Blue Marble

Are You at Risk for a Heart Attack? The Answer May Lie in Your Twitter Stream

| Thu Jan. 22, 2015 7:00 AM EST

Of the many illnesses that plague Americans, heart disease is the deadliest—and one of the toughest to predict. Epidemiologists have long used surveys and clinical data to tease out genetic factors from lifestyle risks such as diet, smoking, and stress, with little success. But a new study shows that there might be a better tool to assess heart disease: Twitter.

A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science analyzed tweets and health data from 1,300 counties across the United States. The researchers found that negative tweets—those expressing fatigue, hostility, and stress—were associated with elevated risk of coronary heart disease (the medical term for clogged arteries) in the counties where the writers of those tweets lived. High volumes of tweets expressing optimism, excitement, ambition, and activity, meanwhile, correlated with lower than average rates of heart disease.

Here are some word clouds with examples of language that predicted higher and lower levels of disease:

Psychological Science

What's more, the researchers found that the language used in tweets correlates much more closely with heart disease rates than traditional predictive factors such as your income and education level, your weight, and even whether you are a smoker:

Psychological Science

Lead author Johannes Eichstaedt, a psychological scientist at University of Pennsylvania, described Twitter as "the perfect tool for figuring out something like heart disease." Researchers have long suspected connections between emotional states and heart disease risk. And while it's not surprising that people with high levels of stress and anger would be at higher risk than their mellower, happier peers, researchers have traditionally relied on surveys to evaluate people's psychological well being. The problem is that survey-based studies can take years, and people aren't always honest about their feelings. Which makes Twitter a researcher's treasure trove. "Twitter is where people talk about themselves, where they express their emotions candidly," Eichstaedt says.

Here's a map showing coronary heart disease deaths by county, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Psychological Science, CDC

Now compare it with this map, which predicts rates of heart disease based on tweet language:

Psychological Science, Twitter

Another bonus of using Twitter as an epidemiological tool: It's much easier and cheaper than going door to door or calling people to conduct surveys. "If I wanted to repeat this analysis I could do it in an afternoon," says Eichstaedt. "With surveys, that would take a year."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

No, You Shouldn't Let Fears of a Scary Nervous System Disease Stop You From Getting a Flu Shot

| Mon Jan. 19, 2015 7:00 AM EST

Despite abundant evidence that flu vaccines are safe and effective, only about a third of Americans get the shots each season. Public health experts believe that one reason for the low immunization rates is misinformation about side effects of the vaccine. One is the belief that the vaccine can actually give you the flu (false); another is that it can cause autism in children (also false, as we've said many times).

"Your risk of GBS actually goes down when you get the vaccine because it prevents the flu."

Add that to the worry that it will cause a rare but serious nervous-system disorder called Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS), an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, resulting in muscle weakness, or even temporary paralysis. This fear is not completely unfounded—several studies, including a recent one by Italian researchers about the 2010-2011 vaccine—have found that getting a flu shot can indeed very slightly elevate one's risk of contracting the disease, by about one additional case per million people.

But here's where things get complicated: While it's true that the flu vaccine can raise your GBS risk, so can the flu itself. So which is more likely to lead to GBS: Getting the vaccine or getting the flu?

That's the question that Steven Hawken and Kumanan Wilson, epidemiologists from The Ottawa Hospital, set out to answer. The researchers developed a calculator that took into account baseline GBS risk (overall, it's about 10 in a million, though it varies with age and sex—GBS affects more men than women and more elderly people than young adults and children), vaccine effectiveness, and overall incidence of flu. Their findings: For most people, in a flu season where the flu incidence is greater than 5 percent and the vaccine is more than 60 percent effective, says Wilson, "your risk of GBS actually goes down when you get the vaccine because it prevents the flu."

