Archive September 2010

Are Kiwis easily conned? Peter Griffin Sep 29

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Watching the secretly recorded 60 Minutes footage of disgraced former Defence chief scientist Steven Wilce lying his way through an interview with a journalist posing as a recruitment consultant, you have to wonder at the ease with which Wilce rattled off his deceptions.

Liar extraordinaire: Steven Wilce

Liar extraordinaire: Steven Wilce

Wilce held the high-paying for five years, during which time he had high-level security clearance. A panel of experts who vetted him for the job included at least one senior scientist.

Last night I watched on TV a weepy trustee of Diabetes Manuwatu given a statement in court as her colleague Adrian Lawrence Coombe was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail after defrauding the organisation of $130,000.

Then I read the following in the New Yorker magazine, which featured a rare story from New Zealand recently, on the bizarre case of Colin Bouwer, the psychologist from the University of Otago who killed his wife in 2000 and is now serving a stretch in prison. Bouwer was another one who embellished his CV, lied about his past and came across as perfectly charming – before the horrific truth was revealed.

As a rule New Zealanders are not known for being introspective. They are modest, outward-looking people who live in big landscapes and most of them probably find American-style self-examination to be a bit narcissistic, although they are far too polite to say so. The iconic New Zealander is Sir Edmund Hillary, the self-effacing climber of Mt. Everest, who always insisted on sharing the credit with his Sherpa climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay. This climate of trust and humility is one reason that visitors fall in line with the country, but it may also make New Zealanders vulnerable to hustlers and con artists who do not play by the rules.

Are we more vulnerable to hustlers and con artists than, say, the British or the Americans? What’s the answer?

Science to the rescue

Unfortunately, deceitfulness is such a widespread trait among people, that scientists are being put to work to try and come up with techniques to better pick the lairs among us.Take this research from the University of Utah:

Educational psychologists John Kircher, Doug Hacker, Anne Cook, Dan Woltz and David Raskin are using eye-tracking technology to pioneer a promising alternative to the polygraph for lie detection. The researchers’ efforts to commercialize their new technology reached a milestone recently when the University of Utah licensed the technology to Credibility Assessment Technologies (CAT).

Other researchers claim they’ve improved methods of using handwriting to detect liars.

The researchers utilized a computerized tablet that measured the physical properties of the subject’s handwriting, which are difficult to consciously control (for example: the duration of time that the pen is on paper versus in the air, the length height and width of each writing stroke, the pressure implemented on the writing surface). They have found that these handwriting characteristics differ when an individual is in the process of writing deceptive sentences as opposed to truthful sentences.

Interestingly, some recent research in PNAS showed that those behaving dishonestly show additional activity in brain regions  that involve “control and attention”.

Using neuroimaging, psychologists looked at the brain activity of people given the chance to gain money dishonestly by lying and found that honest people showed no additional neural activity when telling the truth, implying that extra cognitive processes were not necessary to choose honesty. However, those individuals who behaved dishonestly, even when telling the truth, showed additional activity in brain regions that involve control and attention.

Gluckman on a year as Chief Science Advisor Peter Griffin Sep 27

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Professor Sir Peter Gluckman has just released a report looking at how he progressed in his first year as the country’s Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister.

As someone who keeps a very close eye on how science is covered in the media and has the help of a media tracking service to do so, I can say that Sir Peter Gluckman has attracted a stack of headlines in the last year. There’s been nothing particularly scandalous, nothing massively controversial. The climate sceptics called on him to resign, but that’s really a badge of honour.

Instead it has been serious coverage on the back of Sir Peter tackling serious science-related issues. There were really four of them in the first year that got a lot of public attention:

- Metamphetamine and whether pseudoephedrine (a precursor to methamphetamine) should be restricted (it was).

- Climate change (a paper on the issue by Sir Peter didn’t go down well with the sceptics but showed the CSA was willing to tackle a major issue of global significance).

- The powderkeg of youth – an interim report looked at the public health issues facing society when it comes to youths who are physically maturing faster than they used to and increasingly getting into trouble with drink, sex, drugs and obesity.

- Improving public-private collaboration on science – a report on the issues the science sector faces in boosting innovation by encouraging collaboration between publicly-funded science research organisations and New Zealand businesses.

