Blue Marble

Hop The Fence For Healthcare

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 8:12 PM EDT

The largest randomized health policy study ever conducted finds a health care program that's been astonishing effective in reducing crippling health care costs among poorer households.

Did I mention this health care program is in México? At the rate things are going we're going to be climbing over the border fence and headed south for what we can't get here.

A paper in the current Lancet scientifically establishes that Seguro Popular, established in 2003, achieved its main goal to reduce health care costs.

"The success of Seguro Popular in reducing catastrophic health expenditures is remarkable, not least because governmental money spent on the poor in many countries rarely reaches the intended recipients," said Gary King of Harvard University, lead author on the study.

The study included 500,000 people and monitored health outcomes and expenditures in 118,569 households in 174 communities over 10 months. Half the communities received treatment. That means families in those villages were encouraged to enroll in Seguro Popular. They had their health facilities built or upgraded, with medical personnel, drugs and other supplies provided. The other half didn't get squat.

The outcome of the study is interesting enough. But its innovative research designs and statistical methods vastly increased what can be learned from an evaluation while saving a short ton of money making the evaluation.

The design includes failsafe components that preserve the experimental randomization even if politics or other problems intervene, including those that have ruined most previous large scale public policy evaluations.

Aren't we doing that right now in the US? Don't we need to screen politics out of the equation? Any researchers from this study willing to look at our own sick health care system?
 

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Pap Smears Begone!

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 6:26 PM EDT

What? "Spread em and grin" might be hitting the bricks? Yep, according to the Times:

A new DNA test for the virus that causes cervical cancer does so much better than current methods that some gynecologists hope it will eventually replace the Pap smear in wealthy countries and cruder tests in poor ones.
Not only could the new test for human papillomavirus, or HPV, save lives; scientists say that women over 30 could drop annual Pap smears and instead have the DNA test just once every 3, 5 or even 10 years, depending on which expert is asked.
Their optimism is based on an eight-year study of 130,000 women in India financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine. It is the first to show that a single screening with the DNA test beats all other methods at preventing advanced cancer and death.
'The study is another nail in the coffin for Pap smears, which will soon be of mainly historical interest,' said Dr. Paul D. Blumenthal, a professor of gynecology at Stanford medical school who has tested screening techniques in Africa and Asia and was not involved in the study.
But whether the new test is adopted will depend on many factors, including hesitation by gynecologists to abandon Pap smears, which have been remarkably effective. Cervical cancer was a leading cause of death for American women in the 1950s; it now kills fewer than 4,000 a year.

Downside: The insurance industry will no doubt use those DNA results, if this pans out, to take our premiums for years—then deny us a payout based on our genetic profiles. But still...no more Pap smears? Yippee!

Organic Kicks Monoculture Ass

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 7:54 PM EDT

Guess what? Those endless fields of corn, soybeans, or alfalfa are not the thriftiest way to farm. Not in dollar terms. Not in environmental terms. So why are continuous and no-till farming still such staples in American agriculture? Because you & I subsidize them with our tax dollars. Farm welfare for the corporate farm.

A 13-year study out of the University of Wisconsin assessed pastures planted with multiple crop species, as well as organic fields, and compared them to conventional alfalfa and corn farms at two sites in southern Wisconsin from 1993 to 2006.

The simple conclusion: Diversified systems were more profitable than monocropping and organic systems were more profitable than the Midwestern standards of continuous corn, no-till corn, no-till soybeans, and intensively managed alfalfa.

Even adding risk premiums into the equation did not give monoculture the edge expected by the researchers. Bottom line: monoculture is riskier and less profitable than organic and rotational farming.

The authors' advice: Government support of monoculture is outdated and should be shifted to programs that promote crop rotations and organic farming practices.

When that happens—you know what?—we'll all be able to afford food that is better for us and better for the planet. Let's go, Thomas J. Vilsack, Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture, hailing from Iowa, land of the newly progressive. Lead the way.

Trophy Wives Beware: Sugar Daddy's Dipstick May Be Defective

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 6:08 PM EDT

According to Lisa Belkin, "Researchers at the University of Queensland found that children born to older fathers have, on average, lower scores on tests of intelligence than those born to younger dads. Data they analyzed from more than 33,000 American children showed that the older the man when a child is conceived, the lower a child's score is likely to be on tests of concentration, memory, reasoning and reading skills, at least through age 7."

It gets worse: higher risk of autism, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. Not good news, but it does sort of even the cultural score in which past-their-prime women are understood to be the greatest risk to the children they bear 'late' in life. Damaged goods. Darwin makes them chase younger women to bear their healthy children, not mid-life crises. But what if younger women start looking at that "distinguished" guy driving the red 'vette and thinking like Belkin?

The push and pull between timetables and dreams, between our bodies and our babies, is at the core of many women's worldview, which also means it is at the core of relationships between the sexes. This tension feeds the stereotype of woman as eager to settle down and men as reluctant, and it's the crux of why we see women as "old" and men as "distinguished."
If those underlying assumptions were to change, would all that follows from them change as well? A world in which each man heard his clock tick even a fraction as urgently as each woman could be a very different world indeed. All those silver-haired sex symbols, and balding sugar daddies, and average-Joe divorced guys who are on their second families because they can be while their exes are raising their first set of kids—what if all of them became, in women's eyes, too darned old?
What if 30-year-old women started looking at 50-year-old men as damaged goods, what with their washed-up sperm, meaning those 50-year-olds might actually have to date (gasp!) women their own age? What if men, as the years passed, began to look with new eyes at Ms. Almost Right? Would men of all ages come to understand—firsthand, not just from the sidelines—the fear that the very passage of time will put your not-yet-conceived baby at risk?
Welcome to the club boys.

Empire State Building Cutting Energy Use by 40 Percent

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 1:28 PM EDT | Scheduled to publish Mon Apr. 6, 2009 1:28 PM EDT

The owners of the Empire State Building announced Monday they will invest $20 million in the 80-year-old skyscraper as part of a plan to cut the building's overall energy use by 40 percent.

Projections from the Clinton Climate Initiative, Johnson Controls, Inc., and the Rocky Mountain Institute showed the building will save $4.4 million a year—and qualify the building for a LEED Gold certification—after the project is complete in a few years.

The thing I like most about this project is how they're going to save that energy and cut their carbon output: They'll be retrofitting windows and radiators, and installing new lighting and ventilation systems—all in the name of efficiency.

The Rocky Mountain Institute and its founder, Amory Lovins, have been promoting energy efficiency for more than two decades now. As Lovins told Mother Jones last May, it's one of the cheapest and best ways to save money and cut carbon.

MJ: If you had $1 million to invest in the energy sector, where would you put it?

AL: Efficient use. I want to do the cheapest things first to get the most climate protection and other benefits per dollar. Buying micropower and “negawatts” [Lovins' term for efficiency measures] instead of nuclear gives you about 2 to 11 times more carbon reduction per dollar, and you get it much faster.

In other words, owners of older buildings don't have to wait around for cleaner energy—and a smart grid to supply it—to proliferate before they can cut carbon output and energy use. And Lovins thinks the this project in particular could "help inform and inspire [similar] initiatives." In a building so iconic, the project certainly sets an example. If the cost-saving projections hold, it should turn into a trend.

Friday Cocktail: Dash the Wolves, Splash of Dolphins, Jigger the Straw Bale House, Shake Over Ice

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 9:31 PM EDT
As Oscar Wilde said: Work is the curse of the drinking class.

Round 1: In Your Eye. The US Fish & Wildlife Service basically threw up its hands (again) on the issue of gray wolves and tossed their fate back into the temperamental ballcourt of the states of the West. Except for the state of Wyoming. Apparently Wyoming's thirst for wolf blood turns even the stomach of rancher and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Wyoming managed to slaughter wolves so fast after 2006's aborted delisting that they lost the privilege to kill any more under their own terms. Just yet.

I mean, seriously, Team Obama... Sarah Palin could hardly have shot a better bull's-eye from her Alaskan helicopter. The final rule removing federal protections for wolves was published yesterday in the Federal Register and will go into effect on May 4 when state wolf management laws take effect. So, run, Wolves, run. Meanwhile lawsuit engines are revving, including those of the Humane Society of the United States.

