THE CONSEQUENCES OF INFORMATION DISORDER

THE CONSEQUENCES OF INFORMATION DISORDER

Allan Maynard – January 17 2021

“Post-truth is pre-fascism.” Historian Timothy Snyder in his 2017 book, On Tyranny. 

“If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’—well, it never happened. If he says that ‘two and two are five’—well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs …” George Orwell – the essay “Looking Back on the Spanish War” (1943)

There has been a proliferation of publications on false news over the past 4 years – books, articles in journals and of course the media. Both of these were published in 2017.

On January 6, 2021, the world watched in disbelief as the US Capitol Building was stormed by an angry mob of Trump supporters.  Many were armed, some chanted ‘Hang Pence’, some carried confederate flags, and some carried ‘Jesus Saves’ signs. These despicable events marked the culmination of 4 years of an administration steeped in misinformation and disinformation (see definitions below). That the president lied on a daily basis never seemed to bother his supporters or members of his own party. In fact – 126 Republicans joined a frivolous Texas lawsuit that sought to overturn the results of the election in four states. It’s little wonder that most  (or all?) in that angry mob truly believed the great lie that the November presidential election was rigged. 

Being a strong adherent to evidence-based decision-making, I have, for the past 4 years, been dismayed at the appalling degree of acute dishonesty of the Trump administration. The consequences of such dishonesty and denialisim became ever so clear as we witnessed the epic and totally tragic failures of the administration’s response to the CoVid pandemic (see my April blog – in references). Recommended viewing on this matter – “Totally Under Control” now available in Prime. 

And then came January 6 – with an assault on American democracy. 

How did it come to this? Why is lying tolerated? Why does it seem to work politically? Why are some of the wackiest of conspiracy theories so widely believed? We know lying and obfuscation are prevalent in countries without a free press. But it should not be so pervasive in democratic nations. 

I understand that millions feel left behind in the new global economy. This can lead to bitterness about people’s prospects and even lead to ‘tribes’ pitted against each other. Perhaps many are grasping for any kind of messaging that may provide simple solutions to highly complex problems that are so very difficult to fully grasp.  Lies just might fill that need. 

I am not a historian, a political scientist or a psychologist, but I have certainly been curious about how information disorder can be used as a political tool. It’s amazing how much information is available on this topic and how it has proliferated since 2016. I have done my best to summarize what I have learned. 

THE NOMENCLATURE OF DISHONESTY

We all grow up with many harmless untruths – from tooth fairy to common myths such as believing we could drown if we go in swimming less than one hour after eating. To help understand the current information disorder it is helpful to identify certain terms.

Common misconceptions (longstanding myths) – these are common myths that can be promulgated over and over without any kind of danger – examples – humans only use 10% of their brains/shaving makes hair grow back faster and thicker/we need to drink 8 glasses of water each day to stay hydrated/bulls get angry when they see red. Reference below.

Urban myths (or urban legends) – can be told with conviction — such as the disappearing hitchhiker / theHookman, a mass murderer with a hook in place of a hand. 

Categorizing lies – white / blue / black. Some psychologists  (Scientific American – How the Science of Blue Lies May Explain Trump’s Support) categorize lies as ‘white lies’ that are generous (I like your shirt even if you don’t),  ‘blue lies’—a psychologist’s term for falsehoods, told on behalf of a group, that can actually strengthen bonds among the members of that group, and ‘black lies’ which are selfish and only benefit the lying individual.  The researchers suggest that politicians enabling Trump did not call out his lies because they saw those lies as useful weapons in a tribal us-against-them competition. 

Misinformation vs. disinformation – The most common way of categorizing untruths is well presented in a paper by Clare Wardle in Scientific American entitled “Misinformation Has Created A New World Disorder” The following schematic is from this article.

Denialism – is defined as the psychology of human behaviour to deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth. When someone is told they have cancer, the initial response can be denial. That can be dangerous for that individual if treatment is delayed. It is much more serious for society if denial is on a grander scale as was the deadly and tragic case for many countries in responding to the CoVid pandemic. Also dangerous is when denial is weaponized such as the cases of industry spending vast sums to combat scientific findings that affect their economic futures. Well-documented examples of organized and well-funded denial — the health risks from smoking, acid rain, ozone depletion and climate change.

Cherry picking – is suppressing evidence, or the fallacy of using incomplete data to falsely confirm a particular position, while at the same time ignoring a significant portion of related and similar cases or data that may contradict that position. This approach of only using selected data is widely used by those attempting to deny inconvenient science such as climate change. This is well covered in the book “Merchants of Doubt” – see references.  

Conspiracy theories – are dangerous. In fact some of the most horrific events in history  (the Holocaust, The Rwanda massacre to name only two) were grounded on conspiracy theories. The dictionary definition – ‘a conspiracy is a secret plot or agreement between two or more parties for an illegal or dishonest purpose’. Many conspiracy theories are eye rolling and generally ignored or easily disproved.  An example was the claim that the current pandemic is really caused by the rollout of 5G (high speed -5th Generation Cellular) networks around the world.  More dangerous is the rhetoric linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that Trump is fighting a secret war against a powerful network of elite pedophiles. Even more dangerous is the anti-vaccination movement based on a fundamentally flawed study that claimed vaccines cause autism.  And – it would take a full text-book to describe the myriad of conspiracy theories about the CoVid pandemic.  See – My Blog – May 2018 – in references.

DOES SCIENCE HELP UNDERSTAND LYING?

There are many studies within academia that can help us understand more about lying – why it’s done and how it can be successful politically. Below is a summary of only a few of these studies. 

1. A 2016 study published in the journal ‘Nature Neuroscience’, showed how dishonesty alters people’s brains, making it easier to tell lies in the future. Not only that, but when people faced no consequences for the dishonesty or, even better, are rewarded somehow, their falsehoods tended to get more sensational. The conclusion – the more people lie and get away with it – the more they will continue to lie.

2. Fake news spreads 7 times more widely (and faster) than true news, according to a study examining 126,000 news items circulated among 3 million twitter users. Untrue ‘news’ is as old as gossip, but its proliferation has become particularly troubling in the era of social media. False stories are amplified on Facebook and Twitter. The false post that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump’s candidacy for the US presidency was shared over 1 million times. 

3. The Big Lie – Joseph Goebbels – minister of propaganda for the Nazi German government of the Third Reich, understood the power of repeating falsehoods. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” This phenomenon, pervasive in contemporary politics, advertising, and social media, is known in cognitive psychology as the “illusory truth effect” Studies have confirmed that lies repeated over and over will eventually be believed. The facts don’t actually matter. In my view – this is how Donald Trump managed to convince millions of voters that the election was stolen. 

SOCIAL MEDIA  – FALSEHOODS SPREAD RAPIDLY 

Computer processing power has increased a staggering 1 trillion times between the early 80s and now. The companies at the core of the social media revolution — Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the like — have used the vast amounts of data they harvest about our preferences and behaviours to create an emotional environment that tends to pull us apart and make us dumber. These companies get more eyeballs on their sites and clicks on their links — and so generate more revenue — by creating an addictive information environment of constant cognitive and emotional stimulus, and among the emotions that work best are outrage and (social) anxiety. With powerful algorithms, the social media platforms can totally control what we see – and also what we will not see based on users’ profiles. Our attention is mined like an extractable resource. Democracy is now for sale.

To obtain a clear understanding of the universe of the proliferation of false information, I highly recommend the Netflix show – “Social Dilemma”. 

Bots, which are automated programs that masquerade as people, tend to be particularly good for spreading massive numbers of highly emotional messages with little informational content. Think here of a message with the image of Hillary Clinton behind bars and the words “Lock Her Up!” That kind of message will spread rapidly within the echo chambers populated by those who already agree with the basic sentiment. Bots have considerable power to inflame people who are already like-minded, though they can be easier to detect and block than trolls. The US Justice Department concluded that bots were widely employed by Russia during the 2016 election campaign. (see link to report in References).

By contrast, trolls are typically real people who spread provocative stories and memes. Trolls can be better at persuading people who are less convinced and want more information. Troll information can nonetheless spread just as widely as bots.

In both cases – social media has become a reliable tool of persuasion. This can be good thing when used, for example, to persuade people to do their part in controlling a pandemic. It can be a bad thing when millions are lead to believe the 2020 election was rigged. 

WE NEED A SHARED VISION OF REALITY

It is clear to me that the current state of information disorder is a significant threat to science, progress and to democracy itself. Some strong, bipartisan measures are needed to start rectifying this. 

Firstly – Social Media companies must step up their game and get better at flagging misinformation and disinformation. It would seem this is starting to occur but more needs to be done. Social media companies have the technology, but granted it’s a tightrope initiative in that free speech also needs to be protected. 

Secondly, politicians need to lead and call out lies and not fear how their so-called base (left or right leaning) would react. Voters need to hear the truth even if it’s not favourable to their ideologies and world-views. 

Thirdly – young people, who are the biggest users of social media, need to receive more education on the dangers of false information, how to assess fact from fiction and how to recognize proper journalism. 

Finally – we need to become more responsible in what we decide to read and especially share via email, Facebook, twitter and other ways of communicating. We need to refuse to let Facebook, Google and other platforms be in charge of our newsfeed. With the Internet there are many options that each reader can explore to get world news and a variety of opinions.  It is not difficult to venture away from news bubbles. Good journalism is more vital than ever. See reference below –“What is good journalism?”

Fact checking sites are useful. Of course it is fair to question the reliability of fact check articles. I find however, that these articles contain sources and references with links to official sites – such as NOAA. Also – fact check sites must be truthful to maintain their integrity. In the references section there are 2 articles on fact checking sites – including MBFC (Media Bias Fact Check) – a site that reports on the bias of fact-checking websites like Snopes and PolitiFact and also publishes a daily source bias check. Factors that they consider include sourcing, biased wording, story choices, and political affiliation.

Society is facing many highly complex issues and even existential threats. Millions feel let down or even totally neglected within the global economy. These problems can only be tackled by cooperation and a fact based starting point but also acknowledging differences in worldview visions. Wilful ignorance is not an option. We need to start from a shared vision of reality. 

REFERENCES – I have provided some links if people are interested. I can’t guarantee they will take readers directly to the article. It may require a Google search using the title. 

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century – By Timothy Snyder, 2017

https://environmentmatters.ca/2020/04/17/denial-delay-deadly/

The Lost Month: How a Failure to Test Blinded the U.S. to Covid-19 –

New York Times – March 2020

https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/10/totally-under-control-essential-pandemic-documentary/616729/ – this is a review of the documentary called “Totally Under Control” comparing the US and South Korea response to the corona virus.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_urban_legends

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/can_the_science_of_lying_explain_trumps_support

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/how-the-science-of-blue-lies-may-explain-trumps-support/

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/misinformation-has-created-a-new-world-disorder/

https://environmentmatters.ca/2020/05/18/covid-19-myths-lies-and-profound-bullshit/

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-02934-x

https://www.wired.com/2017/02/dont-believe-lies-just-people-repeat/

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/illusion-chasers/i-heard-it-before-so-it-must-be-true/

Here is a link to the US Justice Dept report on Russian interference.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-psychology-of-fact-checking1/

https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/true-5-factchecking-websites/

Also worth watching – a CBC documentary about the anti-vaccination movement. It shows how impervious people can be to evidence.

https://www.cbc.ca/passionateeye/episodes/vaccine-wars

“ Merchants of Doubt “ – N. Oreskes and E Conway – Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

IMAGINING A PLASTIC-LESS FUTURE

IMAGINING A PLASTIC-LESS FUTURE 

Allan Maynard, MSc. – January 5th, 2021

Home efforts are a good start. However – to solve the complex and overwhelming issue of plastic pollution, there is a dire need for solutions based on technology, for more regulation of the plastic and packaging industries and, in the long term, a comprehensive evaluation of how we evaluate economic success (linear vs. circular economy).

