Category Archives: Issues in science

Fish feminization: An impact of pharmaceutical drugs in our water

Today, there is a pill for almost anything and everything.  Have a headache from studying too much organic chemistry? There’s a pill for that.   Depressed after getting your Chem 233 midterm back?  There’s a pill for that too.  What many people fail to realize is that our increased use of pharmaceutical drugs is having a profound impact on our environment.

Birth control pills
Photo taken from Wikipedia Commons

After consumption, a small percentage of the drugs are excreted into the environment via the sewage systems.  Currently, the vast majority of water treatment facilities do not screen and treat for such drugs because of the high associated cost.

In 1999, the United States Geological Survey reported that over 50 different pharmaceutical drugs were found in rivers and streams across the United States. Just over 10 years later in 2009, they released another report stating that up to 91% of largemouth bass, a common North American fresh water fish found in a river in South Carolina, had both male and female reproductive organs.  This phenomena is called intersex.

Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)
Photo taken from Wikipedia Commons

Intersex fish are either infertile or have reduced reproductive ability causing significant declines in the size of populations.

The presence of intersex fish is the result of an imbalance of sex hormones.  Many drugs act as artificial hormones and disrupt the organism’s endocrine system, which is responsible for regulating numerous biological processes.  Birth control pills are especially harmful to the environment as they release large amounts of estrogen, causing male fish to begin to develop as females.  In the same 2009 study, the United States Geological Survey reported finding male fish with female egg cells in their testes.

Although there have been no studies documenting such dramatic effects in humans, the need to reduce the amount of pharmaceutical drugs in our water is clear.

In order to reduce the presence of drugs in our water system, the first step to take is ensuring that all drugs are properly disposed.  Since 1996, the B.C. Medications Return Program has played an important role in this step.  Almost all pharmacies in BC now, at no charge, accept and dispose of unused or expired medications in an environmentally safe way.

If the presence of pharmaceutical drugs in natural water systems continues to increase, not only will many fish species be adversely affected, so to will all the associated species that rely on these fish.

Keep the potential impact of pharmaceuticals on the environment in mind the next time you want to throw away that old bottle of Advil.  Otherwise, Finding Nemo 2 might have to be rebranded as “Finding Nina”.

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By Morgan Haines

The Truth about Plastics

Plastic pollution has become one of the most serious threats to our oceans today. Approximately 90% of all garbage floating in our oceans is plastic. Common sources of plastics entering our oceans include beach users, illegal dumping, and plastics manufacturers and transporters. Unlike other types of garbage, plastic is not biodegradable by bacteria and other micro-organisms. It is either broken down by tidal movements into micro-plastics or is photo-degraded into smaller and smaller pieces by sunlight. Therefore, these small pieces of plastics never really leave our oceans.

According to statistics, 267 species are being affected by plastic ocean pollution worldwide, including 86% of sea turtles, 44% of all sea birds, and 43% of marine mammal species. Marine animals often mistake pieces of plastic for food. Once ingested, their bodies are not able to digest these plastics. Therefore, these plastic items remain in the animal’s body causing damage to its digestive system. As a result, the animal dies from starvation and dehydration.

Animals also suffocate on plastic trash, such as plastic bags and cigarette packages, which block the animal’s air passageway and may also inhibit normal growth. Common examples include sea turtles mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish. The plastic bags are too large for sea turtles to digest. Thus, the sea turtle suffocates to death.

Sea Turtle Mistaking Plastic Bag for Jellyfish (Image taken from via Google advanced search)

Smaller plastics, known as microplastics,  remain in our oceans and are ingested by planktonic organisms at the base of the aquatic food chain. These organisms act as food for other predators which make up higher trophic levels. As a result, the plastics, as well as the chemicals within the plastics, are passed on to higher trophic levels, affecting the entire aquatic food chain.

