Tag Archives: usa

Stanislav Petrov – the man who probably saved the world from a nuclear disaster

As Vladimir Putin is forcing the world to contemplate nuclear war once again, it’s time to remember one time when one Soviet military may have saved the world from disaster.

It was September 26, 1983. The Cold War was at one of its most tense periods ever. With the United States and the USSR at each other’s throat, they had already built enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other (as well as the rest of the world) a couple times over — and the slightest sign of an attack would have lead to a worldwide disaster, killing hundreds of millions of people.

Stanislav Petrov played a crucial role in monitoring what the US was doing. In the case of an attack, the Soviet strategy was to launch an all out retaliation as quickly as possible. So a few minutes after midnight, when the alarms went on and the screens turned red, the responsibility fell on his shoulders.

The Soviet warning software analyzed the information and concluded that it wasn’t static; the system’s conclusion was that the US had launched a missile.  But the system however, was flawed. Still, the human brain surpassed the computer that day; on that faithful day, Stanislav Petrov put his foot down and decided that it was a false alarm, advising against retaliation – and he made this decision fast.

He made the decision based mostly on common sense – there were too few missiles. The computer said there were only five of them.

“When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles,” he remembered thinking at the time. “You can do little damage with just five missiles.”

However, he also relied on an old fashion gut feeling.

“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” Petrov said. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”

There’s also something interesting about that night. Petrov wasn’t scheduled then. Somebody else should have been there; and somebody else could have made a different decision. The world would probably have turned out very different.

One-third of Americans are “alarmed” about climate change, and over half are at least “concerned”

Americans are more concerned about global warming than ever, according to the latest results from the long-running Climate Change in the American Mind survey on public opinion.

Image credits Andrea Spallanzani.

Researchers at Yale University and George Mason University (GMU) report that, as part of the results from a twice-a-year US-wide survey, around 59% of people in the country are either “alarmed” or “concerned” regarding climate change. They also responded to feeling more engaged with and supportive of policies meant to reduce pollution and the warming of the climate.

A full one-third (33%) of Americans were “alarmed” by the issue, adds a news release from GMU.

Heating up

With the effects of climate change ramping up throughout the world, the public is increasingly concerned about how our way of life is impacting the health of the planet and our own wellbeing. The recent increase in freak weather, heatwaves, droughts, and wildfires are prime examples of how shifts in the climate can wreak havoc on our communities.

Public opinion is increasingly aware of these changes, and there is a general shift in interest against damaging practices and a growing demand for solutions. The recent results of this survey, and a comparison between them and results in past years perfectly illustrates this shift.

Climate change is fueled by emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Other man-made sources of such gases include methane, nitrous oxide, and even water vapor. Various industrial, commercial, and domestic practices generate these emissions. Apart from that, human activity further promotes climate change through the destruction of natural ecosystems — which work to keep the current balance through the recycling of various gases, — replacement of natural landscapes, overconsumption, and various types of pollution.

As things are going now, these problems remain poorly addressed. Climate change, then, is very likely going to persist in the near to mid-future, and its effects will become evermore dire as mean temperatures increase.

Truth be told, uncoupling our way of life from fossil fuels completely is a massive challenge from a practical point of view. These substances keep our societies running, in a very literal sense, on nearly every level. Although there have been incredible advancements in the field of renewable energy and a lot of progress in implementing them, it would still take a lot of work to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy completely — and quite substantial upfront costs.

That being said, it’s becoming ever clearer that we don’t really have a way around it. Public opinion seems to be swinging around to that view as well, judging from these findings. And, although completing such a transition is a huge task, policymakers and governments have been doing painfully little to get it started. The end of the pandemic has also brought about a re-increase in emissions, as our economies grind back into gear, showcasing how little progress has actually been made up to now.

China, the US, and the EU, as the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, have the most work to do. We can hope that, with public opinion breathing down their necks, the US government will start to make more meaningful strides in this regard. The EU has been making some laudable efforts, although they, too, have a ways to go. China, due to its political regime, is a wildcard as to how it will progress in regard to climate change; authoritarian regimes tend not to deal very well with global issues.

The United States’ largest (to date) step towards fighting climate change is the $555 billion “Build Back Better” bill, which aims to invest in renewable energy and clean transportation. At the time of writing this, it is still awaiting approval by Congress.

This “shockingly big jump” in public concern for climate change mirrors the increase in the proportion of Americans who believe climate change and freak weather are linked, says Anthony Leiserowitz, who directs the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. This program has been conducting the survey for the last 14 years. The realization that weather can and does harm people, and the fact that Americans are starting to feel its effects on themselves, are likely driving this increase in awareness. 

“You’re beginning to see the coalescing of a powerful citizens’ movement demanding that leaders act, both business leaders and government leaders,” he says.

Yes, there is institutional racism in the US — and there’s a ton of science that proves it

We looked at published studies detailing institutional racism and the vast majority tend to say the same thing: black people are disadvantaged at almost every level of society.

Whether it’s policy that makes it harder to escape the spiral of poverty, hidden biases in healthcare and the job market, or unjust legal treatment, black people are routinely faced with multiple types of discrimination.

Image credits: Henry Be.

The history of the US is fraught with racial tension and discrimination. That tension boiled over after George Floyd died after being arrested by police outside a shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Footage showed Floyd suffocating, his neck under the knee of a policeman. This needless tragedy triggered protests, fist in Minnesota, and then on a national level — but this isn’t a new problem.

Institutional racism has been a long-standing problem in the United States, manifesting itself in multiple ways, from taking a loan to police discrimination and COVID-19. Many people are vaguely aware of that, but for people of color in the US, it’s a reality they face every day.

Discrimination in Health and Environment

Whether it’s environmental hazards, accessing healthcare, and the quality of healthcare received, black people often find themselves at a disadvantage.

You need not look farther than the COVID-19 crisis to see racial inequities. The coronavirus is hitting US minorities harder and faster, and black people in particular are subjected to extra risks.

This comes as no surprise. Research on race and health in the United States has consistently shown health disparities between different racial or ethnic groups. A 2010 study found that institutional racism impacts health care accessibility within non-white communities. Moreover, a systematic review of studies found that healthcare professionals exhibit significant biases against black people. In other words, black people in the US find it harder to get access to healthcare and when they do, they are still subjected to biases.

The evidence keeps pouring. In 2003, the Institute of Medicine released a report showing that race and ethnicity were significantly associated with the quality of healthcare received, even after controlling for socioeconomic factors such as access to care. For instance, one example is the discrepancy in cardiovascular surgical procedures: compared to their white counterparts, black patients are less likely to receive a necessary coronary bypass surgery, which translates into a significantly different health outcome.

Racial minorities in the US are also exposed to greater health and environmental risks than the general population, something often referred to as environmental racism. People of color are more likely to live, work, and play in America’s most polluted environments, and air pollution still disproportionately affects low-income, black neighborhoods. Ironically, although black communities produce less pollution than their white counterparts, they are more exposed to it. The American Lung Association has an entire page dedicated to the racial disparities present in air pollution

Communities of color (and poorer people) tend to be disproportionately exposed to lead, pesticides, and petrochemical plants — up to the point where race and class are a reliable indicator of where industrial plants and waste facilities are located.