All of those issues got a lot of airplay thanks to Sir Peter’s involvement in them. In that respect, he has proven the effectiveness of the role already. Numerous scientific issues are getting attention and being debated that may not otherwise have been. Few scientists in New Zealand have the power to put science on the national media agenda – Peter Gluckman is one of them. The key statement in his report issued to day for me is the following:

Science increasingly deals with issues of uncertainty and probability rather than with absolutes, and offices such as this have a key but difficult role in translating complex issues for public and political understanding. These have included in the first year issues such as methamphetamine precursors, the morbidity of adolescence, and particularly global warming. The challenge is to maintain the balance of providing advice without entering the policy arena. It is important for this Office to be seen as apolitical.

The media to its credit has used the CSA to good effect. The numerous TV and radio interviews and feature stories and news articles focusing on Sir Peter have generally added to rational discussion of the big issues. I’m thinking in particular of Sir Peter’s repeated appearances on Q&A, Radio New Zealand and in Listener articles.

There are lots of contentious areas the CSA didn’t go in the last year (at least publicly) but its a small office so he has to pick and choose his topics carefully. One big issue a quarter seems about right.

I think we are better off for having a Chief Science Advisor and especially one that is so forward in discussing the big issues in public lectures and in the media. Tackling specific issues through literature reviews and research reports is one thing, but generating informed debate about science is just as important. I feel we’ve had a fair bit of both from the CSA in the last year.

$60 million in Marsden funding – some highlights Peter Griffin Sep 24


So there are likely to be a number of happy researchers around the country basking in the glow of commitments for years of ongoing funding of their projects.

Unfortunately, there will be many more not as happy because their research proposals missed out on funding – only 9.5 per cent of applications were successful. Still, competition is good and the Marsden round never fails to throw up an eclectic range of research proposals that look fascinating.

Check out the total list of winners on the Royal Society’s nice-looking new Marsden website which was, like Sciblogs, built on WordPress. Here are 20 or so press releases highlighting some of the projects funded.

And here are some of my top picks…

Software projects shine out

Making GUIs easier to get the hang of

Making GUIs easier to get the hang of

With my penchant for technology, it was good to see some science-related software projects getting some funding. Professor Andy Cockburn from the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at University of Canterbury picked up $496,000 over three years to work on graphical user interfaces – an area ripe for development in the wake of the iPad, tablet computing in general and the multi-touch screen revolution. Cockburn wants to make computer users more productive using GUIs by making the learning process involved much easier and quicker. With GUIs used on everything from mobile phones to washing machines, there’s plenty of potential here. This also highlights Canterbury’s ongoing leadership in this space, with the HITLab based there working on cutting edge human-computer interaction projects.

Professor Cockburn’s colleague Professor Tanja Mitrovic, also from the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at Canterbury was funded to the tune of $830,000 over three years. Mitrovic is working on computer-based stroke rehabilitation. From the Marsden release:

The proposed system will monitor each patient’s cognitive deficit and initiate adaptive strategies, such as providing specific exercises or tailored advice. Such adaptive training is important to countries with an ageing population such as New Zealand, as it decreases the costs of specialist treatment and patient care.

This project will provide a framework for researchers to conduct similar studies into rehabilitative training strategies with other brain injuries, and even degenerative conditions like Parkinson’s disease. It will pave the way for the next generation of human-centred intelligent systems.

Yet another interesting project out of Auckland University’s Bioengineering sees Dr Katja Oberhofer funded to the tune of $300,000 over three years. Her aim is to develop patient-specific gait simulations for improved clinical assessment of children with cerebral palsy. This new form of “gait analysis” using the world-leading modeling techniques already developed by the Bioengineering Institute, “will simulate and analyse patient-specific models during walking, based on external measurements”.

No fault of theirs

Funded: drilling into the fault

Funded: drilling into the fault

Earth science has suddenly become topical – not that these researchers knew it when they submitted their Marsden applications. Two projects, worth a combined total of over $1.2 million in funding over three years are to do with the project to drill into the Alpine Fault – that fault that was expected to cause a big earthquake in the south, but was overshadowed by another previously-unknown fault that proved responsible for the 7.1 magnitude Canterbury quake this month. From the Marsden results:

A full grant  awarded to Dr Rupert Sutherland, GNS Science, and a Fast-Start grant awarded to Dr Jennifer Eccles, The University of Auckland — will support New Zealand’s participation in a new international initiative to drill through the Alpine Fault.

