Archive for Unethics

Dolphin safe tuna… A dolphin is worth how many fish?

// September 30th, 2010 // 2 Comments » // Unethics

Flickr Image by david.nikonvscanon

In the immortal words of Marge “I brought you a tuna sandwich. They say it’s brain food. I guess because there’s so much dolphin in it, and you know how smart they are.” Dolphin safe tuna is for some of us environmental types a no-brainer like eating free range eggs.

I was one such person, until I read this post last year.

The ecological disaster that is dolphin safe tuna by Southern Fried Science is one of my top five ever blog posts (the top prize going to the Nacho Average Cheesecake by the sadly ended Chem Blog. Read it read it read it!)

For those of us too lazy to click through, I’ll summarize the dolphin safe tuna post. Consider this cliffnotes. Hells, I’m just that kinda pirate.

To fish for tuna, ships like to locate a big school of ’em so they can nab them all at once. Finding a school of tuna is tricky.

The non-dolphin safe method is to follow some dolphins, because dolphins have their fins on the pulse and know the happy-haps of where the tuna are at. Dolphins are easy to follow because they come up to the surface for air. The downside is that the dolphins are accidentally caught with the tuna (bycatch), Southern Fried Science estimates it as 500,000 a year.

The dolphin safe method does it differently. Instead, an object is floated on the ocean. For some weird reason, floating objects attract sea life, including big ol’ schools of tuna. So you just scoop up the tuna when it comes in. Of course, this leads to bycatch of its own, including all the other sea life that came to investigate the mysterious floating object. There’s more bycatch through this method, but less of it is dolphins.

When you compare the bycatch of the dolphin safe method and the non-dolphin safe method you come up with the following.

1 dolphin saved through dolphin safe fishing costs 382 mahi-mahi, 188 wahoo, 82 yellowtail and other large fish, 27 sharks, and almost 1,200 small fish.

Food for thought. Read the original post here.

Did the CIA spike a bakery in France with hallucinogens?

// August 27th, 2010 // 6 Comments » // Drugs, Poisons, Sex and Reproduction, The Realm of Bizzare, Unethics

On August 15, 1951 a small town in southern France called Pont-Saint-Esprit briefly entered the twilight zone. Hundreds of people reported acute psychotic episodes and physical symptoms such as nausea. They experienced traumatic hallucinations, and 50 of those affected were put in asylums. Five died. The event was later traced back to pain maudit – cursed bread.

In 2009 American journalist Hank Albarelli cited evidence that it was actually caused by CIA experiments into LSD. His book A Terrible Mistakesuggests the mass hallucinations experienced that day was a government funded field experiment into the newly found drug.

There would be potential for LSD to be used as chemical warfare – sprayed onto an army it would turn soldiers into… well… I don’t know but with guns involved I think it would be bad. I’m not sure if his conclusion is correct, but his article makes a compelling argument.

I have to say, conspiracy theories really do it for me. I think they’re great. Nothing like a little paranoia to keep you on your toes. There are, however, other opinions on what caused the Pont-Saint-Esprit madness.

One explanation is ergotism. Ergot is a group of fungi (most prominently Claviceps purpurea) which grow on rye, wheat and related grain-producing when-I-grow-up-I-want-to-be-bread plants. The fungus produces a neat little cocktail of alkaloid drugs which cause spasms, diarrhea, nausea and hallucinations – similar to those experienced at Pont-Saint-Esprit that fateful day.

In fact, the psychosis could have been caused by ergot or LSD, both have similar symptoms. LSD was first derived from the ergot alkaloid ergotamine. Controlled doses of ergot poisons have been used to treat migraine headaches and control bleeding after childbirth. Accidental, and dangerous, ingestion of ergot was known as Saint Anthony’s Fire (not to be confused with Saint Elmo’s Fire) for the monks of Saint Anthony who were really good at treating it. Ergotism was also blamed for Agent Scully’s hallucinations in the episode Never Again, where she gets a badass tattoo with some red ink that could have been coloured with ergot.

Greek myth time! In Ancient Greece annual initiation ceremonies were held for the cult of Persephone and Demeter. Demeter was the goddess of grain, farming and plenty, a bit of an Earth mother goddess with rich wheat coloured hair and a flowing dress. She guaranteed a good harvest. She had a daughter called Persephone, who loved the flowers. One day when Persephone was looking at some flowers in a field, Hades the god of the underworld noticed her, opened up the ground and abducted her. When Demeter noticed her daughter was gone, she was stricken with grief and refused to bring the harvest.