Image credits: Markus Spiske.

Racial disparities are often visible when we look at socioeconomic factors, but even at equivalent economic situations, racial differences in health often persist. Discrimination happens on different many levels, one review of studies found: from living in impoverished communities to societal stigma and even in the way health policies are drafted. It’s not just physical health, either.

Racial discrimination is frequent in the lives of African Americans, one study wrote, and this strongly correlates to psychiatric symptoms. The negative consequences of discrimination are also tied with a lot of different health issues, from common colds to cardiovascular damage. Of course, correlation does not imply causation, and there are multiple factors at play — but when you look at the multitude of studies

Racism in loans, jobs, education, and politics

Institutional racism also makes it harder for black people to climb the social ladder.

Many of the socio-economic challenges faced by many black communities can be traced to policies that came into effect in the 20th century. In the 1930s, banks determined who got a house loan based in part on a neighborhood’s risk for loan default. Many of these neighborhoods were African-American majority and weren’t allowed any housing loans. This meant that in the following decades, white people tended to move to the suburbs and become more affluent, whereas black communities were left struggling.

This so-called white flight amplified as a result of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and which black people were far more likely to be declined any type of loan — be it a house loan or a business loan. This triggered a series of cascading changes that lean towards poor people remaining poor. For instance, low-income neighborhoods are left with independently owned smaller grocery stores that tend to have higher prices, and they are more likely to be left with more liquor stores.

Numerous audit studies have found evidence of discrimination on the housing market, although this was somewhat alleviated during President Obama’s term, with his Fair Housing Finance program.

If that wasn’t enough, here’s another segment which accentuates racial divides: jobs.

Shopping on 125th street in Harlem, a traditionally African American neighborhood.

When it comes to hiring people, a recent study by Harvard researchers found that Americans are as racist as they were back in the late 1980s when it comes to jobs. The study looked at 24 previous papers and found that “white applicants receive 36% more callbacks than equally qualified African Americans” while “[w]hite applicants receive on average 24% more callbacks than Latinos.” Research has also shown that “black-sounding” names are less likely to be called for interviews.

Political representation is also scarce for black communities: there have been less than eight black people in Congress per Congressional period up until the Nixon era. It is only recently that black representation started to increase.

Police brutality and criminal convictions

George Floyd is far from an isolated case. Cases of police brutality against black people routinely make the news.

It has become a rather common occurrence — every year or two, there have been mass protests sparked by the police officers killing black people.

  • In 2016, we had the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott — a man who had previously suffered brain damage in an accident and had difficulty communicating. Scott was shot outside his apartment complex, even though the police were looking for a man who was unrelated with Scott.
  • In 2015, Freddie Gray was killed by a police intervention which resulted in his spine being 80% severed from his neck. This sparked riots in Baltimore.
  • In 2014, Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot 6 times by the police, leading to protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri.
  • Also in 2016, protests in Milwaukee were spurred by the fatal shooting of 23 year old Sylville Smith.
Image credits: Markus Spiske.

These are just the events that sparked mass protests. Between 2013 and 2019, police in the United States killed 7,666 people. But although black people only make up 13% of the population, they represent 24% of those killed by police officers. Overall, black people two-and-a-half times more likely than white Americans to be killed by the police. A 2002 study found that ethnicity has effects on a police officer’s decision to shoot or not to shoot — blacks are far more likely to be shot by police officers than whites in ambiguous situations.

That might be explained if it would be proportional with violent crime, but it doesn’t seem to be the case

Levels of violent crime in US cities do not determine rates of police violence. Image credits: Mapping Police Violence.

The numbers are disproportionate when it comes to other crimes. For instance, two thirds or crack cocaine users are white or Hispanic, yet the vast majority of convictions for possession are for black people. In fact, across the entire US legal system, black people tend to get more severe sentences.

For instance, two-thirds of crack cocaine users are white or Hispanic, but the vast majority of convictions for possession are for black people. Disproportionate punishments and convictions seem to happen throughout the entire US legal system — black people tend to get more severe sentences.

It’s not just about being black — it matters how black you are. A 2007 paper found that in criminal sentencing, medium to dark-skinned African Americans are likely to receive sentences 2.6 years longer than those of whites or light-skinned African Americans. Another study found that prosecutors are 1.75 times more likely to file charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences for black people and overall, black people’s sentences are 10% longer when all things are equal.

The greatest disparity in punishments is in how capital punishment is disproportionately applied to minorities and especially to blacks. The gap is so large that some researchers have argued it undermines the entire reasoning for capital punishment.

Protests in Minneapolis. Image credits: Josh Hild.

Much of these disparities stem from biases. A 2014 study concluded that judges subconsciously utilize the assumption that minorities are more likely to recidivate — and to issue a longer sentencing that will prevent the defendants from reengaging in criminal offenses.

Police profiling and stop-and-frisk practices have also been shown to discriminate against black people. Arrest quotes, as practiced by the NYPD, have been criticized and even challenged legally: in Floyd vs City of New York, a ruling led to the creation of an independent Inspector General’s office to oversee the NYPD, after a federal judge called a whistleblowers recordings of superiors use of “quotas” the ‘smoking gun evidence’ that police were racially profiling and violating civilians’ civil rights.

This is not to say that black people aren’t responsible for a disproportionate. According to the US Department of Justice, African Americans accounted for 52.5% of all homicide offenders from 1980 to 2008. However, research suggests that police practices (such as racial profiling and over-policing in areas populated by minorities) may be responsible for disproportionately high numbers of racial minorities among crime suspects. Although there is far too little research on police violence to draw any definite conclusions, many police investigations and practices seem prejudiced by racial bias.

A systemic problem

The protests started in Minneapolis and have now extended nationally, fueled by a common sentiment against police brutality and systematic discrimination against minorities. Minorities in the US (and black people specifically) feel it every day, and every once in a while, the phenomenon is brought into national attention. But while public attention might forget this in a while, minorities can’t.

In Minneapolis, the police kills black people at a rate 13 times higher than white people — one of the largest racial disparities in the U.S. When George Floyd died, it was hard to see it as an isolated event. The echoes of similar events ring far too strong to consider it an exception.

In many cases, racism is well embedded in all levels of society, and things aren’t really getting better. Since the election of Donald Trump, hate crimes have been on the rise and the anti-minority sentiment has been exacerbated.

It remains to be seen how much the situation will escalate and what the ultimate outcome will be.

Despite an increasing need, school meals are getting less healthy in the US

With classes canceled in up to 40 states, schools in the United States are still fulfilling an important need amid the coronavirus lockdown. Many families visit schools every day to get food as they can no longer afford it.

Credit Flickr.

As on any other school day, all schools are providing meals to families that have to meet the federal nutrition standards. But, instead of working to ensure that the meals remain nutritious, the Trump administration is rolling back healthier standards, health organizations claim.

Back in January, the federal government proposed new rules to allow more pizza, meat, and potatoes in schools instead of fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. This means replacing standards that have been put in place by Michelle Obama.

The new rules mean schoolchildren could consume an additional eight cups per week of hash browns, french fries, or other potatoes instead of fruit in breakfast and other vegetables in lunch. Trump’s initiative has already been rejected by nearly 60 health organizations.

