Blue Marble - June 2009

Healthcare or Health Harm?

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 4:37 PM PDT

A commentary by two doctors in the current Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that it's time to differentiate between healthcare and health harm. Although the data are imprecise, the authors suggest the benefits delivered by US healthcare may not outweigh the aggregate harm imparted.

In other words, you can never have too much health. Yet your health can be harmed by the overuse of medicine or by the costs of funding healthcare.

How does that work? First there's direct harm from healthcare, including adverse physical and emotional effects from all the usual stuff associated with everything from excessive use to misdiagnoses to conflicting treatments.

Second, the authors suggest, there's indirect harm. This comes from the fact that healthcare costs increasingly divert resources from education, jobs, and environmental quality—all important determinants of your health.

Healthcare's objective should be to improve health, they say. Yet its primary emphasis has been on producing services. And fee-for-service payments tend to encourage the use of more treatments, new technologies, and extra testing. These additional services and their costs can actually harm health.

The fix? To begin with, study health harm to improve healthcare. Specifically, we need to understand the tradeoffs involved in healthcare interventions and expenditures in order to guide healthcare reform efforts. While more people need access to healthcare, that's not enough. Healthcare reform needs to improve how medicine is practiced: centering it on patients, organizing it around primary care, and curbing health harm, including excessive healthcare use and spending.

How about this Rx: Fewer drugs, cleaner water, better air, healthful food, more exercise, education, jobs… 
 

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BP = "Back to Petroleum?"

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 10:38 AM PDT

BP appears to be back pedaling on its vaunted commitment to alternative energy, renewing old skepticism about what the company formerly known as British Petroleum really stands for.

BP recently shuttered its alternative energy headquarters in London and plans to slash its $1.4 billion alternative energy budget by as much as 64 percent this year, the Guardian reports. Its clean energy boss, Vivienne Cox, is officially stepping down to spend more time with her family, though some industry insiders tell the paper that she's frustrated over the business being downgraded in importance.

Though BP has long led the oil industry in acknowleging climate change and investing in renewables, alternative energy investments make up only 5 percent of its portfolio. "Even its support of Kyoto is pilloried as disingenuous," Paul Roberts wrote in this magazine in 2006. "BP happens to be overstocked in reserves of natural gas, a fuel that emits less CO2 than coal or oil, and whose price would rise steeply if society was forced to cut carbon emissions."

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, June 30

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

On this last day of June, a look at health, environment, and science news from our other blogs:

Dough for "no" on cap-and-trade: 3,446,089 very compelling reasons that some legislators voted against Waxman-Markey.

Starry night: In Afghanistan, US troops on a night mission. Green tank, breathtaking skyscape, one cool photo.

Unscientific American: Does McCain really not understand or use the Internet? Well, uh, you see...

 

Cute Endangered Animal of the Week: Island Fox

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

No, Blue Marblers, "Island Fox" is not the name of a new reality TV series. It's one of many names for a tiny, adorably fuzzy fox that lives on six of the eight California Channel Islands. The Island Fox, also called the Island Gray Fox because of its descent from mainland gray foxes, weighs only 5 lbs as an adult and is just now recovering from near extinction.

The Island Fox has lived on the Channel Islands for thousands of years, with each island evolving its own subspecies. All the Island Foxes were thriving until the 1990s, when changes in the local ecosystem had a disasterous chain effect on the species. DDT poisoned fish, which in turn poisoned the Islands' native bald eagles. The bald eagles' population decline opened up turf for non-native golden eagles who were attracted by the Islands' feral pigs. Once on the Islands, the golden eagles found Island Foxes easy prey since the foxes never had a predator, much less one that struck from above. In addition, sheep and other livestock had eaten much of the protective scrub and grasses foxes might have used for cover. Golden eagles quickly decimated the foxes. On one island, the fox population plummeted from 450 animals to 15 in just a few years.

To bring back the species, the National Park Service instituted a number of measures. Firstly, they removed golden eagles and re-introduced native bald eagles. Secondly, the Service created an ambitious captive breeding program, which you can learn more about here. And thirdly, the department is working on totally eradicating feral pigs so that golden eagles do not come back. Through this multimillion-dollar, multi-pronged approach, the National Park Service has been successful in bringing the Island Fox back from the brink of extinction in record time.