That's good news in most years, when the flu vaccine is well over 60 percent effective. Here's the problem: This year's flu vaccine is only about 23 percent effective. Still, according to Wilson, while this year's total flu incidence isn't yet known, it appears to be greater than that of an average year—much higher than 5 percent. That means that even with the reduced effectiveness of the vaccine, the overall GBS risk is likely still greater for people who contract the flu than for those who get immunized, says Wilson.

What's more, he adds, it's important to keep in mind that the risk of serious complications from the flu outweighs that of acquiring GBS. Last year, according to the CDC, 9,635 people were hospitalized with the flu in the United States. According to the CDC there are between 3,000-6,000 cases of GBS annually (though no hospitalization data is available). Most of those cases aren't caused by flu vaccines or the flu itself; the most common cause of GBS is infection with the bacterium Campylobacter jejeuni, usually the result of eating contaminated food.

The takeaway: The GBS risk from the flu itself is most likely greater than that of the vaccine. And while GBS can be a scary disease, it's much less common than scary complications FROM the flu.

Pope Francis: Climate Change Is Real and Humans Are Causing It

| Thu Jan. 15, 2015 6:55 PM EST

Pope Francis made headlines Thursday when he told reporters that he believes climate change is largely caused by humans. "I don't know if it [human activity] is the only cause, but mostly, in great part, it is man who has slapped nature in the face," said Francis, according to the Associated Press. "We have in a sense taken over nature."

But how does the pope know that humans are responsible for most of the unprecedented warming that has occurred in recent years? How can he be sure it wasn't caused by solar cycles? Or volcanoes? Or "global wobbling"? Here's a hint: The AP mentions that some of Francis' top aides have recently noted "that there is clear-cut scientific evidence that climate change is driven by human activity."

That's right. Unlike much of the US Congress, the pope seems seems to be relying on science to inform his opinions about climate change. And indeed, his remarks Thursday echoed the scientific consensus on the issue. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for instance, recently declared it "extremely likely"—that is, at least 95 percent certain—that "human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century."

Still, all the science in the world won't help much if we don't actually do something to reign in the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the problem. And the pope is pushing for action. According to the AP, Francis criticized world leaders for failing to accomplish enough at a recent climate conference in Lima, Peru, and he called for them to be "more courageous" when they reconvene in Paris later this year.

McDonald's Just Recalled 1 Million Chicken McNuggets for a Super-Gross Reason

| Thu Jan. 15, 2015 3:31 PM EST

Update 12/15/15: Cargill announced that "they are confident the blue, plastic foreign material recently reported in one McDonalds Chicken Nugget in Japan did not originate from Cargill’s production facilities." The source of the plastic is unknown.

McDonald's Japan is having a rough start to 2015. Last week, the company apologized after a customer found plastic fragments in an order of Chicken McNuggets, which were thought to have been produced at a Cargill factory in Thailand. McDonald's pulled out nearly 1 million McNuggets from the factory in one day. The same week, a customer in Misawa found a piece of vinyl in an order of McNuggets.

In a statement about the plastic contamination, company spokesman Takashi Hasegasa said, "We deeply apologize for the trouble we have caused our customers and we are taking quick measures to analyze the cause of the contamination."

Plastic and vinyl are, sadly, not the only gross items that customers have found in their McDonald's meals over the past year. In August, the company received a complaint from a customer in Osaka who had found the shard of a human tooth in an order of french fries. It was unclear at press time if the customer was in fact "lovin' it."

In July, McDonald's shut down its poultry supplier in China, Shanghai Husi Food Co, after allegations that the factory had deliberately mixed fresh chicken with expired produce. The meat had then allegedly been shipped to McDonald's in Japan and Starbucks and Burger King in China.

The summer food scares led McDonald's Japan sales to drop more than 10 percent every month compared to the previous year, according to CNN. This fiscal year, the golden arches are bracing themselves for the their first net loss in Japan in 11 years.

In an effort to bounce back, McDonald's Japan launched a sales campaign with discounts, giveaways, and new nuggets made from tofu.

