Cell Phones and Wifi are Perfectly Safe

2 minute read

The idea that cell phones, routers, wireless heart rate monitors, alarm clocks or pretty much any other electronic device will give you cancer is one of the most persistent fears around. The good news is, it’s also one of the most baseless.

Read the entire article here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/general-science-health-and-nutrition-you-asked/cell-phones-and-wifi-are-perfectly-safe

Rust Doesn’t Give You Tetanus

1 minute read
Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know/rust-doesnt-cause-tetanus

Ever step on a rusty nail? It was, in all likelihood, rapidly followed by your parents dragging you to the doctor’s office for a painful (but safe!) tetanus shot. The memory of my first tetanus shot is preceded by an exploring an abandoned barn and getting cut by a stray wire fence. If it had happened in my own home it wouldn’t have even deserved a band-aid, but the threat of rust sent us to the doctor’s office.

But it turns out that injuries caused by rusty objects aren’t any worse than injuries caused by any other discarded object.

Tetanus, or lockjaw, is a bacterial infection caused by Clostridium tetani, an extremely hardy rod-shaped bacterium found in animal digestive tracts and soil worldwide. Tetanus is fatal in about 10% of cases but causes muscle spasms, fever and trouble swallowing in all cases.

The reason we associate tetanus with rust is because it’s often found in soil that’s rich in organic material like manure or dead leaves. Old houses, cars or other discarded items left in nature for long enough will rust (if they’re metal) and collect bacteria like Clostridium tetani, but the relationship between rust and tetanus-causing bacteria is purely correlative, not causative. Humans can be exposed to Clostridium tetani in a variety of non-rusty ways, such as when cleaning animal cages, when bitten by infected animals, or if exposed to contaminated heroin.

So if your skin is pierced from anything from your own kitchen knife to a rusty gnarled screw, or if you begin working on a farm, it’s worth making sure that your tetanus shot is up to date. After all, (in Canada at least) it’s free and lasts an entire decade.

Lead Bullets Can Harm in More Ways Than One

Bullet Copper Ammunition Lead Brass Shell Ammo

It’s probably not news to anyone reading this that lead exposure is dangerous, but when most of us think of routes to lead exposure we think of leaded gasoline, paints, drinking water or pencils (although pencils do not, and never did, actually contain lead). But there is another means of exposure that’s causing significant issues for certain populations: lead bullets.

Bullets have traditionally been made from lead for several reasons. The metal is cheap and melts at only 327˚C (621˚F) meaning that it can easily be formed into bullets. It is also very dense, so that lead bullets pack a big punch, so to speak. But lead is also toxic.

After an animal is hunted, even if care is taken to remove the bullet from the carcass, lead contamination of the meat can still occur. Part of the problem comes from the fact that lead bullets often fragment into many small pieces that can disperse throughout the tissue. These lead fragments can then be consumed by the humans or pets who eat this meat.

Several studies have shown that when game is hunted, killed, processed and cooked in standard ways, higher-than-normal levels of lead are found in the meals. This lead contamination especially influences those who rely on game meat as their primary source of food, such as those in Greenland, or Indigenous Canadians, or those using food banks for whom donations from hunters are fairly common.

Even occasional game meat eaters, however, can be affected by lead contamination. Health Canada states that blood lead levels below 5 μg/dL are associated with adverse health effects. One study found that those eating one or fewer meals of gamebird shot with lead bullets per week showed blood lead levels of 7.5 μg/dL, and those eating gamebird meat daily showed blood lead levels of 17 μg/dL. But the effects of lead bullets don’t stop with humans.

As it’s fairly common for hunters to eviscerate their quarry in the field and leave behind the unwanted viscera, scavenging animals can feed upon the discarded remains of humans’ prey and ingest lead in the process. This can lead to many of the same symptoms as human lead exposure.

Another route for exposure is found in birds’ gizzards. To help break down their food birds swallow small rocks and store them in their gizzards. The problem is that to a bird a bullet looks a lot like a small rock.

