International Headlines: Science and the Environment


Criticism Mounts Over South Korea’s Efforts to Contain MERS Outbreak
June 17, 2015 -- The Straits Times
Criticism over efforts to contain the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in South Korea has grown amidst alarming reports of new cases slipping through a quarantine that already affects thousands. South Korea reported 8 new cases and one additional death, bringing the number of fatalities to 20 and the number of infected to 162. The outbreak, which is the largest to occur outside of Saudi Arabia, began on May 20 when a 68-year-old Korean man who had contracted MERS while on a trip to Saudi Arabia and visited multiple hospitals, spreading the disease along the way, was diagnosed with the disease. Since then, it has spread at an unusually rapid pace, mainly through the patients, physicians, staff, and visitors at Korean hospitals, causing widespread alarm; the number of public transit passengers has plunged by more than 20% in Seoul. The government, which aims to curb outbreaks in 11 hospitals considered major epicentres for the disease, had previous stated being cautiously optimistic the worst was over. But critics say the government’s handling of the crisis shows little has been done to improve public safety standards since the Sewol ferry disaster of April 2014. Even the conservative newspaper Dong-a Ilbo slammed the government for unrealistically playing down the outbreak’s magnitude, stating, “We are concerned whether [health minister] Moon Hyung-Pyo will ever be able to get the situation under control. There is no vaccine for MERS, which has a mortality rate of 35% according to the World Health Organization.

Pope Makes Ethical Case for Action on Climate Change
June 19, 2015 -- Ars Technica
The Vatican released a highly anticipated “encyclical”—a weighty 184-page letter from Pope Francis to the rest of the Roman Catholic Church—on the environment and climate science. The letter emphasizes helping the world’s poor and “the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems.” The Pope called climate change “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day” and pointed out the “urgent need to develop policies” so that carbon dioxide and other polluting gasses can be drastically reduced in the next few years.  In these policies, wealthy nations should help poor nations adapt to climate change and bypass the latter’s use of fossil fuels by building renewable energy sources in developing countries based on “solidarity between all peoples." The letter is part of the Pope’s goal to influence key international climate negotiations in Paris this year. The Pope will also take his plea to the United Nations General Assembly in September. Small and less-developed nations are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and the pope will mention the needs for nations that have emitted the most greenhouse gases to aid those countries.

Brazil Prosecutors Call for Halt to Amazon Dam Evictions
June 17, 2015 -- BBC
Brazilian Federal prosecutors have called for authorities to stop the eviction of at least 2,000 families living in an area of the Amazon where a huge dam is being built. The prosecutor's office says Nort Energy consortium, responsible for building the Belo Monte dam, has broken numerous agreements on the relocation of residents, most of whom are from indigenous groups. The office has produced a preliminary report that "recommends urgent intervention in the process to halt the demolitions and the violation of rights of the population evicted". The consortium had signed a contract with guarantees that the farmers and fishermen living in the area would be relocated and provided with alternative means of survival. But according to the report, the contract has already been breached 55 times. Environmentalists and indigenous rights activists have opposed the project from the beginning, saying a vast area of rainforest will be flooded, threatening wildlife and affecting the lives of thousands of people. The government says the dam is crucial for development and will create jobs, as well as providing electricity to 23 million homes. The 11,000-megawatt dam will be the third biggest in the world. It is expected to cost between $11 billion and $17 billion.

FDA to Limit Trans Fats in Food
June 16, 2015 -- NBC News
Artificial trans-fats are generally unsafe and food manufacturers will have to phase out their use over the next three years, the US’ Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday. This action is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year. Trans fats are formed when liquid oils are chemically altered using a process called hydrogenization. This makes them look and respond more like butter or lard, but the process makes them at least as unhealthy as, if not more than, regular saturated fats. The food industry, and even American health advocates originally thought that trans-fats were better for health than naturally saturated fats; it wasn’t until the 1980s that medical research began to show clearly that they were not. Instead, trans fats raise cholesterol levels, clogging and hardening arteries and raising rates of heart attack and stroke. “In this case, it’s clear that what’s good for extending shelf-life is not equally good for extending human life,” said the FDA’s Dr. Susan Mayne. The ruling also includes a provision that after 2018, even small amounts may not be in food without FDA permission.

Can These Panties Disrupt the $15 Billion Feminine Hygiene Market?
May 28, 2015 -- Forbes
In the Western world, squeamishness around women’s menstruation means the average woman spends thousands of dollars over her lifetime on feminine hygiene products - and each year, 12 billion pads and 7 million tampons are dumped into US landfills alone. In much of the developing world, cultural taboos around menstruation and lack of access to feminine hygiene products means that girls begin to fall behind at school, or are limited in their ability to work at paying jobs: the UN reports that just 43% of girls in developing nations attend secondary school because of this. THINX, a new manufacturer of women’s underwear that doubles as a reusable feminine pad through new antimicrobial and fiber-absorbency technology, seeks to change this. The ability to wash and reuse the underwear means that women can completely eliminate their carbon impact on the feminine hygiene front. The business is also built on a buy-one-give-one model, where every pair of underwear sold generates a donation to Uganda-based AFRIpads, which trains women in developing countries to make and sell reusable pads, which are then sold at affordable prices to local women. The global feminine hygiene industry is projected to hit $15.2 billion by 2017.