Sunday, September 03, 2006

Global warming or global scare mongering?

Scientists have stepped up calls for greater climate protection, saying that if the current rate of global warming continues, a catastrophic sea level rise of 4m could occur this century. Some experts say the earth has gotten warmer with average global temperatures rising about 0.6 celcius. They blame rising levels of greenhouse gases (GHG) including carbon dioxide. In this CNN report, British chief science advisor David King says studies of air bubbles in ancient ice show current GHG levels to be higher than at any time in the last 420,000 years.

But are these air bubbles in the ice a sign of impending doom? Chief US presidential science adviser, John H. Marburger III, says there is not enough information to be making quantifiable assessments.

Dr Fred S Singer, an atomospheric physicist at George Mason University and founder of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, is a leading skeptic of the scientific consensus on global warming. He suggests the scenarios are alarmist and that computer models reflect real gaps in climate knowledge; his contention is that future warming will be inconsequential or modest at most.

Dr Singer says he believes climate change is a natural phenomenon and cites data showing that the climate warmed between 1900 and 1940, but then cooled between 1940 and 1975. Temperatures then rose again for around five years. An FAQ on the Science and Environmental Policy Project site notes that hurricanes have actaully dropped in frequency over the past 50 years.

Author Michael Crichton has delivered several compelling speeches on the subject. "Fear, Complexity, & Environmental Management in the 21st Century" touches on much of what Dr Singer is concerned about and highlights some key episodes in history where scientists, politicians and the press have driven an agenda of unsubstantiated alarm.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Gene therapy cures skin cancer

Genetic modification has cured two men of skin cancer. The two men were not expected to live beyond 12 months when they commenced treatment.

In the study, conducted by the US National Cancer Institute, immune cells were removed from the melanoma sufferers and genetically engineered to better recognise cancer. The cells were then reintroduced into the patients and were successful in fighting the cancer. The men are cancer-free 2 years later.

However, genetic modification is not without its risks. In a 2002 French trial, 2 boys being treated with gene therapy for X-SCID – or "bubble boy" syndrome, developed leukaemia. Researchers discovered the leukemia occurred because the newly transferred gamma c gene had stitched itself into the wrong place, interrupting the function of a gene that normally helps regulate the rate at which cells divide. Consequently, the cells began to divide out of control, causing leukemia.

The University of Utah has a comprehensive guide to gene therapy. Although it has great potential, gene therapy remains an uncertain science.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

China jails Hong Kong reporter for spying

A Hong Kong journalist has been jailed for five years in mainland China, after being convicted of spying. Ching Cheong, who was the chief China correspondent for Singapore's Straits Times, has been in detention since April 2005. China's state-owned online news service, Chinanews, did not report on the story.

Ching Cheong was arrested in April 2005 in Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) after meeting with a contact who had tapes of interviews with ousted leader Zhao Ziyang.

Zhao, a leading reformer who died in 2005, was deposed as general secretary of the Communist party after the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.

Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders have expressed dismay at Ching's sentence and say China is engaged in a campaign to crack down on the media. They say Ching's real crime appears to have been trying to uncover dissidence in China's top leadership by seeking out a manuscript by Zhao.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Pluto faces relegation

Pluto is just not up with the big guys. This week, scientists at the International Astronomical Union's shindig in Prauge decided Pluto belongs in a new category and have subsequently labelled it a dwarf planet.

The reason? Last year a world larger than Pluto was detected -UB313, nicknamed "Xena". Concern arose that there would be a few too many so-called planets for everyone to get their heads around.

Consequently the International Astronomical Union's nomenclature group have redefined a planet as being a body that orbits the Sun, is big enough for its own gravity to compact it into a ball and has a clear neighborhood around its orbit, meaning it is not surrounded by objects of similar size and characteristics. The last bit about the neighborhood is what leaves Pluto out in the cold with the other dwarf planets.

However, a backlash has been unleashed and some scientists have labelled the redefinition "sloppy science". Pluto's fans are also pretty unimpressed with relegation.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Vietnam Vets hear more bad news...

It just doesn't get any easier for Vietnam War veterans. A study released today suggests veterans may have double the normal risk of developing prostate cancer.

The study follows hard on the heels of a report from the Pentagon announcing that Agent Orange has been found to contribute to the onset of adult-onset diabetes. Dioxin is the active contaminant in Agent Orange. The results show the presence and severity of diabetes increases in relation to dioxin levels in individuals. In addition, the onset occurs at an earlier age. A 47 per cent increase in diabetes was seen in those with the highest levels of dioxin.

Dioxin has been found to be a potent cancer-causing chemical and can also cause developmental and immune effects, evidence of which has been found in Vietnam veterans and their families.

An estimated 2.59 million Americans served in the Vietnam war; 58,148 Americans were killed and 304,000 wounded. The use of Agent Orange during the war has also been linked to a high incidence of leukemia in veterans and their families.

Vietnam Vet's blog Democratic Daily reports ongoing problems faced by veterans in the USA. Australian veteran's interests are reported here.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Iraqi crisis deepens as spotlight moves away

With the world's media focused on events in Lebanon, life in Iraq gets harder with each passing day. Now, Baghdad's petrol pumps have all but run dry. Attacks on infrastructure have been blamed but there is concern that officials are selling fuel off to criminal elements who then smuggle it out of the country. Estimates show over $4 billion worth of fuel has "disappeared" in the past year. Iraq will spend around $952 million on imported oil during August and September.

The oil shortage is just the latest indication that the economy may be on the brink of collapse. Inflation is running at 50 per cent and corruption is rife. Of critical importance is that the American-funded reconstruction programme will finish towards the end of September. Support will continue, but at a much reduced rate. The US may have spent almost $30 billion on reconstruction but there is little to show for it. Iraq now produces less oil than under Hussein and while electricity production is slightly higher then pre-war levels, increased demand on supplies has left most Iraqis, including the entire population of Baghdad, worse off.

The American assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs has released a report showing that security conditions have deteriorated. From May, when the new government took over in Iraq, to August 11, the average number of attacks per week against Americans and Iraqis was 792, up 24 percent from the previous period. The 792 figure was the highest for any counting period since the war began.

While politicians mutter about the possibility of civil war, those on the ground in Iraq believe it has already begun.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Coca-Cola sued over pesticide levels

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are being sued by the Indian state of Karnataka over alleged excessive amounts of pesticides in drink samples. The state of Kerala, with a population of 30 million, has already banned production and sales of both brands of soft drink.

Early this month the well-respected NGO Centre for Science and Environment released a study alleging high levels of toxic chemicals in 57 drink products taken from 25 different Indian Coca-Cola and PepsiCo plants.

Coca-Cola are taking the matter seriously and have ditched Bollywood movie stars in favour of scientists for their latest advertisements.

Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi deny any problem and say the pesticide levels are negligible.

Indian PR blogger J S Sai suggests the matter is extremely complex, particularly given the bad press big multinationals are inclined to receive in India.