About Admin

I was the Science & Health Reporter for 12 years, and the Environment Reporter for 5 years, at NPR member station KPLU, in Seattle, WA (now re-born as knkx). Today, I've left journalism but keep this blog as a place for writing about some of the topics that I tracked over the years.

The leanest kids live in …

All states are not equal, when it comes to obesity.  It’s well-known that the problem is much worse in southern states, and not quite as bad in the Rocky Mountain states and on the West Coast.  A new study is the first to allow comparisons of childhood obesity trends among the 50 states.  Here’s the condensed story from the Associated Press, although I added the third paragraph and the Washington state numbers:


CHICAGO – A new government study finds that most states are failing to meet federal goals for childhood obesity.

The federal Healthy People initiative set a childhood obesity goal of 5%. Oregon has the nation’s lowest rate of hefty kids, at just under 10%. Oregon was the only state whose childhood obesity fell significantly from 2003 to 2007.  Washington’s obesity rate went up slightly, to about 11% – tied for third lowest among the states.  Mississippi topped the nation with more than one-in-five of its kids obese.

By another measure – how many kids are simply overweight — Washington’s near the national average, with about 30% of kids overweight.  (Oregon places 3rd in this category, with Minnesota and Utah having the lowest percentage of overweight youth, at 23%.)

What works? That’s still debated.  Diet and nutrition have a role. But poverty, race and family history all have complex links to obesity.

The study appears in May’s Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

More links:

Whose truth about childhood obesity?

It’s no secret Americans have been getting fatter — and the future’s not so bright when children are getting fatter, at younger ages.  I’m looking into why, and what should be done.

A lot of solutions have been proposed.  Some are promoted by trusted sources.  But they may miss the mark, even if they’re good ideas for overall health.

  • Couch potatoes and too much TV?  This may seem like common sense, but there’s pretty decent data that “sedentary behavior” has not changed over the past 30 years.  So, promoting exercise and walkable communities — while good for overall health — may do very little to slow the rise of obesity rates.
  • Poverty?  There’s a lot of data showing that the more poor you are, the more likely you are to be overweight.  But why?  Adam Drewnowski at the University of Washington says it’s because of simple food economics.  It’s cheaper to buy a filling meal that’s unhealthy than it is to buy a healthy one.  Think dollar meals and junk food.  Sodas.  They’re full of calories, but low in nutritional value.  That’s his argument.  But, is that what’s really happening?
  • Too much food?  Many nutritionists argue it’s all about calories and consumption.  We’re eating on average more calories per day than we did 50 years ago.  Their story says, in the 1980’s some agricultural policies changed and food got really cheap.  Now, the temptation to eat is everywhere, all the time.  And, since the ingredients are cheap, portions got bigger.
  • Processed vs. whole foods? This is related to the ideas above.  And this has become a trendy way to frame the problem.  If we could only get more people, and especially poor people, to have “healthier food choices,” they would choose the delicious fruits and vegetables and whole grains.  Then, they’d lose weight.  I haven’t seen any good scientific evidence that demonstrates this, but it’s seen a logical conclusion to draw from other research about nutrition.

I’m still exploring these questions. If you know of scientific studies that support/undermine any of these arguments, please share them.   If there’s a better theory missing from this list, share that, too.

Plastics that bend the category of plastics

It sounds about as likely as a “healthy cigarette.”  I’m talking about “compostable plastic.”  I mean, the one thing we’ve all known for sure about plastics is, they’re bad for the environment, because they don’t bio-degrade.  Right?

Now comes this new generation of plastics that does biodegrade, and some of them even can go into a compost pile.

I’ve seen the product labels for a couple years, but I didn’t really take it seriously.  Someone told me, they’re made out of corn.  Yeah, corn and what else?

Compostable cups, fork, and other containers with the Cedar Grove seal.

It turns out, those corn-based plastics do in fact degrade into compost, according to the local experts at Cedar Grove Composting.  That’s the company that takes the yard waste from a million or so customers in King and Snohomish counties.  In the Seattle area, Cedar Grove has defined the category of composting, taking our leaves, branches, and clippings and selling it all back to us as bags of compost.  They also take all of our table scraps, from residences and many businesses.

Cedar Grove runs its own tests — by simply putting a so-called degradable plastic item into the compost pile, and checking to see if it turns into dirt.  “If it degrades and disappears then we approve it,” says vice president Jerry Bartlett.  Companies pay hundreds of dollars to get their products tested.