HOME EFFORTS – When my wife Margrit and I finished university in 1971, we spent a year travelling around Europe and Morocco. We would do 2 to 4 week trips followed by a return to Margrit’s birth-place and our declared ‘home base’ of Bassersdorf, Switzerland (near Zurich). After weeks of camping we were grateful to enjoy home cooked dinners and sleep in real beds. We stayed with Margrit’s aunts – Aunt Lydia and Aunt Martha. 

Having lived through the scarcities during the Great Depression and World War II, these two ladies seemingly never threw anything away. They would wash and save even the smallest pieces of aluminum foil and plastic wrap. Plastic bags were rare and seen as a gift for storing food. They would be used and reused until they were worn out. They had a small refrigerator and thus shopped frequently, walking to the village bakery and to other stores dedicated to certain products. Nothing was packed in plastic. No food was ever wasted. These 2 rosy-cheeked ladies provided one of the best examples I have seen of the 3 Rs of minimizing household waste – REDUCE, RECYCLE, REUSE.

Learning from Aunt Martha and Aunt Lydia – Certainly, most of society want to do more to combat plastic waste. There’s a general sense of frustration that recycling as it exists today, is not the solution it was marketed to be. Because of enhanced societal awareness, there is now a plethora of web sites dedicated to providing advice for reducing plastics use in our homes. The 3 Rs – noted above is now expanded to 4 Rs – Reduce, Reject (or refuse), Reuse, and Recycle. 

It is relatively easy for most households to reduce plastic waste with some basic steps – here are but a few tips: 

IS TECHNOLOGY THE ANSWER? – The short answer – unlikely but it’s complicated. Technology initiatives are centered around 3 considerations – 1) Making plastic that is biodegradable, 2) Making plastic that can be more successfully recycled and 3) Making recycling more successful than it is today. A brief summary of these:

  • 1. Biodegradable Plastic – Biodegradable plastics can in theory, be broken down by microbes. Biodegradable plastics or bio-plastics are made from plant materials (starch or cellulose), rather than fossil fuels. There are a number of possibilities on the market and under research. 

The big question though – even with these products – what does biodegradable really mean? It does not mean they can go to backyard compost boxes or to to landfills under the expectation they will degrade. What’s required rather, is an industrial scale composting system. Such systems are becoming more and more prominent in dealing with food waste. From coffee cups to sandwich packaging to takeaway containers, putting food in compostable plastics means that – in an ideal world, the plastic and any food waste still stuck to it can be composted together. It’s a triple win: reducing the amount of regular plastic being sent to landfill, preventing recycling from being contaminated with food, and at the same time making sure food waste is returned to the soil, rather than being left to rot in landfill where it will release methane.

The main issue though is that food waste pickup and subsequent industrial composting, while quite widespread in Europe (and some provinces in Canada), is not as prevalent as it could be in North America and in many developing countries. 

  • New plastics that can be continuously recycled  – A previous article outlined how few of the plastics in use are recycled. Moreover, the recycled plastic material is of lower quality. Even PET – the most recycled form of plastic (used in beverage bottles) is only recycled at a rate of about 30%.

Now research is underway to produce plastics that can be recycled over and over without a resulting loss of quality. For example, the creation of a new material, called polydiketoenamine, or PDK, was reported in the journal ‘Nature Chemistry’. This formulation along with other research is showing considerable promise but it’s too early to assess commercial viability. 

  • Improving recycling – Today, recycling centers rely largely on mechanical processes, which consist of crushing the plastic into flakes, which are then processed and transformed into plastic granules. These granules are then, in theory, mixed with virgin plastics. It should be possible to manufacture new beverage bottles composed of at least 50 to 70 percent recycled plastic.  The difficulty is that there are simply too many types of plastic on the market. Thus, sorting prior to recycling is the main limiting aspect of all recycling programs. 

Better sorting – In Europe an initiative called “Project Holy Grail’ is working on much better systems for sorting waste.  Postage stamp sized watermarks on packaging—which are not visible to the naked eye—make it possible to effectively sort the material into specific waste streams. With this new technology, it becomes possible to separate materials more accurately. The waste plastic can then be more effectively recycled based on the chemistry of that specific material. Again – this is in a development phase and not yet commercialized.

A worker working with conveyer belt electronics in the factory

Waste needs to be sorted before recycling.

Chemical technology – Some in the industry suggest that chemical recycling may also provide an answer. This is very much at the research or pilot stage. The process would involve pyrolysis, which consists of heating the plastic to a high temperature to obtain a hydrocarbon product, followed by material separations into separate chemical components, followed then by re-polymerization. 

GOVERNMENT NEEDS TO STEP IN  – it has become clear to me that individual action on the home front along with developing technologies that are still at the research stage, will not provide all the solutions needed to deal with plastic pollution. It is my view that governments around the world need to exert more control. There is broad societal support for doing so.

Plastics impose a massive untaxed externality upon society, estimated by the Carbon Tracker and other sources at about $1,000 per tonne ($350bn a year) from resulting air pollution, health costs, collection costs, and ocean pollution. Policymakers, especially in Europe, are implementing much more stringent regulatory regimes using five key tools — taxation, design rules, bans, targets, and infrastructure. However, there is a huge and undoubtedly expected push back from industry on these initiatives. According to the Carbon Tracker report, there is a stark contrast between the plans of the petrochemical industry and the threat of imposed restrictions leading to lower growth. “The petrochemical industry already faces huge overcapacity, but is planning to spend a further $400bn for new capacity. Unless stopped, this will result in continued low prices and significant stranded assets”.  (Carbon Tracker)

Fortunately – At least 127 countries have now imposed some sort of ban on single use plastic, even though there as been a relaxation of enforcement during the CoVid crisis. Most European countries now ban such products. Canada will ban the use of all single use plastic by the end of 2021. A few US states also have bans but it’s far from nation-wide. Kenya likely has the strictest regulations of all where citizens can face jail time for breaking the single use plastic laws. 

In addition to bans – there are now proposals to force the plastic industry to take more responsibility for the waste their products produce. The most effective plans would require industry to pay for the disposal of plastic waste that cannot be recycled. For example – the European Union plans tax of about $1,000 US per tonne of product The plan also includes rules obliging all plastic packaging to be recyclable, and to set targets for the share of recyclates in packaging.

A CIRCULAR ECONOMY – The issue of plastic pollution in our environment is a clear example of the need to completely re-think global economies and how we measure success that is sustainable. GDP  (Gross Domestic Product) is the standard used around the world but it does not provide information about the overall wellbeing of a country since activities that are detrimental (like waste, deforestation, strip mining, over-fishing, prison populations) actually (and strangely) increase today’s GDP. In my opinion, it is vital that we move towards a circular economy as an alternative to a traditional GDP based linear economy (make, use, dispose). 

This applies very clearly for plastics in that we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life. Yoni Shiran, lead author of ‘Breaking the Plastic Wave’ claims “There are huge benefits in the change from the current linear system to a more circular one. You can have all the functionality of plastics but at half the capital cost, half the amount of feedstock, 700,000 additional jobs and 80% less plastic pollution.”  I believe this claim is possible to achieve. 

REFERENCES

Can we break our addiction to plastic – Financial Times – October 30, 2019

Closed loop recycling of plastics enabled by dynamic covalent diketoenamine bonds. Nature Chemistry. April 22, 2019

The future is not in plastics. Carbon Tracker, Sept 4, 2020

Holy grail 2.0 is launched – Recycling Magazine 08/09/2020

Good information about recycling

https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org

Excellent resource on all aspects of the plastics issue and about a circular economy

http://www.greeneducationfoundation.org/nationalgreenweeksub/waste-reduction-tips/tips-to-use-less-plastic.html

For tips on reducing plastics on our homes

https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/home-products/g31291481/eco-friendly-products/

One example web site that promotes eco-friendly products. There are many such web sites for those interested and I am not able to verify how good some of these items are. It just shows that a number of enterprises are working on resolutions. 

FINALLY – FOR LITTLE COMIC RELIEF – Some photos of ridiculous packaging that should be easy to avoid. Maybe not so funny!!!

Bananas are seen in a Conad grocery shop in Rome, Italy, April 10, 2016. REUTERS/Max Rossi

MICRO-PLASTICS – THE HIDDEN CONSEQUENCE OF PLASTICS USE

Allan Maynard, MSc.    November 23rd, 2020

Note – I realize these articles can be unsettling to read especially at a time when we may be looking for more uplifting news. However as a friend noted – the first step in solving a problem is addressing it. I feel obliged to do my small part towards increasing awareness of environmental issues and the need for science based decision- making. 

from sciencenewsforstudents.org

Images of common household waste swirling in vast garbage patches in the open ocean or tangled up with dolphins, turtles and seabirds have turned plastic pollution into one of the most widely reported environmental issues of our day. However, what scientists can see and measure accounts for only a fraction of the plastic waste entering the environment. A consideration of tiny plastic fibers may not tug at the heartstrings like a picture of a sea turtle caught in a plastic pop ring, but these tiny particles and fibers are an even greater threat to our planet and consequently, human health.

As an emerging field of study, not a lot is known about micro-plastics and their impacts. The first inkling that plastic pollution is not limited to the plastic bags, soft drink bottles and other visible trash came in the 1960s and 1970s. During a research cruise to the Sargasso Sea in the Fall 1971 a marine biologist noticed peculiar white specks floating amidst the mats of brown seaweed. After some investigating he discovered they were tiny bits of plastic. It was a stunning discovery given the fact that thousands of the broken down particles were showing up in in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Ed Carpenter, now at San Francisco State University, published his observations March 17, 1972, in Science.

An explosion of research to track micro-plastics is revealing a mountain of plastic hidden not only in the oceans but in the world’s rivers, lakes, soils, as well as organisms big and small. Micro-plastics have also been found in the atmosphere and are thus transported around the globe. A seminal study was conducted in 2004 by a marine biologist at the University of Plymouth. Dr. Richard Thompson (who helped coin the term micro-plastic) found beach and coastal sediments off Plymouth, England, teeming with micro-plastics. Scientists around the world really sat up and took notice. Since then, studies have documented microfibers and fragments drifting around every ocean basin, in the bellies of marine species, and even frozen in Arctic sea ice.

WHAT ARE MICROPLASTICS?

Two classifications of micro-plastics currently exist. Primary micro-plastics are plastic fragments or particles that are already 5.0 mm in size or less before entering the environment. These include microfibers from clothing, micro-beads used as exfoliates in personal care products, and plastic pellets.  Secondary micro-plastics are micro-plastics that are created from the degradation of larger plastic products once they enter the environment. Such sources of secondary micro-plastics include single use plastics, water and soda bottles, fishing nets, and more. Both types of micro-plastics are recognized to persist in the environment at high levels although it is likely that secondary micro-plastics are more abundant. 

Size matters in the definition. Generally, micro-plastics are defined as less than 5 millimeters (mm). The range of 5 mm (size of a grain of rice) down to 1 mm (size of a pin head) is considered ‘large’ in comparison to an abundance of even smaller particles (less then 0.3mm).  An even newer definition comes from the discovery of even smaller particles now called nano-plastics (1 to 999 nanometers). The smaller end range would be the size of a virus. In other words these particles are invisible without the aid of powerful microscopy.

Size also matters in terms of the detection of micro-plastics in the environment. Many of the earlier studies counted particles that were either visible to the naked eye or easily detected with standard microscopy. However the early studies were concluding that only a small percentage of the ‘missing plastic’ could be accounted for. To investigate further Melanie Bergmann, a marine ecologist with the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) led a comprehensive study in the Arctic.  This study revealed 100 to 1,000 times as many micro-plastic particles frozen in Arctic sea ice compared to earlier studies. Two thirds of what the team found, using analytic instruments that read the chemical signature of plastics, was around 11 micrometers in diameter (about the size of a human red blood cell). Such sized particles were significantly lower than the detection limit of earlier studies. In fact, now it is speculated that some particles are so small that they more resemble a chemical actually dissolved in water. 

