Monday, March 21, 2011

March 21 2011 The questionable use of the phrase TOP SECRET

Whistle blowing has been of enormous help to law enforcement in revealing embezzlement, corporate theft, corporate piracy, stock market manipulation, tax evasion, and other illegal practices that might otherwise have gone undetected. Sometimes, as in Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon papers for the Vietnam War and for the presently imprisoned Wiki-leaks whistleblower, Bradley Manning and Wiki-leaks founder Julian Assange, public reaction is mixed. We don’t like snitches and sometimes we prefer loyalty to a scoundrel rather than the betrayal of the companies that employ the whistleblowers. I am much more sympathetic to the whistleblowers than I am to those with power who are doing something wrong.

I was shifted to this view while researching a book on Agent Orange which I am still writing and revising. Almost all of what I have written is based on primary sources obtained from documents in the Kennedy Library in Boston and in the Matthew Meselson collection at Harvard University. A substantial number of those documents are declassified from their status as Top Secret or Confidential. This is what I learned. Most of the documents involving policy decisions on the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War were not military documents but civilian documents from government agencies and White House personnel. Most had little to do with military secrets of importance to the enemy. They had a lot to do with finding ways to describe the use of Agent Orange as “weed-killers,” or as essentially harmless to human health, or as a Vietnamese program rather than a US program before we got heavily involved in that war. They included quite a few military documents that expressed doubts about the usefulness of using Agent Orange for defoliation of tropical forests, for revealing enemy bases hidden in those forests, or for starving the enemy troops into submission.
When one weighs the terrible damage done to people’s lives in times of war, especially so-called “collateral damage,” I believe the status of real heroes should be assigned to those who release these documents before they are declassified. A healthy debate on those issues by Congress (most of whom were not privy to these secret documents) might have saved more US lives (not to mention civilian and military Vietnamese lives) if the debates were informed with these findings. Instead policy was based on inadequate information or misleading information. It certainly illustrated to me the reporters’ credo that in times of war the first victim is truth.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


How would you respond if you were asked the following questions:
(1) Would you prefer government agencies or private industries to regulate the toxic, mutagenic, carcinogenic, or teratogenic (embryo damaging) harm of the foods you eat, the cosmetics you use, or the products you buy for your household (insecticides, cleaners, air fresheners, paints, etc.)?
(2) Would you believe scientists working in the field with no financial benefit from corporations or scientists hired by these corporations on questions or claims such as “Is smoking tobacco safe?”; “Are carbon emissions by industry leading to global climate changes and a likely rise in sea waters by the end of this century? “; or “Nuclear reactors are safe and should be expanded in number throughout the United States.”
I suspect most people would prefer government regulation when it comes to our health from manufactured products. I suspect most people will favor some sort of effort to prevent serious climate change and its consequences rather than face a formidable response to such changes once they occur. I also suspect that most people distrust nuclear energy after three major failures and would oppose the construction of a nuclear reactor in their own neighborhood. Most of that response, I believe, comes from a public that does not like being lied to or deceived. Whenever self-interest predominates in an issue up for debate, voters get suspicious. But most voters probably have no scientific basis for choosing between the claims of government agencies, university scientists who are not beholden to industry, and those scientists whose employers are the companies themselves.
I would much prefer that the public was educated to know enough of the science involved to make informed decisions. There may be times when industry is right and the critics are wrong. That means we need both informed citizens and informed legislators.
I have written about 300 Life Lines articles on a variety of topics on the life sciences with multiple intent. I like to share my love of the life sciences. It is a thrill to learn of new insights into how cells work, how organisms are related to one another, the adaptations living things develop to cope with their environments, and the social implications of new science. Only about 5% of my Life Lines articles are political in the sense that I give my opinion on issues of science and society. For that reason I wish to use this Blog site to advocate my own point of view about science and society issues. I hope that some of you reading this will comment. It is good for the public to see the different views people have on how they came to their conclusions or why they disagree with my own interpretations. Most people do not comment on my Life Lines articles unless they are motivated by religious creationism or fundamentalism and disagree with an article that I write about evolution. But on other matters of deep concern to society I have gotten silence. I don’t know if those who disagree have good reasons for their views or if they are afraid to make arguments when they know virtually nothing about the science itself. I hope some of you will have courage to express your views.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Blog March 19 2011 Is there a social contract for our health?