Together, these projects will investigate the structure, mechanics and evolution of the Alpine Fault by drilling four vertical boreholes, the longest to a depth of 1.5 km. Measurements, analysis of core samples and establishing long-term observatories within the boreholes will provide new insights into how large faults operate and provide a basis for future deeper drilling experiments.

Bird BO, spider orchids and spring flowering

The Marsden-funded research getting all the headlines today is that which will look at the scent of birds and in particular birds native ot New Zealand. This from The Press:

Canterbury University associate professor Jim Briskie believes the country’s native birds may not have learnt to mask their smells like their continental counterparts, making them an easy target for predators. The Canadian, who moved to New Zealand 13 years ago, has been awarded more than $600,000 over three years from this year’s Marsden Fund to investigate the theory.

If such research can help protect fragile populations of kiwi, kakapo and New Zealand robin form predators, all the better.

Te Papa’s Dr Carlos Lehnebach also picked up a grant in Marsden – $300,000 over three years to “investigate the fertilisation process in the New Zealand spider orchid and relate this to the evolution of a range of genetically distinct populations”. The Te Papa blog explains what is involved here much better than I can.

Associate Professor Jo Putterill, from the School of Biological Sciences, at the University of Auckland gets $870,000 over three years to look in more depth at the process of vernalisation – which ensures that sexual reproduction and seed development happens in optimal seasonal conditions after winter has passed. From Marsden:

This work will give new insights into how plants control flowering time and may ultimately lead to breeding crop species that are tailored to specific regions and climates.

Promising social science

Dr Rachel Zajac from the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago picks up $796,000 over three years to look at child testimony given in court cases. Children are often called on to give evidence in cases involving serious crime. But how reliable are they as witnesses, especially when children are under cross examination? Zajac will set out to increase understanding of this and has designed a trial she will undertake with children:

Children aged between 7 and 11 will take part in a laboratory-based reconstruction that mirrors typical events in an eyewitness setting. After a surprise visit to a local police station where they will engage in activities like getting their fingerprints taken, they will be interviewed using standard direct- and cross-examination procedures to determine their recall of events.

The performance of children who undergo the programme designed to minimise memory errors will be compared with those who do not. Whether individual differences (such as the child’s self confidence and assertiveness) influences cross-examination performance will also be assessed.

There are many more great projects in the Marsden round this year covering everything from nanotechnology to Maori entrepreneurship – check out the details on the Marsden site.

Sunday does well on high-dose vitamin C Peter Griffin Sep 20


Maybe it was Sunday reporter Simon Mercep’s seven years working for Fair Go that gave him the knack for sussing out claims that sound too good to be true.

His story last night on cancer sufferers who are receiving large intravenous doses of vitamin C as part of their cancer treatment was the most balanced, most rational look at the high-dose vitamin C issue so far in the recent flurry of TV stories that have looked at vitamin C as an alternative treatment for serious medical conditions – from cancer to pneumonia.

Even the promo blurb for the Sunday piece last night suggested the show’s makers were out to finally give the issue a decent treatment.

vit cHealth or hindrance?

What’s in an orange apart from juice, pips and pith?

For increasing numbers of cancer sufferers there’s also hope in oranges, but is it false hope? They are pumping themselves with highly concentrated Vitamin C in the hope of buying more time and even getting better.

Mainstream medicine often warns them off Vitamin C therapy because they argue there’s not enough research to back it.

However, New Zealand scientists have now taken a crucial first step in deciphering how Vitamin C might affect tumour growth.

This week a debate where emotion and science clash head on.

Compare that to the work of Melanie Reid on rival show 60 Minutes, who in her first story on high doses of vitamin C being used to treat an ailing farmer who had swine flu but recovered after receiving high-dose vitamin C, didn’t bother to interview any independent scientists. The name of that episode: Living Proof.  Discussion of that story, which Reid followed up with a marginally better piece that at least sought the views of an expert but succeeded in showing Reid’s lack of objectivity on the issue, has been raging on this Sciblogs thread.

Mercep didn’t have to really push the boat out to do a good job on the story last night. He just resorted to the basic journalistic focus on balance, which I hasten to add, doesn’t always apply particularly well to science where the weight of evidence is often overwhelmingly on one side.

But what Mercep did was give everyone a fair hearing. He interviewed two scientists – Dr Shaun Holt who is critical of high-dose vitamin C (“avoid and try something else”)  and the University of Otago’s Margreet Vissers who is undertaking research into the interaction of vitamin C and cancer tumors and sees potential (and a need for more research funding). He also interviewed a Waikato oncologist who was sceptical of the benefits of high-dose vitamin C (“I wouldn’t try it myself”) and a GP who is actually treating around 20 patients with it.