ENVIRONMENTAL AND HEALTH IMPACTS

from whoi.edu

We are only beginning to understand the significance of the environmental and health impacts from micro- and nano-plastic particles. Firstly, it’s widely known that a broad range of species, ingest the particles. To date, micro-plastics have been found in over 100 different aquatic species. This does indeed make sense as the small particles resemble food for smaller aquatic species such as plankton, bivalves and small fish. 

Since the topic of micro-plastics is still an emerging field of study, many of the effects of the micro-plastics on fish health are still unknown. However, several recent lab studies have shown a link between the ingestion of microplastics with stunted growth rates, reduced appetites, and the potential for reduced reproduction rates. These studies have also shown a correlation between the ingestion of microplastics by larval fish and an increased mortality rate among those fish as a result of the plastic getting stuck and blocking the fish’s digestive tract.

For human populations, even less is known.  If the plastic particles remain in the digestive track of fish, it is likely that they would not become part of the human diet. However, smaller fish such as sardines and anchovies are often eaten whole – thus the possibility of human consumption would then occur. Bivalves such as clams and oysters are filter feeders. If exposed to micro-plastics they would accumulate the plastic fibers, which would in turn result in human consumption since bivalves are eaten whole.  

Small plastic particles can also absorb other toxic chemicals that may exist in some ecosystems. Like a miniscule Trojan horse, the particles can then ferry in hazardous chemicals and help them accumulate up the food chain.

Perhaps an even greater threat is the airborne particles as they can be inhaled like any other air pollutant.  The first study to measure plastic fallout from the atmosphere was published only in 2015. The recent attention to the issue means that there are only a handful of measurements of airborne plastic, and little sense of how the numbers might vary from place to place, depending on weather conditions and where the material is ultimately coming from. Alarmingly, there is growing concern about nano-plastics that are so small they can possibly enter cells and move into tissues and organs. Currently the ability to detect these particles in food and blood samples, etc. does not exist.  

The research to date marks the first wave in what is likely to be a flood of such studies in the coming years, directed towards an effort to fill in the picture of how micro-plastics and nano-plastics move around the environment, affect wildlife and affect human health. This research will hopefully lead to increased regulations concerning plastic manufacturing and use. One example – On December 28, 2015, President Obama signed an Act (Microbead-Free Waters Act) banning plastic micro-beads in cosmetics and personal care products. This was long overdue and their use as exfoliates should never have been allowed in the first place. 

It is obvious the plastics industry and our dependence on the products requires a comprehensive review that will lead to effective regulations, extensive research, and societal awareness. Such topics will be covered in an upcoming article. 

References

Earth Has a Hidden Plastic Problem—Scientists Are Hunting It Down, A Thompson, Scientific American, August, 2018

Microplastics Are Blowing in the Wind, A Thompson, Scientific American, April 2015

(2018, June). What are microplastics?. Retrieved from

from https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html

What Are Microplastics?. Retrieved from https://www.greenmatters.com/t/microplastics

THE MYTH OF PLASTIC RECYCLING

Allan Maynard, MSc. – November 9, 2020

THE CRYING INDIAN – If you watched TV during the 1970s and 80s you would likely have seen one of the most iconic ads ever made. A buckskinned, black braided Native American (but called “Indian” in those days) is seen paddling down a pristine river but eventually enters a polluted harbor. He paddles his boat to a bank strewn with litter. As he exits his boat and wanders near a road someone flings a bag of trash from a moving car. The trash scatters at his feet.  The Native American then looks into the camera; a single tear is seen rolling down his cheek. The narrator booms –“People start pollution. People can stop it.” 

The ad in many aspects is a fraud. The “Crying Indian” is neither Native American nor crying. He was played by an Italian actor known for playing natives in western movies. The ad was sponsored by the organization “Keep America Beautiful”. What eventually became clear, the Keep America Beautiful organization was founded, and is still mainly funded, by the beverage and packaging industries. While anti-littering campaigns should certainly be lauded, the sinister reality behind this campaign was to shift blame for packaging waste in the environment towards the users of the products rather than the manufacturers. Thus began THE MYTH OF PLASTICS RECYCLING. 

THE NUMBERS IN REVIEW – In my October 26, 2020 article – “We Are Drowning in Plastics”, I presented dramatic statistics concerning plastic waste.  A quick review of the main facts:

  • 6 billion (approximately) tons of plastic materials have been produced in the period 1950 to 2015 (Science Advances, 2017)
  • The estimate to update that number into 2020 – approximately 9 billion tons 
  • Of the 6 billion tons of plastic ever made up to year 2015 – 9% has been recycled, 12% has been burned, and the remaining 79% has ended up in landfills or in the environment. 
  • The amount of plastic entering the oceans (earth’s last sink) is over 9 million tons each year. This is only a fraction of the total plastic waste generated. 

WHAT THE PLASTICS INDUSTRY KNEW – For decades, we have been sorting trash believing that most plastic could be recycled. But the truth is, the vast majority of all plastic produced can’t be or won’t be recycled. In a joint investigation, NPR (U.S. National Public Radio) and the PBS series Frontline found that oil and gas companies — the makers of plastic — have known this reality all along, even as they spent millions of dollars telling the public the opposite. 

The main points from this investigation are: 

  • Plastics industry had “serious doubt” recycling would ever be viable

The investigators dug deep into various archives and found internal correspondence. For example, the investigators state —  “A report sent to top industry executives in April 1973 called recycling plastic ‘costly’ and “difficult.’ It called sorting it ‘infeasible’, saying ‘there is no recovery from obsolete products.’ Another document a year later was candid: There is ‘serious doubt’ widespread plastic recycling can ever be made viable on an economic basis.”

  • The industry promoted recycling to keep plastic bans at bay

The investigators interviewed three former top officials from the plastics industry who revealed that the industry promoted recycling as a way to beat back a growing tide of awareness about plastic pollution along with calls for banning certain products (late 80s, early 90s). Recycling, the former officials told NPR and Frontline, became a way to pre-empt the bans and sell even more plastic. In fact the industry projection is to triple production by 2050.

  • More recycling means fewer profits for petrochemical companies

The more plastic is recycled, the less money the industry will make selling new plastic. And those profits have become increasingly important with the declining market for fossil fuels. In essence the petrochemical companies are aware that a successful recycling operation will become their competitor. Or, if they undertake recycling themselves, it will reduce profits. It’s much cheaper (and thus more profitable) to make new products from raw materials than to make an inferior plastic product from waste.

The sad truth is that is that the plastics industry has promoted recycling mainly to sell more products. The public has been lead to believe that the recycling triangle on the bottom of plastic packing means the item can be recycled. The truth of the matter? – It’s complicated. 

Is it really necessary to package lettuce like this? These plastic containers are made of #1 PET thermoform and are usually used for berry containers, salad containers, tomato containers, etc. They are not readily recyclable. 

WHAT PLASTICS ARE THERE?  WHICH ONES CAN BE RECYLCED

Recycling is determined by two factors: the market and city or municipal government programsIf there’s an organized recycling program along with a demand in the market for the plastics collected, then recyclers and companies will pay for post-consumer recyclables. The market demand is quite limited in reality, and it greatly depends on the type of plastic.

In general terms there are two broad categories of plastic  – thermoset plastics and thermo-plastics. Thermo-plastics are plastics that can be re-melted and re-moulded into new products, and therefore, recycled. Thermoset plastics contain polymers that cross-link to form an irreversible chemical bond, meaning that no matter how much heat is applied, they cannot be re-melted into new material and hence are not recyclable.

Examples of plastic containers that can be recycled in curb side programs. These are #2 – HDPE – see table below.

In more specific terms, the following are the various formulations of plastics, what they are used for, the approximate proportions in the waste streams (up to and including the year 2015) and the possibilities for recycling.  Note – the numbers – 1 to 7 referenced appear on the plastic items usually in a small triangle. 

#NameExamplesRe-cycling options
1Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)Beverage bottles, food jars, clothing fiber, cosmetic bottles 11Most PET products can be re-cycled from curb-side programs
2High-density polyethylene (HDPE)Milk jugs, detergent bottles, toys, garden furniture14Similar to #1 – mostly accepted in blue bin programs
3Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)2 forms – a) rigid – for plumbing, windows, bank cards and b) non rigid – inflatable products, electric wire insulation, etc. 5Some items can be recycled – but there are difficulties in separating.
4Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)Plastic bags, food wrappings, squeezable bottles, 20Only a few items can be recycled. The big issue is single use bags as they get caught in the sorting machines.
5Polypropylene (PP)Bottle caps, straws, coolers, diapers, clothing and carpet fibers, and some food packing – yogurt, margarine, etc. 19Most cannot be recycled through curb side programs
6Polystyrene (PS)White Styrofoam – used in packaging and also for rigid food containers6Most municipalities do not accept Styrofoam products in curbside recycling programs
7Other – category 7A grab bag of plastics not found in any other category.  24%Mostly non recyclable

# – Refers to the number found in the triangle on each plastic item — % – Refers to the estimated percentage of each kind of plastic in the waste stream – up to 2015.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS ABOUT RECYLING – In general – it is the plastics with the numbers 1 and 2 (mostly) that can be recycled in curbside recycling programs. Others usually need to be taken to recycling locations or are simply sent to landfills or incinerators. Careful citizens will take the time to sort their plastics and take, to recycling depots, those items not permitted in curbside bins. However, the main concern is that a large majority will simply put all plastic items in curbside blue boxes. In such cases – likely the majority – the items that cannot be recycled will be considered trash. 

Mixed material such as zip lock bags can be a problem. For instance – take away coffee cups. While the outside of the cup is made of paper, inside is a thin layer of plastic. The PP (Polypropylene) film protects the liquid from seeping into the paper (and thereby burning you) and keeps your warm drink from cooling too quickly. Because there are two different materials, the cups cannot be recycled unless the materials are separated, which is impossible to do by hand and requires a special machine.

Any plastic material with food residues on (or in) it CANNOT be recycled. In order for plastics to be transformed into recycled goods, they must be of decent quality. So, it is important to wash the plastic before it goes in the blue box. 

To sum up – most plastic we use cannot be recycled. The plastic industry knows this and yet continues to extensively market plastic for multiple uses. We users can do more by becoming aware and refusing to use single use plastic or buying items that are inappropriately packaged. However, regulation is the only way to revers the troubling trend towards increasing plastic use. Canada for instance will ban single use plastic in 2021. But this is only a start. 

UPCOMING – 2 more articles. 

The serious concern about micro-plastics

Long-term solutions – yes – we can get out of this mess.

WE ARE DROWNING IN PLASTIC WASTE: THE PLASTICS CONUNDRUM

By Allan Maynard, MSc. – October 26, 2020

______________________________________________

From National Geographic 06/2018 – a market stall in Zhejiang, China

Everyday, we touch hundreds od items that are made of plastic. Plastics have greatly benefited humankind. They help keep planes in the air, make automobiles more fuel efficient, and allow the shipment of clean drinking water where needed. From computers and cell phones to televisions and microwaves, durable, lightweight and affordable plastics have helped revolutionize the electronics we rely on every day. Plastics also help to preserve the longevity of food and allow goods to be conveniently packaged for shipment to markets. Modern healthcare would not be possible without the use of plastic materials. From keeping damaged hearts beating to the smallest tubing, plastics have made health care simpler, more sterile and less painful. 

Yes – plastics have greatly benefited humankind but the benefits and convenience have come at a great price. This is the great plastics conundrum. We have been relying upon but also overusing plastics for the past 5 decades and now we are drowning in the resulting waste. It is a serious problem that science failed to properly predict. 

