Health Archives - NatureTalks
83
archive,category,category-health,category-83,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,,select-theme-ver-1.8,vertical_menu_enabled,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-4.3.5,vc_responsive
 

Health

Pushing Daisies

In June and July, one of the large trending articles revolved around a weird botanical phenomena that occurred in the fields surrounding the abandoned Japanese nuclear reactor in Fukushima. Daisies were popping up with weird mutations all over the place — namely, strange conjoined daises that seemed to be frozen in time like a pregnancy gone awry.

The bloggers (inherent irony) and social media warriors had a field day with this information, with some writers even claiming that these flowers are the

latest in the long-list of victims, which have experienced deformation over nuclear disasters.

That was quite a bold statement, but was it justified?

I waited to write an article on this topic because I wanted all of the evidence to pile in. And my patience has been rewarded. In short, yes, there are strange mutations occurring to the plants surrounding the fields of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. But no, there is nothing to worry about. If anything, the virality of this topic is harming the progress and global acceptance of nuclear energy as a proper and viable means of meeting the world’s energetic demands (but I’ll get to that later).

Debunk 1: Radiation levels

Many of the articles showcasing the damaged daisies will happen to include the amount of radiation present in those fields. The original tweet was posted by @San_Kaido, where he stated that the levels of radiation were at 0.5μSv.

Wow, that’s a lot of numbers and symbols, look at that funky letter “u”, it probably means “extreme danger”. Without any context, that’s a common assumption. But because this scientific jargon can be overwhelming to the general populous, scientists have devised an easy way to compare radiation exposure levels to something more common and tasty… a banana.

That’s right, bananas, with their particularly radioactive isotope Potassium-40, deliver ionizing radiation with each mouthful (the fruit that keeps on giving). Scientists have taken note of the average dose in the average banana, and have realized that this can be used to express how dangerous the radiation level of any object is in comparison to a banana. Using what is called the Banana Equivalent Dose (BED), we can see how many bananas it would take to reach a given level of radiation. It sounds silly, but it puts things into perspective.

So how much radiation does a regular 150g banana give off? About 0.1μSv

That is to say, you will receive an equal amount of ionizing radiation from eating 5 bananas as the daisies have received from being in those grasslands. Essentially, this amount is small and negligible. Compared to the amount in those fields, you receive 80x the amount  of radiation flying in a plane, 140x from just living in a brick house, and 14,000x with each chest CT scan — not to mention that the maximum permitted dose for radiation workers in the U.S.A. is 100,000x greater than what is experienced in the crazy daisy meadows. Further still, a reading of 0.5μSv is classified as safe for “medium to long term habitation”.

I guess the obvious (and only) reasonable lesson you can get from this information is that bananas are harmful and scary and should never be eaten.

Only an evil, oppressive, radiation filled fruit could be shaped in such a way.

Debunk 2: Radiation mutation

The next major embellishment put forth was that the leaked radiation from the power plant is what caused these horrible mutations to arise in the poor helpless daisies. I can understand the thought process: mutated flowers + leaked radiation = radiation induced mutation. But all it took was a simple Google search (seemingly as difficult as pulling teeth) to get one’s facts straight.

The name of the condition affecting those daisies is known as “fasciation”, and is characterized by the meristem (growing region of the plant) elongating perpendicularly from its original growth path (which is usually upwards), causing flattened and large flowers to manifest. This particular phenomena arises through a few reasons: from physical damage during early development, a recessive gene (one which Gregor Mendel noted in his pea study), by random genetic mutation, or most likely through a hormonal imbalance that may be induced by a bacterial infection.

This is not some novel trait that has just arisen recently, Gregor Mendel knew about fasciation during his paramount study with peas, and that was back in the 1850s. Even Googling the term gives you pages upon pages of results showing pictures of the funny flowers.

Now, could fasciation have occurred in these daisies as a result of the ionizing radiation causing a de novo (new) mutation? Of course, there is always the possibility of that being the case. However, in my eyes, the odds are stacked against this scenario. Firstly, if radiation was to blame for this, we would have seen the physical effects years ago considering that the Fukushima disaster occurred in 2011 — not just now when radiation levels are akin to one having an oral fixation for bananas. Secondly, as professor Jeffery Doyle of Cornel University states:

this is a pretty common mutation in daisies that I’ve seen sporadically in various places not associated with radioactivity.

That is to say, it would be quite the coincidence that the radiation happened to spur daisies to mutate in a way that we already know occurs, rather than in some completely new fashion.

Sounds like some mighty-strong confirmation bias to me.

So why the original hoopla regarding this story? Why did scientists have to step in and let everyone know that this isn’t a big deal? Why did media outlets publish these unresearched and sensationalized findings, facilitating this story going viral?

We can never know for certain, but it seems to me that this is classic fear mongering. That is, the deliberate act of eliciting fear about a particular topic through public media. People don’t like the terms “nuclear” or “radiation”, they sound scary and we associate bad things to them (whether it be bombs or glowing green goo). Just look at an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine, the technique’s true name is NMRI. Take a guess what the “N” stands for… In the creation of the name, the “N” was left out due to the public’s fear of all things “nuclear”.

This is neither green nor glowing… what a disappointment.

The Fukushima disaster was one of the worst PR stints for nuclear power since the Chernobyl incident nearly a quarter century ago. Demonstrations reaching the hundreds of thousands were seen throughout Europe and in Japan. The German government even went so far as to permanently shut down 7 of their 17 operating nuclear reactors just 3 days after the Fukushima incident.

However, even after taking into account all the nuclear disasters to have occurred, only 31 people have ever died from nuclear contamination (all from Chernobyl, there have been 0 radiation related deaths from the Fukushima incident). And this number includes both short and long term mortality. Of course, there have been detrimental effects to the environment from these disasters — don’t think that I am trying to downplay that. Rather, I am trying to illustrate how many of the problems the media put forth are blown out of proportion (if even real) and are used to contrive fear.

Contrary to being a mass of glowing green evil, nuclear material is some of the most energy dense substances that we know of and can harness (comparison chart), and is the most plausible way for humans to sustain our quality of life from an energetic standpoint.

We are an energy hungry society, and unfortunately, renewable sources do not provide enough output to keep us satiated (that includes you, too, Tesla). Unless we are willing to take a step backwards in the progression of energy yield (which I severely doubt humans are), we will have to combine renewable methods with some other source to meet our demands — and this will likely be nuclear.

Oh, and in case you were unsure, the materials used to create atomic bombs are of different composition than the materials used in a nuclear reactor. A nuclear plant will never go “boom”.

So there will be no superpowers (unfortunately), no third arms, no laser vision, and likely no weird abnormalities. Nuclear energy is an amazing method of acquiring energy and bringing life to the objects that we use daily. The risks have always been minimal, but the accidents have always been sensationalized. The daisy malfunction fiasco was just one example of how fear mongering is used to bring about irrational phobias of the unknown. The best thing you can do to prevent the spread is simply spend 5 minutes on Google.

Nine Mile Point Nuclear Plant


Image sources

  1. Ask the ISU Experts. http://www.extension.iastate.edu/news/2006/jun/070701.htm
  2. Photos: “Mutant Daisies” Found In Fukushima “Safe Zone” | Natural Society. http://naturalsociety.com/photos-mutant-daisies-found-in-fukushima-safe-zone/
  3. Ask me about my banana | Did Someone Say Science? http://www.jaydelovell.com/ask-me-about-my-banana/
  4. A billet of highly enriched uranium that was recovered from scrap processed at the Y-12 National Security Complex Plant. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HEUraniumC.jpg
  5. Nine Mile Point 2 nuclear power plant back online. http://www.power-eng.com/articles/2014/03/nine-mile-point-2-nuclear-power-plant-back-online.html

 

0
0

The Hygiene Hypothesis

This article is 100% shellfish free.

