Here's Some Context For Blood Lead Levels in Flint

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 11:05 AM EST

I don't have any special point to make with these charts. They show blood lead levels in children over the past couple of decades for a few selected states, and they're meant only to provide a bit of context for reporting about Flint. Complete data is here if you're curious about how your state is doing.

For comparison, at the height of the water crisis Flint reported BLLs above 5 m/d for about 6 percent of its children. The latest round of testing suggests that Flint is now down to 3 percent.

Advertise on

Trump Accuses Cruz of Fraud in Iowa

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 10:33 AM EST

After losing the Iowa Republican caucuses to Ted Cruz on Monday, Donald Trump was uncharacteristically gracious in conceding the contest. His cordiality didn't last long. 

In a series of more classically Trumpian tweets on Wednesday morning, Trump accused Cruz of using underhanded and fraudulent tactics to win in Iowa, and he called for Cruz's results to be nullified or a new election to be held.

WTF Happened to Golden Rice?

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 6:00 AM EST
Golden rice packs a beta-carotene punch, but can it deliver in the field?

Like the hover boards of the Back to the Future franchise, golden rice is an old idea that looms just beyond the grasp of reality. 

"This Rice Could Save a Million Kids a Year," announced a Time magazine cover back in 2000. Orange in color, the rice is genetically modified to contain a jolt of beta-carotene, the stuff that gives carrots their hue and that our bodies transform into vitamin A. Diets deficient in that key micronutrient are the leading cause of blindness of children in the global south, where rice tends to be a staple grain. A decade and a half since the Time article, golden rice has yet to be planted commercially—but it continues generating bumper crops of hype. "Is Golden Rice the Future of Food?" the great hipster-foodie journal Lucky Peach wondered last fall, adding that "it might save millions from malnutrition."

Golden rice has yet to be planted commercially—but it continues generating bumper crops of hype.

If golden rice is such a panacea, why does it flourish only in headlines, far from the farm fields where it's intended to grow? The short answer is that the plant breeders have yet to concoct varieties of it that work as well in the field as existing rice strains. This is made all the more challenging in the face of debates over genetically modified crops and eternal disputes about how they should be regulated.

After seed developers first create a genetically modified strain with the desired trait—in this case, rice with beta-carotene—they start crossing it into varieties that have been shown to perform well in the field. The task is tricky: When you tweak one thing in a genome, such as giving rice the ability to generate beta-carotene, you risk changing other things, like its speed of growth. The Washington University anthropologist and longtime golden rice observer Glenn Stone describes this process as "bringing a superfood down to earth," and it gets little attention in most media accounts.

The most serious effort to commercialize golden rice is centered at the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the globe's most prestigious incubator of high-yielding rice varieties. Launched with grants from the Rockefeller and Ford foundations in 1960, the IRRI spearheaded the Asian part of what became known as the Green Revolution—the effort to bring US-style industrial agriculture to the developing world. (My review of Nick Cullather's excellent Green Revolution history, The Hungry World, is here.)

Today, the IRRI coordinates the Golden Rice Network and has been working to develop a viable strain since 2006. And so far, it's having trouble. On its website, the IRRI reports that in the latest field trials, golden rice varieties "showed that beta carotene was produced at consistently high levels in the grain, and that grain quality was comparable to the conventional variety." However, the website continues, "yields of candidate lines were not consistent across locations and seasons." Translation: The golden rice varieties exhibited what's known in agronomy circles as a "yield drag"—they didn't produce as much rice as the non-GM varieties they'd need to compete with in farm fields. So the IRRI researchers are going back to the drawing board.

Via email, I asked the IRRI how that effort is going. "So far, both agronomic and laboratory data look very promising," a spokeswoman replied. But she declined to give a time frame for when the IRRI thinks it will have a variety that's ready for prime time. Washington University's Stone says he visited the IRRI's campus in the Philippines in the summer of 2015 and heard from researchers that such a breakthrough is "at least several more years" off. The IRRI spokeswoman also declined to comment on Stone's time frame report.

That's not a very inspiring assessment, given that researchers first successfully inserted the beta-carotene trait in the rice genome in 2000, and that the technology has been lavished with research support ever since—including from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative), USAID, the Syngenta Foundation, and others, according to the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board.

Of course, among people who think biotechnology has a crucial role to play in solving developing-world malnutrition, the IRRI's agronomic struggles are compounded by anti-GMO zealotry as well as what it sees as overregulation of GMOs in the global south. David Zilberman, an agricultural economist at the University of California-Berkeley, points out that most developing-world nations, including the Philippines, have adopted the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which stipulates a precautionary approach to introducing new GMO products, including restrictions on how trials are conducted. The Cartagena regime stands in sharp contrast to the much more laissez-faire one that holds sway in the United States, Zilberman says.

