21 Depressing AF Science And Health Stories From 2018
Just another year of climate change, sexual harassment, scientific fraud, and nuclear radiation!
1. Climate change: still happening!!!!! And the US government is still in denial.
The world has as little as 12 years to get our act together, according to the newest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And at the year’s biggest climate talks in Poland, countries failed to come up with new plans to tackle the problem.
When a dire report put together by the US government, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, said global warming would likely lead to a major economic recession, President Trump said, “I don’t believe it.” (Perhaps not surprising, tax filings from 2016 revealed that the Mercer family, conservative megadonors, funded climate denial groups.)
Meanwhile, the Trump administration rolled back a whole lot of climate and environment rules. A long, but incomplete list: The administration ended rules to curb coal plant pollution, car and truck pollution, and methane leaks; restricted the use of scientific studies in its decision-making; and loosened safety rules for trains carrying oil and offshore drilling.
If you’re thinking about how and whether to take on a 30-year mortgage with these changes looming, BuzzFeed News made interactive maps to help you see how sea level rise or wildfires might affect your home in 2050.
2. Sexual harassment in science: still happening!!!!!
Celebrity astrophysicist and TV star Neil deGrasse Tyson. Celebrity atheist and Arizona State University physicist Lawrence Krauss. Salk Institute cancer biologist Inder Verma. University of California, Santa Cruz philosopher Gopal Balakrishnan. Vanderbilt neuroscientist David Sweatt. Columbia neuroscientist Thomas Jessell. New York University surgeon Mark Adelman. Dartmouth neuroscience professors Todd Heatherton, William Kelley, and Paul Whalen. And more.
3. Opioids are on track to kill at least 50,000 people in the US this year.
Preliminary data from the CDC suggests that around 50,000 people will have died this year from opioid overdoses. The crisis has driven an HIV outbreak and is a significant part of the country’s rising suicide rate.
Responses to the epidemic are wildly different across the country. Huntington, West Virginia — one of the hardest-hit towns, with overdose rates 10 times the national average — has found success with its “drug court,” a program that offers treatment instead of prison time. In western Pennsylvania, prosecutors are taking a decidedly different approach, going after doctors who illegally prescribe addiction treatments like Suboxone.
Some clinics are giving people marijuana to help them get off opioids. Others are trying kratom, an obscure leaf from Southeast Asia that has opioid properties. Cities and states around the country are thinking of opening “safe injection sites,” where people can use drugs under medical supervision. And a handful of places are now desperate enough to try what’s long been done in Europe: prescription heroin.
As the problem continues with little sign of reprieve, the FDA has approved Dsuvia, a new addictive opioid, alarming public health advocates.
4. Famous food researcher Brian Wansink resigned in the wake of a scientific misconduct scandal.
Everyone had heard about Cornell professor Brian Wansink’s common-sense studies about food, like the one suggesting that you eat from a smaller plate, or keep your cereal boxes out of sight. But as Stephanie Lee’s dogged reporting uncovered, much of his data was a sham. As she wrote in February:
In correspondence between 2008 and 2016, the renowned Cornell scientist and his team discussed and even joked about exhaustively mining datasets for impressive-looking results. They strategized how to publish subpar studies, sometimes targeting journals with low standards. And they often framed their findings in the hopes of stirring up media coverage to, as Wansink once put it, “go virally big time.”
In September, after a Cornell investigation found that Wansink had committed scientific misconduct, he resigned.
It will take decades for the US to fully clean up Hanford, a sprawling site in Washington state that once produced the plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. There were three contamination events in 2017 alone, affecting 42 workers and 36 vehicles. So many mistakes in so little time has many health experts worried. As Zahra Hirji wrote:
Many workers are scared and fed up. At least one contaminated employee quit Hanford and moved to another state. The owner of a hot car doesn’t want it back and is fighting to get reimbursed for the loss. About a dozen others are so suspicious of the government’s tests that they’ve bagged their own car filters — and even one home vacuum filter — and sent them to a scientist in Massachusetts, who’s been live-tweeting the data. Those independent tests suggest that workers’ exposure was worse than what they were told by the government.
“It proves to me they’ve completely lost control of this job,” said a Hanford worker of about 30 years, who requested anonymity because of fear of retaliation. “This is 2018. We shouldn’t still be contaminating people with plutonium.”
6. People started eating Tide Pods...for fun????
This year, so many people started eating Tide Pods — yes, laundry detergent — that the US government had to issue a warning about it. In case this appeals to you: Please don’t. It can burn your esophagus and stomach, or worse.
In this infuriating piece for BuzzFeed News, Stephanie Lee dug into the shadowy industry of compounding pharmacies:
The lawsuits spotlight the shadowy, booming industry of “compounding pharmacies,” companies that make drugs for people who need customized products that aren’t sold by pharmaceutical companies — such as a pill in liquid form. Federal law dictates what types of ingredients can be used in compounded drugs, but nobody is required to test whether the end product is safe and effective. Consequently, companies like PCCA and Guardian are free to formulate or sell untested drugs with little government oversight.
