Monday, November 30, 2009

Green Tip # 2: Mow your leaves instead of raking. Your trees will thank you.

Text and photos by Sally Kneidel, PhD, of

Those predictable piles of autumn leaves

Last weekend, our neighbors across the street spent at least 5 hours raking the leaves from their lawn. Their whole family was involved in the process. Granted, it was probably good exercise. Although for me, raking hurts my back - having to twist and pull at the same time.  So maybe it was, maybe it wasn't "good exercise" for the neighbors.

At any rate, the family bagged their leaves into 23 black garbage bags and lined them up along the edge of the street for the city to pick up.  Because these neighbors didn't use transparent bags, their leaves will not be chopped up by the city and recycled as mulch, but will instead go to the landfill.

 In Charlotte, anything in a black bag is "garbage" for the landfill, even if it's pure leaves

Above, the clear bags that residents are asked to use for yard waste
Ken and I don't like the idea of robbing our own trees of all the valuable nutrients stored in their leaves. The big oak trees around here have a hard time, between the frequent droughts and the city's persistent infestation of fall cankerworms. So we  stopped raking a couple of years ago.

Our lawn in October, covered by oak and maple leaves

Instead of raking, we decided to try mowing the leaves and then leaving them on the lawn. We did it a few times last fall and winter and it worked great. At first, I thought they would make a brown carpet that would persist and smother the grasses.  I was wrong. The leaves virtually disappear after they're mowed. They just sink into the grass and eventually into the soil, where they decompose and feed the tree roots.

Ken mowing the grass and leaves 

Last weekend, Ken mowed all the leaves in our yard, which is about the same size as the neighbors'. It took 20 minutes. That was the second time he'd mowed since the leaves started falling in October. Our lawn isn't much of a lawn; we keep talking about converting it to a meadow of native species.  But still, for now, it is a ground-cover of grasses and weeds that qualifies as a lawn.

Our lawn last week, just after mowing the leaves and grass.  Hardly any leaves visible!

One week later (above), with a week's accumulation of fallen leaves. One of us will mow it again in a couple of weeks, and these leaves too will more-or-less disappear.

Above, the lawn of a neighbor down the street who has blown every leaf off her property with a loud leaf-blower.  The yard looks tidy, but how long can trees go on in a healthy state, losing all the nutrients they put into those leaves every year?  I don't know. Apparently a long time. But I'm glad to be recycling our own leaves back to the source.

Why doesn't everyone who has a lawn chop-up the leaves and let them lie? Or better yet, just let them lie unmowed, and convert to a native woodland? Where did we get the idea that leaves must be raked or blown, or that we need to have pristine lawns to begin with? It seems to be a meaningless tradition that we need to re-think, given the rate at which we're destroying wildlife habitat by development.  How much better if we can all do something to leave our yards a little more natural.  See the National Wildlife Federation for ideas about making your yard more wildlife-friendly.

My previous "Green Tip" posts, and previous posts about lawns:

Green Tip #1: Annex the Outdoors; Save Energy & Materials

How to convert a lawn to a native meadow or woodland

Top 10 eco-friendly yard and garden choices 

Lawn is a dirty word 

Lawns are 5th largest crop in terms of land use 

Yard drama: a story of housecats, chipmunks, rats, ivy, and native plants

Housecats kill hundreds of millions of birds annually

Key words:: lawns nutrient recycling falling leaves raking leaves

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Junk food as addictive as drugs, says new neurological study

Tis the season to eat pecan pies, Christmas cookies, cheese sticks, and other festive goodies. Right? Just for a month or so. Then we'll all go on diets!  Diet books' highest sales are right after the holidays. I've already gained a couple of pounds and it's not even Thanksgiving yet!  :o(

But after reading this study in Science News, which I'm about to describe, I'm going to take a little more care in tossing down the sweet and high-fat treats this season. Read what happened to these rats!  Sure they're rats, but they're mammals just like we are, and their brain physiology is far more similar to ours than it is different.  Listen up to what these scientists Paul Kenny and Paul Johnson found out about the addictive nature of junk food.

Neuroscientists Paul Kenny and Paul Johnson from Scripps Research Institute reported last month that rats fed a steady diet of high-fat junk food develop addictive behavior similar to heroin addiction!

The rats in the study were divided into two groups. One group was fed a healthy diet of high-nutrient, low-calorie chow. The other group was given unlimited amounts of junk food, which included Ho Hos (packaged cakes), bacon, cheesecake, pound cake and sausage.

The two researchers found that, for the junk-food rats, the pleasure centers in the brain became less responsive to the tasty high-fat food, requiring more and more food to stimulate the brain's pleasure centers. Consequently, the rats began to eat compulsively, taking in twice as many calories as the other group, and soon became obese.

Habituation to the high-fat diet was surprisingly fast. After only five days on the junk-food diet, the rats showed  "profound reductions" in the responsiveness of their brains' pleasure centers.  At this point, the rats "lose control" of their eating, said researcher Paul Kenny of Scripps. "This is the hallmark of addiction."

As another way to assess the impact of  junk-food on the rats' brains, the scientists used electrodes to stimulate the pleasure centers in the brains of both groups of rats.  The rats could control the amount of pleasurable stimulation by running on a wheel. The more they ran, the more pleasurable stimulation they felt. During this part of the experiment, the rats that were addicted to junk food ran more than the healthy-diet rats, suggesting that they  needed more stimulation of the pleasure center to feel good.

So what happened when the junk-food addicts were forced to go cold turkey and give up the cakes and bacon?  The addictive changes in the brain persisted for weeks, even after the rats' weights returned to normal.  In presenting their data at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in October of 2009, scientists Paul Kenny and Paul Johnson speculated that the addicted rats' response to food may be changed permanently.

