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SMC Heads-Up: Environmental monitoring, lost health, climate

SMC Heads-Up: Environmental monitoring, lost health and the state of the climate

Issue 243 9 - 15 August 2013

Environmental monitoring on the way

The Government said this week it would join other OECD nations in mandating regular monitoring of the environment.

The proposed three yearly State of the Environment reports will cover five key areas - air, climate and atmosphere, freshwater, marine and land, with biodiversity as a theme across all the domains.

It will require new legislation - the Environmental Reporting Bill, which will be introduced later this year.

Environment minister Amy Adams said the reporting will be overseen by the Environment Secretary and the Chief Statistician.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment will have a mandated role to play in the process, as Adams put it, to "provide expert commentary and independent opinion on the quality of the underlying data and robustness of the analysis, as well as the substance of the report and any concerns it may raise".

The move has been welcomed by scientists who point out that most OECD countries have regular environmental indicator reporting in place. However, critics say the structure of its oversight does not ensure proper independence and question why the PCE wasn't given the job.

The reports will feed into regular OECD reviews of New Zealand's environmental performance, the last of which was published in 2007.

The announcement caps off a big week for environment-related news much of it emerging from the Environmental Defense Society's annual conference. The Department of Conversation named its new head, former Antarctica New Zealand boss, Lou Sanson.

Elsewhere, Bathurst Resources moved a step closer to opencast mining on the Denniston plateau after a High Court appeal against its mining plan by Forest & Bird was rejected.

A million years of good health lost

In 2006, New Zealanders lost the equivalent of almost one million years of healthy life to early death, illness or injury.

The figure comes from the new report from the Ministry of Health, "Health Loss in New Zealand", which draws on data from 2006 to estimate how much healthy life is lost from a comprehensive set of diseases, injuries and risk factors.

According to the report, the average Kiwi bloke could expect to live 78.1 years, with 8.9 years (11%) in poor health, while females on average have a longer innings at 82.1 years, but with 11.5 years (14%) in poor health.

"New Zealanders are living longer, yet this study shows that not all of those extra years are being lived in good health," said Chief Medical Officer, Dr Don Mackie in a media release.

"As the population ages, it will become increasingly important to add 'life to years' as well as 'years to life'"

And what is stealing these healthy years from the lives of New Zealander? Cancers and vascular and blood disorders were tied as the leading cause of health loss at the condition group level, each accounting for 17.5% of healthy years lost. Coronary heart disease the leading specific cause of health loss (9.3%).

Among individual risk factors, tobacco use (on which 9.1% of years lost could be blamed) was the leading risk to health in 2006, followed by high BMI (7.9%).

The report notes "There is considerable scope for prevention, with tobacco, diet, physical activity, alcohol, obesity and diabetes all important potentially modifiable risks to health."

This view was backed by Profs Tony Blakely and Nick Wilson, from the University of Otago, Wellington, who wrote on their blog:

"Getting rid of tobacco out of New Zealand (as per the Government's smokefree nation goal by 2025) remains an overwhelming policy priority if we are aiming to improve the overall health, and reduce inequalities in health, of New Zealanders.

They also noted that improving the nutritional environment of New Zealanders should be "a high priority for the Government."

You can read more about the study on the SMC website and the Public Health Expert blog.

On the science radar this week...

Virus-carrying camels, soggy orang-utans, London's 'Fatberg', yawning dogs and robot neurosurgeons.

Global report highlights climate shifts

2012 was among the 10 warmest years on record according to the latest State of the Climate report released this week by the American Meteorological Society.

The report used dozens of climate indicators to track and identify changes and overall trends in the global climate system. These indicators include greenhouse gas concentrations, temperature of the lower and upper atmosphere, cloud cover, sea surface temperature, sea-level rise, ocean salinity, sea ice extent and snow cover. Each indicator includes thousands of measurements from multiple independent datasets.

A total of 384 authors from 52 countries, including New Zealand, contributed to the peer-reviewed 260-page report. An interactive map of extreme events in 2012 was released alongside the report, available here.

Climate scientist Dr Jim Salinger said the climate data point to progressive warming of the planet:

"Features that show we are living in a warmer world include continued increases in global temperatures, diminishing mountain glacier ice masses, record low summer Arctic sea ice extent, increasing melting of the Northern Hemisphere sea ice, and the highest levels of carbon dioixde since 3 to 5 million years ago."

Regionally, 2012 was a near-average year for New Zealand with temperatures within 0.5C of the long term average said NIWA climate scientist Petra Chappell.

"A tornado killed three people in Auckland on 6 December, there were eight notable rainfall events, and very warm and humid conditions in late December due to an air mass from ex-Tropical Cyclone Evan. There were 82 'notable' extreme events (not including temperature) in 2012, compared with 131 in 2011, and 81 in 2010."

Read the full commentary from scientists here.

Quoted: Business Day

"The news that KiwiStar may now not survive, just as it was taking off and about to fulfil Sir Paul's dream of a hi-tech industry succeeding in this country is, I must say, astounding"

Prof John Hearnshaw, University of Canterbury, expresses surprise at Callaghan Innovation's veto of a $2.4m contract for KiwiStar Optics.

Otago ramps up sci-comms research

The University of Otago's Centre for Science Communication is undertaking a worldwide search for a science communication academic to join the Dunedin-based centre run by Professor Lloyd Davis.

The Centre for Science Communication is New Zealand's largest dedicated science communication academic centre and has won worldwide acclaim for its work in the area of science and wildlife documentaries, thanks in part to a great partnership with Dunedin-based television production company NHNZ.