“These rollbacks fail to put children’s health first, which is the clear goal of school nutrition programs under the statute. If finalized, this rule would jeopardize the progress schools are making to provide healthier food to vulnerable children and [will] decrease the overall healthfulness of school meals,” the Center for Science in the Public (CSPI) said.

A recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Eating Research program found that these proposed changes would adversely affect student’s health and academic performance and that students from low-income families attending schools are most likely to be impacted.

Virtually all schools participating in breakfast and lunch programs have made and are making great progress toward serving healthier meals for participating children with less sodium; more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; and fewer sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks.

The current proposed rule undermines such efforts to improve the quality and nutritional value of foods served in schools. The USDA purports that the proposed changes are “customer-focused”; however, the data show that parents and students are in favor of healthier standards.

“Continually weakening the standards does not provide more stability and consistency for schools or industry. On the contrary, it continuously changes the goalposts for school efforts and industry reformulation,” Colin Schwartz, deputy director of legislative affairs for CSPI, said.

This is hardly the Trump administration’s first attempt to weaken school nutrition. It previously rolled back requirements for whole grains and sodium in kids’ meals — moves that are now the subject of two ongoing lawsuits by CSPI and partners and by a group of state attorneys general.

Health experts are calling Trump’s slashing of WHO funding “dangerous, politically-motivated”

One day after President Trump announced that the US will stop funding the World Health Organisation (WHO), its Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says he “regrets the decision” and calls again for global solidarity.

The flag of the World Health Organization (WHO).

While Dr. Ghebreyesus held firm to his track record of tactfully reminding everyone of the importance of working together through the outbreak, others were much more vocal in their criticism. President Trump’s decision has been called “dangerous, short-sighted”, “politically motivated”, and “a typically petulant act”. I daresay I agree.

WHO’s the bad guy here?

“We regret the decision of the President of the United States to order a halt in funding to the World Health Organization,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a press briefing Wednesday. “With support from the people and government of the United States, WHO works to improve the health of many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.”

Dr. Ghebreyesus called again for global unity and continued focus on saving lives and fighting the common enemy, COVID-19, during the briefing.

The WHO was formed in the 1940s by the United Nations and supported by its member states, and received around 15% of all its funding from the US (a permanent member on the UN’s Security Council). After accusing it of “severely mismanaging” the outbreak, however, President Trump announced he will halt the funding until his administration has had a chance to review its response.

It is still currently unclear how this massive cut (one-sixth of all its resources) will impact the WHO, which is guiding the global response against COVID-19 while also fighting polio, measles, malaria, Ebola, HIV, tuberculosis, malnutrition, cancer, diabetes, mental health, and many other diseases and conditions, while further helping shore up national health systems and improve on their capabilities.

For context, here are the disease-combating efforts that the Trump administration is having a net positive effect on:

In his briefing, Dr. Tedros explained that the WHO is currently reviewing its budget and plans to work with its remaining partners to keep the body going as efficiently as possible. Furthermore, he noted that member states and independent bodies will review the WHO’s response to the pandemic “in due course,” as they have done after every major health event.

“No doubt, areas for improvement will be identified and there will be lessons for all of us to learn,” he said. “But for now, our focus—my focus—is on stopping this virus and saving lives. This is a time for all of us to be united in our common struggle against a common threat—a dangerous enemy. When we are divided, the virus exploits the cracks between us.”

People are criticizing this

I can’t shake the feeling that I’m watching a kid play at President — only it’s a spoiled kid, prone to episodes of Cartmanesque “I’m going home” mentality whenever something doesn’t go exactly his way.

Dr. Tedros himself has long asked politicians, the public, and the media to not “politicize COVID,” which would hurt our efforts to combat it. And he’s not shy about stating exactly why that fight is important.

“Please quarantine politicizing COVID,” he said in an April 8 press conference when asked about Trump’s previous criticism of the organization. “We will have many body bags in front of us if we don’t behave. When there are cracks at national level and global level that’s when the virus succeeds.”

For God’s sake, we have lost more than 60,000 citizens of the world.

Since April 8th, that figure has more than doubled, and there are now over 2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide. The US is now the worst affected country with more than 632,000 cases and nearly 28,000 deaths.

Amid that backdrop, Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, distanced himself from the decision, telling Good Morning America in an interview that the “CDC and WHO has had a long history of working together in multiple outbreaks throughout the world, as we continue to do in this one. And so, we’ve had a very productive public health relationship. We continue to have that.” There will be time to look at what happened with this outbreak, but only “once we get through it together.”

Both Bill and Melinda Gates tweeted warnings that this move is especially dangerous during a global health crisis.

Other experts are further weighing in on the decision, and they’re not happy at all about what they’re seeing. A simple google search will yield ample responses from individuals and institutions from around the world, but I’ll leave you with some of the more powerful ones I’ve found on The Science Media Center.

Prof Robert Dingwall, Professor of Sociology, Nottingham Trent University:

“The freeze on funding for WHO by the US government is a typically petulant act against an international organization that has sought to maintain its integrity and impartiality rather than to bow to President Trump’s transient and volatile prejudices.”

Dr. Peter Piot, the director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine:

“Halting funding to the WHO is a dangerous, short-sighted, and politically motivated decision, with potential public health consequences for all countries in the world, whether they are rich or poor.”

Dr. Gail Carson, director of Network Development at ISARIC (International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium) at the University of Oxford:

“Let’s hope President Trump and the review team realize quickly that now is not the time for division and potentially weakening the UN authority on health who are busy coordinating the global response to the pandemic. Look at facts, and there is plenty of evidence of all the good WHO has done during this pandemic.”

Joshua Moon, a senior research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex Business School:

“To see Trump threatening to pull funding from WHO in the middle of a pandemic is truly heartbreaking. The WHO has received so much criticism in the past decade surrounding its role in various public health emergencies. I have been one of those critics myself. However, this attack on WHO is a purely political move designed to distract and pander to Trump’s base.”

“At its core: the loss of US funding for WHO is a huge problem that will impact the response to COVID-19 globally, invite new and potentially unaccountable actors into the position of power that the US previous held, and is a contemptible falsehood being peddled by a politician who in my opinion is trying to hide his own mistakes from his supporters.”

Stephen Griffin, a medical professor, and expert at viral diseases at the University of Leeds:

“This most recent intervention in public health policy by President Trump is perhaps one of the least productive, most short-sighted, self-motivated, and hypocritical acts I have ever witnessed. As far as I can ascertain, it has no foundation in reality. The situation in the US and the world over amounts to a crisis, and one in which we must stand together. WHO is perhaps one of the best means of achieving this and deserves the support and respect of all countries.”

I agree with each and every one of them. The WHO definitely isn’t perfect, but it has always been committed to improving itself and learning from its shortcomings, as evidenced by their openness to reviews from member states. The WHO is perhaps the single greatest tool we have against the current pandemic. There aren’t enough votes in the whole USA to wash away the deaths it can prevent, Mr. President.

US Surgeon General advises all Americans to stay home — “this week, it’s gonna get bad”

Earlier today, US Surgeon General Jerome Adams gave a telling warning of how the coronavirus outbreak is going in the US: “I want America to understand — this week, it’s gonna get bad.”