Now that Island Fox populations are recovering, the diurnal animals can be seen on the Islands living naturally. The foxes eat mostly fruit, insects, and deer mice and are devoted parents. They mate for life, having two to three pups per litter. Foxes communicate not only with body language, but with growls and short, high-pitched barks. Although they are now the subjects of active conservation, the foxes remain federally endangered. To learn more about the Foxes, and learn more about their history, you can visit the National Park Service's page here or visit a conservancy organization here.

 

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Solar in the Desert: Can We Get It Right This Time?

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 3:37 AM PDT

It's partly the florid language that makes me and some other Westerners uneasy.

"Arizona, the New Frontier! Armed with an abundance of sunlight, Arizona is the land of sunshine and opportunity."

That palaver could have been lifted from a 19th Century swindler's sheet, written to separate greenhorns from their golden coins. But, in fact, I just cut-and-pasted it from the Bureau of Land Management's current website. The BLM controls vast areas of the West, (68% of Nevada, 40% of Utah, 17% of Arizona) and is pitching the opportunities for "solar development companies, or 'prospectors'" in the old New Frontier of the American Southwest.

Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (who oversees the BLM) designated 670,000 acres in six Western states as Solar Energy Study Areas. The Las Vegas Sun described these tracts of BLM desert lands as being "on a fast track for development" as giant solar power farms. To ensure that permits are issued quickly, Salazar announced that the BLM will open four new offices in California, Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming.

Now, I know we need to kick our addiction to fossil-fuel. And I also believe that using renewable energy sources like solar and getting serious about energy conservation are keys to a livable future. But I'm also aware of our history of "development" -- the Western spin-cycle of boom and bust, hope and despair, professed love of the land and simultaneous destruction of it.

Sandy Bahr knows all of this, too. But, she says, "Maybe this time we can get it right."

Bahr is the director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter, an organization which was working on land use issues before Arizona was a state. "We don't need to get into those old conflicts this time," she says.

There's plenty of "disturbed" land in the West, she points out. Why not build renewable energy power plants on the scars left by the old polluting ones? Why not recycle abandoned agricultural land that should never have been cultivated and let solar power companies buy water-depleting farms and use that land (some forms of solar power plants are water intensive, but still need less than agriculture)?

Transmission lines, which can interfere with migrating wildlife, don't have to be a problem either, Bahr says. Route them alongside freeways, which already prevent animals from crossing.

There are cultural and human rights issues to consider, as well.

During a BLM sponsored public hearing on solar development in California in 2008, Carmen Lucas, a member of the Kumeyaay Nation, told the Bureau that before anything was built in his area, someone from the Kumeyaay community would need to examine the area to make sure it wasn't an ancient burial site. The "need for speed," he told the BLM, must not be allowed to trump Native people's rights.

Over the next several months, the BLM will be making siting decisions for these new solar mega-plants. That, says Bahr, is when we'll see how committed to meaningful change the nation really is.

Osha Gray Davidson covers solar energy for The Phoenix Sun, and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here.

Swine Flu Accidentally Resurrected From the Dead?

| Mon Jun. 29, 2009 4:35 PM PDT

Amid an unsettling report today of Tamiflu resistance in a Danish A(H1N1) patient, comes a study in The New England Journal of Medicine tracing the swine flu's 90-year evolution.

The current flu strain has genetic roots in an illness that sickened pigs at a swine show in 1918 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A near-century of development since then may include this flu's accidental resurrection from an extinct strain.

Here's what likely went down. At the same time the 1918 flu pandemic was spreading among humans, pigs were hit with a similar respiratory illness. Early experiments confirmed the 1918 swine virus and a human strain emerged about the same time.

According to the authors of the new paper, there was a temporary "extinction" of this strain of virus from humans in 1957. But then it reemerged 20 years later in a small 230-person outbreak in 1976 among soldiers in Fort Dix, New Jersey. That outbreak did not extend beyond the military base.

However the next year H1N1 reemerged in people in the Soviet Union, Hong Kong, and northeastern China. The genetic origin of that 1977 strain turns out not to be the 1976 Fort Dix strain. Instead, it was closely related to a 1950 human strain.

Which means that given the genetic similarity of the two strains, reemergence was likely due to an accidental release during laboratory studies of the 1950 strain that had been preserved as a "freezer" virus.

Ouch. Hate it when that happens.

