Early April saw some unusually smoggy days across much of Western Europe, resulting in widespread media attention to air pollution.
(See, for example, here, here and here.) On one day, air quality in some parts of London was worse than in Beijing. Further attention has been drawn to the issue by a number of recent official reports, including one from the World Health Organisation, which has declared that air pollution is now the world’s biggest single environmental threat to health.
As has been noted, media coverage can give a misleading picture of the health risks of air pollution. Coverage tends to focus on short-term peaks, such as those seen recently in Western Europe, but the health risks of air pollution are primarily related to long term exposure, and show no ’safe threshold’ effect. Elevated baseline levels of pollution are thus more of a problem than occasional peaks.
There’s another important aspect of air pollution that often goes unnoticed; small geographical differences can have a marked effect on exposure to air pollution and thus on risk of adverse health effects. For example, living near a busy road appears to substantially increase air pollution-related mortality. A study published last year in the Lancet (press summary here) investigated the effects of very local differences in air quality on mortality by pooling 22 European cohort studies. The investigators found that an increase in average annual fine particulate (PM2.5) exposure of 5 µg/m3 was associated with a 7% increase in the risk of dying from all natural causes. This is approximately the difference between living on a busy urban road and living in a traffic-free area. The finding was robust in the face of correction for various possible confounding factors. Continue reading
This week, I’ve been thinking about smoking. Full disclosure: My name is Jim and I am a smoker. I have smoked for nearly a decade now – been since around 2005 – and I only smoke menthol cigarettes. I am addicted to the sweet menthol smoke, where that touch of red fire at the end of a white stick seems so perfectly suited to almost any occasion from celebration to commiseration. I give up on average for a month or two a year, every year. I always come back, though. The reason I say this is to highlight that I am by no means one of these dour-faced moralizers, condemning smokers for their ‘filthy habit’. Like a snot-nosed child, it may be filthy, but it’s my filthy habit. Most efforts to encourage people against smoking focus on the idea that smoking is personally damaging: it causes illness and death, it costs a lot of money, it harms others, it litters the environment, and so on. This week, however, I’ve been thinking about whether the real concern is that smoking might be morally wrong. (NB: I’m discussing where whether it is morally wrong, not whether it should be legally banned or whether people should have the ‘right’ to smoke – these are distinct questions). Continue reading
Love drugs and science reporting in the media: Setting the record straight
Love. It makes the world go round. It is the reason we have survived as a species. It is the subject of our art, literature, and music—and it is largely the product of chemical reactions within the brain.
No wonder science is starting to unravel the ways in which we can influence it, and perhaps even control it.
Just as Darwin’s finding that we are descended from apes shocked people in the nineteenth century, so people will be shocked to find that our most lofty social ideal is something we share with our mammalian cousins and which is the subject of scientific scrutiny and even chemistry-book manipulation.
In 2008, two of us (Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg) published an article in the journal Neuroethics on the topic of “love drugs” – a term we use to refer to pharmacological interventions based on existing and future bio-technologies that could work to strengthen the bond between romantic partners. All three of us have an article just published in the journal Philosophy & Technology in which we build upon that earlier work. Interested readers will take the time to study those papers in full, but we have a feeling that much of the population will stop at a handful of media reports that have recently summarized our ideas, including at least one article that we think has the potential to mislead. Let us set the record straight.
This week is ‘Sustainable Fish Week’ at Ghent University in Belgium. All fish on the university restaurants’ menus come from sustainable fisheries or fish farms (with practices that can be maintained without reducing the ability of the target fish to maintain its population and without threatening other species within the ecosystem, for example, by removing their food source, accidentally catching and killing them, or damaging their habitat). Tuna sandwiches will be taken off the menu and a sustainable alternative will be provided instead. Those who take their meal at a university restaurant will receive a free ‘fish guide’ with helpful information for making responsible fish choices at home. Those with strong stomachs may also enjoy the opportunity to taste jellyfish at the university restaurants. The message is that, if we continue to eat unsustainable fish, then soon jellyfish will be the only alternative to fish left on the menu.
Prof Mark Post, of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, yesterday announced the world’s first test tube hamburger would be served up in October. Heston Blumenthal, the experimental chef, will cook the patty grown in a lab from a cow’s stem cells. Each portion will cost £220,000, but Prof Post hopes if the burger is a success he can develop the technology on an industrial scale.
“This is meat produced without the cruelty, carbon footprint or waste of resources,” said Alistair Currie, a spokesman for the vegan campaign group.