“As the nation’s doctor, I’m here to help America understand where we need to respond to this,” Adams told the Today show, saying that “every single second counts, and right now there are not enough people out there who are taking this seriously,” he warned, pointing to people still getting together in parks and on beaches.

The ongoing situation in New York (more than 20,000 confirmed infected in a single day) highlights the dangers of reacting too late, he explains. “waiting to see spread before they decide to get serious.”

The most important thing to remember right now is that while we can all catch, get hospitalized, or even die from the virus, we act as carriers and can spread the virus to our loved ones.

“We don’t want Dallas or New Orleans or Chicago to turn into the next New York,” he said.

“It means everyone needs to be taking the right steps right now. And that means stay at home.”

We’ve learned in Europe that not respecting quarantine, and not asking the public to isolate itself fast, leads to disastrous consequences. I hope the US will listen to the warnings of its Surgeon General, and that we don’t have to update our charts with ever-more numbers of victims of this virus.

Suicide rates are rising across the US, especially in rural areas

Suicide is, sadly, becoming more common in America, especially in rural areas.

Image credits Engin Akyurt.

A new study from The Ohio State University found that suicide rates jumped by 41%, from an average of 15 per 100,000 residents to 21.2 per 100,000 between 2014 and 2016. The study evaluated national suicide data from 1999 to 2016 to provide a county-by-county picture of the suicide toll among adults.

It also highlights a cluster of factors, including lack of insurance and the prevalence of gun shops, that are associated with high suicide rates.

Highest where life is hardest

“While our findings are disheartening, we’re hopeful that they will help guide efforts to support Americans who are struggling, especially in rural areas where suicide has increased the most and the fastest,” said lead researcher Danielle Steelesmith, a postdoctoral fellow at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center.

The study found that suicide rates were highest in the least-populous counties of the US, and in the areas where people have the lowest income and most limited access to resources. From 2014 through 2016, suicide rates were 17.6 per 100,000 in large metropolitan counties compared with 22 per 100,000 in rural counties. In urban areas, the team adds, counties with more guns shops tended to have higher rates of adult suicide.

All in all, counties in Western states including Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming tended to have the highest rates of suicide, as did the Appalachian states of Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and those in the Ozarks, including Arkansas and Missouri.

“Suicide is so complex, and many factors contribute, but this research helps us understand the toll and some of the potential contributing influences based on geography, and that could drive better efforts to prevent these deaths,” said Steelesmith.

The study analyzed 453,577 suicides by adults (25 to 64 years old) from 1996 to 2016. Suicides were most common among men and those 45 to 54 years old. The team says adult suicide rates have increased between 2014 and 2016 despite a national prevention effort that kicked off in 2015, which aimed to reduce suicide rates by 20% by 2025.

Ohio State University.

The findings can help guide and bolster the effectiveness of suicide prevention efforts says Cynthia Fontanella, a study co-author and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at Ohio State.

“For example, all communities might benefit from strategies that enhance coping and problem-solving skills, strengthen economic support and identify and support those who are at risk for suicide,” Fontanella said.

She adds that the link between urban gun shops and higher suicide rates suggests they can be targeted to reduce access to the means people use to commit suicide. In rural areas, “deprivation” was a closely-related factor to suicide rates. Deprivation includes a cluster of conditions including underemployment, poverty, and low educational attainment.

Long-term and persistent poverty may be more entrenched in rural areas, the team explains, and economic opportunities more limited. Steelesmith adds that many rural Americans rely on jobs in agriculture and industries like coal mining, which are dwindling. They also suffer from a lack of support services that they may turn to in their time of need.

“In cities, you have a core of services that are much easier to get to in many cases. You may have better access to job assistance, food banks and nonprofits that might all contribute to less desperation among residents,” Steelesmith said.

High social fragmentation — which factors in levels of single-person households, rates of unmarried residents, and the impermanence of residents — and low social capital were also particularly pronounced in rural America, the team explains. Social capital is a measure of how connected or closely-knit a given society is.

Other factors associated with higher suicide rates included high percentages of veterans in a county and lower rates of insurance coverage.

Fontanella explains that people who live in rural America would particularly benefit from strategies designed to promote social connections. Community engagement activities that give residents the chance to interact and to become familiar with supportive resources in their area would be a good approach. Steelesmith adds that some states, particularly in the West, have large counties with great variability in terms of resident life experiences, for instance, so solutions need to be tailored for individual communities.

The paper “Contextual Factors Associated With County-Level Suicide Rates in the United States, 1999 to 2016” has been published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Aquifer.

Largest freshwater aquifer of its kind found off the U.S. Northeast coast

A gigantic, relatively-fresh-water aquifer has been discovered just off the U.S. Northeast coast.

Aquifer.

Yellow crosses and the yellow dashed line show the inferred spatial extent of the low-salinity aquifer system.
Image credits Chloe Gustafson, Kerry Key, Rob L. Evans, (2019), Nature.

The aquifer is contained by the sediments of the seafloor and seems to be the largest of its kind (freshwater aquifer underneath a body of saltwater) that we’ve found so far. The aquifer stretches at least from the shore of Massachusetts to New Jersey, extending more or less continuously out about 50 miles to the edge of the continental shelf, a new study reports.

Thirsty?

“We knew there was fresh water down there in isolated places, but we did not know the extent or geometry,” said lead author Chloe Gustafson, a PhD candidate at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “It could turn out to be an important resource in other parts of the world.”

The first clues that an aquifer rests in this area came in the 1970s when wells drilled off the coastline in search of oil sometimes hit fresh water. At the time, it was debated whether these were isolated pockets of water or a larger continuous body. About 20 years ago, study coauthor Kerry Key, now a Lamont-Doherty geophysicist, helped fossil fuel companies develop techniques to use electromagnetic imaging of the sub-seafloor to look for oil in this area. More recently, he decided to see if the same approach can be turned to spotting freshwater deposits in the area.

In 2015, he spent 10 days on the research vessel with Marcus G. Langseth and Rob L. Evans of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, taking measurements off the coast of southern New Jersey and the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, where scattered drill holes had hit fresh-water-rich sediments. Their data indicated that these were not scattered pockets of water, but a more or less continuous structure extending from the shoreline far out through the continental shelf — in some areas as far as 75 miles. For the most part, the aquifer horizon spans from between 600 feet below the ocean floor to about 1,200 feet.

Based on the readings, the team is confident that the aquifer spans not just New Jersey and much of Massachusetts, but also the coasts of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York. All in all, they report, the aquifer holds an estimated 670 cubic miles of fresh water. So how did all this fresh water get there? The team was two hypotheses.

Aquifer section.

Conceptual model of offshore groundwater. Arrows denote groundwater flow paths.
Image credits Chloe Gustafson, Kerry Key, Rob L. Evans, (2019), Nature.

Some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, toward the end of the last glacial age, most of the Earth’s fresh water was locked up as ice. In North America, these ice sheets extended through northern New Jersey, Long Island, and the New England coast. Since all of that water was solid ice, sea levels were much lower, exposing large surfaces of the continental shelf that today are submerged. As the climate warmed and the ice started melting, outflowing water formed huge river deltas on top of the shelf, and fresh water got trapped there in small pockets, eventually becoming submerged under the sea bed. This is the more traditional hypothesis as to how freshwater bodies can form beneath the ocean.