Plastics are made up of petroleum and other toxic chemicals. One of the most common chemicals found in plastic items is phthalates. Phthalates are used in many beauty products, such as cosmetics and facial scrubs. These products are used by humans on a weekly or daily base. However, the marine environment suffers the consequences of these chemicals and plastics being flushed down the drain.

The video below provides an insight to plastic pollution in more detail:
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It is necessary for humans to take necessary actions to prevent further damage to marine life. We do not have to be the reason why another sea turtle suffocates to death. We do not need to throw our litter on beaches. Don’t become a part of the problem. Be a part of the solution.


Does Red Bull Give You Wings?


Image via

University students around the world are faced with plenty of long nights revising notes, completing homework, and cramming for exams. After a while, it may get tough to stay focused or even awake for that matter so many “study-aids” are consumed, including the ever popular energy drinks.

These concoctions are loaded with sugar and many of them contain caffeine and taurine as their main stimulants as well as a variety of vitamins. Most of these drinks are advertised as “dietary supplements” so they are not reviewed by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). There is a shroud of mystery surrounding energy drinks and many studies have been conducted to debunk this.

The companies that produce these energy drinks claim that these beverages will increase alert-fullness and performance, this may not entirely be true. Medical experts have warned that the feeling you get after consuming a can of your favourite energy drink may be almost exclusively from the rapid increase of sugar and caffeine in your system. This means that drinking a cup of coffee with sugar could produce a very similar effect.

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A CBC story on the risks of energy drinks.

Another worry associated with these supplements is the dangers of constant drinking. Many different energy drinks, even Red Bull (the most popular energy drink worldwide) have been banned in different countries. Despite, this energy beverages are generally safe in decent doses. If you drink them in moderation you should be fine, but if you start to rely on energy drinks to get you through the day, every single day it will carry many of the symptoms associated with excessive coffee drinking. Dehydration is a common side effect.

Diagram showing possible effects via

If you were a child or pregnant is is recommended that you steer clear of these beverages as they are recommended for adults and can exacerbate existing heart or kidney conditions. In the end, drinking energy drinks is safe practice if you follow the suggested guidelines (Usually 1 to 2 cans per day). If a cup of coffee is working fine for you already there really isn’t a need to switch to these more expensive beverages however.

Zohaib Mahmood

Cure for Malaria on the way?

Each year, more than a million people die of the harmful parasitic disease known as Malaria and this number is increasing each day. Approximately 3.3 billion people (this is almost half the population of the world!) live in Malaria-affected region; most prominently in the Sub-Saharan Africa. This harmful plague has been circulating our planet for a long time now and yet there is no known cure for this disease. In the past recent years, the parasite has developed resistance to a lot of drugs. According to some researchers, some prosperous nations were able to get rid of Malaria; it is the third-world countries where the number of deaths due to this disease keeps increasing. Figure 1. below shows the regions that are at risk of  Malaria. Fortunately, Malaria is no longer overlooked and there is extensive research being done to find the cure for this malicious disease.

Figure 1. World map showing the risk of Malaria across the world.


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From the genus Anopheles, the female mosquito attacks the human when it is sound asleep and drinks the blood without acknowledgement. In the process, she releases saliva to prevent blood coagulation, and it is at this point when the infection spreads in the human body. This saliva contains one-celled malaria parasites (plasmodia) that act like tiny microscopic worms and burrow themselves in different liver cells. From this point on the disease spreads in the body through red blood cells and causes symptoms such as fever, headache, chills, nausea etc. The following video shows what happens in detail once the parasite attacks the host:

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Researchers and doctors from all around the world are working hard to develop, not just vaccines, but drugs that might help cure Malaria. Through the use of chemical insecticides or drainage of the water where the larvae of these mosquitos live in, could result in a significant reduction of their population.