One Italian study found that those who engaged in hunting showed a blood lead level almost double those who didn’t. This could be from the lead fumes that are released when guns are fired or from handling lead ammunition. The same study did not find any relationship between blood lead levels and consuming game meat, which could point to some regional differences in ammunition manufacturing, hunting or cooking styles influencing the amount of lead that makes it into a final dish of cooked game meat.

Lead exposure can also occur in humans that are shot with lead-based bullets, especially since bullets are sometimes left in a victim’s body, either due to lack of medical attention or complications that would arise from trying to remove them. In some cases, symptoms can occur many years after the gunshot wound. To remedy this, a combination of drugs to help eliminate lead from the body, chelation therapy and surgery to remove the bullet are used.

The good news is that non-lead bullets are becoming more popular. Several places have enacted lead munition bans, and one study showed that non-lead bullets were just as effective for hunting animals as lead bullets. Those who handle bullets in their jobs (such as police or military personnel) would benefit from a switch to non-lead-based munitions, but beyond environmental and health benefits, switching away from lead bullets would also have an economic benefit, as this study shows. As for what could be used instead of lead, there are a few options, the most popular of which seems to be copper, but the most interesting of which is definitely depleted uranium.

Leafcutter Ants are Farmers Who Grow Fungi

2 minute read
Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know/did-you-know-leafcutter-ants-are-farmers-who-grow-fungi

Leafcutter ants can strip as much as 17% of the leaf biomass from plants in their ecosystem and can clear entire trees in under a day. Next to ours, leafcutter ant society is the most complex society on earth. They build nests that can contain thousands of rooms and cover up to 0.5 km2, a feat that is necessary since a mature colony can contain more than eight million individuals.

But if they’re not eating the leaves that they carry home, what are they doing with them?

Farming. Leafcutter ants use leaves as their fertilizer to grow their crop: fungus.

They cultivate their fungal gardens by providing them with freshly cut leaves, protecting them from pests and molds, and clearing them of decayed material and garbage. In return, the fungus acts as a food source for the ants’ larvae. The ants are so sensitive to the fungi’s needs that they can detect how they are responding to a certain food source and change accordingly. This symbiotic relationship also benefits from a bacterium that grows on the ants’ bodies and secretes antimicrobials, which the ants use to protect their fungi.

Adult ants don’t feed on the fungus, but rather get their nutrients from leaf sap. Smaller adults often hitchhike on leaves being carried back to the nest to opportunistically feed on the sap, as well as protect the carrier from flies and to check that the leaf isn’t contaminated with other fungi.

Leafcutter ant society is divided into castes, with each group having a different role to play. The largest ants, called Majors, act as soldiers and heavy lifters. They guard the nest and help to clear out the highways between the nest and a food source. The next smallest caste, the Mediae, is made up of generalists, cutting and transporting the bulk of the leaves for their colony. Next in size are the Minors, who protect the foraging path and food source, and the smallest ants, the Minims, work exclusively at home, tending to the larvae and fungus garden.

Some Minims work exclusively as garbage collectors, removing decaying organic matter from their fungal gardens and transporting it to dedicated garbage rooms placed well below the rest of the nest. After becoming garbage collectors, these ants will never interact with the fungus or the queen, to prevent any disease from being passed onto them.

Leafcutter ants are often presented as a single species of ant, but in reality, there are 250 species of ants which practice fungus farming. Besides their agrarian tendencies, these ants have something else in common: queens. When it comes time to establish a new colony, winged virgin queens-to-be take part in their nuptial flight and mate with many different males to collect sperm. They then set out to find an appropriate place for a new colony, bringing with them a piece of the fungus to seed their new fungal gardens.

Do Fish Drink?

2 minute read
Originally published here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/you-asked/do-fish-drink

Our bodies and fishes’ (yes, fishes is a grammatically correct plural form of fish) bodies as well need water. Without it, the chemical reactions that take place constantly in our bodies would have no solvent and we would die.

Nonetheless, it seems silly that an underwater creature should have to drink. Can’t they just, I don’t know, absorb it or something?