Allergies and autoimmune diseases: the tragic, internal conflict of man versus self. Allergies are the result of a hypersensitive immune system attacking a benign outside stimuli, and autoimmune diseases are when that stimulus is of one’s own body. Either way, there is one common factor linking both conditions: the immune system. Why, exactly, is our body acting rashly and lashing out against itself with, at times, fatal flare-ups? The mechanisms that cause the irrational responses are known; however, the reason as to why these mechanisms occur in the first place are still up for debate. An interesting idea is called the hygiene hypothesis, and it puts forth the idea that our obsession with cleanliness could be our downfall.

I’m sure you’ve heard the older generation talk about how, back in their day, kids used to roll around in the mud and get dirty and how everyone is too clean these days. Normally I just smile and nod during these conversations at family gatherings, but there is actually some merit to their points. The hygiene hypothesis posits that our need to be “clean and sterile” is what is leading towards the appearance of allergies and autoimmune diseases in children.

Going through the elementary school system, I vividly remember teachers lecturing us on how we were unable to bring peanut-based products to school any longer for fear that we may cause a fatal anaphylactic reaction in one of the kids of the class. My 10 year old self was pissed, I love peanut-butter. But that little incident would stick with me and make me forever curious about allergies.

Interesting side note: anyone notice how you just don’t meet people with allergies anymore as you age? I know there are tons of children with shellfish/peanut allergies, but what about the adults? Where did they go?

Soil transmitted helminths prevalence. Areas in white are least-to-no-concern.

Soil transmitted helminth prevalence. Areas in white are least-to-no-concern.

 

The hygiene hypothesis is a recent idea, and this makes sense considering that hygienic standards in large cities have only improved in the last few decades (mind you, the rise has been drastic). So, let’s pull up some interesting correlations that give evidence to this hypothesis. Developed  and industrialized countries have worked tirelessly in effort to completely eradicate all parasitic infections from within their borders. This is good (understatement), as there are numerous parasites that would be more than happy to call your intestines home and cause extremely painful and fatal infections. As industrialization proliferates, urbanization takes hold and moves rural families to urban city centres, and this removes childhood exposure to infectious organisms. However, this progress is tainted with the knowledge that over 1 in 5 children in these industrialized countries have an allergenic disease, and epidemiological maps display the information that:

The geographical distribution of allergic and autoimmune diseases is a mirror image of the geographical distribution of various infectious diseases, including HAV, gastrointestinal infections and parasitic infections

That is to say, wherever we have an absence of parasitic infections, we tend to have a prevalence of allergic and autoimmune diseases. This image illustrates the stark contrast in location the of Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) outbreaks and the prevalence of various parasitic infections. Note how North America, western and northern Europe, and Australia (all nations considered “industrialized”) have high incidences of T1D (greater than 8/100,000 per year — and upwards of 36/100,000) while nations generally considered “developing” all have low T1D incidences as well as high parasite infection rates.

img-hygiene-hypothesis

Another image showing the location of (non-specific) autoimmune disorders relative to parasitic infections

Okay, the discrepancy is very blatant — but maybe you’re not convinced yet. Perhaps you think that it’s unfair to compare countries separated by their industrialization level, and that there are likely genetic factors involved in autoimmune disease susceptibility. And to that, I give you the following example.

The first instance of noting the discrepancy in allergies and infections came about with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Dr. Erika von Mutius, an allergy specialist, decided to study the children that were once separated by the wall within the now consolidated country. Of the two halves, East Germany was heavily polluted and far less developed than its counterpart — and as such, Dr. von Mutius hypothesized that the children of the East would exhibit a higher incidence of asthma. She was taken aback when she observed the exact opposite — the children of the more developed West were the ones with significantly higher asthma rates (5.9% versus 3.9%) despite cleaner air and better hygienic standards. Hay fever levels also followed this pattern, and to a more severe extent (8.6% versus 2.7%).

These results are remarkable because the study removes the idea that there are significant genetic differences predisposing the children to allergies. Since the studied individuals were all of German descent and all from the very same country, the only major variable was exposure to infectious agents and overall cleanliness — meaning that environmental exposure was the major determinant of overall health.