Ack! Well then, maybe it's a good thing that my co-worker snatched up the last piece of pecan pie at work today.  There was nothing left but apple pie, and that was too wholesome for the mood I was in. I wanted something wickedly sweet.

But for real, I plan to keep in mind the five days to food addiction reported by these guys at Scripps, and exercise some control this season. Before it's too late!

Laura Sanders.  "Junk food turns rats into addicts. Bacon, cheesecake, Ho Hos alter brain's pleasures centers." Science News.  November 21, 2009.

Paul Johnson and Paul Kenny. "Society of Neuroscience Program."  'Neuroscience 2009' Conference. October 17-21, 2009.  Chicago.

Key words:: junk food, addiction, holiday food, high-fat foods, diet, nutrition

Monday, November 23, 2009

Working in a Turkey Insemination Factory

Readers, I like to publish this undercover and riveting article by animal-rights activist Jim Mason every Thanksgiving. It's in honor of the millions of turkeys that will be consumed during the coming week.  After reading it, you may decide to eat something else!  Many thanks to my friend Jim, co-author of the landmark book Animal Factories for taking the trouble to investigate this topic, and for allowing me to reprint it.
by author, attorney, and animal-activist Jim Mason

A friend heard an advertisement on the local radio about the Butterball Turkey Company needing workers in artificial insemination, called "AI" for short. So I went to the personnel office across the street from the turkey killing plant in this small midwestern town. Latinos, Asians and poor whites filled the waiting room. Everybody wore rubber boots and big, puffy white hairnets - both men and women.

"Bob," the AI boss, explained that the modern turkey business is about the "most high-technical" of all the animal operations. "The turkey is a creation of modern science and industry," he said. "It's been out of the wild only about 100 years, the last animal to be domesticated. Because of that wildness, it tends to go broody, which means it lays a few eggs once a year and quits. We have to trick it into laying all the time."

Bob told me that the company's birds are much bigger and more clumsy than the original turkey — so much so that they can't breed by themselves anymore. So the company has to use AI to produce the fertile eggs that hatch the chicks who then go into "grow-out" houses and grow up to be slaughtered and processed.

The Butterball Turkey Company is a division of ConAgra Turkey Co., a division of ConAgra Poultry Co., a division of ConAgra, Inc. of Omaha, NE (the agribusiness conglomerate). They hired me. I reported for work at 4:45 a.m. I was told to go with "Joe" and his crew. Joe grunted at me, then barked, "Follow me in your car." Down a gravel road, the lights of a turkey building glowed ahead. We parked. Joe handed me a dust mask and grunted something. When I didn't move, he yelled, "Get a hold of this and help me take it in." It was the insemination machine, about the size of a TV set. As we walked toward the building, a worker came out and pitched two dead birds out the door.

Inside the building, I saw a sea of white hens. (Three thousand, I was told later.) The flock was divided in half by a double row of metal "nests" down the middle of the building. From these nests, a row of conveyer belts carried eggs. 

Joe did not explain the work to come, nor did he introduce me to the other crew members — all silent, surly-looking white men in their 20s. They set up the AI machine quickly and went to work.

Two men herded birds a hundred or so at a time into a makeshift pen along one side of the house. From there, these "drivers" forced 5-6 birds at a time into a chute, which opened onto a 5x5-foot concrete-lined pit sunken into the floor of the house. Three men worked belly-deep in the pit: Two grabbed birds from the chute and held them for the third, Joe, the inseminator.

They put me to work first in the pit, grabbing and "breaking" hens. One "breaks" a hen by holding her breast down, legs down, tail up so that her cloaca or "vent" opens. This makes it easier for the inseminator to insert the tube and deliver a "shot" of semen.

Breaking hens was hard, fast, dirty work. I had to reach into the chute, grab a hen by the legs, and hold her, ankles crossed, in one hand. Then, as I held her on the edge of the pit, I wiped my other hand over her rear, which pushed up her tail feathers and exposed her vent opening. The birds weighed 20 to 30 lbs., were terrified, and beat their wings and struggled in panic. They were very strong and hard to hold. 

With the hen thus "broken," the inseminator stuck his thumb right under her vent and pushed, which opened the vent and forced the end of the oviduct a bit. Into this, he inserted the semen tube and released the semen. Then both men let go and the hen flopped away onto the house floor. 

The insemination machine's job was to put a calibrated amount of semen into small, plastic "straws" for the inseminator. Each straw was about the size of a drinking straw 3-4 inches long.

The machine drew semen from a 6 cc. syringe and loaded the straws one at a time. With the tip of a rubber hose, the inseminator took a straw, inserted it in the hen, and gave her a shot. Routinely, rhythmically, like a well-oiled machine, the breakers and the inseminator did this over and over, bird by bird, until all birds in the house had run through this gauntlet.
The semen came from the "tom house" where the males are housed. Here "Bill" extracted the semen bird by bird. He worked on a bench which has a vacuum pump and a rubber-padded clamp to hold the tom by the legs. From the vacuum pump, a small rubber hose ran to a "handset." With it, Bill "milked" each tom. The handset was fitted with glass tubes and a syringe body; it sucked semen from the tom and poured it into a syringe body.

I helped Bill for a while. My job was to catch a tom by the legs, hold him upside down, lift him by the legs and one wing, and set him up on the bench on his chest/neck, with his rear end sticking up facing Bill. He took each tom, locked his crossed feet and legs into the padded clamp, then lifted his leg over the bird©ˆs head and neck to hold him. Bill had the handset on his right hand. With his left hand, he squeezed the tomˆs vent until it opened up and the white semen oozed forth. He held the sucking end of a glass tube just below the opening and sucked up the few drops of semen. It looked like Half & Half cream, white and thick.
We did this over and over, bird by bird, until the syringe body filled up. Each syringe body was already loaded with a couple of cubic centimeters of "extender," a watery, bluish mixture of antibiotics and saline solution. As each syringe was filled, I ran it over to the hen house and handed it to the inseminator and crew.