Round 2: ¡Salud!
A federal judge just kept alive a lawsuit that might just keep the Mexican wolf alive. US District Judge David Bury buried a motion by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to throw out a lawsuit regarding the reintroduction of the Mexican wolf—the subspecies of gray wolf exterminated in the Southwest since the 1930s. The feds reintroduced them in Arizona-New Mexico in 1998 and biologists hoped to have at least 100 in the wild by now and 18 breeding pairs. Instead we've got just 52 and only two breeding pairs. Why? Because ranchers keep killing them and even worse the frakkin USFWS trapped and shot 19 wolves in 2007. That's nearly three times the number of suspicious wolf deaths in 2008. Team Obama? Wake up.

The lawsuit by Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, and many others claims the USFWS is sitting on their lazy asses and relinquishing their powers to others. The lawsuit also challenges a perverted 3-strikes rule that calls for wolves to be permanently removed from the wild (huh?) or killed (oh…) if they prey on livestock three or more times within one year. Judge Bury is saying: Hang on there, pardner. Let's try this in court. Buy that man a drink.

Round 3: Sláinte! Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society announced the discovery of 6,000 rare Irrawaddy dolphins in Bangladesh. Prior to this announcement, dolphin populations in the area were feared to number in only the low 100s. In neighboring Burma, these dolphins fish cooperatively with humans, herding schools of fish toward boats and then benefiting from the relationship by easily preying on the fish cornered in the nets and from those falling out of the nets when the fishermen pull them from the water. I'll drink to that.

Round 4: Stirred but not shaken!
A greater than 7.6 magnitude simulated temblor did not knock down Darcey Donovan's straw bale house at the University Of Nevada Reno. The full-scale, 14-by-14-foot straw house, complete with gravel foundation and clay plaster walls—just the way she builds them in Pakistan—was subjected to 200 percent more acceleration and shaking than was recorded at the 1994 Northridge CA earthquake: the largest measured ground acceleration in the world. The straw house also survived the equivalent of the 2005 Kashmir temblor that killed 100,000 people and left 3.3 million homeless or living in tents. Buy that woman a drink.

Round 5: Here's to Hell, where the snowballs are melting. The European Space Agency reports that the Wilkins Ice Shelf is leaving its home base on the Antarctic Peninsula as the ice bridge connecting it to Charcot and Latady Islands looks set to collapse. The beginning of the demise of the ice bridge began this week when new rifts resulted in a large block of ice breaking away. Bye-bye iceberg.

Round 6: Sotally tobering.

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MIT Teams Up With the Flu to Make Batteries

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 8:16 PM EDT

You may have heard of oil-eating microbes, or microbes turning weeds into biofuels. Now, there are battery-making microbes.

A few MIT whizzes recently discovered a way to make genetically modified flu viruses help construct the anode and cathode (negative and positive) ends of re-chargeable lithium batteries.

The research team, led by MIT professors Angela Belcher, Paula Hammond, and Yet-Ming Chiang, made the virus self-assemble a host of carbon nanotubes (each one-tenth the width of a human hair) and tiny particles of iron phosphate and silver (for the cathode) or cobalt oxide and gold (for the anode) to create a network of charged nanowires, which act as active battery material.

Although the batteries are very small, they have an above average energy density, and the method could conceivably be developed to make larger batteries used in everything from portable chargers to electric cars. Belcher says that just 10 grams of the viral battery material could power an iPod for 40 hours.

Rocket Fuel Found in Infant Formula

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 12:40 AM EDT

A scary new under-the-radar CDC study has found that 15 infant formulas sold in the US are contaminated with the rocket fuel additive perchlorate—which is even worse than it sounds, because so is the tap water parents mix formula with.

From the Environmental Working Group:

Researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have reported that 15 brands of powdered infant formula are contaminated with perchlorate, a rocket fuel component detected in drinking water in 28 states and territories.
The two most contaminated brands, made from cow’s milk, accounted for 87 percent of the U.S. powdered formula market in 2000, the scientists said.
The CDC scientists did not identify the formula brands they tested.
The little-noticed CDC findings, published in the March 2009 edition of the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, raise new concerns about perchlorate pollution, a legacy of Cold War rocket and missile tests. Studies have established that the chemical is a potent thyroid toxin that may interfere with fetal and infant brain development (Kirk 2006).