 

Obama's Crackdown on Methane Emissions Is a Really Big Deal

| Wed Jan. 14, 2015 3:08 PM EST

This morning the White House announced a new plan to crack down on the oil and gas industry's emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The move is the last major piece of President Obama's domestic climate agenda, following in the footsteps of tougher standards for vehicle emissions and a sweeping plan to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Like the power plant plan, the methane standards will rely on the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate pollution under the Clean Air Act. The new rules will regulate the amount of methane that oil and gas producers are allow vent or leak from their wells, pipelines, and other equipment. Ultimately, according to the White House, the rules will slash methane emissions 40 to 45 percent by 2025. The proposal announced today is intended to be finalized before Obama leaves office, but it's certain to take a battering along the way from congressional Republicans and fossil fuel interest groups.

Methane makes up a much smaller slice of America's greenhouse gas footprint than carbon dioxide—the volume of methane released in a year is roughly 10 times smaller than the volume of CO2—so the proposal might seem like small potatoes. But it's actually a pretty huge deal, for a few reasons.

Obama's methane crackdown is "a moment of truth" for the fracking industry.

Locking in climate protection: An underlying assumption of Obama's carbon emissions plan is that many power plants will switch from burning coal to burning natural gas. That's great, if your only concern is carbon dioxide. But methane, the principal emission of natural gas consumption, is 20 times more powerful than CO2 over a 100-year timespan. The problem is less with natural gas-burning power plants themselves, but with the infrastructure (pipes, compressors, etc.) needed to get gas from where it's drilled to where it's burned—and also with venting, the burning of excess gas from wells. So far, those bits and pieces have proven to be exceptionally leaky—some studies have found up to 7.9 percent of the methane from natural gas production simply escapes into the air.

So if we replace our coal with natural gas but let methane go unchecked, we won't be much closer to meaningfully mitigating climate change, said Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund. "Leak rates as low as 1 to 3 percent undo much of the benefit of going from coal to gas," he added. (Some climate scientists disagree with this assessment, arguing that CO2 from coal is significantly more damaging over the long run than methane leaks from natural gas operations.) The plan proposed today will focus on plugging leaks and will help ensure that the quest to curb carbon emissions doesn't simply shift our climate impact to another gas.

Saving money and energy: Methane leaks aren't just bad for the climate, they're also bad for business. Every year, according to a recent New York University analysis, between 1 and 3 percent of all US natural gas production is lost to leaks and venting, enough to heat more 6 million homes. A separate study from the World Resources Institute put the price tag for all that lost gas at $1.5 billion per year. Plugging leaks and limiting venting from drilling sites would keep more gas on the market.

The industry doesn't deny that leaks are a problem for its bottom line; the dispute is over whether intervention from the federal government is required and whether the cost to fix the leaks is worth it. Today the president of the American Petroleum Institute called the methane proposal "another layer of burdensome requirements [that] could actually slow down industry progress to reduce methane emissions." While it's true that overall methane emissions have been on a modest decline over the past several years, Brownstein said much more is needed to meet the nation's climate goals. And the oil and gas sector is the single biggest source of methane.

Cleaning up fracking: Behind any conversation about natural gas is always the specter of fracking. Of course, there are many concerns about fracking that have nothing to do with methane emissions: Public health issues related to water contamination, for example, or earthquakes. But stringent methane rules could alleviate some of the climate-related concerns about the fracking boom and could help refocus the debate around local pollution and land rights issues. These rules are also an opportunity, Brownstein said, for the gas industry to show good faith. "If the industry resists basic regulation for a relatively simple issue to solve, what is the public to think about the industry's willingness to solve more complex issues," he said. "This is a moment of truth."