Each tom house contained about 400 males, 20 to a pen. The toms are milked once or twice a week until they are about 64 weeks old (16 months), by which time they can weigh up to 80 lbs. The hens are inseminated usually once, sometimes twice a week, for about a year. When these breeding birds reach the end of their cycle, they are killed and turned into lunch meat, pot pies, and pet food.

The inseminator crew did two houses a day‹6,000 hens a day. Figuring a 10-hour day, that©ˆs 600 hens per hour, ten a minute. Two breakers did 10 hens a minute, or each breaker broke 5 hens a minute —- one hen every 12 seconds.

This pace pressured the drivers to keep a steady flow of birds in the chute to supply the pit. Having been through this week after week, the birds feared the chute and balked and huddled up. The drivers literally kicked them into the chute. The idea seemed to be to terrify at least one bird, who squawked, beat her wings in panic, and terrified the others in her group. In this way, the drivers created such pain and terror behind the birds that it forced them to plunge ahead to the pain and terror they knew to be in the chute and pit ahead.
The crews worked at this pace from 5 a.m. until 2 p.m., when I left. They had two more hours of work to finish off the second hen house. That's 11 hours at a stretch with no formal breaks. No morning breakfast, no lunch hour. The only breaks came by chance, when a machine malfunctioned or when the semen syringes were slow to come.

At about 12 or 1, the bad-tempered Joe got suddenly generous after yelling and barking orders all day and bought everyone a "sody." He was not our buddy, but our paternalistic leader. We got to sit outside among the swarms of flies buzzing over a pile of dead birds and drink cokes for 10 to 15 minutes while Joe and another guy ran an errand.

I asked the least belligerent co-worker about the workload and the pace, the no-breaks routine. He told me that the crews are given 30 minutes off for lunch, but that his crew (under Big Bad Joe) worked through this lunch break in order to get paid for the time. These guys worked at this pace 10 to 12 hours straight without a break or a bite to eat just to get another $3 on their paychecks. I put up with this for a day because I thought I might learn lots of secret stuff from the crews. Fat chance. Nobody talked. Nobody talked about anything. The few times I tried to make conversation, all I got was surly, glowering looks and a grunt or two.

I have never done such hard, fast, dirty, disgusting work in my life. Ten hours of pushing birds, grabbing birds, wrestling birds, jerking them upside down, pushing open their vents, dodging their panic-blown excrement, breathing the dust stirred up by terrified birds, ignoring verbal abuse from Joe and the others on the crew-- all of this without a break or a bite to eat (not that I could have eaten anything amongst all this).
Working under these conditions week after week (Bill had been there for four years), these men had grown callous, rough, and brutal. Every bird went through their merciless hands at least once a week, week after week, until they were loaded up to be killed.

Jim Mason. Farm Sanctuary News.

For more information on this issue, visit LINKS GALORE,

Keywords:: turkey farm turkey factory farm turkey insemination Jim Mason turkey abuse

A review of Jonathan Safran Foer's book: Eating Animals

A book review by Sally Kneidel, PhD

As a biologist and co-author of two books about the meat industry, I was asked by Jonathan Safran Foer's publicist to review Foer's new non-fiction book Eating Animals. I confess I didn't want to read it, because the topic can be distressing. But I'm glad I did. It's among the best books I've ever read on the topic: remarkably thorough and well-documented.  From the first page, the quality of Foer's writing impressed me. Foer is a novelist, and his talent for telling personal stories was evident throughout. He used his own uncertainty, and his need for answers, to pull me into his journey of discovery, an investigation motivated by the birth of his son.

Among the book's strengths were long quotes from his conversations with people who work with livestock, or work on behalf of livestock. He interviewed factory farmers and farmers who raise livestock more humanely, animal-welfare advocates and animal-rights activists, making clear distinctions between the different points of view, and letting all of them speak for themselves. Foer quoted significant passages from the writings of Michael Pollan and Gail Eisnitz, and described the fascinating work of Temple Grandin. I thought he did a great job of getting at the essence of each person's perspective, and identifying contrasts.

Since I write and blog about diet and livestock myself, I can't say I was surprised at anything I read.  But I was yanked back into full awareness of all the issues, all the arguments, and the disturbing aspects of eating animals. My friend Beth, also a vegetarian, read Foer's book and pointed out that he helps us see how we all rationalize what we do. That's true - and he started with his own rationalizations, which made me as a reader more willing to examine my own.

After I finished the book, I let it sit for a couple of days, and what rose to the surface for me were his descriptions of animal abuse in the meatpacking industry. I've always felt that many controversial issues in our culture, even medical topics, can be resolved simply (for me) if I ask myself about any suffering involved. Which choice will cause the least suffering?

That query can be applied here too. Does raising livestock for consumption involve suffering? It does indeed, on a scale that rivals any other source of suffering on the planet. If you doubt it, read Foer's book. Raising livestock will eventually cause the suffering of every being born onto this planet, human and nonhuman, because raising livestock is responsible for 51% of annual worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions. (Foer's data on that are out-of-date, which is not his fault since the book went to press before the latest analysis by Worldwatch Institute.)  Greenhouse-gas emissions will eventually cause mass-extinctions of wildlife, widespread drought and starvation, inundation of coastal cities, climate refugees, etc.  As time goes on, the global community will become less and less tolerant of Americans' disproportionate consumption of resources (including meat) and our disproportionate generation of waste.  Who knows what lies in store, but change is a-coming, and the livestock sector is largely responsible.