We believe that a government is a social contract between those who are governed and those who govern us with our consent. It is the basis of our own American government which is part democracy and part republic with lots of checks and balances and a Constitution to prevent tyranny. It is an imperfect system but it works reasonably well and we voters have the power to throw out administrations that fail us and we can shift to a new direction. We reject anarchy or extreme libertarianism (a sort of “devil get the hindmost” social Darwinian system) in which the government plays such a minimal role that each person is at the mercy of the good will of the rest of humanity. Herbert Spencer preached that extreme libertarianism some 150 years ago in his book Social Statics and he believed that everything should be privatized, except for the military. We should pay for our police protection, fire protection, health, testing of safety, and education. He opposed public schools because they preached loyalty to the state and he felt the individual should always be an enemy of the state, criticizing it for its encroachments on individual freedom. He also opposed colonialism, the institution of a Royal family, and discrimination against women. He felt all education should be autodidactic with the library (private , of course) as the source of knowledge instead of the classroom.
Unfortunately people are complex and do not work as ideal components of utopian dreams. Those utopian schemes often end up in totalitarian thinking, with conformity rather than cantankerous diversity as the favored state of society. If we are to live in a “real world” we have to recognize the following. Humans are mortal. They are genetically diverse. They are raised in diverse households with diverse idiosyncratic parenting. They are grossly varied in opportunities and the circumstances of their birth. Some will have birth defects (about 3 to 5 percent). Some will have infectious diseases and they vary in their immune systems. Some will have physical impairments of their senses and require eyeglasses or hearing aids. Some will have organ failures. Some will have autoimmune diseases. Some will get cancers. It may not be possible to tell who will be at risk for such disorders. To address our health problems we either have to be lucky and our families have the wealth to pay for needed surgery or medication or we have to have an affordable health insurance that provides most of our basic health needs. If we are born poor then the costs of such health care are beyond what our incomes can provide. If we have a government universal health insurance then the costs are spread across all citizens just as we pay for our military through taxation.
I have yet to hear a proposal from critics of Medicare and Medicaid of a private health insurance program that can exist for the poor. I can only assume that premature death and illness of the less fortunate are tolerable for those who are fortunate enough to buy their own very effective private health insurance plans. That is not just selfish it is morally disturbing. What it tells me is that it all right to ignore the needs of others as long as you yourself are OK. Is this what our religions have taught us? Is this the message of the “good Samaritan?” Is this compatible with the “ Golden rule?”

What surprises me is how we respond with haste to new epidemics but ignore chronic and “familiar” diseases that saturate a good portion of humanity. Here is the reality for the coming decades. We will have more old people who will have lots of chronic illnesses. We have shifted away from employer provided health insurance to individual provided health insurance but for most Americans they cannot afford the costs of private insurance. Private insurance, like fee for service medicine, is wildly expensive and has far outpaced inflation. Most individuals have no factual basis for making informed decisions on what type of health care to buy or what to do if they are not covered. We need to rethink how to provide care with numerous “triage type” health centers instead of hospital emergency rooms so less expensive physician assistants and RNs can assess minor health emergencies (e.g., colds, upset stomachs, sprains, minor cuts) and distinguish those from patients with profound or more complex medical needs. We also have to think about what type of health care should be available to the very old, especially those requiring assisted living. For those who can trade in the equity of their homes for such care this is usually not a problem. For the working class who live in apartments or homes which have more modest equity, this is a very serious problem. For legislators I have a prediction for them to consider. In a few years the very old will be such a significant portion of the population that they will have the votes to favor their own interests.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Blog March 17 2011 Japanese Reactor Disaster

Thoughts on the Japanese reactor disaster in response to a query from my daughter, Christina Carlson who lives on the West coast.

