Category Archives: Issues in Science

High Altitude Reduces Risk of Dying from Heart Disease

When deciding which city to live in, most of us probably consider the neighborhood, convenience, livability, along with other related factors. However, most of us do not consider the elevation of the city. Ironically, this factor could be the most important because it could potentially affect one’s health.


In a recent article published by Science Daily (which can be found here), they reported a study that was conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado, School of Medicine, in partnership with Harvard School of Global Health. In this study, researchers claim that living in places with high elevation or altitude can lower the chance of dying from ischemic heart disease and increase one’s life expectancy as well.

The four-year study was conducted by analyzing death certificates from various parts of the U.S. The researchers examined cause-of-death, socio-economic factors and other issues in their research. They found that on average, people that lived in higher altitudes had higher life expectancies. Although, they also said that above 4,900 feet were detrimental.

At higher altitudes, oxygen is not as freely available, hence the body has to accommodate and adjust to this abnormality through a variety of ways. It appears that one of the key ways of coping is through the expression of certain genes. These genes are only expressed at high altitudes and they may influence or change the way heart muscles function. Hence, the heart is able to function more efficient and at the same time new blood vessels that can create increased blood flow into the heart are also produced. Furthermore, the researchers claim that increased solar radiation due to the high altitudes can help the body synthesize vitamin D more efficiently, which has also been shown to have beneficial effects on the heart and prevents certain types of cancers.

However, the researchers also mentioned that when socio-economic factors, solar radiation, smoking and pulmonary disease were taken into account, the net effect of altitude on overall life expectancy was negligible. This essentially means that the results of the study are inconclusive and altitude may or may not affect one’s health.


Nevertheless, I know that some athletes purposely train at higher altitudes. They do this because it can increase their red blood cell volume. This way, when they travel to competitions at lower altitudes they will still have a higher concentration of red blood cells, which will give them a competitive advantage. Even though, the results may not be conclusive, it is still an interesting area to study, and perhaps it could lead to new discovers for rehabilitation medicine. In the mean time, if you ever decide to move to a new city, just keep the elevation in the back of your head, and remember that it could potentially affect your health.

Diamonds are the cure to cancer???

Source:Chemical and Engineering News

Cancer treatment research is ever evolving and according to an article in Voice of America it seems like nanodiamonds maybe the result of all this new research. Nanodiamonds are tiny particles of carbon that are just a couple of nanometers in size and there are hopes that they will make cancer drugs more effective and decrease the use of chemotherapy.

According to Dean Ho at the Northwestern University, nanodiamonds attract water which allows it to bind to anti-cancer drugs. This is a very important property because generally tumors reject the drugs, but when they are attached to nanodiamonds they do not. In fact, they were better able to retain the drug for a longer period of time. Based on the studies conducted on mice, the use of nanodiamonds has shown to be more effective with fewer side effects. They were also able to administer the drugs at an elevated level without causing any harm to the mice while successfully reducing the tumors to their smallest size.

However, nanodiamonds are not just restricted to the use of cancer treatment. It can be used in other areas of medicine. For example, Dean Ho and his team found it very useful when used in conjunction with therapeutic drugs such as insulin which is used in wound-healing applications.

A lot more studies need to be done before this test can be tested on humans, but the fact that these nanodiamonds are made from the “byproducts of industrial explosions such as mining” means this technology will not cost much more than regular cancer treatment, which will come as good news for future society.

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E-Defense Simulates Major Earthquakes – When and Where does the Building Begin Collapsing in an Earthquake?

E-Defense is a 3D full-scale earthquake testing facility that simulates seismic activity on actual-size buildings. This facility is built by the National research Institute for Earth science and Disaster prevent (NIED) and has the world’s largest shaking table. It can hold a real concrete building and has 24 large cylinders with a diameter of more than 2 meters, which can simulate almost all kinds of earthquakes of any magnitude. Researchers can put actual-sized wooden buildings or oil tanks onto the table and observe to what extent does the structure stand against the quakes.

Over the years, researchers can only observe what a building looks like before and after the quakes to determine and strength of the building. In other words, there is no way that one can observe the destruction of a building directly. Therefore, NIED built the E-Defense. This facility is capable of letting a life-size four storey concrete building (about 1200 tons) to experience seismic activity directly.

The core of E-Defense is a huge and powerful shaking table. With a loading capacity of 1200 tons, it is considered to be the largest of the same facility type in the world. The E-Defense can move up to 50 cm vertically and 100 cm horizontally. It can also create a vertical acceleration of 1.5 G and a horizontal acceleration of 0.9 G. This shakes the 1200 ton building in three directions and is the first facility in the world to have such capability.