He rounded things out with the all-important human anecdotes, by interviewing two people suffering from cancer who have received high-dose vitamin C  at a cost of up to $300 a week (one of whom has just died). The result is that the story covers the science well and the emotional side too and you get a more accurate idea of the efficacy of this type of treatment – which is still largely unknown, but where the scientific community see enough potential to carry out further research in this area.

I really felt for the two cancer victims, the older of which was extremely pragmatic in admitting that he didn’t know whether the vitamin C was behind him feeling better, but that with his life at stake, he was willing to try it and other things in his attempts to fight his cancer.

It can be done

What the Sunday piece shows is that a complex science-related issue can be dealt with intelligently, rationally and compassionately in a relatively short segment on a prime time current affairs show.

Awaiting an “Australia-sized” storm Peter Griffin Sep 17

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After a fair bit of wind last night, there’s an eerie calm in Wellington as we brace for a storm that has variously been described as “gigantic”, “the biggest storm on the planet” and “Australia-sized”.

I’m not holding out much hope for my 5km fun run in Petone on Sunday.

And for a country with a fresh memory of the Canterbury quake, such foreboding descriptions have had an unsettling effect. Metservice claims to have received numerous calls from concerned people and yesterday went so far as to issue a statement distancing itself from the early descriptions of the storm:

The expression ’Massive storm heading for New Zealand’ didn’t come from MetService. It conjures up impressions of a huge low swooping down on the country. Today, Thursday 16 September, we’ve had calls from media, business people and members of the public expressing their concerns about a ’massive storm’ and seeking more information. We’ve advised some of the media outlets covering this story of our dislike of the emotive language being used and asked that they attribute the source of these quotes.

Despite that, the emotive language continues to flow – today’s Herald story opens like this:

Auckland will not be immune when one of the biggest storms on the planet hits today.

But what does that mean? Is it the strongest storm weather analysts can see globally at the moment? Does it geographically cover the largest area of all storms currently being tracked? Does it matter how spread out a storm front is? Where’s the context!?

Watching Tamiti present the weather last night on TV One, I was expecting a massive blob the size (and shape) of Australia to loom menacingly into view. There was obviously plenty of weather approaching from the southwest of the country, but the picture seemed a bit more muddied than the headlines have suggested. Metservice acknowledged this as it presented some weather maps yesterday to give some much-needed perspective:

For the next few days, the weather over New Zealand is expected to be severe in some places, at some times. But not everywhere. Early on the afternoon of Wednesday 15 September, MetService issued a media release about this. Finer details — the what, where and when — of the expected severe weather are described in the various Watches and Warnings routinely issued by MetService.

So we wait to see what this “gigantic” storm will mean for us and particularly for those in Canterbury still recovering from their last extreme natural event…

Can the weather cause earthquakes? Peter Griffin Sep 15


The Canterbury earthquake has shaken out a fair bit of pseudoscience along with the shattered Christchurch masonry. First there was the Council of Homeopaths attempting to flog their shonky products to quake victims promising to help them “return to a more normal mental, emotional and physical state”.

Then there was the Christchurch mum who believes her two year old predicted the quake. Said solo mum Rachel Murray of her daughter Madison’s screaming fit 20 minutes ahead of the 7.1 magnitude quake:

’I have heard of children seeing ghosts and stuff but never believed it. Now I believe.’

Cyclones an earthquake precursor?

Cyclones an earthquake precursor?

But the flurry of emails I received late last week as Sciblogs was teeming with earthquake coverage, constituted something else entirely – a theory that extreme weather patterns are somehow tied to earthquake activity. The emails came from a 45 year-old Indian “post graduate in physics”, S. Prakash.

Prakash hails from Tamil Nadu in India, where he is apparently a “non-destructive tester” dealing with radioography testing, ultrasound testing etc. But seismology is Prakash’s real interest and, he explained in his letter to me, he has since 1984 been exploring the field of seismology, hoping to “save precious human lives” by pinpointing “nature’s forewarning” of earthquakes. As Prakash explained in his letter to me:

While weather changes and earthquakes result from the large-scale effects of plate tectonics, it has generally been thought that particular instances of weather changes and earthquakes are not directly related. But this observations [sic] and the correlations reveals that the Australia’s weather patterns are very closely connected with the geological process of its neighboring countries —Flores region, Banda region, Kep.Tanimbar region, Kepulauan Babar Indonesia, New Guinea (papua new guinea), Celebes sea, Molucca Sea and Timor Region; PNG, Solomon Islands, D’entrecasteaux Islands region,Santa Cruz Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Loyalty Islands, Fiji, Samoa and American Samoa and Tonga and Western Indian-Antarctic Ridge.

