"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Health’

Fracking With Food: How The Natural Gas Industry Poisons Cows And Crops

In Uncategorized on August 11, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Oldspeak:“Awww Frak me sideways….Natural gas drilling operations have mucked up food from Colorado to Pennsylvania. So why is no one paying attention? EPA, DEP, USDA, asleep at the frakin wheel. Meanwhile, god only knows what’s making it into the food supply. :-|”

From Byard Duncan @ AlterNet:

On the morning of May 5, 2010, nobody could say for sure how much fluid had leaked from the 650,000-gallon disposal pit near a natural gas drill pad in Shippen Township, Penn. — not the employees on site; not the farmers who own the property; not the DEP rep who came to investigate.

But there were signs of trouble: Vegetation had died in a 30’ by 40’ patch of pasture nearby. A “wet area” of indeterminate toxicity had crept out about 200 feet, its puddles shimmering with an oily iridescence. And the cattle: 16 cows, four heifers and eight calves were all found near water containing the heavy metal strontium. Strontium is preferentially deposited in cows’ bones at varying levels depending on things like age and growth rates. Since slaughtering 28 cattle on mere suspicion can devastate a farmer financially, nobody knows what, if anything, the cows ingested. They’re now sitting in quarantine.

The Shippen Township incident isn’t the first time hydraulic fracturing, a controversial gas extraction technique that involves shooting water, sand and a mix of chemicals into the ground to release gas, has been blamed for livestock damage. But for farmers in the northeast whose land sits atop the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation, it is a wake-up call – an event that raises questions about fracking’s compatibility with food production.

“I’ve already heard from a couple of customers that they’re concerned about the location of a drill site near my farm – in terms of the quality and safety of my food,” said Greg Swartz, a farmer in Pennsylvania’s Upper Delaware River Valley. Swartz, who sells all his products locally, fears that leaked fracking fluid could seep into his soil, bioaccumulate in his plants and cost him his organic certification. “There very well may be a point where I am not comfortable selling vegetables from the farm anymore because I’m concerned about water and air contamination issues,” he said.

Air contamination – specifically the production of ozone – is what worries Ken Jaffe, another farmer in Meredith, NY. When excess methane gas, coupled with volatile compounds like benzene, toluene and xylene, are released into the air in a process the gas industry calls “venting,” it can inhibit lung function and wreak havoc on plant life. In Sublette County, WY, fracking has been blamed for ozone levels that are comparable to those in Los Angeles.

Without healthy pasture, Jaffe said, his cows won’t grow. Which means his beef won’t sell. “The economics of my operation are in part based on how many animals I can graze per acre and get them to grow fat,” he told me. “And if I have less grass and less protein and less clover, then I have a problem.”

Over the past two years, horizontal hydraulic fracturing has garnered a lot of attention. Advocates of the practice believe the staggeringly high amounts of gas it makes accessible could serve as a “cleaner-burning” bridge between fossil fuels and renewable energy sources. But critics blame fracking for a whole range of problems — house explosions, flammable drinking water, chronic sickness, crop failure and air contamination, to name a few. In 2005, the Bush administration introduced the Energy Policy Act, which exempted hydraulic fracturing from several key environmental regulations, including parts of the Clean Water Act and CERCLA (Superfund). Since then, drilling operations (along with corresponding environmental problems) have begun to extend like spiderwebs across states like Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, and Pennsylvania.

For all their concerns, farmers like Swartz and Jaffe comprise only one side of a larger debate over drilling. Leasing one’s land, after all, carries the promise of a comfortable retirement — sometimes even millions of dollars. And with milk prices making small-scale dairy operations harder and harder to maintain, many farmers are looking for the light at the end of the pipeline.

Some have found it. According to one Penn State study, Pennsylvania made a $2.95 billion profit from drilling in 2008 alone; the state also gained 53,000 new jobs. And in the Windsor/Deposit area of New York, 300 property owners have signed a lease with XTO Energy that covers 37,000 acres and is worth $90 million (notably, the lease contains a provision that indemnifies drillers against damage to livestock). Though New York is still waiting on its Department of Environmental Conservation for the go-ahead to start horizontal drilling, much of the state’s topography has already been carved, cordoned and auctioned off to eager gas companies.

“The way things are now financially, it would be hard to turn [leasing] down,” said Richard Dirie, a dairy farmer near Youngsville, NY. “Farming is definitely a physical occupation. You definitely reach an age where — I don’t care if you want to do it or not — you just can’t do it anymore.”

Dirie has not yet leased his land. But at 59, he’s not sure he would reject an offer if it came his way. “I keep saying, ‘I hope they don’t come and talk to me.’ That way I don’t have to make a decision, you know?”

Gas drilling raises a lot of questions for farmers short on options. Is it worth the risk to retire comfortably? What are the implications for future use of the land? Perhaps most importantly: How does fracking affect crops, livestock and, by extension, the people who consume them? Answers are scarce.

“There’s a lot going on out there and we don’t know most of it,” Swartz said.

The Knowledge Vacuum

It’s with good reason that Jaffe describes fracking’s relationship to food as “a knowledge vacuum.” Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture can’t say for sure whether or not any cows in the state came into contact with fracking fluid before the Shippen Township incident in May. Nor can it guarantee similar things won’t happen in the future. “We hope that this is the exception rather than the rule,” said spokesman Justin Fleming. “We hope that this is an extraordinarily rare occurrence.”

A representative for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service — the organization in charge of testing milk and meat for chemicals – neglected to comment on whether or not heavy metals like the strontium found in Shippen Township were considered “adulterated” under the Federal Meat Inspection Act. He also did not immediately comment on whether naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMS) — known to surface after a well has been fractured – fall under the act’s clause banning meat from being “intentionally subjected to radiation.”

Scientists, too, are grappling for information. Though there exists an increasingly comprehensive catalog of knowledge about water problems related to fracking, little work has been done to determine how the practice affects animals and crops.