Although the collapsing of buildings can be easily simulated by using a few computers, Japanese scientists think that actually observing the process of destruction is much more reliable. There are also many similar facilities around the world, but they use scale models to do the simulation. The materials used for the models do not completely resemble that of a real building, so the accuracy of the results is uncertain. Also, E-Defense is the only one that can shake up and down, back and forth, and left and right. Thus, NIED figure that it is necessary to build the new facility.

Located on the Pacific Rim of Fire, Japan has a strict construction code for earthquake endurance. The E-Defense contributes greatly in understanding the quality and strength of concrete pillars and walls. Thus, shock resistance of buildings rises greatly and more lives can be saved.

Musical Microbes

A study recently done which was published in the journal General Dentistry yielded surprising results, which make me wonder how many nasty things I was exposing myself to in band class once upon a time… A shocking 442 different types of bacteria were found to be growing on 13 different instruments which were swabbed in 117 different places.

It wasn’t only bacteria which they found though. Also present on these instruments were 58 types of mold and 19 types of yeast. What’s worse (besides the fact that woodwind instruments had the highest number of microbes) is that the the species that were found were highly resistant to most of the antibiotics which are generally used.

Among the bacteria, many species of Staphylococcus were found, which are known to cause a variety of different things ranging from minor skin infections such as pimples to more serious conditions such as pneumonia and toxic shock syndrome. This youtube video shows the different places in which Staphylococcus can also be found, and why it’s important to be careful.

Not surprisingly, it was shown that mouthpieces tended to have more contamination than the other parts of the instruments studied, which included the cases. The instrument which was found to have the highest number of contaminants was the clarinet, and brass instruments generally had lower numbers of microbes present.

An easy way to prevent these instruments from getting so filthy is to sterilize them on a regular basis using ethylene oxide. However, it is worth noting that it should not be overused. Ethylene oxide has narcotic effects, and chronic exposure may lead to the induction of mutagenic effects, and it has been proven to be a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

As with any situation involving microbes, the best solution is to keep to yourself, wash your hands, and keep clean!

Dealing with Nuclear Waste – How can we hide something forever?

Radiation Symbol - Daderot via Wikimedia Commons

Nuclear waste is toxic to all organisms and remains active for 100 000 years. To put that in perspective, it’s about the same amount of time that the human species has existed and we’ve changed a lot in that time frame.

To find out how nuclear radiation affects people you can read this article on ABC News, or watch: Radiation and the Human Body – ABC News.

Nuclear power plants have produced between 250 000 and 300 000 tons of nuclear waste worldwide. Interim storage of this waste currently consists of above ground water pools. This is not a viable long-term solution because conditions are unpredictable and long-term, in this case, is 100 000 years. We have no idea what the world will be like in that amount of time.

Finland has begun creating a permanent storage facility for their nuclear waste. They’ve named it Onkalo – “hiding place” in Finish. Onkalo consists of a series of tunnels descending 5 kilometers into the bedrock. Construction began in 1970 and will be finished in 2100, meaning that nobody working on the project today will be alive when it is finished. When Onkalo is complete the tunnel will be filled with rock and clay, and the entire site will disappear back into the surrounding area.

The documentary “Into Eternity” gives a disquieting look at the construction of Onkalo and science behind it. Narrated as though it is being watched by a future generation, the film begins by saying “stay away from this place and then you will be safe.” You can watch the film on youtube.

There is no way to guarantee that future species won’t dig into Onkalo. We are still unable to decipher many of the languages spoken by our ancestors. Will languages spoken today mean anything in the future? How can we communicate danger to the unknown?

Whether or not to mark Onkalo’s presence is still being debated. Many worry that marking the site will peak the curiosity of future “humans”, leading them to dig it up, before understanding that it was built to protect them. Humans have a history of ignoring signs to leave things undisturbed. When the Egyptian’s built the pyramids, they never intended for them to be excavated. However, the wishes of the distant past were not enough to stop us. On the other hand, what if we don’t mark it and it is discovered by accident and there are no warnings in place?

This leads me to think that curiosity might have killed the cat, but radiation may wipe out the future and makes me wonder if nuclear energy is really a good alternative energy source? Is it really responsible to leave around tons toxic waste that could destroy future organisms? And isn’t it rather unsettling that even after 130 years of construction the only thing we’re going to be able to do is hope that Onkalo and the secret it contains are never discovered?