Science communication research in New Zealand is fairly thin at a time when society's relationship with science needs to be much better understood. With the earthquakes, Rena oil spill, the ongoing issue of fresh water quality all providing fertile material for science communication research projects now is exactly the time for the centre to expand in this area.

And what a cool job too - here are the details.

Pulitzer-winning author coming to NZ

If you have read The Poisoner's Handbook, or any of Professor Deborah Blum's science features, you've probably marvelled at how she spins a gripping story woven through with well laid-out scientific concepts.

Take, for instance, her Slate feature about the US Government's little-known Prohibition-era bid to stop people drinking by poisoning the industrial alcohol bootleggers were stealing and selling as hard liquor.

Here's how Blum starts that fascinating piece:

"It was Christmas Eve 1926, the streets aglitter with snow and lights, when the man afraid of Santa Claus stumbled into the emergency room at New York City's Bellevue Hospital. He was flushed, gasping with fear: Santa Claus, he kept telling the nurses, was just behind him, wielding a baseball bat."

How could you not read on? This is the power of creative writing, but Blum of one a rare breed of writers who can employ this style to science writing, to great effect.

Prof. Blum, now an academic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, won a Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in 1992 for a series known as The Monkey Wars about the ethics of primate research.

She turned that series into a book and has covered topics as diverse as gender and the paranormal in books since then.

Deborah Blum will be in Wellington leading a one-day Victoria University masterclass as part of a workshop on creative science writing and digital storytelling in Nov/Dec 2013. Details here.

New from the SMC

Experts Respond:

Climate report: Experts comment on the 2012 state of the environment report. Media round up also available.

Botulism: Experts elaborate on the science behind the bacteria implicated in this week's milk scare.

H7N9: The first report of probable person to person transmission of the H7N9 virus has been published.

Reflections on Science:

Health loss: Profs Tony Blakely and Nick Wilson blog about the new Burden of Disease study from the Ministry of Health.

In the News:

Health report headlines: Read the lasted media coverage of the new Burden of Disease report.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's posts:

Hotspot and Silicone Tape - International cricket's latest scandal gets knocked for six by Marcus Wilson.

Physics Stop

Mapping Scientific Excellence - Aimee Whitcroft checks out a new algorithm and interface ranking the world's best scientific organisations - which includes a few NZ centres.


Botulism blogging - The Scibloggers have hit the topic of tainted milk with posts from Siouxsie Wiles (Infectious Thoughts):

How is Clostridium botulinum and its toxin detected?

Fonterra scare: the other side of Botox

Fonterra botulism scare - some useful links

..and Wayne Linklater (Polit Ecol Science): Fonterra's brandnz

Research highlights

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

Packaging poisons: New Zealand and Australian scientists have found a new way in which bacteria store and release toxins, and their discovery may be harnessed to develop new bioinsecticides for crop pests and even new medicines. Researchers discovered that the bacterium Yersinia entomophaga creates a protein shell around the toxins it produces, which only releases the poison under certain environment conditions. The authors suggest the mechanism could be exploited for the storage and controlled release of pesticides and medicines.


Cactus inspiration for oil spill cleaner: A cactus-inspired method for removing oil droplets from water has been developed by Chinese researchers. Based on the ability of cactus needles to pull tiny drops of water from the air, researchers built artificial spikes that catch tiny oil droplets in water - a creation that could have implications for cleaning up oil spills in the future.The advantage of the method reported in this work is that it can be used to trap microscopic-sized drops that could be missed by conventional separation technologies.

Nature Communications

Dolphins don't forget old mates: Dolphins can recognize their old tank mates' whistles after being separated for more than 20 years - the longest social memory ever recorded for a non-human species. "This shows us an animal operating cognitively at a level that's very consistent with human social memory," say the authors of the study, which followed 53 bottlenose dolphins moving around the world as part of a six site breeding consortium.

Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Should we try to make H7N9 nastier? The journals Science and Nature are jointly publishing a letter, signed by numerous researchers (including a US-based New Zealander), setting out plans to undertake cutting-edge research to assess the full potential risk of the avian influenza H7N9 viruses. The research is considered controversial by some authorities due to concerns that more dangerous laboratory created strains could escape the lab or be harnessed as biological weapons.

Nature & Science

Midnight snacking: Sleep deprivation causes changes in brain activity that are associated with a desire for high-calorie food items, reports a new brain imaging study. Compared to individuals who had a good nights sleep, participants kept awake for ~24 hours showed a stronger preference for high calorie foods and displayed greater brain activity in areas associated with the motivation to eat, and decreased activity in areas of the brain that evaluate food stimuli.

Nature Communications

Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:

New DOC DG: The State Services Commission has announced Lou Sanson as the new Director-General of the Department of Conservation.

Environmental reporting: The Government plans to introduce legislation requiring three-yearly independent environmental reporting.

WOF: Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee has outlined the new changes to the Warrant of Fitness system, with less checks for newer vehicles.

Upcoming sci-tech events

Next Generation Sequencing Conference - 13-14 August, Palmerston North.

Herbal highs and lows: the recreational use of psychoactive plants - University of Auckland Winter Lecture series with Prof Janie Sheridan - 13 August, Auckland.

Contemporary roles of Learned Societies - Dean's Open Lecture Series with Di McCarthy - 14 August, Wellington.

It's All in Your Head: Understanding More about Mental Health - University of Waikato Winter lecture - 14 August, Hamilton.

Maori Forestry Forum - 16 August, Rotorua.

Alcohol marketing, the alcohol industry and their impact on binge drinking by adolescents - Public lecture from ASB Visiting Professor Thomas Babor (USA) - 15 August, Auckland.

For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.

© Scoop Media

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