environment

Scientists forecast new disease outbreaks

A mosquito under the microscope.

Joacim Rocklov

Two years, six million deaths and still counting, scientists are searching for answers to prevent another COVID-19-like tragedy from ever occurring again. And it’s a gargantuan task.

Our disturbed ecosystems are creating more favorable conditions for the spread of infectious disease. Global warming, deforestation, rising sea levels and flooding have contributed to a rise in mosquito-borne infections and longer tick seasons. Disease-carrying animals are in closer range to other species and humans as they migrate to escape the heat. Bats are thought to have carried the SARS-CoV-2 virus to Wuhan, either directly or through another host animal, but thousands of novel viruses are lurking within other wild creatures.

Understanding how climate change contributes to the spread of disease is critical in predicting and thwarting future calamities. But the problem is that predictive models aren’t yet where they need to be for forecasting with certainty beyond the next year, as we could for weather, for instance.

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Eve Glicksman
Eve Glicksman is a freelance writer and editor in the Washington, DC, area following a long career in Philadelphia. She writes for the health and science section of The Washington Post along with a mix of stories for other media and associations on trends, culture, psychology, lifestyle, business and travel. Previously, she served as a managing editor for UnitedHealth Group and the Association for American Medical Colleges. To see more of her work, visit eveglicksman.com. 
Scientists discover the Achilles' heel (or head) of PFAS, cancer-causing chemicals

Brittany Trang led research on a new way to destroy "forever chemicals," which cause a litany of health problems, while working in William Dichtel’s chemistry lab at Northwestern University.

Northwestern University

Brittany Trang was staring at her glass test tube, which suddenly turned opaque white. At first, she had thought that the chemical reaction she tested left behind some residue, but when she couldn’t clean it off, she realized that the reaction produced corrosive compounds that ate at the glass. That, however, was a good sign. It meant that the reaction, which she didn’t necessarily expect to work, was in fact, working. And Trang, who in 2020 was a Ph.D. researcher in chemistry at Northwestern University, had reasons to be skeptical. She was trying to break down the nearly indestructible molecules of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS—the forever chemicals called so because they resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water, and thus don’t react or break down in the environment.

“The first time I ran this, I was like, oh, like there's a bunch of stuff stuck to the glass, but when I tried to clean it, it wasn’t coming off,” Trang says, recalling her original experiment and her almost-disbelief at the fact she managed to crack the notoriously stubborn and problematic molecules. “I was mostly just surprised that it worked in general.”

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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.
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Waste smothering our oceans is worth billions – here’s what we can do with all that sh$t

In 2015, human poop was valued at $9.5 billion per year, which today would be $11.5 billion. The Ocean Sewage Alliance is uniting experts from key sectors to change how we handle our sewage and, in the process, create all sorts of economic benefits.

Photo by Simon Arthur on Unsplash

There’s hardly a person out there who hasn’t heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That type of pollution is impossible to miss. It stares you in the face from pictures and videos of sea turtles with drinking straws up their noses and acres of plastic swirling in the sea.

It demands you to solve the problem—and it works. The campaign to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the oceans has resulted in new policies, including bans on microplastics in personal care products, technology to clean up the plastic, and even new plastic-like materials that are better for the environment.

But there’s a different type of pollution smothering the ocean as you read this. Unfortunately, this one is almost invisible, but no less damaging. In fact, it’s even more serious than plastic and most people have no idea it even exists. It is literally under our noses, destroying our oceans, lakes, and rivers – and yet we are missing it completely while contributing to it daily. In fact, we exacerbate it multiple times a day—every time we use the bathroom.

It is the way we do our sewage.

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Stephanie Wear
Stephanie Wear is a marine scientist who has spent over two decades working with The Nature Conservancy to protect oceans for the benefit of marine life and the people that love and depend on it. She recently co-founded the Ocean Sewage Alliance and loves to talk sh$t with anyone who will listen.
Could a tiny fern change the world — again?

A worker tends to a rural farm in Hanoi, Vietnam, where technology is making it easier to harvest an ancient fern called Azolla. Some scientists and farmers view Azolla as a solution to our modern-day agricultural and environmental challenges.

Pham Gia Minh

More than 50 million years ago, the Arctic Ocean was the opposite of a frigid wasteland. It was a gigantic lake surrounded by lush greenery brimming with flora and fauna, thanks to the humidity and warm temperatures. Giant tortoises, alligators, rhinoceros-like animals, primates, and tapirs roamed through nearby forests in the Arctic.

This greenhouse utopia abruptly changed in the early Eocene period, when the Arctic Ocean became landlocked. A channel that connected the Arctic to the greater oceans got blocked. This provided a tiny fern called Azolla the perfect opportunity to colonize the layer of freshwater that formed on the surface of the Arctic Ocean. The floating plants rapidly covered the water body in thick layers that resembled green blankets.

