Category Archives: Home science

16 Dog facts we’ve only learned in the past few years

Aaah, dogs. Image via Unsplash.

Researchers have been studying dogs for decades or even centuries, but we’re constantly learning new things about them.

Dogs really are man’s best friend — and also our oldest friend

A 2020 DNA study found that dog domestication took place some 11,000 years ago, towards the end of the last Ice Age, indicating that our relationship with our furry friends goes back a long way.

A team of geneticists from 10 countries joined forces with archaeologists to sequence the genome of 27 ancient dogs, obtained from Europe, Siberia, and the Middle East. They found that, although the history of humans isn’t always perfectly intertwined with that of dogs, they were indeed the first domesticated animal, probably from wolves, and they’ve been by our side since the dawn of civilization.

Dogs also dream, but we’re not exactly sure what

A series of studies from the past two decades have shed new light on dog dreams, and as far as researchers can understand, not only do dogs dream, but they have complex dreams that help them be healthier and happier. A 2016 study found that dogs who sleep more are happier, while another recent, 2020 study found that sleep sleep may contribute to dogs’ memory consolidation.

Unfortunately, dogs also seem to have nightmares sometimes. But there’s some good news: the best way to ensure that a dog has happy dreams is to keep them happy during daytime — and happy dogs are truly what the world needs more of right now.

Both a wet nose or a dry nose can be normal

Image via Shridhar Dixit.

The old adage says that a wet nose is a healthy dog, but researchers from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, have shown that that’s not necessarily the case: both wet and dry noses can be normal. For example, dogs’ noses are typically warm and dry when they sleep.

Researchers have previously speculated that dogs lick their nose and keep it wet either for heat regulation or to aid their keen sense of smell. In the new study, however, authors suggest that dogs and other cold-nosed animals employ heat detection in their hunting routines, in addition to their already keen sense of smell.

Chocolate really is poisonous for dogs

Unlike cats, which lack the ability to taste sweetness, dogs find chocolate just as appealing as humans. Well, as some humans, at least. But while the dark treat can be a euphoric delight for us, it can be poisonous to canines. The main problem is the chemical compound theobromine, found in dark chocolate and cocoa. Dogs can’t break down or metabolize theobromine, which means that it can act like poison for our furry companions.

Not all dogs get poisoned by chocolate and the dose makes the poison. Mild symptoms of chocolate toxicity occur when a canine consumes 20 mg of theobromine per kilogram of body weight. Cardiac symptoms occur at around 40 to 50 mg/kg and dangerous seizures occur at doses greater than 60 mg/kg. Raisins and grapes are also very toxic to some dogs, though researchers are not sure exactly why. Dogs should never be fed grapes or chocolate.

Cats and dogs don’t always fight like cats and dogs — and pheromones can help where they do

In the UK, 7% of households own both cats and dogs… and yet they live in peace and harmony most of the time. Many cats and dog owners report that their animals are comfortable in each other’s company, but this isn’t always the case. Conflicts between pets are one of the most common reasons why animals are returned to shelters, and a team of researchers wanted to see how these conflicts could be addressed.

A team of researchers in the UK found that soothing pheromones can not only decrease the number of aggressive interactions between cats and dogs, but can even increase the number of friendly interactions. Dog pheromones in particular led to the greatest increase in friendly interactions.

3 out of 4 dogs suffer from some form of anxiety

The life of a doggo isn’t always easy — even when you are the best boy or girl. A surprisingly high percentage of dogs actually suffer from anxiety of some sort, which can manifest through symptoms such as excessive barking, destructiveness, aggression, or fearfulness. The fact that so many dogs have anxiety came as a surprise to many dog owners, researchers noted.

The best thing to do to prevent and tackle anxiety in dogs is to keep them happy. This starts with picking the right breed (don’t pick a very active breed unless you can really dedicate time and effort to it), making sure that the dog has enough exercise, and give your dog attention. Most dogs hate spending time alone, and can get stressed out. Dogs also tend to mirror their owners’ stress levels — so keeping yourself happy also helps.

The ridiculous voice we use to talk to dogs? They love it

You know that high-pitched, exaggerated voice that some people use to talk to a dog? The emotional “who’s a good boyyyy”? Surprisingly enough dogs, actually like it. Just like how baby-talk can help adults bond with babies, “doggy-talk” can help humans bond with dogs, a recent study has shown.

Dogs were much more likely to want to interact and spend time with those who used dog-directed speech compared to the control group. Researchers only tested adult dogs, and they noted that it is maybe the combination of the acoustic properties and the dog-related content that dogs enjoy. So if you do the “doggy-talk”, make sure to mention walks, treats, dog, and of course, ‘good’.

Dogs can navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field

Stories of dogs who traveled immense distances to find their way back home are surprisingly common… so how do they do it? Their keen sense of smell can sure help sometimes, but that doesn’t work as well for very large distances. In a recent study, researchers have shown that dogs have an internal compass which they can use to orient themselves based on the Earth’s magnetic field.

This was previously suggested by researchers who found that dogs can sense the Earth’s magnetic field… while pooping. Dogs seem to prefer to poop in the north-south axis, and recent experiments confirmed that this doesn’t only happen when pooping, it actually happens a lot, and it helps dogs find their way with remarkable accuracy.

Dogs know they’re doing “puppy eyes” — and they use it to manipulate you

Image via Joshua Sun.

A 2020 study found that the infamous puppy dog eyes expression isn’t just a way for dogs to express sadness — sometimes, they use it as a clever ploy to receive attention and affection. Although the study was carried out on a small sample size, researchers are pretty confident that at least sometimes, dogs know what they are doing.

It’s possible that dogs picked up this communication trick as they were domesticated, researchers believe. It could also be a way for dogs to mimic humans, in an attempt to make us feel more empathetic to dogs, and maybe giving them what they want. The second theory is that it’s a way to make themselves cuter, and again, maybe just getting that extra treat.

Dogs (and wolves) have a sense of fairness

Although dogs can be a bit sneaky sometimes, they also have an innate sense of fairness. As many dog owners can attest, dogs recognize when they are treated fairly or unfairly, and this appears to predate domestication — indicating that it’s not something they acquired during their cohabitation with humans.

A research from 2017 found that both dogs and wolves share the same reaction, and more dominant individuals have an even stronger sense of fairness. “These results suggest that the inequity response found in pack-living dogs and wolves is comparable to that observed in non-human primates,” the study notes.

Dogs can make you seem more attractive

A surprising statistic notes that 22% of men (but only 6% of women) with pets used their pet to attract potential dates. The even more surprising thing is that it kind of works. Dogs seem to be the ‘sexiest pets’ out there, and they can help men get dates both in real life, and online.

Several studies have suggested that dogs really do make men seem more attractive. In 2008, two French social psychologists had one young man named Antoine approach 240 randomly selected women and he was 3 times more successful when he was accompanied by a dog than when he was alone. But please, please, don’t get a dog just to help with dates — a dog is a serious commitment that deserves a lot of attention and care.

Dogs can tell when you’re happy or upset

Image via Caleb Fisher.

While this has been suggested several times in the past (mostly anecdotally, by dog owners), the first tangible evidence came in 2015. A study had dogs look at images representing human emotions and were remarkably capable of telling when humans (not just their human) was happy or sad.

“Our study demonstrates that dogs can distinguish angry and happy expressions in humans, they can tell that these two expressions have different meanings, and they can do this not only for people they know well, but even for faces they have never seen before,” said one study author.

Dogs can accurately diagnose a number of diseases, including COVID-19 and some types of cancer

For years, researchers have suspected that dogs’ sniffing abilities could be used for something more than tracking drugs and explosives, but in the past few years, we’ve seen a surge in this type of research. As it turns out, when you train dogs (specifically breeds with the most sensitive noses), they become capable of detecting diseases.

So far, the approach has been demonstrated for several types of cancer, migraines, low blood sugar, seizures, even diabetes. With the COVID-19 pandemic, several teams have demonstrated that dogs can also be useful for detecting this disease, and in some airports, they’re already being used.

Dogs can get depressed too

The mental state of our pets is a subject of heated scientific debate. Understandably, dogs or cats can’t really explain what’s going on, but researchers have done their best to figure out whether dogs can experience things like anxiety and depression. The verdict is still not 100% out, but the strength of evidence seems to suggest that the answer is ‘yes’, dogs can get depressed, they’re sometimes prescribed even special antidepressants.

Research into dog psychology is still ongoing Remember, dogs sometimes mirror the stress and emotional states of their owners — so one of the things you can do to improve your dogs’ mental health is to take care of your own mental health. Luckily enough, dogs have also been shown to help with that.

Breed is not the main determinant of aggression

Although acts of dog aggression towards humans remain rare, some breeds have an undeserved bad reputation. For instance, a 2008 study found that some of the most aggressive breeds towards humans are Chihuahuas and Jack Russell Terriers, but the aggressiveness differs towards humans they know, humans they don’t know, and other dogs.

Overall though, studies are increasingly showing that when it comes to aggressiveness, breed is not a major determinant. Instead, researchers suggest, we should focus on other factors that influence the risk of aggression. A dog that is loved and cared for has a much lower risk of being aggressive than one who is neglected or even worse.

Owning a dog will make you healthier

Okay, I cheated a bit here. All the entries on this list are new facts we’ve only learned about dogs recently. This has been discussed for decades and is essentially a well-known fact at this point. But I do have one reason for introducing this here: modern science has confirmed it.

The key difference here is physical activity. While walking is often regarded as an easy and accessible way to be active, it still counts, and it’s still useful. Dog owners are, on average, more active, which means they’re healthier. But once again, this is a reminder that owning a dog is an every-day responsibility: you can’t skip out on walks just because you don’t feel like it!

So there you have it, just some of the dog facts we’ve learned recently, thanks to modern science. Although we’ve been together for thousands of years, our relationship with dogs remains as complex and charming as ever.

Undoubtedly, more studies will reveal even more facts about our beloved companions. Did we miss anything that should be here? Be sure to share it in the comment section.

