Circumcision helps prevent HIV, frankincense is in danger, and investors are warned to consider companies' records on climate change.

Take Two in the Morning

Experimental drugs—those that have not yet been cleared by the FDA’s seven-year evaluation process—are currently limited to patients enrolled in controlled clinical trials. But on Dec. 11, the FDA announced that it would make “significant regulatory changes” so that these potentially life-saving drugs could become more available to seriously ill patients with no other treatment options. The agency said it hopes these changes will encourage drug companies to provide experimental drugs to patients without fear of getting sued. In the past, the FDA has allowed certain patient populations—such as those who are terminally ill—access to new drugs, but only for emergency use. The new regulatory changes would make these drugs available to larger groups of patients whose conditions aren’t as severe.

A University of Illinois-Chicago study was stopped early when preliminary results showed that medical circumcision reduced participants’ risk of contracting HIV by 53 percent. The study enrolled 2,784 HIV-negative young men in Kisumu, Kenya. After two years, 22 of the circumcised men and 47 of the uncircumcised men had contracted HIV. Public health organizations have not previously supported circumcision as a strategy for preventing HIV prevention because randomized, controlled trials of its effectiveness had not been conducted.  Robert Bailer, the principal investigator of the study, said that the results now show that circumcision could be a promising intervention. But he cautions that circumcision alone isn’t enough. “We can’t expect to just cut off a foreskin and have the guy go on his merry way without additional tools to fight against getting infected,” he said.

Flora and Fauna

The three wise men, so the Christmas tale goes, gave the baby Jesus gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. Now, ecologists say the over-tapping of frankincense, which comes from Boswellia trees in the Horn of Africa, is endangering the regeneration of these trees. Tapping resin from Boswellia trees, according to a study released on Dec. 12 in the Journal of Applied Ecology, causes them to divert too much carbohydrate into resin and not enough into flower, fruit, and seed production. To fix the problem, the researchers suggest fewer tapping points per tree, and rest periods between tappings. Frankincense is an important product because it’s a key ingredient in many kinds of incense and perfume, and, of course, will be featured prominently in the next two weeks in thousands of Nativity plays across the world.

New Jersey may lead the flock in establishing new guidelines for the humane treatment of farm animals. Groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and Farm Sanctuary are demanding stronger enforcement of a 2004 state law that prohibits cruelty to livestock. While the law prohibits such cruelty, certain common agricultural practices, such as castrating animals without anesthetic and starving chickens to boost egg production, have continued. Animal rights groups have now filed suit, requesting that the law be tightened to forbid these practices. New Jersey is the only state requiring officials to set standards for the humane treatment of farm animals.

Wanted: Water

Beijing’s population is exploding, and combined with constant droughts from the north, the city is likely to experience a water crisis by 2010, state officials reported Dec. 13. At the end of last year, the city had 15 million permanent residents and four million migrant workers; by 2010, there will be an estimated three million more. Hoards of migrant workers have recently moved to the capital city from rural areas in the hope of getting construction jobs for the 2008 Olympics. The city government hopes the central government will figure out how to geographically balance the country’s growing population; if not, they say, they’ll have to take “drastic measures” to reduce consumption, including water rationing and severe price increases.

A combination of pesticides, fertilizer, and erosion is destroying the 600-mile Mesoamerican coral reef in the Caribbean, according to a report issued by the World Resources Institute on Dec. 12. A whopping 80 percent of the sediment pollution causing the damage, the report says, originates in large rivers in Honduras that drain into the Caribbean. The cloudy water then blocks sunlight from getting to the reef and the organisms that live on it. Moreover, pesticide waste spurs the growth of algae that compete with coral species for the limited light. In addition to the ecological damages, the depletion of the reef—which is a huge source of revenue for tourism and fisheries—will likely have economic effects. The trends aren’t unique to the Mesoamerican reef; other studies estimate that 30 percent of the world’s coral reefs have died in the last 50 years.

More (Global Warming) is Less

Within the next few decades, low-lying ski resorts across Western Europe will be ruined by the effects of global warming, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said on Dec. 13. Climatologists associated with the OECD say Alpine countries—including Germany, Austria, and Italy—are experiencing the warmest weather in 1,300 years, probably because of the recent increase in the levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases. The OECD recently completed a two-year study of the Alpine region, covering 666 ski slopes. The study found that a rise of two degrees Celsius, which could happen by 2050, would cut the number of useable slopes from about 600 to 400; a rise of four degrees could cut the number to 200. Lenders in Switzerland are already refusing to give money to resorts that sit at an altitude lower than 1,500 meters, causing some of the smaller resorts to shut down.

Global warming is changing the density of Earth’s lower and upper atmospheres, and studying its effects will help NASA plan future satellite launches, scientists reported Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Climate researchers have known about these density changes for years, but it’s only recently that computing technology has made sophisticated models with predictive power. Using such models, a team of scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Pennsylvania State University predicts that carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels will make the thermosphere—the highest layer of the atmosphere, 60 miles above the Earth’s surface—three percent less dense by 2017. A lower density thermosphere would lower the drag on satellites in low Earth orbit—such as the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope—allowing them to stay in the air longer with the same amount of fuel.

Taking Care of Business

Institutional investors are still too near-sighted to factor climate change into their investment decisions, according to lecturers at the Investor Network on Climate Change. Speakers urged investors to consider the long-term liabilities of companies that contribute to global warming. Companies with poor records on climate change could one day be threatened by lawsuits, much as the tobacco and asbestos industries have been, speakers said. According to Win Neuger, chief executive at AIG Global Investment Group, institutional investors need to assess the climate risk of each of their companies in order to mitigate potential financial liabilities and the effects of rising public concern about global warming.

British city planners aim to address global warming by increasing energy efficiency standards for new housing units until all new housing is carbon-neutral. Environmentalists praised Britain’s plans to move towards carbon-neutral housing, but questioned what carbon neutrality would mean in practice. Techniques for achieving carbon neutrality include using only renewable materials and fuels to build a house and counter-balancing daily carbon dioxide emissions from the house by planting trees to consume an equivalent amount of the gas. Several zero-carbon housing developments currently exist in the U.K., and there are plans for more.

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Originally published December 18, 2006


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