Gradually, Azolla colonies migrated to every continent with the help of repeated flooding events. For around a million years, they captured more than 80 percent of atmospheric carbon dioxide that got buried at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean as billions of Azolla plants perished.

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Anuradha Varanasi
Anuradha Varanasi is a freelance science journalist based in Mumbai, India. She has an MA in Science Journalism from Columbia University in the City of New York. Her stories on environmental health, biomedical research, and climate change have been published in Forbes, UnDark, Popular Science, and Inverse. You can follow her on Twitter @AnuradhaVaranas
Why we should put insects on the menu

Insects for sale at a market in Cambodia.

David Waltner-Toews

I walked through the Dong Makkhai forest-products market, just outside of Vientiane, the laid-back capital of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic or Lao PDR. Piled on rough display tables were varieties of six-legged wildlife–grasshoppers, small white crickets, house crickets, mole crickets, wasps, wasp eggs and larvae, dragonflies, and dung beetles. Some were roasted or fried, but in a few cases, still alive and scrabbling at the bottom of deep plastic bowls. I crunched on some fried crickets and larvae.

One stall offered Giant Asian hornets, both babies and adults. I suppressed my inner squirm and, in the interests of world food security and equity, accepted an offer of the soft, velvety larva; they were smooth on the tongue and of a pleasantly cool, buttery-custard consistency. Because the seller had already given me a free sample, I felt obliged to buy a chunk of the nest with larvae and some dead adults, which the seller mixed with kaffir lime leaves.

The year was 2016 and I was in Lao PDR because Veterinarians without Borders/Vétérinaires sans Frontières-Canada had initiated a project on small-scale cricket farming. The intent was to organize and encourage rural women to grow crickets as a source of supplementary protein and sell them at the market for cash. As a veterinary epidemiologist, I had been trained to exterminate disease spreading insects—Lyme disease-carrying ticks, kissing bugs that carry American Sleeping Sickness and mosquitoes carrying malaria, West Nile and Zika. Now, as part of a global wave promoting insects as a sustainable food source, I was being asked to view arthropods as micro-livestock, and devise management methods to keep them alive and healthy. It was a bit of a mind-bender.

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David Waltner-Toews
David Waltner-Toews is a veterinary epidemiologist and author of more than twenty books of poetry, fiction, and science. His most recent books are On Pandemics: deadly diseases from bubonic plague to coronavirus (Greystone Books, 2020); Eat the Beetles: an exploration into our conflicted relationship with insects (ECW Press, 2017) and The Origin of Feces: what excrement tells us about evolution, ecology and a sustainable society (ECW Press, 2013).
Podcast: Bat superpowers and preventing pandemics with Dr. Raina Plowright

In this episode of Making Sense of Science, my guest is Raina Plowright, a leading researcher when it comes to how and why viruses sometimes jump from bats to humans.

Pete Hudson

For this podcast episode, my guest is Raina Plowright, one of the world’s leading researchers when it comes to how and why viruses sometimes jump from bats to humans. The intuition may be that bats are the bad guys in this situation, but the real culprits are more likely humans and ways that we intrude on nature.

Plowright is a Cornell Atkinson Scholar and professor at Cornell in the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Read her full bio here. For a shorter (and lightly edited) version of this conversation, you can check out my Q&A interview with Plowright in the single-issue magazine, One Health / One Planet, published earlier this month by Leaps.org in collaboration with the Aspen Institute and the Science Philanthropy Alliance.

In the episode, Plowright tells me about her global research team that is busy studying the complex chain of events in between viruses originating in bats and humans getting infected with those viruses. She’s collecting samples from bats in Asia, Africa and Australia, which sounds challenging enough, but now consider the diligence required to parse out 1400 different bat species.

We also discuss a high-profile paper that she co-authored last month arguing for greater investment in preventing pandemics in the first place instead of the current approach, which basically puts all of our eggs in the basket of trying to respond to these outbreaks after the fact. Investing in pandemic prevention is a small price to pay compared with millions of people killed and trillions of dollars spent during the response to COVID-19.

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Matt Fuchs

Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @fuchswriter.

The Fight Against Air Pollution Gets Personal With Sleek New Masks

The Atmos anti-pollution air mask will go on sale this summer.

(Courtesy AO Air)


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Damon Brown
Damon Brown co-founded the popular platonic connection app Cuddlr. Now he helps side hustlers, solopreneurs, and other non-traditional entrepreneurs bloom. He is author of the TED book "Our Virtual Shadow" and, most recently, the best-selling "The Bite-Sized Entrepreneur" series. Join his creative community at www.JoinDamon.me.