Most of us know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that is one of the five offshore plastic accumulation zones in the world’s oceans located halfway between Hawaii and California. It covers an area approximately 1.6 million square kilometers – an area twice the size of Texas. Shocking as this is, there is an even more dramatic example to demonstrate the extent of ocean’s plastics problem. Dr. Jenna Jambeck, a professor at the University of Georgia did the math and her conclusions were recently presented in a National Geographic article (06/2018). Imagine 5 plastic grocery bags stuffed with plastic waste sitting on every foot of coastline around the entire world. That would correspond to 8.8 million tons – of plastic waste entering the ocean – EACH YEAR. And this number is likely a lower estimate of how much plastic waste enters the ocean annually. Moreover it’s really only the tip of the iceberg when we also add in all the waste found on land and accumulating in landfills.

This article – and some upcoming articles will summarize what plastics really are, an overview of the environmental and health consequences, which plastics can and cannot be recycled (hint – most cannot be), the serious issue of micro (and even nano) plastics, along with solutions for a safer future.

WHAT ARE PLASTICS

Now for a very short chemistry lesson. Because of the great variety of ways that the carbon atom can bond with itself and other elements, there are more than nine million known organic compounds includinghydrocarbon fuels, proteins, fats, sugars, cellulose, pesticides, dyes and more. Plastics are among an incomprehensively large sub-list of organic compounds known as polymers. A polymer is a substance or material consisting of very large molecules, or macromolecules, composed of many repeating subunits.

Rubber (latex) is a naturally occurring plastic that has been used for millennia. Most science historians credit Alexander Parkes for introducing the first ever man-made plastic material in 1862. “Parkensine” as it was called was made by dissolving wood or cotton fibers (nitrocellulose) in solvents and then mixing in camphor or vegetable oils. It was marketed as an alternative to ivory and animal horns. The big breakthrough though, came later – in 1907, when Leo Baekeland invented “Bakelite” – made not from natural materials but from fossil fuels. His work opened the floodgates to a torrent of now familiar synthetic plastics – polystyrene in 1929, polyester in 1930, polyvinylchloride (PVC) and polythene in 1933, nylon in 1935. Starting around the 1950s, plastics were mass-produced. Now it’s everywhere. 

PLASTICS POLLUTION

We made it and now we depend on it. We are literally overwhelmed with the problem. The problem is in plain site. That’s why there are no plastics pollution deniers in contrast with the issue of climate change where denial is an industry on to itself. 

Photo from Greenpeace.org

The facts are so staggering it becomes mind-bending.

  • Half the plastic ever made was produced in the last 15 years
  • A trillion plastic bags are used each year – worldwide
  • The average ‘working life’ of single-use plastic materials such as bags, cutlery, straws, food containers – is 15 minutes
  • More than 9 million tons of plastics enters the oceans each year (see comments above)
  • The life span of plastic waste in the environment can be anywhere from 400 years to forever. Beyond what we have incinerated or recycled a staggering 6 billion tons remain. 
  • Millions of marine animals are killed each year – getting tangled or ingesting plastic waste including micro-plastics (see upcoming article).

Photo by Justin Hofman – taken in the waters of Indonesia

A research article published in Science Advances 2017 titled “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made” estimates that by the year 2015, all plastic that has ever been produced from raw materials amasses over 6 billion metric tons. From that, only 9% has been recycled, 12% has been burned, and the remaining 79% has ended up in landfills or the environment. Of course much more has been produced and added to the waste category since 2015. The researchers further project that if current habits continue, 12 billion metric tons of plastic will be in landfills or the environment by 2050. The article also goes on to mention that 42% (146 million tons) of all the plastic created in the year 2015 was for packaging. That’s an important metric because packaging is one of the most wasteful and often unnecessary uses of plastic, as we will explore in an upcoming article. 

Not insignificant is the pollution associated with plastics manufacturing with most of the toxics released into the atmosphere. A recent study by the Oakland (CA) Recycling Association indicated that the plastics industry accounted for 14% of the national (USA) toxic chemicals released into the atmosphere. 

And there is now a heightened concern about micro-plastics. Scientific papers describing small plastic fragments in birds appeared in the 1960s and in plankton net samples in the early 1970s. However, the attention of the scientific community was greatly aroused about a decade ago. Since then there has been an enormous increase in publications about many different aspects
of micro-plastic distribution and behaviour. Micro-plastics are tiny pieces that break off larger plastic items (such as bottles and bags) as they degrade in the environment, as well as the fibers that slough off synthetic fabrics. They come in a wide range of sizes—from a grain of rice down to a virus. An upcoming article will deal with this topic. 

In summary – plastics are a necessary part of our lives but we are paying a severe price with respect to our health and our planet. 

Upcoming articles:

  • PLASTICS RECYCLING – IS THIS A CONTRADICTION IN TERMS?

The vast majority of the plastics we use cannot be or are not recycled.

  • MICRO-PLASTICS – A MAJOR ISSUE

Micro plastics are found throughout the ocean, in the air we breathe and even collect at the poles. This is a danger to the environment and also to human health. 

  • PLASTICS – WHAT IS THE FUTURE? 

Science and technology is highly focussed to create alternatives to the plastics we use. Moreover awareness throughout society is on the rise and progressive governments are enacting legislation to deal with the issue – especially banning single use plastics and wasteful packaging, which is long overdue. 

WILDFIRES – IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE — Sept 23rd 2020

WILDFIRES: THE IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE

Allan Maynard, September 23, 2020

In just a matter of a few weeks, California has experienced 6 of the largest wildfires in its modern history creating untold misery for tens of thousands. Moreover, the state has toppled all-time temperature records from the desert to the coast. Millions are suffering from some of the worst air quality in years due to heat-triggered smog and fire smoke. An apocalyptic plume has blanketed most of the West Coast, blotting out the sun and threatening people’s lungs during a deadly pandemic. Cities across the state have opened “cleaner-air centers”, where people who can’t afford purifiers or don’t have homes can escape the smoke for a few hours. But they have been less frequented than in previous years because of concerns about Covid-19. Public spaces such as libraries have been closed, eliminating another respite.

Fires have also been raging at unprecedented levels in Oregon and Washington. Unlike 2017 and 2018, British Columbia, has had a modest fire season. However, the southern half of the province became blanketed in smoke from the fires south. Vancouver BC, during the period September 11 to 19, 2020, had the worst air quality readings in the world. 

In addition to concerns in North America, the year 2020 has seen unprecedented fires cause havoc across the world. Australia recently battled its largest bushfire on record, while parts of the Arctic, the Amazon and Central Asia are still experiencing severe blazes. 

The resulting health concerns are considerable. Wildfire smoke is a very complex type of air pollution consisting of a variety of gases and small particles (Sarah Henderson – UBC). Of particular concern, is particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter (about 30 times smaller than the diameter of human hair)—also referred to as PM 2.5. These small particles, and ones even smaller, are capable of penetrating deep into a person’s lungs. The body responds by releasing the same immune cells it would deploy to attack a virus. Unlike a virus, however, particulate matter isn’t broken down by that immune response. This can then result in long-lasting inflammation in many people. It is estimated that wildfire smoke is responsible for 5 to 8% of the 3.3 million annual worldwide deaths due to poor air quality. 

Forest management is a significant factor in the continuing issue of wildfire crises. Fires are a critical component of forest ecosystems. Fires thin out the vegetation, and create the required conditions for forest renewal. However, a century of trying to suppress all forest fires, and a population boom at the “wild-and-urban” interface has resulted in an abundance of ignitable fuel. It has also brought more of the electricty grid into forested areas. Downed wires (usually from wind) are beoming more significant in igniting forest fires.

Unfortunately, forest management has become the primary talking point of some media along with the current US federal administration. Like President Trump, conservative media stars dismiss climate change and point to the poor management of forestland by local officials. In fact – a fringe right-wing website, “The Gateway Pundit”, has outlandishly blamed ‘left wing arsonists” for the fires. 

Visiting California on September 14, 2020 to witness the destruction firsthand, Mr. Trump took western states to task for failing to manage the forests properly (forgetting that most forest lands are under federal jurisdiction). During a meeting with California officials who pushed him to acknowledge the role of climate change in the wildfires, the president said: “It’ll start getting cooler – You just watch.” He went on to claim “I don’t think science knows actually”. He is dangerously wrong. The science is clear. 

Climate change – It needs to be clearly stated, no amount of forest management can stop the disasters in an ever-more flammable world. The link between fires and climate is basic physics: Human greenhouse gas emissions have warmed the planet. Higher temperatures evaporate more water, drying out vegetation and making it more likely to ignite. In the American West — where temperatures are already as much as 4 degrees Fahrenheit (approx. 2 C) hotter than in the preindustrial era — landscapes are burning in fundamentally different and more destructive ways.

The trends alone can tell the tale:

  • There are 10 times more fires than in the 1970s
  • In the western US, the climate crisis has doubled the area burned by wildfire from 1984 to 2015, according to research cited in the federal government’s climate assessment.
  • Fifteen of California’s 20 worst fires have occurred in the past 20 years
  • As of mid-September of this year – 3.2 million acres (5000 square miles) of California forests have been incinerated – almost double the area burned last year.
  • The Camp Fire of 2019, considered one of the most intense fires in modern history, destroyed the town of Paradise, CA (26,000 population). It burned at a rate of 1 acre per second, incinerating100, 000 acres of forest, and 19,000 structures. Lives lost – 86.   
  • Australia – As of mid- March 2020, the 2019/ 2020 fires burnt an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres), destroyed over 5,900 buildings (including 2,779 homes) and killed at least 34 people. Nearly three billion terrestrial vertebrates alone – were affected and some endangered species are now believed to have been driven to extinction. At its peak, air quality was at hazardous levels in all southern and eastern states.
  • On May 1, 2016, a wildfire began southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. … With an estimated damage cost of C$9.9 billion, it was the costliest disaster in Canadian history. The fire spread across approximately 590,000 hectares (1,500,000 acres) destroying 2400 homes and forcing the evacuation of over 80,000 people before it was declared to be under control on July 5, 2016.
  • The Arctic is burning like never before.  These fires are releasing record levels of carbon dioxide, partly because they are burning ancient peatlands that have been a carbon sink for millennia.

The graphic below adds an additional perspective on areas burned in California since 1975. It is noteworthy that the October to December period is increasingly significant due to longer lasting dry seasons – from Increase in California areas burned by wildfires, 1975 to 2015. WILLIAMS, ABATZOGLOU ET AL., EARTH’S FUTURE

These are stunning statistical trends adding to a growing body of evidence that climate change is the main driver. Such statistics need to be addressed within more rigorous research that is then published in peer review literature. This is how science works. Scientists build on the work of others to create greater and more conclusive scientific knowledge.  The studies review trends, work with complex models, along with considering metrics such as fuel and soil aridity, fire temperatures, speed of fire spread, wind factors and more. The research on wildfires is abundant and increasingly clear. A few examples are provided below:

Dr. F Otto – acting director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, has rigorously assessed the Australian fires. She concluded that temperatures during the 2019/2020 bushfires were 1 to 2 degrees hotter than they would have been in the early part of the 20th century. A quote for this author —  “We found that climate change made the bushfires at least 30% more likely – and that is a conservative estimate”.  

In Canada – a study by Dr. M. Kirchner-Young concluded that Canada’s 2017 fire season, which saw a record 1.2 million hectares of land burned, was driven by “extreme warm and dry conditions” heightened by climate change. The study estimated that the total area burned across the season was made seven to 11 times larger by climate change.

 A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that human-caused climate change doubled the amount of forest burned between 1984 and 2015. California’s own climate assessment in 2018 predicted that higher temperatures would cause 2.5 million acres to burn annually — the models just did not expect it to happen until 2050.

This article would be many more pages if I cited all the relevant literature I have reviewed. Suffice to say – climate change is the most significant factor associated with the wildfire crises around the world. Climate change leads to increased aridity, prolonged droughts, longer seasonal dry seasons, decreased snow packs and a shift in wind direction and intensity. Wildfires will get increasingly disastrous unless governments around the world tackle climate change in a significant manner. Citizens around the world that have the privilege to vote need to elect leaders that acknowledge the climate crisis and have significant plans to address the many challenges we face. 