The numerous island land masses on the eastern side of the Australia plays a major role in affecting the over all Australian weather pattern. I positively identified the region and predicted almost all the quakes with close geological coordinates and its magnitude but due to lack of assistance and cooperation from the experts I couldn’t tell the exact time. However it is quite possible at the laboratory level of study.

Weather and earthquakes – a correlation?

The crux of Prakash’s arguments outlined in the non peer-reviewed paper below (the quirky phrasing is all his and presumably the result of a less than perfect grasp of written English) is that  there is a correlation between extreme weather events like cyclones,  flooding, storms and typhoons and seismic activity. He writes:

By watching even the smallest weather changes, scientists may be able to predict quakes more accurately and warn populations of impending disaster. Yes, the count down for a powerful quake will start, once the very heavy rain is over anywhere in the world!

It is quite possible to estimate the location & size of an impending quakes based on the quantity of flood amount; cyclone strength and the unusual blistering heat but except the exact precise time.

A completely wacky idea? Well, pretty much. The United States Geological Service describes earthquake weather as a myth:

Do earthquakes change the weather in any way? Earthquakes themselves do not cause weather to change. Earthquakes, however, are a part of global tectonics, a process that often changes the elevation of the land and its morphology. Tectonics can cause inland areas to become coastal or vice versa. Changes significant enough to alter the climate occur over millions of years.

However, a smattering of peer-reviewed literature has examined supposed correlation between weather and earthquakes, including this paper in Nature, which Prakash not surprisingly has seized on. This BBC story explains the research this way:

In a seismically active zone in Taiwan, pressure changes caused by typhoons “unclamp” the fault. This gentle release causes an earthquake that dissipates its energy over several hours rather than a few potentially devastating seconds. The researchers believe this could explain why there are relatively few large earthquakes in this region.

Interesting, but that doesn’t quite gel with Prakash’s theory that extreme weather events precede and can predict high-magnitude earthquakes. Prakash claims to have predicted numerous earthquakes (including the Canterbury quake), but has gained little traction when he shows his findings to scientists:

Yesterday evening only I just warn this massive quake but due lack of exact geological coordinates of the storm I could not locate the exact location. JUST SEE HOW EXACTLY THE CORRELATIONS MATCHED!!!

I continuously warn the USGS authorities but they ignored since they feel that my weather to quake correlations are inconsistent. I timely warned the Samoa and Padang quakes but the authorities concerned ignored my appeal. But after the happening of the American Samoa quake, one USGS authority Ms Linda Curtis asked me to furnish the details prior to that massive quake.

Harmless hypothesizing?

I was pretty bemused by Prakash’s earnest if misguided amateur earthquake forecasting. He’s not really doing any harm, though he is wasting a lot of time he could be spending on something more productive.

But Science years ago ran an interesting piece (H/T Lynley Hood for sending me a copy of it as it isn’t available online) about the case of Dr Iben Browning, a self-taught climatologist who in 1989 predicted a big quake for the midwest of the US and went unchallenged by scientists, allowing panic to spread.

Browning predicted that a catastrophic earthquake would strike the Mississippi Valley in the first week of December 1990.  The media were all over the prediction, which was so specific that it caused “near hysteria” according to Science:

Schools and factories closed on the target day (3 December) and groups such as the Red Cross wasted precious funds in their efforts to calm the public.

Science suggested the seismological community waited too long to slam Brown’s predictions, leading to months of wild media speculation and stress among the public during the winter of 1989 as the countdown to earthquake day began. The element here making the difference between a crank making psychic predictions being consigned to the dustbin and getting widespread play, is the media.

And ironically, we saw just that in the New Zealand Herald in the wake of the Canterbury quake with weather analyst and Herald blogger Philip Duncan giving credence to the idea of “earthquake weather“. Duncan was in the Edgecumbe earthquake and was also in Christchurch for the recent quake there.

