BY NOW, it is just a question of which heart-rending image you choose. There is the hawksbill turtle struggling to free itself from a plastic bag. The sea of polystyrene trash floating over a Caribbean nature reserve. Or the sperm whale washed ashore in Spain, its stomach filled with plastic waste.
Since the introduction of mass-produced plastics in the early 20th century, humanity has produced an estimated 8300 million tonnes of the stuff. Around three-quarters has been thrown away, and 80 per cent of that has drifted into the environment or gone into landfill. Eight million tonnes a year end up in the ocean – 5 trillion pieces and counting.
It is an environmental catastrophe and a human one, too, as some people in parts of the developing world live ankle-deep in filthy, non-biodegrading plastic trash. The long-term health implications for all of us remain uncertain, as ingested plastic works its way up the food chain.
Everyone agrees something must be done. From banning plastic straws to rebooting recycling systems to harnessing plastic-munching bacteria, there is no shortage of touted solutions. It is less clear what would work best. But fixing the plastic waste crisis is going to take some seriously joined-up thinking. If we make the wrong decisions now, we risk making the problem worse.
If plastics didn’t exist, we would have to invent them. Generally made of oil-derived polymers, they can be hung with different chemical groups and spiced up with additives to give them wildly differing properties such as hardness, strength, density and heat-resistance. This makes them just the thing for everything from colourful, durable kids’ toys …
PALM oil has become a byword for environmental destruction. Found in food and cosmetics, its growing use is destroying rainforests and endangering species like orangutans. In an effort to turn things around, UK supermarket Iceland pledged last month to halt the use of palm oil in its own-brand products. But the real problem isn’t in your kitchen cupboard or bathroom cabinet – it is in your car.
Half of all the palm oil imported by Europe is turned into biodiesel and blended into conventional fuel to power cars …
On a clear day in the summer of 2016, an ambulance arrived at the Yale New Haven Hospital carrying a man in his 60s with the classic signs of an opioid overdose: His breathing had stopped, his heart had slowed, and his blood pressure had dropped. Over the next six hours, 11 more people were admitted with similar symptoms, three of whom died. At first, the cause of the overdose cluster appeared to be the usual: Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, had probably made its way into a batch of heroin.
But subsequent drug tests and interviews with those who survived revealed a more complicated answer: The admitted patients thought they were using cocaine. What they snorted, however, turned out to be fentanyl with trace amounts of cocaine. Fentanyl can be deadly for regular opioid users, but for people who hadn’t built up a tolerance, the amount of fentanyl in the cocaine was “staggering,” said Dr. Anthony Tomassoni, an emergency medicine professor at Yale University who wrote about the case for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A familiar narrative about the overdose epidemic has emerged: People addicted to painkillers transitioned to heroin, an opioid chemically similar to the pills, and now they’re dying at astonishing rates, largely because that heroin is mixed with synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Last year, more than 64,000 Americans died of overdoses—a death toll higher than all the American military casualties during the Vietnam War.
Yet, alongside deaths involving fentanyl-laced heroin, overdoses involving cocaine and fentanyl—without the heroin—are quietly rising. Many medical examiner’s offices don’t specify the exact drug combinations found in the bodies of overdose victims, but data compiled by Mother Jones found an increase in cocaine-fentanyl deaths in four places that track these specifics: Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York City, and Cuyahoga County in Ohio.
Cuyahoga County experienced a particularly big jump—medical examiner Dr. Thomas Gilson has called the influx of fentanyl a “tidal wave.” In 2016 and 2017, deaths involving cocaine and fentanyl without heroin made up about a quarter of the county’s total overdoses. Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York City saw similar, though markedly less extreme, patterns. The rise prompted New York City to issue a public health advisory last summer. “Anyone using drugs, even casually, is at risk,” reads a health department flyer, which urges users to “use with someone else,” “take turns using,” and “use a small amount first to see how strong your drugs are.”