The authors hypothesize that concerns about the Fort Dix outbreak stimulated a flurry of research on H1N1 viruses in 1976, which led to an accidental release and reemergence of the previously extinct virus a year later. The reemerged 1977 H1N1 strain has been circulating in various seasonal influenzas ever since—including today's.


Or maybe it wasn't such an accidental a release? Conspiracists, restart your engines.
 

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The GOP's Fake Climate Scandal

| Mon Jun. 29, 2009 3:15 PM PDT

Most people accept that politicians do stupid things in the service of parochial interests and paleolithic ideologies. It's a problem as old as Congress. Yet occasionally a Congressman does something beyond stupid--something that causes thinking people to wonder if this representative has the intelligence or integrity to serve in public office. These moments are like ice sheets splitting off the Arctic Shelf and sliding into the ocean--they're fun to watch and yet totally depressing.

Today's example comes from Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla), who has ordered a Congressional investigation into how the EPA "suppressed" a report that questioned the science behind climate change. Grist notes that the "suppressed" report was written by an economist with no training in climate science, includes no original research, cites old and irreputable references, and was nonetheless accepted, unsolicited, by the EPA's climate scientists for consideration. If the meagreness of the report's policy impact is a scandal, then so is the fact that Joe the Plumber isn't the go-to guy for rewiring your attic.

And yet Inhofe tells Fox News that this EPA economist, Alan Carlin, "came out with the truth" and that "they don't want the truth at the EPA." Inhofe really could be this stupid, or there could be a deeper, more cynical political logic at work. Fox concluded that "the controversy is similar to one under the Bush administration--only the administration was taking the opposite stance." Fox's message to its readers seems to be that the legitimate James Hansen scandal and the phony Alan Carlin "scandal" cancel each other out. It's all just politics.

If you believe that, how do you decipher the truth behind climate change? One way would be to start with what you already think you know and then look for those scientists--or economists posing as scientists--who support that position. Last week Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga) claimed that global warming was a "hoax"--a statement, impossible to back up with more than partisan intuition, that was met with applause on the House floor.  It must have been quite a spectacle: A big chunk of legislators, smaller than in years past but still frozen in their beliefs, taking a jolly plunge into insanity.

 

 

Obama Allots $346 Million for Efficiency, Research

| Mon Jun. 29, 2009 12:18 PM PDT

President Obama joined Secretary of Energy Steven Chu Monday in announcing new regulations designed to cut carbon emissions and energy use with efficient technology, along with $346 million from the stimulus bill for efficiency research.

The regulations specifically target lighting, which the Department of Energy says consumes seven percent of all energy we use. While compact-fluorescent bulbs and incandescent lighting aren't the most inherently exciting subjects, the DOE says the new regs will curb 594 million tons of CO2 and eliminate the need for 14 coal-fired power plants—over the next 30 years.

While 594 million tons is a huge chunk of carbon, over the next thirty years it will equate to less than one half of one percent of our total carbon footprint. Americans regularly emit around 15.6 trillion pounds—about 78 billion tons—of carbon every year. In other words, the energy department's plan is a step in the right direction, but it's a minuscule one.

Eco-News Roundup: Monday, June 29

| Mon Jun. 29, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

A merry Monday to all. Here's a selection of green-tinged stories from our other blogs you might have missed: 

Sleeping With the Enemy: Canst the Greenpeace layeth down with the GOP?

Double the Cats, Double the Fun!: Feline Friday tradition continues, but with twice the catness.

Quantity v. Quality: Michael Jackson coverage swamps meaningful House debates on the climate change bill.

Climate=PASS: Climate aka green jobs bill passes the House.

 

Updated, Full Text Version of Waxman-Markey Climate Bill

| Sat Jun. 27, 2009 2:54 PM PDT

If you—like Reps Joe Barton (R-TX) and John Boehner (R-OH)—are having problems locating a full text version of the Waxman-Markey climate bill, HR 2454, complete with amendments, we've linked to them here.

While the GOP made a fetish out of secrecy when they were in charge, there is still a lot of work to be done to increase goverment transparency. Part of that effort is to allow everyone to have access to pending legislation in a timely manner, including but not limited to the honorable gentlemen from Texas and Ohio.

Transparency is a good idea; it ought to be the law. And, guess what? There's an organization trying to make that a reality. Read the Bill supports House Resolution 554, which would require that all legislation be available online for public review for a minimum of three days before it could be voted on.

Check them out. Happy reading.

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Osha Gray Davidson is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones.