Posts Tagged science

Can video gaming help save lives?

Gamers get a bad rep in society (no seriously, we did a panel on it at QED) but every year gamers of all kinds get together to do something brilliant: Extra Life. What is Extra Life? It’s a fundraising event started by gamers back in 2008 which has raised over $40 million for children’s hospitals. Each year from November 3rd people all over the world stream marathons of games of all kinds: from video games to Dungeons and Dragons. They do it not for prestige or fake internet points, but to fund lifesaving treatments for sick kids.

A blue background with a family (two parents, two kids, two grandparents) playing a board game. Over is white lettering saying "game day is November 3!" and the Extra Life logo with the tagline "play games, heal kids" plus the logo for the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals'"

MSS have never been involved with Extra Life before, but this year more than any other it’s something I feel strongly about so I reached out. Why?

On April 28th a little boy named Alfie Evans passed away from an untreatable, progressive neuro-degenerative disorder. If you’re a layman like me, translation: he was born with a rare genetic disorder that affected his brain and got worse over time. You may have heard of Alfie Evans, probably not for the excellent work of the doctors and nurses who treated him during his 18 month stay in the ICU at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital here in Liverpool, but for the extended legal case between Alfie’s parents and Alder Hey which dominated the news in the early part of this year.

You can read more about the case all over the internet, but it is an unfortunate example of where religious agenda, poor media reporting and pseudoscience can harm not only patients; but hospitals and scientific institutions who become embroiled in their controversy. It is estimated that Alder Hey Children’s Hospital spent over £145,000 in legal fees during the case which concluded that continued life support was ‘unkind and inhumane’, and with pediatric ICU beds costing the NHS around £2000 per day that could amount to an additional £250,000 during the time where Alfie was kept on ventilators against doctors advice.

However, people’s lives are worth more than money: and the most heartbreaking thing about this case was not the NHS funds that could have been used elsewhere but the unnecessary suffering endured by Alfie himself, the exploitation of Alfie’s parents grief and the abuse of Alder Hey staff at the hands of misinformed protesters dubbed ‘Alfies Army’. My thoughts go out to Alfie’s parents, the families of seriously ill children everywhere, and I stand in solidarity with the medical professionals who work bravely and tirelessly each day to do what is objectively best for their patients. Even in the face of hostility from media and misguided public opinion.

A photo of Alder Hey Children's Hospital - the hospital was recently redesigned and rebuilt using ideas from children. Two of the blocks of windows are surrounded by coloured tiling and the roof is curved and sloped.

Alder Hey Children’s Hospital

So this year for Extra Life MSS are kindly donating £250 to Alder Hey, thank you! November 3rd has come and gone, but it’s not too late to join in by donating yourself, or watching and supporting an Extra Life stream to see what all this gamer stuff is about.

A photo of Lana's face. Lana is white with blondish red, straight hair just past her shoulders. She's wearing a black top and smokey dark eye make up. She is looking at the camera and smiling.

Lana Donaghy

Lana Donaghy is a former games developer and professional video gamer: spending years questing through Azeroth, competing with some of the world’s top World of Warcraft players. These days Lana works in software development and is still a devoted gamer who loves esports. If you want to read more of her ramblings and obscure video game jargon or see pictures of her cat you should check out her twitter @lanadonaghy

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All the plastic ever made, still exists – where does it go?

Stories on the environmental impact of plastics, particularly on the marine environment, have been all over the news, of late. Harrowing tales of the impacts on charismatic creatures like whales, sea turtles, seabirds, and even adorable seal pups are regularly published, and a recent BBC documentary showcased the scale of the problem. The attention has helped foster policy momentum, and 2018 has seen the launch of the EU Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, with the aim that all plastics will be recyclable or compostable by 2030, as well as global environmental policy and action. Domestically there have been a range of initiatives, including the UK Plastics Pact, in which businesses, government and NGOs have agreed to a series of ambitious targets by 2025. At the same time, some organisations like the British Plastics Federation, a manufacturing trade body, have argued that plastics are not actually bad for the environment, and that banning single use plastics or requiring the use of alternative plastics could actually harm the environment and people (e.g. through additional carbon emissions). Marine plastics, they argue, are a problem with a foreign source, citing a statistic from a recent Ellen MacArthur Foundation report that 98% of this waste comes from outside the United States and Europe.

Ellen Macarthur Foundation infographic shows that US and Europe only contribute 2% of ocean leakage of plastic

So does this mean that all this action on plastics will have unintended consequences? And can we in Europe and America feel ethically superior, absolving ourselves of responsibility for dealing with this global environmental challenge? That would be really handy considering that plastic seems to be lurking everywhere, even in surprising places like tea bags, clothing and tyres. I covered these issues in a segment on a recent episode of Skeptics with a K, and we also discussed them on a plastics panel at the recent QED conference. But for those keen to do more reading, I am writing a 2-part blog post addressing two key questions: 1) who is responsible for this problem, and 2) what harm do plastics alternatives cause? Today I will focus on responsibility.

A sketch by @Kemp_Matt of the QED panel: Re-use of Refuse: the facts about single use plastics

A sketch by Matt Kemp of the QED panel: Re-use of Refuse: the facts about single use plastics

Whose leakage?

Most marine plastics pollution originates on land. Estimates of how much plastic waste is produced outside of the US and EU as a proportion vary, but it is true that most of the countries with mismanaged plastics waste are outside of these areas (although the US is #20 of the top 20). A paper in Science and research by the Ocean Conservancy found that China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are dumping more plastic into oceans than the rest of the world combined (55-60%).  While that may seem to support the idea that we don’t have responsibility, these statistics hide a few important issues.

That number above is known as “leakage”, a term referring to unmanaged plastics waste that reaches the ocean. It would not differentiate between domestically generated waste and waste imported from other countries. In reality, those “leakage” numbers could also include US and EU waste. A recent article in Science Advances, states that OECD countries have been exporting 70% of their plastics waste to China, with an estimated 45% of all plastics recycling being imported by China since 1992. Not all of that gets recycled, and much of it actually contributes to that leakage. That’s because China is not just the top country for plastic recycling, but also top of the global list for mismanaging their plastic waste. But in 2017 they passed their “National Sword Policy”, which bans imports of plastics waste, as well as tightening up the rules on permissible levels of contamination in recycling imports. While it is too early for us to know the impact of this ban, it is reportedly causing waste to pile up in the US and so far it seems Europe and America are instead exporting waste to other countries with high leakage rates. It may be that this will lead to more innovation and better strategies to deal with waste within our own borders. But for now, when we refer to this waste as their leakage, we are neglecting the fact that we are partially responsible for it. This does not mean that we shouldn’t advocate (and support) improvements in waste management in countries with high levels of leakage, but it does suggest that we have an ethical obligation to act domestically as well.

Whose responsibility?

Responsibility for the plastics pollution problem is not just about leakage, but also about consumption, both historic and contemporary. The best estimate we have so far, from research in the journal Science Advances, is that only 9% of the plastics have been recycled since mass production began 60 years ago. Plastics can take hundreds of years to degrade, so that means all of the plastic that has been made still exists. Nearly all the plastics you have ever used still exist in some form, which is a sobering thought, really.

There is also a massive discrepancy between per capita plastic waste generation. The average European person produces 31 kg of plastic waste per year according to Eurostat [insert infographic]. This dwarfs plastic waste generation rates for the countries where leakage rates are high, but where consumption is low and per capita waste generation may be just 10% of the average American or European. As the infographic from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation earlier demonstrates, the US and Europe are home to the headquarters of the vast majority of companies producing consumer goods for which these plastics are made.

An infographic from Eurostat and statista charts shows that EU citizens generate between 30 and 39kg plastic waste per year in almost all EU countries

Ultimately, I think an adaptation of the “common but differentiated responsibility” principle is relevant here. This principle is based on notions of fairness and has been used since the dawn of global climate change policy. It recognises that historic and cumulative emissions disproportionately came from a small handful of countries, acknowledges that the world’s most developed economies have more resources to combat climate change, and encourages the world’s poorest countries to focus first on poverty eradication.

Policy Solutions

When it comes to plastics, this doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything about the ongoing problems with leakage in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, and we have already seen China and other countries taking action. Fostering circular economies in these countries can also bring benefits to per capita GDP and living conditions in those countries. This is where the “common” aspect of this principle comes in.

While in Asia the focus should be on improved waste management infrastructure and practices, in Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand, the solutions will need to focused on reduced consumption and alternatives to conventional plastics. There is plenty of research on “willingness to pay” that suggests consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that are more sustainable or even pay a tax on single use plastics. In the UK, the Treasury found that there is high support for taxing single use plastics at the point of sale, and there are plans to complement tax reform with changes to manufacturing.

Bans of specific products such as straws are already happening and spreading across the globe. Bans have already been flagged as problematic for disabled people. We also need to be careful not to create a black market, as happened with plastic bags in Rwanda or in relation to other products, like incandescent bulbs. It’s important to point out that no one is actually calling for the ban of all plastics. One suggestion from a consortium of environmental groups on the Treasury’s consultation was that policy interventions be targeted according to a hierarchy considering the necessity of the product and the necessity of including plastic. Their categories were “pointless”, “replaceable”, “problem”, “harder to replace” and “essential”. There can also be exemption for certain uses and/or for certain groups.

Plastics are arguably among the most transformative innovations of the 20th century; and despite their potential ills, they have also made our lives better in many ways. They are also probably here to stay. The question now is how we reduce their use, reduce the harm caused by their production and disposal, provide viable alternatives, and ultimately transition to a circular economy. In my next blog post on the topic, I will turn to the question of alternatives and whether their use could have unintended consequences.

 

Dr Sarah Clement

Sarah is a faculty member in the Department of Geography and Planning within the School of Environmental Science at the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on environmental governance, science-based policy, and nature-based solutions. She is particularly interested in how reforming policy and practice can enable better ecological, socio-economic, and democratic outcomes, particularly during periods of rapid environmental and social change.  Sarah has worked in the field of environmental science and policy for 16 years as an environmental consultant, researcher, and environmental policy advisor in Australia, the UK, and the USA. She is also on the board of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. She spends most of her spare time hiking in nature, travelling, lifting heavy things, adoring her cat, and documenting all of these in pictures. She tweets as @DrSarahClement, and posts said pictures on IG @umsfromumbridge.

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Is your vagina depressed?

Are you femme presenting? Do you sometimes wish more people would have more of an opinion on how you have sex? How often you have sex? How you should behave when you don’t want to have sex? How often you should want sex? How your body behaves when you do/don’t have sex? Whether your experience of sex is real? What ‘real’ sex is and who ‘real’ sex happens with?

Well, you’re in luck! Because over the last year and a half the British media have been telling us all about a “study” which says if you’re not having “enough” sex, your vagina (if you have one) will get depressed and “atrophy”.

Woman's head and shoulders from behind, in grayscale. Her head is dropped down.

As far as I can tell, this all started a little over a year ago when The Sun wrote this headline:

SORE POINT Do you have a ‘depressed’ vagina? This could be why sex is SO painful (and it’s nothing to do with an STI)”. The story resurfaced just a few weeks ago when Higher Perspectives said “New Research Says Lack Of Sex Makes Your Vagina Depressed

The Higher Perspectives article begins “We all know that a healthy sex life keeps our immune system humming, lessens pain and relieves stress. It makes for a happier life. But what happens when we don’t have a sex?”. The article goes on to explain that “research” shows that “Sexual abstinence can make our vagina depressed and this can also lead to vaginal atrophy.”

Do they link to this research? Well, no. And having a look on Pubmed shows no sign of any such research in existence. But they said their claims were “backed in science” it so it must be true, right?

Digging a little deeper, it becomes clear that the media – including The Sun, Maxim, The New York Post and Women’s Health Magazine seem to think a diagnosis of vulvodynia is a synonym for vaginal depression. The Sun even claims that vaginal atrophy is “The horrifying thing that can happen to your vagina if you don’t have enough sex” – again, this begs the question of where they get this claim that a lack of sex can cause vaginal atrophy – and again, this news outlet does not link a reliable source to support the claim.

Two stormtrooper lego figures holding hands stood in front of a sunset over water

They do however, mention that Louise Mazanti, a “sex therapist” from London, has just released a book…More on Louise Mazanti later.

Vulvodynia ≠ vaginal depression

The idea that vulvodynia and vaginal depression are equivalent terms, seems to come from an episode of Sex and the City where Charlotte is diagnosed with the condition (the real one, not the media hyperbole one). She remarks that her doctor prescribed her antidepressants and it’s “hilariously” questioned if her vagina is depressed.

Nearly ten years after Sex and the City finished broadcasting, we collectively know so little about vulvodynia that this misnomer seems to have stuck.

And yet vulvodynia is a significant diagnosis that affects a huge proportion of people with vaginas at some point in their lives.a stethoscope and sphygmomanometer on a white surface

Simply put, vulvodynia is chronic pain (lasting 3 months or more) of the vulvar area. Vulvodynia is a tricky condition to treat, as with many chronic pain conditions, and requires collaboration between doctor and patient to find the right treatment.

One treatment option is a tricyclic antidepressant.

This is where the confusion starts – but antidepressants used in this way are prescribed in far lower doses than required for an antidepressant effect. These drugs are actually used because in low doses they act as pain modifiers. The comparison of vulvodynia to depression is completely inaccurate.

Having “enough” sex?

For some people with vulvodynia, penetrative sex is not possible. Suggesting women have more sex to solve all their medical problems, can actually cause harm far more than it helps. We know that our society tends to view penis in vagina sex as the only “real” sex. The consequences of this are significant – sex between two women is dismissed, oral and digital forms of sex are considered “foreplay” and there is a huge pressure placed onto the idea of “virginity”. And for people with the forms of vulvodynia that make penetration very difficult, this idea can have a damaging effect on their mental health. Across our society “women” are expected to “provide” for their “men” and this includes having sex frequently (but not too frequently). It is easy for people with vulval pain to feel dysfunctional and that can be damaging to their mental wellbeing – not helped when a lack of libido is often termed “female sexual dysfunction” but that’s a rant for another day.

two women holding hands in a field

Vaginal atrophy

These latest stories are particularly keen to mention frequency of (penetrative) sex being a preventative for vaginal atrophy (a thinning of the vaginal walls which the NHS website refers to as vaginal dryness). They claim this is founded in science but give no supporting evidence of this. Vaginal atrophy does happen – but it is scientifically understood to be a response to changes in hormone levels, and therefore is most common during and after the menopause. There is very little a person can do to control it and it is not as “horrifying” as The Sun claims – sexual frequency might enhance blood flow to the area to help delay or prevent this but that is not dependent on penis in vagina penetration. Using dilators, dildos, vibrators or manual penetration and stimulation will help just as well.

Louise Mazanti

So, if there’s no obvious “new” study which triggers this year’s media interest in our sexual habits, why else might this be “newsworthy”?

Perhaps it’s all to do with a new book that Louise Mazanti published earlier this year titled “Real Sex: Why Everything you Learned about Sex is Wrong” alongside her husband Mike Lousada.

Mike was an investment banker before his spiritual awakening led him to retrain as a counsellor and “sexologist” while Louise was a Professor in art and design before her own spiritual awakening and retraining in sex therapy. They both see clients in London and give talks and write books together and separately.

Louise is touted as an expert sex therapist in a number of articles discussing vulvodynia. On her webpage about her “expertise” is the claim that “Louise holds a strong energetic field for you to start exploring your own inner truth, and she can guide you into states of expansion that will give you a new direction in life.”. Louise is “trained in energy psychology [and] esoteric wisdom”.

And apparently that’s good enough to be an expert on the medical health of the vagina, or at least that seems to be the opinion of the media who think vaginal depression is a synonym for vulvodynia.

Read more about vulvodynia:

 

Dr Alice Howarth, PhD

Alice is a cell biologist and cancer researcher who works in the Institute of Translational Medicine at the University of Liverpool. She is the Treasurer of the Merseyside Skeptics Society and co-hosts the popular sceptical podcast Skeptics with a K. In her free time she Instagrams photos of her ridiculous dog, Lupin and watches Buffy the Vampire Slayer ad infinitum. Find her at DrAlice.blog or @AliceEmmaLouise on social media.

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Arsenic cures cancer!

Last week The Daily Mail boldly asked “Could arsenic be a miracle cure for cancer? Scientists say it had astonishing results when added to a leukemia drug”. It’s worth pointing out here, that even in the subheading bullet points the Mail Online downplayed their excitement a little, de-escalating from arsenic being a potential “miracle cure” to “makes chemotherapy more effective”.

Headline from the Mail Online reading "Could arsenic be a miracle cure for cancer? Scientists say it had astonishing results when added to a leukemia drug"

The Mail Online wasn’t the only one to cover this story. Medical News Today headlined “Poison or cure? Arsenic can help treat cancer, study finds” while Science Daily said “Arsenic in combination with an existing drug could combat cancer – An ancient medicine shows new promise” and Harvard Magazine asked “Is Arsenic a Key Ingredient in the Battle Against Cancer?”. So, the Mail Online seem to be in good company in reporting this apparently exciting news.

New use for a traditional medicine?

One thing all of these stories had in common was the detailing of arsenic in traditional Chinese medicine. Harvard Magazine quoted study author Kun Ping Lu: “In Chinese traditional medicine, “Arsenic has been used for thousands of years,” said Lu. “Its oxidized form is the active ingredient” for a concoction the Chinese called “magic bullet,” which was used to treat a specific kind of leukemia, APL”.

Arsenic, in fact, has been claimed to treat a whole range of diseases throughout history – in Ancient Greek times it was used to treat ulcers and in Chinese Traditional Medicine it’s been used for over 2000 years. Arsenic was once added to Indian Ayurvedic herbal remedies and when Paracelsus, an Italian Professor of Medicine from the 1500s was skeptical of the old methods of balancing humours to treat disease, he introduced arsenic as an alternative. Paracelsus, in fact, stumbled across a genuine therapeutic action of arsenic in its ability to treat syphilis – an indication for which arsenic was used well into the 20th Century until antibiotics came along.

an open brown medicine bottle laying on its side containing a white powder and labelled "acid arsenic"

But arsenic has not only been a persistent element in traditional medicine, it has also been used to treat cancer – first, to treat chronic myeloid leukaemia in the 1930s and later to treat acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL). Arsenic trioxide (ATO) has been used to treat APL since its approval in 1995.

The study

The study the Mail Online et al. referenced was summarised in Nature Communications earlier this year in an article titled “Arsenic targets Pin1 and cooperates with retinoic acid to inhibit cancer-driving pathways and tumor-initiating cells”. The study is apparently based on three things:

  • A protein called Pin1 is important in cancer
  • Arsenic trioxide (ATO) is a treatment for cancer
  • All-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA) inhibits Pin1

A good introduction to any peer-reviewed article will use scientific literature to convince you that the question the researchers have asked is a valid one and set their work within the context of what is known in the field. At first glance, this article is particularly industrious in the effort to convince the reader on the three areas above. They strongly stress that “Pin1 is a critical “driver” and a unique drug target in cancer. Pin1 is hyperactivated in most human cancers and correlates with poor clinical outcome”.

ATO and leukaemia

ATO has been approved for use in a certain kind of leukaemia called acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL) for many years and is successfully used in combination with ATRA in patients with APL. There are very few alternative treatments for this form of leukaemia and ATO combined with ATRA has low toxicity.

The underlying mechanism of this treatment is down to the existence of a protein called PML-RARα which causes APL. PML-RARα doesn’t exist in normal conditions however patients with APL have a genetic mutation which produces this fusion of the genes for two individual proteins PML and RARα – this generates the fusion protein, PML-RARα. It doesn’t really matter what PML-RARα does, only that it drives APL and it doesn’t exist outside of disease. Studies have shown that ATO binds to the PML part of this fusion protein and degrades it.

an image taken from one of the study figures showing the chemical structure of Pin1 and the chemical structure of ATO - the two are shown overlapping to indicate where ATO binds in Pin1

The chemical structure of Pin1 is shown with ATO (I) sitting within in apparent binding pocket on the protein. This image is adapted from the paper.

ATO and Pin1

But the authors of this study were interested in the effect of arsenic on a completely different protein – Pin1.

They don’t really explain why they thought arsenic might remove Pin1 in cancer cells. They used a technique to identify ATRA as a drug of interest, but it seems like they only looked at ATO because it’s already used in combination with ATRA.

In their study the authors find that treating cancer cells with arsenic in the lab reduces the levels of Pin1. They also show that ATO and ATRA combined, reduce cancer cell growth and reduce tumour size in mice. And they go some way towards explaining the mechanism behind these interactions and discounting alternative explanations for their findings.

In many ways, it’s a solid paper.

So why am I skeptical?

There are a few reasons, though, to be wary of the findings in this paper and the way it has been presented. Firstly, it’s the particularly hyped up nature of the story – arsenic has been used to treat leukaemia since the mid-1990s, this isn’t really news. But it does make me wonder if there’s a particular reason this article might be so strongly endorsed.

The authors also don’t really explain why they picked arsenic in the first place other than they’re interested in ATRA and Pin1… In fact they’re very, very interested in Pin1.