Persephone was trapped in the underworld for months on end. Desperate for her hand in marriage, Hades would offer her food, but Persephone know not to eat the food of the dead or she would never be able to leave. However one day Hades offered her a pomegranate, her favourite dish, and she ate six seeds.

Up in the mortal world, the land was dying. People were starving, having never experienced such famine. No matter how they prayed to the goddess she would not bring the harvest. Seeing the despair of the people, Zeus the king of the gods went down to his brother Hades and asked if he could bring Persephone back to her mother. Awkward conversation ensued.

Hades finally agreed, but oh noes! Persephone had eaten the food of the dead! The six pomegranate seeds meant that she had to spend six months of the year in the underworld as Hades wife. The other six months she would live with Demeter her mother. That’s why we have the seasons – autumn and winter when Demeter mourns, spring and summer when Demeter is reunited with her daughter.

Anyhoo, to be initiated into the Demeter and Persephone cult was called the Eleusinian Mysteries, some mysteries including this myth with added details. I think some of the mysteries included the use of pomegranate as a contraceptive (the link between fertility and death, perhaps.) You also had to fast during the initiation, and afterwards you would drink a barley drink called Kykeon and great revelations would be revealed.

Kykeon, made of barley, quite possibly tainted with ergot. Revelation or hallucination, you tell me.

HeLa, the first immortal human cells and a tale of immorality

// January 12th, 2010 // Comments Off on HeLa, the first immortal human cells and a tale of immorality // Science Communication, Unethics

When we work with cell lines in the lab, we often work with HeLa cells. They can live in a vial of nutrients, and from a small sample you can grow a large quantity to use in cancer research, in vitro fertilisation research, stem cell research, virus research, pretty much any kind of human biology research actually. They’re a biologist’s wet dream.

HeLa cells come from an aggressive cervical cancer that attacked, and eventually killed, a women called Henrietta Lacks.

She has been dead for over 60 years but those cancer cells are still going strong. Which is pretty amazing! Usually when you take some cells out of a person they die pretty soon after, or they might live for a few months, but not 60 years. That’s rare. Cancer emerges after a lot of severe mutations and a Darwinian baptism by fire, only strong, successful mutants emerge from the ashes of their brothers who died from lethal mutations. The survivors are bad-ass.

They are also very weird looking. HeLa DNA has been extremely mutated, instead of 46 chromosomes it has 82, and it has several versions of human papilloma virus (HPV) DNA, which is found in pretty much every case of cervical cancer. So research with HeLa cells is NOT research with a normal human cell.

That strange DNA makes it do some pretty amazing things: It replicates abnormally fast, even for cancer cells, and it has an active copy of telomerase which means it can replicate indefinitely. Most other cells age as they divide until they reach the Hayflick Limit, then they don’t divide no more. Not HeLa. Neither do stem cells actually, but that’s a tale for another day.

HeLa cells revolutionised our understanding of human biology, but the family of Henrietta have yet to see a cent of it. In fact, those cells were taken from her without her knowledge. Dodgy, dodgy stuff. I’m placing this story firmly in the unethics basket just for that. HT to Ed Yong for telling us about a book soon to be released about the lady herself.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” comes out next month, written about the woman and the cells which should have made her famous. Rebecca Skloot been researching it for something like 10 years and it’s got some great reviews. I’m going to pre-order a copy, and if you’d like to know more about HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, do the same! It’s a story that deserves to be heard, and if there are enough pre-orders, Amazon will help promote the book. Plus it’s 30% off at the moment. What more could you want? Here’s the blurb.

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

Spoons Will Kill You

// January 6th, 2010 // 3 Comments » // Recent Research, Science at Home, Science Communication, Unethics

The deadly spoon, it makes a knife look tame by comparison. Indeed, only a meat cleaver attached to a hand beater is more dangerous.

Being a lover of spoons (not literally thank you very much. I’m just fond of them, okay? Nothing wrong with that) I am skeptical of this research which suggests that spoon dosing of medication is a major health risk. Yes sir, skeptical I am. This is the first time I’ve disagreed openly with research, so here’s hoping it doesn’t bite me in the ass like my last parrot did.