Kind of.

Fish do absorb water through their skin and gills in a process called osmosis. Osmosis is the flow of water across membranes from areas of low concentration of dissolved things (solutes) to areas of high concentration. It serves to equalize the concentrations in the two areas.

In the case of freshwater fish, their blood and bodily fluids are much saltier than the water they swim in, so water will flow in through their gills. The opposite is true for saltwater fish.

As well as getting water through osmosis, saltwater fish need to purposefully drink water in order to get enough into their systems. Where their freshwater counterparts direct all of the water that comes into their mouths out through their gills, saltwater fish direct some into their digestive tract.

But fishes’ bodies, just like ours, need a certain concentration of salt to function best. They can’t just allow the water to diffuse freely through their gills; the saltwater fish would shrivel up and the freshwater fish would explode!

To stop the exploding fish phenomenon, their gills have special cells that selectively pump salt in, or out of their blood. In freshwater fish, the cells constantly pump salt in, and in saltwater fish, they constantly pump salt out. Saltwater fishes’ kidneys also help to filter out some of their salt.

Want to see osmosis for yourself? Submerge some potato slices in salt or fresh water overnight. The saltwater-soaked ones will still be crunchy, but the freshwater ones, having absorbed water, will be softer.

In short: some, but not all, fish drink. Kind of like how some, but not all, fish… fart.

So, keep in mind that next time you’re preparing your fishes’ tank you’re not only creating his environment but his beverages too.

Trees Avoid Touching Each Other Due to “Crown Shyness.” the Results Are Beautiful Webs of Leaves.

1 minute read
Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know/trees-avoid-touching-each-other-due-crown-shyness-results-are-beautiful-webs-leaves

Trees might be tall and strong, but they are still a bit sheepish.

Crown shyness describes the phenomenon of a tree’s leaves withdrawing from the leaves of other trees. It results in beautiful webs of almost touching canopies, but why do trees do it?

There are a few theories for trees’ bashful growth patterns. Some believe that blowing wind causes branches to hit their near neighbours, causing damage to their leaves and buds, and as a result, trees then limit growth at these locations to avoid further damage. This theory makes sense, given that crown shyness is exhibited between trees of different and same species, and sometimes even between branches of the same tree. When researchers were able to prevent wind-induced collisions between trees, they filled in the canopy.

Another theory for timid tree branches hinges on their ability to sense nearby plants. Tree leaves have been shown to detect far-red light bouncing onto them after hitting trees close to them. Branches would naturally try to avoid other plants that could shade them or prevent their growth, creating a gap in the canopy.

This theory could also explain why some trees do not exhibit crown shyness when interacting with trees of their own species. Studies have shown that some plants that sense nearby relatives will position their leaves to avoid casting shade on their kin, even at the cost of shading themselves. Who knew that plants could act cooperatively?

Some species have even adapted to take advantage of crown shyness, choosing to grow into shapes that compliment nearby trees, so that they don’t have to compete for canopy room.

Are Goats the Secret Tool We’ve Been Looking for to Prevent Wildfires?

2 minute read
Image made by Ada McVean
Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know-environment/goats-might-be-secret-tool-weve-been-looking-prevent-wildfires

Goats are really useful creatures. We use their milk, fur, meat and… firefighting skills?

In several places goats and sheep are being herded into fire-prone areas. The hungry herbivores move through the land, munching on shrubs, trees and grass, and creating firebreaks. Since goats only stand about 1 metre tall, they will graze heavily on low-lying plants, creating a gap between the ground and higher trees. This gap can prevent fires from spreading or slow them down. Some places in Spain have even blamed recent wildfire severity on the declining number of herds grazing on the land.

Goats are perfect for the job for a few reasons. Unlike some grazers, goats do not limit themselves to leaves or grass, eating the wood and bark of smaller plants as well. Goats are able to traverse a wide variety of terrains, and they are naturally resistant to several toxic plants. They can also be herded in tandem with sheep or cows, creating an even more effective grazing party. Using goats comes with the added advantage of reducing the carbon footprint, compared to clearing brush with machines, and improving air quality. The waste left by goats is simply absorbed into the ecosystem of the area.