To make one more point on the subject of suffering - where is the suffering in not eating animal products? There is none. As Foer wrote, quoting animal-rights activist Bruce Friedrich, "I certainly agree that if someone is going to eat animals, they should eat only grass-fed, pasture-raised animals - especially cattle. But here's the elephant in the room: Why eat animals at all?"  Indeed. Why?

I highly recommend this book and feel grateful to Foer for the time and effort he invested in covering so vast, so troubling, and so vital a topic. I think his book should be part of every high-school science (or literature) curriculum. What a difference that might make. I can see how the birth of Foer's child could motivate his momentous undertaking; this important volume could impact the future of my children, your children, and our grandchildren from here to the end of our planet.

Some of my previous blog posts on the meat industry:
Livestock account for 51% of annual worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions.

Ground beef: a risky choice for families and the planet.

Is local food the greenest choice?  A new study says no. 

Less meat....smaller footprint.

Smithfield blamed for swine flu by Mexican press

This virus is a swine flu and has roots in N.C., the land of Smithfield

New study: meat impacts climate change more than "buying local" 

More information on the subject:
Sally Kneidel, PhD, and Sadie Kneidel. "Veggie Revolution: Smart Choices for a Healthy Body and Healthy Planet". 2005. Fulcrum Publishing.

Sally Kneidel, PhD, and Sadie Kneidel. "Going Green: A Wise Consumer's Guide to a Shrinking Planet". 2008. Fulcrum Publishing.

Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang. "Livestock and Climate Change." Worldwatch Institute.

Gail Eisnitz. "Slaugherhouse". 2006. Prometheus Books.

Meet your Meat  A 12-minute video narrated by Alec Baldwin.

The Meatrix. Award-winning videos by Sustainable Table and  Free Range Studios.

Keywords:: Eating Animals Jonathan Safran Foer vegetarian vegan meat industry meatpackers greenhouse gas emissions mass extinctions animal cruelty animal abuse

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Second wave of H1N1 declining in numbers but not severity; third wave may be worst

Text by Sally Kneidel, PhD
November 18, 2009
See this post now on the front page of

I talked with a knowledgeable nurse friend yesterday, a woman who takes care of the health needs of hundreds of teenagers.  She sees patients all day long every day, many of whom have flu.  She told me yesterday that H1N1 is waning at present.  But it's expected to peak again in another month or two. In the next wave, she predicted, much or most of the U.S. population who haven't had H1N1 will get it - at least, those who haven't been vaccinated.  She said successive outbreaks of a pandemic flu within one year tend to be worse with each successive wave.

Her comments jibe with articles I read today in the Charlotte Observer and on the CDC web site. The CDC says that visits to doctors for flu-like illnesses have decreased nationally for the last two weeks, after climbing for the previous four weeks.  But, says the CDC, "Total influenza hospitalization rates for laboratory-confirmed flu continue to climb and remain higher than expected for this time of year. Hospitalization rates continue to be highest in younger populations, with the highest hospitalization rate reported in children 0-4 years old. The proportion of deaths attributed to pneumonia and influenza....continues to increase and has been higher than what is expected for six weeks now.....Almost all of the influenza viruses identified so far [this fall] continue to be 2009 H1N1 influenza A viruses." [As I reported in an earlier post, pneumonia is the usual cause of death in fatal H1N1 cases.]

So, apparently, the total number of cases has been dropping nationally for the last couple of weeks, but is the H1N1 virus becoming more virulent?  More dangerous?  What else would lead to higher hospitalization and death rates, in spite of dropping numbers of people infected?

Which leads one to wonder about the vaccine.  The limited supplies are supposed to be going to pregnant women, children 6 months and older, young adults up to 24, anyone with a chronic medical condition, health-care workers, and emergency responders.  Yet, that's not always happening.  I went over to my local County Health Department a week ago to get a shingles shot (at least 6 people close to me have had shingles in the last year!), and while I was there, the staff asked me if I wanted to get an H1N1 shot.  I said no, because I'm not in a high-risk group. Corroborating my experience, there are numerous reports in the newspaper of lower-risk people being offered shots.  No one's too upset about that right now. But that could change. I would like to get the vaccine for myself and my family before the January wave hits. Wouldn't we all?  I looked on the CDC web site under "2009 H1N1 Influenza Vaccine Supply Status" dated 11/17/2009.  Unfortunately, it's remarkably not helpful, almost as if they intended to make it indecipherable. I just want to know, when will the vaccine be available for everyone who wants it?  Will it get here before the next wave, which will likely have higher mortality rates?

What's taking so long?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "2009 H1N1 Flu: Situation Update." 11/13/2009.  

Lisa Rosetta. "Second wave of H1N1 flu cases starting to wane."  11/16/2009.  Salt Lake Tribune.

Dharm Makwana. "H1N1 second wave ends." 11/18/2009.  24 Hours Vancouver.

Karen Garloch. "Swine flu numbers ease off:  Levels still surpass peak of a regular flu season, and officials predict new surge then."  11/14/2009. Charlotte Observer.

Karen Garloch. "H1N1 vaccine given to low-risk patients."  11/17/2009. Charlotte Observer.