I can distinctly remember the eerie sky, cloudy but not completely overcast, dead still – not a breeze at all. And it was mild, luke warm really. The calmness is the most distinctive part of that memory.

Again, last Saturday in Christchurch, I landed in a wintry southerly, just 2 degrees and raining. By night time the skies had cleared. It was cold, yes, but dead still and cloudless. When the quake struck at 4:35am I remember noticing the stars as I looked out the window. I don’t know why I noticed them, I just did.

Wow, what a coincidence. But Duncan is trying to read more into it, a correlation in fact, and frankly, he should know better.

I positively identified the region and predicted almost all the quakes with close geological coordinates and its magnitude but due to lack of assistance and cooperation from the experts I couldn’t tell the exact time. However it is quite possible at the laboratory level of study.

Crunch time in Bisphenol-A “debate” Peter Griffin Sep 14


Debate in scientific, political and business circles has raged for years over whether Bisphenol-A, a chemical used to line everything from drink bottles to tins of fruit can have harmful health effects on children and adults.

UPDATE: Audio of Professor Gordon Robertson’s presentation on the science of food packaging hazards available here.

Gordon Robertson

Gordon Robertson

With countries around the world taking confusingly different approaches to BPA – (some have issued partial bans on it, others maintain it is completely safe), the vexed arguments around BPA may be about to come to a head as European and US food safety regulators look to update their advisories on it and scientists progress the most thorough studies to date into BPA.

The BPA issue occupied part of a fascinating presentation in Auckland today (I’ll post the audio shortly) at the New Zealand Food Safety Authority conference, where Queensland University’s Professor Gordon Robertson, an expert in food packaging, explained the split in thinking on BPA in the scientific community. Perhaps more importantly, he outlined several food packaging chemicals and techniques – from recycled paper packaging to the ink used on food labels, that don’t get the headlines in the same way BPA does, but whose impact on food and human health are poorly understood by the industry creating them and the scientific community in general.

The BPA issue occupied a swathe of the New York Times last week as science writer Denise Grady set out to try and untangle some of the conflicting information out there on BPA. Unfortunately, she isn’t able to shed much light on whether Bisphenol-A, a known ‘endocrine disruptor’ that can can mimic the hormone oestrogen, has lasting harmful effects on humans in the small doses it is consumed through us coming into contact with food and liquid that has been stored in bottles containing it. As Grady points out when it comes to the research scientists have undertaken on Bisphenol-A in rats and mice:

Sometimes the results seem downright weird, indicating that low doses could be worse than higher ones. There is sharp disagreement among scientists about how to interpret some research. The disputes arise in part because scientists from different disciplines – endocrinologists versus toxicologists, academic researchers versus those at regulatory agencies – do research in different ways that can make findings hard to reconcile.

If Bisphenol-A was a purely scientific issue, working through it would be easy. But use of the chemical has become a political football with industry players who produce three million tons of it globally each year or add it to the packaging containing their food products squaring off against campaigners convinced it is toxic to humans and politicians who have joined their cause. The image below, which Professor Robertson showed yesterday, suggests the industries dependent on BPA (alternatives deemed to be less problematic are more expensive) have in the US lobbied government agencies and underwritten scientific research as part of a campaign to fight a Bisphenol-A ban.

bpa connections

What do the scientists think?

Clearly, there is differing opinion among scientists on the safety of Bisphenol-A and a fairly extensive body of research that has failed to conclusively point to a risk great enough to have regulators universally moving to ban BPA.

One view of Bisphenol-A is presented by Professor Richard Sharpe of Medical Research Council Human Reproductive Sciences Unit based at University of Edinburgh. In December, as Breast Cancer UK mounted a campaign to have BPA banned in Britain, he told my colleagues at the Science Media Centre in London:

’There is no direct evidence that links bisphenol A exposure in women, or in animal studies, to the development of breast cancer. Bisphenol A is an extremely weak oestrogen and is therefore unlikely to contribute significantly to a woman’s lifetime oestrogen exposure (and thus to her risk of breast cancer). Much of the data on low dose effects of bisphenol A have proved to be unrepeatable in more detailed, follow-up studies that have used the route of exposure (oral) relevant to humans, meaning that they do not satisfy one of the fundamental criteria for good science. In my opinion, any call for action on bisphenol A first requires direct evidence that, at human oral exposure levels, it can be shown capable of inducing breast cancer in animal models.’