3 Medical Conditions That Bacon Can Cure

| Wed Jan. 14, 2015 7:00 AM EST

As we all know, the internet is obsessed with bacon. Physicians, however, are usually less bullish about the delicious yet notoriously artery-clogging treat. Until now: Over at the medical blog KevinMD, Dr. Jennifer Gunter combs the scientific literature and turns up three actual medical conditions that bacon can help treat: 

  1. Nosebleeds. Last October, Stanford otolaryngologist Ian Humphreys developed a nasal tampon made out of bacon that cured a young girl's bloody nose, an accomplishment for which he was awarded a 2014 IgNobel Prize in medicine. "Apparently the high salt content of bacon is believed to induce swelling which causes the blood vessels to constrict slowing the flow of blood and helping clotting," writes Gunter. When Humphreys won the IgNobel, Robert Jackler, chair of Stanford's otolaryngology department, told Stanford's Scope medical blog, "We are squealing with pride."
     
  2. An incredibly disgusting-sounding infection called furuncular myiasis in which the larvae of an insect called Dermatobia hominis nest in the human soft tissue or skin, resulting in boils and sometimes tissue destruction. Shudder. "The treatment largely consists of manually picking out the larvae with tweezers," writes Gunter. "Apparently bacon fat can be used as bait to lure the larvae to the skin surface for faster and more effective removal."
     
  3. Scabies. Apparently, bacon fat was once used in topical sulfur and salicylic acid creams used to treat this itchy and highly contagious skin infection. A 1991 study compared the bacon fat formulation to the more modern cold cream version and finds, Gunter writes, that "while the cold cream combination was 100% effective versus 88 percent for the bacon fat base the authors noted that the bacon fat concoction was 238 times less expensive than the cheapest scabicidal medication in the U.S."

So there you have it: bacon as medicine. Something to keep in mind if you have any left over after you make that gross bacon lattice thing for your Super Bowl party.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Even Republican Voters Support Regulating Carbon Pollution

| Mon Jan. 12, 2015 5:17 PM EST

If you look at the new Congress, conservative sentiment seems overwhelmingly united against climate action—72 percent of the Senate's Republican caucus reject the science on climate change. But among the voting population, the numbers are slightly more optimistic, according to Yale University polling data released today.

The data combines the results from six different polls conducted over the past three years, and it shows deep divisions within the Republican Party over belief in climate change and support for climate policies. Most interestingly, a majority of Republican voters support the government taking steps to curb carbon dioxide pollution. That's the very policy that GOP leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) have vowed to fight this year.

Yale

Despite that call for action, belief that climate change is happening is common only among self-described liberal and moderate Republicans, who together comprise just 30 percent of the party:

Yale

So clearly climate advocates still have their work cut out for them in winning more Republicans over to the overwhelming mainstream scientific consensus on climate change. But at the same time, an all-out war on President Obama's climate initiatives won't be a clear-cut win for any but the most right-wing Republican legislators.

Please, Please Stop Making Mittens for Koalas

| Mon Jan. 12, 2015 3:46 PM EST

After record-breaking fires hit the Adelaide suburbs in South Australia last week, an emergency call went out on social media, which was then quickly picked up by the international news media: Injured koalas need cotton mittens to protect their burned paws! Since then, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, thousands of pairs of mittens have poured into Australia from all around the world. "We're now getting offers from as far afield as Russia, Kazakhstan, China, the UK and the US," said Josey Sharrad from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which put out the request. "It's truly phenomenal."

The wildfires destroyed 27 homes and charred nearly 50 square miles. Koalas are especially vulnerable because they live in trees, which are the very fuel for the fires, and koalas just aren't very fast.

The IFAW put out this call to action on January 9, 2015:

The group even published a pattern to help avid sewers around the world:

But perhaps don't dig out that old sewing machine just yet. There's dissent in the wildlife community about the best way to help the koalas, and their burned paws.

The Australian Marine Wildlife Research and Rescue Organization (AMWRRO), a rescue and rehabilitation group based in South Australia, says the mittens are unnecessary and may even hinder the koalas' recovery. AMWRRO is the organization that first published the photo of now-famous "Jeremy," whose four paws were being treated for "second-degree partial thickness burns":

 

AMWRRO has now put out a warning on its Facebook page: "Please note AMWRRO does not require mittens as they impede the animals ability to hold leaf and branches verses that of specific bandaging techniques as shown in previous images."