More than 400 plastic cups, forks, plates, and other items passed the test and do in fact turn to dirt.  Bartlett tells me they leave no visible residue, although no chemical testing is done at the end of the cycle.  On the other hand, 75% of the so-called “biodegradable” plastics submitted for testing do NOT turn into dirt. These are banned from the compost pile.

How does it work?  Through heat, mostly.  These industrial-scale compost piles get up to 170F degrees.  (If you put one of those compostable spoons in a bowl of hot chowder by the way, don’t leave it sitting in too long — the heat will start melting it.)

Apparently, many other new plastics are still made of traditional petro-chemical plastic, with additives that speed up the decomposition.  What might normally take 1,000 years, now takes 20 years.  But, Treehugger reports there are concerns that these actually may do more harm than good, by leaving tiny residual particles of plastic that then can enter the ecosystem.

So, if it says “compostable,” it’s probably made from corn or another plant-starch.

My story on KPLU has a few more details and links.

Tips for Barefoot Running

Yes, I tried it.  I found joy, and I found pain.  Here’s what I’ve learned, in case you’re thinking of trying barefoot jogging.

I’m not a hard-core runner.  But, I have been running since I was 11 years old (inspired by the famous training sequence in Rocky, and a big local event from that era–Tacoma’s Sound-to-Narrows run).  The idea of going barefoot sounded silly, when I heard about it a couple years ago.  But, once I got past my disbelief, I wanted to try it.

(For the full story on going barefoot, see the story I produced for KPLU, or the one for The World.)

I read as much as I could find online, and I started conditioning my foot and calf muscles.  I tried going a couple hundred yards on grass at a park, but never felt comfortable (I was so focused on what I might step on).  So, I got a pair of the Five-Finger shoes.

The first time running in them was liberating.  It felt strange and beautiful.  Then, after about 4 blocks, my calves tightened into a knot.  I limped home gingerly.  No harm, but I realized how much more strength my calves would need.  Over the next few weeks, running twice a week, I worked up to ten minutes, then fifteen minutes.  I would go until I felt my calves getting tired.

In reality, I was still ramping up way too fast.  One day, at the end of the run, I noticed my foot was sore. I still don’t know what I did exactly, but any time I tried to walk or run on the ball of my foot, for weeks, the whole area around my ankle felt sharp pain.  I’m fine running in shoes, but barefoot is on hold.

As Dr. Brian Krabak (Sports Medicine, University of Washington) told me: “Most people hurt themselves because of training errors … being too aggressive.” (Note-This was for an interview; he’s not my doctor.)

Here’s what several experts say:  Start with no more than a half kilometer, three days a week.  That’s a very short distance.  One lap around a track, plus the length of a football field.  And, then, apply the “10% rule,” which means, add 10% per week.

Just to give you a sense of how gradually you’ll be building up, here’s a chart:

Week Distance
1 .5 km / .3 mile
2 .55 km / .3 mile
3 .61 km / .4 mile
4 .67 km / .4 mile
5 .73 km / .45 mile
6 .80 km / .5 mile
7 .88 km / .55 mile
8 .97 km / .6 mile
9 1.07 km / .67 mile

After 9 weeks, still just 2/3 of a mile!  At this rate, you’ll need about three months to reach one mile.  (Barefoot Ted McDonald takes a more individualized approach. He says some runners, with stronger feet, will be able to progress faster.)

Everyone seems to say good stretching and some massage for your feet and calves will be essential.  And, if your pain lasts several days, cut back or get help, says Dr. Karak.

The Harvard Skeletal Biology website has a lot more detailed advice.

I plan to try it again, but with more patience.

Beauty, Harmony and Art, in a NASA photo

I’m sharing this just because I found it strikingly beautiful.  With a little cropping, it could be frameable.

Is it a tree? A cross-section of veins and arteries?

"Yukon River" "alaska"

According to the caption from NASA’s Earth Observatory, this satellite photo of the Yukon River in Alaska reveals the branches that break away from the main stem of the river as it reaches its delta region.  The river empties into the Bering Sea. At this point, on January 11th, 2010, the sea is frozen along the shore, so you can’t tell where land meets sea.  The frozen river is covered with snow, but the smaller branches stand out dark against the snowy surroundings.

Seattle area’s evolving earthquake threat

Several recent studies from the world of geology have relevance in this damp corner of the country.  They point to the possibility that “the big one” might be bigger than we thought.

Lesson from Indonesia. They’ve had 5 major earthquakes in the past 5 years, including the famous tsunami of 2004.  A more recent quake and tsunami off the coast of Sumatra was eerily like the one that’s predicted to hit the coast of Washington and Oregon some day.  Major lessons?  As I reported for KPLU, it showed that these deep quakes could be more powerful than previously thought.   There was no tsunami this time, but the public knew enough to head for high ground anyway, just in case.