Some References

Forest Fires – A Clinical Primer. BC Medical Journal, August 2016

Attribution of the Australia Bushfire Risk to Anthropologic Climate Change. World weather attribution – June 10, 2020

Explainer: How climate change is affecting wildfires around the world – July 14, 2020

A GREEN RECOVERY – THERE IS NO CHOICE

BY – Allan Maynard – July 24, 2020

The international CoVid-19 crisis demonstrates – in real, fast forward time, stark lessons about the consequences of unsustainable development, the limitations of our economic systems and the critical need for informed, evidence based leadership. We have learned the harsh lesson that our dependence on animal protein has placed humans and animals (farmed and in some cases wild) in close proximity allowing viruses to jump from animals to humans who have limited immunity to the new (novel) infections. We have also learned that air pollution is an important contributor to deaths from respiratory viruses such as Covid-19. 

On the positive side, we did observe, for short time – that the tragic pandemic that is causing so much human misery did indeed give Planet Earth a much-needed “breather”. Air pollution levels, especially oxides of nitrogen and fine particulates, were drastically reduced around the world. In Beijing, residents were able see the stars at night, an impossibility for the past number of years. 

We also have seen how rapidly some governments were able to mobilize human resources, infrastructure and financial measures in response to a crisis whilst simultaneously gaining the confidence of their citizens to ensure full cooperation. But, unfortunately we have also seen the dire consequences of bad leadership that has resulted in deadly delays and muddled communications. 

RECOVERY – BUSINESS AS USUAL IS NOT AN OPTION –It is clear that we cannot, in recovering from this pandemic, go back to ‘business as usual”. It was business as usual that got us into this mess

The ever changing nature of the CoVid crisis and the politics involved has, for the past number of months, pushed news about a host of environmental crises (climate change, accelerated extinctions, toxic exposure, micro-plastic pollution and more) off the front pages. This is understandable but also unfortunate. Environmental issues are, and will continue to be, orders of magnitude greater in terms of overall human cost. For example, the combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about 7 million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections (WHO – 2019 report). The numbers associated with climate change due to drought, hurricanes, wild fires, land use degradation and massive human migrations and more are even more worrying but harder to quantify.  

Some facts re climate change:

Carbon Dioxide280 PPM in 1970 // 420 ppm in 2020
Temperature1 degree C higher globally since 1900 / over 7 degrees warmer in parts of the Arctic
Sea IceShrunk by over 1,000,000 sq. miles (2.6 million sq. km)
Sea levelsHave risen over 20 cm since 1900 – flooding in many cities
Fires2019 – tens of millions hectors lost – unprecedented – each year is worse
Heat wavesEach year – more days of extreme heat and more deaths due to the heat
Ocean acidityIncreasing due to carbon dioxide dissolving – threats to sea life / coral bleaching

There are many more stark examples. The main point – we are seeing dramatic levels of damage and health consequences due to environmental degradation and it’s getting worse each year. 

Despite the mountains of evidence, there is still significant denial and/or ignorance of climate change and environmental degradation. In fact we are seeing some governments moving 180 degrees in the wrong direction. In Brazil, President Bolsonaro has decided that it’s a good idea to burn precious Amazon forests to make way for beef farming. In the US, the Trump administration is weakening a host of air, water, land-use and climate change regulations. Around the world, many industries are advocating for even more reductions in health, safety and environmental regulations citing economic “emergency factors” due to the lockdowns.  Moreover, the fossil fuel industry is lobbying for significant portions of economic stimulus funds despite having been heavily subsidized and raking in enormous profits for decades. Unfortunately, some poorly led governments will comply without a consideration for more sustainable options. It does not have to be this way.

A SUSTAINABLE RECOVERY IS POSSIBLE – I am not an economist, but as an environmental scientist, it is clear to me that our conventional economic orthodoxy is failing us in so many ways in terms of addressing the environment (climate change, mass extinctions, water quality and quantity, habitat loss, air quality, etc.), human wellness (health, equality, access to healthy food, happiness), and a sustainable use of resources. 

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the monetary value of all finished goods and services made within a country during a specific period. GDP provides an economic snapshot of a country and thus used to estimate the size of an economy and growth rate. However, GDP does not provide information about the overall wellbeing of a country since activities that are detrimental (like deforestation, strip mining, over-fishing, prison populations, terrorism) actually and strangely increase today’s GDP.

Jonathan Aldred, an economist from Cambridge states that “conventional economic theories have had little to offer. On the contrary, they have acted like a cage around our thinking, vetoing a range of progressive policy ideas as unaffordable, counter-productive, incompatible with free markets, and so on. Worse than that, economics has led us, in a subtle, insidious way, to internalise a set of values and ways of seeing the world that prevents us even imagining various forms of radical change.

Since economic orthodoxy is so completely embedded in our thinking, escape from it demands more than a short-term spending splurge to prevent immediate economic collapse, vital though that is. We must dig deeper to uncover the economic roots of the mess we’re in. Putting it more positively, what do we want from post-coronavirus economics?”

Fortunately – there are many economic thinkers proposing sustainable ways of moving forward. A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.

A related but even more progressive concept is the doughnut economy described by Kate Raworth, an English economist working for the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Doughnut economics, is a visual framework for sustainable development – shaped like a doughnut or lifebelt – combining the concept of planetary boundaries with the complementary concept of social boundaries. The name derives from the shape of the diagram, i.e. a disc with a hole in the middle. The centre hole of the model depicts the proportion of people that lack access to life’s essentials (healthcare, education, equality, etc.) while the outer crust represents the ecological ceilings or planetary boundaries that life depends on and must not be overshot.  See visual below.

The framework was proposed to regard the performance of an economy by the extent to which the needs of people are met without overshooting Earth’s ecological ceiling. In this model, an economy is considered prosperous when all social foundations are met without overshooting any of the ecological ceilings. This situation is represented by the area between the two rings, as the safe and just space for humanity.

These types of progressive concepts are not “pie in the sky’. A growing body of technological achievements along with associated financial undertakings underpins them. However there is predictable pushback from those entrenched in the traditional linear economy. The upcoming US election is providing a clear case study about the opposing forces. A ‘New Green Deal’ however it might be finally laid out, is already being branded as ‘socialist’. It is a false narrative as is commonly the case when progressive programs are initially proposed. 

Make no mistake – despite ill-informed pushback, progress on many fronts is already occurring. The price of solar modules has plummeted 99% since the 1970s thanks to forward thinking research, public policy and increasing demand. According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the fastest growing occupation over the next 10 years will be solar panel installer. The second: wind turbine technician. Major financial institutions have taken note with investments in renewables growing each year accompanied by decreasing investments in fossil fuels. 

Despite these good news stories, sustainability is nonetheless a political issue. Unfortunately, this is stalling progress. We have observed this exact outcome with the CoVid crisis. Politics lead to a denial followed by a delay in needed action with a deadly outcome.

Policy shifts at all levels of government are needed to speed our transition to clean energy, sustainable and safe food production, proper use of resources and greater equality. Political will and informed planning are needed more than ever now. These goals though can be met. We have the knowledge and the financial resources. Moreover, people can adapt quickly to change once convinced that the change is necessary and even useful. 

LEARNING TO LIVE WITH COVID 19

LIVING WITH COVID — 19

The virus is not going away anytime soon so we have to adjust how we live in order to cope.

By Allan Maynard – June 12, 2020

We have been living with the CoVid-19 virus for over 6 months now and it is still a mystery in many ways. While governments around the world are looking at ways to open up their economies, the scientific community is urging caution and trying its best to keep current with developments. New information is published almost daily – in what many are calling ‘fast science’. Unfortunately, scientists are also having to battle misinformation and wishful thinking coming from some political leaders along with wacky conspiracy theories that are multiplied through social medial platforms – (see previous article on this web site). 

The CoVid-19 pandemic presents one of the clearest examples in modern history regarding the critical need for evidence-based decision-making. In terms of leadership around the response to this pandemic, we are witnessing first-hand – the good, the bad and the ugly. And leadership is critical. Some areas are now benefitting from flattened coronavirus curves. Meanwhile, parts of the US, India, Russia and Latin America are still recording thousands of new cases every day. The first wave of the coronavirus is not over. If anything close to this trend continues, we have to wonder what the threshold will be for many areas to reinstate stay-at-home orders and close businesses again, just as they are starting to reopen. 

The future shape of the pandemic will be decided by informed leadership, human action in the form of social distancing and hygiene, testing and other traditional methods of disease control, but also gaining more knowledge around several unanswered questions about the nature of the virus itself. 

WE KNOW WHAT WORKS TO LIMIT INFECTION RATES — For countries that implemented highly effective interventions such as testing and contact tracing, this first wave of coronavirus cases may be the last they experience, at least for some time. For one example, New Zealand, has managed to virtually eradicate the virus, acting early to implement a lock down and installing robust systems to monitor outbreaks. The country will likely be able to avoid future waves until a vaccine arrives.

Countries with small populations and isolated geography such as New Zealand and Australia may be able to pull this off. South Korea and Taiwan also provide examples whereby virus detection and suppression systems may be advanced enough to smother any future outbreaks. But this will be extremely difficult for most countries, especially those with large populations and porous borders.

We have been fortunate to have such good leadership in BC. We are successfully entering the first phase of re-opening and the numbers of new cases are falling significantly. Moreover we were able to avoid overwhelming our medical facilities. So again – early intervention, science based leadership, adequate testing and contact tracing proved successful. It is worth looking at some numbers (from June 11, 2020) for BC, Canada, USA, Washington State (as this is closest to BC) and New Zealand as mentioned above.

JurisdictionCases /M populationDeaths/M population
B.C53833
Canada2585212
USA6313351
Washington State 2958156
New Zealand3014

            M – million

We can see how successful New Zealand has been even though it is an isolated country and had some advance warning. However it is clear that strong and effective leadership, made the difference. That applies to BC as well. The messaging has been factually constant, consistent, and considerate of people’s concerns. In the messaging, kindness to one another was constantly emphasized and most BC residents have cooperated without reservation.  

To further re-enforce this message of what works is a large study recently published in “Nature” concerning 11 European countries. The authors state the following: “We estimate that, across all 11 countries, between 12 and 15 million individuals have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 up to 4th May, representing between 3.2% and 4.0% of the population. Our results show that major non-pharmaceutical interventions and lockdown in particular have had a large effect on reducing transmission. Continued intervention should be considered to keep transmission of SARS-CoV-2 under control.”

UNDERSTANDING TRANSMISSION – From the early days of this pandemic, the experts have recommended wearing masks, staying at least six feet away from others, washing hands frequently and avoiding crowded spaces. What they’re really saying is: Try to minimize the amount of virus we encounter. It’s likely that a small amount of virus particles will not make us sick as our immune system would react and vanquish the invaders.

But how much virus is needed for an infection to take root? What is the minimum effective dose? A precise answer is impossible, because it’s difficult to capture the moment of infection. 

Not surprisingly, the current body of knowledge is clear that the worst-case scenario for outbreaks have occurred in care homes, cruise ships, prisons, factories, places of worships, large office settings and more – all as a result of people indoors and in close quarters, for a period of time. One oft-quoted case was a choir practice in Washington State wherein one infected person spread the virus to 87 percent of the choir members – with 2 members dying. Recently, in BC Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry revealed the isolation of an outbreak that erupted as a result of a family dinner inside (and outside) a residence. Of the 30 people at the gathering, 15 have become infected. 

There is now a growing concern that the recent protests in cities around the world will also cause spikes in infection rates. Especially worrying is the use of tear gas, which makes people cough whilst in close proximity to one another. There are also major concerns about the prospect of political rallies related to the upcoming election in the US. The first one – an indoor event, is planned for June 19th in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This plan goes against all scientific advice, as it’s likely to produce a virus fog within the facility. The organizers know this and in fact those planning to attend the rally will be required to indemnify the Trump campaign and others involved in the event so they will not be able to sue if they contract coronavirus.

