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Science Deadline

Science Deadline Issue 341, 14 Aug 2015

Tianjin explosion investigated

The exact cause of the huge explosions that rocked the Chinese port city of Tianjin remains a mystery for now, but chemical experts are assessing the situation.

The series of explosions occurred around 3.30am (NZT) yesterday at a container storage station at the city port, causing widespread damage and injury. Latest reports put the death toll at 50 with over 700 admitted to hospital.

The BBC reports that the explosions have been traced to a warehouse at the port which was reportedly storing "dangerous and chemical goods".

Xinhua news reports that a team of 217 military specialists in nuclear and biochemical materials have arrived at the site today to assess potential chemical hazards.

A number of toxic chemicals, including cyanide, were present at the port and may have been spread widely by the explosions.

“With a blast like this, normally you would expect the transport [of particulate matter] to be along the wind gradient or contours, but a blast this big must push it beyond that in the opposite direction,” Ravi Naidu, Director of the Global Centre for Environmental Remediation at the University of Newcastle Australia, told TIME.

“Not just people but animals and other organisms would be exposed to certain chemicals.”

Winter illnesses remain high

Increased rates of whooping cough in the South Island and high influenza rates have health authorities reminding Kiwis of the importance of vaccinations.

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a contagious bacterial disease characterised by nasty and persistent bouts of coughing.

The Southern DHB Medical Officer of Health, Marion Poore, told the Otago Daily Times that there had been 174 suspected cases of whooping cough, also known as pertussis, reported in the region and noted that the DHB was urging people to be immunised.

”…In terms of risk, the biggest concern we have is how can we protect our very young babies who have not had the chance to be vaccinated, because they’re not quite old enough,” she said. “Whooping cough can be a very serious illness for those tiny children.”

The University of Auckland’s Dr Kathryn Philipson, speaking to, said pertussis is a difficult bug to treat and parents need to be vigilant when it comes to protecting their children. She also noted the potential for the outbreak to become an epidemic and spread throughout the country.

“We know these epidemics come in cycles and in the South Island it is four years since the last one.

“During epidemics it generally takes a while to move around the country so people can be more affected in Otago right now, but in three or six months it could be in Hawke’s Bay or Auckland.”

'Flu cases on the rise

Canterbury clinical virologist Lance Jennings told Radio New Zealand that influenza cases are rising and, while not as bad as 2010 or 2012, they are placing strain on doctors.

"General practices are under considerable pressure, certainly in the Canterbury region at the present time and in other areas of New Zealand," he said.

Latest weekly data released today by ESR shows that rates of reported Influenza-like illness in Auckland are at their highest point this year so far.

Quoted: WIRED Magazine

"In any case, earthquake swarms like this are a reminder that although it has been quiet for an anthropologically long time (127 years), for the volcano, the last eruption was just yesterday (and the next one is around the corner)."

Dr Erik Klemetti, Volcanologist at Denison University, comments on the earthquake swarm hitting Waimangu Geothermal Valley.

Survey reveals fluoride uncertainty

New Zealanders aren’t getting enough information about the health effects of community water fluoridation to know whether it is a good or a bad thing, suggests a new study

The research, based on a survey of almost 3,500 people, was published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Healthearlier this week.

The authors found that over 30 percent of people surveyed did not know if there were benefits to community water fluoridation and, when asked about health risks, 45 percent responded that they did not know.

Overall, 42 percent of respondents were strongly or somewhat in favour of community water fluoridation. However, uncertainty about fluoridation was also identified in the responses, with one-fifth reporting that they did not know how in favour they were of fluoridation.

Māori, Pacific and Asian respondents were significantly more likely to answer ‘do not know’ when asked about their support for fluoridation.

Co-author Dr Robin Whyman, Clinical Director of Oral Health Services at Hawke’s Bay District Health Board, told the SMC that the findings show there is a need to improve health literacy about community water fluoridation and that "the information provided needs to consider and address the cultural appropriateness of community water fluoridation."

New Zealand Dental Association Spokesperson Dr Rob Beaglehole agreed that more effort was needed.

“This highlights the ongoing need of knowledgeable health professionals, the Ministry of Health, Dental researchers and scientists to continue to request the Government to put more effort into raising awareness of the safety and benefits of community water fluoridation schemes," he said.

“The paper illustrates how the ongoing emotive information and anti-fluoridation scaremongering gets confused with the actual science."

Read more expert commentary and media coverage on the Science Media Centre website.

Policy news & developments

Freshwater guide: The Minister for the Environment, Hon Dr Nick Smith, has released a guide to help local government and communities implement the Government’s policy on fresh water.

Benchmarking report: The Treasury has released its fifth report on the cost, efficiency and effectiveness of administrative and support services across 26 public sector agencies.

Allergen labelling: Food Standards Australia New Zealand is calling for submissions on a proposal to remove mandatory allergen labelling requirements for certain foods and ingredients.

Environment priorities: The Ministry for the Environment has published 'A way forward for national direction' - a list of topics that Government intends to address nationally using one of the RMA legislative tools.

DOC Ambassador: Conservation Minister Maggie Barry this week announced New Zealand’s first Threatened Species Ambassador is... Nicola Toki!

New from Sciblogs

Check out the new look SciBlogs! Australasia's biggest science blogging platform has had a new lick of digital paint and brought on some fresh faces to keep giving you the best in informed science news and opinion.

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:

New regulations for drone operation in New Zealand - New sciblogger Barbara Breen looks at the updated rules for drones taking off this month.
Vantage Point

Ethical Pharmacy Practice 5: Looking for Leadership - Pharmacy Awards honouring complementary medicine campaigns leave Mark Hanna 'shocked and dismayed.'
Honest Universe

TPP Drug Trade-offs - Drug patent extensions might mean more expensive medicines in NZ, but it could also be fairer on a global scale, writes Eric Crampton.
Dismal Science


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