“I see very little research being done on cows,” said Theo Colborn, founder of the non-profit Endocrine Disruption Exchange. Because animal testing with many chemicals known to be involved in fracking has historically failed to deal with instances of a) limited exposure and b) prolonged exposure, no one really knows what the potential health effects are – for cows or humans.

“It’s very difficult to deal with this problem,” Colborn said. “Who has the money? Who can perform the tests?”

Certainly not the federal EPA. Earlier this year, it announced plans to launch a two-year study of hydraulic fracturing’s effects on water. According to an EPA spokesperson, no part of that study will deal with plants or animals.

And yet, there is significant anecdotal evidence that suggests fracking can seriously compromise food. In April 2009, 19 head of cattle dropped dead after ingesting an unknown substance near a gas drilling rig in northern Louisiana. Seven months before that, a tomato farmer in Avella, Penn. reported a series of problems with the water and soil on his property after drilling started: he found arsenic levels 2,600 times what is recommended, as well as dangerously high levels of benzene and naphthalene – all known fracking components. And in May 2009, one farmer in Clearview, Penn. told Reuters he thought that gas drilling operations had killed four of his cows.

Occurrences like these aren’t just limited to the eastern U.S. In Colorado, a veterinarian named Elizabeth Chandler has documented numerous fertility problems in livestock near active drill sites, including false pregnancy, smaller litters and stillbirths in goats; reduced birth rates in hogs; and delayed heat cycles in dogs.

In another case, Rick Roles, a resident of Rifle, Colorado, reported that his horses became sterile after three disposal pits were installed near his home. Like those in Chandler’s study, Roles’ goats began yielding fewer offspring and producing more stillbirths. Roles himself suffered from swelling of the hands, numbness and body pain – symptoms, he said, that subsided when he stopped eating vegetables from his garden and drinking his goats’ milk.

Actual scientific studies are few and far between, but what’s out there paints a pretty damning picture. One, titled “Livestock Poisoning from Oil Field Drilling Fluids, Muds and Additives,” appeared in the journal Veterinary & Human Toxicology in 1991. It examined seven instances where oil and gas wells had poisoned and/or killed livestock. In one such case, green liquid was found leaking from a tank near a gas well site. The study’s authors found 13 dead cows, whose “postmortem blood was chocolate-brown in color.” Poisoning cases involving carbon disulfide, turpentine, toluene, xylene, ethylene, and complex solvent mixtures “are frequently encountered,” the study concluded.

Another study, this one conducted in Alberta, Canada in 2001, investigated the effects of gas flaring on the reproductive systems of cattle near active gas and oil fields. Its conclusions: “One of the most consistent associations in the analysis was between exposure to sour gas flaring facilities [as opposed to “sweet” ones, which contain more aromatic hydrocarbons, aliphatic hydrocarbons and carbon particles] and an increased risk of stillbirth. In 3 of the 4 years studied, cumulative exposure to sour flares was associated with an increased risk of stillbirth.”

‘Rare Cases’

When questioned about fracking and food, America’s Natural Gas Alliance, an organization composed of the nation’s leading gas production and exploration companies, neglected to get into any specifics. Instead, it offered this response:

“In rare cases where incidents have occurred, companies have worked with the appropriate regulatory authority to identify, contain and correct the issue, and to implement measures to ensure they don’t recur. ANGA member companies understand and respect people’s concerns about the safety of their water and air, and we are committed to engaging in dialogue with community members, policymakers and stakeholders to talk about the safety of natural gas production and the opportunities natural gas offers communities across our country.”

Environmental groups have a markedly different perspective on the issue. “There’s a lot of violations that happen out there that are never documented,” said Wes Gillingham, program director of Catskill Mountainkeeper.

When we talked, Gillingham took out an enormous aerial photo of a drill rig. One disposal pit was surrounded by gray blotches of moisture: leaked fracking fluid. “The stuff that’s coming up – this stuff is getting into the environment,” he said, pointing at the blotches. “You’ve got heavy metals and normally occurring radioactive materials, all of which bioaccumulate in a grazer. That stuff is coming up in the grass where the grass is growing.”

So what sorts of concerns should people have about eating animals that have themselves ingested xylene, benzene, heavy metals, radioactive material? Gillingham, like so many farmers, federal officials and industry reps, can’t say for sure.

“It’s a serious issue in terms of potential contamination getting to market and nobody knowing about it,” he said. “It’s an important piece of research that needs to be done.”

The Dark Side of Vitaminwater

In Uncategorized on August 11, 2010 at 10:34 am

Oldspeak:“Why do we allow companies like Coca-Cola to tell us that drinking a bottle of sugar water with a pennies worth of added water-soluble vitamins is a legitimate way to meet our nutritional needs? Forced to defend themselves in court, they are acknowledging that vitaminwater isn’t a healthy product. But they are arguing that advertising it as such isn’t false advertising, because no could possibly believe such a ridiculous claim.”

From John Robbins @ The Huffington Post:

Now here’s something you wouldn’t expect. Coca-Cola is being sued by a non-profit public interest group, on the grounds that the company’s vitaminwater products make unwarranted health claims. No surprise there. But how do you think the company is defending itself?

In a staggering feat of twisted logic, lawyers for Coca-Cola are defending the lawsuit by asserting that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitaminwater was a healthy beverage.”

Does this mean that you’d have to be an unreasonable person to think that a product named “vitaminwater,” a product that has been heavily and aggressively marketed as a healthy beverage, actually had health benefits?

Or does it mean that it’s okay for a corporation to lie about its products, as long as they can then turn around and claim that no one actually believes their lies?

In fact, the product is basically sugar-water, to which about a penny’s worth of synthetic vitamins have been added. And the amount of sugar is not trivial. A bottle of vitaminwater contains 33 grams of sugar, making it more akin to a soft drink than to a healthy beverage.

