Don’t expect to see chemical safety data sheets in restaurants

I keep coming across this very naive form of chemophobic scare-mongering – the use of safety data sheets to frighten consumers about trace chemicals in their environment, food and drink.

Here is an example anti-fluoridation propagandists continually use – safety data sheets for fluoridation chemicals like fluorosilicic acid. Often these people simply reproduce the image without comment – thinking this somehow proves their argument!

data sheets

I have discussed this issue for water treatment chemicals before (see Water treatment chemicals – why pick on fluoride?).

First, we need to be clear – Safety Data Sheets (or Material Safety Data Sheets) are not relevant to the chemicals we come across in our food drink – at the concentration they exist in these foods or drink. The safety data sheets are there for the use of those workers who must handle, transport  and dispose of concentrated chemicals. As Wikipedia explains:

“A SDS [Safety Data Sheet] for a substance is not primarily intended for use by the general consumer, focusing instead on the hazards of working with the material in an occupational setting.”

In the article I link to above I give information, including that from safety data sheets, for the range of chemicals used in water treatment. Chemicals like Aluminium sulphate or alum, used as a flocculation and coagulation agent and chlorine which is used as a disinfection agent (here is the safety data sheet for chlorine).

The safety data sheets for these chemicals can be just as scary as for fluorosilicic acid. Even scarier for chlorine, which was used as a chemical weapon in the first world war. And the information is important for the people handling the concentrated chemicals, manufacturing them, transporting them and disposing of them to waste where necessary.

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Safety data sheets are important for people transporting concentrated chemicals.

But these sheets are completely irrelevant to people interested in the safety and nutritional value of their food which do not contain such concentrated chemicals (except for water, of course).

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Safety data sheets are irrelevant to consumers of food and drink –  don’t expect your waiting staff to provide them in a restaurant.

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Being open-minded

This meme is for those commenters here who accuse me of having a closed mind.

open minded

I am always happy to change my opinion or view of things – if there is evidence to suggest I should.

And no, claims that “science once thought the world was flat,” or “science once supported smoking,” is not a credible argument that we should ignore current scientific consensus. It’s especially not an argument we should suddenly adopted unsupported claims as “gospel truth.”

Along these same lines, it’s worth considering this quote from Carl Sagan – if you want me to consider a really extraordinary claim your evidence had better be exceptional.

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RSNZ Science Book Prize winner – Tangata Whenua

Tangata Whenua: an Illustrated History won the Royal Society of NZ Science 2015 book prize. It is written by Atholl Anderson, the late Dame Judith Binney and Aroha Harris and published by Bridget Williams Books. The book charts the sweep of Māori history from ancient origins through to the twenty-first century.

In announcing this result on Friday Dr Andrew Cleland, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of New Zealand, noted that Tangata Whenua incorporates research from a range of disciplines from the sciences, including social science, and the humanities, which mirrors the breadth of scholarship supported by the Society.

In addition to being a history, the book is based on research on genetics and climate science as well as:

  • archaeology (the study of past human activity through material left behind by human populations)
  • anthropology (study of human society)
  • ethnography (study of culture)
  • paleoecology (study of past ecosystems or environments, reconstructed from fossils).

The other books shortlisted for the 2015 Royal Society of New Zealand Book Prize were:

  • The Wandering Mind by Michael Corballis (Auckland University Press)
  • Gathering Evidence by Caoilinn Hughes (Victoria University Press)
  • Dolphins of Aotearoa: Living with New Zealand Dolphins by Raewyn Peart (Craig Potton Publishing)
  • Manuka: the Biography of an Extraordinary Honey by Cliff Van Eaton (Exisle Publishing)

You can buy your own copy from Whitcoulls for $99.99.

See also:

New Zealand science book prize – 2015 Short list
The Long Journey to Aotearoa – Veronika Meduna, Radio NZ, talks to Atholl Anderson

Don’t put all the blame on the Germans – a lesson from World War II

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Sculpture of the “Unbowed man” at the Khatyn Memorial site. The sculpture depicts Yuzif Kaminsky, the only adult to survive the massacre, holding his dead son Adam. Credit: John Oldale.Click to enlarge

The recent commemorations of Victory Day in Europe – the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe – got me thinking about how we refer to Germany as the perpetrator of the horrors in that war. Often we more correctly use the term “Nazi Germany” – but still it must place a burden of guilt on many Germans who were, and are innocent.

On the other hand, it seems to me, it almost ignores the very real responsibility of people from other nations for these atrocities. (Although, granted some speakers will also refer to involvement of collaborators).