Studies have shown that a herd of 250 sheep can reduce the available plant mass by 75% in 30 days. When a wildfire in Utah with 15-foot-high flames reached an area that had been cleared by goats, the flames dropped to only 3 feet tall in lightly-grazed areas and stopped entirely in more heavily-grazed ones.

The biggest barrier to using goats in this way is a lack of trained and skilled herders and herding dogs to manage the goats. So, if you’re looking for a career change, a position in goat herding is probably available. Given goats’ relative quietness and lack of air-polluting outputs, they could be especially useful for grooming areas near residences and towns, so you may not even have to commute very far.

The Impossible Burger: A Vegetarian Breakthrough Brought to You by Science

5 minute read
Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/nutrition-environment-general-science/impossible-burger-vegetarian-breakthrough-brought-you-science

I’ve been eating veggie burgers for a long time. If it’s sold in Canadian grocery stores or fast food restaurants, there’s a good chance I’ve tried it. There are some I like more, and some I like less, but they all fall into one of two categories: fake meat and veggie.

I like a veggie burger that knows it’s made of veggies, not one that’s pretending it’s beef. Mostly because all fake meat patties seem to come out as bad imitations. But, that seems to be changing in a big way.

The Impossible Burger, made by Impossible Foods, is a plant-based burger designed to fry, bleed, taste and smell just like beef. Incredulous? So was I.

What makes this burger different? The same thing that makes Fireball taste so good and Buckleys taste so bad. Chemistry!

The molecule responsible for the “meaty” taste of meat is heme and it’s found in animal muscle cells in the protein myoglobin. Sadly, there are no non-animal sources of myoglobin, but there is something pretty close: leghemoglobin.

Leghemoglobin is found in the roots of legumes and can provide a “meaty” taste very similar to its animal-based brother. It’s not especially environmentally friendly or affordable to dig up bean plants for their roots, so Impossible Foods had to get creative. They genetically engineered yeast to make leghemoglobin, so that by growing the yeast in fermentation vats they were able to create all the heme needed to make a meaty tasting veggie burger.

Other than heme, the ingredients of an Impossible burger are pretty similar to any other fake meat product. Wheat and potato protein, coconut and soy oil, some binders. All perfectly safe (despitesome cries of outrageover soy and GMOs).

How does it taste? On a recent trip to New York I went out of my way to find one and was not disappointed. The texture isn’t perfectly meat-like (or at least how I remember the texture of meat) but the taste was very similar, as was the look. But don’t just take my vegetarian opinion on the matter, here’s what Michael Marshall, The Project Director of the Good Thinking Society, had to say on it:

“If I hadn’t known what the Impossible Burger was – and, more to the point, what it wasn’t – I’m not sure I’d have been able to tell. It definitely wasn’t the best burger I’ve ever had, but it also wasn’t the worst, and that’s pretty impressive given that the rest of them (at least, I hope the rest of them) had the head start of actually being a burger. Possibly the most remarkable thing about the Impossible Burger is that they’ve managed to make a meat-substitute that differs from meat so little as to be unremarkable. If you’re looking to reduce or cut out meat but fear you’ll miss the experience of eating meat, it’s a pretty solid substitute.”

Sadly, the Impossible burger still isn’t available in Canada. A rival product however is being pushed by A&W: The Beyond Meat Burger.

This meat alternative also makes claimsabout tasting, smelling and having a meat-like texture. However, as far as I can tell it contains similar ingredients to any other veggie burger, with some beet added to dye the uncooked patty red. A&W’s website proudly states (several times) that their product is GMO free, a big change from Impossible Food’s pride in their GM technology.

Never one to pass up a veggie burger, I obviously went and tried the Beyond Meat Burger too. I was, to put it nicely, underwhelmed. It didn’t taste like meat. It didn’t really taste like anything other than a typical cheap veggie patty, and I honestly think I preferred A&W’s old veggie burger. It was boring enough that I’ll probably just opt for some French fries next time we make a road trip stop at an A&W.