Is any harm being done by this marketing ploy? After all, some might say consumers are at least getting some vitamins, and there isn’t as much sugar in vitaminwater as there is in regular Coke.

True. But about 35 percent of Americans are now considered medically obese. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight. Health experts tend to disagree about almost everything, but they all concur that added sugars play a key role in the obesity epidemic, a problem that now leads to more medical costs than smoking.

How many people with weight problems have consumed products like vitaminwater in the mistaken belief that the product was nutritionally positive and carried no caloric consequences? How many have thought that consuming vitaminwater was a smart choice from a weight-loss perspective? The very name “vitaminwater” suggests that the product is simply water with added nutrients, disguising the fact that it’s actually full of added sugar.

The truth is that when it comes to weight loss, what you drink may be even more important than what you eat. Americans now get nearly 25 percent of their calories from liquids. In 2009, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published a report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, finding that the quickest and most reliable way to lose weight is to cut down on liquid calorie consumption. And the best way to do that is to reduce or eliminate beverages that contain added sugar.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola has invested billions of dollars in its vitaminwater line, paying basketball stars, including Kobe Bryant and Lebron James, to appear in ads that emphatically state that these products are a healthy way for consumers to hydrate. When Lebron James held his much ballyhooed TV special to announce his decision to join the Miami Heat, many corporations paid millions in an attempt to capitalize on the event. But it was vitaminwater that had the most prominent role throughout the show.

The lawsuit, brought by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, alleges that vitaminwater labels and advertising are filled with “deceptive and unsubstantiated claims.” In his recent 55-page ruling, Federal Judge John Gleeson (U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York), wrote, “At oral arguments, defendants (Coca-Cola) suggested that no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitamin water was a healthy beverage.” Noting that the soft drink giant wasn’t claiming the lawsuit was wrong on factual grounds, the judge wrote that, “Accordingly, I must accept the factual allegations in the complaint as true.”

I still can’t get over the bizarre audacity of Coke’s legal case. Forced to defend themselves in court, they are acknowledging that vitaminwater isn’t a healthy product. But they are arguing that advertising it as such isn’t false advertising, because no could possibly believe such a ridiculous claim.

I guess that’s why they spend hundreds of millions of dollars advertising the product, saying it will keep you “healthy as a horse,” and will bring about a “healthy state of physical and mental well-being.”

Why do we allow companies like Coca-Cola to tell us that drinking a bottle of sugar water with a few added water-soluble vitamins is a legitimate way to meet our nutritional needs?

Here’s what I suggest: If you’re looking for a healthy and far less expensive way to hydrate, try drinking water. If you want to flavor the water you drink, try adding the juice of a lemon and a small amount of honey or maple syrup to a quart of water. Another alternative is to mix one part lemonade or fruit juice to three or four parts water. Or drink green tea, hot or chilled, adding lemon and a small amount of sweetener if you like. If you want to jazz it up, try one-half fruit juice, one-half carbonated water.

If your tap water tastes bad or you suspect it might contain lead or other contaminants, get a water filter that fits under the sink or attaches to the tap.

And it’s probably not the best idea to rely on a soft drink company for your vitamins and other essential nutrients. A plant-strong diet with lots of vegetables and fruits will provide you with what you need far more reliably, far more consistently — and far more honestly.

YOUR BRAIN ON COMPUTERS: Hooked On Gadgets, And Paying A Mental Price

In Uncategorized on June 7, 2010 at 10:05 am

Oldspeak: “Researchers worry that constant digital stimulation creates attention problems for children with brains that are still developing, who already struggle to set priorities and resist impulses…the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room….The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other” Hmm… could our obsession with technology be helping to drive skyrocketing use of ADHD and other psychatric meds with children? While whittling away at our ability to intereact with each other face to face sans technology?

From Matt Richtel @ The New York Times:

When one of the most important e-mail messages of his life landed in his in-box a few years ago, Kord Campbell overlooked it.

Not just for a day or two, but 12 days. He finally saw it while sifting through old messages: a big company wanted to buy his Internet start-up.

“I stood up from my desk and said, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,’ ” Mr. Campbell said. “It’s kind of hard to miss an e-mail like that, but I did.”

The message had slipped by him amid an electronic flood: two computer screens alive with e-mail, instant messages, online chats, a Web browser and the computer code he was writing. (View an interactive panoramic photograph of Mr. Campbell’s workstation.)

While he managed to salvage the $1.3 million deal after apologizing to his suitor, Mr. Campbell continues to struggle with the effects of the deluge of data. Even after he unplugs, he craves the stimulation he gets from his electronic gadgets. He forgets things like dinner plans, and he has trouble focusing on his family.

His wife, Brenda, complains, “It seems like he can no longer be fully in the moment.”

This is your brain on computers.

Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.

These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.

The resulting distractions can have deadly consequences, as when cellphone-wielding drivers and train engineers cause wrecks. And for millions of people like Mr. Campbell, these urges can inflict nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought, interrupting work and family life.

While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.

And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.

“The technology is rewiring our brains,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world’s leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.

Technology use can benefit the brain in some ways, researchers say. Imaging studies show the brains of Internet users become more efficient at finding information. And players of some video games develop better visual acuity.

More broadly, cellphones and computers have transformed life. They let people escape their cubicles and work anywhere. They shrink distances and handle countless mundane tasks, freeing up time for more exciting pursuits.

For better or worse, the consumption of media, as varied as e-mail and TV, has exploded. In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows.

The nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

“We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do,” he said. “We know already there are consequences.”

Mr. Campbell, 43, came of age with the personal computer, and he is a heavier user of technology than most. But researchers say the habits and struggles of Mr. Campbell and his family typify what many experience — and what many more will, if trends continue.

For him, the tensions feel increasingly acute, and the effects harder to shake.