Slow quakes and Mega-quakes. You may have heard of “slow earthquakes” (also known as “deep tremors”). They happen pretty regularly in the land of Cascadia, as the power of a big earthquake is released slowly over a period of weeks.  We don’t feel anything, because the energy is spread out over time.  The leading theory is these release energy in one area as two plates on Earth’s crust slide past each other–but add to the pent-up energy at a deeper spot.  Now, scientists (led by Ken Creager at the U. of Washington) find a second type of unfelt tremor may be adding even more tension to the fault zone that runs beneath the Interstate-5 zone.  If so, that means “the big one,” whenever it happens, could be bigger than previously thought.  Geologists and engineers have to go back and re-do some calculations to see if we need to change our building codes.

Could this seismograph fit in your basement?

Volunteer to be a basement seismologist. The U.S. Geological Survey and U.W. are looking for modest size homes throughout the Seattle area, to create a network of sensors.  A similar project is underway in the San Francisco area.  They’ll get data on how different soils and different types of structures respond to shaking.  They need a spot on a concrete floor about 2 ft. x 2 ft. with electrical power and potential internet connection.  To sign up, check out the NetQuakes program.

Gunshot wound might have killed Clemmons anyway

You might have been wondering, How could Maurice Clemmons have survived so long with a gunshot wound right in the belly?

He managed to last nearly two days  – after one of the Lakewood police officers (Greg Richards) shot him during the coffee shop ambush on Sunday.  Clemmons was hit just above the belly button, said Pierce County Sheriff spokesman Ed Troyer.  He later died in Seattle after another officer shot him two or more times on a city street.  Clemmons was found with duct-tape and cotton gauze covering the wound.

Police handgun, similar to the one used in battle at a coffee-shop near Lakewood, Wash. (photo by Clyde Armory)

We may never know why he lasted.  The King County Medical Examiner says autopsy reports are not public documents.  The autopsy is considered “protected health information.”  In other words, it’s private, and the next of kin must consent to any public release.  The public report will only confirm the cause of death.

I asked the chief trauma surgeon at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center for some speculation.  Harborview is the hospital where nearly all gunshot victims end up in the Seattle area.

Dr. Jerry Jurkovich says most gunshot wounds to that region would be fatal without surgery, since “it would almost certainly have injured some segment of the intestine.”  But, it might take several days for the infection to get bad enough to kill.  Bleeding to death is unlikely (and would happen very quickly).

It’s possible the bullet hit Clemmons from a sideways angle and did not penetrate major organs.

Does it matter? Not really, except as it sheds light on how much the “assistance” from his friends and family kept Clemmons alive.

MORE INFO [12/16/09] — Here’s some speculation.  Okay, it’s from unnamed sources, but credible enough to share, with caveats.  A friend of mine was discussing the case with a buddy in the FBI.  They came up with this:  One reason Clemmons might have survived that initial gunshot wound was if he was shot by one of his own guns, instead of the officer’s gun.  His .38 caliber revolver packs a smaller impact than the .40 caliber Glock (pictured above).

If so, that also reveals a little about how the events might have unfolded.  After the other three officers had been shot, Ofc. Richards was struggling with Clemmons, who still could have had a revolver in each hand.  Perhaps, one went off and hit Clemmons in the belly, but Clemmons might have used the other hand to shoot Richards in the head.  In this scenario, Richards’ gun was never pulled.  Clemmons would have taken it off his body before he ran.

To mammogram, or not to mammogram

I’m not surprised there’s so much confusion about the new mammogram recommendations from the U.S. Preventive  Services Task Force.  The findings are counter-intuitive.  And the message is coming from data people, who can’t communicate it in a way that makes sense.

What’s more: There are a lot of people with a vested interest in the current mammogram regime.  I don’t mean to impugn their motives.  They have the best of intentions.  But, if your medical career, or your clinic, is built on the premise that all testing is good and early diagnosis is the Holy Grail, then it’s hard to be objective.  And, if you are affiliated with a non-profit advocacy group, trying to raise awareness and money to battle breast cancer, then it’s going to be hard to swallow the idea that not everyone needs to be tested.

A young woman lines up for her mammogram (at Baylor Medical Center)

This is intuitive:  Cancer starts small, and if you test for it, you might find it before it spreads and becomes lethal. If everyone gets tested, we’ll catch most cancers before they can kill.  Period.

This is not intuitive:  If we test people, and get a lot of false-positives, that causes anxiety and unnecessary biopsies.  So, it’s better to do less testing and risk a few deaths.