Forearm fractures may be telltale sign of domestic violence

Up to one third of adult women who sustain a non-displaced fracture of the forearm may be victims of domestic violence, according to a new study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

The study works on two levels: first, it shows that that victims of domestic violence need to be screened for this type of damage, and secondly that patients who exhibit this type of damage may be victims — putting doctors in a position to potentially identify victims of domestic abuse.

An X-ray showing fracture to the ulna bone of the forearm. Image credits: Radiological Society of North America.

Violence against women is a strikingly prevalent problem almost everywhere in the world. Global figures show that about 1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime, with 38% of murders of women committed by a male intimate partner. To make matters even worse, the pandemic has exacerbated this problem, and violence against women seems to have increased due to the lockdowns.

Doctors are unfortunately becoming familiar with some signs of domestic violence. An experienced physician who analyzed many injuries in his career can identify suspicious signs in a fracture, at least in some cases. For instance, fractures to the ulna (the bone that runs on the pinkie finger side of the forearm) often occur when someone is trying to block a strong blow. It’s common in violent protests, when protesters are trying to block baton hits from the police.

Bharti Khurana, a radiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and senior author of the study, has often seen ulnar fractures. Most often, they showed up in men. But occasionally, it was a woman — and these cases raised question marks. She didn’t know what to make of this, until she asked her colleagues. That’s when it all clicked.

“I would see these types of injuries in men, but once in a while I would see them in women,” Dr. Khurana said. “I never correlated it with intimate partner violence until recently. I shared my thoughts with our orthopedic surgeons and, with their interest and support, decided to pursue the study.”

Khurana and colleagues searched the electronic records of 6 hospitals, looking for isolated ulnar fractures of women aged 18-50. They identified 62 patients.

Out of these 62 patients, 12 were confirmed for intimate partner violence, and 8 others were also suspected of this type of violence. When they looked even further at these injuries, they found that one type of fracture was very common: a minimally displaced fracture. Confirmed cases were also correlated with homelessness and previous visits to the emergency departments for other types of injuries.

“The radiological characteristics we were looking at were the location of the fracture, the pattern of the fracture in terms of how it broke, and the displacement of the fracture,” said study lead author David Sing, M.D., an orthopedic surgery resident at Boston Medical Center. “Out of all those things, what we usually saw was a minimally displaced fracture, meaning the bone is broken all the way through but has not shifted significantly.”

This type of study is particularly important since victims of domestic violence are reluctant to report the crime, and often say the fracture is the result of a fall. This was also the case for the victims in this study: half reported a fall. But this type of ulnar fracture almost never happens when you fall.

“It’s actually rare to break your ulna in a fall,” Dr. Khurana said. “If a radiologist is seeing an ulnar fracture that is non-displaced, and the woman says she had a fall, it’s actually quite concerning for intimate partner violence.”

This potentially puts doctors in a unique position where they could raise suspicions about domestic violence. Doctors could, for instance, look for other signs of physical violence, or carry out detailed screenings with the patients.

“Careful analysis of previous imaging exams may also help radiologists confirm their suspicion of intimate partner violence,” said study co-author Rahul Gujrathi, M.D., a radiology fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

During the pandemic times, when money is scarce, spirits are down, and women are essentially trapped at home with their aggressors, this is more important than ever. It’s like identifying an underlying disease, the researchers note.

“The sooner we can address and change the behavior, the better,” Khurana said. “Just like radiologists want to diagnose cancer as early as possible, it’s the same thing with this. If we diagnose early, we have a better chance to break the cycle of violence.”

The study has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal at the time of this writing.

The fashion environmental disaster no one is talking about

Fashion is, in many ways, an environmental disaster. From the materials to the supply chain to the needless purchasing and throwing away, there is much that can be said (and improved) about the fashion industry. But one particular aspect of fashion typically flies under the radar: coat hangers.

Image credits: Artem Beliaikin.

The plastic straw of the fashion industry

Wherever there are clothes, there are also clothes hangers. Whether it’s our houses, shops, storage facilities, or transport — clothes and hangers go together like… well, clothes and hangers. We rarely pay them any thought but they’re always there, and they’re often made of plastic.

Global clothing manufacturing as a whole is growing at an exponential rate, from 74.3 billion items in 2005 to 130.6 billion items in 2019. Unsurprisingly, hangers are also keeping up the pace. According to research by ethical fashion expert Dr, Alana James of Northumbria University, the UK fashion industry alone uses almost 1 billion plastic hangers (954 million) a year.

“Fashion brands are producing almost twice the amount of clothing today than they were in 2000, with a consumer shift to buying more and wearing less frequently,” notes the report by James.

“The fast-fashion, accelerated business model that has evolved since the 1980s increases the numbers of new fashion collections developed each year, creating more demand for clothing and ultimately more hangers.”

It’s the first study of its kind. While the fashion industry’s environmental impact is well-known and widely discussed, hangers are often ignored in the conversation (and not much is known about their global usage). Granted, they only make up a small part of the entire clothing industry’s impact, but it’s one part that can be addressed with relative ease — like plastic straws used for drinks at a bar, which are increasingly banned across the world.

Even when you don’t see them, coat hangers are also there. An estimated 16% of them are used solely for transporting clothes from manufacturers to shops and are then discarded. Even the retailers that don’t use plastic hangers in their stores still use them for transportation.

To make matters even worse, hangers are a recycling nightmare. They are usually built from a mixture of plastics which is difficult or even impossible to separate. With few exceptions, plastic hangers end up in landfills and in the oceans. More than two-thirds of the interviewed fashion companies were unaware of what plastic the hangers are made from.

The report also found that for many British consumers, sustainability is an important consideration. However, the clothing industry is slow to adapt.

Some retailers are starting to only give customers the hangers on demand, but change is slow — 60% of all clothes sold in the UK still come with an associated plastic hanger. The problem won’t be solved by online shopping: 27% of UK online clothing orders include a hanger (in addition to the ones used for transportation and storage.

“While there has been a definite shift in awareness of the environmental impact of the fashion industry in recent years, the issue of plastic hangers seems to be one which has been largely ignored until now. Manufacturers, retailers and consumers all have a role to play in instigating change and we hope the results of this research will raise awareness of this problem and lead to alternative solutions,” says James.

Policy and consumer pressure can help drive change, the report notes. Changes in the fashion industry are often driven by consumer trends, and “a PR campaign raising the awareness of the damage plastic hangers inflict on the environment will help to drive a change in industry attitudes,” the report adds.

Sustainable alternatives are also an option, but as is often the case, price is proving to be an important barrier. It’s hard to find a cost-effective alternative — but alternatives do exist. The report was carried out in partnership with Arch & Hook, which combines recycled and recyclable materials to create durable hangers. Founder and CEO Sjoerd Fauser says they are determined to produce such alternatives, adding that it’s crucial to understand the scale of this problem.

“Our eye-opening report is just the tip of the iceberg. Data for worldwide hanger usage remains unavailable. We are determined to expand the research into other areas, in collaboration with more partners, to unveil the truth, create awareness and turn sustainability into a tangible action.”

The report has not been peer-reviewed. You can read it in its entirety here.

It kind of looks like the pandemic is changing how men pee

According to a small survey carried out in Japan, 70% of Japanese men are now peeing sitting down, compared to just 51% a few years ago.

Image credits: Giorgio Trovato.

The survey was carried out by Panasonic, which most people would know as an electronics company — but Panasonic is also a big player in toilet equipment like heated toilet seats and sensors, and the company has been involved in urinary research before. The survey was rather small, featuring just 155 male respondents, but it identifies an intriguing trend: more men are starting to pee sitting down, and the pandemic seems to be playing a role in this.

A similar 2015 survey had found that 51% of male respondents urinated while seated. At the beginning of 2020, 58% of participants were doing the same thing, but by August 2020, the figure had grown to 70%, a pretty respectable change.

According to the interviews carried out for the survey, the main reason for this change seems to be the extra time participants spend at home, and in particular, with their spouses.

“Missing” and making a mess was quoted as one of the reasons for the shift, especially as many are spending more time at home during the pandemic. Being more comfortable with the home toilet than the work can also play a role, and features like heated seats also made the experience more pleasant, participants said.

This is in line with previous reports. Admittedly, data is scarce on this topic and what happens in the toilet usually stays in the toilet, but married men do seem to pee sitting down more than their single peers, with spousal pressure seemingly at play.

Good aim? Puh-lease!

The fact that more men are peeing down is probably good.

Here’s the thing: if you think you’re a good aimer and everything stays in the bowl, you’re probably wrong. There are things you can do to reduce splashback (as one interesting study highlighted) but the physics of standing urination is surprisingly complex, and to make matters even worse, not all splashback is visible to the naked eye.

Here’s what one UV survey found:

Medically, it might also be better to pee sitting down. A 2014 study by Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands found that sitting down helps men with prostate problems have a “more favorable urodynamic profile.” The idea is gaining traction among urologists, although the science is far from settled.

So where do you stand on this? A fan of standing and letting it rip, or taking a break to do it sitting down? Let’s have our own survey in the comments.

Urban seagulls know exactly when to strike to steal your food — we have the GPS data to prove it

Seagulls have become a common (and often unwanted) sight in urban areas. The birds are increasingly moving to cities for the abundant food, up to the point where chip-eating seagulls bothering city dwellers has become a fairly common occurrence. According to a new study, seagulls are even adapting their schedule to better forage off humans.

Seagulls. Waiting, watching, plotting their next attack. Image credits: Karim Manjra

Cities are unusual habitats. Unlike natural environments, where the interspecies relationships have been chiseled and honed over many generations, cities are noisy, polluted, and weird, built from unwelcoming materials. For most creatures cities are a disaster, completely wrecking any chance of a real habitat. But for a minority of creatures, cities are a godsend.