So I found this story in Science Daily today – “Can Kitchen Spoons Be Dangerous Spoons? Too Little or Too Much Medicine, Depending on Spoon Size” which takes you through to this press release and this swanky picture

Made by this swanky photographer.

With a shoot like this, you know you’re onto some quality research, and oh yes, it’s been picked up by several news sources. To quote the press release (as so many of these news articles did) using kitchen spoons to measure liquid medication tends to lead to significantly over- or underdosing “beneath the point of effectiveness” according to Dr. Wansick.

Here’s the method they used: They took 195 university students, and asked them to measure out a teaspoon of cough medicine into three spoons in order: 1. A teaspoon. 2. A medium sized tablespoon. 3. A large spoon. Then the researchers measured how much liquid they poured. The conclusion: In the medium spoon they underestimated by 8%, in the large spoon they overestimated by 11%. Over time this could add up to an overdose.

Why I think it’s crap
In the paper and especially the press release they say this is an important health risk. Is it? The first line of their report says that “spoon dosing has been identified as 1 of the 3 major causes of dosing errors and pediatric poisonings,” but when you read the report they’re referencing, it says the cause is people giving a child a whole tablespoon worth of medicine rather than a teaspoon (because of the confusing tsp / tbsp shorthand.) It’s not parents taking a tablespoon and try to measure out a teaspoon of medicine in it!

Who in their right mind would do that anyway? Why not just use a teaspoon, particularly if giving it to a child? Is the “I’ll measure it sort-of teaspoonish that’s close enough” thing a common issue in poisonings? Not according to the paper they reference in that first line. How many people use teaspoons to measure medicine nowadays? The report doesn’t say.

All this paper concludes is that people are crap at estimating how much a teaspoon of liquid is when they use a tablespoon to measure it. Big whoop.

What I have a problem is, is how they’ve marketed it with a press release and a photo shoot to say that spoons are dangerous, based on no clear evidence to suggest this is a real health threat as there’s nothing to say PEOPLE ARE EVEN DOING IT let alone getting sick from it!

This crappy example of science communication made me snap my peg leg in half. Now I’m going to eat a bowl of jelly to console myself, and I’ll enjoy every damn spoonful.

Discounts on Personal Genome Scans

// July 28th, 2009 // Comments Off on Discounts on Personal Genome Scans // Jibber Jabber, Unethics

I was reading New Scientist this weekend (nerdy, I know) and I came across this – genetic companies are offering personal genome scans. WTF.

Essentially, you provide a saliva sample, and they provide you with a bunch of info about your genetics. Here are some marketing gems. And ’cause I’m starting to learn how lazy people are about clicking through, here are some grabs.

And I quoteth:

deCODE genetics
• For $985 they will scan over one million variants in your genome
• Calculate genetic risk for 18 diseases based on the current literature
• Find out where your ancestors came from and compare your genome with others
• Get regular updates on future discoveries and a growing list of diseases and traits

23andMe is a web-based service that helps you read and understand your DNA for $999. After providing a saliva sample using an at-home kit, you can use their interactive tools to shed new light on your distant ancestors, your close family and most of all, yourself. 23andMe uploads your genome data to a secure database. With your own private login, you can then explore your genome. You can discover your origins, learn what the latest genetic findings may mean for you, and connect genetically with friends, family, and others across the globe.


Did you hear that mateys, you can connect GENETICALLY with people all across the globe! It’s like the new Facebook!

These things have been around for a while, I never thought that people were actually SELLING them until now, but blow me down with a feather if they haven’t been. Wait, there’s more.

Discounts are now available! 23andMe have just started a new $99 version of the genome scanning service, and TruGenetics are offering 10,000 free scans. The catch? You have to “self-report” on your health and allow your genetic info to be used by researchers.

Is anyone else getting a GATTACA flashback? It reminds me of Scrubs too. Season 3, Episode “My Fault” in which Kelso starts offering full body scans to patients. In the words of Dr Cox “I think showing perfectly healthy people every harmless imperfection in their body just to scare them into taking invasive and often pointless tests is an unholy sin.” Although I found Dr Cox got a bit ANNOYING!!! in later seasons, I have to say I agree with him here. Seems like a bad idea, perhaps not an unholy sin (bit dramatic, isn’t it?) but not cool.

Like I told myself today – be a warrior, not a worrier. (That’s quite good, don’t you think! Wrote it myself.) My advice is to just have a mug o’ rum and stop stressing about things you can’t change. Might have to take myself up on that.

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