If the developing world embraced US-style regulation and treated vitamin A deficiency as a medical emergency solvable by golden rice, "it would have become available in 2000," Zilberman says. Based on that premise, he and German agricultural economist Justus Wesseler co-authored a 2014 paper claiming that golden rice has "been available since early 2000" and opposition to it has resulted in "about 1.4 million life years lost over the past decade in India" alone. Such claims abound in pro-GM circles. At a speech at the University of Texas last year, the Nobel laureate British biochemist Sir Richard Roberts accused golden rice opponents of have having committed a "crime against humanity."

According to some researchers, opposition to golden rice has resulted in "about 1.4 million life years lost over the past decade in India" alone.

To be sure, opposition to golden rice has occasionally gone overboard. In 2013, activists destroyed one of the IRRI's golden rice field trials in the Philippines, for example. "Anti-GMO activism has set back our work, in that we not only concentrate with our research, but we have to also spend time and resources to counter their propaganda," the IRRI spokesperson told me. But the group makes clear that regulation and activism are only two of the challenges facing golden rice—getting it to perform well remains a major task.

Even if and when the IRRI does come up with a high-yielding golden rice variety that passes regulatory muster, it remains unclear whether it can actually make a dent in vitamin A deficiency. As the Washington University's Stone notes, vitamin A deficiency often affects people whose diets are also deficient in other vital nutrients. Vitamin A is fat soluble, meaning it can't be taken up by the body unless it's accompanied by sufficient dietary fat, which isn't delivered in significant quantities by rice, golden or otherwise.

According to Stone, only one feeding study (PDF) has ever showed a powerful uptake of vitamin A by subjects eating golden rice. The paper was much cited by golden rice proponents, but Stone says it had a major flaw: The subjects were "well-nourished individuals" who already took in sufficient fat in their diets. The study "demonstrated only that Golden Rice worked in children who did not need it," he writes. (The study has since been retracted on claims that the author failed to obtain proper consent from the parents of the participants).

Meanwhile, as the IRRI scrambles to perfect golden rice, the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency is declining in the Philippines—according to the IRRI itself— from 40 percent of children aged six months to five years in 2003, to 15.2 percent in 2008. "The exact reasons for these improvements have not been determined, but they may be the results of proven approaches to preventing vitamin A deficiency, such as vitamin A supplementation, dietary diversification, food fortification and promotion of optimal breastfeeding," the group noted. That drop is part of a long-term trend that involves all of Southeast Asia. According to a 2015 Lancet study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, vitamin A deficiency plagued 39 percent of children in the region in 1991 but only 6 percent in 2013—without the help of golden rice.

But VAD, as the deficiency's known, remains a huge scourge on the Indian subcontinent and in Africa, the study found, affecting more than 40 percent of children in both regions. Whether golden rice will ever help mitigate that ongoing tragedy won't likely be known for some time. But the technology's hardly the slam-dunk panacea its advocates insist it is.

One Hospital in This City Gave Vulnerable Women an Option. Now It's Gone.

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 6:00 AM EST

If a pregnant woman in the Greater Cincinnati area receives the diagnosis of a fetal abnormality such as Tay-Sachs disease or anencephaly—in which a major part of the fetus' brain does not develop—she is no longer able to terminate the pregnancy in a local hospital. 

The Christ Hospital in Mount Auburn was the last hospital in the city of more than 2 million to provide this service, but two months ago it enacted a new policy that prohibits physicians from performing abortions in fetal anomaly cases. The hospital will now only terminate pregnancies "in situations deemed to be a threat to the life of the mother," the new policy reads.

"The cases are highly emotional and tragic," Danielle Craig, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio, told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "Under these circumstances, for many patients, an overnight stay in a hospital is better than an outpatient procedure, and women should have that option."

Comprehensive fetal testing, like ultrasounds of the heart and anatomical sonograms, are typically performed at around 20 weeks' gestation and can reveal a host of disorders, from genetic problems to fetal development gone awry. Late mid-term abortions are less common than first-trimester abortions, so this option is likely taken by women who are facing some kind of severe fetal birth defect.

For women in Cincinnati who decide to terminate their pregnancies after receiving this diagnosis, the only other option to get an abortion would be at the local Planned Parenthood affiliate. But if the abnormality comes with certain health risks that may complicate the procedure and endanger the life of the mother, the case would have to be referred back to a hospital outside the Greater Cincinnati area, according to Craig.

According to the Ohio Department of Health's annual report, only 84 of more than 21,000 abortions were performed in hospitals in 2014—merely 0.4 percent of all abortions statewide. Christ Hospital reported performing a total of 59 such abortions in the past five and a half years.