It’s challenging to tell what’s driving the increase in cocaine-fentanyl deaths, as an autopsy can’t determine the timing and intention of drug use. Perhaps the victim intentionally used both cocaine and opioids—a combination known as a “speedball”—or perhaps they sought out cocaine without realizing it was laced with fentanyl.
But available supply data indicates that cocaine is increasingly mixed with fentanyl before it’s ingested. In Cuyahoga County, law enforcement seizures of cocaine-fentanyl mixes increased 43-fold between 2015 and 2017. The Drug Enforcement Administration reported that 7 percent of seized cocaine contained fentanyl in 2017, up from 4 percent the previous year, according to NPR.
Theories abound in the public health world as to why cocaine would be laced with such a fatal drug. One is simply that drug use overall is up, and with that has come some unintentional contamination: “There’s more cocaine, and there’s more fentanyl, so there’s going to be more cocaine-fentanyl,” says Boston Medical Center epidemiologist Dr. Traci Green.
But given the scope of the trend, some are beginning to think that contaminating cocaine with fentanyl could be a calculated strategy of cartels and drug dealers to hook cocaine users on opioids. “It seems like a funny way to go about it, but once people use fentanyl as much as a couple times in a week, they’re very likely going to want more,” says Tomassoni, the Yale emergency medicine professor. “The very first dose of an opioid has been demonstrated to begin to change your brain chemistry. If you try it and you like it, you’ll do it again.”
Health experts are particularly worried about the impact of fentanyl-laced cocaine on the black community. Though the opioid epidemic is typically framed as a white problem, African American overdose deaths have climbed dramatically in recent years, driven largely by the influx of fentanyl into the drug supply. In Cleveland, “the African American community has been less affected by the heroin and opioid crisis—until this strategy was implemented of introducing fentanyl into the cocaine supply,” says Hugh Shannon, administrator of the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office. In 2017, 99 African Americans in Cuyahoga County died of overdoses involving fentanyl—up from seven in 2014. The majority of the deaths involved fentanyl and cocaine. Similarly, in Connecticut last year, African Americans made up 15 percent of the cocaine-fentanyl deaths, compared to 8 percent of overall overdose deaths.
As part of her research, Green, of Boston Medical Center, examines the death scenes of those who overdosed on cocaine and fentanyl in Rhode Island and speaks to those close to the victims. She’s trying to figure out what exactly happened: Did the victims intend to use opioids? Did they mean to mix the drugs? Her conclusion, after dozens of interviews: “Whether it was intentional or unintentional, contaminated or cut, what I know for sure is that these people who died were definitely not expecting fentanyl in their system.”
President Trump’s recent cabinet shake-up looks to be a real boost to hard-line militarism and neo-conservatism. If his nominees to head the State Department and CIA are confirmed, we may well have moved closer to war.
Before being chosen by Trump to head up the CIA, Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo was one of the most pro-war Members of Congress. He has been militantly hostile toward Iran, and many times has erroneously claimed that Iran is the world’s number one state sponsor of terror. The truth is, Iran neither attacks nor threatens the United States.
At a time when President Trump appears set to make history by meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un face-to-face, Pompeo remains dedicated to a “regime change” policy that leads to war, not diplomacy and peace. He blames Iran – rather than the 2003 US invasion – for the ongoing disaster in Iraq. He enthusiastically embraced the Bush policy of “enhanced interrogation,” which the rest of us call “torture.”
Speaking of torture, even if some of the details of Trump’s CIA nominee Gina Haspel’s involvement in the torture of Abu Zubaydah are disputed, the mere fact that she helped develop an interrogation regimen that our own government admitted was torture, that she oversaw an infamous “black site” where torture took place, and that she covered up the evidence of her crimes should automatically disqualify her for further government service.
In a society that actually valued the rule of law, Haspel may be facing time in a much different kind of federal facility than CIA headquarters.
While it may be disappointing to see people like Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and Gina Haspel as the head of the CIA, it shouldn’t be all that surprising. The few areas where President Trump’s actions are consistent with candidate Trump’s promises are ripping up the nuclear deal with Iran and embracing the torture policies of President George W. Bush. Candidate Trump in late 2015 promised to bring back waterboarding “and a whole lot worse” if he became president. It seems that is his intention with the elevation of Pompeo and Haspel to the most senior positions in his Administration.
We should be concerned, of course, but the real problem is not really Mike Pompeo or Gina Haspel. It is partly true that “personnel is policy,” but it’s more than just that. It matters less who fills the position of Secretary of State or CIA director when the real issue is that both federal agencies are routinely engaged in activities that are both unconstitutional and anti-American. It is the current Executive Branch over-reach that threatens our republic more than the individuals who fill positions in that Executive Branch. As long as Congress refuses to exercise its Constitutional authority and oversight obligations – especially in matters of war and peace – we will continue our slide toward authoritarianism, where the president becomes a kind of king who takes us to war whenever he wishes.
I am heartened to see some Senators – including Sen. Rand Paul – pledging to oppose President Trump’s nominees for State and CIA. Let’s hope many more join him – and let’s hope the rest of the Congress wakes up to its role as first among equals in our political system!
The CDC lab in Atlanta – responsible for storing and studying some of the world’s most dangerous pathogens such as smallpox and Ebola – is showing worrying signs of wear and tear decades earlier than planned, the agency says.
The 13-year-old site is already wearing down, sparking an official request for a new building to host some of the world’s deadliest microbes including the latest, most lethal mutations of the flu and the almost-untreatable Marburg virus. “The concerns are that the facility we’ve been in now is beginning to show signs of age,” said Dr. Inger Damon, head of the division of high consequence pathogens and pathology at the facility, on Friday as cited by Stat News.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is asking the US Congress for $ 400 million to build a new, and hopefully improved, high security laboratory. Approximately $ 350 million will be spent on the facility itself while the additional $ 50 million will go towards related work.
The current facility, a 400,000-sq-ft concrete building located on the CDC’s main campus on the outskirts of Atlanta, cost $ 214 million to build and was opened in 2005. HDR Inc., the architecture firm behind the project reportedly estimated the building would boast a 50-year lifespan. That bold prediction appears to have fallen 32 years short, as current estimates indicate the building needs to be replaced by 2023.
Former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said that “the longer it takes [to replace the facility], the more likely there will be a failure. And if there’s a failure, we lose an essential line of defense” against disease threats.
The CDC Laboratory is one of 13 operational or planned maximum security, Biosafety Level-4 (BSL-4) labs in the US. BSL-4 labs handle the deadliest microbes known to man and therefore require the most stringent security measures possible. These labs have to be housed in a separate or extremely isolated structure from other labs, and must have a dedicated air supply and exhaust system as well as multiple, comprehensive decontamination systems throughout. The lab uses eye-scanners to give employees access to the labyrinthine decontamination facilities.
As with the lower level BSL-3 labs, the exits at BSL-4 facilities have two sets of automatically-closing and locking doors, and an air flow system that directs air from clean areas to potentially contaminated areas only – never vice-versa. In addition, staff must wear lab coats, gloves and face shields and have to at times work in full body, air-supplied pressure suits within biological safety cabinets.
Worryingly, the current facilities reportedly experienced a decontamination shower failure in 2009 and a fire in a low-risk lab in 2015. Construction on the new facility will take four years.
“We’ve always tried to maintain that continuity. I think there’s just too much that’s unpredictable,” Damon added, speaking to Stat news. “When you need that facility … you want to have it available. You don’t know when the next SARS is going to happen, or the next large Ebola outbreak.”
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In the world of American animated television, Matt Groening’s The Simpsons towers, in terms of both its cultural prominence and its improbable longevity. Viewership has steadily declined since the first season (1989-90), when the average episode attracted 30 million pairs of eyeballs. But the show has nevertheless endured through 28 additional years, and Springfield remains a cherished send-up of life in the U.S.
When Indian American comic Hari Kondabolu set out to create his new documentary film, The Problem with Apu, he knew he was taking aim at “an institution in this country.” Specifically, Kondabolu’s movie—now accessible on truTV—delves into the dubious depiction of Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, a first-generation Indian immigrant voiced by a Caucasian and bearing a bogus surname derived from the Sanskrit translation of “bullsh*t.”
For Kondabolu, the story of a misguided cartoon character is just the beginning. “I’m thinking about the future,” he says after an advance screening of his film, sponsored by the Smithsonian Associates and held at the National Museum of Natural History. “I’m using this as an example to have a bigger conversation.”
From a young age, Kondabolu was an admirer of The Simpsons, but as he grew up, he began to take serious issue with the over-the-top accent and shallow dialogue of the program’s sole South Asian character—one of the first, and hence most influential, on mainstream TV.
The humor of Apu stems solely from his voice, Kondabolu contends, a voice first conjured up by actor Hank Azaria as a gag in an early reading of a first script. Kondabolu reveals in the film that the character was originally flagged as specifically non-Indian—the price-gouging Indian convenience store proprietor seemed like too much of a stereotype—but that the creators were persuaded to rethink his race on the basis of Azaria’s outrageous accent.
Throughout the documentary, Kondabolu engages in heart-to-heart dialogues with fellow performers of South Asian heritage—Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, Aasif Mandvi—who recall being on the receiving end of Apu jokes growing up, and fielding requests to “do the voice.”
White conceptions of what people of Indian descent should sound like have haunted many of the profiled actors across their careers. Finding work as a South Asian American entertainer is not easy. Often, Kondabolu’s interviewees point out, those who are hiring want their characters portrayed in a particular, decidedly non-nuanced way. One of Kal Penn’s early onscreen roles was a guy named Taj Majal; though he was desperate for employment at the time, Penn can’t help but regret having allowed himself to be so flagrantly debased.
In the view of Nafisa Isa, program manager at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, The Problem with Apu succeeds in leveraging a community’s perspective on a single issue to raise much larger questions. These questions, she says, force us to think about “speaking up against stereotypical representation, and about why representation matters” in the first place. “Because sometimes, given everything that’s happening in the world right now, I think the importance of that can get lost.”
Kondabolu is careful not to despair. In the Internet Age, he sees many ways for entertainers to move forward, paths that simply weren’t available in the days when a handful of major TV stations held control over popular media.
Producers no longer want “the biggest piece of the pie,” Kondabolu notes, “they want a piece of the pie. It’s in their best interest to get a wider range of points of view, and find a niche.” In short, inclusivity isn’t just the right move—it’s a profitable one.
Isa points to the success of recent African American programs as a positive sign of change in the industry. “You see how successful Hidden Figures has been,” she says, “and the anticipation for Black Panther is phenomenal. Empires is still doing really well on Fox. So there’s a huge market for this kind of content.” She is optimistic that a wave of complex Asian American roles will soon be hitting the big screen.
Given this favorable climate, and the affordances of modern technology, Kondabolu adds that it is increasingly incumbent on underrepresented individuals with stories to tell to take the initiative and do so themselves. He points to the example of Issa Rae, whose YouTube series Awkward Black Girlgarnered the attention of HBO, ultimately resulting in the creation of her own full-blown TV show, Insecure.
“We have fewer excuses now,” says Kondabolu. “We can buy a decent camera for not very much. Our phones, actually, are higher-quality than a lot of the stuff that was made 20 years ago. We can make art! We can write!”
As Asians and Asian Americans rise through the ranks as their authentic selves, Kondabolu hopes that they will bring an end to the homogenous, white male-dominated production pipelines of the sort responsible for Apu.
“We need to get into those positions,” he says. “We need to be the executives, we need to be the producers, we need to be the writers. We need to own it. Just like it’s important to own land, as a person of color, you need to own the property.”