Additionally, several drugs are under work that may be effective on a small scale. One such company is GlaxoSmithKline that developed a vaccine and conducted a clinical trial on 15,000 babies and children in Africa. Up to 18 months of age, the drug worked effectively and protected the babies. But the effectiveness wore off afterwards. A Research team at the University of Cape Town have been working on a drug that worked adequately on animals with no adverse side effects. Once this drug is put to use in clinical trials and positive results are found, it might be the breakthrough to the cure for this disease.

Even though there isn’t a set cure for this disease yet, there is still some ongoing progress. Until further research is done and results are found, we can only hope that this plague is cured before it gets too late.

– Hiba Rajpar





A ROCKY START: James Hutton and the Age of the Earth

It’s easy to mistake rocks as static objects.  You could stare at a rock for a few hours, and generally, it will do nothing interesting.

But the truth is, rocks are anything but static; it’s just that their dynamics are hidden by the long spans of time required for them to transform.  They erode, they shift, they change, and ultimately, they tell stories.  Rocks are the record keeepers of the Earth.  As we look downwards, through layer after dusty layer of sediment, we can, in a sense, travel backwards through time.

Rocks provide an extremely revealing way of examining the history of our planet, but it took until the late 18th century for scientists to fully grasp this concept.

In 1785, Scotland was at the forefront of Western science and philosophy, during a period of time later dubbed the Scottish Enlightment.  Despite recent advances in naturalism, chemistry, and medical science, people still thought that the earth 6000 years old, an estimate derived from the book of Genesis in the Bible.  Most scientists of the time agreed with this.  Even Isaac Newton (who died in 1727) accepted the idea of a young Earth.

But not everyone was convinced.  One man, James Hutton, had a very different idea.

James Hutton was a Scottish farmer, born in Edinburgh.  He had a degree in medicine, but by all accounts, never practiced medicine.   Hutton was an amiable and insatiably curious man, and initially applied his mind to developing and optimizing new farming techniques. At the same time, he had a much more ambitious pet-project on his mind – developing a geological theory of the Earth.

Hutton’s theory was based on observations, and asserted that rocks are constantly being formed, shifted and eroded; Hutton further concluded that these natural process likely behave in the same way now as they did thousands, even millions of years ago.

One of the primary pieces of evidence that Hutton used to support his theory is a rock on the east coast of Scotland called Siccar Point.   Siccar Point has an unusual structure – it is made up of two distinct layers of different types of sedimentary rocks (Devonian red sandstone, and Silurian greywacke) that contact each-other at a definitive angle.

Hutton concluded that Siccar point could only have been formed by a long sequence of sedimentation (formation of sandstone from small particles), folding and uplift (the buckling and lifting of rock masses over time) and erosion (the breakdown of rock surfaces by weathering), requiring extremely vast amounts of time – amounts far exceeding the mere 6000 year timeline proposed by biblical scholars.

Today, scientists have a variety of tools at their disposal for determining the age of the Earth, including the radiometric dating of fossils.  Although Hutton had no access to these types of techniques, he was still able to conclude that the 6000 year idea was incorrect using observations of modern sediments, and deductive reasoning.  It is a powerful example of one person’s curiosity and logic overcoming centuries of well-entrenched religious and scientific dogma.


Text and illustrations by Sam MacKinnon, 2014



Carruthers, M. W.  (2014).  Hutton’s Unconformity.  Natural History.  108(5): 86.

Repcheck, J.  (2003).  The Man Who Found Time:  James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth’s Antiquity.  Boulder, Colorado: Perseus (Basic Books). 


One step at a time: Harnessing energy from footsteps

Innovation in renewable energy is needed in order to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.  Instead of importing energy from other nations, what if there was a way for every country to produce its own energy?   There is, and we are standing on it.

Pavegen Tile
Photo from: flickr

Pavegen tiles work by converting the kinetic energy of a footstep into electrical energy that can be used for numerous applications.  According to Laurence Kemball-Cook, inventor and CEO of Pavegen Systems, the average person takes about 150 million steps within their life time.  If every step was on a Pavegen tile, that would translate into enough energy to “power the average house for around three weeks”, said Kemball-Cook.

