U.S. denies Iraqi death toll, elephants evict Indians, and the FDA gets suggestions for reform.

Political Science

North Korea set off an explosion on Oct. 9, claiming it was a nuclear test. Following the blast, scientists from all over the world began trying to determine if the unusually small explosion was indeed nuclear. Seismographs and radiation detectors can help answer the question.

Roughly 655,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the war in Iraq, according to a report published in The Lancet. The yearly mortality rate doubled from a pre-war 5.5 deaths per 1,000 people to a post-invasion 13.3 per 1,000 people. The fatalities, the vast majority of which were violent deaths, make the war in Iraq “the deadliest international conflict of the 21st century,” according to the report. President Bush rejected the findings.

A professional engineering society spoke out against the pending Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, which will make 1.88 million visas available to foreign technology workers in the next 10 years. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers says that this number is far greater than necessary, and will flood the market with unneeded labor.


They Never Forget

Thousands of people have fled their homes in eastern India to escape a herd of fourteen elephants looking for a missing member of the herd. The elephants have destroyed crops and homes in their search for their lost herd-mate, who was buried by villagers after it fell into a ditch and drowned.

One hundred and fifty million years ago, the arctic island of Svelbard harbored giant sea monsters, Norwegian paleontologists announced on Oct. 5 after digging up fossils of the reptiles. Though full skeletons have not yet been uncovered, the skulls found so far are up to 3-meters long. The site had a remarkably high density of fossils, a fact that one researcher attributed to the “unusual chemistry of the mud” in the area.

India’s supreme court announced that tigers and panthers in national zoos will no longer be allowed to breed. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals brought the case to the court in order to alleviate the current state of “abysmal” overcrowding in zoos.

A new brush-finch was recently discovered in the Yariguies mountains of northern Colombia, making it the first to be discovered in the region.  The newly found Yariguies Brush-Finch (Atlapetes latinuchus yariguierum) is large and colorful, with black, yellow, and red plumage, a black back, and no white markings on its wings.  To protect the region and allow researchers to continue studying it, the Colombian government declared the area a national park.

First, Do No Harm

The Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urged Congress to make significant changes to the FDA in response to its ongoing problems in regulating drug safety.  In a report written by public health officials, the advisors found that most safety problems stem from a weak approval process, which ultimately fails to detect adverse drug reactions and side effects. The fact that the same FDA center is charged with both drug approval and safety poses a further problem, the report said. The report recommended adopting a conditional drug-approval policy, conducting longer clinical trials for drugs for chronic conditions, and creating a Center for Drug Safety within the FDA.
Lawmakers and environmental groups in Washington, D.C. have complained that the Environmental Protection Agency is dragging its feet on determining whether the fish in the Potomac River are safe to eat, and whether the water is safe to drink.  For 10 years, pollutants that affect hormones in fish have been a concern. “Intersex” fish — male smallmouth and largemouth bass with female sexual characteristics — discovered in the river have signaled high levels of pollutants, including estrogen from birth control pills, human waste, pesticides, and cosmetics.

Scare Tactics

Rising temperatures and higher sea levels could mean disaster for Asia, according to an Australian report released Oct. 9. Climate change could dramatically increase the risk of disease and could destroy Asian economies, particularly those of the poorest nations, which rely on agriculture. The study called on Australia to help Asian nations use renewable energy.

Ecological Debt Day happened on Oct. 9 this year, according to the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a think-tank. Ecological Debt Day, or Overshoot Day, measures the point at which the consumption of resources exceeds the ability of the planet to replace them, and it’s been getting earlier every year, the NEF said. If the entire world consumed as much as Britain does—Britain went into ecological overshoot on April 16—the Earth’s population would need three planets’-worth of resources in order to sustain itself.
At a recent meeting of the world’s top greenhouse-gas-emitting countries, Britain’s chief scientific advisor David King told delegates that even if their countries stopped all emissions tomorrow, the world would still have 30 years of floods, heat waves, hurricanes, and coastal erosion to deal with. New programs for energy efficiency, conservation, and storing carbon dioxide underground would take at least until the end of the decade to implement.  Big polluters in attendance included South Africa, Brazil, and Mexico; and the worst polluters, the U.S., China, and India.

Last Thursday, NASA launched a new website that monitors and maps changing sea surface temperatures around the world. The agency says these maps, which are updated daily, will be valuable to climate scientists as tools to forecast El Nino and La Nina events, as well as hurricanes.


Failing Emissions Tests

The European Union will soon take legal action against the nine members that have not submitted their plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions for the years 2008 to 2012. Members were supposed to submit their figures for national carbon dioxide allotments—the crux of the EU’s plan to cap greenhouse gas emissions through a CO2 trading system—by June 30. The first legal step will be a warning letter.

Claiming that Canada will not be able to meet its Kyoto agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent by 2012, conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper will propose legislation of his own to curb smog and greenhouse emissions.  His measures would have industry rely on “intensity-based” targets.  Intensity-based targets require reduction of emissions per unit of production, but as industries expand, so would overall emissions levels.

The Scottish government began construction last Monday on what, if finished, will become the world’s largest wind farm. The $600 million Whitelee project will include 140 turbines and generate enough energy to power 200,000 homes.

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Originally published October 15, 2006

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