The Khatyn Massacre

Many years ago I visited the war memorial at Khatyn, in Belarus. This was a very moving experience because it symbolised how that nation had lost a quarter of its population during the war. All the residents of this village had been herded into barns which were then set alight – anyone attempting to escape was shot. The photo above shows part of the memorial depicting the man who was thought to be the sole survivor.

Very moving.

I certainly got the impression that this horror was perpetrated by German soldiers. But my reading in recent days convinces me I was wrong, and had been wrongly informed. The perpetrators were a nazi battalion – but one established in Kiev and made up mainly of Ukrainian nationalists. Here are some details from the Wikipedia entry on the Khatyn massacre:

Khatyn or Chatyń (Belarusian and Russian: Хаты́нь, pronounced [xɐˈtɨnʲ]) was a village of 26 houses and 156 inhabitants in Belarus, in Lahoysk Raion, Minsk Region, 50 km away from Minsk. On 22 March 1943, the entire population of the village was massacred by the 118th Schutzmannschaft Nazi battalion. The battalion was formed in July 1942 in Kiev and was made up mostly of Ukrainian nationalist collaborators from Western Ukraine, Hiwis[1][2][3] and the DirlewangerWaffen-SS special battalion.

The massacre was not an unusual incident in Belarus during World War II. At least 5,295 Belarusian settlements were burned and destroyed by the Nazis, and often all their inhabitants were killed (some amounting up to 1,500 victims) as a punishment for collaboration with partisans. Khatyn became a symbol of all those villages. In the Vitebsk region, 243 villages were burned down twice, 83 villages three times, and 22 villages were burned down four or more times. In the Minsk region, 92 villages were burned down twice, 40 villages three times, nine villages four times, and six villages five or more times.[4] Altogether, over 2,000,000 people were killed in Belarus during the three years of Nazi occupation, almost a quarter of the country’s population.[5][6]

It’s worth following up some of the links for more details.

The Ukrainian Auxiliary Police, which included the Schutzmannschaft Nazis involved in this and many other massacres, carried out anti-Jewish and anti-partisan operations in most areas of Ukraine. While these units were formed directly after the German invasion of the USSR in 1941 Ukrainian nationalist organisations existed before that invasion. These extremist organisations were not just “nationalist,” but were racist – expressing hatred for Poles, Jews and above all, Russians. And these three groups became their victims during the war.

Misinforming tourists

I had happily accepted the story that the Khatyn Massacre was perpetrated by “Nazis” – assuming they were German Nazis. So this information came as a bit of a shock to me. Worse – the role of such nationalist forces was not talked about much during Soviet times in fear of encouraging antagonism between the different republics. So innocent tourists were left in the dark about the true origins of the perpetrators – despite the fact that the leaders of the battalion involved had been brought to justice. As Wikipedia says:

“The commander of one of the platoons of 118th Schutzmannschaft Battalion, Ukrainian Vasyl Meleshko, was tried in a Soviet court and executed in 1975. The Chief of Staff of 118th Schutzmannschaft Battalion, Ukrainian Grigory Vassiura, was tried in Minsk in 1986 and found guilty of all his crimes. He was sentenced to death by the verdict of the military tribunal of the Belorussian military district.

The case and the trial of the main executioner of Khatyn was not given much publicity in the media; the leaders of the Soviet republics worried about the inviolability of unity between the Belarusian and Ukrainian peoples.”

A lesson for today

So the message is – when your hear about Nazi atrocities the perpetrators were not necessarily German. We should not forget the role played by collaborators and non-German nationalists in the Holocaust and other atrocities.

epa04318197 New soldiers of Ukrainian army battalion 'Azov' attend their oath of allegiance ceremony before departing to eastern Ukraine in Kiev, Ukraine, 16 July 2014. The government in Kiev does not recognize the declared independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and pro-Russian militants refuse to cooperate with the pro-European leadership in Kiev. Ukraine insisted that there would be no ceasefire or negotiations before the pro-Russian separatists in the country's east give up their arms.  EPA/ROMAN PILIPEY

New soldiers of Ukrainian army battalion ‘Azov’ attend their oath of allegiance ceremony before departing to eastern Ukraine in Kiev, Ukraine, 16 July 2014.Image Credit: EPA/ROMAN PILIPEY

And this is not an abstract appeal. Today the inheritors of the Ukrainian nationalist organisations which committed these atrocities are alive and very active in Ukraine. They even have military battalions fighting in the current civil war. Worse, the US has now sent their own troops into Ukraine to train National Guard battalions which include units like the Azov Batallion which is based on extreme National Socialist ideology.

Talk about a slippery slope.