My previous posts about H1N1:

The most dangerous cases of H1N1  11/12/2009

My daughter says elderberry got rid of her H1N1  10/22/2009

Why is swine flu likely to return in winter? It's not because we're cooped up together in winter  5/8/2009

This virus IS a swine flu and has its roots in North Carolina, the land of Smithfield   5/2/2009

Smithfield blamed for swine flu by Mexican press  4/29/2009

Keywords:: H1N1 vaccine swine flu successive waves low-risk patients

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The most dangerous cases of H1N1

by Sally Kneidel, PhD

As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, my daughter and her boyfriend both had H1N1 recently. They both had fever, headache, severe muscle aches, fatigue, a sore throat and dry cough. They were both pretty miserable for a few days, but then made a very speedy recovery.  Neither one of them ever went to a doctor, because by the time we figured out what they had, it was too late for Tamiflu to have any effect.  A nurse told me that Tamiflu is effective only if taken in the first day or two of a viral illness, because all it does is shorten the duration and severity of the illness.  My daughter and her boyfriend did take elderberry extract capsules (800 mg, 3 times a day) which they felt hastened their recovery.

The same nurse friend I mentioned above also told me that, of all the people she sees in her job, those with H1N1 are in general not as sick as those with the seasonal flu. The population she treats is mostly teens.

When H1N1 Can Be Fatal
But soon after my daughter and her boyfriend recovered, the college-age son of a friend became ill with H1N1. He went to the college infirmary, and was soon in the hospital.  I'm not sure exactly what symptoms he had at first, except that they included a cough, sore throat, and runny nose.  Then, within just a couple of days, I got the word that he was in critical condition, in the ICU with pneumonia!!  There was a day or two after that where no one was sure whether he would live or die.  It was very frightening. He was able to breathe, but due to fluid in his lungs he was not getting enough oxygen, which can lead to organ failure and death.  So he was put on a respirator, which forces air into the lungs. The respirator was put on a high setting, meaning that a lot of air was being forced into his lungs. He was teetering on the brink of life for a couple of days, then I heard that the respirator had been turned down a notch, which was good.  After another day or two, a tracheotomy was performed and the respirator was attached to that instead of being stuck in his mouth.  I'm not sure what the purpose of that procedure was, except that it was a considered a step toward healing, and he was more comfortable having the respirator out of his mouth.  He started writing notes to the nurses, texting his friends, and generally coming around.  Next thing I heard, the respirator was removed, the tracheotomy was closed up and he was going home!  Seems like as soon as he began to get better, the recovery was remarkably fast.

Studies say my friend's experience was typical of serious cases of H1N1
I just recently read articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and in Science News that detailed a typical scenario in the most serious cases of H1N1. They described cases remarkably similar to that of my friend's son. The articles said that young adults are the most vulnerable.  The most critical patients are those who get pneumonia. The article said inflammation in the lungs leads to fluid build-up in the airways and the lungs.  Says Dr.Robert Fowler of the University of Toronto, "Most patients are still able to take breaths, but those breaths are ineffective."  In a Canadian study reported in JAMA, 168 patients critically ill with H1N1 (average age 32) received intensive treatment, including antivirals such as Tamiflu and ventilators, but 17% of them died.  In another study, patients in Australia and New Zealand with an average age of 34 who were critically ill with H1N1 had a mortality rate of 21%.  In a third study, this time in Mexico, critically ill patients with H1N1 had a mortality rate of 41%, although these patients too were treated with ventilators and antivirals such as Tamiflu or Relenza. In one final study, in California, 11% of patients who became critically ill with H1N1 died - the most common cause of death was "viral pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome."  Note that these percentages are percentages of people who were already critically ill with H1N1, not just percentages of all people with H1N1 flu.

The most important factor seems to be pneumonia. I am not sure what steps can be taken to keep H1N1 from turning into pneumonia, but if I had H1N1, I would see a doctor as fast as possible to get a prescription for an antiviral, and I would stay home and rest, drink lots of fluids, and do whatever the doctor said to help keep my lungs clear. 

The CDC and other sources recommend these steps for keeping well and keeping others well:
Wash hands frequently.
Don't touch eyes, nose, mouth.
Leave the room if someone else is coughing, because inhaling airborne droplets can lead to infection, and that factor is more likely in cold weather. (See my previous post below on why that's true.) 
If you are sick, cover your mouth or nose with a tissue when you cough and throw it away, or with the inside of your elbow, not with your hands.
Stay home if you're sick until you've had no fever for at least 24 hours.
Try to avoid touching doorknobs or things that other people touch constantly when out in public or at work.  Use your own pen to sign receipts.

See the CDC's website for more information on staying well.

Anand Kumar, MD, et al.  "Critically Ill Patients with 2009 Influenza A(H1N1) Infection in Canada". 2009.  Journal of the American Medical Association 302(17):1872-1879. Published online October 12, 2009  

Janice K. Louie, MD, et al. "Factors Asssociated with Death or Hospitalization Due to Pandemic 2009 Influenza A(H1N1) Infection in California". 2009.  Journal of the American Medical Association 302(17):1896-1902.

Nathan Seppa. "Reviewing H1NI flu's worst cases: Antivirals, ventilators help, but fatalities show lungs hit hard."  Nov 7, 2009. Science News. 

My previous posts on H1N1: 

Why is swine flu likely to return in winter?  It's not because we're cooped up together in winter

My daughter says elderberry got rid of her H1N1 flu 

Keywords:: H1N1 flu swine flu worst cases pneumonia ventilator how to protect yourself from H1N1 CDC JAMA

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Budding Scientists Assess the Tiny Critters of Africa

A Great Student Opportunity
In June of 2009, Ken and I helped out with a biodiversity survey in South Africa. Most of the researchers were undergraduates from universities in the U.S. All of them had already taken a semester-long ecology course in South Africa offered by the Organization for Tropical Studies or OTS, whose home base is at Duke University. (Many of the students were also from Duke.) Dr. Laurence Kruger is the Director of OTS's South African course, and a friend of ours for the last three years or so. He lives in Kruger National Park, South Africa, and takes his ecology students all over Kruger Park and to other important ecological  sites and interesting indigenous villages in South Africa, such as Welverdiend and Hamakuya. Most of what I know about South Africa, I've learned through Laurence or his employees and connections.