Read the full EWG report, or learn more about perchlorate in this Mother Jones investigation by David Corn.

Update: Don't miss ProPublica's story on perc problems.

Senate Introduces Mining Reform Bill

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 4:30 PM EDT
Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico has just introduced a mining reform bill in the Senate, bringing Congress one step closer to updating the nation's most outdated public lands law, the General Mining Law of 1872. A similar bill from House stalled in the Senate last year, where Majority leader Harry Reid, the son of a gold miner, has been a powerful ally of the hard rock minerals industry. Mining companies are still allowed to remove minerals from public lands without paying a cent in federal royalties. As I reported in a recent profile of Reid, Nevada remains an anachronism in a region that is becoming much less tolerant of the America's most polluting industry.

Bingaman's bill is less progressive than a similar House measure, but might win key support from Reid and moderate Republicans. According to Velma Smith, the manager of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, the bill proposes reducing the House's proposed 8 percent royalty to something between 2 and 5 percent, to be set at the discretion of the Department of Interior. It would also impose a reclamation fee of .3 to 1 percent.

In what's been a keen interest of Bingaman's, the bill also asks the National Academy of Sciences to perform a study on uranium mining. Smith says uranium, which is the only energy mineral overseen by the mining law, may be moved to a leasing system. Environmentalists have been concerned that mining on any one of 1,200 uranium mining claims along the Colorado River could pollute the water supply for Las Vegas and Southern California.

In other important respects, the Senate and House bills are the same. Both call for stricter environmental permitting of mines, better ways for lands to be set off-limits to mining, and more financial assurances that mining companies will clean up after themselves. The cost of cleaning up abandoned mines in the U.S. is now estimated to be at least $32 billion.

Will Reid support the bill? "I really don’t know," Smith says. "My sense was that Senator Bingaman's office took a long time vetting this with a lot of people. I don’t see this as an extreme bill by any means. So I think there’s a chance for the industry and environmentalists to come together."

The Catholic Church, AIDS, Condoms, and Specious Arguments

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 3:08 PM EDT

In a post Ross Douthaut called The AIDS Libel, he employs some dubious rhetoric in defense of the church's insistence on abstinence, vice condoms, in the face of an African epidemic. First he demands proof that African Catholics have higher infection rates. OK, to save time, I'll give him that one. But not this one:

...consider that Benedict XVI is the head of an international institution that does as much to fight disease and poverty as any NGO in the world. The Church runs hospitals, clinics, and schools; it channels hundred of millions of dollars in donations from the developed world to the wretched of the earth; it supports thousands upon thousands of priests, nuns and laypeople who work in some of the most difficult and dangerous conditions in the world. And it does so based on the same premises—an attempt to be faithful to the commandments of Jesus Christ—that undergird the Pope's insistence on preaching chastity, rather than promoting prophylactics. There are many other NGOs working in Africa that proceed from different premises, and take a different attitude toward matters sexual as a result, and if David Rothkopf prefers their approach that's perfectly understandable. But unless he's willing to tell the Catholic Church that it should fold up its charitable operations in the developing world and go home, I'd prefer to be spared the lectures on how the Pope is responsible for "massive death and suffering" among populations for whom Catholic institutions have provided lifelines beyond counting over the years, just because he isn't willing to to use his pulpit to preach the importance of playing it as safe as possible, health-wise, while you're committing what the Church considers mortal sin.

Let's begin with this: Where does the church get the bazillions it dispenses as largesse around the world? From individuals and from the incredible wealth it's amassed over time based on its influence. It didn't earn that money; it was given that money. And that bankroll rightly belongs to the world and should be spent there.

When the Pope gives up his mansions and jewel encrusted hand towels, I'll be impressed with his munificence. The church has a duty to the world to do the good it does. That's why we give it money (tax exemption, anyone?). To make the world better.

Next: Because the Catholic Church conducts large scale charity, it cannot be criticized?