In any case, the great mitten campaign is over. IFAW now says they have more than satisfied the need for koala mittens, and now the group's attention has turned to other injured wildlife. "This began as a small regional effort, and in Australia we are now moving to work with local people to create cozy pouches for other wildlife like possums, kangaroos and wallabies that are also at risk from bushfires," the IFAW said in a statement.

In short, both groups now agree: Stop sewing koala mittens. Please, stop.

P.S. I know you want to know. Jeremy is doing a lot better now:

And here he is, back to eating leaves!

 

Can Monsanto Help Farmers Adapt to Climate Change?

| Mon Jan. 12, 2015 2:13 PM EST

At the world's most reviled agriculture company, a big change is taking root that could help farmers—both in the US and around the world—adapt to climate change. As we reported in November, executives at Monsanto are plotting a major move into data and information services within the next decade. The company is working with Bay Area data gurus to provide super-accurate weather updates and farming advice to growers via their smartphones.

These new services can help farmers better predict climate trends that have been shaken up by global warming—in the last couple decades, according to Monsanto, corn production belts in the US have migrated about 200 miles north. And they can help farmers make more efficient use of water and potential pollutants like fuel and fertilizer. But some agriculture experts have raised concerns about whether Big Ag companies will responsibly manage farmers' proprietary data like yield sizes and seed choices; at the same time, as my colleague Tom Philpott noted, Big Data could potentially give an outsized advantage to giant, monoculture farms, to the detriment of small farms and the environment.

Last week I talked with MSNBC's Tony Dokoupil about whether Monsanto's climate adaptation products are a bright spot on the company's dark reputation. As Tony put it, "If my eco-outrage meter is on 10 when I think about Monsanto, how far should we dial it back?"

72 Percent of Republican Senators Are Climate Deniers

| Sat Jan. 10, 2015 7:00 AM EST
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) at the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark

On Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) offered a simple amendment to the controversial bill that would authorize construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Sanders' measure, which he proposed to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, would have declared it the "sense of Congress" that climate change is real; that it is caused by humans; that it has already caused significant problems; and that the United States needs to shift its economy away from fossil fuels.

Sanders' amendment went nowhere. But Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chair of the committee, used the opportunity to take a shot at climate science. "I do believe that our climate is changing," she said. "I don't agree that all the changes are necessarily due solely to human activity." Murkowski didn't elaborate on her current thinking about the causes of global warming, but in the past she's advanced a bizarre theory involving a volcano in Iceland.

Sanders will get another chance next week, when the full Senate debates the Keystone bill—but he's likely to run into stiff resistance from GOP climate deniers. As Climate Progress revealed Thursday, more than half of the Republican members of the new Congress "deny or question" the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change. If you just look at the Senate, the numbers are even more disturbing. Thirty-nine GOP senators reject the science on climate change—that's 72 percent of the Senate Republican caucus.

The list includes veteran lawmakers like James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is the incoming chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) and has written a book titled, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. And it includes new senators like Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who thinks climate change might be caused by solar cycles. (For a great interactive map showing exactly how many climate deniers represent your state in Congress, click here.)

What's more, the Climate Progress analysis shows that many of the congressional committees that deal with climate and energy issues are loaded with global warming deniers:

…68 percent of the Republican leadership in both House and Senate deny human-caused climate change. On the committee level, 13 out of 21 Republican members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, or 62 percent, reject the science behind human-caused global warming, joined by 67 percent, or 21 out of 31 Republican members, of the House Energy and Commerce Committee…In addition to Inhofe, 10 out of 11, or 91 percent, of Republicans on EPW have said climate change is not happening or that humans do not cause it.

All this could have serious policy consequences: Republicans are threatening to use their majority to cut the EPA's budget and derail the power plant regulations at the heart of President Obama's signature climate initiative.