The Campbells recently moved to California from Oklahoma to start a software venture. Mr. Campbell’s life revolves around computers. (View a slide show on how the Campbells interact with technology.)

He goes to sleep with a laptop or iPhone on his chest, and when he wakes, he goes online. He and Mrs. Campbell, 39, head to the tidy kitchen in their four-bedroom hillside rental in Orinda, an affluent suburb of San Francisco, where she makes breakfast and watches a TV news feed in the corner of the computer screen while he uses the rest of the monitor to check his e-mail.

Major spats have arisen because Mr. Campbell escapes into video games during tough emotional stretches. On family vacations, he has trouble putting down his devices. When he rides the subway to San Francisco, he knows he will be offline 221 seconds as the train goes through a tunnel.

Their 16-year-old son, Connor, tall and polite like his father, recently received his first C’s, which his family blames on distraction from his gadgets. Their 8-year-old daughter, Lily, like her mother, playfully tells her father that he favors technology over family.

“I would love for him to totally unplug, to be totally engaged,” says Mrs. Campbell, who adds that he becomes “crotchety until he gets his fix.” But she would not try to force a change.

“He loves it. Technology is part of the fabric of who he is,” she says. “If I hated technology, I’d be hating him, and a part of who my son is too.”

Always On

Mr. Campbell, whose given name is Thomas, had an early start with technology in Oklahoma City. When he was in third grade, his parents bought him Pong, a video game. Then came a string of game consoles and PCs, which he learned to program.

In high school, he balanced computers, basketball and a romance with Brenda, a cheerleader with a gorgeous singing voice. He studied too, with focus, uninterrupted by e-mail. “I did my homework because I needed to get it done,” he said. “I didn’t have anything else to do.”

He left college to help with a family business, then set up a lawn mowing service. At night he would read, play video games, hang out with Brenda and, as she remembers it, “talk a lot more.”

In 1996, he started a successful Internet provider. Then he built the start-up that he sold for $1.3 million in 2003 to LookSmart, a search engine.

Mr. Campbell loves the rush of modern life and keeping up with the latest information. “I want to be the first to hear when the aliens land,” he said, laughing. But other times, he fantasizes about living in pioneer days when things moved more slowly: “I can’t keep everything in my head.”

No wonder. As he came of age, so did a new era of data and communication.

At home, people consume 12 hours of media a day on average, when an hour spent with, say, the Internet and TV simultaneously counts as two hours. That compares with five hours in 1960, say researchers at the University of California, San Diego. Computer users visit an average of 40 Web sites a day, according to research by RescueTime, which offers time-management tools.

As computers have changed, so has the understanding of the human brain. Until 15 years ago, scientists thought the brain stopped developing after childhood. Now they understand that its neural networks continue to develop, influenced by things like learning skills.

So not long after Eyal Ophir arrived at Stanford in 2004, he wondered whether heavy multitasking might be leading to changes in a characteristic of the brain long thought immutable: that humans can process only a single stream of information at a time.

Going back a half-century, tests had shown that the brain could barely process two streams, and could not simultaneously make decisions about them. But Mr. Ophir, a student-turned-researcher, thought multitaskers might be rewiring themselves to handle the load.

His passion was personal. He had spent seven years in Israeli intelligence after being weeded out of the air force — partly, he felt, because he was not a good multitasker. Could his brain be retrained?

Mr. Ophir, like others around the country studying how technology bent the brain, was startled by what he discovered.

The Myth of Multitasking

The test subjects were divided into two groups: those classified as heavy multitaskers based on their answers to questions about how they used technology, and those who were not.

In a test created by Mr. Ophir and his colleagues, subjects at a computer were briefly shown an image of red rectangles. Then they saw a similar image and were asked whether any of the rectangles had moved. It was a simple task until the addition of a twist: blue rectangles were added, and the subjects were told to ignore them. (Play a game testing how well you filter out distractions.)

The multitaskers then did a significantly worse job than the non-multitaskers at recognizing whether red rectangles had changed position. In other words, they had trouble filtering out the blue ones — the irrelevant information.

So, too, the multitaskers took longer than non-multitaskers to switch among tasks, like differentiating vowels from consonants and then odd from even numbers. The multitaskers were shown to be less efficient at juggling problems. (Play a game testing how well you switch between tasks.)

Other tests at Stanford, an important center for research in this fast-growing field, showed multitaskers tended to search for new information rather than accept a reward for putting older, more valuable information to work.

Researchers say these findings point to an interesting dynamic: multitaskers seem more sensitive than non-multitaskers to incoming information.

The results also illustrate an age-old conflict in the brain, one that technology may be intensifying. A portion of the brain acts as a control tower, helping a person focus and set priorities. More primitive parts of the brain, like those that process sight and sound, demand that it pay attention to new information, bombarding the control tower when they are stimulated.

Researchers say there is an evolutionary rationale for the pressure this barrage puts on the brain. The lower-brain functions alert humans to danger, like a nearby lion, overriding goals like building a hut. In the modern world, the chime of incoming e-mail can override the goal of writing a business plan or playing catch with the children.

“Throughout evolutionary history, a big surprise would get everyone’s brain thinking,” said Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford. “But we’ve got a large and growing group of people who think the slightest hint that something interesting might be going on is like catnip. They can’t ignore it.”

Mr. Nass says the Stanford studies are important because they show multitasking’s lingering effects: “The scary part for guys like Kord is, they can’t shut off their multitasking tendencies when they’re not multitasking.”

Melina Uncapher, a neurobiologist on the Stanford team, said she and other researchers were unsure whether the muddied multitaskers were simply prone to distraction and would have had trouble focusing in any era. But she added that the idea that information overload causes distraction was supported by more and more research.