However, the team has reason to believe that the aquifer is still being fed by modern runoff from dry land. Rainfall and water infiltrating from other sources percolate through onshore sediment, Key explains, and is likely pumped towards the aquifer by the cyclical motions of the tide. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that the aquifer is generally freshest near the shore and saltier the further out you go — suggesting its water gradually mixes with that from the ocean.

This water is still less salty than ocean water. Fresh water usually contains less than 1 part per thousand of salt, and this is about the value found undersea near land; on the aquifer’s outer edges, it rises to 15 parts per thousand. Typical seawater is around 35 parts per thousand salt. As such, if water from the outer edge of the aquifer would be pumped out, it would need to be desalinated — but this would still be cheaper than processing seawater, according to Key.

“We probably don’t need to do that in this region, but if we can show there are large aquifers in other regions, that might potentially represent a resource,” he explains.

Key cites southern California, Australia, the Mideast, or Saharan Africa, as some of these regions, adding that the group hopes to expand its surveys there.

The paper “Aquifer systems extending far offshore on the U.S. Atlantic margin” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Escaped parrots are now living, roosting in 23 US states

A new study reports that around 56 different parrot species have been spotted in the wild in 43 states across the USA. These birds aren’t native to the continent — but 25 species are now breeding in 23 different states, effectively becoming naturalized to the country.

Monk Parakeet.

Monk Parakeet.
Image via Pixabay.

In the 1950s and 60s, tens of thousands of monk parakeets were imported to the USA as pets from South America. Over the years, many escaped (or worse, were released) from their owners. By 1968, they were breeding in the wild across 10 states, including a colony in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, home of the University of Chicago campus. Stephen Pruett-Jones, now a Ph.D. and ecologist at the University of Chicago, first stumbled upon these birds back in 1988, when he first came to Chicago, in Hyde Park.

Made in the USA

“I have never actually held a wild parrot in the United States,” he says. “But indirectly I’ve become the spokesperson for parrot research here because when I saw the monk parakeets in Chicago, I realized nobody else was working on them.”

The US originally harbored two native species of parrot: the Carolina parakeet and the thick-billed parrot. The Carolina parakeet is now extinct, while the thick-billed parrot, a Mexican species that ranged into the southwestern states, was driven out of the U.S. Needless to say, this made for a very peculiar sighting when, on his daily commute, Pruett-Jones spotted a large group of parakeets. Although his usual area of research focuses on Australian wild birds such as wrens, he started sending out students to study the birds and eventually organized an annual lab project to count them. Over time, this project grew much larger than he had anticipated.

Pruett-Jones recently published a study, alongside Jennifer Uehling, a former UChicago undergraduate student now working on a Ph.D. at Cornell University, and Jason Tallant of the University of Michigan, detailing the findings. Between 2002 and 2016, the paper reports, 56 different parrot species were spotted in the wild in 43 states. Of these, 25 species are now breeding in the wild in 23 different states.

“Many of them were escaped pets, or their owners released them because they couldn’t train them or they made too much noise — all the reasons people let pets go,” Pruett-Jones said. “But many of these species are perfectly happy living here and they’ve established populations. Wild parrots are here to stay.”

The study drew on two databases of bird sightings, which were used to track the new ranges of these naturalized parrot species. The first (the Christmas Bird Count) is an annual survey organized by the National Audubon Society that gathers data on US birds during a two-week period (December 14 to January 15) each year. The second one (eBird) is an online database where amateur and professional bird watchers can log all the birds they have seen.

The team reports that the most common species of parrots in the USA today are monk parakeets, the Red-crowned Amazon, and the Nanday Parakeet. They mostly gravitate in the warmer regions of Florida, Texas, and California, but large populations of parrots also roost around cities like New York and Chicago. And, in a somewhat ironic twist, there are now more Red-crowned Amazons living in California than there are in their original habitats in Mexico.

“The entire conservation focus for this species is now on a non-native, introduced, naturalized population,” Pruett-Jones added. “The survival of the species is most likely going to come from efforts to save it someplace where it never existed before.”

Monk parakeets are considered to be agricultural pests in South America, the team writes, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in the US as well. Apart from a few isolated cases, the feral US parrots also don’t seem to be competing with native birds. The Chicago parakeets seem to live in and off the city around the year — they don’t migrate at all, and mostly dine in the city’s parks and open grassy areas. One of Pruett-Jones’ students discovered that make it through the harsh local winters by switching almost exclusively to backyard bird feeders from December to February.

Monk parakeets are a bit of trouble, however, as they build rather bulky nests (they’re the only species of parrot that builds their own nest) which can damage utility lines. The birds aren’t as numerous as they used to be, dwindling from around a peak of 400 to around 30 today. This trend seems consistent across all the birds in the study, the team notes, perhaps due to a disease or parasite — and this may actually be threatening the species’ survival.

“Because of human activity transporting these birds for our own pleasure, we have inadvertently created populations elsewhere,” says Pruett-Jones’. “Now for some of these parrots, they may become critical to the survival of the species.”

The paper “Status of naturalized parrots in the United States” has been published in the Journal of Ornithology.

Climate-change-induced heat will kill tens of thousands of Americans every year by 2090

According to a new analysis performed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, failure to limit emissions might cost the lives of more than 13,000 Americans every year by the mid 2040s and more than double that number by 2090.

Matches.

Image via Pixabay.

From agricultural breakdown to rising ocean levels, climate change will drastically change our world and our place in it. But its effects always feel like they’ll take place somewhere else, don’t they? The ocean’s far away, and farms are a pretty rare sight these days. One effect, however, will hit everywhere, cities in particular, and will enact a massive toll of human lives — scorching summer heat.

“If we continue to emit climate-changing pollution at our current rate, our largest urban areas like New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis will see many more summertime deaths,” the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) report reads.

Deadly hot

Heatwaves can lead to a number of dangerous, potentially fatal health conditions, such as heatstroke, cardiovascular, and respiratory disorders. Children and the elderly are particularly at risk, as are low-income families who can’t afford to cool their homes or (largely thanks to the Don’T Care Act) seek medical help from heat-associated symptoms.

The paper estimates that for 45 of the US’ largest urban centers alone, heat-related fatalities could total 13,860 every year by the mid-2040s — that’s roughly 150 deaths, every day, for the whole summer. By 2090, that figure could increase to a staggering 30,000 per year, or more than 300 deaths every day of summer.

The 2090 estimates show that heat waves could kill 7,370 people per year in New York on average, 5,040 in Philadelphia, 2,440 in Chicago and 1,340 in Boston. Juanita Constible, the NRDC’s special projects director and author of the report, said that the analysis shows “some of the most dire consequences” of where current US policy is leading the country.

“The Trump administration is doing everything it can right now to roll back climate and health protections,” she said.

“Instead of accelerating our nation’s transition to a cleaner, safer future, President Trump and his Cabinet are driving in reverse with their eyes closed.”

NRDC graph.

Image credits Natural Resources Defense Council.

The best way to put these figures into context is by looking at past statistics. Between 2006 and 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, there were about 620 reported cases of heat-related deaths. In the entire US.