Ohio has several abortion restrictions in place, including requiring counseling with information to discourage abortions, a 24-hour waiting period between counseling and abortion, and the right for all medical professional and institutions to refuse to provide an abortion.

Bans on abortion because of fetal abnormalities are not common in the United States. Only North Dakota has a statewide ban. Arizona, Minnesota, and Oklahoma require counseling if a hospital abortion is sought because of a lethal fetal abnormality. And in some cases, as with the Christ Hospital in Cincinnati, a single hospital enacts the policy.

During the 2012 presidential race, candidate Rick Santorum declared that 90 percent of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted, but no comprehensive data exists on how many women choose to abort after a fetal abnormality is detected. In early 2013, Americans United for Life put forth draft model legislation that aimed to end "discrimination based on genetic abnormalities," as AUL president and CEO Charmaine Yoest put it. The North Dakota ban was a result—Indiana and Missouri also picked it up, but the measures ultimately failed.

The Zika virus—a virus transmitted by both mosquitos and sexual encounters that may be linked to microcephaly—has focused attention on the issue of pregnancy termination in cases of fetal abnormalities. Women in El Salvador, Brazil, Honduras, and Colombia, where the virus is spreading, have been urged to avoid pregnancy. While the North American climate is inhospitable to the mosquito population that is responsible for the spread closer to the equator, the potential reach of the virus does include a small sliver of the southern United States, according to a map by the World Health Organization.

Should the virus spread in the United States, women who live where fetal abnormality abortions are prohibited may still have an option. In the 1960s, when the rubella pandemic hit, the virus caused birth defects such as blindness and deafness. Although abortion was illegal in the decade before Roe v. Wade, "therapeutic abortions"—meaning doctors verified that the procedure was medically necessary—were allowed.

The specifics of the Zika virus are still being determined by scientists and medical professionals, but if the connection between the virus and microcephaly is confirmed, it could have a powerful impact on reproductive policy in Latin America and the United States.

Chart of the Day: Another Sign That Dodd-Frank Is Working

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 12:25 AM EST

Via Matt O'Brien, this chart from JP Morgan shows financial sector leverage over the past few decades. As you can see, leverage skyrocketed during the Bush era, which contributed to the 2008 financial meltdown, and then plummeted shortly thereafter. Then it flattened out for a couple of years, and under normal circumstances it probably would have started to climb again when the economy began to recover. Two things stopped it: Dodd-Frank and Basel III, both of which mandated higher capital requirements and thus lower overall leverage levels. This has reduced Wall Street profits but made the banking system safer for everyone.

In other words: financial regulation FTW. Nothing is perfect, and Wall Street is doing everything it can to undermine Dodd-Frank during the rulemaking process, but if it accomplishes nothing except encouraging less leverage it will have done its most important job.

These Charts Show How the US Is Failing Syrian Refugees

| Tue Feb. 2, 2016 8:36 PM EST
Syrian women wait in line to receive winter aid at the Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan, on January 20.

The United States and some other rich nations need to step up their game when it comes to helping millions of Syrians fleeing their country's brutal civil war, according to a new study released this week by international aid group Oxfam.

Since 2011, about 250,000 people have been killed and 11 million more have fled from their homes amid fighting between the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the country's rebel groups. On Thursday, the United Nations is co-hosting a conference in London to raise money for Syrians who have been affected by the crisis.

Ahead of that conference, Oxfam crunched some data to figure out how much the United States and other rich countries donated in 2015—and whether, based on the relative size of their economies, they gave their "fair share" of the $8.9 billion total that Oxfam says was needed. For many of the countries, Oxfam found, the answer to that second question was a resounding no. The United States, for example, donated $1.56 billion in aid last year, more than any other country. But with the world's biggest economy, its "fair share" contribution should have been more than $2 billion, according to Oxfam—and it only gave 76 percent of that. Russia and France, which have also been deeply involved in Syria's civil war, were relatively stingy, too. By contrast, Kuwait, a smaller country, gave 554 percent of its fair share by donating $313 million in aid.

Oxfam also evaluated whether countries have pledged to take in their fair share of Syrian refugees—again, based on the size of their economies. Oxfam has called on rich countries to resettle at least one-tenth of refugees living in Syria's neighboring countries—about 460,000 people—by the end of 2016, but notes that to date they have only collectively offered to resettle 128,612 people. Since 2013, the United States has agreed to take in only 7 percent of what Oxfam deems to be the country's fair share of refugees.