The Achilles Heal – in understanding transmission is the fact that people who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic are nonetheless spreaders of the virus. For example, one study published  (early June) in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggested asymptomatic people seem to account for 40 to 45 percent of CoVid 19 infections and they can transmit the virus to others for an extended period of time. Another study found 23 percent of transmissions in Shenzhen, China were from asymptomatic people. Also, a study published in Nature found people shed the virus most when their symptoms are mild (likely pre-symptomatic).

Apart from avoiding crowded indoor spaces, most experts are now claiming the most effective protocols are to practise good hygiene and to wear masks.   Even if masks don’t fully shield us from droplets loaded with virus, they can cut down the amount we receive, and perhaps bring it below the infectious dose.

SO MUCH MORE TO LEARN – There is so much more to learn about the CoVid 19.  It is reassuring to know that there are significant research undertakings on many fronts and in many countries that should provide better tests, drug therapies, a clear understanding of immunity and hopefully an eventual vaccine. All this will take time. Some points:

  • Immunity — Recent data shows that fewer than 10% of populations in countries studied have developed the antibodies that would be evidence of having caught the virus and, in theory, becoming immune for at least a short time. That also means the vast majority of populations remain susceptible.
  • Immunity – There is not yet a clear understanding of immunity to the CoVid 19. Resistance to some earlier discovered coronaviruses has been thought to fade within a year. This could be a concern with respect to a vaccine if the resulting immunity is short-lived. 
  • By age – CoVid-19 is definitely a disease of the elderly. Recent analysis is showing that the chance of a person over 75 dying from this disease is 10,000 times likely than it is for a 15 year old
  • Children – Emerging evidence suggests children are not significant transmitters of Covid-19. These data, coupled with the enormous adverse impacts of continuing closures, argue for reopening schools by fall of 2020. Of about 400,000 Covid-19 deaths worldwide, only about two-dozen children are known to have died. Moreover reports of serious complications among young people are statistically rare and, if detected early, most afflicted youths recover within weeks. It is hoped that more will be learned from the recent partial reopening of schools in many locations that can thereby help to aid in decisions for a more widespread opening. 
  • Drug Therapies – Trials are now under way for a number of antiviral drugs that were developed to deal with other diseases but are now being repurposed in the hope that they can be used to tackle Covid-19. Results are expected in a few months. If successful, some of these could help cut death rates. It should also be noted that hydroxyl-cholorquine, despite the very strangely hyped promotion by President Trump appears to be an unlikely therapy and may even cause heart issues when used. 
  • Vaccines – the holy-grail – At last count there are over 100 initiatives around the world to develop a successful and effective vaccine. With testing underway on five short-listed experimental vaccines in China and four in the United States, the race to produce a vaccine for Covid-19 has taken on political dimensions that echo jockeying for technological dominance during the Cold War. Moreover – both countries are also taking huge financial risks to scale up production of possible vaccines even before they know any are safe and effective — a gambit to ensure their citizens won’t have to wait. “We’re going to start manufacturing doses of the vaccines way before we even know that the vaccine works,” Anthony S. Fauci said in an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association. Most experts agree though – the prospect of a vaccine is IF – not WHEN. They also predict that it will be at least another year away. But who knows, perhaps with so much effort worldwide, it could come sooner. We can only hope. 
  • Seasonality – Most influenzas spread more easily in the winter because the virus is thought to prefer dry air over humidity, and because people in cold environments spend more time indoors and close to each other. Existing coronaviruses (common cold) also follow seasonal patterns. If this coronavirus behaves in the same way – and there is not yet strong evidence that it does – we could see some improvements at least in the Northern Hemisphere. However these is significant information to contradict this hypothesis. CoVid 19 infections are increasing in many warm climates – such as Brazil, Texas and Arizona. The point is, the vast majority of people around the world are still susceptible. 

It can seem very discouraging indeed to face the prospect of having to deal with this pandemic for an undetermined period of time. However there’s a degree of hope with respect to drug therapies and vaccines. Moreover we know what we must do to control and even contain this virus. We are learning to take the needed intervention measures and yet still return to some semblance of normality. We should in time be able to safely open schools, do some limited local travel, have small groups visitors in our homes and most importantly see loved ones that we have been separated from. However, we must be prudent to note that most of society is still susceptible. Thus – a return to political rallies, major sporting events, concerts, extensive air travel, cruising, and hosting large gatherings, will (or should) not be considered for some time. Our elected leaders must recognize this reality and adhere to the advice coming from the medical experts. As we can see from the numbers presented in the table above – leadership and societal cooperation make the difference. 

COVID 19 – MYTHS LIES AND PROFOUND BULLSHIT

COVID 19 – MYTHS, LIES AND PROFOUND BULLSHIT

Allan Maynard, May 18, 2020

The CoVid 19 pandemic presents one of the clearest examples in modern history regarding the critical need for evidence based decision-making. Unfortunately, the presentation of scientific evidence has often been undermined by deadly denial (see paper – on this web site – Deny Delay Deadly), misinformation about the consequences of such denial and even outright wacky conspiracy theories.  As citizens and voters, we need to be vigilant in seeking out the truth by using trusted sources. 

Wacky Conspiracies 

A documentary-style video called ‘Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind COVID-19′ has been removed by social media platforms after peddling potentially dangerous conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic. The documentary features a Dr. Mikovits’, a discredited scientist who states that the coronavirus pandemic was planned. In the video, she claims that the virus was created in a laboratory, that wearing masks actually makes people sick, and that flu vaccines increase people’s odds of contracting COVID-19. No medical or scientific evidence exists to support any of Mikovits’ claims in the video.

An even more whacky conspiracy claims that the pandemic is really caused by the rollout of 5G (high speed -5th Generation Cellular) networks around the world.  Despite there being no scientific links, a number of 5G towers have been set on fire. The 5G conspiracies make no sense whatsoever. The virus is spreading in countries without access to 5G – in other words – the correlation falls apart.

It is indeed a head-scratcher to understand the motivations for such nonsense let alone fathom how these wacky theories gain traction – but they do. And with social media, the false information spreads quickly. Our willingness to share content without thinking is exploited to spread various forms of disinformation.

Lacking Leadership 

It does not help when we have world leaders also peddling misinformation. When the President of the United States promotes unproven drug therapies and even muses about injecting sanitizing chemicals to kill the virus, the implications are worrying. The scientific community is understandably growing increasingly frustrated. This frustration boiled over when, on May 16, the Lancet, perhaps the preeminent international medical journal, took an unprecedented step and published a front page editorial calling on the US administration to properly recognize science and even concluded by stating “Americans must put a president in the White House come January, 2021, who will understand that public health should not be guided by partisan politics.”

The lack of evidence-based leadership in the USA, the UK, Russia, China, Brazil and others has resulted in enhanced infection rates in these and other countries. For example, Brazil, led by a full-on anti-science president, now has more CoVid cases than China. The United States accounts for about 4.25% of the world’s population, but currently has about 29% of the confirmed deaths from the disease.

Information Disorder

What we are dealing with here is a pandemic of information disorder.  It has sprouted a whole new area of investigation in how lies originate and spread. Generally, the language commonly used to discuss misinformation problems can be too simplistic. Effective research and interventions require clear definitions, yet many people use the problematic phrase “fake news.” Used by politicians around the world to attack a free press, the term is dangerous. Recent research shows that audiences increasingly connect it with the mainstream media. It is often used as a catchall to describe things that are not the same, including lies, rumours, hoaxes, misinformation, conspiracies and propaganda, but it also papers over nuance and complexity.

The 3 main categories of untruths is well presented in a paper by Clare Wardle in Scientific American entitled “Misinformation Has Created A New World Disorder” The following schematic is from this article.

Most of what we are dealing with in the context of the science associated with CoVid 19 crisis and in the push back against climate change science is mainly that overlapping area in the circles of misinformation and disinformation. 

Understanding the motives for the lies

For the most part, the misinformation and disinformation can be understood in terms of the motives of those initiating the falsehoods. Withstanding the wacky conspiracy theories the motivations regarding the falsehoods by politicians are not all that difficult to discern. 

Initially – the motivations were all about money. The denial or initial downplaying of the CoVid crisis by a number of leaders (USA, UK, Russia, China, Brazil, Italy and more) is well documented and for certain linked to a determination to protect markets. See paper on this web site – Denial, Delay, Deadly. Of course we all know now that the denial strategy backfired.

Now that the virus has spread around the world, the motivation for the spread of misinformation and disinformation is to distract and even cover-up mistakes that were made and also to offer optimism even though not backed up by science.  A few examples:

  • The world cup of testing – an example of exaggeration. You would think in watching the news that testing rates is now an international competition. Donald Trump has falsely stated a number of times that the US has done more testing than any other country. His latest  – more than twice as much testing as all other countries combined. This is not even remotely true. Moreover, it’s irrelevant. The correct metric is tests per capita and the US is improving but still is not doing enough. (Some numbers – US – 36,000 tests per million population, Canada – about the same, Italy 50,000, Denmark – 80,000). Most scientists point to Denmark as the benchmark to attain or even exceed. 
  • Miracle cures – an example of wishful thinking – Despite cautions by medical experts, there has been a dangerous promotion by many in politics citing so called evidence that malaria drugs can treat the CoVid virus. This caused a major run on supplies creating dangerous shortages in some countries. Results from a number of studies, including the first randomized controlled trial, are providing further evidence that the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine may not help COVID-19 patients and in fact can cause premature deaths from heart problems. 
  • Origin of CoVid 19 – an example of the blame game. China and Russia initially blamed the USA. The Trump administration has continued to claim the virus came from a lab in Wuhan although it has recently backed off this stance. The evidence strongly suggests the source of the corona virus is bats. A new University of California study finds that bats have a fierce immune response to viral infections, which likely causes the viruses to replicate more rapidly. 

These are only 3 examples – there are many more especially in other crises such as climate change. It is disconcerting to see how these lies spread and even more so, how they are blindly believed. But, in many ways it’s not surprising. Social scientists and propagandists have long known that humans are wired to respond to emotional triggers and share misinformation if it reinforces existing beliefs and prejudices. The success of the purveyors of falsehoods also relies on people’s cognitive dissonance – when someone feels genuine mental discomfort when confronted with a view that upends their viewpoint or belief system. So – an alternative story winds up being believed even if lacking in facts. 

No government could have been completely ready for the pandemic, but taking the public for fools is destroying trust. The truth is out there if we are willing to dig – using fact-check sites, listening to medical experts and trusting our own instincts not be fooled by bullshit even if it appears profound.  

UPDATE ON TESTING FOR COVID 19

UPDATE ON TESTING FOR COVID-19
Allan Maynard – May 8th, 2020


There is a great deal of new information along with political noise about testing for the CoVid 19. For the past 6 weeks, almost all countries have been in various forms of lock-down; in some cases a complete shut down. Understandably there is desire by most citizens to be able to safely move past this phase and return to some sense of normality, however that may be defined for our post CoVid future. Most medical experts caution though, that the key to slowly re-opening our economies is to significantly ramp up testing, followed by quarantining those who test positive and additionally tracing and testing their contacts.


For most countries, the testing frequency is insufficient despite the statements of some politicians. Some examples – testing totals per 1000 citizens as of May 3rd, 2020 – Italy -34, Germany – 30, USA – 20, Canada – 22, South Korea – 12, France – 11. The South Korea numbers may seem low in comparison but that country was very quick to implement widespread testing, combined with combined with contact tracing and isolation which enabled the country to ‘flatten the curve’ (slow infection rates) much earlier than other countries. The USA had a slow start due to a defective test system but is now catching up. The UK also had a late start. Both countries have unfortunately, been following an infection trajectory comparable to Italy.


