This is a momentous day. Today the Department of Health and Human Services announced that they will be following the Institute of Medicine's recommendations and require new health insurance plans to cover services like breastfeeding support, HIV counseling, and FDA-approved contraception for no cost to the consumer. That's right. Instead of paying $50 a month for birth control, or even more for sterilization, women could instead pay nothing out-of-pocket.

Those savings could really add up: a rough estimate by GOOD showed that even with insurance, a woman can spend around $40 per gestational diabetes screening, $20 per HPV test, $50 per HIV screening, $670 for breast-feeding supplies, $40 for each pelvic exam, $15-$50 per month of birth control, and $200 for domestic violence screening and counseling. Considering many of these expenses must be repeated, especially birth control, it can add up to a sizable amount. All these services would be provided with no co-pay under the new guidelines.

The new law has a few limitations. Women may have to pay more for brand-name birth control if a generic exists. Only new plans must include these services, and they don't have to start until on or after August 1, 2012. In addition, a possible amendment would exempt churches and religious institutions from covering the preventative services under insurance provided to their employees.

Although most of the services that must be covered seem pretty non-controversial, there is the inevitable hand-wringing by conservatives. The part that has them most in arms seems to be that the new guidelines would mandate insurance companies provide emergency contraception like Plan B for no cost. This article from LifeSiteNews, for example, says that "insurance plans will be required to cover contraceptives, which include abortion drugs such as Plan B and Ella, as well as elective sterilizations."* The director of Human Life International is quoted as saying the ruling equates pregnancy with a disease and "that children are an enemy of the health and well-being of women." Elsewhere, a Family Research Council director has told the media that "The new rule will force many Americans to violate their consciences or refrain from participating in health care insurance, further burdening an already costly system."

Although some conservative organizations are displeased with the rulings, studies show that providing birth control for free can reduce abortions and unplanned pregnancies. Currently, around half of all pregnancies in the US are unplanned, and 40% of those unplanned pregnancies end in abortion. Unplanned pregnancies cost the US around $10 to $12 billion a year. Although some are concerned insurance companies will pass on the cost of the services to subscribers, even though some plans already cover things like STD testing and annual pelvic exams, in the long run the preventative services covered are expected to reduce health care costs by preventing unplanned pregnancies and diagnosing cancers earlier.


*As it's been said many times before, Plan B does not cause abortions. It prevents conception but does not terminate existing pregnancies. The FDA classifies Plan B as a contraceptive. RU-486 will not be covered under the new guidelines.

Poop in Your Water

In disgusting scientific findings news, recent studies in California and Wisconsin reveal that cracked city sewage pipes are leaking fecal matter. Teams of researchers at UC-Santa Barbara and the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee analyzed storm-drain water, which is supposed to come mainly from rain and lawns—sewage pipes are supposed to keep the yucky stuff out. But as lead researcher Sandra McLellan of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee told Science News, the team discovered that sewage bacteria was "nearly ubiquitous in the urban environment."

This is bad news for sensitive coastal ecosystems where storm drains often empty. But it's also possible that leaky sewer pipes could contaminate your drinking water, says one researcher:

Many drinking water mains, which are susceptible to corrosion and small breaks, have also been laid near sewer pipes. When water is squirting out under pressure from holes in those mains, germs can’t enter. But mains occasionally experience pressure drops, Edwards notes, which can momentarily cause germy material from the environment to get sucked in. Later, he notes, that filth will surge on toward home faucets.


Last week, researchers from New Zealand published a paper that showed that kids raised on livestock farms had an elevated risk of developing blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma later in life.  It didn't take long for the news of this finding to make it around the world. On Friday, an MSN Health News headline proclaimed, "Growing Up Near Livestock Tied to Blood Cancers." Whoa now, I thought. Near livestock? Plenty of people grow up in the general vicinity of farms. And given the growing popularity of urban agriculture, even city kids could be exposed to livestock on their very own block!

But before you forbid your kids to visit the petting zoo, let's take a closer look at the study. The researchers analyzed death certificates for more than 100,000 New Zealanders between the ages of 35 and 85, from 1998 and 2003, cross referencing cause of death with parents' occupation. If the deceased person had a parent who was, say, a poultry farmer, the researchers took that to mean that the person grew up on a poultry farm. The team found that subjects whose parents were livestock farmers were 22 percent more likely than those whose parents weren't farmers to develop blood cancer as adults. The finding was especially pronounced among children of poultry farmers, whose blood cancer rate was three times that of their non-farm-kid peers.

So, how to explain the connection? The researchers hypothesize that exposure to animal viruses during childhood might be to blame, making people more vulnerable to blood cancers later in life. But I wondered whether the researchers had considered the effects of pesticides, antibiotics, and other chemicals. Andrea Mannetje, a lead researcher on the study, explained that her team had looked at animal farming separately from crop farming, since crop farms generally use more pesticides. They found an increased cancer risk for growing up on animal farms but not for growing up on crop farms. "This suggests that pesticide exposure cannot explain this observed pattern for growing up on a farm," Mannetje says.

Mannetje admits, though, that livestock operations aren't always chemical-free. And unfortunately, the death certificates provided no information about which kind of chemicals and medicines each farm used, or in what quantity. In fact, the researchers didn't have a clue about the size or kind of operation to which each subject was exposed. Giant factory farm? Tiny mom-and-pop operation? No one knows. Given that, the headline claim that growing up "near" livestock leads to cancer looks awfully vague.

Still, despite the limitations, there's lots to pay attention to in this study. For example: Growing evidence suggests that kids raised on farms are less prone than non-farm kids to asthma, allergies, and other conditions involving the immune system. Some studies have found that people who suffer from these conditions are actually less likely to develop cancer than nonallergic people. One explanation for this, as the paper notes, is that "allergic conditions may enhance the ability of the immune system to detect and eliminate malignant cells." It'd be interesting to look at childhood farm exposure and cancer rates in the developing world, where asthma and allergies are much rarer than in the US.

The relationship between farming and cancer is strange. Several studies have found that farmers have an increased risk of developing leukemia and lymphoma. On the other hand, at least in the US, farmers are less likely than others to die of heart disease and cancers of the esophagus, bladder, lung, and colon, according to the National Cancer Institute. Having identified this pattern, researchers now hope to figure out what's causing it. To that end, the institute's Agricultural Health Study aims to tease out the particular environmental factors in farming that cause illness. The study is still going on, but one significant (if not terribly surprising) takeaway so far is that exposure to certain pesticides is linked to a wide variety of conditions, from cancer to Parkinson's to retinal degeneration. For more on the specific findings, click here.