Just think about rats, seagulls, and roaches — a trio that seems to inhabit every big city on the planet. These creatures (and several others) have not only adapted to urban areas, but they’re often thriving in them. A big part of this adaptation is knowing how to shift their lifestyle based on fluctuations in food sources. Researchers suspected some sort of adaptation must be taking place, but until recently the data had been scarce.

To address this, a team of scientists at Bristol’s Faculties of Engineering and Life Sciences equipped 12 lesser black‐backed seagulls with mini GPS tracker backpacks, recording their behavior at three different settings: a public park, a school, and a waste center. The team also used other observations of gulls at a various number of different sites.

The team found that birds move their foraging patters to closely match the timing of school breaks and the opening and closing times of the waste centre. In other words, they’re not foraging when they’re the hungriest: they’re foraging when they know they have the best chance to find something. Their activity in the park also seemed to correspond with the availability of food sources in the park, but this was not connected to human activity.

Feeling cute, might steal some food later. Image credits: Spelt et al.

This suggests that the birds have the capacity to adapt their foraging patterns and the intelligence to do so, says Dr. Anouk Spelt, lead author of the paper published in Ibis, the International Journal of Avian Science.

“Our first day at the school, the students were excited to tell us about the gulls visiting their school at lunch time. Indeed, our data showed that gulls were not only present in high numbers during lunch time to feed on leftovers, but also just before the start of the school and during the first break when students had their snack. Similarly, at the waste centre the gulls were present in higher numbers on weekdays when the centre was open and trucks were unloading food waste.”

There’s also some good news: seagulls aren’t really planning to steal your chips, they’re more interested in other types of food readily available in parks.

“Although everybody has experienced or seen gulls stealing food from people in parks, our gulls mainly went to park first thing in the morning and this may be because earthworms and insects are present in higher numbers during these early hours,” says Spelt.

It’s also interesting that the number of gulls and the number of people at the school were positively related only during weekdays — during weekends, the relationship was opposite. So humans can both attract and deter seagulls, based on the birds’ perception. A weekday behavior was also observed at the waste center where during working days, waste was unloaded regularly (up to 15 times a day) during the opening times. At the weekend, however, no new waste was unloaded due to the center being closed, and birds were less likely to come to the center. At both locations, the gulls were observed waiting on the surrounding rooftops before school breaks and before waste was unloaded, implying that they were waiting there specifically for food to become available.

The behavioral flexibility of the gulls also impresses co-author Dr. Shane Windsor, who concludes:

“With this study in Bristol we have shown that gulls in cities are able to adapt their foraging schedule to make best use of food resources depending on their availability. Some gulls even used all three feeding grounds in the same day, suggesting they might track the availability to optimise their energy intake. These results highlight the behavioural flexibility of gulls and their ability to adapt to the artificial environments and time schedules of urban living.”

Journal Reference: Spelt et al. Urban gulls adapt foraging schedule to human‐activity patterns. https://doi.org/10.1111/ibi.12892

Science confirms ancient alcohol-measuring technique

When artisanal distillers want to measure alcohol content, they have a tried and true low-tech approach: they squirt it into a small container and look for tiny bubbles. If the alcohol content is too high or too low, these small bubbles (or pearls) quickly vanish. But if the alcohol content is just right, they stay around for about 30 seconds. Now, researchers believe they know why.

Mezcal, a traditional Mexican spirit.

Without necessarily knowing it, traditional distillers are well versed in fluid dynamics. What they’ve figured out in practice with the bubbles is something called the Marangoni effect, a phenomenon in which two fluids exchange mass due to a surface tension gradient.

The Marangoni effect was first observed by physicist James Thomson (Lord Kelvin’s brother) in 1855, in the so-called “tears of wine”. Some wines (especially those with more alcohol) form the same bubbles as mentioned above.

The effect happens because alcohol has a lower surface tension than water. When alcohol is mixed with water inhomogeneously, the part with less alcohol will pull on the surrounding fluid more strongly than the other areas. When the surface of high-alcohol liquid meets the side of the glass, capillary action makes the liquid climb up. As it does so, both alcohol and water evaporate, but alcohol evaporates faster. This, in turn, decreases the amount of alcohol in the liquid; as the alcohol moves up the side of the glass, it forms droplets that fall back on their own weight, creating a tear-like pattern. The same phenomenon is at the root of the bubbles.

The tears of the wine are clearly visible in the shadow of this glass of wine. Image credits: Flag Steward.

The general physics behind the phenomenon has been known for a while, but now, a team of fluid dynamics researchers have found the specific processes and details in the process. According to their lab experiments and computer models, the phenomenon is best manifested when the alcohol content is around 50% — the sweet spot for some traditional spirits like mezcal, aguardiente, or palinka.

For Roberto Zenit, a professor in Brown’s School of Engineering and the study’s senior author, studies like this are why he loves fluid dynamics.

“One of my main research interests is bubbles and how they behave,” Zenit said. “So when one of my students told me that bubbles were important in making mezcal, which is a drink that I really enjoy with my friends, it was impossible for me not to investigate how it works.”

Zenit and his student changed the alcohol level of mezcal, measuring how that affected bubble lifetimes. In the unaltered samples, bubbles lasted 10-30 seconds. When they increased or decreased the alcohol content, the bubbles burst almost instantly.

In unaltered samples, bubbles lasted from 10 to 30 seconds. In both the fortified and watered-down samples, the bubbles burst instantly. But then, something interesting happened: even in a 50% alcohol-water mixture, the bubbles didn’t last as long as in the mezcal.

Zenit and his students realized that something in the mezcal is amplifying the effect, and they set up high-speed cameras to monitor their bubbles. With this, they uncovered a surprising movement: an upward convection of liquid from the surface of mezcal into the bubble membranes. This is where the Marangoni convection comes in — it’s this the effect that was responsible for this upward motion.

“Normally, gravity is causing the liquid in a bubble film to drain away, which eventually causes the bubble to burst,” Zenit said. “But in the mezcal bubbles, there’s this upward convection that’s replenishing the fluid and extending the life of the bubble.”

Credit: Zenit Lab / Brown University

For Zenit, who hails from Mexico, it’s rewarding to find the physics behind this process that has been used for centuries.

“It’s fun to work on something that has both scientific value and cultural value that’s part of my background,” he said. “These artisans are experts in what they do. It’s great to be able to corroborate what they already know and to demonstrate that it has scientific value beyond just mezcal making.”

But there’s more to the process than just a fun experiment: a number of industrial processes (from alcohol-making to welding) are affected by the Marangoni effect, and this research could help better understand and refine these processes.

Researchers end by suggesting one potential application: studying environmental contamination.

“For example,” the researchers write, “the lifetime of surface bubbles could be used as a diagnostic tool to infer the presence of surfactants in a liquid: If the lifetime is larger than that expected of a pure/clean liquid, then the liquid is most likely contaminated.”

The study has been published in Nature Scientific Reports.

With so many of us working from home, here’s how to prevent back aches and other issues

Twice as more people are working from home than before the pandemic. The work-from-home economy is promising to reshape how we think about our workplaces, and with no end to the pandemic in sight, many of us might be working from home for a long time.

But while this brings obvious advantages (bye-bye commuting time), there are a couple of issues to deal with. For instance, while our workspace has been designed for work, our homes might not be. You may very well work from your couch, your bed, or even the floor — but your back won’t be happy about it. Most people thought their offices would only be closed for a few weeks, but as the work exodus continues, it’s becoming apparent that we’ll have be working from home for a long time. If this does end up happening, it’s more important than ever to look after yourself.

Working from home allows you to enjoy countless benefits. But, more often than not, your back’s health is sacrificed with this kind of working setup. If you have been experiencing back ache and other related health issues, let this article help.

Here’s how you can prevent back aches when working from home:

Get up and stretch regularly

Too much sitting down is bad for you — even if you exercise. So the first piece of advice to follow is avoid sitting down for prolongued periods of time. The more you sit down, the more likely it is to develop chronic conditions down the road.

The best thing to do is to get up every half an hour or so and stretch a bit, or just walk around (get a cup of tea or some water). A good rule of thumb to follow is the ’20-20-20 rule’, which is meant for your eyes, but could be helpful in more ways than one. The idea is that every 20 minutes, you should get up and take a 20 second break to look at something that’s 20 meters away from you — that’s 65 feet.

Aside from helping you prevent back aches, getting up and stretching when you’re working can also boost your productivity and keep stress at bay. This is especially important for people whose jobs will require them to look at a computer or laptop for long hours.

Posture, posture, posture

You’ve heard it time and time again, but there’s a good reason for it: posture can make or break your back — almost literally. So what’s good posture?

For starters, don’t be a slouch. Slouching adds stress on the spine and a constant slump can have devastating long-term effects not only on your spine, but also on your internal organs (you’re basically adding extra pressure on them). A good way to prevent that is to stand (or sit) up tall — with your shoulders to the back and belly tucked in, always pretend like you’re having your height measured.

If you can’t sit up tall on your own, consider using pillows to support your back. Certain pillows  are made to support your back so using this will make it easier for you to prevent back aches in the long run.

It’s not just your back, either. Posture is also about your neck and head, beware of ‘text neck’! When you tilt your head down, that puts pressure on your spine, which can lead to — you’ve guessed it — back pain. This happens especially when we read or write texts and look down. To counter this, try to avoid looking down for prolongued periods, either bring your phone in front of your eyes or try moving your eyes, not your head.

Working from home can ruin your posture, but you can also use this to your advantage. Unlike your workspace, you can tweak your home in any way you’d like, so take advantage of this and make it comfortable and pleasant.

Finding a good chair

Posture can only get you so far if your chair sucks. Thankfully, ergonomic chairs have become common nowadays, and they’re fairly accessible and cheap. It doesn’t have to be the latest brand or the most expensive one (although good ergonomic chairs are not always cheap) — but any chair that is comfortable and offers solid lombar support can make a world of a difference.

Of course, once you get a chair you also have to sit in it properly. If you’re already suffering from back pain, listen to your body and try sitting in a way that isn’t painful or unpleasant, and again, avoid sitting down for too long in a row.