According to most medical experts, even though testing numbers increased through April, the numbers are still insufficient to allow a substantial opening of commerce. For instance – the USA has now conducted just over 6 million tests in total but the target should really closer to 1 million per day (about 10 times more than over the past 2.5 months). France is now conducting 700,000 tests per week. In the UK the target is 100,000 tests per day. Canada has set a goal of over 500,000 tests per week. It should be noted however that increased testing will not have the desired outcome unless it is accompanied by contact tracing and isolation. Moreover, herd immunity, an epidemiological concept that describes the state where a population is sufficiently immune, will not be possible until a vaccine is available – likely 1.5 years away at the earliest.


To meet the ever-increasing demand for more testing, research has expanded around the globe to produce more, better and faster tests. The latest count – there are over 60 forms of the viral swab PCR tests and over 130 forms of the antibody tests. Many of these have been introduced without undergoing full approval processes in the various countries. In the USA – the FDA provides an “Emergency Use Application (EMA)” for many of the new tests. This can be sensible in such dire situations as long as the tests’ performance characteristics are very carefully monitored.
So – how are the various tests performing?


THE PCR TEST FOR THE COVID 19 VIRUS – MAIN ISSUE – FALSE NEGATIVES. – As described in my earlier blog, the first type of test introduced worldwide, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, diagnoses CoVid infections by analyzing virus material in mucous collected from the nose and/or back of the throat. The test then isolates the genetic components of the virus and converts it into DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid). Then, using “polymerase enzymes”, the DNA is duplicated again and again so that there’s enough to be detected (if it is present at all). This process is known as “amplification.”


The inherent issue with this test is that the incidence of false negatives can be high. This makes sense. If a patient is tested too early in the disease, there may not be a sufficient viral load to be detectable. If a patient is tested later in the disease, the viral material is likely concentrated more in the lungs and trachea and thus may not be isolated.
Furthermore, there are now a number of more rapid PRC tests on the market without the same degree of amplification of the DNA. This may mean there is less genetic material within the test, for detection. There are now a number of studies underway or reported that show the incidence of false positives can be significant. In the early stages of the pandemic, Chinese scientists published a paper that found the false negative rate of some of the tests conducted at the Third People’s Hospital in Shenzhen, southern China, between Jan. 11 and Feb. 3, were as high as 40 percent.


More recent studies (University of Cleveland, Mayo Clinic) calculate a false positive rate of closer to 15% and stress the need for follow-up tests to reduce the health risk created by infected people mistakenly being told they are infection-free. This objective of repeated testing is hampered by the shortage of supplies needed to conduct the PCR tests. Many who should be re-tested or even initially tested, are not able to do so.


These problems may seem untenable but that is not the case. The PCR test is highly complex. The global developments to expand testing and speed up test results are impressive. The main point, the limitations of the test must be well understood and further assessed as we deal with the CoVid health crisis.


ANTIBODY TESTING – MAIN ISSUE IS FALSE POSITIVES – The second kind of test involves testing blood samples for the presence of antibodies to the virus. Antibodies are evidence of the body’s reaction to an infection. The presence of CoVid antibodies might then suggest that the person is now immune to the virus. It should be cautioned however, that the notion of immunity to the CoVid virus being acquired through infection is only, for now, an assumption based on past experience with other viruses. No scientific studies have confirmed this hypothesis yet. Nonetheless – serology testing for antibodies is a critical part of national testing programs.


Antibody testing is generally less complex and certainly more rapid that testing for the virus itself (the PCR test). In fact there are even test kits on the market that are similar to home pregnancy tests. Most kits however, involve the need for a blood sample to be collected with a finger prick, which is then analysed in a lab setting. However, as stated above most of the new tests on the market have bypassed the needed oversight.


The issue is that many of the new tests have a high rate of false positives. This makes sense given the many types of antibodies in our blood stream, with some, such as the common cold corona virus, very similar in structure to the CoVid virus. Of the 12 antibody tests that were studied by the CoVid testing project in the USA, one of the tests gave false positives more than 15% of the time, or in about one out of seven samples. Three other tests gave false positives more than 10% of the time.


It is a work in progress though and some of the larger firms (Roche, Abbot and others) seem to be close to getting full approval by organizations such as WHO, and the FDA. It seems likely that by June 2020, there will be more reliability in antibody testing.


NEW APPROACH – TESTING FOR COVID GENETIC MATERIAL IN BLOOD SAMPLES – In what could be a significant breakthrough is a blood-based test that will be able to detect the virus’s presence as early as 24 hours after infection – before people show symptoms and several days before a carrier is considered capable of spreading it to other people. In other words — around four days before current tests can detect the virus.


The test has emerged from a project set up by the US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) aimed at rapid diagnosis of germ or chemical warfare poisoning. It was hurriedly repurposed when the pandemic broke out. The new test is expected to be forwarded for emergency use approval (EUA) by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in May 2020.


Like the viral test, the new blood test hunts for the virus’s RNA (Ribonucleic acid) — in this case it is messenger RNA (mRNA). “Target mRNA is part of the immune response to viral infection,” a Darpa representative said. The test needs about 1 ml of blood – thus blood collection would need to be done in a clinical setting. More will be known about this potential test by June 2020.

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In summary – testing for the CoVid virus is expanding in scope and the tests are improving in terms of their reliability. However the limitations of the tests must be fully considered in analysing data concerning infection rates and disease mitigation measures.

TODAY IS EARTH DAY

TODAY IS EARTH DAY – IN THE MIDST OF A GLOBAL PANDEMIC.  By Allan Maynard, April 22nd, 2020

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Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. By many measures our planet’s environment is having one of its best earth days in decades. The tragic pandemic that is causing so much human misery is also giving Planet Earth a rest – a much needed “breather”. Air pollution levels, as confirmed around the world, have been reduced drastically. Of special note is the reduction of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) along with fine particulate matter.  In Beijing, residents can see the stars at night, an impossibility, even a few months ago. Also impossible a few months ago, fish can be clearly seen swimming in the canals of Venice. Yes – Planet Earth is experiencing a reprieve. 

But, these outcomes give us little comfort. They come with a tragic cost from an invisible enemy. An enemy that has caused a global pandemic. We can however learn about earth’s ability to begin healing as we plan for the future beyond CoVid 19. 

Earth Day was initiated on April 22, 1970. I can remember the euphoria of this recognition – with millions (20 million in the US alone – 10% of the population) marching around the world. I can recall clearly watching the symbolic act of students burying a brand new yellow Ford Maverick in San Jose, California.  I can also recall being among more than a thousand like-minded students at Simon Fraser University and deciding then and there that I will enter the field of environmental science.   

In 1970, the planet was home to 3.7 billion people. There were about 200 million cars on the road and oil consumption was around 45 million barrels a day. Today there are over 8 billion people on earth along with 1.5 billion cars. Meat consumption has almost quadrupled and fish stocks are being depleted. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has increased from 280 parts per million in 1970 to over 420 ppm today thereby warming the planet. Arctic sea ice has shrunk by over a million square miles. Sea levels are rising faster than most predictive models resulting in ‘sunny day flooding’ from unusually high tides in many cities around the world. In 1970 it was rare to see wild fires that burned more than 100,000 acres. In 2019, fires burning in California, Australia and even Siberia have ravaged tens of millions of acres. There are many more stark examples but – the main point – we are seeing dramatic levels of damage due to environmental degradation and it’s getting worse each year. Over the past 50 years we have demanded more and more from Planet Earth and we are paying the price all over the globe. A case could even be made that this current pandemic is one such price. 

Despite the mountains of evidence, we are still seeing significant denial of climate change and environmental degradation. In fact we are seeing some governments moving 180 degrees in the wrong direction. In Brazil, President Bolsonaro has decided that it’s a good idea to burn precious Amazon forests to make way for beef farming. In the US, the Trump administration is weakening a host of air, water, land-use and climate change regulations. How can anyone make sense of these kinds of ludicrous decisions?  

We already know how deadly denial, delay and even defiance, can be as we review the responses to the CoVid crisis. In fact, the analogy between the two crises is eerily precise. First there is denial of the problem, followed by deadly delay. Then it’s argued that it’s too costly to the economy to tackle the problem. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself’ became the mantra that greatly exacerbated the problem (of CoVid) itself. Both crises show, in stark reality, the threats of catastrophes arising from the clash of nature and modern human activity.

The two crises are also related in other ways. High levels of air pollution may be “one of the most important contributors” to deaths from Covid-19, according to some recent research. For example recent research from the Martin Luther University in Germany shows that, of the coronavirus deaths across 66 administrative regions in Italy, Spain, France and Germany, 78% of them occurred in just five regions, and these were the most polluted. The research examined levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant produced mostly by diesel vehicles, along with weather conditions that can prevent dirty air from dispersing away from a city. Short-term exposure to nitrogen oxides can lead to irritated respiratory systems, while prolonged exposure can aggravate respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This lung damage can, in turn, exacerbate the attacks by any respiratory virus – including CoVid-19.  

For now, environmental degradation and climate change issues have been temporarily pushed aside. However, it is vital that we acknowledge, that these issues will be orders of magnitude greater in terms of overall human cost. The combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about 7 million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections (WHO – 2019 report). The numbers associated with climate change due to drought, hurricanes, wild fires, land use degradation and more are even more worrying but harder to predict.  

For these crises we need good leaders who embrace a vision for the future. Certainly we know that we cannot, in recovering from this pandemic, go back to ‘business as usual”. It was business as usual that got us into this mess. As such, we need to remove politicians who impede progress by denying problems identified by good science, even exist. That must be the pledge for this 50th anniversary of Earth Day

DENIAL DELAY DEADLY


Allan Maynard, MSc. April 17, 2020


It is impossible to escape the daily barrage of news about the CoVid Pandemic unless we were to add an additional dimension to our isolation by turning off all screens and cancelling all publications. In following the news outlets we are seeing examples of informed, decisive leadership. We are also seeing examples of responses riddled with muddled misinformation and untruths. For certain, the muddled responses are providing us with the clearest examples of the dreaded “Ds”: DENIAL (the problem does not exist); DELAY (we don’t know for certain – let’s wait and see and not disturb the economy), DODGE or DEFLECT (the questions that then come) – all leading to DEADLY OUTCOMES. Clearly, the need for evidence-based decision-making is critical with this kind of crisis.


Risk Assessment – it would be expected that progressive governance involves sound policies around societal risk assessment. Broadly speaking, risk assessment is the combined effort of identifying and analyzing potential events that may negatively impact individuals, assets and/or the environment followed by making judgments on the tolerability of such risks. Another way of putting it – prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. It is frustrating indeed to consider how different things might look had these principals been rigorously applied. Of course hindsight is 20/20 and casting back can look like a blame game. However it is a necessary exercise to acknowledge the many failings that have exacerbated this mess. That is the only way to learn for future planning.


There has been extensive research around the world and particularly in China about zoonotic corona viruses – especially the role of bats as primary carriers. The CoVid 19 virus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December, and is thought through most investigations (but not all) to have leapt to humans at a seafood and wild-animal market (Huanan Market), where many of the first people to become infected, worked. After the SARS outbreak in 2003, the Chinese government closed wet markets and banned the ‘farming’ of wildlife. But this ban was later reversed. This is a clear failing in terms of risk management. While it is not straightforward to close these markets, the Chinese government had over 17 years to work on solutions to this, but denial and complacency set in.


The first signs of danger associated with this new (novel) corona virus were probably detected in November or early December, 2019. The Chinese government first tried to keep it quiet (and contained?) and even silenced one of the early researchers that made the information public (a Dr. Li Wenliang who later died of the disease). The Chinese first notified the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 31, 2019. This should have been done sooner. Moreover they did not initially reveal that human-to-human transfer was occurring – likely because of lack of evidence of such.


By January 23rd, 2020 Wuhan was in full lock down and the virus had spread to other countries – mostly in Asia. Despite this WHO decided that it was ‘too early’ to declare a global health emergency. This was then declared a week later but without recommending trade and travel restrictions, claiming these would be an unnecessary disruption. As well, from December 31 to January 14th, WHO and China stated that there was no clear evidence of human-human transfer. By January 23rd however, this statement was updated with the warning of clear evidence of human-to-human infection.