A study at the University of California, Irvine, found that people interrupted by e-mail reported significantly increased stress compared with those left to focus. Stress hormones have been shown to reduce short-term memory, said Gary Small, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Preliminary research shows some people can more easily juggle multiple information streams. These “supertaskers” represent less than 3 percent of the population, according to scientists at the University of Utah.

Other research shows computer use has neurological advantages. In imaging studies, Dr. Small observed that Internet users showed greater brain activity than nonusers, suggesting they were growing their neural circuitry.

At the University of Rochester, researchers found that players of some fast-paced video games can track the movement of a third more objects on a screen than nonplayers. They say the games can improve reaction and the ability to pick out details amid clutter.

“In a sense, those games have a very strong both rehabilitative and educational power,” said the lead researcher, Daphne Bavelier, who is working with others in the field to channel these changes into real-world benefits like safer driving.

There is a vibrant debate among scientists over whether technology’s influence on behavior and the brain is good or bad, and how significant it is.

“The bottom line is, the brain is wired to adapt,” said Steven Yantis, a professor of brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University. “There’s no question that rewiring goes on all the time,” he added. But he said it was too early to say whether the changes caused by technology were materially different from others in the past.

Mr. Ophir is loath to call the cognitive changes bad or good, though the impact on analysis and creativity worries him.

He is not just worried about other people. Shortly after he came to Stanford, a professor thanked him for being the one student in class paying full attention and not using a computer or phone. But he recently began using an iPhone and noticed a change; he felt its pull, even when playing with his daughter.

“The media is changing me,” he said. “I hear this internal ping that says: check e-mail and voice mail.”

“I have to work to suppress it.”

Kord Campbell does not bother to suppress it, or no longer can.

Interrupted by a Corpse

It is a Wednesday in April, and in 10 minutes, Mr. Campbell has an online conference call that could determine the fate of his new venture, called Loggly. It makes software that helps companies understand the clicking and buying patterns of their online customers.

Mr. Campbell and his colleagues, each working from a home office, are frantically trying to set up a program that will let them share images with executives at their prospective partner.

But at the moment when Mr. Campbell most needs to focus on that urgent task, something else competes for his attention: “Man Found Dead Inside His Business.”

That is the tweet that appears on the left-most of Mr. Campbell’s array of monitors, which he has expanded to three screens, at times adding a laptop and an iPad.

On the left screen, Mr. Campbell follows the tweets of 1,100 people, along with instant messages and group chats. The middle monitor displays a dark field filled with computer code, along with Skype, a service that allows Mr. Campbell to talk to his colleagues, sometimes using video. The monitor on the right keeps e-mail, a calendar, a Web browser and a music player.

Even with the meeting fast approaching, Mr. Campbell cannot resist the tweet about the corpse. He clicks on the link in it, glances at the article and dismisses it. “It’s some article about something somewhere,” he says, annoyed by the ads for jeans popping up.

The program gets fixed, and the meeting turns out to be fruitful: the partners are ready to do business. A colleague says via instant message: “YES.”

Other times, Mr. Campbell’s information juggling has taken a more serious toll. A few weeks earlier, he once again overlooked an e-mail message from a prospective investor. Another time, Mr. Campbell signed the company up for the wrong type of business account on Amazon.com, costing $300 a month for six months before he got around to correcting it. He has burned hamburgers on the grill, forgotten to pick up the children and lingered in the bathroom playing video games on an iPhone.

Mr. Campbell can be unaware of his own habits. In a two-and-a-half hour stretch one recent morning, he switched rapidly between e-mail and several other programs, according to data from RescueTime, which monitored his computer use with his permission. But when asked later what he was doing in that period, Mr. Campbell said he had been on a long Skype call, and “may have pulled up an e-mail or two.”

The kind of disconnection Mr. Campbell experiences is not an entirely new problem, of course. As they did in earlier eras, people can become so lost in work, hobbies or TV that they fail to pay attention to family.

Mr. Campbell concedes that, even without technology, he may work or play obsessively, just as his father immersed himself in crossword puzzles. But he says this era is different because he can multitask anyplace, anytime.

“It’s a mixed blessing,” he said. “If you’re not careful, your marriage can fall apart or your kids can be ready to play and you’ll get distracted.”

The Toll on Children

Father and son sit in armchairs. Controllers in hand, they engage in a fierce video game battle, displayed on the nearby flat-panel TV, as Lily watches.

They are playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl, a cartoonish animated fight between characters that battle using anvils, explosives and other weapons.

“Kill him, Dad,” Lily screams. To no avail. Connor regularly beats his father, prompting expletives and, once, a thrown pillow. But there is bonding and mutual respect.

“He’s a lot more tactical,” says Connor. “But I’m really good at quick reflexes.”

Screens big and small are central to the Campbell family’s leisure time. Connor and his mother relax while watching TV shows like “Heroes.” Lily has an iPod Touch, a portable DVD player and her own laptop, which she uses to watch videos, listen to music and play games.

Lily, a second-grader, is allowed only an hour a day of unstructured time, which she often spends with her devices. The laptop can consume her.

“When she’s on it, you can holler her name all day and she won’t hear,” Mrs. Campbell said.

Researchers worry that constant digital stimulation like this creates attention problems for children with brains that are still developing, who already struggle to set priorities and resist impulses.

Connor’s troubles started late last year. He could not focus on homework. No wonder, perhaps. On his bedroom desk sit two monitors, one with his music collection, one withFacebook and Reddit, a social site with news links that he and his father love. His iPhone availed him to relentless texting with his girlfriend.

When he studied, “a little voice would be saying, ‘Look up’ at the computer, and I’d look up,” Connor said. “Normally, I’d say I want to only read for a few minutes, but I’d search every corner of Reddit and then check Facebook.”

His Web browsing informs him. “He’s a fact hound,” Mr. Campbell brags. “Connor is, other than programming, extremely technical. He’s 100 percent Internet savvy.”