On Nov. 1, Edmund Zagorski became the first person to die by electric chair in the US since 2013. This particular chair has a remarkable and appalling history, as reported by Nidhi Subbaraman and Chris McDaniel:
Documents obtained by BuzzFeed News show the original 1985 sales pitch for the construction of Tennessee’s current machine, as well as reservations by its creator — a Holocaust denier who falsely presented himself to the Tennessee Department of Correction as an engineer — decades later, when he feared that modifications would make the chair “an instrument of torture.” He stands by that assessment today.
An infamous photo from 2017 shows a group of white nationalists chugging milk. Why? Because, as Amy Harmon explained for the New York Times, they were showing off their lactose tolerance, a trait that they believed was more common in the genes of white people than in others. As it turns out, that’s not true. But this twisting of science toward a racist agenda is happening on a wide scale — and geneticists aren’t adequately dealing with it. As Harmon wrote:
Many geneticists at the top of their field say they do not have the ability to communicate to a general audience on such a complicated and fraught topic. Some suggest journalists might take up the task. Several declined to speak on the record for this article.
And with much still unknown, some scientists worry that rebutting basic misconceptions without being able to provide definitive answers could do more harm than good.
“There are often many layers of uncertainties in our findings,” said Anna Di Rienzo, a human genetics professor at the University of Chicago. “Being able to communicate that level of uncertainty to a public that often just sees things in black and white is very, very difficult.”
10. A scientist in China made the first genetically engineered babies, in secret and with questionable ethics approvals.
News of the world’s first genetically modified humans shocked the world, with most of the scientific establishment criticizing maverick Chinese biologist He Jiankui for taking such a dramatic step, largely in secret.
MIT Technology Review first broke the news, after seeing clinical trial documents that He had posted online. A few hours later, the AP reported on the birth of twin girls. And on YouTube, He shared their names, Lulu and Nana.
A handful of US scientists had heard murmurings of He’s work months before the news went public. They thought his science was “sloppy” and “reckless,” according to STAT. Although the girls were engineered to be resistant to HIV, many scientists are worried that “off-target” effects of the gene-editing could lead to other harms. (One of the few scientists defending He is Harvard geneticist George Church, who told Science: “As long as these are normal, healthy kids it’s going to be fine for the field and the family.”)
HIV researchers, meanwhile, say that using this method to prevent the viral infection was not only irresponsible, but unnecessary given current treatments. Yet other critics say that He took advantage of HIV-positive couples in China, where fertility treatment is out of reach for most.
Despite all the outcry, this technology isn’t going away. According to He, a second woman is now pregnant with a genetically engineered embryo.
In the Atlantic, Ed Yong wrote about a pressing, global problem that could hit at any time: the next pandemic.
On average, in one corner of the world or another, a new infectious disease has emerged every year for the past 30 years: mers, Nipah, Hendra, and many more. Researchers estimate that birds and mammals harbor anywhere from 631,000 to 827,000 unknown viruses that could potentially leap into humans. Valiant efforts are under way to identify them all, and scan for them in places like poultry farms and bushmeat markets, where animals and people are most likely to encounter each other. Still, we likely won’t ever be able to predict which will spill over next; even long-known viruses like Zika, which was discovered in 1947, can suddenly develop into unforeseen epidemics.
12. The leaders of the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department left in the wake of ethics scandals.
Pruitt had faced more than a dozen federal investigations into his conduct. He had rented a condo for $50 a night from an energy lobbyist’s wife, for example, and the EPA had spent $43,000 building him a secure phone booth. He also was accused of taking advantage of his staff, asking them to approach Chick-fil-A to help his wife get a job, and to get him a used mattress from Trump International Hotel. Just a month into the job, Pruitt had encouraged oil execs to apply for EPA jobs.
Ryan Zinke’s tenure at Interior was plagued by scandal, too, including getting involved in a Montana real estate deal with Halliburton, and letting his family travel with him in government vehicles. On the night before he left his government post, Zinke had an office Christmas party. As the Washington Post reported: “He invited lobbyists and conservative activists to his executive suite, where he posed for photos in front of a large stuffed polar bear wearing a Santa cap, according to an attendee.”
CrossFit’s strident spokesperson Russell Berger was winning a war against junk science — until his anti-LGBT bigotry got him fired.
Ohio woman Jillian Epperly became Facebook famous with her signature recipe for fermented cabbage juice, which she claimed could treat all ills. As reporter Nidhi Subbaraman wrote in this equally disgusting and depressing story:
As Epperly claimed on the group — called Exposing the Lies Candida: Weaponized Fungus Mainstreaming Mutancy — candida attracts parasites, and the only way to health is a severely restricted diet accompanied by large quantities of her signature fermented cabbage juice. Her potion was a purgative, and she said that “healing symptoms” included nausea, headaches, dizziness, and explosive blasts of diarrhea. These “waterfalls” supposedly brought out the parasites, which were visible in the toilet bowl.
15. Stephen Hawking died.
As Dan Vergano put it in his Hawking obituary:
Hawking was arguably the world’s most famous scientist, owing his acclaim to theoretical work released in the early 1970s that explained how black holes end and how the universe began. His fame went mainstream in 1988 when he published A Brief History of Time, a best-seller that made a star of a wheelchair-using, robot-voiced physicist who explored the greatest of cosmic mysteries.
Aaron Traywick (left), was a biohacker perhaps best known for injecting himself with an untested herpes therapy on a crusade to expand access to medications.
“Usually, most biohackers are considered pretty crazy and very controversial, but he was the most controversial of the biohackers,” another biohacker, Josiah Zayner, told BuzzFeed News. “He just wanted to get stuff out there, he didn’t care about the consequences to him or sometimes other people. That could be reckless, or it could be good, depending on how it ended up.”
17. More than four years after the Flint lead crisis, cities around the country are dealing with dirty water.
The Flint crisis raised awareness of water problems in the US, though not nearly enough.
Most recently, Newark admitted it has a water lead problem. And the residents of Denmark, South Carolina, have tried to have their smelly, brown water tested by scientists, only to be blocked by their mayor. A CNN investigation found that since 2008, the state had been adding a chemical typically used in pools — called HaloSan — to the city’s water to try to get rid of the reddish bacteria. HaloSan, however, has not been approved by the EPA to treat drinking water.
In Michigan, the state agreed to pay $4 million to test kids in Flint for developmental delays. And in a bizarre twist, one of the scientists who exposed Flint’s problem sued local activists for defamation. In nearby Detroit, public schools shut off drinking water due to lead concerns.
Scientists have also learned that it wasn’t just lead poisoning Flint’s water, but also deadly bacteria. And the state is now worried about yet another family of toxins, known as PFAS: Gov. Rick Snyder wants to sue chemical giant 3M for making these toxic chemicals that wound up in the drinking water.
PFAS chemicals, widely used to make Teflon and other nonstick surfaces, have become an alarming environmental problem all over the country. As ProPublica has reported, the EPA and the Defense Department have played down the health threats of these toxins.
The US Public Health Service exposed more than 1,300 Guatemalans to syphilis, gonorrhea, and other sexually transmitted infections without consent in the late 1940s. Tissues from these people may still reside on lab shelves, according to a bombshell report.
19. Highly questionable forensic science methods are still being used to convict people of serious crimes.
In a gripping two-part series from ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine, reporter Pamela Colloff investigated the case of Joe Bryan, who was convicted of murdering his wife more than 30 years ago based partly on the specks of blood found on a flashlight in his car trunk. But this “bloodstain-spatter analysis,” Colloff writes, is not backed by sound science:
Yet nearly a decade after the National Academy of Sciences report, little new work has been done to establish whether bloodstain-pattern analysis is actually a reliable forensic discipline. Few peer-reviewed studies exist, and research that might determine the accuracy of analysts’ findings is close to nonexistent. Meanwhile, experts with limited training continue to testify.
20. Police urged paramedics to inject “agitated” patients with a powerful sedative.
A watchdog report of the Minneapolis police department found that police there have often pushed paramedics to give ketamine, a powerful tranquilizer, to “agitated” people in custody. As Azeen Ghorayshi reported:
Bodycam footage showed, for example, a police officer pointing toward an individual in custody and making an 'injection motion' while laughing, the report said. Another time, an officer told paramedics over the phone that they'd 'have to bring a shot in.' Once, after a person in custody said, 'Let me go!' a cop replied, 'In about two seconds when they shove a needle in your ass.' Another time, an officer told a restrained person that they'd get 'the good stuff.' In several instances, the report found, people in custody could be heard shouting that they did not want to be injected with the sedative.
Later, an FDA investigation showed that the local hospital, Hennepin County Medical Center, had approved at least four studies in which patients were given drugs without their consent, violating federal rules. At least one of those studies involved “agitated” people who were injected with ketamine.
21. Europe had a record-breaking measles outbreak this year, thanks in large part to a booming anti-vaccine movement.
Many European countries have sky-high rates of distrust in vaccines, as Dan Vergano reported:
It’s only in recent years that surveys have revealed the popularity of the anti-vaccine movement in Europe, brought home by this year’s measles outbreak. France, for example, has the highest level of distrust, with roughly 40% of its population in surveys viewing vaccines as unsafe, driving nearly 2,600 measles cases there this year. In Italy, where more than 20% of the population distrusts vaccines, there have been more than 2,000 measles cases.
In Ukraine, about 25% of the population views vaccines as unsafe. That, plus its ongoing war and political unrest, explain the staggering 12,000 cases of measles reported there this year, experts say.