Locally, Ian Shaw, Professor of Toxicology, at the  University of Canterbury says there is grounds for limitations on the use of BPA. He told the Science Media Centre:

’I don’t think we should ban BPA, but I think we should control its use much more carefully. BPA is the chemical used to manufacture polycarbonate plastics, is a component of lacquers used to line food cans, and is used in some dental fillings — the problem is that it mimics the female hormone. Small doses over a long time can initiate female hormone responses.

’In males this might result in undescended testes or other sex organ deformities, but in females it is possible that some breast cancers might be stimulated. A specific type of breast cancer (estrogen receptor positive breast cancer) grows when the female hormone, estrogen, binds to a specific receptor in the cell; when the receptor is occupied the cancer cell divides and the cancer grows. An estrogen mimic such as BPA can bind to the receptor and stimulate the breast cancer cell to divide. Controlling its use while allowing it to be used for the benefit of society (e.g. in some medical devices) will reduce exposure and so reduce the risk.’

University of Missouri-Columbia researcher Fredrick vom Saal is at the other end of the spectrum. He said recently:

“Among people who have actually read the literature, there is no debate, just an illusion of controversy. This is a phenomenally potent chemical.”

New Zealand situation

BPA is definitely on the radar of the New Zealand Food Safety Authority, hence the prominent discussion of it at the food safety conference. But so far the regulator has held firm on its advice that there is no cause for concern:

NZFSA’s view, based on current scientific evidence, is that there is no health concern associated with BPA, a chemical found in plastics, including food packaging and babies’ bottles. We are maintaining a very close watch on developments in case new data comes forward that changes this view.

Products containing BPA are pervasive in the market here, though non-BPA containers are also on sale, particular when it comes to baby bottles and sippy cups. The media has taken an interest in the issue, with varying results. The New Zealand Herald went big on Bisphenol-A at the start of the year.

BPA – tip of the iceberg?

As the New York Times piece points out, Bisphenol-A isn’t the only endocrine-disrupting chemical being used in food packaging.

Patricia Hunt, a biologist at Washington State University, in Pullman [said]: ’It’s just the one that’s captured the attention, because researchers like me have gotten into the field and gone, ‘Holy cats! We’re all exposed to this.’ There’s been a heavy industry response, and we’ve gathered our forces together a little more strongly to shine a light on it. This is the poster child for this group of chemicals. Academic scientists are saying we need to do something, and we need to do it fast.’

Professor Robertson helpfully cycled through the other chemicals used in food packaging that may be interacting with food with largely unknown consequences.

There’s diisopropylnaphthalenes (DIPNs), chemicals from recycled paper, used for board in food packaging, may migrate into food. Then there’s the packaging chemical ITX, which isn’t on food regulators’ risk lists but is raising concerns nonetheless. There’s also concern that inks used in food packaging labels may leach into food, in some cases being absorbed through plastic containers, with potentially negative consequences.

Professor Robertson’s presentation was fairly open-ended – the lack of scientific knowledge about these chemicals from the likes of Nestle and Tetra-Pak, major users of food packaging, concerns him. But like the scientists attempting to examine the concerns of BPA’s vocal critics, he isn’t able to make a call one way or other as to the safety of BPA.

“They do have a point, but the effect in humans is still questionable,” he said today.

One worrying issue he raises, is that traceability in the food industry – the ability to track where products and their packaging have come from, is getting more difficult to follow when technology should be making it easier. He puts that down to the increasingly global sourcing of food packaging materials. Country of origin labelling for food is patchy, let alone the packaging the food comes in. A lack of robustness in packaging compliance warranty schemes around the world doesn’t help.

Robertson, who consults to food manufacturers, had firsthand knowledge of the difficulties of tracing food packaging materials when he was asked to trace a company’s food packaging through the company’s entire supply chain.

“After three months, I gave up in defeat,” he said.

Partisan politics on BPA

In the US, where a third of BPA is produced, the debate around its safety has become highly politicised with Democrats and environmentalists vocal in their concerns about it, while industry and Republican supporters claim there is no problem with it. Last week California rejected a BPA ban.

This month the European Food Safety Authority is expected to issue a long overdue update on BPA. The US Food and Drug Administration has also been reviewing its stance on BPA. The decisions these regulators make about BPA may determine its future use globally. Political pressure is no doubt encouraging regulators to make BPA a priority.