Working from home has become mainstream today, which means that you’ll be able to come across countless businesses that are coping with the demand by selling ergonomic chairs. For you to narrow down your options, make sure to visit the store and try out the chair yourself. This will allow you to determine which kind of chair truly fits your needs and suits your back.

Get a good night’s sleep

A bad back day usually starts in the morning, and that’s often because you’re not sleeping well. Get rid of that old, soft matress and get a firm one that’s good for your back. Pay attention to your position when you sleep and you wake up — are you in a comfortable, healthy position?

If you sleep on your side, it can help to bend the knees, but don’t hug them. If you sleep on your back, don’t use a thick pillow — use slim one that keeps your head at the same level as your body.

Aside from investing in a high-quality mattress, filling your bedroom with comfortable pillows can also help. Pillows can provide the necessary support to your body and relieve pressure. This way, you’ll be able to sleep soundly throughout the night.

Working out helps

A strong back is a healthy back and simple exercises can go a long way. Harvard University has some excellent tips for working out with back pain, but in general, all work outs that don’t cause pain are good. Whether it’s swimming or stretching, it will likely help your back.

Yoga is also excellent for back pain and there are a million programs you can find tailored for a specific pain or ache. Here too, it pays to customize your home for a workout because our homes aren’t just becoming our offices, they’re also becoming our gyms.

There are actually many workout routines that can help relieve your back pain. However, if you want to be successful with your efforts, you should be willing to allocate time and effort for these routines. You won’t be able to get rid of any back aches if you only did yoga for one week and then returned to your unhealthy lifestyle. If you want to see results from your workouts, consistency is key.

If pain persists, have it checked out

We all hate going to the doctor’s especially in this period. But if you’re suffering from back pain and it doesn’t go away, well, ignoring it won’t make it better. As unpleasant as it may be, if the pain doesn’t go away, you should go to the doctor’s and have it checked out.

Depending on the gravity of the problem, your doctor might recommend you to take medicines or undergo procedures such as the Pro Inversion Therapy. Regardless, to ensure that the problem will be resolved in the safest way possible, it’s always best to seek professional advice if your back ache still persists.

In Conclusion

In time, back pain can cause major problems, and it’s always a good time to start taking more care of your back. If you sit at a desk all day long, you’re at great risk of developing back pain, and that pain can turn into something much more troublesome along the way.

Menstrual cups: what they are and should you use one

Menstruation isn’t exactly a hot topic, and it rarely plays a central role in healthcare discussions. As a result, discourse around the topic has become a hodgepodge of taboos and misconceptions. Billions of girls and women are paying the price, as they are not receiving the information and support they need throughout this process. Even in the US, less affluent women are finding it hard to afford sanitary products or proper knowledge on how to use them.

Investing in menstrual hygiene and education can help get millions of girls back into school. According to a UNESCO report, 131 million girls are out of school, and periods play a surprisingly major role in this. Many girls lack access to sanitary products, while others fear the stigma that comes with menstruation. This is where having access to a cheap and simple hygiene device could do wonders. Meet the menstrual cup.

What’s a menstrual cup?

The menstrual cup is a device that is inserted into the vagina during menstruation for the purpose of collecting menstrual fluid. They’re typically made of flexible medical grade silicone, latex, or a thermoplastic isomer, and are shaped like a bell with a stem.

Unlike tampons or pads, menstrual cups are reusable, and a single one can be used for up to 10 years — this makes them not only cheaper than the alternatives but also more eco-friendly. In North America alone, an estimated 20 billion pads and tampons are discarded every year.

The menstrual cup creates a seal that doesn’t allow any leaks during use. After 4-12 hours (depending from case to case), the cup is removed, emptied, rinsed, sterilized, and can be reused. For convenience, it’s easier to have several on-hand and replace one for the other. The cups can be disinfected by boiling or cleaning with sterilizing solutions (usually the same ones used for baby bottles).

Are menstrual cups safe?

Many women fear complications from these products or are simply unaware that they exist. There’s not exactly a rich body of literature on menstrual cups, but the studies that have been published indicate that they are safe.

The largest report of this type analyzed 43 studies with a total of 3,319 participants, finding that menstrual cups are just as effective and reliable as other menstrual products.

“This systematic review suggests that menstrual cups can be an acceptable and safe option for menstrual hygiene in high-income, low-income, and middle-income countries but are not well known. Our findings can inform policy makers and programmes that menstrual cups are an alternative to disposable sanitary products, even where water and sanitation facilities are poor,” the researchers wrote.

Overall, menstrual cups were found to absorb more fluid than other alternatives and according to a separate 2011 randomized controlled trial in Canada, 91% of women in the menstrual cup group said they would continue to use the cup and recommend it to others.

However, for a minority of users (less than 1%), menstrual cups can be unpleasant or even painful. Furthermore, there have been localized reports suggesting potential health concerns, but large-scale scientific studies have found that menstrual cups are safe.

Finding the right one

Of course, making the switch from pads or tampons to menstrual cups can be daunting. There’s a bit of a learning curve at first, and the cups themselves come in different shapes, sizes, and materials.

It can take a bit of getting used to, and it’s perhaps worth experimenting with several products. Luckily, there is plenty of material already available online. You can read menstrual cup reviews, tutorials, and guides online, and there should be no shortage of products to choose from. It’s worth trying a couple of cups to find the “goldilocks cup” that fits just right. At the end of the day, it’s all about finding one that feels right for you.

Most cups cost around $10-$40, which is about as expensive as a large box of pads. Over as few as three months, a reusable menstrual cup can end up saving you money and reducing the number of disposable tampons or pads you’d throw away.

While cups can be a cheap, easy, and eco-friendly alternative, they might not be for everyone. So if you don’t feel comfortable using one, you shouldn’t. Just being aware of them as an alternative is a step in the right direction.

People on dating apps are more likely to exhibit dark personality traits

According to a new study, people on dating apps are more likely to be self-obsessed and manipulative than the general public — which fits very well with previous research.

The unattractive side of dating apps

With the advent of smartphones and our always busier lives, the dating scene has change considerably in the past decade; or at least, a part of it has.

Dating apps have become common in many parts of the world, and dating on an app isn’t the same as doing it the old-fashioned way. For starters, you can reach numerous potential partners, but you have limited ways to grab their attention. Simply put, you need to play the market to increase your chances of being successful, and in this context, playing the market often goes hand in hand with traits such as narcissism, a new study concludes.

A team of researchers from the Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, analyzed how so-called bright, dark, and neutral personality traits correlate with dating app usage. They found that dark traits such as narcissism and Machiavelism (a scheming, self-interested attitude) are indicative of a person’s app usage much more than neutral traits such as openness or extraversion or bright traits like empathy.

They had 555 German volunteers use 3 popular dating apps for three weeks, tracing the time they spent on these apps. The volunteers were then asked to fill personality quizzes to see how different personality traits correlated with the time spent on the apps. Overall, narcissism was the strongest predictor of whether someone used an online dating app, while Machiavellianism was the best predictor of average daily usage — not exactly an attractive picture.

The silver lining was that “love” was the strongest motive for using the app, closely followed by “sex”. The relationship status was not considered in the study.

Not surprising

While this was a relatively small and localized study, it falls in line very well with previous research. For instance, a 2019 study from Australia found that “men who were Tinder users were especially high in psychopathy and narcissism” and “women who were Tinder users were especially high in anxious attachment”. A separate study from the same year concluded that Tinder users had higher scores on the Dark Triad traits.

As dating apps become more and more prevalent, researchers are increasingly looking at their effect on mental health. A recent 2016 study found that using dating apps tends to lower self-esteem, and if dating apps are fertile ground for noxious personality traits, it could explain why.

The study has been published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Want to make better sensors? Just add more noise

Noise is normally the bane of electronic sensors. While biological organisms can make great use of noise, man-made electronics go to great lengths to reduce signal noise as much as possible.

Now, Penn State researchers have found that a small amount of background noise can enhance the performance of light sensors when the light is too dim to sense otherwise.

Artist’s depiction of a phenomenon called stochastic resonance. Image credits: Bessie Terrones, Penn State MRI

The sensor is based on a two-dimensional material called molybdenum disulfide, an inorganic compound used in many high-end sensors. While the sensor used in the study detected light, it could also be used for many other types of sensors as it requires low amounts of energy.

Stochastic resonance (SR) is a phenomenon where a signal that is normally too weak to be detected by a sensor, can be boosted by adding white noise to the signal, which contains a wide spectrum of frequencies.

The key to the technology is a phenomenon called stochastic resonance, where a signal too weak to be detected is boosted by adding white noise on a wide spectrum of frequencies. It’s one of those astounding phenomena, where noise, which is considered detrimental for electronic circuits and communication systems, actually ends up playing a constructive role in the detection of weak signals.

The inspiration for the study came from nature, says lead author Saptarshi Das, an assistant professor of engineering science and mechanics. Saptarshi and colleagues found that if you add just the right amount of background noise, it can actually increase the signal for the sensor.

“For example, a paddlefish that lives in muddy waters cannot actually find its food, which is a phytoplankton called Daphnia, by sight. The paddlefish has electroreceptors that can pick up very weak electric signals from the Daphnia at up to 50 meters. If you add a little bit of noise, it can find the Daphnia at 75 meters or even 100 meters. This ability adds to the evolutionary success of this animal.”

In the study, the team described the process, although the technique has not yet been demonstrated on a silicon photodiode (which would make the device very scalable) — but in theory, any state of the art sensor can be enhanced this way.

The finding could help usher in the so-called Internet of Things (the embedding of internet connection to all sorts of sensors) — sensors have become very cheap and accessible, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to weak signals. It’s also oftentimes impractical to add expensive, power-hungry equipment to ensure a low signal. The technique is also applicable in environmental sensors such as monitoring emissions or earthquakes.

Journal Reference: Akhil Dodda et al, Stochastic resonance in MoS2 photodetector, Nature Communications (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-18195-0

Have we just stumbled on the biggest productivity increase of the century?