 The photo above shows part of the biodiversity crew in the field. L-R is Ken Kneidel, guard Oneeka with rifle, students Allison, Sarah, Caroline, and Seth, OTS instructor Taryn in red shirt, and guard Steven Khosa with rifle over his shoulder. An OTS truck is in the background. The survey was funded by NFS, under their "Research Experience for Undergraduates " program.

Setting Up the Temporary Traps
Everyone involved in the survey was staying at Skukusa Rest Camp in Kruger National Park. The first morning at 7 a.m. we piled into a couple of trucks and drove 2-3 miles to an undisturbed area along the Sabie River. At eight different sites, we set up drift fences and drop traps to catch small animals such as frogs, toads, lizards, snakes, insects, mice, shrews, small rats, insects and other invertebrates. We also set out 16 live-traps for small mammals. The next morning, early, we went to check all the traps at all eight sites. All the little animals were measured, identified and released. By park regulations, we had to have two armed guards with us at all times, in case of encounters with angry hippos, elephants, Cape buffalo, cats, rhinos, wart hogs, baboons, or other big animals. One of the guards was our old friend from 2007, Steven Khosa, a biology student and park employee. Ken and I had hired Steven to be our personal guide in northern Kruger Park in 2007, and he was fabulous. We learned so much from him about his culture, as well as wildlife. The other guard for the biodiversity survey in 2009 was the friendly Oneeka, also a park employee, who was interested in everything we caught.

Graham, director of field operations for the South African OTS course, dug the holes for every drop trap, with this heavy power drill (above). The holes had to be big enough to accommodate big buckets sunk to ground level.

After the central bucket was sunk at each site, REU student Hannah (above) and others pounded in stakes to hold up the three plastic fences that radiated outward from the central bucket. The fences, about 1 foot tall each, are called "drift fences." At least, that's what they're called in the States. I used drift fences for my doctoral research at UNC, studying the breeding migrations of terrestrial salamanders, Ambystoma opacum and maculatum.

REU student Seth (above) made tubular traps of fiberglass windowscreen mesh to lie alongside each drift fence, to catch reptiles moving along the fence. Each end of the tubular traps had an inverted funnel of mesh, to allow entry but deter exit.
When we returned the next morning to check the traps, REU student Caroline (above) and others checked for animals in the buckets. Each of the three fences or "spokes" that radiated out from the central bucket had another bucket at the other end. When little animals encountered the fence, they crawled or hopped alongside the fence, eventually falling into one of the buckets. Caroline was studying insect diversity, so she always had a glass jar to carry insects back to the lab to ID.

A New "Old World" Lizard for Me
I don't think we caught any snakes because it was winter there in the southern hemisphere, but we did catch a few lizards like this ground agama (Agama aculeata) below. Lizards in the family Agamidae are the "old world" counterparts to the lizard family Iguanidae found in the Americas.
agamid cropped

Fantastic Frogs and Toads
We also found a variety of frogs and toads, some of which were really different from any I'd seen in the States. Seth knew what all of them were - he was our student expert on reptiles and amphibians. The burrowing toads we caught, Breviceps, were my favorite (below). They looked like grumpy old men. Most of them were covered with damp sand, from burrowing.

Other favorites were the tiny shovel-nosed frogs, below (Hemisus marmoratus). Like Breviceps, they are burrowers in the sandy soil on the floodplain of the Sabie River.

In one of the buckets, we found two beautiful frogs with luminous eyes (above). This frog's common name is the bubbling kassina, or Senegal running frog. Scientific name: Kasina senegalensis.

I think this is a flat-backed toad, Bufo maculatus, found in one of the buckets.

Tiny Biting Mammals
Allison was studying mammals, and every time we caught a mouse, rat, or shrew in one of the buckets, she picked it up, marked it with a red marker (to identify it if recaptured), and put it briefly in a plastic bag to measure its weight and length. The bag kept it from biting her (usually).

A pygmy mouse (Mus minutoides) in Allison's grasp (above).

Oneeka and Allison inspect another pygmy mouse (above).

Above, Allison weighs a mouse in a bag attached to a hand-held spring scale; Taryn shows me a red veld rat (Aethomys chrysophilus). The red on the rat's chest is from the red marker.

I believe this is a musk shrew (Crocidura mariquensis) inside one of the buckets (above).

What Was the Point?
The overall purpose of the survey, in my understanding, was to assess the effect of differences in the tree canopy on the numbers of animals on the ground below. That is, does a heterogeneous tree canopy support more biodiversity on the ground, or less? I don't know what the answer to that question turned out to be, or if there was an answer. Ken and I left for the north of the park before the project was finished. Of course, the fences and buckets were all removed when the students were through monitoring them, and the holes were filled in. But the data that the students collected will set the stage for future studies by OTS students or REU students. If the process is repeated in future years, the results will show any declines in biodiversity. It's easy to think that, within the park where direct human disturbance is minimal, animal populations should remain stable. 

But the Climate Is Changing in Africa
Rain patterns are changing. Rain affects tree diversity, rain affects the flow of rivers and the deposition of sand along river banks. Who knows how these factors will affect animal populations in a riparian, or riverbank, community? That's the point - who knows? Surveys like this will help us understand the effects of climate change. Some scientists predict that 75% of current species will become extinct within this century. The vast majority of scientists agree that we are facing unprecedented mass extinctions, while at the same time destroying the habitats that could foster the evolution of new species. Field exercises like this are barometers of change. They're important, too, in teaching a new generation of ecologists the techniques they'll need to guide us into an unknown and daunting future. On a lighter note, it was fun for Ken and me to see so many new tiny animals, after spending a lot of time looking for and photographing the bigger ones. These little animals are essential to a healthy and stable ecological community. Each one has its unique charms and its own place in the natural world. 