The new BPA studies underway are still a couple of years away from reporting. As the NYT explains:

The new, government-financed studies will try to determine whether BPA can play a role in obesity, diabetes, breast and prostate cancer and disorders of the developing immune, cardiovascular and nervous systems. Dr. Birnbaum said researchers would be looking for effects on learning and behavior, and also trying to find out whether there are ’multigenerational’ effects, meaning that exposure in a pregnant animal can affect her offspring and the next generations as well.

In the meantime BPA is, in most countries, considered safe and remains an integral ingredient in food packaging most of us come into contact with. But with a host of chemicals added to food packaging and growing mistrust among consumers when it comes to food safety, the industry, science and regulators have their work cut out for them reducing uncertainty in the BPA debate.

Most pointless use of an infographic (possibly ever) Peter Griffin Sep 12

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It is great news that Peter Beck and the team at Rocket Lab have scored a grant (amount undisclosed) from the US Office of Naval Research to “study new rocket propulsion methods and fuels”.

But did the Herald on Sunday really have to go to the trouble of creating the infographic below to illustrate that, yes, Rocket Labs’ rocket Atea 1 was very small and a NASA space shuttle is very big. Duh! I mean, Rocket Lab could have attracted funding with a state-of-the art new washer or a piece of software or any number of things. Size really isn’t what has the Americans interested is it? Who knows, but what an innane infographic. Surely the HoS graphic designers had something better to do on a Saturday afternoon!


New fault surprises scientists Peter Griffin Sep 05

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Scientists from GNS Science and the University of Canterbury have been busy in the wake of Saturday morning’s 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Canterbury attempting to learn more about the quake and what caused it.

Credit has to go to GNS Science’s John Ristau, Canterbury’s Mark Quigley and Kevin Furlong, professor of geoscience at Penn State University who is on sabbatical in New Zealand at the moment. The three scientists and others from GNS fronted to the media yesterday from early morning and were able to articulate what had happened from a geophysical perspective.

Interestingly, as the release below from Canterbury University just issued illustrates, the earthquake’s location has come as a major surprise to scientists.

Meanwhile, the media, which I think did a terrific job over the last couple of days communicating throughout the wake of the disaster, has been putting together infographics to show tectonic plate dynamics that were in play. This graphic from the Sunday Star Times gives you a good perspective…

Source: Sunday Star Times

Source: Sunday Star Times

The fault that ruptured causing the magnitude 7.1 earthquake early Saturday morning was previously unknown, according to University of Canterbury geologist Associate Professor Tim Davies.

’The earthquake on 4 September exceeded all previous scenarios for seismic shaking at the University of Canterbury.  An event of about the same magnitude on the Porters Pass fault had been anticipated, but the 4 September earthquake was very much closer — about 30 km away instead of at least 60 km. Thus the shaking intensity on the UC campus was very much greater than expected. Though significant damage to structures, infrastructure and contents has occurred, the situation could have been very much worse.

’By comparison with the expected Alpine Fault earthquake, which will be a very much larger event but several times farther away, the 4 Sept earthquake caused severe damage in Canterbury but did not disrupt infrastructure (e.g. power generation) island-wide. Further, occurring in the early morning at a weekend was probably optimal in terms of lack of deaths and injuries,’ said Professor Davies.

’The aftershock sequence appears to be fairly normal, and the most likely scenario is that aftershocks will continue; some may be significant and capable of causing further damage; but a repeat of the M= 7.1 quake is unlikely.

’While it is possible that the ‘new’ fault rupturing on Saturday 4 September could trigger an earthquake on another fault, for example the Porters Pass fault, the Hope fault or even the Alpine fault, over the next days, months or years, the probability of this is unlikely to be high.

’The fault that ruptured causing the shake was previously unknown. A fault beneath the Canterbury Plains capable of generating an earthquake of that size is a major surprise. Building design is based on the NZ Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Map, which is based on anticipated shaking from known faults. A significant question arises, about whether design standards should take account of the possibility of such unknown faults.’

Crazy science letter of the week part 13 Peter Griffin Sep 02

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Gallileo is invoked in this attack on the Skeptics Society with Scott Sharpe suggesting it is conventional medicine not alternative medicine that needs quackbusting…

Source: Sunday Star Times

Source: Sunday Star Times Aug 22

And sometimes Sciblogs contributor Dr Michael Edmonds’ response in last weekend’s Sunday Star Times…

source: Sunday Star Times

source: Sunday Star Times Aug 29

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