Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Canada Opens First Carbon Capture Power Plant

Canada recently completed the first commercial-scale coal-fired power plant designed to capture and sequester greenhouse gases. The plant will capture around 90% of the CO2 that the plant generates - about a million tons a year. The CO2 will either be sold to a nearby oil company to enhance oil production or buried deep underground.

The new plant, called Boundary Dam, demonstrates that it is possible to burn coal without damaging the environment in the process. But don't expect the more than 1,000 coal-fired power plants in the planning stages worldwide (most of them in China) to adapt the technology any time soon. The technology is economically feasible at the Boundary Dam plant because the plant received substantial subsidies from the Canadian government and because the plant is located in an area in which the CO2 could be sold to oil producers, who use the CO2 to enhance oil production.

And there's the irony. Some of the CO2 not released into the atmosphere by the coal-fired power plant will be used to enhance the production of oil, which of course is also a fossil fuel that releases CO2 when it is burned. I suppose there's still a net reduction in CO2 released into the atmosphere, but it's not the full million tons a year.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Another Artificial Sweetener

There's a new artificial sweetener about to hit the market that's more than 30 times sweeter than saccharine (Sweet-n-Low), aspartame (Nutrasweet and Equal), or sucralose (Splenda). The new sweetener, called advantame (it does not have a catchy brand name yet), is made by Ajinomoto, a Japanese company.

Although it's entering a crowded and competitive field, Advantame will probably find a niche in the marketplace because it doesn't break down as readily as other sweeteners under heat. That means that it'll probably become the artificial sweetener of choice in baked goods.

The FDA approved the new sweetener in May. It's not clear how long it'll be before it's found in the products you buy.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Antibiotic Use in Farm Animals is Still Increasing

According to an FDA report issued recently, the amount of antibiotics sold for use in food-producing animals increased 16% between 2009 and 2012.   The use of cephalosporins, a class of antibiotics widely used in humans, increased by a whopping 37% over the same time period.   Health officials, of course, are worried that the overuse of antibiotics leads to the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, threatening human health.

The FDA issued new guidelines in 2013 that are meant to restrict the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals, but it's too early to tell whether they will work.   Basically, the new rules prohibit the use of antibiotics in healthy animals for the sole purpose of increasing weight gain.  Instead, antibiotics may used only in sick animals to treat disease, and only when prescribed by a veterinarian.  The new rules will take effect over the next three years.

Ranchers know that antibiotics cause even healthy animals to gain weight.   That means that ranchers have a big financial incentive to use antibiotics indiscriminately, and veterinarians who work in farm communities will have a financial incentive to write the prescriptions.  The FDA is trying to (gently) nudge the livestock production industry toward practices that are better for society as a whole, but not for the food-producing industry.  So you think the new rules will reduce antibiotic use in food-producing animals very much?  If they don't, what would you suggest we do next?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

FDA Approves Home Test for Colon Cancer

The FDA has approved a new home test for colon cancer. The new test, called "Cologuard", tests not only for hidden blood in the stool, but also for changes to DNA that may signal the presence of colon cancer.

Current recommendations by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force for screening for colon cancer are that persons aged 50-75 should have an occult blood test every year and a colonoscopy every 10 years. Whether the Task Force will include Cologuard as an option in future recommendations is unknown. Nor is it clear yet whether Medicare or most insurance companies will pay for the test. That's critical to its acceptance because Cologuard costs nearly $600; much more than the standard occult blood test.

With any test, it's important to consider how accurate the test is. Cologuard appears to be better than the occult blood test at detecting cancers when they are present (92% of cancers detected, versus 74% for the occult blood test). However, Cologuard also has a higher "false positive" rate (reporting that cancer may be present when in fact it is not) of 13% versus 5% for the occult blood test. A positive result with Cologuard should be followed up with a colonoscopy, just to be sure.

Cologuard isn't perfect. But if it is used by people who refuse to go to the doctor for a blood test or especially for a colonoscopy, then it will serve a purpose.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

First U.S. Ebola Case

A man who traveled to the U.S. from Liberia via Europe is now the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola while within the U.S. At least one of the major news services is giving this one "event" continuous coverage all day, which of course raises our fear level; it makes it sound like this one case of Ebola could lead to an epidemic in this country.

Nothing could be further from the truth. According to the CDC, Ebola is transmitted primarily in bodily fluids such as urine, saliva, or blood. In addition, Ebola patients can only infect others when they are actually sick - not before and not after. The patient in question didn't feel sick until several days after he arrived in the U.S. And four days after he began to feel sick, he was isolated in a hospital prepared to deal with diseases such as this. That means, for example, that he did not infect anyone on his incoming transatlantic flight, and he's probably not going to infect anyone else after the time he was hospitalized. At most, he could have infected some of the people with whom he had close contact in the four days during which he felt sick before he was hospitalized.

Public health officials certainly have their hands full finding all the people with whom the Ebola patient had direct contact, and monitoring them for 21 days. Surveillance is tedious, but it works. So relax; at least one expert doesn't think an Ebola epidemic is likely in this country. Ebola is just not transmitted easily enough.

Sensationalism sells. But the news services should dial back their continuous coverage of what is probably a non-event.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Ebola Update

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that as of last week, over 6,000 people have been infected with the Ebola virus and more than 2,900 have died. Although Ebola infections have been identified in five countries, to date the epidemic is confined primarily to just three; Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Senegal has had just one case (a man who traveled from Guinea) and Nigeria, with 8 deaths, hasn't had a new case in almost three weeks.

The death rate among infected persons remains close to 50%. This is a virus that kills its victims rather quickly and is difficult to treat. Fortunately, person-to-person transmission requires close contact in the form of exchange of fluids. But that means that the people at highest risk of becoming infected are health care workers. The World Health Organization reports that more than 120 health care workers have died since the outbreak began. The lack of proper facilities and equipment to effectively isolate patients and protect health care workers is a factor.

Most airlines have cancelled commercial flights to the three countries at the center of the outbreak. Travel between and within the three countries has been restricted as well. A side effect of travel bans is that the flow of health care workers and medical equipment/supplies to affected areas is made more difficult.

This epidemic is not over yet. It may not even have peaked.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A National Strategy to Combat Antibiotic Resistance

In a 37-page document released this month, the Obama administration proposed a national strategy for combatting the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.   It's about time.   From an evolutionary point of view, the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in health care and food production will inevitably lead to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, because bacteria can adapt and evolve so quickly.   We've been talking about this problem for a while now on this blog.

An interagency task force led by the secretaries of health and human services, agriculture, and defense has been tasked with developing a specific action plan within six months.  The task force will then coordinate with government agencies to see that the required actions are taken.  Finally, the task force will report regularly to the President on progress made toward specific goals outlined in the document.

The goals, objectives, and achievement targets listed in the document are clear, appropriate, and likely to be effective if they could actually be accomplished.   It will be interesting to see, say five years from now, if any real progress has been made, or whether this is just a good plan without adequate follow-through.  For example, one of the stated objectives; to "eliminate the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in animals..." is likely to meet with stiff resistance from farmers.

I, for one, applaud the effort and hope for real progress.