Piezoelectric effect: certain materials can generate electricity when a stress is applied to them
Photo from: flickr

Pavegen tiles work by taking advantage of the piezoelectric effect.  Simply put, certain materials can generate electricity when mechanical stress is applied to them.  The most common example of this phenomena is the ignition of a BBQ lighter.  Pressing a button on the lighter causes a small device to hit a piezoelectric material such as a quartz crystal.  Changing the shape of the crystal causes an electrical discharge that ignites the gas.

In this case, that stress is the pressure that we exert with every footstep on the tile.  When a tile is stepped on, it compresses slightly (8mm) and the electrical energy generated is captured and stored in a battery within the tile.  Currently, between 4-8 Watts of electricity are produced every time a Pavegen tile is stepped on.

This technology has proven to be effective in numerous schools and public transportation stations in the United Kingdom.  The majority of the energy stored in the batteries is being used to power LED lights located both on the tiles, and in the hallways in which the tiles are located.  In a station in London, 50% of the energy needed for lighting is now coming from power generated from passengers’ footsteps.

Created in 2009, this technology continues to spread around the world and has recently crossed the pond and was introduced in a public school in New York.

“As we scale up […] it can be comparable to other renewables like solar”, voiced Kemball-Cook at a recent TED talk.  “Think about the amount of untapped energy that we could create”.

Pavegen tiles could offer a solution to our growing energy needs;  that’s one small step for man, 4-8 Watts for mankind.

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By Morgan Haines

Bisphenol A (BPA)

Recently, I came across this acronym, BPA, and thought to myself, “what is BPA?” To my surprise, it turned out to be an industrial chemical I was being exposed to everyday and I didn’t even know! Similar to myself, there are many people in our society who are unaware of the use and exposure of this chemical. Therefore, the purpose of my blog is to familiarize students of Science 300 and our society with what BPA is, its use in industry, and the possible health risks it poses to human health.

Bisphenol A (BPA), is an industrial chemical used to make polycarbonate and epoxy resins which are used in many consumer products.

Chemical Representation of BPA (from

Polycarbonate is used in a variety of products because of its unique attributes. It is a light weight, high performance plastic used by industries to make consumer products such as infant bottles.

Epoxy resins are also used in a variety of consumer products, such as paints,  because they maintain the quality of the canned product. Many canned foods and beverages have epoxy resins used as liners to maintain food quality.

Canned foods contain BPA which leaches out into the product. (from

Over the years, BPA has been one of the most extensively researched chemicals.  Safety assessments have concluded that the exposure level to humans “is more than 400 times lower than the safe level of BPA set by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency.” Then why is BPA still a topic of debate?

Many people are still worried about BPA exposure because this chemical mimics the hormone estrogen. It is also widely known to be an endocrine disruptor. Research studies have indicated that the tiniest exposures to the chemical can increase risks for cancer and disrupt the hormone system. Other studies have shown high levels of BPA in urine samples of six year old children.

The question which arises now is, “what has the government done to prevent BPA exposure?” According to an article published in New York Times, Canada has banned the use of BPA for infant bottles. Additionally, many industries are making BPA-free products available to people. Nevertheless, the controversy which still remains is whether or not these substituted chemicals are safe?

The video below further discusses this issue:

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In conclusion, there is a lot of debate over the topic of BPA exposure to humans as well as its health consequences. Daily news reports are being published on this issue which keep us updated on what the government is doing in regards to using this chemical in the industry. Furthermore, researchers all over the globe are continuously experimenting with BPA on rodents to provide concrete evidence about the health risks it may cause. As for now, to avoid BPA exposure, consumers should avoid using plastic containers which have recycle codes 3 or 7 on them as they may contain BPA as well as not use plastic bottles for hot liquids.