Chemical Exposures: The Good, the Bad, and the Tiny

I have often written about the lack of perspective on chemical scares, which is why I was happy to find out that Swedish Professor Emeritus in toxicology, Lennart Dencker, has written a book on this topic called “Not as dangerous as many might think.”

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Prof Denck interviewed at the Swedish magazine Research and Progress about his book.

In the Uppsala University press release he elaborates that with his book he wants to give the public, particularly teachers, better tools to assess the many alarm-inducing headlines we see about chemicals. He feels a responsibility to share the knowledge he has accumulated during his research career, and wants to help give the younger generation a better chance at developing a reasonable view of the situation pertaining to risk and toxicology.

Our environment has never been as ‘clean’ as it is today in Sweden,

he says in an interview to the Swedish magazine Research and Progress, pointing out how significant toxic exposures like indoor smoking, leaded gasoline, and older generation pesticides have all but disappeared within his own life-time. Continue reading

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Appreciating Stories – as a Scientist, Writer, and Human

When things get difficult, I seek comfort in stories. This might not be so surprising, after all, stories are the fundamental building blocks of human reality.

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Evolution is one of the most fascinating stories of reality.

We view the world through our identity, the story of who we are, and we weave in new information into our worldview in the form of stories, too. All too easily we may reject information if we feel it does not fit into the narratives important to us.

Science, for me, is the idea that the story of the universe is so incredible and so valuable, that it is worth it to keep our narratives open so that we may consider new plot twists carefully even if they may at first confuse or surprise us. Real things in the world matter, and our stories should strive to align with that reality. Often enough reality is indeed stranger than our fictions.

That’s not to downplay the role of fiction, fantasy, and imagination in our lives. Continue reading

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World’s Worst Energy Accidents in Environmental Perspective

I began my three-part series on energy accidents to answer the question: “What about Chernobyl?” This type of concern invariably comes up whenever nuclear power is discussed, as fear of nuclear accidents is something that is cemented into our cultural consciousness. I wanted to help put these concerns into perspective.

In my first look at that question I put the World’s Deadliest Energy Accidents in Perspective. I dedicated the next piece to environmental concerns: “What About Radioactive Wastelands?” A Look at Chernobyl’s Effects on Nature, assessing the idea (which I also used to hold) that nuclear accidents could make large swaths of land uninhabitable for humans and nature. I noted that nature was notably impacted by the radioactive contamination in about 40 square km (15 square miles) area around the power plant, or about 1-2% of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, including dead and stunted trees and rodent and invertebrate deaths. Most of the areas quickly recovered, however.

The absence of people in the Zone lead to a increase in wildlife numbers. Undeterred by radiation, thriving populations were established of more than 400 vertebrates, including many protected species. As the WHO put it: “a unique sanctuary for biodiversity” was created.

It appears then, that common idea of an uninhabitable wasteland as consequence of the Chernobyl accident is misleading, and large camera trap surveys have found no evidence to support the idea that animal populations would be suppressed in highly contaminated areas.

Now for the last part of this three-part series: how do these environmental impacts compare to the effects of other energy accidents? Continue reading

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“What About Radioactive Wastelands?” A Look at Chernobyl’s Effects on Nature

“What about Chernobyl?” is a question many people ask whenever nuclear power is discussed. In my first look at that question, in the previous article, I put the World’s Deadliest Energy Accidents in Perspective. But many people will point out that direct human health effects are only a part of the story, and rightly so. What about the risk of making large swaths of land uninhabitable for humans or nature? This is probably the most iconic of our fears when it comes to nuclear accidents, and it also used to be my main concern with nuclear power. As I wrote in Nuclear Waste: Ideas vs Reality:

How could we justify producing any amount of energy if – bear with me – that meant risking that large areas of the earth become barren wastelands, should anything go wrong?

Continue reading

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“What About Chernobyl?” World’s Deadliest Energy Accidents in Perspective

Whenever nuclear power comes up in discussions online, more often than not someone declares that all anyone needs to know can be said with one word: Chernobyl. This name evokes a chilling reaction in most of us, and the idea is that this should conclude the conversation. There can be no argument heavier than “What about Chernobyl?”

A radioactive sign hangs on barbed wire outside a café in Pripyat.

A ‘radioactive’ sign hangs on barbed wire outside a café in the ghost-town of Pripyat near Chernobyl.

Can there?

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the impacts of Chernobyl nuclear disaster, as well as the overall effects of different energy forms on human health and the environment. I often try to make the argument that we should look at the big picture, the totality of the effects, at first hand.

But the big picture is vague, grey, and complex. The name of that place – Chernobyl and the accident it’s irrevocably linked with, burns with a bright red focus in people’s minds. Chernobyl disaster might be the most famous accident in the world. It would definitely be wrong to sweep its effects aside – the tragedy of lives and homes lost is real, painful, and unforgettable.

But here we arrive at an odds. Do the lives of the people affected by the Chernobyl accident weigh more than the lives of people struck by man-made disasters elsewhere? Should we respect the memory of the victims of Chernobyl more than those who died as the result of the failures of other energy forms? Continue reading

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Radiation Exposures at a Glance

Inspired by a risk conference I attended, I decided to try my hand at visual demonstrations of toxicological safety limits and pesticide exposures. It struck me that the same kind of visualisation might work well for a demonstrating radiation dosages. I have written earlier about Radiation and Cancer Risk, after I visited Switzerland’s interim repository for nuclear waste, ZWILAG. While in the heart of the place – the dry cask storage hall which houses the spent nuclear fuel – we crossed a line with a sign that read: “HIGH RADIATION AREA No unnecessary stay !!!”

This left me curious. I wanted to know how dangerous a “high radiation area” was, and after a dive into the evidence, I got my answer. But much of what I wrote there could also be effectively summarised with an infographic.

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Continue reading

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Toward More Intuitive Toxicology Information

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Our presentation was titled: “Navigating the Risk Landscape” by
Alison Bernstein, PhD & Iida Ruishalme, MSc

Last week I had the privilege to attend a conference on risk science in New Orleans, and hold a roundtable together with neuroscientist Alison Bernstein from SciMoms. We were kindly invited to talk about our approach to risk communication by Center for Food Integrity.

This was awesome! Not only did I and Alison finally get to meet face to face, we also got to present what we had learned about messages that work on social media (see our series: Risk In Perspective), as well as ones that don’t. In between many interesting sessions, on everything from food fears to radiological risk to supplements and climate change mitigation, Alison also introduced me to fresh beignets, fried green tomatoes and other New Orleans essentials.

For our presentation, one of the things we talked about was the varied success of our infographics for the piece Measures of Toxicity. In the article, we underlined the distinction that acute toxicity info (like LD50) is mostly relevant to accidents, murders and suicides, whereas what the public is often most concerned about are the gradual chronic effects. These are more appropriately reflected by the chronic intake limits, which are set in a way to try hard to avoid such effects. Continue reading

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