“It’s a hugely beneficial development for animals. We welcome this development, which shows this is a viable idea.”
He added the charity had no ethical objections to the fact that the test-tube patty will technically be a meat product.
He said: “Peta [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] has no objection to the eating of meat. Peta objects to the killing of animals and their exploitation. I personally don’t fancy eating this, but if other people do that’s fine.”
Even though Mr Currie doesn’t fancy eating Frankenmeat, he has a moral obligation to do so. It is not just other people who should eat this meat, vegans also have a moral obligation to eat it. Here is why.
Can science tell us how chefs should treat lobsters? The Independent this week implies it can. It seems that this is important to diners who want reassurance that their dinner has not been killed in a “barbaric” manner.
Science may of course discover the quickest or easiest method of killing. Norwegian researchers in particular have dedicated significant time to this research. Of methods including ice, nitrogen gas, freezing, gradual or rapid heating, piercing of ganglia, salt baths and carbon dioxide gas, apparently electricity is best. A commercial product, “Crustastun” offers the ability to replicate this in the kitchen. However, the retail cost of £2,500, puts this out of the reach of all but the richest, most gadget obsessed or humanitarian seafood lovers. But there is a more basic question: do lobsters really feel pain?
by Alexandre Erler
In a provocative piece for the New York Times, Jeff McMahan remarks that cruelty pervades the natural world: he stresses the vast amount of suffering and the violent deaths inflicted by predators on their innocent victims. He then invites us to consider a daring way of preventing such suffering and deaths: “Suppose that we could arrange the gradual extinction of carnivorous species, replacing them with new herbivorous ones. Or suppose that we could intervene genetically, so that currently carnivorous species would gradually evolve into herbivorous ones, thereby fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy. If we could bring about the end of predation by one or the other of these means at little cost to ourselves, ought we to do it?” McMahan’s conclusion, which he describes himself as “heretical”, is that we do have a moral reason to desire the extinction of carnivorous species, and that it would be good to bring about their extinction if this could be done “without ecological upheaval involving more harm than would be prevented by the end of predation”.
Largest oil spill in U.S. history continues to devastate
Gulf wildlife while the press and independent scientists are continually denied access to
spill site and surrounding beaches.
by Stephanie Malik
On April 20 a wellhead on the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling
platform blew out in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 40 miles southeast of the
Louisiana coastline. What BP had initially claimed would be a spill with
“minimal impact”, 69 days later now constitutes the largest offshore oil spill
in U.S. history. Today the well is conservatively estimated to be leaking at a
rate of 1,900,000–3,000,000 litres per day—though several expert estimates
based on footage of the spill suggest the actual rate is more likely to be 3 to
5 times higher than this. The unusually wide disparity in expert estimates is
due to the fact that BP has continually denied the requests of a number of independent
scientists to set up instruments on the ocean floor that could measure the rate
of the leak more accurately. “The answer is ‘no’ to that,” a BP spokesman, Tom
Mueller, said earlier this month. “We’re not going to take any extra efforts
now to calculate flow there at this point. It’s not relevant to the response
effort, and it might even detract from the response effort.”
Professor John Harris wonders Who’s afraid
of a synthetic human? in the Times. He argues we should support
the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill because it will help us develop
effective therapies and enhance ourselves. Science is about bettering our lot,
after all. In particular, he says, synthetic biology may help us avoid going
extinct due to our vulnerabilities and instead enable us to choose (or become)
our successors as a species.
Many people become confused by the
possibility of a posthuman future. The traditional view of the future is a
stark one: either humanity extinct, or humans roughly as they are today. The
posthuman options would be that we either change ourselves so radically that
the resulting species is so fundamentally different from humanity that we
would regard it as something entirely new, or that we create some kind of independent
beings that continue our culture even as traditional humanity retires from the
forefront (hopefully as proud parents of the new beings). The range of possible
options within these scenarios is endless, inviting equally endless and loud
speculation. That tends to distract from the key message of Harris’ essay: we
are leaving the realm of natural evolution and entering what he calls a realm
of enhancement evolution.
What are you allowed to do to plants? At least in Switzerland you are not allowed to do research that deeply offend the dignity of plants. The Swiss federal Gene Technology Law stipulates that any scientific research should respect the "dignity of creation". All plant biotechnology grant applications must now state how they take plant dignity into consideration, confusing researchers. The Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH) have issued some guidelines (pdf) which make the situation even more confusing. Neither humans nor plants are likely to be helped.