Featured

Stanford researcher declares that the sixth mass extinction is here

There is no longer any doubt: We are entering a mass extinction that threatens humanity’s existence.

That is the bad news at the center of a new study by a group of scientists including Paul Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies in biology and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Ehrlich and his co-authors call for fast action to conserve threatened species, populations and habitat, but warn that the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

“[The study] shows without any significant doubt that we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event,” Ehrlich said.

Although most well known for his positions on human population, Ehrlich has done extensive work on extinctions going back to his 1981 book, Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species. He has long tied his work on coevolution, on racial, gender and economic justice, and on nuclear winter with the issue of wildlife populations and species loss. Read more »

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The political challenge of mining rare-earth materials outside China

Five years ago, the cost of rare-earth materials that are critical for today’s electronics went through the roof. An export quota set by China, which mines most of the world’s rare earths, caused the price run-up. Though short-lived, the occurrence spurred calls for developing mines outside China, but whether others can challenge the country’s dominance remains to be seen, reports Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society. Read more »

Health

Research suggests retail meat is a potential vehicle for disease-causing Klebsiella pneumoniae

Chicken, turkey and pork sold in grocery stores harbors disease-causing bacteria known as Klebsiella pneumoniae, according to a new study. The research, which was published online today in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, shows that contaminated meat may be an important source of human exposure to Klebsiella.

The U.S. food safety system has traditionally focused on a few well-known bacteria like Listeria,Salmonella and Campylobacter, which cause millions of cases of food poisoning every year. The research published today suggests that Klebsiella may need to be added to the list of risky bugs in food products.

“This study is the first to suggest that consumers can be exposed to potentially dangerous Klebsiella from contaminated meat,” said Lance B. Price, PhD, lead author of the study and a professor of environmental and occupational health at Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) at the George Washington University. “The U.S. government monitors food for only a limited number of bacterial species, but this study shows that focusing on the ‘usual suspects’ may not capture the full scope of foodborne pathogens.”

The multi-center study was led by Price and scientists at Milken Institute SPH. Other authors on the study include researchers from Translational Genomics Research Institute, Flagstaff Medical Center, the VA Healthcare System-Minneapolis, Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen, the University of Minnesota, and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

To better understand potential contributions of foodborne Klebsiella pneumonia to human clinical infections, the multi-center research team compared K. pneumoniae isolates from retail meat products and human clinical specimens to assess their similarity based on whole genome sequencing. They first looked at turkey, chicken and pork products being sold in nine major grocery stores in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 2012. Then the team analyzed urine and blood samples taken from Flagstaff area residents who were suffering from infections during the same time period.

Price and his colleagues found that 47 percent of the 508 meat products purchased from grocery stores in 2012 harbored Klebsiella–and many of the strains recovered were resistant to antibiotics. Agricultural operations often give food animals antibiotics to make them grow faster and to prevent diseases, a practice that can create conditions ideal for the emergence of resistant strains of Klebsiella, Price says.

At the same time, the team found Klebsiella, including resistant strains, comprised 10 percent of the 1,728 positive cultures from patients with either urinary tract or blood infections in the Flagstaff area. The researchers used whole-genome DNA sequencing to compare the Klebsiella isolated from retail meat products with the Klebsiella isolated from patients and found that some isolate pairs were nearly identical.

“As an infectious disease doctor, I have encountered Klebsiella pneumoniae in my patients. We tend to think of this organism as being one that individuals carry naturally, or acquire from the environment,” says James R. Johnson, MD, a co-author of the study and a professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota. “This research suggests that we also can pick up these bacteria from the food we eat.”

Price, who recently launched the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center (ARAC) at Milken Institute SPH, added, “Now we have another drug resistant pathogen in the food supply, underscoring the public health concern regarding antibiotic use in food animal production. This study is one of the many reasons we launched ARAC. We want to quantify the relationship between antibiotic use in food animal production and antibiotic-resistant infections in people. Meanwhile, there is one big thing that can be done to protect human health in relation to antibiotic-resistant foodborne bacteria: stop overusing antibiotics in food-animal production.”

US News

Air pollution below EPA standards linked with higher death rates

A new study by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that death rates among people over 65 are higher in zip codes with more fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) than in those with lower levels of PM2.5. It is the first study to examine the effect of soot particles in the air in the entire population of a region, including rural areas. The harmful effects from the particles were observed even in areas where concentrations were less than a third of the current standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“Most of the country is either meeting the EPA standards now, or is expected to meet them in a few years as new power plant controls kick in,” said senior author Joel Schwartz, professor of environmental epidemiology. “This study shows that it is not enough. We need to go after coal plants that still aren’t using scrubbers to clean their emissions, as well as other sources of particles like traffic and wood smoke.”

The study appears online June 3, 2015 in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Previous studies have linked both short- and long-term exposure to PM2.5 with increased mortality, through mechanisms such as heart disorders, increased blood pressure, and reduced lung function.

The researchers used satellite data to determine particle levels and temperatures in every zip code in New England. This allowed them to examine the effects of PM2.5 on locations far from monitoring stations, and to look at the effects of short-term exposures and annual average exposures simultaneously. They analyzed health data from everyone covered by Medicare in New England – 2.4 million people – between 2003 and 2008 and followed them each year until they died.

They found that both short- and long-term PM2.5 exposure was significantly associated with higher death rates, even when restricted to zip codes and times with annual exposures below EPA standards. Short-term (two-day) exposure led to a 2.14% increase in mortality per 10 μg/m3 increase in PM2.5 concentration, and long-term (one-year) exposure led to a 7.52% increase in mortality for each 10 µg/m3 increase.

“Particulate air pollution is like lead pollution, there is no evidence of a safe threshold even at levels far below current standards, including in the rural areas we investigated,” said Schwartz. “We need to focus on strategies that lower exposure everywhere and all the time, and not just in locations or on days with high particulate levels.”

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Stanford researcher declares that the sixth mass extinction is here

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