Thursday, December 15, 2011

NTSB to the States: “Ban Texting While Driving”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued a strong recommendation to the states that they should ban texting while driving. The recommendation comes after a well-publicized accident last year in which a teen driver slammed into truck, causing two school buses to lose control as well. Two persons were killed (including the teen driver) and 38 school children were injured. The teen was texting at the time of the accident.

The NTSB does not have the power to require that the states ban texting; that is up to each individual state. So far, 35 states have done so, though the conditions under which a person can be cited and the penalties for an infraction vary widely.

A 2009 CBS/New York Times poll found that 97% of Americans support a ban on texting while driving. However, about half of the respondents felt that the punishment for texting while driving should be “less severe” than the punishment for drunk driving. Perhaps this is because almost half of all texting adults have texted at least once while driving, according to a 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center. It sounds like a small cry for help, doesn’t it? – “Please save me from my own bad behavior, but don’t punish me too severely!”

It would be interesting to know how much texting while driving actually declines after a state institutes a ban. My guess is that like speeding, it may depend on the perceived level of enforcement and the severity of the penalty.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Morning-After Pill – Politics vs. Science

Once again, politics appears to have trumped science.

An expert scientific panel of the FDA recommended recently that the morning-after pill, called Plan B, be made available to all women without a prescription. The FDA argues that younger women would benefit from easy access to Plan B, and that the pill is both safe and effective. But the current Health and Human Services secretary, Ms. Kathleen Sebelius, used her legal authority to overrule the FDA, saying that the drug has never been tested and proven to be safe in girls as young as 11 and that girls that age may not understand how to use the pills.

Huh? Countless drugs that have not been tested specifically in children and that can have severe side effects if misused are available over-the-counter. Besides, there’s no evidence that adolescent girls are unable to read and understand the instructions on a drug’s label. If that were true, many drugs currently available over the counter should be pulled from the shelves.

The Plan B pill has always been embroiled in politics – the politics of contraception and birth control. The Bush administration initially resisted approval of over-the-counter sales of Plan B, but then justified over-the-counter sales in 2006 by limiting sales to women 18 and older. The age was reduced to 17 in 2009 when a judge ruled that the age limitation of 18 was ruled by politics, not science.

The Health and Human Services secretary is a political appointee. President Obama later publicly backed Ms. Sebelius’s position. Is it possible that Ms. Sebelius’s decision was influenced by a desire not to anger social conservatives during an election year? You decide.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Starve Your Fat Cells, Not Yourself.

The two basic ways to lose weight are to reduce your caloric intake and/or increase your caloric output (through exercise). But at some time in the future, there may be an easier way. Several news agencies (including ABC) report that researchers have found a way to starve fat cells pharmacologically with an experimental drug. The drug, called Adipocide, destroys the small blood vessels within fat, depriving fat cells of nutrients and oxygen (starving them, really) and thereby causing them to shrink and/or die.

So far, Adipotide has only been tested in mice and in monkeys. The company that has the patent on Adipocide plans to apply to the FDA for permission to test the drug in humans sometime soon. But given how long it takes to test a new drug for safety and efficacy, it will be years before Adipocide or any drug like it reaches the market.

Nevertheless, it seems like poetic justice – losing weight by starving your fat cells (the very cells that are causing your weight problems), without the feeling that you are starving yourself by dieting all the time! If it becomes possible, it would change the dieting landscape forever. Let’s wait and see.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Stretching and Exercise-Induced Muscle Soreness

Previously I reported that a U.S Track and Field Association study had indicated that stretching before exercise does not decrease the risk of running-related injuries (see "Pre-run Stretching Doesn't Prevent Injuries"). Now a review of 12 stretching-related studies reveals that stretching before exercise does not reduce perceived muscle soreness, either, in the days following exercise.

None of the studies of the effects of stretching on exercise-induced injury or soreness are considered scientifically ideal, however. Ideally, such studies would be randomized (subjects assigned randomly to either the stretch or no-stretch group) AND double-blind (neither the investigators nor the subjects would know which group each subject was in until the study was over). Unfortunately, subjects in exercise studies always know whether they are stretching or not, and therefore a double-blind study design is impossible! It’s conceivable that subject bias about the value of stretching affected the subjects’ judgment of their own post-exercise level of soreness. Until we have a truly objective measure of “soreness”, there’s no other way to conduct such studies. It’s the best we can do for now.
But from what we can tell so far, there’s no compelling evidence that stretching before exercise is either good or bad for you. Do it (or don’t do it) as you wish.

Reference: Henschke, N. and C.C. Lin. Stretching Before and After Exercise Does Not Reduce Delayed-onset Muscle Soreness. Br. J. Sports Med. 45:1249-1250, Dec. 2011.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Science, Public Policy, and Politics

Like it or not, public policies based on good science are sometimes heavily influenced by political reality. Take the case of the national standards for ozone emissions, the primary component of smog. The EPA proposed new air quality standards for ozone back in January. But in September, president Obama decided to put off acceptance of the new standards until at least after the next presidential election. The reason? Apparently, special-interest groups tied to the industry argued that meeting the proposed standards would impose financial hardships on certain industries and cost thousands of jobs.

The decision to delay the proposed new ozone air quality standards has angered president Obama’s environmentally-conscious supporters, but what can they do? With unemployment currently at 9.1%, it’s hard to argue that job creation should not be a top priority. Lobbyists for environmentally-unfriendly industries know this, of course. In Pennsylvania, where natural gas companies are itching to tap huge reserves of natural gas deep underground, the gas industry argues that EPA standards for natural gas production should be relaxed, not strengthened, because they stifle new job creation.

It’s a difficult balance. The lesson, I suppose, is that whatever you believe in strongly, you need to let your elected representatives know your views.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Limiting Global Warming - The Cancun Agreements

At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Cancun in 2010, an agreed-upon shared goal should be to limit the global rise in temperature to just 2o centigrade above preindustrial levels. It’s not going to be easy, according to the authors of a paper in Nature Climate Change this month. The authors analyzed 193 different scenarios of future changes in CO2 concentrations in the literature and looked at how they might affect climate change. They found that achieving the target of less than a 2o increase in global temperature will require that CO2 emissions peak in this decade and then begin to decline by 2020.

So far, most countries aren’t taking the necessary actions to reduce their emissions enough (if at all). Unless something changes soon, CO2 emissions will continue to rise beyond 2020 and by the end of this century the global temperature increase will exceed 2o. How high it could go after that, and how global warming will affect life on Earth is anybody’s guess at this point. Climate models are just not good enough yet to predict Earth’s climate accurately into the next century.

Let’s hope there is not a “tipping point” in global warming….