John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

One of the most striking responses to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the sudden shift of around half the workforce to working at home.

In many cases, this was combined with an equally sudden shift to home schooling.

Contrary to what might have been expected, working from home was one part of the pandemic response that went remarkably smoothly. Most kinds of office work continued almost as if nothing had changed.

Discussion of the crisis has mostly worked on the assumption that a return to something like the pre-crisis “normal” is both inevitable and desirable.

But the unplanned experiment we have been forced to undertake suggests we might have stumbled upon a massive opportunity for a microeconomic reform, yielding benefits far greater than those of the hard-fought changes of the late 20th century.

The average worker spends an hour on commuting every work day. Remarkably, this is a figure which has remained more or less stable since Neolithic times, a finding known as Marchetti’s Law. (The same observation has been attributed to Bertrand Russell.)

If working from home eliminated an hour of commuting, without changing time spent on work or reducing production, the result would be equivalent to a 13% increase in productivity (assuming a 38-hour working work).

If half the workforce achieved such a gain, it would be equivalent to a 6.5% increase in productivity for the labour force as a whole.

For a comparison, let’s look at the radical microeconomic reforms of the 1990s, including privatisation, deregulation and national competition policy.

In 1995 the main advocate of these reforms, the Productivity Commission, then called the Industry Commission, estimated they would increase national income by 5.5%.

In retrospect, that estimate appears to have been over-optimistic.

Although there was an upsurge in measured productivity growth in the mid-1990s, the total increase relative to the long-term trend was less than 1 percentage point per year above normal. Low productivity growth since then has wound back those gains.

These gains are big, compared to those we sweated on

Even so, those reforms were, and to a large extent still are, widely seen as a crucial contributor to economic prosperity.

So, an improvement of 6.5% would be a huge benefit. It would be enough over a few years to offset the economic costs of the lockdown and many other impacts of the pandemic.

But, as in the case of microeconomic reform, this initial estimate may be misleading. And even if there are real benefits on average, it’s important to ask who will get them and who, if anyone, will lose.

A study by Harvard and New York University economists finds that people working from home spend around 48 minutes more time per day connected to their offices, leaving an average gain in free time of only 12 minutes per day.

It seems likely, however, that at least some of this time is spent on household tasks, especially to the extent that workers had to take on child care and home schooling during the lockdown period. And, as well as saving commuting time, workers also save the monetary costs of commuting and at least some of the time spent getting ready for work.

On balance, it seems clear that on average working from home yields net benefits.

However, workers for whom social contacts at work represent a significant “fringe benefit” will lose that benefit, while other workers who value privacy or separating work and social life will gain a benefit.

It’ll be harder for managers…

Similarly, those who rely on chatting to colleagues to develop ideas will lose something relative to those who prefer more systematic approaches to obtaining information relying on electronic contact.

Another group of workers who might lose from remote working are middle managers.

To the extent that management depends on “presenteeism”, that is, physically keeping an eye on workers, remote working presents problems.

Intrusive checking on computer activity is likely to be resisted and evaded. Managers will have to learn to manage by objectively assessing results rather than observing what people do, and to get that evidence accepted further up in the hierarchy.

…manageable for employers

For employers, the shift to working from home has had little immediate impact. Workers wages haven’t changed and, at least in the short run, neither has spending on office space.

But, in the long run, remote working offers the possibility of much greater flexibility in hiring. Some employers such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have already floated the idea of paying workers less because they can now live in cheaper locations, setting the stage for future conflict.

For the most part, disputes over sharing the benefits of remote office work will be hashed out between employers, workers and unions, in the ordinary workings of the labour market.

But what about the other half of the workforce, who don’t have the option of working from home? In particular, what about the mostly low-paid service workers who depend on people coming into offices?

If the productivity gains made possible through remote work are to be shared by the entire community, substantial government action will be needed to make sure it happens.

Most obviously, the higher rate of JobSeeker allowance has helped us get through the pandemic without the upsurge in suicide and other measures of social distress predicted by many. Returning to the poverty-level unemployment benefit (the old Newstart) would be a disaster.

We’ll need to change the way we support workers

The pandemic has shown how whole sectors of the economy, such as aged care, rely on casual workers piecing together multiple jobs, with no access to standard conditions like sick leave. Younger workers in particular suffer from underemployment and difficulties in making the transition to permanent full-time work.

What will be needed is both an expansion of publicly funded employment in a wide range of services, including aged care, and a reversal of trends towards casual and contract employment.

Disastrous though it has been, COVID-19 has taught us a lot about ourselves and about how our economy and society work. If we learn these lessons, we might be able to benefit and mitigate at least some of the harm done by the disaster.

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The coronavirus might kill the handshake, but the more hygienic fist bump is ready to take its place

Fist bumps are safer than handshakes and drastically reduce the risk of spreading infectious diseases — that’s the main conclusion of a study published in 2014. While the study was carried out before the pandemic, it could be very useful in the current situation.

Image credits: Ashkan Forouzani.

The handshake plays an important role in many cultures. It’s a global gesture essentially synonymous with agreement, support, and friendship. But while the message that handshakes sent is positive, there’s also a problem: it can spread germs.

The very idea of a handshake is to touch hands in a gesture of trust, but when we’re talking about infectious diseases, touching hands with someone else is not really what you want to do.

Even under normal circumstances, the handshake can cause some hygiene problems. When infectious diseases become more prevalent, it’s even more troublesome. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, doctors started paying more attention to handshakes. For instance, the dean of medicine at the University of Calgary, Tomas Feasby, suggested that fist bumps may be a “nice replacement of the handshake” in an effort to prevent transmission of the virus.

In 2010, one study found that 40% of doctors and health care providers don’t comply with hand hygiene rules, prompting discussiong about how handshakes in hospitals could be replaced by other gestures, like a fist bump, a namaste sign, bowing, or waving.

In 2020, as the world battles with a new and more dangerous pandemic, handshakes have become all but obsolete — and if the current situation is any indication, they won’t come back anytime soon. Luckily, there’s an alternative: the fistbump.

Norwegian prime minister and minister of health handshake situation after corona briefing

The fist bump is relatively new; it traces its origins to boxing, where opponents touch gloves before the start of a contest. It was popularized on basketball fields, especially during the 1970s, by athletes such as Fred Carter. In recent times, the fist bump has emerged as a not-as-formal alternative to handshake, though fairly similar in scope to the handshake.

A 2014 study investigated the hygiene of a fist bump compared to that of a handshake and found that the former is much safer than the latter. How much? Well according to the study, the fistbump passes 10 times fewer bacteria than the handshake.

It can make a huge difference, says Dave Whitworth, who led the research.

“People rarely think about the health implications of shaking hands. But if the general public could be encouraged to fist bump, there is a genuine potential to reduce the spread of infectious diseases.”

The experiment was simple: two researchers put sterile gloves on their right hands, and one dipped the gloved hand into a container with a solution teeming with harmless bacteria. Then, they shook hands, and measured the number of bacteria on the other glove. The same process was repeated for fist bumps and high fives. Fist bumps spread far less bacteria, while handshakes were the worst — the stronger the handshake, the more bacteria passed.

Comparison between different greetings. Image credits: Mela & Whitworth.

Although the study has its own limitations (glove transmission may be different from hand transmission, and the transmission rate could be different for other pathogens), the results are very telling. While the exact difference might be challenging to quantify, fist bumps are much safer from an epidemiological perspective. Furthermore, researchers say that they expect “similar results for other pathogenic microorganisms”.

“Adoption of the fist bump as a greeting could substantially reduce the transmission of infectious disease between individuals,” the researchers conclude.

The study “The fist bump: A more hygienic alternative to the handshake” was published in American Journal of Infection Control.

Not too hot, not too cold. What’s the ideal room temperature?

Either at home or at the office, you’ve probably struggled more than once to get the room temperature to your exact preferred level. But that ideal temperature actually depends on many factors such as your age and sex, the time of the year and the exact room in which you are located.

Credit Flickr Jernej Furman (CC BY 2.0)

Room temperature… but what’s the room?

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, room temperature is defined as “around 20–22 °C (68–72 °F)”, while the Oxford English Dictionary defines the temperature as “about 20 °C (68 °F)”. However, what we understand as room temperature is actually a range of temperatures, chosen to represent comfortable habitation for humans. There is no one fixed room temperature.

At the room temperature range, a person isn’t either hot or cold when wearing ordinary indoor clothing, and while that sounds trivial, it’s actually quite important. The average body temperature for a human is 37ºC (98.6 Fahrenheit) and our brains work hard to make sure our bodies maintain this temperature. To do this, our brain makes our body burn glucose to warm up or ventilate and sweat to cool down. See, your brain is both wise and selfish — it knows what’s best for itself is best for the body.

Throughout different cultures, room temperature can vary quite significantly, both in the same period, and seasonally (what is considered ‘room temperature’ in the summer might not coincide with the winter room temperature).

The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests a minimum of 18ºC (64.4) as the ideal home temperature for healthy and appropriately-dressed individuals, meaning no vest tops or shorts on indoors during winter. Meanwhile, for those very old or very young or with an illness, the WHO suggests a 20ºC (68 Fahrenheit) temperature.

The range between 18–24º C (64–75 Fahrenheit) isn’t associated with health risks for healthy adults with appropriate clothing, humidity and other factors, the WHO argues. In other words, anywhere within this range, you should be alright. Cold air inflames lungs and inhibits circulation, increasing the risk of respiratory conditions

However, temperatures lower than 16 °C (61 Fahrenheit) with humidity above 65% were associated with respiratory hazards including allergies. Unfortunately, income constraints also direct what’s an acceptable room temperature. Lack of energy affordability can make it difficult for people on low incomes to heat their houses adequately. Even temperatures lower than 16 °C have been linked with worse health outcomes.

Best temperatures at home

A pleasant temperature is important for our homes.

‘Room temperature’ also depends on the room — it’s not the same whether you are in the living room, the bedroom, or the bathroom when choosing your ideal temperature.