Keywords:: biodiversity climate change South Africa OTS Organization for Tropical Studies REU Research Experience for Undergraduates Skukusa Kruger Park Kruger National Park Laurence Kruger riparian communities undergraduate research Sally Kneidel Ken Kneidel

Monday, November 09, 2009

One-tenth of Louisiana to be submerged by 2100

The Louisiana coast in the year 2100, according to scientists' projections of rising seas and reduced sedimentation. Note that New Orleans is far off the coast.
Photo courtesy of Science News, 7/18/09.

The residents of New Orleans have had it rough the last few years, following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Much of the city has been restored and rebuilt, while other damaged areas still remain as they were after the storm.  Unfortunately, due to the particular location of New Orleans, the situation may get worse instead of better in the coming decades. A recent study published in the journal Nature Geoscience predicts that ten percent of Louisiana will be submerged by the year 2100.

Scientist Harry Roberts of Louisiana State University and his colleague Michael D. Blum used computer modeling, based on scientific measurements, to estimate the effect of various factors on the gradual submersion of Louisiana.  One factor is the sinking of land as sediments from the Mississippi River are compacted under their own weight. This compaction is a normal phenomenon. Historically, new sediments have been deposited at a rate that has replaced the sinking sediments, keeping delta land levels constant. But in the fairly recent past, the amount of sediment deposited by the river has been cut in half by dams upriver. Now, with the reduced flow of new sediments, the land is sinking at a net rate of about 8 millimeters per year. Near Baton Rouge, 150 km upstream, sediments are also sinking and not being replaced. The submersion process is just a bit slower upstream.

The lack of new sediment is not the only problem causing southern Louisiana to sink. The other issue is rising sea levels due to climate change. Scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have reported that sea levels are currently rising at a rate of 3 millimeters per year, and that rate will accelerate as the climate continues to warm. Seas are expected to rise one meter between now and 2100, putting one in ten people across the globe at risk from coastal flooding.

By the year 2100, the combination of these two influences will submerge about 13,500 square kilometers in Louisiana, or 10% of the state's total area.

Even if more sediment-laden water could somehow be diverted to the sinking areas, scientists estimate that 12,600 square kilometers would still be submerged by 2100.

If the computer modeling is correct, New Orleans will be well away from Louisiana's mainland in just 90 years, and largely underwater.

New Orleans and southern Louisiana are not the only delta areas in trouble. Many of the world's largest and most densely populated and heavily farmed deltas are on their way to becoming open ocean.  The causes are the same as those in Louisiana - reduction in the flow of sediment that restores and maintains deltas, and rising sea levels. Scientists James Syvitski and colleagues writing for Nature Geoscience estimate that the amount of delta surface area vulnerable to flooding and inundation will increase at least 50% this century, and more if the capture of sediments upstream continues.

What can you do?  The main thing we as consumers can do is to cut our own greenhouse gas emissions, in order to reduce climate change and rising sea levels. See my blog post of November 2 for at least one powerful solution from the Worldwatch Institute.  For many more consumer strategies to address climate change, see our 2008 book, Going Green: A Wise Consumer's Guide to a Shrinking Planet.

Sources and additional reading:

James Syvitski et al. "Sinking deltas due to human activities." Sept 9, 2009,  Nature Geoscience 2, 681-686.

Sid Perkins. "Louisiana sinks as sea level rises: State's coast threatened by global warming, settling land." July 18, 2009, Science News.

Danny Bradbury. "Louisiana coast will be underwater by 2010."  June 30, 2009. Business Green.

Michael Blum and Harry Roberts. "Drowning of the Mississippi Delta due to insufficient sediment supply and global sea-level rise." June 28, 2009. Nature Geosceince 2, 488-491.

Associated Press. "New Orleans is sinking - and fast. Scientists say subsidence explains Katrina damage, complicates recovery." May 31, 2006.

Key words:: climate change New Orleans deltas rising sea levels Louisiana reduced sedimentation flooding of coastal areas climate refugees Katrina

Monday, November 02, 2009

Livestock account for 51% of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions

All photos and text by Sally Kneidel, PhD, of and

  Photo by Sally Kneidel, PhD

I read an article today that blew my socks off - it may be the most significant article I've ever read.  It's online and in the Nov/Dec 2009 print issue of Worldwatch, a publication of Worldwatch Institute - a widely respected think-tank and environmental advocacy organization. The article is entitled "Livestock and Climate Change" (see "Sources" at end of this post).

I've spoken widely, written numerous articles and two books on the subject of the environmental impact of raising and transporting livestock. (See a list my books and blog posts on this topic, below.)  Three or four years ago, I was very excited when the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization published "Livestock's Long Shadow" - a scientific document whose authors demonstrated that the livestock sector contributes at least 18% of  greenhouse-gas emissions. They concluded that livestock contribute more to climate change than even the transportation sector does.  I can't count how many times I've quoted that publication, more than 400 pages long, and available on the internet.

This new study goes beyond “Livestock’s Long Shadow”
But this article from Worldwatch Institute goes way beyond the UN's FAO article, and very creditably so. The authors, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, examined the FAO data carefully and explain why their own measurements are more comprehensive and more current than those of the FAO authors. I see no weak spots in these new calculations, they are merely updates to account for the passage of time and our growing population and growing global meat consumption, as well as corrections of omissions in the older FAO article. I have good faith in their carefully detailed figures. I hope to God they're right in their suggestions for solutions.