I have followed the catastrophe in Japan with deep interest. It confirmed my feelings that nuclear reactors are a bad idea. I have always felt that when a highly complex system with dangerous outcomes meet unanticipated stresses, it has a risk of failing. That happens when dams break, Titanics sink, and Chernobyl/3 Mile Island/ and Japanese reactors fail. Most industrial backers will shy away from the costs of a well designed reactor that anticipates 9.0 earthquakes and 30 foot tsunamis or a terrorist attack, say a jet slamming into a reactor.

That is my first impression of my take on this bad outcome. I am concerned that two days ago there was a report that one of reactors “may” have had a partial meltdown with a release of 400 milliSieverts per hour. Since that’s about 40 roentgens per hour, just one day’s exposure would be an LD-50 [mean lethal dose] dose in which half of those receiving such a dose (400-500 R or 4 to 5 Sv) would die of radiation sickness. Fortunately, the efforts to pour sea water every day are working to some extent because within an hour or so the emitted dose was back to a fraction of that rate (1-10 mSv/hr). So the workers in the nuclear reactors are not dying of radiation sickness the way the Chernobyl workers did where the release was on-going because they had no way to flood the reactor for weeks and eventually had to entomb it in concrete.

The third impression is more difficult for me to assess. Low doses do cause small amounts of mutational damage (but not radiation sickness) so worldwide the effect will be trivial like the Chernobyl disaster for the US or most of the world. The regions that got clobbered were in Ukraine and by wind drift to Lapland and other parts of Europe. I still remember how disturbed I was when you were in Berlin at the time and giving me the doses that were being measured and reported on German radio and TV in Germany. But, of course that was because thousands of roentgens per day were being pumped for about two or three weeks into the atmosphere. I don’t know if the Japanese will contain this faster than the Russians, but I am encouraged that the rate fluctuates. Every time they dump more sea water in, the radiation emission drops by orders of magnitude which is a good thing. What I can’t assess is the condition of the spent rods and their ability to be doused with sea water and the cracked reactor (s). There may be two or more with such cracks.

If I were in Japan and could afford to leave, I would, especially with young children. As far as living on the West coast, I don’t see any way it would be possible for such diluted radioactive debris to fall out on coastal cities in worrisome amounts. It would be similar to nuclear fallout from weapons testing at the worst and those tossed the radioactive debris into the stratosphere which the Japanese reactors can’t do.
A last thought. The potassium iodide [ KI] tablets are not very useful on the west coast because I131 or other isotopes will be minuscule in dilution hitting the west coast. Most of that KI risk comes from drinking milk of cows that eat grass that grows on Iodine contaminated soil. It would be easier to monitor the milk and not use it if it’s above a certain low level. The KI had it been used in Ukraine in the first few days of heavy radiation they could have saved lots of children from thyroid cancers.

Radiation damage is proportional to dose. So a mSv is 0.1 R which is a chest x-ray dose (or for some machines, ten chest x-rays worth). The individual risk is very low of cancer and zero for any symptoms of radiation sickness. But a dose of 100 R or 1 Sv is very high and will cause symptoms of radiation sickness. But radiation decays inversely to the square of the distance so if you are several miles away from a 100 r release the amount getting that far will be in the small mSv range (about 1 to 10 mSv). What all this means is that anyone within a few feet of the reactor will be dangerously at risk if not heavily protected with lead shielding. The workers there are at high risk. But since no one should be in a radius of 12 miles or so, those outside that zone will be at relatively low risk unless a Chernoby-l like explosion heaves a plume into the stratosphere which drifts and rains down radioactive debris. That’s what I’ve been nervous about because of the unprotected spent fuel which is filled with radioactive isotopes.