But the parents worry too. “Connor is obsessed,” his mother said. “Kord says we have to teach him balance.”

So in January, they held a family meeting. Study time now takes place in a group setting at the dinner table after everyone has finished eating. It feels, Mr. Campbell says, like togetherness.

No Vacations

For spring break, the family rented a cottage in Carmel, Calif. Mrs. Campbell hoped everyone would unplug.

But the day before they left, the iPad from Apple came out, and Mr. Campbell snapped one up. The next night, their first on vacation, “We didn’t go out to dinner,” Mrs. Campbell mourned. “We just sat there on our devices.”

She rallied the troops the next day to the aquarium. Her husband joined them for a bit but then begged out to do e-mail on his phone.

Later she found him playing video games.

The trip came as Mr. Campbell was trying to raise several million dollars for his new venture, a goal that he achieved. Brenda said she understood that his pursuit required intensity but was less understanding of the accompanying surge in video game.

His behavior brought about a discussion between them. Mrs. Campbell said he told her that he was capable of logging off, citing a trip to Hawaii several years ago that they called their second honeymoon.

“What trip are you thinking about?” she said she asked him. She recalled that he had spent two hours a day online in the hotel’s business center.

On Thursday, their fourth day in Carmel, Mr. Campbell spent the day at the beach with his family. They flew a kite and played whiffle ball.

Connor unplugged too. “It changes the mood of everything when everybody is present,” Mrs. Campbell said.

The next day, the family drove home, and Mr. Campbell disappeared into his office.

Technology use is growing for Mrs. Campbell as well. She divides her time between keeping the books of her husband’s company, homemaking and working at the school library. She checks e-mail 25 times a day, sends texts and uses Facebook.

Recently, she was baking peanut butter cookies for Teacher Appreciation Day when her phone chimed in the living room. She answered a text, then became lost in Facebook, forgot about the cookies and burned them. She started a new batch, but heard the phone again, got lost in messaging, and burned those too. Out of ingredients and shamed, she bought cookies at the store.

She feels less focused and has trouble completing projects. Some days, she promises herself she will ignore her device. “It’s like a diet — you have good intentions in the morning and then you’re like, ‘There went that,’ ” she said.

Mr. Nass at Stanford thinks the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room.

“The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,” he said. “It shows how much you care.”

That empathy, Mr. Nass said, is essential to the human condition. “We are at an inflection point,” he said. “A significant fraction of people’s experiences are now fragmented.”


In Uncategorized on May 28, 2010 at 11:17 am

Oldspeak: File this one under the medical science of “duh,” but people who use indoor tanning beds are 74 percent likelier to develop melanoma, a new study has found. According to one researcher, “Our data would suggest that there is no safe tanning device.” Someone alert the cast of “Jersey Shore.”

From Salynn Boyles @ WebMD Health News:

Regular use of tanning beds triples or even quadruples the risk of developing melanoma, the most deadly form ofskin cancer, new research finds.

The study is the largest of its kind to examine whether indoor tanning causes skin cancer, and it comes as federal regulators are considering new rules designed to limit the use of commercial tanning by teens.

Compared to people who had never used a tanning bed, indoor tanners had a 74% increased risk for melanoma.

People who spent more than 50 hours tanning indoors had a threefold increase in risk, compared to people who never used a tanning bed, after adjusting for known risk factors for the deadly skin cancer.

The risk was four times higher among frequent users of high-pressure tanning beds, which emit mostly UVA radiation.

Researcher DeAnn Lazovich, PhD, of the University of Minnesota says the study was designed to address the limitations of past research, which have allowed the tanning industry to continue to deny that indoor tanning causes skin cancer.

“Our data would suggest that there is no safe tanning device,” she tells WebMD.

Melanoma, Indoor Tanning Increasing

The American Cancer Society predicted that in 2009, nearly 70,000 Americans would be diagnosed with melanoma and more than 8,500 people would die of the disease.

Melanoma is one of the fastest-growing cancers among whites, increasing by about 2% a year between 1997 and 2006.

During this time, the popularity of indoor tanning exploded, especially among women under age 30. Only a few tanning salons existed in the United States in the early 1980s. Today, by one industry estimate, more than 30 million Americans use commercial tanning beds each year.

Allan Halpern, MD, who is chief of dermatology at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, says the new study suggests a clear link between the increased popularity of indoor tanning and the rise in melanoma.

“One of the challenges in these studies has been that people who use tanning beds also tend to tan in the sun,” he tells WebMD. “That has allowed the industry to claim that indoor tanning isn’t to blame.”

Also, most previous studies did not distinguish between high-speed machines, which emit some UVB rays, and high-pressure machines, which emit almost exclusively UVA rays.

The latest study included nearly 1,200 melanoma patients and a similar number of age- and gender-matched people in a control group. Using questionnaires and telephone interviews, the researchers determined that 63% of the melanoma patients in the study had used a commercial tanning device at least once, compared to 51% of the people without cancer.

Among the other major findings:

  • Melanoma risk increased with exposure, measured by total hours of indoor tanning, the number of individual sessions, or years of exposure.
  • The increase in risk was seen for both high-speed and high-pressure machines, suggesting that no type of tanning device could be considered safe.
  • Burns from indoor tanning were commonly reported.
  • The strongest association was seen for melanomas originating on the trunk, which, in women at least, is an area of the body generally exposed to UV rays only during tanning.

The research showed no specific increase in melanoma risk associated with tanning bed use at a young age, but a clear association was seen for increased exposure over time.

The study appears in the June issue of the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

“Overall exposure was the important thing,” Lazovich says. “Melanoma is the second most common cancer among young women. Young women are particularly vulnerable because they are the most likely to use these devices.”

Tanning Industry Responds

In response to the study, a tanning industry spokesman said the findings are misleading because the researchers did not distinguish between people with major risk factors for melanoma and the general population.

