women in at least a couple of states—Kansas and Mississippi—faced losing access to abortion services simply because nearly all of the providers have been run out of town. As it stands, if you don't live near a population center (see above), you'll have to hit the road to find a clinic.

 

The question of who pays—both for abortion and birth control—was a huge issue during this past election year. Because politicians have failed to stand up to the pro-life crusade, most women have to cover the procedure themselves. If you're poor, tough. As Guttmacher notes above, federal Medicaid funds can only be used for abortions resulting from rape and incest, or if having the baby is likely to endanger your health—only 17 states will step in to help women on Medicaid pay for abortions. Birth control is more widely covered, but that still doesn't mean it's cheap (see our birth control calculator) or easy to get. And judging from the nutty rhetoric of the GOP and its candidates during this past election cycle, they would probably prefer that women go back to this method—or Lysol perhaps?

 

It's no surprise that women who live in poverty, and who tend to be less educated, would have more than their share of unwanted pregnancies. Yet they are the ones most profoundly affected by this bevy of new abortion restrictions. So maybe you don't have the $500 it's going to cost because Medicaid in most states cover most abortions. Or maybe you are stuck in the sort of shit job where you can't get time off without getting fired. Maybe you don't have a car to drive 50 miles to the nearest clinic. Guttmacher notes above that 7 in 10 low-income abortion patients wanted to terminate their pregnancy earlier than they did, but one way or another couldn't afford it. This past February, Virginia legislators even passed a bill that would have eliminated funding for poor women to abort a fetus with a "gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity or with a gross and totally incapacitating mental deficiency." (It made it through the Virginia House and a state Senate committee before stalling.)

So, uh, happy anniversary! And be sure and keep an especially close watch on these five states in 2013.

Click here to browse all of our coverage related to reproductive health.

Little Green Corvette: Four Sweet, Fuel-Efficient Cars at the Detroit Auto Show

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 6:06 AM EST

Alan Baum has to shout into the phone for me to hear him over the cacophony of the Detroit Auto Show, which opened Monday. Around him, thousands of journalists swarm from one new car to the next, lights flash, DJs spin, and the cream of the world's automotive crop glistens. "A lot of show and not a lot of substance," Baum, an industry analyst, jokes.

Just to look around at the "performance" cars on display here, from hulking pickups to lightning-fast sports cars, you might not be able to tell that this is the first major car show in Detroit since the introduction last fall of President Obama's new fuel efficiency standards, which will require all cars and light-duty trucks to operate at 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, nearly doubling current requirements. The  administration predicts that this move will save Americans nearly $2 trillion at the pump. The cars below— featured this week in Detroit—are already taking steps in that direction.

2014 Corvette Stingray:

corvette
Courtesy General Motors

Let's be honest: no one is buying one of these for the great gas mileage. It's more like the car you fantasize about at fourteen and later take a soul-sucking job on Wall Street just to afford. But the simple fact that the Stingray, one of the gas-guzzling belles of the Detroit ball, takes even one step in a green direction is a sign of how deep the efficiency paradigm has penetrated the auto industry, says industry analyst Don Anair. Ironically, high-tech fuel-management equipment in the engine actually adds weight to a car that has traditionally tried to shave pounds wherever possible for the sake of speed and aerodynamics.

While it's true that the Detroit show has its of share super-green cars (like the futuristic Tesla Model X and a marked-down version of the classic Nissan Leaf), Baum says the real progress is on prioritizing fuel efficiency on updates to familiar models that used to be all about style or power. Fuel efficiency standards and record-high gas prices be damned, in Detroit the floor is still packed with muscle-bound models, but a recent analysis by Baum's firm found that from 2009 to 2013 the number of popular vehicles with improved fuel efficiency more than doubled, from 28 to 61, of which only a third are tiny subcompacts.

Volkswagen CrossBlue:

crossblue
Courtesy Volkswagen

Volkswagen has taken an all-of-the-above approach to greening its fleet, Baum says, rolling out everything from plug-in electrics to hybrids to diesel (which is more efficient than normal gasoline). The CrossBlue might look like it was designed expressly to ferry hoardes of middle-schoolers to soccer practice, but it's more a concept car than one you'll soon find at the local dealership. It combines hybrid technology with diesel power, and reflects a growing US market for diesel engines: Jeep also introduced a new diesel Grand Cherokee.

"Automakers are supportive of fuel efficiency requirements because that's what consumers want anyway," Baum says, adding that as major manufacturers like Ford invest more heavily in highly efficient vehicles, they acquire a perverse fear of falling gas prices, which would diminish the economic incentive for consumers to spend more on an efficient car.

Still, history shows that car manufacturers need a regulatory boost to keep pushing on the fuel efficiency front, says Don Anair, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. After Congress passed the first federal fuel economy standards in 1975, efficiency innovation stagnated until 2007, when new legislation upped the ante. In 2010, the Obama administration set higher standards for the immediate future, and finally last fall set the historic long-term goals that automakers are now striving to reach; already, over the last few years emissions from cars have dropped. "The effect of the standards is to raise the overall effort," Anair says.

2014 Mercedes E-Class:

e-class
Courtesy NAIAS

If you’re buying one of these, saving a few bucks at the gas station probably isn’t a major concern for you. Still, some of the same green technology that gained fame in the by-contrast proletarian Prius has made its way into luxury vehicles like this one as well: a hybrid engine that turns off while idling, a feature I always found a bit spooky but which Anair says is increasingly common.

