“The average American baby is born with 10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded levels of flame retardants among infants in the world.” So begins the Chicago Tribune’s damning four-part series about spin and science, or lack thereof, in the flame retardants industry. Flame retardant chemicals have become so ubiquitous–there’s two pounds of the stuff in just the cushions of a large couch—because we’ve accepted the health dangers are worth the protection they provide against fire. Except, there is no scientific basis for the claim that flame retardants save lives.
Part three in the series, published today, is a systematic debunking of the few studies the industry has continuously cited as evidence for the efficacy of flame retardants. One obscure Swedish study, available only in Swedish, relied on flimsy evidence from just eight electrical fires caused by TVs. The peer-reviewed paper also lists a PR specialist among its authors. The lead scientist of another study has disavowed what he calls the industry’s “grossly distorted” flogging of his work, which looked at levels of flame retardants far above industry standard in household furniture. These examples and many more show how scientific authority has been manipulated for profit: Read More
If you’re a tobacco hornworm caterpillar, your own spit can come back to bite you: That plant you tried to eat for dinner can use your own saliva to summon larger animals that might like to make you their dinner.
When a leaf is wounded, plants immediately release a “bouquet” of distress chemicals known as green leaf volatiles (GLVs) into the air. GLVs are formed when long fatty acid chains in the cell membranes are chopped up into six-carbon molecules as a result of damage. These molecules can exist in two different shapes, or isomers, depending on the position of a double bond between two of the carbons [The Scientist].
It always helps to have good timing. And no one seems to understand that better than the tobacco plant Nicotiana attenuata, which grows in Western United States and flowers at night [The New York Times]. Normally, the tobacco plant is pollinated by hawkmoths that visits its flowers every night. But when these hawkmoths leave eggs behind that develop into leaf-chomping caterpillars, the plant’s self-defense snaps into place and switches to flowering in the day. That attracts a different pollinator, the hummingbird.
Ecologist Danny Kessler noticed this change when he was trying to get a picture of the plant being pollinated for a study. He saw that the plant was not just flowering in the day but also that they had changed their flowers to make them more attractive to hummingbirds: they emitted less of a chemical that attracts moths; they had less sugar in the nectar, which is the way hummingbirds prefer it; and they were more tube-shaped, making them friendly to a hummingbird’s long, thin beak [ScienceNOW Daily News].
It doesn’t matter if they only smoke when the kids are out of the house, or when they’re alone in the car, or even if they only smoke outside; researchers still warn that toxic chemicals exhaled by cigarette smokers cling to their clothes and hair, and linger in upholstery, curtains, and carpets. In a new study, researchers say the public is well aware of the health effects of second-hand smoke, when nonsmokers are directly exposed to the cigarette smoke of others, but hasn’t yet caught on to the danger of what they call “third-hand smoke.” Lead author Jonathan Winickoff explains that third-hand smoke is what one smells when a smoker gets in an elevator after going outside for a cigarette, he said, or in a hotel room where people were smoking. “Your nose isn’t lying,” he said. “The stuff is so toxic that your brain is telling you: ’Get away’” [The New York Times].
The researchers say that there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke, and note that children are particularly susceptible to ill-effects from the toxic residue left behind long after a cigarette has been stubbed out. Among the substances in third-hand smoke are hydrogen cyanide, used in chemical weapons; butane, which is used in lighter fluid; toluene, found in paint thinners; arsenic; lead; carbon monoxide; and even polonium-210, the highly radioactive carcinogen that was used to murder former Russian spy Alexander V. Litvinenko in 2006. Eleven of the compounds are highly carcinogenic [The New York Times].
Cancer will be the world’s leading killer by 2010, edging out heart disease for the top spot, according to the latest report by the World Health Organization (WHO). Though cancer rates in the United States have just recently begun to decrease, elsewhere in the world cancer is on a steady rise. Experts cite tobacco, increasingly Western lifestyles, and inadequate medical care as the factors contributing to the cancer epidemic in developing countries. “In the U.S., we pay a lot of attention to cancer trends, and the trend has been encouraging,” says Dr. Richard Schilsky… “But we have forgotten that there is a big wide world out there. Cancer is a global problem” [TIME].
According to the WHO report, 12 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed this year and 7 million will die from the disease. The group forecast a 1 percent increase globally each year, with emerging economies such as China, Russia and India being hit the hardest [CNN]. The report also projects a 38 percent population increase in less developed countries by 2030. Taken together, that means by 2030 an estimated 20 to 26 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed annually and 13 to 17 million deaths will be cancer-related.
When a hummingbird or a hawk moth sups on the sweet nectar of a wild tobacco plant, they’re not just getting a tasty meal in exchange for their services in spreading the plant’s pollen. Instead, a new study shows that the nectar may be a complex chemical cocktail that simultaneously attracts and repels pollinators in order to optimize the amount of time they spend at each flower, and the attention they pay to flowers on different plants. “This paper shows just how sophisticated a plant can be in using chemistry to get what it wants,” [The Scientist] says lead researcher Ian Baldwin.
The researchers had already analyzed the chemical composition of tobacco plants’ nectar; they found that the compound benzyl acetone is the primary attractant, and that the plants “spike” their nectar with nicotine, presumably as a poisonous deterrent to insects. But in a clever experiment, the research team created genetically modified plants with different levels of these two chemicals. In greenhouse and field experiments, the scientists were surprised to find that not only did nicotine deter nectar robbers and plant nibblers, but the right dose prevented pollinators from lingering too long at any one flower, increasing the number of flowers visited [Science News].
Researchers say they have turned a tobacco plant into a living factory that can produce individualized vaccines to fight a type of cancer known as follicular lymphoma. While similar vaccines have been grown inside animal cells, researchers say this new process is quicker and less expensive, and could carry less risk to the patient, as animal cells might hold unknown viruses [BBC News].
In the new technique, researchers took biopsies from each lymphoma patient and isolated the gene that produces tumor-fighting antibodies, which is slightly different in each person. In each case, they then used a genetically engineered tobacco virus to bring the gene into a tobacco plant, where the plant responded by turning out antibodies. One week later the tobacco leaves were picked and ground into pulp, and the antibodies were extracted. These antibodies are put into a patient newly-diagnosed with the disease, to “prime” the body’s immune system to attack any cell carrying them. If successful, this would mean the body would then recognise and destroy the lymphoma cells [BBC News].