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The problem of “Fact-Resistant Humans”

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OK, this is satire so don’t take it literally. But this article in The New Yorker makes a good point – Scientists: Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans.


MINNEAPOLIS (The Borowitz Report) – Scientists have discovered a powerful new strain of fact-resistant humans who are threatening the ability of Earth to sustain life, a sobering new study reports.

The research, conducted by the University of Minnesota, identifies a virulent strain of humans who are virtually immune to any form of verifiable knowledge, leaving scientists at a loss as to how to combat them.

“These humans appear to have all the faculties necessary to receive and process information,” Davis Logsdon, one of the scientists who contributed to the study, said. “And yet, somehow, they have developed defenses that, for all intents and purposes, have rendered those faculties totally inactive.”

More worryingly, Logsdon said, “As facts have multiplied, their defenses against those facts have only grown more powerful.”

While scientists have no clear understanding of the mechanisms that prevent the fact-resistant humans from absorbing data, they theorize that the strain may have developed the ability to intercept and discard information en route from the auditory nerve to the brain. “The normal functions of human consciousness have been completely nullified,” Logsdon said.

While reaffirming the gloomy assessments of the study, Logsdon held out hope that the threat of fact-resistant humans could be mitigated in the future. “Our research is very preliminary, but it’s possible that they will become more receptive to facts once they are in an environment without food, water, or oxygen,” he said.

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What a nice idea

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Click to enlarge – Moscow Celebration of Victory day.
Image Credit:
 NBC News

The recent commemorations of ANZAC Day (in New Zealand), Victory day (Internationally) and Mothers’ day got me thinking about how we mark these events. Thinking spurred on by a family discussion precipitated by a difference of opinion about the Victory day Celebrations (or the reporting of them) in Moscow.

Firstly – Mothers’ day. I was struck by Facebook entries some of my relatives made dedicated to their mothers. The sincere expression of love and respect for, and thanks to, their Mothers. Quite moving but really lovely to see the expressions of gratitude to parents.

ANZAC Day is a notable day in New Zealand. In my youth, many people felt bad about it because of its glorification of war and support of a bad war in Indo-China. Being of “call-up” age at the time my pacifist tendencies (and support for the Vietnamese) meant I rejected what ANZAC Day seemed to stand for then.

But more recently ANZAC Day celebrations in New Zealand have come to recognise the horrors of war, to oppose militarism and to be a time when we remember the sacrifices of our relatives who died in wars. It has come to be more concentrated on the losses at Gallipoli in the First World war (the event which initially launched ANZAC day).

There was very little here marking the Victory Day Celebrations commemorating the end of the war in Europe on 8/9 May, 1945. And local reporting of overseas commemoration events was no better. A pity, as many New Zealanders did fight and die in Europe – and for a much better reason than some other wars we have fought in.

Personalising the commemorations

The media sometimes makes a big thing of the Military Parade in Moscow’s celebration of Victory Day – and I must admit military parades don’t appeal to me. But, unfortunately, our media often ignores the mass participation in Victory Day Celebrations. The photograph at the head of this post is a shot from this year’s mass commemoration in Moscow (click to enlarge – it is worth it).

It is the nature of this mass participation which interested me.  It is sometimes called the parade of The immortal regiment. Here is how the US Rusky Mir Foundation, which reported on an immortal regiment march in New York, describes this mass participation:

“The Immortal Regiment (or Besmertny Polk) dates from 2012, when people in the Siberian city of Tomsk were debating how to keep the memory of World War II heroes alive even as the veterans themselves passed on. They asked people to create large posters with photos of their relatives who had served in the war, and carry them in Victory Day parades. This year, more than 800 cities will have a “Besmertny Polk” parade.”

That is the idea that appeals to me – the use of portraits of lost relatives in these commemorations. It personalises the celebration and expression of gratitude – in much the same way that Facebook posts on Mothers’ day do. And it figuratively enables our lost relatives to be seen participating in the events.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see more people bring along and display photos of their relatives in New Zealand’s ANZAC celebrations? That would help improve the personal and family aspects of the celebration and the display would surely be moving.

Here is some video footage of the Moscow parade – but there is a lot more around, much of it from other countries.

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Water fluoridation effective – new study

A recent Australian study shows community water fluoridation (CWF)  has a beneficial effect on oral health, even after taking into account the known effects of socioeconomic status and sugar consumption.

This is important because anti-fluoride propagandists are always pushing the mistaken claim that CWF is based only on “old science” and that “the science establishment” refuses to check these old findings. These propagandists have also latched onto the concern over the effects of excessive sugar consumption on general and oral health to claim that any apparent beneficial effect of CWF would disappear if sugar consumption was reduced.

The study is reported in:

Blinkhorn, A. S., Byun, R., Mehta, P., & Kay, M. (2015). A 4-year assessment of a new water-fluoridation scheme in New South Wales, Australia. International Dental Journal.

It  followed changes in the dental health of children in Gosford City, NSW, after introduction of CWF in 2008. It compared this with the oral health of children living in areas that had been fluoridated for over 40 years, and with those in the Shires of Ballina and Byron which were unfluoridated and had no plans to introduce CWF.

CWF clearly beneficial

The figure below compares the average numbers of decayed, missing and filled teeth (dmft) of 5-7 year-old children in 2008 (just before introduction of CWF to Gosford city – the “newly fluoridated area) with new batches of 5-7 year-old children in 2010 and 2012. In all three periods comparisons were made to similar children in the unfluoridated and long-term fluoridated areas.

dmft-aus1

Of course, anti-fluoridation activists might pick up on the improved oral health of children in unfluoridated areas in 2012 (and they might even try to ignore the rest of the data). But the clear message is that even though there may be a general improvement in oral health over time the children in the fluoridated areas still showed a clear benefit.

Influence of other factors

This study included measurement of other factors known to influence oral health. Statistical analysis of the data showed poorer dental health was significantly related to:

  • lower socioeconomic status;
  • origins (poorer dental health when mothers were born in a non-English speaking country;
  • lower educational level attained by parents, and
  • sugary drink consumption (poorer dental health where children consumed one or more drinks a day).

But, importantly, the statistical analysis showed a significant beneficial influence of CWF after taking these other factors into account. The following graph compares the dmft for newly fluoridated and unfluoridated areas relative to long-term fluoridated areas (defined as 1.0)

dmft-aus2

We can see that by 2012, 4 years after introduction of CWF, there is no significant difference between the oral health of children in the long-term and newly fluoridated areas. However, the oral health of children in the unfluoridated areas was significant poorer at all times.

Conclusion

Origins, socioeconomic status and consumption of sugary drinks have a statistically significant effect on children’s oral health. However, even when these are taken into account this research shows a clear beneficial effect of CWF on children’s dental health.

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Follow the money?

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The distrust of science – a task for science communication

Michael Foley

Michael Foley, a Senior Lecturer in Public health dentistry at The University of Queensland has an interesting  article in The Conversation* – ‘Holistic’ dentistry: more poppycock than panacea?

He declares that “all dentists should be practicing holistic medicine.” After all, the World health Organisation’s definition of health (“a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”) “sits very well with the concept of holistic dentistry”

But, as Foley says, dentists “should all be practising evidence-based dentistry, too.”

And there is the problem. A perfectly legitimate term has been hijacked in an effort to misinform possible clients. An internet search shows most Australian holistic dentists also endorse and encourage alternative therapies like:

homeopathy, naturopathy, Bach flower essences, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, chiropractic, ayurvedic medicine, osteopathy, kinesiology, crystals, aromatherapy, reiki, vibrational healing, Buteyko and esoteric chakra-puncture.”

As he says, despite  his belief that “Most holistic dental practices will provide a wonderfully caring and nurturing environment for patients .. . . a patient-dentist relationship must also be based on trust and professionalism.”

The placebo effect is not enough and reliance on it could even be dangerous.

But alternative health practices like this do have a market – and for some people their appeal lies with their distrust of science.

Distrust of science and the power of consensus

Sander van der Linden and Stephan Lewandowsky discuss this distrust and how to combat it in a recent scientific American article – How to Combat Distrust of Science.

They centre their argument around the issue of climate science, but I think they are also relevant to alternative health and the distrust of health experts common in our society.

On the one hand they attribute difference in the acceptance of science to the way that people interpret the same information very differently.

“As psychologists, we are more than familiar with the finding that our brains selectively attend to, process and recall information. One consequence of this is “confirmation bias,” a strong tendency to automatically favor information that supports our prior expectations. When we consider issues that we feel strongly about (e.g., global warming), confirmation bias reaches a new height: it transitions into “motivated reasoning.” Motivated reasoning is the additional tendency to defensively reject information that contradicts deeply held worldviews and opinions. One example of this is the “motivated rejection of science”; if you are personally convinced that global warming is a hoax, you are likely to reject any scientific information to the contrary – regardless of its accuracy.”

A message for science communicators

That is an argument which could suggest that science communicators are “just blowing in the wind.”

On the other hand the authors argue that “expert consensus” can counter this.