Lead and High School Graduation Rates

| Tue Jan. 15, 2013 9:13 PM EST

Harvard University economist Richard Murnane has a new paper out trying to estimate the high school graduation rate over time—something that turns out to be surprisingly hard—and comes up with the chart on the right. Basically, graduation rates declined starting around 1975 and then started to rise again around 2000. Murnane finds the increase since 2000 to be a bit puzzling, and Matt Yglesias, among others, wonders if this might be an effect of reduced lead exposure:

The falling graduation rate was a bit of a fake puzzle since in objective terms the economic reward to staying in school was rising during this time. But obviously teenagers are often short-sighted in their behavior, so it wasn't a real puzzle. But if teenagers mysteriously started getting less short-sighted at around the same time they started growing up in less lead-poisoned times that certainly seems suggestive.

When I was doing research for my lead article, I stayed focused pretty sharply on violent crime. For that reason, I don't have a lot of insight to share on this. But there are a couple of things I can say:

  • The effect of lead on IQ, mental retardation, and school performance is very well established. More established than its effect on violent crime. So we shouldn't be surprised to find a connection between lead exposure in small children and high school graduation rates 18 years later.
  • That said, lead exposure started to rise in the late 40s. If it had a negative effect on graduation rates, you'd expect to see it starting in the mid-60s. Instead, Murnane shows graduation rates starting to fall in the mid-70s. Likewise, you'd expect to see graduation rates start to bounce back in the early 90s, but Murnane shows them rising in the early aughts. Roughly speaking, if lead is the culprit his numbers seem off by about ten years.

That said, I'd caution that there's a very specific reason you might not see anything in the data even if lead is playing a role in graduation rates. Here's why. Lead is something that nudges the entire population in a bad direction (lower IQ, higher aggression, etc.). For most people, the effect is barely noticeable. But for a small number, who are on the edge already, it nudges them over the edge. In the case of violent crime, it might have pushed an additional 2-3 percent of the teenage population over the edge into a life of crime. But since only a small percentage of the population commits violent crimes in the first place, an effect like this could double or triple the crime rate, and this is something that would show up like a beacon in the data.

Education is just the opposite. If the dropout rate is, say, 20 percent or so, and lead increases that by 2-3 percent, that's a very small effect that could easily be swamped by other factors, including measurement error. It's much harder to tease this out of the data, no matter how good the data is. In fact, it's small enough that it might be impossible.

So the chances are that we'll never know for sure how big the effect of lead exposure has been on high school graduation rates. Given what we know about lead, it's a good bet that it did have an effect in the postwar era. We'll just never know how much.

Michael Gerson Pens a Modern Masterpiece

| Tue Jan. 15, 2013 5:53 PM EST

Jonathan Chait directs my attention to a remarkable Michael Gerson column today. It might set a new mainstream media record for compressing the largest number of conservative pathologies into the smallest possible space. First this:

In cliff negotiations, Obama had one overriding goal: to make Republicans vote for rate increases on the wealthy. For 20 years the refusal to raise taxes has been one of the core issues that held together the disparate groups of the GOP. If Obama saw his job as bringing together a broad coalition to fix the long-term debt problem, he would have maneuvered Democrats to take on some of their core issues as part of a package, just as Republicans had to do. But Obama did not view his job this way. He wanted Republicans to swallow their humiliation pure.

That's not even close to reality. Obama's first fiscal cliff offer was a $1.6 trillion bargain that included something like $600 billion in spending cuts. His second offer contained about $900 billion in spending cuts, including reductions in both Medicare and Social Security that Democrats would have had a hard time swallowing. This was only three weeks ago, but apparently Gerson has forgotten already.

Then he goes on to admit that refusing to raise the debt ceiling would be irresponsible. But:

Given this weak Republican position, Obama must be tempted by a shiny political object: the destruction of the congressional GOP. He knows that Republicans are forced by the momentum of their ideology to take positions on spending that he can easily demagogue. He is in a good position to humiliate them again — to expose their internal divisions and unpopular policy views. It may even be a chance to discredit and then overturn the House Republican majority, finally reversing his own humiliation in the 2010 midterms.

Holy cow! Obama might be tempted to expose Republicans' internal divisions and unpopular policy views? The fiend! And Republicans are helpless to resist because tea party crackpots the momentum of their ideology doesn't allow them to be reasonable. They literally have no choice except to surrender to fanaticism. What's next on Obama's agenda?

Force the GOP to surrender on the debt limit, with nothing in return. Require Republicans to accept new taxes in exchange for any real spending reductions. If they agree, their caucus is fractured (again). And if they refuse (which they are likely to do), paint them as obstructionists and extremists who are willing to destroy the economy/the nation’s credit rating/the military for their own ideological purposes.

Obama wants Republicans to accept new taxes in exchange for spending reductions? Apparently the man will stop at nothing. And we'll all pay the price:

There is one main downside to this approach. It delays any serious action on long-term debt for at least another two (and probably four) years. It is the path of a government that moves from fiscal crisis to crisis, gradually undermining global confidence that it can manage its own affairs. Etc.

Actually, America's finances aren't in bad shape.  Obama has already cut the deficit by about $2.4 trillion over the past couple of years, and he's stated repeatedly that he's willing to negotiate another $1.5 trillion as part of the sequestration talks. That would put the federal budget on a pretty sound footing. There's no Armageddon here unless the GOP insists on creating one.

So there you have it. Obama refused to negotiate over the fiscal cliff. His only goal is humiliation and unconditional surrender. The Republican position on taxes should be viewed as a law of nature, so it's unfair to expect them to back off their fanatic position by even a dime. And the end result of all this will be to turn the United States into another Greece.

Gerson has synthesized every Republican phantasm into a concise 800 words. This is how they view things. And then they wonder why they have so much trouble negotiating with someone whose policy views are still firmly rooted in the real world.