Constible also estimates that if countries around the world meet their Paris goals, some 12,820 lives could be saved each year in the largest 45 metropolitan areas, the NRDC estimates — more than 3,100 in New York alone, and around 1,600 in both Philadelphia and Chicago.

But again, that’s contingent on the goals agreed upon in Paris, which aim to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, being met. With the US’ recently announced withdrawal from the agreement, one of the largest emitters in the world doesn’t seem interested in pursuing that goal any longer. At the same time, Americans will likely have to deal with both more frequent, and more intense heatwaves, as well as a more polluted and dangerous environment: President Trump has promised to save America’s dying coal industry, and increase oil and gas production, and is set to gut the Environmental Protection Agency’s funding for climate programs.

“To minimize needless and preventable American deaths from heat-related causes, the Trump administration must cease these rollbacks of vital health and environmental protections and immediately recommit to the Paris Agreement,” the report concludes.

You can read and download the full report here, via NRDC.

Medical Marijuana.

Is lighting up the answer to America’s opioid epidemic?

Given a choice between opioids and medical marijuana to keep pain under control, an overwhelming majority of patients who have used both would pick the latter, saying it works just as well and with fewer side effects, a new survey shows.

Medical Marijuana.

Image credits Dank Depot / Flickr.

The study didn’t track actual drug use or their efficacy but rather aimed to get a feel for how patients would behave given a viable alternative to opioid medication. Such insight into patient choice is critical today, as the US struggles under its worst drug epidemic in history — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that opioids killed more than 33,000 Americans in 2015. The CDC further estimates that some 91 Americans lose their lives because of the highly addictive drugs every day.

Options not Overdose

But the findings give cause for hope than things can change. The team, led by Amanda Reiman of the University of California, Berkeley, collaborated with HelloMD, an online community for medical cannabis patients (they weren’t funded by HelloMD) to survey 2,897 medical cannabis users on how they use opioid medicine and weed to manage chronic pain. Of the participants, 63% were already using marijuana for pain-related conditions at the time of the survey, and roughly 30% (841) reported using an opioid currently or in the past six months.

Of these 841 patients, 92% agreed or strongly agreed that they would prefer cannabis over opioids for their condition. Funnily enough, slightly more (93%) agreed or strongly agreed that they’d go with cannabis if both options were available. About 71% say cannabis is just as effective in relieving their pain as opioids, and 97% said cannabis use helps them cut down on how many opioids are needed to keep pain levels under control.

Figure 2 use of cannabis and opiates.

Image credits Reiman et al., 2017.

The researchers found similar results when they asked about non-opioid pain medication use.

Figure 3 use of cannabis and non-opiates.

Image credits Reiman et al., 2017.

Literature backs up these participants’ opinion on the issue up to a point. Decades of research have shown that cannabis is effective in treating pain although not on the same level as opiates, and states where medical marijuana is available report fewer opioid overdoses and fewer opioid prescriptions than the rest. And since it’s virtually impossible to get a cannabis overdose, its use in conjunction with or in lieu of opioid medicine could help patients reduce opioid intake, avoid addiction, and in the end help save lives.

“Supporting the results of previous research, this study can conclude that medical cannabis patients report successfully using cannabis along with or as a substitute for opioid-based pain medication,” the authors write.

“[…] patients in this study who are using cannabis and opioids report that they are able to use less opioids and that cannabis presents less unwanted side effects than their opioid-based medication.”

The authors say that there are a few limitations with the study. For starters, they had to work with a self-selected group of cannabis users, so the data may be biased. It also doesn’t look at actual efficacy or use, just perceptions — which may be inconsistent and can be skewed.

Still, they believe the results warrant further work with marijuana as a “viable substitute for pain treatment.” Until such work is performed, they recommend working on what data we do have and provide patients with a choice between opioids and other treatment options to help reduce pain and risks at the same time.

“A society with less opioid dependent people will result in fewer public health harms,” they conclude.

The full paper “Cannabis as a Substitute for Opioid-Based Pain Medication: Patient Self-Report” has been published in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research.

Fresh veggies.

Americans aren’t only wasting the most food — they’re also throwing out the best bits

If you live in the United States, it’s likely that the single densest concentration of nutrients near you is in the garbage bin.

Fresh veggies.

America is an incredibly paradoxical place when it comes to food. In the land of deep-fried butter and happy meals, the average diet in is bristling with calories but nutritionally equivalent to a handful of stale dirt. This is a country who loves food to the extent that everything American is as American as apple pie, then turns around and throws away between 31% and 40% of all the food they produce each year — more than anyone else in the world. That comes down to roughly 1200 calories wasted per person, per day. Which is about what you’d need to feed an average five, six year old each day.

Over-consumption and malnutrition, at the same time. Obesity, hand-in hand-with over-waste. It flies against common sense and shouldn’t be happening, but it is. To understand how, we have to take a look not only at the quantity but also the quality of what the U.S. throws away, according to a paper from the Johns Hopkins University’s Department of International Health.

“Other researchers had already tracked the amount of food that’s wasted in terms of how much it weighs, the economic value, and how many calories were in it,” said lead author Marie Spiker, a doctoral student in the Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins University. “Our primary motivation was to go beyond calories and look into other nutrients to really show the magnitude of the food that we waste.”

“Even in this environment of abundance there still are nutrients that we’re not consuming enough of on average. So, we were particularly interested in looking for these nutrients that we’re not getting enough of, and seeing how much is actually ending up in the landfill.”

Protip: it’s a lot

The team worked with two sets of data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). First, they looked at the Loss-Adjusted Food Availability (LAFA) figures, which tracks waste along 213 different commodity foods, both at the retail and consumer levels, to see how much of everything gets thrown out. Then, they turned to the National Nutrient Database which records nutritional data for foodstuffs — how much calcium is in a cup of milk, the vitamin C content in an orange, stuff like that.

Armed with these two sets of data, Spiker’s team was able to get an estimate of the amount of 27 different nutrient groups contained in those 213 types of food that gets thrown out each day. And good golly.

Fridge.

Might as well chuck the whole thing at once!
Image credits Magic Madzik / Flickr.

Let’s take dietary fiber, for example. The recommended daily intake (RDI) of fiber for your average 19-30 year-old woman in the U.S. is 25 grams (0.88 oz) per day. But the averaged real intake of fiber for women in this age category is only 16.1 grams (0.56 oz) daily, about two-thirds of the recommended intake. For men, the RDI of fiber is 38 grams (1.34 oz) but the real intake is only 20 grams (0.70 oz), which cuts just over half of the RDI.

So maybe there’s not enough fiber to go around? Well, yea because so much of it gets thrown away: the paper reports that wasted fiber could bump some 206.6 million women or 103.9 million men up to their recommended intake levels. To put that into perspective, there are 321.4 million people living in the whole of the U.S., according to 2015 census data. Let’s assume that this fiber would be perfectly distributed in a 1:1 ratio to the men and women in the U.S., for discussion’s sake — it could potentially satisfy the RDI needs of 155.25 million middle-aged adults, or account for almost half of the gap for everyone. It’s a mind-boggling figure.