I'm not going to recount all the new calculations and corrections here, but I will give a couple of examples. First, the FAO's calculations are based on 2002 data, but the tonnage of livestock products between 2002 and 2009 has increased 12%, with a proportionate increase in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).  Secondly, "Livestock's Long Shadow" reports that 33 million tons of poultry were produced worldwide in 2002, but the FAO's "Food Outlook" corrected that figure, which was actually 72.9 million tons of poultry produced  in 2002.  The authors of the new article describe several underestimates in "Livestock's Long Shadow" such as these, which have a cumulative effect.

As mentioned above, the new Worldwatch document also points out numerous omissions from the original FAO publication, "Livestock's Long Shadow".  For example, the FAO failed to include GHG emissions from
(1) the disposal of livestock waste (feces, urine, bone, fat, spoiled products) all of which emit high amounts of GHG, and (2) fluorocarbons (used for cooling livestock products more than alternatives) which have a global warming potential up to several thousand times higher than that of CO2.  Those are just a couple of examples.

Noting governments' failures, Worldwatch proposes new solutions

I liked that the article ended with several pages of solutions. The authors pointed out that governments have been largely ineffective in developing renewable energy and energy efficiency. GHG emissions have actually increased since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1992, and climate change has since that time accelerated. The authors Goodland and Anhang offer suggestions that would achieve at least a 25% reduction in livestock products worldwide between now and 2017. This would yield a minimum 12.5 % reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, which would by itself be almost as much as is generally expected to be negotiated at the U.N.'s climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009.

Analogs are tasty!  Who needs flesh?

The suggestions of Goodland and Anhang (for Worldwatch) focus on businesses rather governments. They point out that consumers listening to food marketing are listening for words that evoke "comfort, familiarity, happiness, ease, speed, low price, and popularity." Based on that, the authors outline a marketing plan whereby food companies can succeed by marketing "meat and dairy analogs" alongside traditional animal products in grocery stores. Analogs are products such soy- and seitan (wheat gluten) imitation beef, chicken and pork products, as well as soy- and rice milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream.  "Analogs are less expensive, less wasteful, easier to cook, and healthier than livestock products," they write. Meat and dairy analogs can be positioned in stores, and through marketing, as "clearly superior to livestock products, thus appealing to the same consumer urges that drive purchases of other analog products, such as Rolex knockoffs".  By replacing livestock products with analogs, "consumers can take a powerful action collectively to mitigate most GHGs worldwide.  Labeling analogs with certified claims of GHGs averted can give them a significant edge."

Sounds good to me! Since Ken and I both work, and I have two jobs, we consume a fair amount of pre-made "analogs" such as Morningstar Farms "chik" patties and chik nuggets and Tofurkey sausage or kielbasa, as well as soy milk, soy yogurt, using ground flax seeds to replace eggs in baking, and so on. We've been doing this for years and I never ever miss meat. I did eat one real chicken nugget a few years ago to test the difference, and found it disgustingly greasy and and containing recognizable animal tissues such as little veins and connective tissue.  After years of eating yummy soy-based imitation chicken patties, the real thing was akin to eating  road-kill.
 Photo by Sally Kneidel, PhD

I encourage you to read Goodland's and Anhang's article from Worldwatch, available on the internet. To me, their proposal sounds clearly like the easiest and most realistic scheme yet for quickly and drastically reducing the world's GHG emissions, and possibly averting dramatic climate change. Should that change continue unabated as it is now, new climate patterns will destroy wildlife habitat the world over, destroy essential agricultural areas by altering rainfall, cause famine and create climate refuges from developing nations, raise sea levels, and lead to mass wildlife extinctions that humans have never before witnessed.

Roll the article up with a ribbon for the perfect holiday gift!

Read this important Worldwatch article and forward it to your friends. Or print it out and tack it on the bulletin board at work. Include it in your holiday greeting cards!  Or make a nice little cover for it, and give as a holiday gift to those whose future matters most to you.

by Sally Kneidel, PhD

Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang. "Livestock and Climate Change: What if the key factors in climate change are cows, pigs, and chickens?" Worldwatch 22(6):10-19. Nov/Dec 2009.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. "Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental issues and options." Rome, 2006.

My books on this topic:
Veggie Revolution: Smart Choices for a Healthy Body and a Healthy Planet. 2005. Sally and Sadie Kneidel. Fulcrum Books.

Going Green: A Wise Consumer's Guide to a Shrinking Planet. 2008. Sally and Sadie Kneidel. Fulcrum Books.

Some of my prior posts on this topic:
"New study: meat impacts climate more than buying local"  May 23, 2008 on Veggie Revolution blog

"Less meat....smaller footprint"  Feb 6, 2009 on Veggie Revolution blog 

"Is local food the greenest choice?  New study says no"  May 14, 2009 on Veggie Revolution blog

"Earth Day: 3 things you can do"  April 22, 2007 on Veggie Revolution blog

"An apple? Bran muffin? or cold cereal?  Top ten sources of easy fiber" Sept 14, 2007on Veggie Revolution blog

"10 hot tips for a green and energy-efficient holiday." Oct 10, 2008 on Veggie Revolution blog

"Obama to fight consolidation of farms: good news for small farms and consumers"  Aug 21, 2009 on Veggie Revolution blog

"Smithfield blamed for swine flu by Mexican press"  April 29, 2009 on Veggie Revolution blog

"The virus is a swine flu and has its roots in North Carolina, the land of Smithfield"  May 2, 2009 on Veggie Revolution blog

"Tyson and Smithfield drooling over untapped profits abroad" March 20, 2006 on Veggie Revolution blog

"Working in a turkey insemination factory"  Nov 20, 2008 on Veggie Revolution blog

"A tasty vegan meat substitute: Tofurkey kielbasa" June 10, 2009 on Veggie Revolution blog

Key words:: climate change livestock and climate change Worldwatch Institute 51% of climate change Robert Goodland Jeff Anhang