Those risk factors include having very fair skin, having many moles, and having freckles or red hair.

Melanoma patients in the study were five times as likely as non-patients to have very fair skin and nearly 14 times more likely to have many moles.

John Overstreet of the Indoor Tanning Association tells WebMD that the group’s own scientific analysis of the findings suggests that when high-risk groups are removed, indoor tanning may actually lower melanoma risk.

Overstreet also said indoor tanning may protect against cancer by increasing vitamin D, which is produced in the body in response to UV exposure.

Vitamin D researcher Michael Holick, MD, tells WebMD that although indoor tanning may boost vitamin D levels, he does not recommend it.

“I have never advocated tanning,” he says. “What I have said is that people who want to do it using tanning beds to increase their vitamin D in the winter should do it responsibly. That means protecting your face and staying in for 50% of the time recommended for tanning.”

Feds May Soon Restrict Indoor Tanning

Last year, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) weighed in, concluding that indoor tanning does cause melanoma.

In March, an FDA panel met to consider regulatory changes that could restrict access to tanning salons.

Although an outright ban is unlikely, many believe the group will require minors to have their parents’ permission if they want to use commercial tanning devices.

Big Soda Wants to Keep America Fat: Here’s How to Fight Back

In Uncategorized on May 23, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Oldspeak: “The biggest problem is that soda has become outrageously affordable. A staggering analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the price of carbonated drinks has fallen 34 percent since the late 1970s, while healthy foods like fruits and vegetables cost over 30 percent more than they did before. Sodas have fueled our obesity epidemic. An elegant solution — soda taxes — would cut our addiction, but the sugary drink industry is gearing up to make sure that can’t happen.”

From Daniela Perdomo @ Alter Net:

Scouring lobbyist filings is akin to looking into a public-policy crystal ball. What Big Business is spending on lobbying today will give you a good idea of what the next big policy fight will hinge upon.

Here’s an example. In the first quarter of this year, a trade group representing the interests of non-alcoholic drink-makers called the American Beverage Association upped its lobbying expenditures by a whopping 3,785 percent over the last quarter of 2009. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the ABA went from spending a paltry $140,000 to shelling out $5.4 million.

What are non-alcoholic beverage producers so afraid of? Two words: soda taxes.

Last year, Congress seriously discussed including a tax on sodas and other calorie-laden beverages like energy and sports drinks (diet sodas were to be exempted) in the forthcoming health care overhaul in order to help cover costs for what was then supposed to be a universal health care plan. At the time, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the proposed nationwide 3-cent tax on sodas would generate $24 billion over four years.

The ABA and affiliated moneyed interests successfully flexed their lobbying muscles and produced a $10 million nationwide ad campaign in order to extinguish talk of a federal soda tax. Such language never made it into the bill Congress eventually passed.

But the $110 billion-a-year sugary drink industry knows their fight isn’t up yet. They surely have been spooked by President Obama saying that soda taxes are an “idea that we should be exploring.” And the hawkers of sugary drinks are also aware that although they managed to derail a national tax — for now — local and state governments are taking up the battle Congress dropped.

The fight for our waistlines and purse strings is just heating up.

The American soda problem

It’s hard to know where to begin discussion of how bad sodas are for you, given the myriad reasons and statistics, but Marion Nestle, a public health nutritionist and professor at New York University, has been writing about this public health nuisance for so long she does a pretty good job of it.

“They have no redeeming nutritional value and just add unnecessary calories to diets that already have too many,” she told AlterNet.

Indeed, drinks like Coke, Gatorade, and curiously named drinks like Vitamin Water are essentially part sugar and part water, leading sweetened beverages to account for half of all sugar intake in the average contemporary American’s diet. Sugar-infused drinks have long been a stalwart of U.S. culture — Coca-Cola was born in 1886 — but Americans drink them much more than ever before. And it’s not hard to see there is a definite correlation between the obesity epidemic — which costs us $147 billion a year — and the explosion in soft drink consumption.

While the soda problem is apparent among Americans of all ages, youth are the most affected. After all, they’ve grown up on campaigns extolling “the Pepsi Generation.” Studies show that beverages now account for 10 to 15 percent of all calories consumed by children and teens — and for each extra can or glass of sugared beverage consumed per day, the chances of a child’s becoming obese increases by a staggering 60 percent. The average 18-year-old today is less than an inch taller than the average 18-year-old back then, but is 15 pounds heavier.

Yet the immense marketing budgets behind Coca-Cola and PepsiCo aren’t the only reason more and more people are drinking more of this stuff. The biggest problem is that soda has become outrageously affordable. A staggering analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the price of carbonated drinks has fallen 34 percent since the late 1970s, while healthy foods like fruits and vegetables cost over 30 percent more than they did before.

Lest you think you don’t have a “soda problem,” Gail Woodward-Lopez of the Center for Weight and Health at Berkeley has news for you. She says we shouldn’t drink more than one — yes, one — sweetened beverage per week.

The damage these drinks do to your system is leading people to compare the beverage business to the tobacco industry. Of course the ABA is loathe to accept such analogies. In a recent NPR interview, the person in charge of the group’s science policy said sweetened drinks are completely unlike cigarettes.

“Smoking kills people. There is no safe level of consumption. And soft drinks are an enjoyable, safe product that people have been enjoying for generations,” Maureen Storey said, before blaming American obesity on our failure to exercise.

To be fair, soda didn’t make us fat all on its own — and we do need to exercise a lot more. But given how much we drink these beverages, and how much of the nutritionally void sugar we ingest is derived from them, soda has become a problem we’re only now in hindsight realizing has damaged the health of an entire generation. Kind of like cigarettes.

How to tax it

The average state tax on a pack of cigarettes sold in the United States is $1.42; there is also a $1.01 federal tax. These extra costs have led to a decrease in cigarette consumption, particularly by price-sensitive demographics like young people, and brought millions in revenue to every state. Given the success of these measures, it’s little wonder that a sin tax on sodas is so appealing to health advocates.