They argue “that Pin1 is a critical “driver” and a unique drug target in cancer” – which is particularly interesting because as a cancer researcher with a PhD in cancer cell biology, I’ve never even heard of this protein. They reference three papers to support their claim but two of them are from the group’s own lab – the final paper they reference, an article titled “Pin1 in cancer” is from a separate source. This unrelated (and therefore, unbiased to some degree) article argues that Pin1 is hyperactivated in around 10% of all cancers. That number is pretty high, but it is certainly not enough to say that Pin1 is a “critical driver” in “most human cancers”.

So why are the authors so keen on Pin1? The suggestion that it’s a “unique drug target” might give us a clue.

five stacks of silver coins increasing in height from left to right

At the end of the article is the heading “Competing interests” under which is stated “K.P.L. and X.Z.Z. are inventors of Pin1 technology, which was licensed by BIDMC to Pinteon Therapeutics. Both Dr. Lu and Dr. Zhou own equity in, and consult for, Pinteon. Their interests were reviewed and are managed by BIDMC in accordance with its conflict of interest policy. The remaining authors declare no competing interests.”

Pinteon Therapeutics is a “private venture backed biotechnology company focused on the discovery and development of breakthrough therapeutics targeting Pin1” and we can therefore assume that this company will make money from the generation of Pin1 inhibitors that can be used to treat cancer.

Of course, Pin1 inhibition might well make for an interesting cancer target – there’s no disputing that – but its promise might well be overstated both in this article and in the media coverage of the article.

Me? I’m suspending judgement until we see more compelling evidence.

 

Dr Alice Howarth, PhD

Alice is a cell biologist and cancer researcher who works in the Institute of Translational Medicine at the University of Liverpool. She is the Treasurer of the Merseyside Skeptics Society and co-hosts the popular sceptical podcast Skeptics with a K. In her free time she Instagrams photos of her ridiculous dog, Lupin and watches Buffy the Vampire Slayer ad infinitum. Find her at DrAlice.blog or @AliceEmmaLouise on social media.

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Green is Good?

You may have heard that exposure to nature can improve your health*. There are also many trends floating around the Internet that claim to leverage the benefits of nature to improve your physical and mental health. While proponents claim to be driven by evidence, is there really evidence that nature can improve your health? And if so, is it really necessary to reorganise your daily life, drive out to the wilderness, and/or buy expensive accoutrements in order to leverage the benefits?

Popular Claims

Among the most prominent trends is earthing or grounding, a practice popularised by a variety of holistic health devotees, from nature-loving vegans and Ayurvedic enthusiasts to paleo and primal dieters and Silicon valley biohackers. The trend is based on the idea that the earth has a negative charge; but that modern life bombards us with positive charges, creating an imbalance and reducing our ability to combat free radicals. The benefits of grounding touted by advocates are vast, from reducing jetlag to balancing hormones and normalising blood pressure.

A large field under a blue almost cloudless sky

At its most basic, grounding advocates suggest we simply spend more time walking outside on soil and grass in bare feet; but many advocates also promote grounding mats, blankets, shoes, sheets, bags, and a variety of other devices to counteract modern life and provide ready (and overnight!) access to the benefits of the earth through an electrical charge. Most of these sites enthusiastically link to studies, but any effects seen in these small studies are miniscule and potentially the results of design flaws, as described in a recent segment of Skeptics with a K.

Forest bathing is an older cousin of grounding, referring to the Japanese practice of using your senses to soak in the forest atmosphere. Increasingly popular outside of Japan, it has a small number of researchers who suggest it is not only a way to combat the psychological stresses of increasingly urban life but also a way to combat cancer, lower blood pressure, and boost immune function. Although one would think this is a fairly solitary endeavour, as with many holistic practices, its Western reinterpretation includes guided group visits and sometimes even hugging and speaking to trees.People walking along a footpath surrounded by trees

Understanding the connections between exposure to nature and human health

For most people, the idea of sleeping on a specially designed electrical mat and wandering around barefoot in forests are beyond what they are willing to do for health. Access to nature can also be challenging for city dwellers, and in most developed countries, more than 75% of the population lives in urban areas. In the UK that number is over 90%. While cities offer many benefits, urbanisation increases the incidence of a host of health problems and associated socio-economic costs. For these reasons, it’s perhaps more helpful to investigate what we actually know about urban green space and human health, to see if there are measurable benefits.

A tarmac road lined with trees

The evidence

A considerable body of research is developing, suggesting positive impacts of being in, and leaving near, green space. The amount of green space seems more important for perceived health than the amount of urbanisation, although certain groups may benefit more.

The benefits

Exposure to green spaces has been shown to relieve stress and promote relaxation, and has positive impacts on affect and reducing sadness, which improve cardiovascular disease outcomes and all-cause mortality. The effect may be amplified by the fact that people prefer green spaces for physical activity, making exercise and active forms of transport more attractive. Some studies have shown decreases in salivary cortisol and reduced blood pressure, with women potentially more negatively affected by lack of green space. Although some reviews have noted this effect is not consistent across studies.

Increasingly studies are looking at the dose of nature that we actually need to experience these benefits.  Most studies suggest that the required dose is likely relatively small (perhaps only 5-10 minutes on a given day). Benefits are evident whether you are merely looking at nature or exercising in it, although the latter, perhaps understandably, offers benefits more quickly. Lower rates of blood pressure and depression have been documented from just 30 minutes in green space per week. The shape of the dose-response curve is still in question.

A footpath beneath lots of trees with sunlight shining through

Countering harm

It is also worth noting that green space can contribute to reducing air pollution, which is a major contributor to poor human health outcomes. This effect is direct, in that vegetation can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce pollutants such as particulates (PM10), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), and nitrogen and sulphur oxides (NOx and SOx). Green space makes walking and cycling more attractive. This contributes not only to improving air quality via reduced vehicle use, but the increased physical activity has associated health benefits.

Green space can also reduce the urban heat island (UHI) effect, wherein cities are hotter than surrounding areas because of the prevalence of dark surfaces such as asphalt and concrete. UHI also contributes to poor air and water quality. By lessening this effect, green spaces can improve the urban environment, decrease health impacts of heat and even reduce mortality from heat waves.

Caveats within the literature

There is a lot of academic literature focusing on the connections between human health and urban green space**. This literature is both theoretical and empirical, and methods are a mixed bag. For example:

  • Self-reported data from individuals on perceived improvements in health (usually gathered via questionnaires)
  • Correlations between access to green space and population-level data
  • Direct measurements of key indicators (e.g. blood pressure, heart rate, salivary cortisol) either linked to exposure or accessibility of green space.

What constitutes health varies across studies, with the first two categories often adopting a fairly broad definition that includes physical health as well as mental health (especially anxiety and depression) and broader indicators such as happiness, life satisfaction, and social cohesion.

A body of water with a bridge in the background and trees on either side

As with all social and health research in the “real world”, teasing out causal relationships is difficult. Confounding factors are controlled for, to an extent, but there are so many causal factors that complicate the issue. For example, people prefer to exercise in green space, but green space tends to be more scarce and of lower quality in areas with multiple social, economic, and health deprivations. However increasing green space (and improving its quality, addressing personal safety issues, etc.) can also improve these indicators.

Conclusion

Spending more time in green areas, whether forests urban parks, is likely to offer you some health benefits and encourage you to be more active. The great news is that it needn’t take much of your time, and no special mats, shoes, blankets, or spiritual guides are required. Green spaces also address some of the environmental problems in urban areas, providing benefits for both people and nature.

Dr Sarah Clement standing in front of a wall and smilingDr Sarah Clement

Sarah is a faculty member in the Department of Geography and Planning within the School of Environmental Science at the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on environmental governance, science-based policy, and nature-based solutions. She is particularly interested in how reforming policy and practice can enable better ecological, socio-economic, and democratic outcomes, particularly during periods of rapid environmental and social change.  Sarah has worked in the field of environmental science and policy for 16 years as an environmental consultant, researcher, and environmental policy advisor in Australia, the UK, and the USA. She is also on the board of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. She spends most of her spare time hiking in nature, travelling, lifting heavy things, adoring her cat, and documenting all of these in pictures. She tweets as @DrSarahClement, and posts said pictures on IG @umsfromumbridge.

 

Footnotes:

* The most widely used definition of ‘health’ is from the World Health Organisation: ‘physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. Operationalising and measuring this concept is a major challenge that leads to the variety of measures discussed here.

** Also called “green infrastructure” and “nature based solutions” in the literature and public policy. To complicate matters, “blue infrastructure” (i.e. water) is often, but not always, embedded in these terms.