The French Environment & Energy Management Agency (ADEME) came up with a few useful guidelines to follow depending on the room we are at. For living areas such as the living room or the dining room, ADEME suggests an ideal temperature of 19ºC, considering it’s a place where we spend a lot of inactive time such as working or watching TV. This varies according to our age and health. Older people should have a temperature between 20-22ºC (68-71 Fahrenheit).

The situation changes in the bedroom, as an excessive temperature may affect our sleep. ADEME recommends a temperature that doesn’t exceed 17ºC (62.6 Fahrenheit), which can be lowered to 16ºC (60.8 Fahrenheit) with a good duvet and a well-isolated room. This can also be complemented with a hot-water bottle. As a rule of thumb, the bedroom can be 1-2 degrees colder than the rest of the house.

The bathroom is also a quite unique place in the house. It’s unused most of the day but we want it to be at the right temperature when we do use it. Going into a bathroom when it’s too warm or too cold can be annoying or even dangerous for your health (especially if it’s cold after you take a bath). That’s why ADEME recommends a temperature of 22ºC (71 Fahrenheit), which would be enough to feel good after we get out of the shower or the bath.

What about work?

Work is a whole different issue, and who hasn’t argued about the thermostat or air conditioning with a coworker? Finding an ideal office temperature to please everyone is not only hard — is basically impossible, several studies have found

Unsurprisingly, most people are discontent with their work temperature. A survey in 2015 to office workers in the US found that 50% were dissatisfied at least several times a month with the temperature of their office. And that’s not it, as 42% said their offices were too warm during summer and 56% considered them too cold during winter — and this has many implications for organizations and their workers.

Not being able to keep workers comfortable has significant financial implications. In the UK, a study showed as much as 2% of the office hours are wasted by people arguing over the temperature levels, which cost the economy $15 billion per year. Meanwhile, a study in Australia showed temperature arguments cost $6.2 billion per year. Even with all the arguments, we still have trouble finding the best room temperature.

The effects on productivity are also quite clear. A study tracked the activity of clerks in an insurance office to measure the impact of temperature in their efficiency. With a 25ºC (77 Fahrenheit) temperature workers typed non-stop with an error rate of 10%. When the temperature dropped five degrees, they were half as productive. Even more surprisingly, the temperature in the room can influence people’s willingness to collaborate. A study showed that warmer conditions induced greater social proximity and the use of more concrete language, while another study found that holding a cup of hot coffee encouraged workers to judge others are more generous and caring.

Men vs women

There’s even a gender bias in thermal comfort, a study has found. Most office buildings set temperatures based on a decades-old formula that uses the metabolic rates of men to calculate the ideal room temperature… but this doesn’t really work for women. Women, on average, prefer room temperatures several degrees warmer than men. This not only means women are colder but also lowers their ability to perform certain tasks in the office at a temperature that’s more comfortable for men (the opposite can also be true).

Study author Agne Kajackaite worked with over 500 German college students, placing them in a room and taking tests at different temperatures, ranging from 16ºC (61 Fahrenheit) to 32ºC (92 Fahrenheit). The researchers found a difference in performance between men and women depending on the temperature.

Previous studies showed women preferred rooms at 25ºC (77 Fahrenheit), while men are more comfortable at (21.6ºC). Women are usually colder than men at the same temperature because of the physiology. Nevertheless, before Kajackaite’s work, the consequences of being colder weren’t much clear. The warmer the room, the better the women performed.

“As the temp went up, women did better on math and verbal tasks, and men did worse. And the increase for women in math and verbal tasks was much larger and more pronounced than the decrease in performance of men,” Tom Chang, co-author, said in a statement.

A matter of health

While for many healthy and young individuals the right indoor temperature might be a matter of comfort and productivity, for the elderly it’s also a matter of health. During summer, seniors are exposed to an increased risk, while in winter the risks can be as just as severe.

A study found it only takes 45 minutes for a cold room to have a significant impact on the elderly, decreasing the strength in most of the major muscle groups. With a reduced strength, their safety and independence can be affected. With that in mind, the study suggested a minimum temperature of 18ºC (65 Fahrenheit).

This is also very important for babies’ health, with a recommended room temperature between 20ºC to 22ºC (68 to 72 Fahrenheit). This reduces the risk of overheating, which has been linked to fatal sleep accidents and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). As a general rule, if the bedroom temperature is comfortable for you, it’s also for your baby.

The odds of spreading coronavirus in the same household is under 20%, a review of studies finds

The risk of transmitting the coronavirus to members of the same household is large but not as large as you probably thought. Simple protection measures can go a long way, the authors of a new study conclude.

Image credits: engin akyurt.

Although we’ve learned so much about SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the pandemic, we still don’t know exactly how it’s transmitted. We know it’s passed through droplets, but there is also evidence that airborne transmission is possible; we know surface transmission is less likely, but we still don’t know if it plays a significant part; we also know that indoor transmission is more likely than outdoor, but again, just how likely remains very uncertain.

These questions aren’t easy to answer. Even for the flu, which has been studied for decades, the details of transmissibility remain difficult to crack, which is why observational studies are so important. Basically, since it’s so unclear how exactly a virus spreads, we can get an idea by studying the effects of transmission in a population. The more controlled the environment, the more accurate the assessment. This is exactly what a team led by Zachary J. Madewell at the Department of Biostatistics, University of Florida has done.

Madewell and colleagues wanted to analyze how likely it is for COVID-19 to be transmitted from one household member to another. They started with a database of 485 reports and screened them, selecting only the ones that offered a comprehensive assessment. Ultimately, they ended up with 40 studies that also included contact tracing, whose results were compared and analyzed. The resulting data came from multiple countries in Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America.

The rate of infection between members of the same household (called the secondary attack rate or SAR) varied substantially between different studies, but it was never above 50%. In fact, the highest observed SAR was just over 44%, and in the vast majority of studies, the rate was under 33%.

The SAR in the analyzed studies. Image credits: Madewell et al.

The household is a favorable environment for transmission due to the frequency of contacts between family members, reduced usage of personal protective equipment, shared living and eating environment, and persistence of SARS-CoV-2 on different surfaces. In light of all of this, it’s remarkable that over all the analyzed studies, the average SAR was only 18.8%.

The researchers also compared how different aspects of the household increased or decreased the transmission rate. Unsurprisingly, the more contact infected people had with household members, the likelier it was to transmit the virus — but other than that, there were few clear conclusions.

“We observed that household SARs were significantly higher from symptomatic index cases than asymptomatic index cases, to adult contacts than children contacts, to spouses than other family contacts, and in households with one contact than households with three or more contacts,” the researchers note.

Overall, it’s still a high infection rate and researchers warn that it should be addressed (with strategies such as mask-wearing at home, improved ventilation, and voluntary isolation).

The study was published in medrXiv.

Microwaving water really isn’t the same as heating it

Every time you make a cup of tea (or whatever hot beverage you may prefer), your cup becomes the stage of an interesting physics experiment. Even heating the liquid creates a pretty interesting mechanism. If you place a water-filled recipient on a stove, the bottom part starts to heat up. As it does, it becomes less dense, which makes it move to the top, and a cooler section of the liquid sinks to the source, where it heats up, moves up, and so on.

This process, called convection, ensures that there’s a uniform temperature throughout the water. But with microwave, it’s different.

Convection in a stove-heated recipient. Image credits: Bruce Blaus.

In a microwave, convection doesn’t take place because the heating comes from everywhere at the same time. Because the recipient itself also heats up, the hottest parts of the water rise to the surface and stay there, making the first sips much hotter than the ones at the bottom.

This helps to explain why, at least anecdotally, hot beverages just aren’t the same when you microwave or heat them with a conventional stove.

A team of researchers from the University of Electronic Science & Technology of China studied this common problem and found a way to trigger convection in microwave-heated cups as well.

The key, researchers say, is guiding the microwaves away from the surface of the liquid. They fitted a regular cup with custom-made silver plating that acts as a guide for the waves, reducing the field at the top and effectively blocking heating at the top, which creates a similar heating process to traditional approaches and results in a uniform temperature for the water.

“The experimental results show that when the modified glass cup with 7 cm metal coating is used to heat water in a microwave oven, the temperature difference between the upper and lower parts of the water is reduced from 7.8 °C to 0.5 °C.”

Naturally, placing metal plating inside a microwave oven seems like a bad idea and it almost always is — unless you really know what you’re doing. The team was able to design the metal plating in a way that’s both efficient and safe.

“After carefully designing the metal structure at the appropriate size, the metal edge, which is prone to ignition, is located at weak field strength, where it can completely avoid ignition, so it is still safe,” said Baoqing Zeng, one of the authors of the paper.

Zeng and colleagues are now working on ways to make the process scalable and cost-effective for brewing. They hope to commercialize their results soon — in which case, microwave tea could become a non-laughable option.

The team is also considering ways to do the same thing in heating solids, but the process is much more complex. For now, we’ll have to heat our leftovers the good old fashioned way.

Journal References: Multiphysics analysis for unusual heat convection in microwave heating liquid,” AIP Advances (2020). aip.scitation.org/doi/full/10.1063/5.0013295

Men like futuristic sex robots, and think women do too. But women don’t

The fantasy of sexual robots has been around for a while, lurking around the periphery of a future time. But as it’s inching closer to reality and we have to start considering it as a real possibility, are we really ready for something like this?

The ‘You look lonely’ scene from Blade Runner 2049. Credits: Columbia Pictures.

“Physical and emotional intimacy between humans and robots may become commonplace over the next decades,” reads the new study carried by researchers from Norway.

The idea of robots that can interact with humans sexually and emotionally isn’t new, but it’s far more common in literature and movies than in real life. The likes of Blade Runner and Westworld explore potential romantic relationships between humans and robots and raise some intriguing psychological points, but what do real-life humans think about it?

In the study, 163 female and 114 male participants were asked to read a short story about a humanoid robot designed either for sex or for platonic love. They then completed a questionnaire about how they would react if their partner would have such a robot, and how their partner would react if they would use such a robot themselves. As it turns out, men and women see the situation quite differently.