Advertise on

Here's the Myth Donald Trump Might Ride All the Way to the White House

| Tue Feb. 2, 2016 7:39 PM EST

Bruce Bartlett has written a new paper that examines the role of "reverse racism" in the rise of Donald Trump. Bartlett touches on a number of topics—e.g., changing demographics, partisan realignment, the media promotion of race as an in-group marker—but the cornerstone of his narrative is a simple recognition that fear of reverse racism is deep and pervasive among white Americans. Here's the basic lay of the land from a bit of research done a few years ago by Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers:

As you can see, everyone agrees that racism was endemic in the '50s, and everyone agrees that it has improved since then. But among whites, a majority believe racism against blacks has improved so much—and reverse racism against whites has intensified so much—that today there's actually more bias against whites than against blacks.

The Norton-Summers study doesn't break down racial views further, but it's a safe guess that fears of reverse racism are concentrated primarily among political conservatives—encouraged on a near daily basis by talk radio, Fox News, and Republican politicians. Given this, it's hardly any wonder that Trump's barely coded appeals to racial resentment have resonated so strongly among Republican voters. Trump himself may or may not have any staying power, but his basic appeal is rooted in a culture of white grievance that's been growing for years and is likely to keep growing in the future as white majorities continue to shrink. No matter what happens to Trump himself, he's mainstreamed white victimhood as a political force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.

Ted Cruz Took a Position on Fireworks Legalization in Iowa to Win 60 Votes

| Tue Feb. 2, 2016 3:56 PM EST

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?

Then you probably voted for Ted Cruz. Bloomberg's Sasha Issenberg has the most intriguing analysis of the Texas senator's victory in last night's Iowa caucuses, explaining how Chris Wilson, the Cruz campaign's pollster and director of analytics, carved up the state's eligible voters into 150 different categories with a borderline spooky precision. No issue was too small for the Cruz campaign—not even the legalization of fireworks sales, which are currently illegal in Iowa:

When there was no way that a segment could be rolled up into a larger universe, as was the case with the sixty Iowans who were expected to make a priority of fireworks reform, Cruz's volunteers would see the message reflected in the scripts they read from phone banks, adjusted to the expected profile of the listener. A Stoic Traditionalist would hear that "an arbitrary ban of this kind is infringing on liberty," as a messaging plan prepared by Cambridge Analytica put it, while Relaxed Leaders are "likely to enjoy parties and community celebrations, such as the 4th of July, and thus a fun-killing measure of this kind is unlikely to sit well with them."

But here's the best part:

Unlike most of his opponents, Cruz has put a voter-contact specialist in charge of his operation, and it shows in nearly every aspect of the campaign he has run thus far and intends to sustain through a long primary season. Cruz, it should be noted, had no public position on Iowa's fireworks law until his analysts identified sixty votes that could potentially be swayed because of it.

And it's true—fireworks reform might not be a big issue among Iowa voters, but it does look like a real pain to celebrate America's independence if you live in Des Moines, a healthy two-hour drive from the nearest place to purchase fireworks legally. If you didn't know what Iowa looked like, you could draw a near-perfect outline of the state just by connecting the dots of all the fireworks retailers on its borders seeking business from Hawkeye State fireworks enthusiasts:

Google Maps

The reasons why Cruz prevailed go well beyond his campaign's microtargeting. Maybe Trump should have considered spending real money, or investing in a better ground game himself, or—I'm reaching here—conducting his life in a way that didn't thoroughly alienate the evangelical voters who comprised two-thirds of the electorate. But Cruz has proven that he's a candidate who knows what he's doing.

Ted Cruz's College Roommate Can't Stop Talking Smack About Him

| Tue Feb. 2, 2016 3:45 PM EST
Ted Cruz celebrates his Iowa victory.

Craig Mazin is on a Twitter roll.

His antipathy for his former Princeton roommate, Ted Cruz, has made him a public sounding board for Cruz haters and fun seekers, and a target for the senator's supporters. "I would rather have anybody else be the president of the United States," Mazin told the Daily Beast. "Anyone. I would rather pick somebody from the phone book."

Plenty of Cruz fans tweet at Mazin to take issue with his mini-diatribes or, since Monday, to gloat over their candidate's victory in Iowa. But Mazin politely gives as good as he gets. Here are his relevant exchanges from the past 48 hours or so. (Click the links for more context.)

Donald Trump Lost the Iowa Caucus. Now He’s Whining on Twitter.

| Tue Feb. 2, 2016 11:54 AM EST

This is such an awesome bit of whining from Donald Trump that I felt I had to share it. I think we need a new word for this. Trump+whining = Twining. Or Trump + griping = Triping. Or something. Maybe figure out a way to add the concept that he's actually a winner even when he's objectively a failure. That might take some kind of German construction, though.