New England Journal of Medicine study from last year, which made the public-policy case for soda taxes, opened with a quote from Adam Smith’s 1776 Wealth of Nations: “Sugar, rum, and tobacco are commodities which are nowhere necessaries of life, which are [sic] become objects of almost universal consumption, and which are therefore extremely proper subjects of taxation.”

So to say the least, the idea of taxing sodas isn’t really new. Currently, 33 states have a sales tax on soft drinks sold at grocery stores and in vending machines, with rates ranging from 1.3 percent in Montana to 7 percent in Rhode Island and Mississippi. Six other states have a sales tax on those sold in vending machines only. And finally, six states have instituted an excise tax in addition to the sales tax. Examples would be Rhode Island, which charges 4 cents per each case of beverage, and Arkansas, which taxes 21 cents per gallon and $2 per gallon of syrup.

The problem here, according to soda tax supporters like Julie Greenstein of theCenter for Science in the Public Interest, is that the sales and excise taxes out there are too small to affect consumption rates — and the revenues coming in from these taxes are not being directed to programs that would help prevent and treat obesity. (Half of the money we spend on obesity is paid for by taxpayers via Medicaid and Medicare.)

Greenstein’s organization is pushing for a tax of 7 cents per 12-ounce can of soda, which is estimated to bring in $10 billion per year. An April study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine says that if the price of sweetened beverages increased by 18 percent, people would consume an average of 56 fewer calories a day and lose about five pounds a year.

But some want to go even further, levying a tax of 1 cent per ounce. If this was done nationally, the revenue would be $14.9 billion in the first year alone.

There is a measure on the table in Washington, D.C. that would charge a penny per ounce, raising the price of a typical 12-pack of cans by 30 percent. The revenue would be used to pay for the newly passed Health Schools Act, which would improve the quality of lunches in the area’s public schools. The D.C. city council will vote on this on May 25, but observers aren’t sure it will pass.

Current and past efforts

In addition to the foiled federal tax last year, the industry has been aggressive in pushing back efforts elsewhere. The governor of New York proposed an 18 percent tax on sugar-rich drinks, and was beat down by the state legislature last year, but on Thursday announced a new — and less stringent — proposal to raise $815 million in annual soda taxes. The industry was also successful in influencing a vote in Philadelphia, although debate continues. A measure has been introduced in the California state senate, but prospects look slim there, too. Unfortunately, absolutely no moves are being made on the federal level right now.

“The industry is spending millions and millions of dollars. Every time you turn on the radio, there’s a Big Soda ad against these proposals,” Greenstein says. “They’re lobbying hard. They’re outspending us.”

Perhaps you remember a striking ad by Americans Against Food Taxes last year — at the height of the federal soda tax debate — which showed a mother unloading groceries from her car. Proponents “say it’s only pennies. Well, those pennies ad up when you’re trying to feed a family,” we’re told. Of course, the visceral ad doesn’t ask whether poor people who are struggling to feed their families should really be spending money on incredibly unhealthy food that will rack up medical bills, but then again why would it? Americans Against Food Taxes is a front group funded by the beverage industry.

More recently, as the New York City Health Department has unfurled a graphic campaign against sodas taglined “Don’t Drink Yourself Fat,” the Center for Consumer Freedom — front group number-two — has plastered the city with adsthat ask: “Big Apple or Big Brother?”

While Greenstein would have to hope against hope that any of the current efforts to pass effective soda taxes will be successful, she is actually buoyed by the industry’s response. “The fact that they’re spending so much is proof that if these proposals passed, they would be effective,” she says. “They wouldn’t be out here lobbying so hard against them otherwise. We’ll keep pushing and if it’s not this year then we’ll be back again the next.”

The fight will be framed (and reframed)

To be sure, the tremendous spike in dollars being spent by the beverage industry in order to counteract the bad press and to de-legitimize the arguments for soda taxes is proof-positive that the makers of these unhealthy drinks know these measures would be quite effective in reducing consumption and changing habits.

Last year, Coca-Cola trotted out its chief executive, Muhtar Kent, to pen aneditorial for the Wall Street Journal defensively titled “Coke Didn’t Make America Fat,” in which he argued that exercise was the solution to our fat problems. This argument is easily trumped by pointing to seatbelt legislation. Not wearing a seatbelt doesn’t solve all the risks related to driving in a car, but it can greatly diminish them. In the same way, cutting a nutritionally void drink out of our lives will aid us in the general path of a healthy life — along with increased exercise.

The ABA constantly trumpets the idea that soda taxes are regressive, because they would disproportionately affect poor people. But this is handily disputed. Sugar-sweetened drinks have no nutritional value and healthy alternatives like, say, water are free or much cheaper. So a tax that shifted consumption from soda and other sugary beverages to water would not only improve health and lower costs for cash-strapped families, it would also raise revenue for programs that promote healthy eating, obesity prevention and health care for those most in need.

The industry will also keep on saying that these taxes won’t actually affect consumption, they’d simply be ineffective from the get-go. But this is true, as a recently released RAND study shows, only when the taxes are small — and Big Soda knows it. A trade publication, Beverage Digest, ran a report in 2008 showing that if soft drink prices rose 6.8 percent, sales dropped 7.8 percent; and more specifically: if Coca-Cola prices increased by 12 percent, sales would drop by 14.6 percent.

While money and power may be on the sugar-pushing beverage industry’s side for now, the momentum is ultimately with the proponents of soda taxes. Support for food taxes continues to rise — especially when people are told revenues would go to obesity prevention — and growing public awareness about nutrition and health is fueling the attempts to pass truly effective soda taxes throughout the country.

In the meantime, get off the Internet, reach for a glass of water and go for a run.