Men were likely to agree with statements such as “I hope this type of robot is developed in the future” and “I look forward to the development and launch of this type of robot,” whereas women were more likely to answer “This kind of robot would evoke strong feelings of jealousy in me”.

Overall men tend to have more positive attitudes towards sex robots, while women are more reluctant. But men wrongly assume that their female partners share their views. Funny enough, women also assume that men share their views (of robot hesitancy) — which men don’t.

In other words, not only do men and women have different attitudes, but they’re in the dark when it comes to that the other gender is thinking. The results suggest that people project their own feelings about robots onto their partner, erroneously expecting their partner to share their views.

The study reads:

“Females have less positive views of robots, and especially of sex robots, compared to men. Contrary to the expectation rooted in evolutionary psychology, females expected to feel more jealousy if their partner got a sex robot, rather than a platonic love robot. The results further suggests that people project their own feelings about robots onto their partner, erroneously expecting their partner to react as they would to the thought of ones’ partner having a robot.”

It’s not really surprising that men tend to have more permissive attitudes towards sex robots, but the fact that neither men nor women guessed the attitudes of the opposite sex raises some interesting questions about how this technology would affect interpersonal relations.

It’s also worth noting that the study has a significant limitation: participants were recruited via Facebook and email, so there is a bias in how the participants were selected, and it’s possible that participants have a greater interest in robots than the average person.

But even so, the problems the study highlighs are intriguing.

Robots have developed greatly in recent years, and while true humanoid robots are far from becoming a reality, sex robots are actually pretty close to becoming a reality. If these robots are becoming a thing, we need to start talking about them. Keeping them a tabu just spells trouble down the road.

The study “Friends, Lovers or Nothing: Men and Women Differ in Their Perceptions of Sex Robots and Platonic Love Robots” has been published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Solid soap vs liquid soap: which is more eco friendly?

The humble soap bar is back — and it’s ready to play its part in saving the environment. It works just as well as liquid soap in cleaning and disinfecting, and is a touch more eco-friendly.

The soap bar is enjoying a fancy resurgence — and it well deserves that. Image credits: Kristina Balić.

Wash up

The act of bathing is so common we don’t really pay it much attention. You go in, run the water, clean yourself with soap, rinse, dry, and you’re out. Except many people don’t actually use soap anymore.

Soap is a product made from a combination of fats (or oils) and an alkali (traditionally, lye). We might sometimes call other things ‘soap’, but that’s not technically accurate. For instance, body wash is technically a detergent — it contains extra chemicals called surfactants. Some solid soaps can also be labeled as a detergent, which is usually written on the label: if it says ‘soap’, it’s soap — otherwise, it’s probably detergent.

So which one should you buy? There’s such a huge selection on the market and everyone has their own personal preference. But if you’re thinking about the environment, the answer is pretty straightforward.

You should use bar soap.

You use less solid soap

It’s always difficult to compare different products that serve the same purpose. It’s not just the ingredients and energy that’s used in the production — a thorough lifetime analysis also needs to consider transportation, usage, and disposal.

Luckily for us, a team of researchers from Zurich’s Institute of Environmental Engineering already performer the analysis, and here’s what they found.

For starters, you use less solid soap than liquid.

Solid soap does just as good a job at cleaning as liquid soap. Image credits: Curology.

In a regular 30-second hand wash, people use on average 0.35g of bar soap — compared to 2.3g liquid soap. In other words, washing your hands takes more than 6 times more liquid soap than solid soap.

That is, in part, due to how the products are used: you use a spurt of liquid soap, and that’s simply more than what you use when you wash your hands the old-fashioned way.

So solid soap would be better and cheaper even if it would require the same resources pound per pound as liquid soap.

But it doesn’t.

Carbon footprint

Soap doesn’t account for a large part of your carbon footprint. Things like diet and transportation have a much bigger impact, and that’s where you should act first. But every positive impact is still an impact, and here’s how that applies to soap.

Liquid soap has 10x the carbon footprint of bar soap. The first reason for that is the extra chemicals contained by liquid soap, which are relatively energy-intensive.

The second aspect is packaging: liquid soap is packaged in specific plastic containers which, again, require more energy to produce than the solid soap packaging (more on that in the packaging section).

Water and land usage

When it comes to water usage, liquid soap salvages some ground. We tend to use 30% more warm water when we wash with solid soap compared to liquid. It’s significant that this is warm water, which also implies an energy cost for warming the water.

However, this is compensated by the end of life disposal: the chemicals used in liquid soap require more wastewater treatment than those used in soap. The liquid soap’s advantage in this regard is slim at best.

Land usage is also an area where liquid soap fares slightly better. Bar soaps contain ingredients derived from vegetable oils, which usually come from farmed crops.

This impact differs from place to place depending on agricultural practices, but it usually translates into a slightly higher environmental cost for solid soap.

Transportation

Solid soap surges ahead when it comes to transportation — it’s much more efficient. Not only is liquid soap heavier to carry, but it’s also not packaged very efficiently. Bar soap is almost always packed in stackable bars, which saves a lot of space.

Image credits: Heather Ford

This is also an advantage for sellers, which allows them to store more soap, requiring fewer shipments.

Packaging and disposal

This is where liquid soap becomes really disadvantageous. As mentioned, liquid soap requires much more wastewater treatment and has much more plastic packaging than solid soap.

Not only does this mean producing the packaging is costly (from an environmental perspective), but disposing of it is also problematic.

Solid soap, on the other hand, often has minimal packaging. A simple paper label is usually applied, or a thin plastic coat (also problematic, but less so than with liquid soap).

The verdict

Image credits: Viktor Forgacs.

It’s not entirely a black and white issue but environmentally, solid soap is almost always better. From the cradle to the bin, liquid soap uses several times more energy and has packaging which is difficult to recycle or dispose of.

If you want to use liquid soap, there are ways to improve its environmental performance. For example, you can buy wholesale and refill existing bottles by bringing your own container to the store (in places that allow this).

But for now, solid soap is more eco-friendly. It won’t make a massive difference in your overall resource usage, but every bit can help.

Thankfully, soap bars are also enjoying a popularity resurgence, with numerous fancy and varied products available on the market.

The Science of ‘Seinfeld’ — How Much Was Actually True?

Article by Bill Sullivan, Indiana University

It’s been 31 years since a groundbreaking show about nothing first hit the air and…yada yada yada. What better time to revisit some memorable moments from “Seinfeld” that left viewers shouting, “Get out!”, and see what science has to say about the situation.

I was a biology graduate student when “Seinfeld” first hit the air. The show not only provided a welcome reprieve from a tough day in the laboratory, but also fueled fun debates among us students as to whether the inane scenarios were plausible. Thirty years on, these debates still swim in my head, better informed by the latest science relevant to them.

Credits: NBC.

Can men grow breasts big enough to need ‘the bro’?

On season 6, episode 18 (S6:E18), it was revealed that George’s father, Frank, had something he wanted to get off his chest but couldn’t: man boobs. After witnessing Frank’s condition, Kramer was inspired to make “the bro,” or “mansiere,” to help give Frank and his buddies support.

The development of enlarged breasts in men is nothing new: It is a rather common medical condition called gynecomastia. Gynecomastia can arise when the body makes less testosterone relative to estrogen. These fluctuations in sex hormones can happen as a newborn develops, during puberty or as a result of aging. In the young, the situation usually resolves on its own as hormones balance out.

Certain medications, illegal drugs and alcohol can produce gynecomastia as well. Men with this condition can opt for breast reduction surgery or wear a compression vest. Medications that reduce the effect of estrogen can also help.

Can someone die from licking envelopes?

In the season 7 finale, George and Susan were finally tying the knot and George’s wallet was taking a beating. When George was presented with the option to save a few bucks by purchasing old wedding invitations, he leaped at the opportunity. As she licked the 200 envelopes, Susan became dizzy and, in a shocking twist, died at the hospital. The doctor stated that they “found traces of a certain toxic adhesive commonly found in very low-priced envelopes.”

Another outlandish plot line, or could this really happen? According to “How It Works,” envelope glue is made from gum arabic, which is a product of the hardened sap from acacia trees. It is a nontoxic substance often used in candy to bind ingredients together.

Others state that dextrin, an edible carbohydrate produced from corn or potato starch, is used to make the adhesive. Most importantly, as far as I can tell, there is not a single report of someone dying from licking envelope glue. If you’re still anxious about potential toxins in the adhesive, or simply don’t like the taste, moisten the glue strip with a damp sponge instead of your tongue.

The government has been experimenting with pigmen

In S5:E5, Kramer wanders into the wrong hospital room and makes a disturbing discovery – a pigman: half man, half pig. Kramer is further convinced of the existence of pigman when the next day’s newspaper reads, “Hospital receives grant to conduct DNA research.” In the end, we learn that the pigman was, of course, just a man who is about five feet, hairless, with a pink complexion.

I’m telling you, Jerry.

Kramer might come across as a hipster doofus, but he’s not entirely wrong here. Scientists have indeed been working on pig-human hybrids, of sorts, for decades. Doctors have been using porcine heart valves to replace damaged ones in humans since the 1960s.

Since a pig’s internal organs are roughly the same size as our own, pigs are good candidate animals in which human organs for transplantation could be grown. In 2017, Dr. Jun Wu at the Salk Institute published the first report of human tissue being grown in a pig embryo. Much more careful research lies ahead, but the pioneering study supports the idea that human organs could be manufactured in a pig.

Why does Newman hate broccoli so much?

In S8:E8, Newman was challenged to eat broccoli but quickly gagged and demanded a honey mustard chaser to neutralize the taste.

Newman is what scientists call a “supertaster,” and he is not alone in hating broccoli. Approximately 25% of people are born with variations in genes like TAS2R38, which build taste bud receptors.

Taste buds bind to chemicals in food and signal the flavor to the brain. Many plants, including broccoli, evolved to produce bitter-tasting chemicals like thiourea to avoid being eaten.