A doctor treating a parasitic infection in Ethiopia

These results were replicated in 1973. Dr. Eric Ottesen, an allergy and parasite specialist, travelled to the island of Mauke and treated the locals for a tiny roundworm with the antibiotic diethylcarbamazine. He returned to the island 19 years later to find the wonderful result that the proportion of infected individuals dropped from 35% to 16%. However, in contrast to the decreasing trend of parasite infection was a startling increase in allergies and autoimmune diseases. Less than 3% of the islanders had allergies during Dr. Ottesen’s first visit, but this number rose to 15% by 1992. Hay fever, asthma, and eczema were now commonplace on the remote island; and worst of all, a new problem arose that no one on the island had experienced before: a dangerous allergy to the staple food-item, octopus.

So why is this all happening? What is the reason why autoimmune diseases and allergies are popping up when we remove parasites from one’s body?

It all has to do with how our immune system functions. We have two major pathways in what we call adaptive immunity (the part of the immune system that learns and remembers, and is in contrast to the innate immune system) — the Th1 and Th2 paths. To make it easier to understand, we can relate the two pathways of our adaptive immune system to the logging industry, with one being akin to clear cutting (Th1) and the other to selective logging (Th2).

When we suffer from an allergy, the Th2 pathway is what is to blame. It has become hypersensitive and begins attacking benign outside stimuli, like pollen. Many autoimmune diseases are the result of an overactive Th1 pathway (and at times even an overactive Th2 side, as well) and its hypersensitivity results in the unwarranted attack of one’s own body.

As you can imagine, when we are infected with a parasite, our bodies prepare an immune response. The Th1 pathway is the first to be activated, which is usually shut down by the parasite resulting in the Th2 side taking over. Either way, both sides of our adaptive immune system are functional at some point during the infection.

However, when we remove chance exposure to parasites from the environment, scientists believe (and data corroborates) that we develop an immature adaptive immune system that is willing to attack anything that it comes into contact with, regardless of the actual threat level of that stimulus. This then leads to children and adults developing allergies to nuts, shellfish, and strawberries — and to people essentially becoming “allergic” to their own body. Without a real threat to defend against, our body ends up picking fights with things that it has no business attacking, ultimately hurting itself in the process. And as seen with the natives of Mauke, the development of these conditions can arise decades into life as long as the parasites are removed from their body and the environment.

So, what am I getting at? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I guess an easy answer would be “don’t be so clean”, or “go swallow some Schistosome eggs if you want to keep eating peanut-butter” — but is that really the proper stance to take? I doubt it. Instead, I propose that we continue to eradicate tropical diseases from the world, seeing as they are a major source of morbidity and mortality; however, I also suggest that we use parasites to our benefit as a means of combatting horrible autoimmune diseases.

Researchers have known about the strange immune-response-interplay between parasite presence and the absence of allergies for years, and are using the tiny worms to our advantage in order treat many allergenic diseases through a process called helminthic therapy. Crohn’s disease, colitis, asthma, multiple sclerosis, and T1D are all autoimmune diseases that can be treated with exposure to various intestinal worms. So although we are actively looking to rid our bodies of these ugly parasites, it seems as though our relationship with them will not be ending any time soon.

Trichuris: a parasite that is being investigated for its therapeutic properties


References

I’m trying out a new reference style. Instead of having a super long list at the end of each document and little parenthesized numbers within the body, I’ll be hyper-linking my sources within the text body. Just click on the yellow words to go to that given source. I may keep it, I may not — we’ll see.


Image sources

  1. University, D. W., Illinois State. 2009. English: Electron micrograph of an adult male Schistosoma parasite worm. The bar (bottom left) represents a magnification of 500 μm
  2. WHO | Epidemiology. http://www.who.int/intestinal_worms/epidemiology/en/
  3. Hygiene Hypothesis for TSO. http://www.fortressbiotech.com/research-development/hygiene-hypothesis.cfm
  4. Italy, U. A. A. from V. 2010. Nursing student Mahammed-Ziad Ahmed administers de-worming medication, Shinile Woreda, Ethiopia, Oct. 19, 2010
  5. Bremser, D. for J. G. 1831. English: Trichocephalus dispar = Trichuris trichiura

 

0
1