This pattern repeats itself for all other 26 nutrients investigated including protein, calcium, potassium, and a host of vitamins.

Why should I care

The study also looked at what types of foods are most frequently wasted and by whom. While retailers and consumers waste about as much calorie-wise, consumers take the prize when it comes to nutrient content. It all comes down to perishable food: unprocessed, fresh vegetables, fruits, dairy products, and meat.

Perishable food.

Basically, all the best bits.

“[…] these foods that are perishable are also the ones that are really rich in nutrients,” according to Spiker. “When they are sitting in our kitchens, if we don’t use them, they’re the ones that tend to spoil faster than processed and packaged foods.”

The problem is that a meal thrown out isn’t just a meal missed which, although bad for you, ultimately affects only you. The problem is that the food on our plates comes from a really long and complicated supply chain — so when you throw away food, you also throw away all the work and resources that went into growing it. That means all the land, water, fertilizer, and fuel used in agriculture and transport, the energy required to keep it refrigerated in transit and in stores, it all goes in the bin.

All those resources further translate into an environmental strain with land clearing and ecosystem destruction to make room for crops, all the greenhouse gasses released during the production process, and in certain cases (such as wild fish or seafood) a depletion of stocks which don’t have time to regenerate — all wasted. And to add insult to injury, the food which reaches landfills merrily starts decomposing and releasing methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.

Take it a step further, and this waste has a direct cost for you. There’s the time you had to spent at work to be able to afford all this food. As we’ve seen that this waste eats into your basic nutritional needs, there’s also a secondary cost it will carry in time — in the form of dietary supplements and medical costs to treat the effects of poor diet. Think far long enough and this waste adds a teeny tiny mark towards climate change and widening social inequality.

A single item doesn’t make much of a difference — but it add it up with everything you threw and will throw out during your lifetime, and it becomes significant. Compounds with what everyone else in the country wastes, and it becomes massive.

Ok, what should I do

“Know your onions” wartime poster promoting food efficiency.
Created by the Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services in World War 2 / Public Domain.

Policy is probably the best way to solve the issue en masse, but a personal touch can also add up the same way. Spiker recommends checking what food you have at home before going out grocery shopping for more. Also, with the exception of baby food, you can pretty much ignore any sell-by date on packages. As we’ve said before, these are there as a guarantee of taste not edibility. Your best bet is to go with your instincts. We have a huge chunk of time behind us in which we’ve evolved to know what we should and shouldn’t eat. If it smells or tastes off, just don’t eat it; else, chow down.

Another way to limit waste while still eating healthily is to buy frozen veggies. After all, whatever health benefits fresh, hand-picked, slowly-massaged-to-classical-music kale has don’t matter if it spoils in the fridge and you throw it out. Buying frozen food will give you more time to eat it before it goes bad.

And finally, consider what you’re purchasing and try to be realistic — can you actually eat everything before it goes bad? Then, once you’ve actually got the food into the house make sure you’re turning them into meals — even if takeout would be the easiest choice.

In the end, the best rule of thumb would be to follow the wisdom of Andrew Burd — be stingy, and make sure you save that money by eating everything you buy.

The full paper “Wasted Food, Wasted Nutrients: Nutrient Loss from Wasted Food in the United States and Comparison to Gaps in Dietary Intake” has been published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The US doesn’t want poor people: concentrated poverty rises for the first time since the ’90s

Concentrated poverty is on the rise in the US again, with the number of neighborhoods where 40% or more of the population lives below the federal poverty levels of all races increasing for the first time since the 1990s, Penn State demographers report.

Venice Beach, California.
Image credits Thomas Galvez / Flickr.

While general poverty levels only look at how many people live on less than a standard income in a particular place, the concept of poverty concentration takes into account how poverty is spread out throughout an area. Poverty on its own is really bad news, but concentrated poverty makes things a lot worse for everyone — it’s a cascading effect of ever-less money available in the community, meaning health services, educational services, and other civic institutions work with reduced efficiency or grind down altogether. Concentrated poverty amplifies the poor’s struggle by making society around them poorer, less able to help, in a self-reinforcing cycle.

And it’s on the rise in the US for the first time in two decades, warns John Iceland, a professor of sociology and demography at Penn state and research associate at the Population Research Institute. Using data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau from 1980-2000 and data gathered through the American Community Survey from 2000-2014, the team says concentrated poverty, which saw a rise in the 1980s and gradually eased during the 1990s, is making a comeback throughout all demographics in the US.

Iceland points to growing residential separation and isolation of the poor from the rest of American society in metropolitan areas, as well as an overall increase in poverty since the early 2000s as the biggest factors driving this rise.

“I personally was curious about this volatility — what explains it? Why did we see this increase in the 1980s and the decline in the 1990s and why has it been rebounding?” said Iceland.

“As a social demographer, I’m particularly interested in the changing composition of people living in certain neighborhoods and what types of broad population processes help explain the general trend.”

New neighborhoods

Shepard, Columbus, Ohio.
Image credits Brandie / Flickr.

Not only is the US experiencing a rise in concentrated poverty levels, but it’s also undergoing a shift in who and where is getting the worst of it. The authors note that the demographics, as well as the location of high-poverty neighborhoods, has changed since the 1990s.

“It used to be thought of as black, inner-city poverty, but now more Hispanics and a higher proportion of whites are living in high-poverty neighborhoods,” Iceland said. “They are less likely to be just in the inner core of cities, but oftentimes in inner suburbs.”

“We find that changes in the segregation of the poor explained the largest share of the change in concentrated poverty over most of the time period, with the exception of the 1990s, where the plunge in both black and white poverty rates had the largest role in explaining the considerable decline in concentrated poverty in that decade for both groups.”

Poverty and poverty concentration are different concepts but it’s possible the two are related, Iceland added. Working together with sociology and demography graduate student Erik Hernandez, Iceland also looked at how fluctuations in overall poverty affected its concentration throughout the US.

“There could be a certain percentage of the population in a country that is poor, but what the concentration of poverty looks at is to what extent are they concentrated in relatively few neighborhoods,” he said.

They found that poverty concentration followed the trends set by overall poverty. The country’s recent economic hardships, such as the 2006-2008 recession, has pushed up individual poverty, neighborhood-wide (social) poverty, the overall percentage of people and that of poor people living in high-poverty neighborhoods, the researchers said.

In the 2000s, some 20.5% of poor blacks lived in high-poverty neighborhoods, a figure which increased to 23.1% between 2010 and 2014. For poor non-Hispanic whites, that number went from 5.8% to 8.2% during this time. Overall, the total percentage of poor Americans living in high-poverty neighborhoods went from 11.4% to 14.1%. This concentration can affect governmental services — health, police, education — as well as limit job opportunities, further impoverishing those living in the affected areas.

“A lot of resources are tied to neighborhoods — the quality of schooling and the amount of a school’s economic resources vary across neighborhoods, for example,” said Iceland.

“People have talked about how there’s more crime and social disorganization in places with high poverty levels. And this all has consequences for quality of life.”

The full paper “Understanding trends in concentrated poverty” has been published in the journal Social Science Research.

Miami Beach mosquitoes are carrying Zika, tests confirm

Miami Beach mosquitoes have tested positive for the Zika Virus, Florida state officials announced on Thursday. The findings confirm that the virus is still active in the area.