I’m not a specialist, and I won’t make any claims to know what all women should do.  But, the panel making the new recommendation deserves to be respected.  And their conclusion is not unprecedented.  Other researchers have been arguing for years that we do too much breast and prostate cancer screening.  European countries with the most advanced health systems do not recommend annual mammograms under the age of 50.

And as I talk to middle-aged women, I hear a lot of stories of false positives, or hard-to-read mammograms, and unhappiness with what feels like a treadmill of testing and worry. (Not to mention the mammogram procedure itself ….)

Back in the 1990’s, as CT scanning machines became more common (and less expensive),  “full body scans” became the rage.  Remember the ads?  They promised to find the diseases lurking in your body that hadn’t yet shown up in symptoms.  The medical profession roundly condemned these scans.  Why?  Because they lead to a lot of false positives, further useless testing, and possibly procedures that are unnecessary.  In the end, for most people, they do more harm then good.

If the government or medical profession is recommending that everyone should get a certain test or vaccine, then they need good evidence that the benefit outweighs the risks.

One fact we don’t like to think about:  We are all carrying around parasites and growths and abnormalities all the time.  Most of these are kept in check by natural systems.  If we tried to intervene on all of them, we’d create chaos in our bodies.

I imagine as this story evolves, we’ll see two sets of recommendations emerge–one for women with a family history of cancer (or other higher-risk status), and one for everyone else.

Keeping up with all the flu news

A lot of people are wondering, Just how dangerous is the swine flu virus? (More formally known as, 2009 H1N1.)

The word from epidemiologists is: Not very dangerous, for most of us.

However ….  It’s quite dangerous to people falling in certain categories.  Watch out if you are: a pregnant women, a baby, elderly, immune-compromised, morbidly obese.  Or, if you have: any lung disease or disorder, an underlying chronic health problem.  (More details on this at the federal flu website.)

H1N1 virus particles invading body tissue. (CDC)

H1N1 virus particles invading body tissue. (CDC)

The easiest way to think about swine flu is that it’s remarkably similar to regular flu, except it spreads more rapidly.  Most people get only mildly sick and are better in three days or so.  I was surprised to hear epidemiologist Jeff Duchin of Public Health Seattle & King County go so far even as to urge most of us not to call the doctor.  There’s too much over-crowding as it is.

But there is some research that indicates this virus might be a little more dangerous than seasonal flu—especially for those in the “vulnerable” list I mentioned above.  For example, one team of researchers (at Imperial College in London) found the novel H1N1 flu virus lodges deeper in the lungs than regular flu virus.  That enables it to cause more severe lung infections and may account for some of the fatalities.  But it also is less aggressive in the nose and throat – making most infections less severe.

The message from this is, if you notice complications, such as breathing problems, don’t delay seeking medical help.  The best way I’ve found to sort all the usual questions is via Children’s Hospital of Atlanta, on their website.

Other tidbits:

  • The vaccine tests are full of good news. It appears to be highly effective and can be given in a single dose.
  • The first vaccine shipments may arrive on time, or even in early October.

Other recent posts and stories:

Schools ready for swine flu?

Soon after kids return to school, in the coming few weeks, we may see  the H1N1 swine flu come back with sudden swiftness.  That’s based on what’s happened during past pandemics, such as in 1957, and on the virus’ behavior in the southern hemisphere.  Are the schools ready?

It’s hard to tell.  They basically are continuing where they left off when the first wave of sickness passed through last spring.

My colleague, Jennifer Wing, reports on discussions between Public Health Seattle & King County and school districts.  They don’t plan to close schools this time, and sick kids won’t have to stay home for as long (it was a full week last spring).  But, from what we’ve heard so far, it doesn’t seem like anyone’s making contingency plans for absentee rates that might range in the 30-50% range.

The Virus: H1N1

The Virus: H1N1

Epidemiologists are concerned with getting timely updates on the numbers of absent students.  This is essential for monitoring when and where outbreaks are happening, and last spring some schools were better than others about reporting.

Don’t be surprised if outbreaks begin as early as September.  The evidence keeps mounting that wherever kids congregate in large numbers, that’s where you’ll see rapid transmission of flu virus.  In 1957, it took just 3-6 weeks after school started before  many cities saw a surge of illness.

What about a vaccine, to prevent illness?  The first doses may not be available until after the first wave of sickness.  But, there may be additional outbreaks long into winter, and the vaccine will protect against those.

On the other hand, swine flu infections still appears to be mild, unless you have an underlying sickness or medical condition.