But it’s not all about taste, right? Maybe the Impossible burger is delicious but very unhealthy? Well, nutrition-wise the two new veggie burgers actually beat out their meat competitors in terms of protein and iron (two of the nutrients vegetarians often struggle to consume). The Beyond Meat Burger has a lot more fat than the Impossible burger, but is still on par with the meat burgers. Perhaps the biggest lesson to learn from comparing the burgers is that while veggie burgers tend to cost the same (or less) as meat ones, at least at A&W they’re much larger!

(85 g)
(113 g)
No Name beef
(113 g)
(58 g)
Fat (g)13202712
Saturated fat (g)105135
Sodium (mg)43038043045
Sugar (g)1010
Protein (g)20201411
Iron (%)1525156

Even if you’re not passionate about finding the perfect veggie patty like I am, there are good reasons to care about the evolution of vegetarian meat alternatives.

The meat industry is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Animals raised for meat expel 37% of all human-released methane. They also require enormous amounts of water. 1 ton (907 kg) of beef takes 16.7 million litres of water to produce, which is more than six times the 2.52 million litres required for a ton of soy.

Infographic made by Ada Mcvean

There is also the animal welfare aspect of the meat industry to consider, as well as the documented health benefits to minimizing your meat intake. Technologies like lab grown meat or ethically raised animals can help your conscience, but not your wallet or heart. Part of what makes meat-like alternatives so compelling is their affordability.

While there are issues with replacing all meat with vegetable proteins, such as plant sources lacking some nutrients and ethical issues of putting herders out of work, there is a lot to be gained by embracing a vegetarian diet (or just going veggie sometimes). The Impossible Burger, and other products I hope are available shortly, might be a simple way to do that.

Until then, I guess I’ll stick to grilling Portobello mushrooms. Not such an impossible task.

You Can Still See the Division of East and West Berlin from Space

Originally published here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know-technology/you-can-see-division-east-and-west-berlin-space

Berlin might be united now, but evidence of its 40-year history of division still remains. 

This photo, taken by Commander Chris Hadfield, shows a divided Berlin, with the East appearing orange and the West white. But why?

What used to be East Berlin still utilizes nearly 40,000sodium-vapour lamps, which appear orange, while what used to be West Berlin has upgraded to mercury vapour, fluorescent or LED lamps that appear white.

Sodium-vapour lamps have fallen out of favour since they give off primarily yellow light that inhibitcolour vision in the dark. They also contain mercury, which makes them potentially toxic if broken and difficult to dispose of,and have lifetimesroughly half that of LED bulbs.

Your Allergies Are Getting Worse Because of Climate Change

Photo by Matteo Zamaria Photography
Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know/your-allergies-are-getting-worse-because-climate-change

If you feel like your recent periods of coughing, sneezing and shaking your fists at the trees for producing so much pollen are getting longer, you’re probably right.

It seems that climate change is having an effect on the duration of plants’ pollination seasons. Warmer and wetter winters are allowing pollination to start earlier and last longer, sometimes as much as 27 days longerChanging carbon dioxide levels in the air can also affect how much pollen plants produce… and it’s not going down. The net effect is longer, harsher seasons for allergy sufferers.

Seasonal allergies were first reported around the time of the industrial revolution, though we’re not certain why they sprang up then. It could be that the rapid urbanization and increase in human greenhouse gas emissions triggered the phenomenon of seasonal allergies. Even now, pollen allergies are on the rise in urban centres. As the temperature increases, due to our elevated emissions, allergenic species are able to migrate into areas they previously couldn’t thrive in. This results in new allergies as well as worsening of previously existing ones. Pollen counts are raised by windy and dry conditions,and lowered by wet and cooler ones, so staying indoors on the hottest of spring days is a good idea. You might also want to consider what you can do to mitigate climate change. After all, the climate is unequivocallyundeniably changing. And not for the better.