“Our research shows that highlighting how many experts agree on a controversial issue has a far-reaching psychological influence. In particular, it has the surprising ability to “neutralize” polarizing worldviews and can lead to greater science acceptance.”

In their work they found that if people had been exposed to background material containing the message “97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening” they actually increased their estimate of scientific support for human-caused climate change by about 13% (and 20% in some cases). In later work they found a causal link between highlighting expert consensus and increased science acceptance.

This suggests to me that many people may take up an essentially anti-science stance because they are just unaware of the facts of consensus, or are under the illusion that scientific dissent is greater than the objective facts show.

I see that as a positive message. We often concentrate on the anti-science position of ideologically motivated people and forget that the majority are probably misinformed – both about the science and the degree of expert consensus. It is this majority, rather than the ideologically motivated science distrusters, who science communicators need to target.

Are we biologically wired to accept consensus?

The authors suggest there are good biological reasons for the positive effect of consensus information and the negative effect of dissent information on the acceptance of science.

“One feature that clearly distinguishes “consensus” from other types of information is its normative nature. That is, consensus is a powerful descriptive social fact: it tells us about the number of people who agree on important issues (i.e., the norm within a community). Humans evolved living in social groups and much psychological researchhas shown that people are particularly receptive to social information. Indeed, consensus decision-making is widespread in human and non-human animals. Because decision-strategies that require widespread agreement lie at the very basis of the evolution of human cooperation, people may be biologically wired to pay attention to consensus-data.”

That is also sensible:

” Imagine reading a road sign that informs you that 97% of engineers have concluded that the bridge in front of you is unsafe to cross. You would likely base your decision to cross or avoid that bridge on the expert consensus, irrespective of your personal convictions. Few people would get out of their car and spend the rest of the afternoon personally assessing the structural condition of the bridge (even if you were an expert).”

And practical:

” it makes perfect sense for people to use expert consensus as a decision-heuristic to guide their beliefs and behavior. Society has evolved to a point where we routinely defer to others for advice—from our family doctors to car mechanics; we rely on experts to keep our lives safe and productive. Most of us are constrained by limited time and resources and reliance on consensus efficiently reduces the cost of individual learning.”

The message, then, is:

“A recent study showed that people are more likely to cling onto their personal ideologies in the absence of “facts.” This suggests that in order to increase acceptance of science, we need more “facts.” We agree but suggest that this is particularly true for an underleveraged but psychologically powerful type of fact — expert consensus.”

The “merchants of doubt”

The ideologically and commercially motivated opponents of science recognise this – hence their attempts to sow doubt on the scientific consensus.

They will promote the message that there is no consensus. Or that the very fact of a consensus is somehow a “proof” the science is wrong because scientific understanding will change in the future (the Galileo gambit – see The Galileo fallacy and denigration of scientific consensus).

They will promote the message that the experts are frauds (eg Climategate) “shills” – in the pay of political or economic forces – Big Pharma, the fertiliser industry in the case of fluoridation, etc. Ironic, really, because these very anti-science propagandists are often themselves supported and/or financed by energy companies (in the case of climate change deniers) and “natural”/alternative health big business in the case of anti-fluoridation and anti-vaccination activists

So, perhaps another task for science communicators. propaganda claiming scientific fraud, unethical scientific funding, etc., needs to be countered. But also the public needs to be made aware of the commercial and ideological motivations of those who attempt to misrepresent the science and the expert consensus.


* The conversation has some excellent articles. But Christopher Pyne in his article Government funding for The Conversation website to be axed, reveals that government funding for it is to be stopped.

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We always seem to ignore the causes

I thought this cartoon was very relevant – not only to the Baltimore situation but to many areas of conflict throughout the world.

Take the situation in Ukraine. The media seems to only concentrate on problems of the ceasefire – violations and non-compliance with withdrawal of heavy arms.

But the Minsk agreement covering the current ceasefire has far more content than just the ceasefire arrangements. It has political and social requirements such as constitutional reform, language rights, local autonomy and new elections.

Of course these are dependent on maintaining a ceasefire – but the ceasefire itself cannot be maintained without progress on the political agreements. Unfortunately the media concentration on  the ceasefire and it’s almost complete silence on the political requirements is just not helpful to a proper solution.

The current ceasefire is crumbling and most observers are predicting outbreak of full-scale fighting in the near future. But the cause of this is not just the itchy trigger-fingers of the combatants. It is the refusal of at least some parties in the conflict to allow any progress on the political solutions.

We should stop concentrating on, and moralising about, the riots and shooting which are manifestations of the underlying problems and instead work on solving those underlying problems.

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