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Gene edited crops arrive in the UK!

The observant skeptic might have noticed a brief flurry of media activity at the end of May that discussed a field trial of gene edited crops that is being conducted at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire (1, 2).

You might think, “So what”? There have been loads of field trials on genetically modified crops over the years, why is this news?

Not so, this trial is different as the devil is in its details. This is a trial of both genetically modified (GM) crops AND a trial of gene edited (GE) crops.

This is the first UK field trial of GE crops so although the difference might seem minor it could be extremely important for the future of scientific research and crop improvement in the UK and throughout Europe.

In general, GM involves the addition of foreign genes to your crop of interest. Classically this has included genes from bacteria that confer herbicide or insect resistance. However more recently has included the production of Golden Rice (3) and purple tomatoes (4) both of which have potential health benefits.

All skeptics will know that the debate surrounding the use of GM has been extremely controversial and currently the growth of these crops is prevented throughout the EU. The regulation of these crops is complex but unfortunately in the court of public opinion the positive case for the use of GM has been mostly lost due to the activity of those organisations that fundamentally oppose this technology.

Gene Editing is similar to breeding…but better.

GE is subtly but importantly different to GM. This technique allows the precise modification of genes that are already in the organism without the long term addition of a foreign gene (5). In turn this could alter some growth attribute of the plant. This allows scientists to use their knowledge of plant biology to predict how this alteration will alter crop growth, test it in the lab before applying for a field trial license if the results look good.

Importantly GE is a modern cousin of mutagenesis, a process that has been the genetic basis of conventional breeding throughout the history of agriculture. Over millennia humans have selected new crop varieties that are more nutritious or better suited to different growth conditions, the results of which is the food we eat every day.

Conventional breeding relies on random mutagenesis that ultimately takes many years to develop new varieties. GE allows scientists to target these specific mutations to improve crop growth and therefore remove the years that breeding can take. Importantly the end-products of GE are essentially identical to the products of conventional breeding so why should they be regulated differently?

A figure depicting the difference between genetic modification and genome editing as described in the text

The newly approved field trial at Rothamsted is really a test-case for the regulation of GE crops. The scientists have produced varieties of the potential oil crop Camelina sativa that will allow them to better understand lipid metabolism. At this time the crops won’t be used for food or feed but critically the UK Government Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) has determined that this GE crop does not need to be regulated like GM crops, mostly because it contains NO foreign DNA (6).

This indicates that in future ACRE will regulate GE crops differently to GM crops and therefore might offer future opportunities for scientists and breeders to develop potentially useful crop varieties.

Unsurprisingly the EU is in regulatory limbo

This decision comes in the light of continued EU delays in a ruling that will decide the fate for the growth of GE crops across Europe. Recently there have been promising noises coming from the EU but as yet this decision has not appeared (7). The decision by ACRE shows that, like Brazil, Argentina, Sweden and the USA (8), the UK has a progressive and evidence-based position for the use of GE crops and is potentially great news for scientific research.

Skeptics: get the facts!

Over the coming months I predict that we will hear plenty about the debate about GE crops so I urge skeptics to arm themselves with facts about the differences between GM and GE. This will allow us to inform our family, friends and colleagues about the benefits of GE and that it really uses the same technique as conventional breeding but is just much cheaper, quicker and more precise!

Promising times ahead for the UK plant science community.

 

Dr Geraint Parry, PhD

Geraint is the national coordinator for GARNet, which is a network that supports uptake of new technologies and knowledge dissemination amongst UK and international plant scientists. He is the science communication manager of the EU INDEPTH COST Action (https://www.brookes.ac.uk/indepth/) as well as being the secretary for the Multinational Arabidopsis Steering Committee. He tweets for GARNet from @GARNetweets and personally @liverpoolplants

 

 

(1)- https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/news/where-gm-meets-ge

(2)- https://t.co/G77fhPCc9S

(3)- http://www.isaaa.org/kc/cropbiotechupdate/article/default.asp?ID=16278

(4)- http://www.norfolkplantsciences.com/

(5)- The process of gene editing does involve the addition of a foreign gene but is removed during preparation for field trials.

(6)- https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/acre-advice-application-for-a-trial-of-gm-camelina-18r0801

(7)- https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/articles/edits-mutations-and-gm

(8)- https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/apr/07/gene-editing-ruling-crops-plants

 

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