By March 11, WHO declared the outbreak to be a Global Pandemic. By then the CoVid virus was found in almost all countries with infections rates often doubling every 2 to 4 days. At least by then, WHO had developed a fairly reliable test, which was rapidly put to use in many afflicted countries. Those (example South Korea and Taiwan) that did extensive testing, followed by quarantine and contact tracing – along with social distancing and lock downs, demonstrated an ability to start reducing infection rates. But many of the European countries were slow to accept the gravity of the CoVid virus and infection rates ramped up drastically and rapidly.


By some measures the responses from early January through February can seem acceptable but not through the lens of rigorous risk management. The most significant failings in retrospect were the warnings about human-to-human transfer. Because of the similarity of the CoVid 19 to SARs, it would have been prudent to assume human-to-human transfer right from the onset. The primary obstacle to taking more drastic action at some of the critical points seemed to be the fear of disrupting the economy. Initial denial and delay were evident from the onset. Of course – the delays made both the health crisis and the economy much worse.


In no country was the denial/delay/dodge strategy more glaring that the USA. That is because President Trump, from mid- January until around March 10th, verbalized the denial almost daily. Six to eight precious weeks were mostly squandered. This was made worse by the unfortunate roll out of a faulty test protocol. Now the USA has the most cases worldwide and one of the highest rates of infection. These failings cannot now be re-written.


Claims by Trump and his administration that they could not possibly have been ready for this pandemic and was then misinformed by WHO, are incorrect. Seven days before Donald Trump took office, his incoming team faced a sober briefing from the outgoing Obama administration about the possibility of a global pandemic and the need to be prepared. The Obama administration had learned from the H1N1 and Ebola outbreaks. As such, the Obama administration had created a pandemic preparedness team within the White House that was then ‘reorganized’ in 2018 with the loss of expertise. Moreover, the US embassy in China initially had a large team of health professionals which was then cut over 60% by the Trump administration thereby removing expertise that would have been ‘on the ground’ at the onset of the outbreak. Furthermore – in 2018/19 a pandemic simulation conducted by the Dept. Of Health and Human Services showed the nation was unprepared for a pandemic, according to a critical draft assessment. The exercise, code named “Crimson Contagion,” had eerie similarities to the current real-life coronavirus pandemic. As well, a program funded by USAID (named PREDICT) that was set up to investigate corona viruses in bats and pangolins, was cancelled in 2019.
The failings in response to this pandemic are wide spread and in many locations continuing. In most cases the failings have resulted in denial leading to delay. Delay is not an option in fighting a pandemic. It’s deadly. Time matters. Expertise matters. Evidence based decision-making matters. The countries that were much more successful in dealing with this crisis such as Germany, South Korea, Taiwan and others, prove this.


The corona virus pandemic has brought a definite urgency to the defining political question of our age: how to deal with risk on a global scale. For certain, this question also applies to climate change, which is an even greater crisis in the making. There can be no question about that. The CoVid pandemic is a crisis in fast-forward whereas climate change has been building over 50 years and counting. But the same principles of risk assessment and evidence-based decision-making, apply. Denial followed by delay of both crises is deadly.

TESTING FOR THE CORONA VIRUS

TESTING FOR THE COVID 19 VIRUS

April 2, 2020 – Allan Maynard, MSc. 

This is a topic of great interest to me because my career was in the field of measurement science – in my case measurements for environmental contaminants. Reliable measurements are required for many aspects of our lives from ensuring safety of foods, medicines, infrastructure, water supplies and of course to the monitoring of our health. Now testing is critical for the CoVid 19 pandemic.

It has become increasingly evident that reliable, wide spread testing is one of the key strategies to slow down the rate of infection from the CoVid -19 virus. Germany is one of the best examples of this. Germany’s preparedness was helped in part by an early recognition that coronavirus was likely to become a global problem. Lacking a gene sequence for the new virus, the German team designed their first test kit based on SARS and other known coronaviruses. The protocol was published by WHO (World Health Organization) on January 17, even before the Chinese had a test. By the end of February, the Germans were producing 1.5 million test kits per week. Globally – Germany is among the lowest in infection and mortality rates. 

Another of the earliest tests was developed in mainland China by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control, and details of it were posted on the World Health Organization website on January 24, just after the Wuhan lockdown was announced. Fortunately, we are seeing unprecedented speed in CoVid research thanks in large part to early Chinese efforts to sequence the genetic material of the virus that causes Covid-19. China shared that sequence in early January, allowing research groups around the world to grow the live virus. Having this viral material has resulted in research groups around the world to work on developing tests.

HOW DOES THE CURRENT TEST WORK? – A short biochemistry lesson.

The shorts version – a swab is used to collect viral material from the back of the nose, the swab is sent to a lab that isolates the genetic component. The genetic material is rapidly grown (replicated) and then detected by very specific dyes. 

A more complete description – For a patient, the process of being tested for the virus is easy and can potentially be done anywhere. It is the same basic protocol used to test for other viral infections. It typically involves taking a swab from deep in a patient’s nasal cavity to collect cells from the back of the nose. The sample is then sent to a lab, where it will be tested to determine if the patient’s cells are infected with the virus. 

The swabs are then tested in specialized labs that are able to look for genetic material. The genetic material in the CoVid 19 virus is called RNA – (Ribonucleic Acid). RNA and DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) are nucleic acids and, along with lipids, proteins, and carbohydrates constitute the macromolecules essential for all life. 

In the test – the RNA must be converted to DNA. The DNA then replicates itself millions upon millions of times until there is enough genetic material for detection. The method is referred to as “polymerase chain reaction” or PCR.  The PCR test was developed by Kary Mullis from California who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993 for this important discovery.   

The resulting genetic material during the PCR chain reaction binds with a special fluorescent dyes. During the test the fluorescence increases and the genetic material amplifies. There are variations of this test in terms of the way the chain reaction is carried out and in the manner by which the genetic material (DNA – from the RNA) is detected. 

The turn around time for this standard test (as is the case for most other viral tests) usually  24 to 72 hours – mainly because of the need to transport the samples to special labs and high volume in these labs. This is clearly has not  been adequate and more rapid tests are in development – see below. 

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE USA?

As mentioned, China developed its own test. The WHO first adopted a test from German researchers in mid-January. These 2 protocols were basically adopted by other countries in order to produce their own tests.  Some countries simply used tests provided by WHO. 

The CDC (Center for Disease Control) made the decision to develop its own test towards the end of January with the intention of being the conduit for testing in the US. But there were warnings that the CDC would struggle to keep up with the volume of screening and should focus on working with private industry to develop easy-to-use, rapid diagnostic tests that can be made available to providers. Unfortunately, the CDC did the opposite. When it became clear that testing had to be ramped up, the CDC created tests kits for distribution to state labs.  It soon became evident that the test kits sent were not reliable (faulty reagents). This meant that only the CDC could carry out the initial test work. As such the testing had to be restricted to only ‘high-risk patients’ who had recently travelled from China. CDC was ‘back to the drawing board and valuable weeks were lost.

This was a significant set back for the US and is one of the reasons the US has one of the highest rates of infection in the world. Fortunately, this is rapidly changing with more widespread testing now occurring. 

TESTING NOW GREATLY ENHANCED AROUND THE WORLD

The short version – due to the urgency of this crisis government incentives were rapidly in place for research organizations and the private sector to develop more rapid and portable test methods. There are a number of these methods now coming on-line. It is encouraging. 

A more complete version – Human ingenuity can be amazing when we face a crisis. The research efforts pertaining the CoVid virus around the world has been more than impressive. Now testing protocols have been developed in many countries with 2 main objectives in mind – 1) much more rapid and 2) being portable for use in multi-locations. For the most part – the technology is the same in that the tests focus on identifying viral genetic material. It’s the overall process that has improved in a major way. Here are just 2 examples but needless to say, there are many more. 

Abbot Labs – USA – Recently (3 days ago), Abbot Labs announced a new test kit. The “ID NOW” machine as it has been dubbed can test samples one at a time. A health care provider would use a swab to take a sample from a sick patient’s nose or throat and then mix the swab into a chemical solution that breaks open the virus and releases its genetic material. The sample is then placed into the ID NOW instrument, which uses a special “isothermal technology” to replicate and amplify, if present in the sample, the small section of the virus’ genetic sequences in order to quickly detect whether a person is positive or negative for COVID-19. Such a test will allow frontline health care workers to see a patient, quickly diagnose them and make immediate decisions regarding treatment and care, thus helping prevent further transmission of the virus to other people. 

Simon Fraser University – Simon Fraser University researchers will use their pioneering imaging technology — called ‘Mango’, for its bright colour — to develop coronavirus testing kits. They’re among a small set of Canadian researchers who responded to the rapid funding opportunity recently announced by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to help address COVID-19. The latest research, involves using special reagents to detect individual molecules of RNA within a living cell. Dubbed the “Mango system’ it consists of an RNA Mango aptamer. Aptamers are short, single-stranded DNA or RNA molecules that can selectively bind to a specific target — in this case a special dye. The aptamer acts like a magnet – targeting and binding those dye molecules. The dye becomes excitable when bound and glows brightly. RNA molecules modified to contain the aptamer ‘magnet’ now stand out from the other parts of the cell, which makes it much easier for researchers to see and study RNA molecules under a microscope.

WHAT ABOUT A BLOOD TEST?

Short version – blood samples can be collected and tested for antibodies that are formed if a person is infected with the virus. The test mainly determines if a person had the disease rather that for use in early detection. 

A more complete version – Blood tests can be very rapid and in some ways easier to get a reliable sample. To do a blood test for the CoVid 19 virus would involve analysing for antibodies to the virus. An antibody, also known as an immunoglobulin, is a large, Y-shaped protein produced mainly by plasma cells and used by the immune system to neutralize pathogens such as pathogenic bacteria and viruses.

Antibody tests are different from the typical diagnostic tests used to determine whether someone has COVID-19. As mentioned above, the latter involves taking samples of mucus and saliva and running a test in a lab to see if those samples contain the coronavirus’ genomic sequence. A serological test, on the other hand, can tell whether a person has coronavirus antibodies in 10 to 15 minutes. In some ways the test can be developed along the lines of a home pregnancy test.

To create the test, the researchers began by designing a slightly altered version of the “spike” protein on the CoVid 19 outer coat. They also isolated the short piece of the spike protein called the receptor-binding domain (RBD), which the virus uses to attach to cells it tries to invade. They then used cell lines to produce large quantities of the altered spike proteins and RBDs. Those lab-made molecules provided the basis for the test, in which antibodies in a sample of blood or plasma trigger a color change when they recognize a target protein.

This test is being used extensively in New York. But it’s main objective will be to determine who has had the disease.  It will not provide early detection as it takes time for the antibodies to form in the blood stream of an infected patient. 

WHAT ABOUT THE RELIABILITY OF THE TESTS

Tests are generally judged in terms of their sensitivity, accuracy (or in this case specificity) and precision (applies to quantitative tests). 

The tests are proven to be “sensitive” in laboratory conditions — in this case, a technical measure of the smallest amount of the target virus they can detect. The tests must also be “specific” — for example, ensuring they do not mistake other pathogens, such as the cold coronaviruses, for the new CoVid 19 virus.

The genetic tests being used are typically very sensitive and specific under lab conditions, but in the real world, how the swab was done and the stage of illness the person was in can make a big difference. To complicate the situation, there isn’t one test.  Many different tests are now being used by commercial laboratories, hospital labs and governments around the world.  The interpretation of the results will therefore depend on not just the test, but other external factors. 

The tests have not been around long enough to know precise information about the sensitivity and selectivity of each one. The rule of thumb that seems to becoming adopted is to assume a 5% chance of false negatives. In essence if a sick patient get’s a negative result, they should be tested again. That is acceptable given the urgency of our situation.

It is encouraging to see how quickly researchers have stepped in to enhance testing around the world. It will make a difference.