Thee cases of Zika-carrying mosquito larva have been identified in Miami Beach
Image credits Rob Cruickshank / Flickr.

The carrier mosquito for Zika, Aedes aegypti, is notoriously hard to fight — and very prolific. To get a better understanding of how the virus spread through the aegypti population, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS) set up traps and tested the insects in several points of the state — a process which the experts likened to looking for a needle in a haystack.

Still, three samples they tested came out positive for the Zika virus, all collected in a 1.5 square-mile area in Miami Beach where locally acquired cases of Zika have been previously confirmed.

Scott Weaver, the director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at the University of Texas Medical Branch, said that the significance of the findings depends on the point of collection. If the mosquitoes were caught in or around the houses of people with active infections, the results aren’t alarming. But if they were taken from a more distant point, it would be indicative of the virus spreading.

We can’t find out, though — a spokeswoman of the Florida DACS said that they were prevented from disclosing the traps’ location because of state legislature. The department did reveal in a statement that since May it has tested over 2,470 mosquito samples, consisting of more than 40,000 mosquitoes. The three cases announced on Thursday were the first to test positive.

Florida is the only state in the continental US where Zika is active, but its habitat is spreading. The first cases were reported in Wynwood, a Miami neighborhood. The outbreak here seems to have subsided, but a new cluster of cases was discovered in Miami Beach on Aug. 18, and the CDC issued an official warning to pregnant women to avoid the area — in most cases, Zika only causes rashes and joint pain, but it’s extremely dangerous if contacted by pregnant women. The virus can cause severe brain defects in fetuses, a condition known as microcephaly. The CDC is tracking more than 1,500 cases of pregnant women who have been infected with Zika and at least 16 babies have been born with birth defects so far.

However, experts say that it’s unlikely Zika will see the same explosive spread in the US as in Latin America or the Caribbean, because of better living conditions — Americans live in less crowded conditions and usually have window screens and air conditioning, which hinder the mosquitoes. In total, there have been 45 confirmed homegrown cases of Zika in Miami-Dade County.

“The good news is the weekly number of new cases isn’t changing much,” Dr. Weaver said. “If we were seeing at first five cases a week, then 10, then 20 and then 100, we’d be very concerned.”

Miami Beach also hasn’t been targeted with the same aerial spraying efforts which have proven effective in Wynwood, partly because of its high buildings and partly because of opposition from residents.

But experts say aerial spraying there is possible, and on Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott said the C.D.C. had recommended that Miami Beach be sprayed using helicopters. He said the state had made funds available “to immediately conduct aerial spraying in Miami Beach.”

But it was not clear when that might happen. Michael Grieco, a Miami Beach city commissioner, said: “No determination has been made. It’s not really practical with all the geography.”

In the meantime, residents should invest in a chicken to sleep with — it might save you a lot of trouble in the long run.

The Zika virus might have reached the U.S., Florida governor warns

The Zika virus has been transmitted from mosquito to human for the first time on United State soil, according to Florida Governor Rick Scott. He confirmed four cases under investigation in his state were not brought in from outside the country.

The Zika virus envelope model.
Image credits Manuel Almagro Rivas / Wikimedia.

These cases are “the result of local transmission” in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, and are “likely mosquito-borne” the Florida Department of Health announced. This would mark the first time Zika has been transmitter by mosquito bite in the U.S. Should the virus get a foothold in southern Florida, containing it might become difficult, if not impossible.

However, health officials haven’t yet ruled out the possibility that the virus has spread by sexual contact and have yet to locate the carrier mosquitoes.

“If transmitted by mosquito, this would be the first instance in the United States”

The FDA put a hold on blood donations in both counties until proper screening protocols can be set in place, and has blood donors in other areas who have visited the two counties screened to prevent the virus from contaminating blood banks.

Since the Zika outbreak began in Brazil in April 2015, the virus has spread throughout large areas of Latin and Central America with tragic consequences. At best, it can cause mild symptoms such as fever, joint pain, and rashes. Zika however has also been linked to Guillain–Barré syndrome, a severe neurological disorder that can lead to paralysis and death.

It can cause infected mothers to give birth to offspring with microcephaly, a deadly condition that affects the child’s brain development, The CDC has issued warnings to pregnant women traveling in regions where the outbreak is currently ongoing. In the US, babies were born with birth defects due to  mothers who had traveled to Zika-affected countries contacting the virus.

Religious attendance in the US follows the same trend as everywhere else — downwards

Religiousness in the Unites States is on the decline, mirroring patterns seen across the western world a new study from UCL and Duke University finds.

Image credits Ang Kim/ publicdomainpictures.net

For many years now the United States seemed to go against the rest of the western world as far as religion is concerned. Many Americans remained dedicated to their faith and houses of worship — even as church attendance rates around the globe dropped.

A new study has now found a slow, steady drop in the number of Americans who regularly go to church, believe in God or claim religious affiliations. It also suggests that this decline is driven by inter-generational differences.

“None of these declines is happening fast, but the signs are now unmistakable,” said David Voas, a social scientist with UCL and co-author of the study.

“It has become clear that American religiosity has been declining for decades, and the decline is driven by the same dynamic — generational differences — that has driven religious decline across the developed world.”

The study analyzed data obtained from the General Social Survey which is conducted every two years. This information was compared to surveys of similar scope from Canada, New Zealand, the UK and Australia. Across the globe, people have slowly become less religious over time, but in the US the decline has been so incremental that researchers didn’t have enough data to know they’re looking at a trend, says Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology, divinity and religion and co-author to the study.

Religiousness as a whole was surveyed, without drawing lines between religions or religious denominations. They found that while 94 percent of Americans born before 1935 claim a religious affiliation, that number drops to 71 percent for those born after 1975. Similarly,  68 percent of Americans aged 65 and older said they believed God exists, but just 45 percent of those aged 18-30, hold the same belief. As for church attendance, 41 percent of people 70 and older said they participate in services at least once a month, compared to just 18 percent of people 60 and younger.

“If you look at the trajectory, and the generational dynamic that is producing the trajectory, we may not be an exception after all,” Chaves added.

 

China – pollution crisis ??

pollution

Photo by Stefan

Everybody (or almost everybody) believes that no matter what, USA remains “polluter no. 1”. Don’t take my word for it, just ask BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin – he says the same thing. The industry is by far the most developed, so that would seem logical, despite the fact the China and India have way more people.

But now, people everywhere and global leaders are going to have to change the way they see things: without a a sea change in its energy policies, China’s increases in greenhouse gases could now be several times larger than the cuts in emissions being made by rich nations under the Kyoto Protocol. They’ve surpassed the ‘competition’, and the figures are quite dire.

The world climate depends on China being able to tackle and overcome this problem, but things aren’t getting any better. Still, there’s no need and no sense in pointing a finger at the Chinese, according to Dr Max Auffhammer (who conducted studies concerning this issue).

“They are trying to pull people out of poverty and they clearly need help. The only solution is for a massive transfer of technology and wealth from the West.America’s per capita emissions are five to six times higher than China’s, even though China has become the [world’s] top manufacturing economy.”

Update: China did face a pollution crisis in 2013 – read about it here.