Most humans don’t register these chemicals as intensely bitter, but supertasters do. Supertasters are literally born with a tongue that is unusually sensitive to the bitter chemicals found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, which tricks their brain into thinking that the food is poisonous.

Like a frightened turtle, why does it shrink?

A trip out to the Hamptons is usually a pleasant outing, but in S5:E21, Jerry’s girlfriend accidentally walks in on George as he’s changing out of his swimsuit. After catching a glimpse of his manhood, she says, “I’m really sorry.” George screams in self-defense, “Shrinkage! Shrinkage! I was in the pool!”

George wasn’t lying. Urologist Darius Paduch at Weill Cornell Medicine has stated that the penis can shrivel by about 50% in length and 20% to 30% in girth in cold temperatures.

The human body operates at an optimal temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. When we get cold, blood is redirected to our vital areas, namely our chest and head to keep our heart and brain functionally properly. Consequently, this draws blood away from appendages like fingers, toes and, in males, the penis. When blood rushes away from the penis, it shrinks. The position of the testes is a reflex controlled by the cremaster muscle, which brings them closer to the body in colder temperatures to maintain the warmth needed for sperm production.

The shrinkage issue.

Why you shouldn’t stress a model

Everything in life is coming up roses after George has a chance encounter with a hand modeling agent in S5:E2. Thanks to avoiding manual labor his whole life, George’s hands are exquisitely smooth and creamy, delicate yet masculine.

Appreciating that his extraordinary hands are the ticket to a new life, George protects them by wearing oven mitts and warning his bickering parents that “Stress is very damaging to the epidermis!”

It is tempting to assume that George is simply making excuses to get his parents to stop arguing, but science supports his assertion. Stress causes all sorts of health issues in the body, and the skin — our largest organ — is no exception. The body responds to stress by releasing hormones like cortisol, which cause inflammation.

In the skin, cortisol increases the production of oils, which can cause breakouts and exacerbate skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema. Stress hormones negatively impact the immune system and epidermal defenses, making the skin more susceptible to infection. Stress also causes some people to bite their nails, which could easily ruin a hand modeling gig.


Bill Sullivan, Professor of Pharmacology & Toxicology, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

US plumbing codes are based on century-old data

Parts of the plumbing code in the country require a major overhaul, a team of engineers warn. There is a dire need for research to produce updated plans.

Image credits: Samuel Sianipar.

Many things have changed in recent years. Our technology has changed, our habits have changed, and in many ways, society has changed, too. But plumbing hasn’t changed all that much, and at least some features are still the same way they were designed in the 1920s.

Of course, saying that any infrastructure component is a hundred years old sounds pretty damning — and, in a sense, it is — but that’s not saying the whole story. Changing the way plumbing is designed implies changes on a massive scale, and any changes of this magnitude require serious research.

This is what engineers are essentially saying in this new report: we know things are antiquated, but we’re not really sure of the best way to improve them — so let’s start researching.

In a new “technical note”, engineers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) address the most pressing issues to be researched.

“Plumbing design approaches, codes and standards have not kept pace with these changes, in large part because of the existence of significant technical knowledge gaps. Research is needed to address these gaps in support of water efficiency and water quality goals to ensure the effectiveness of these systems today and in the future.”

“This report documents specific research needs to advance plumbing system design, operation and maintenance, as well as the standards, codes and guidelines that apply to these systems.”

The aged concept at the core of the problem is something called Hunter’s curve.

Roy B. Hunter was an innovative engineer whose work in the 1920s through the 1940s revolutionized plumbing standards. Hunter developed a mathematical formula for calculating how much water a particular building needs, based on the number of fixtures inside. For most rental properties, the number of fixtures remains pretty stable — it’s not every day that you install or remove a new sink or toilet, so it’s a pretty reliable approximation.

But as access to water and different plumbing materials changed (and as requirements changed), the model stayed as it is. Hunter himself did tremendous work finessing his model, but it was ultimately out of his hands. Some pipes remained unused and inefficient, while others struggled to keep up with the demand and changing scenarios. Performance standards lagged the robustness of a modern approach.

Because it was such a gargantuan task, engineers constantly postponed adapting Hunter’s curve, and this procrastination has led to many buildings (even new ones) using an older model.

It’s not even just about efficiency — a lot of it is about sanitation. Essentially, the antiquated standard makes water more prone to developing bacteria.

At present, Hunter’s Curve often overestimates water demand in many places, causing designers to install oversized pipes. Where this happens, the water remains in the plumbing system for longer than the designer intended. This allows additional time for harmful bacteria to grow and for contaminants to leach from the pipes themselves into the water, says Dave Yashar, deputy chief of NIST’s Energy and Environment Division and co-author of the report.

“This document is intended for any organization that is planning plumbing research programs,” said Yashar. “It’s meant to help researchers figure out what information is needed to move industry forward.”

Researchers know water that stays stagnant for too long becomes unsafe — but we don’t really know exactly what “too long” means and how bacteria or contaminants leech in. The chemical and biological interactions at play here are not fully understood, the NIST explains.

Another problem is the lead contamination from aging plumbing infrastructure.

Lead contamination is probably the biggest issue plaguing aging plumbing infrastructure, in terms of its direct harm to residents and the multiple ways lead is entrenched in existing plumbing standards. The NIST explains:

“Lead […] was banned in 1986 as understanding of the dangers of lead exposure increased. However, lead persists as a problem, partially due to the inability to remove lead from existing infrastructure, and partially due to the limited technical understanding of how lead leaches into water.”

All this will take a lot of research to figure out, and a lot of research means a lot of time and money invested.

In the end, the report calls for better plumbing standard, obtained through a better understanding of all the biochemical factors involved, as well as the engineering part itself.

The list of 59 research needs largely draws from discourse among experts in academia, industry and government at a 2018 workshop, in addition to 26 responses to a notice published by NIST in the Federal Register.

Why are minorities disproportionately hit by the coronavirus?

In New York, data showed that black people make up 33% of COVID-19 hospitalizations. Yet black people make up just 18% of the state’s population, so this minority is affected in a heavily disproportionate way.

Furthermore, early hospital data from New York City suggests that black people are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. The CDC also reported that, in New York City, death rates are significantly higher for Hispanics/Latinos than for white people.

Which begs the question: why are minorities more at risk from the disease?

Image credits: Oje Ojeaga.

New York isn’t an outlier in this regard. In Louisiana, 70% of fatalities were among black people — for a population that’s only about a third black. In Illinois, 15% of the population is black, but 43% of fatalities were within this small population. The parallel continues for many other states.

It’s not just black people, either: the Navajo Nation has a population of under 300,000 people in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah — less than 5% of these states’ population. But they make up over 20% of the total number of cases.

“We found that there were large disparities in the proportion of people at risk of COVID-19 from minority and low-income populations,” said study co-author Julia Raifman. She’s an assistant professor of health law, policy and management at the Boston University School of Public Health.

Raifman believes that decades of disparities in income, housing, education, and jobs have made a large impact on minorities’ risk of disease, and ethnicity may be an important factor affecting COVID-19 outcomes. This is not a new issue, but the pandemic is bringing all these issues to light.

“COVID pandemic has really shined a spotlight on the discrepancies in health care outcomes for people of color and of lower socioeconomic status, and this study raises some very valid points about those discrepancies,” says Dr. Gary LeRoy, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, who was not involved with the study.

Health and income

The new study, spearheaded by Raifman, looked at different COVID-19 health risk factors, reviewing 2018 data including 330,000 people from a nationally representative group.

They found that about 43% of all American adults have at least one COVID-19 risk factor, and 18% have two or more risk factors. When they looked at people under 65, they found one risk factor in 33% of black adults, 42% of Native American adults, and 27% of white adults — hardly enough to justify the differences observed in COVID-19 vulnerability. Instead, it was social rather than medical inequalities that seem to correlate with COVID-19 risk.

In people under 65, low-income adults are almost twice as likely to have one or more risk factors, and, in general, low income seems to correlate with COVID-19 risk.

Another risk factor might be represented by other inequalities, such as living standards. Living in crowded, multigenerational homes, makes it far more likely to contract the disease. Having jobs that cannot be done remotely and using public transportation to get to work can also contribute to a higher risk. In the case of the Navajo Nation, about 30% of the homes in the reservation don’t have running water, which makes regular hand-washing challenging, the researchers note.

Overall, while it’s hard to put a finger on one culprit, major social inequities manifest themselves racially, and these inequities contribute to a higher risk of disease. This is true always but is especially glaring in the context of this pandemic.

LeRoy, who was not involved with the study, highlighted another problem: lack of access to healthcare. In the earlier stages of the disease (and to a lesser extent, even now), you needed a doctor’s referral to get a COVID-19 test. That means that if you don’t have health insurance, you need to pay for a doctor’s visit to get the referral — assuming you even get it. While this was not addressed in the study, preliminary reports suggest that black people were less likely to be referred for testing. Then, even assuming that everything goes right, it might still be realistically impossible to quarantine yourself living in a shared home — and if you’re living month to month, you might not even be able to afford to self-quarantine.

This wide gap in healthcare availability and living conditions is a potential driver of racial disparities. LeRoy expressed hope that this can be addressed

“I hope we emerge from this pandemic as a smarter global community, but we have to address these glaring health discrepancies,” LeRoy said. One place to start might be making antibody testing more widely available. Antibody tests can show whether or not you’ve had the COVID-19 infection, but it’s not yet clear if that also means that you cannot be reinfected. He said the test is available in some areas, but may not be easily accessible for some, and the cost is $65. You don’t need a doctor’s referral for this test, but a lot of people can’t pay the $65,” LeRoy said.

This is also important to consider for lockdown relaxation. This will, almost undoubtedly, lead to an important rise in cases — which may very well also disproportionately affect minorities. Any responsible policy must consider this and tailor solutions to care for the communities most at risk.

Learn more about how COVID-19 infections affect minorities from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention