Issue 83

Brainwaves, sound objects, and dubiously-dubbed safe ingredients

Oct. 26, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here. Love Scrap Fact? Consider hitting the “like” button, or tell your friends to sign up!

To read more Quartz stories, you can become a member by signing up here. For half off, you can use the promo code “KFOLEY3089”.

Your brain makes waves for all occasions—and they can be therapeutic, too.

Found while reporting: The future of Alzheimer’s treatment can’t bank on just one drug.

The big story in the news this week was that for the first time in over a decade, an Alzheimer’s drug passed a last-stage clinical trial. This means that it could hit the market as early as 2020, when Biogen, its manufacturer, files for approval from the US Food and Drug Administration.

I have a lot of thoughts about why this news should revitalize other avenues of Alzheimer’s research, too. You can read them in this Twitter thread. Or you can read the article above! But I’m not gonna recap it here—instead, I’m gonna talk about brainwaves.

This week at the Society of Neuroscience—a very prestigious meeting of the minds (heh) for top researchers in the field—a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named Li-Huei Tsai spoke about a new potential therapy for Alzheimer’s: Flashing lights and a clicking noise played 40 times per second for an hour at a time.

If you’re not familiar with the work (which I wasn’t as of a few weeks ago), it sounds like pseudoscience. But it turns out, promising mouse studies have shown that when light and sound hit a certain frequency—roughly around 40Hz—groups of neurons in the brain start emitting electrical charges at the same frequency. And somehow, these oscillating electrical frequencies, aka brainwaves, change the neuron’s collective behavior. They can call in other kinds of brain cells, like microglia, which work like the brain’s housekeepers to clean out clumps of amyloid and other gunk.

This brainwave frequency is called a gamma rhythm. These same oscillations happen when we’re engaged in mentally stimulating tasks (like reading this newsletter) or going through rapid-eye movement in sleep.

We have other brain waves, too: Delta waves, the slowest, occur in deep sleep. Theta waves happen when we’re barely awake, alpha waves happen when we’re awake but closing our eyes, and beta waves happen when we’re awake, but relaxing. In other words, the faster the brain waves, the more brain power we’re using. This Nature article breaks this all down in a pretty graphic.

Not all of our neurons oscillate at the same rhythm at any given time, but usually a majority of neurons set the brain’s overall tone. What’s the purpose of them? Scientists aren’t sure (some researchers don’t think they matter at all). Why do some neurons sync up with each other? Also unclear. How is it that neurons pick up on frequencies happening from external sources like light or sound? You guessed it—it’s still a puzzle scientists are figuring out.

Either way, it seems to work therapeutically, and there’s minimal risk of side effects. In addition to more research happening at MIT, Tsai co-founded a company called Cognito that is currently administering early clinical trials for different types of gamma rhythm therapy in people with early stage Alzheimer’s. I spoke to the president of the company, who was hesitant to give me too many details about the trial for fear that if I described it in detail, those getting the placebo may realize they’re not getting the treatment. They should be wrapping up no later than January 2020.

Our brain recognizes some sounds as “objects.”

Found while reporting: A new look at how the brain processes sound could radically improve hearing aids.

Say, friend, that you and I decided to go out to a crowded bar on a Friday night with our good friend Bill Nye. If Nye and I got into an argument about which animal has the wildest capabilities and started talking over one another, you’d be able to pick out one of us to listen to. It’s a process that happens nearly instantaneously* and automatically. But it’s actually an incredibly complex process.

In this hypothetical scenario, as I scream, “The aye-aye is the only primate to have six fingers, one of which is on a ball-and-socket joint!” over Nye’s babbling about gastropods, your brain does a neat editing trick: First, it picks out both of our words as speech, and lays them out one over the other, like audio editing software lining up two tracks. Then, it dials down Nye’s voice and turns the volume up on mine, much like producers cut English translations over a foreign speaker’s voice on a radio show.

The brain can do this, in part, because it turns out it comprehends some distinct sounds the way our eyes see objects—and knows what they are when we don’t see a complete picture. For example, we know that tables have four legs and a flat top. If you saw a table from an angle where you could only see three legs, you’d still know it was a table, and your brain could fill in the rest.

Same goes with important sounds like speech: Even if you can’t hear all of the words being said—Nye is really trying to shout over me—your brain can do a pretty good job at filling in the blanks with what it expects to hear. In this case, words in English about the miracle of ball-and-socket joints.

(Cool, right? I wrote this same fact as a comment to the story on the Quartz app—check it out here.)

From a technological standpoint, this work could make better hearing aids, which aren’t good at picking out one person’s speech over another. But from a broader research standpoint, learning more about the way the brain interprets sound could make hearing one of those rare sensory windows into the brain.

*Bonus fact: The amount of time needed for your auditory cortex to tune into a single voice? 150 milliseconds.

The US Food and Drug Administration hasn’t updated the compounds that are “generally regarded as safe” in decades.

Found while reporting: What’s actually in an e-cigarette?

One of the main reasons so many people thought e-cigarettes were safe were that the ingredients are nothing new. In fact, the ingredients in legally sold e-juice are all “generally regarded as safe”—a designation created by the FDA.

There are hundreds of GRAS chemicals. The regulatory agency created the designation in 1958, when it started regulating food additives. Rather than requiring previously used food additives to go through extensive (my read: expensive) testing, the FDA decided to grandfather in these additives as “regulated” because they didn’t seem to be harming people yet, and they likely wouldn’t.

Vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol, a combination of which carry nicotine and flavorings in most e-cigarettes, are both GRAS chemicals. This means that “there is no evidence in the available information on [substance] that demonstrates, or suggests reasonable grounds to suspect, a hazard to the public when they are used at levels that are now current or might reasonably be expected in the future.”

However, the last time the FDA reviewed data these chemicals was in 1975 and 1973, respectively. And they were specifically reviewed for their use in food, and later cosmetics and drugs. They’ve never been reviewed for safety when inhaled as aerosols heated by a metal wick—which is essentially what vaping does. And taking stuff in through the lungs is way different than taking it in through other routes of the body. Robert Tarran, a biologist at the University of North Carolina, gave me water as an example: just because it’s safe—and even good!—to drink it, getting water in your lungs can be fatal.

Bonus fact: An ode to lungs

Reporting this story, read a wonderful review of all the research on e-cigarettes’ safety, and I was tickled by the introduction. It’s endearing to see such enthusiasm for our anatomy, which is something I, too, feel on a regular basis.

The lungs are a physiologic marvel, transmitting the entire cardiac output through around 2,000 km of capillaries with each heartbeat and performing gas exchange in 300,000,000 alveoli with a surface area of about 70 m. With every breath, this highly adapted and delicate organ is exposed to infectious and inflammatory environmental stimuli. As a result of innate and acquired immunity, inspired air is cleaned and humidified before it reaches the alveoli. 

Animal of the issue: Tasmanian tigers

In honor of Halloween approaching, I present to you an animal that seems to back from the dead (er—extinction).

The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, was—is?—the largest meat-eating marsupial (mammal with a pouch) living on Australia’s southern-most island. It’s been extinct since the 1930s, but there have been a lot of sightings reported around the island—especially over the past couple of years. So maybe it’s not?

This New Yorker piece does a great job of showing how those determined to find thylacine almost sound like Bigfoot enthusiasts—which would make it extra strange if the animals turn out to be alive.

Stuff I learned from others:

We can track where Lewis and Clark traveled in the US thanks to their toxic laxatives. You will never guess the most vegan-friendly city. Good luck getting pure Scotch whiskey in the US any more. A rare minority of people have guts that can ferment alcohol when they eat carbs. White bellbirds are not subtle flirts. Every piece of coal found is chemically unique. Butterflies are moths who got tired of working the night shift.

One programming note: Friend, I am going to be missing from your inbox for the month of November. I’m working on a project I’m excited to share with you in December. Sit tight, and stay curious until then!

If you love Scrap Facts, consider hitting the “like” button at the bottom of this page, or sending it to a friend. You can also send your own scrap facts to scrapfacts@gmail.com to be featured in future editions. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

Issue 82

The beast of e-cig addiction, staying (slightly) basic, and IVs of alcohol—for science!

Oct. 12, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here. Love Scrap Fact? Consider hitting the “like” button, or tell your friends to sign up!

To read more Quartz stories, you can become a member by signing up here. For half off, you can use the promo code “KFOLEY3089”.

E-cigarettes have already screwed over some people for life.

Found during continued reporting on the US vaping epidemic.

Unfortunately, it seems like the news about e-cigarettes has only gotten worse in the past two weeks. As of Oct. 10, there have been nearly 1,300 cases of this mysterious lung illness associated with vaping, and 26 confirmed deaths.

Fear is a motivator for big action. Officials at the US Food and Drug Administration proposed banning all flavors, which are particularly appealing to teens. They have yet to make a final proclamation, but there are several state and municipal bans that have already taken effect, or will shortly.

Such a ban may get some teens to quit vaping, or deter others from starting. But really, there’s the youth vaping rates problem, and then the problem of vaping-related illness itself. While the increase in teen vaping isn’t great, it’s the illnesses and deaths that have made vaping an issue of national concern.

And even if we found a way to get some teens to quit and prevent some teens from starting with a flavor ban, there’s a huge group of people who are already addicted. As we continue to see more cases of illnesses related to vaping (which, as of yesterday, has a new acronym), more people are going to want to quit.

But here’s the problem fewer people are talking about: there’s no clear way to help anyone quit using e-cigs.

There are no regulated nicotine replacement therapies cleared for e-cigarettes. There’s no published research showing how cigarette quitting aids—things called nicotine replacement therapy (NRTs), drugs like Chantix and anti-depressants, and cognitive behavioral therapy—can work for e-cigarettes. E-cigarettes haven’t been around for that long for scientists to look into how people may want to quit.

The problem is even worse for teens who are already hooked. Teenage brains haven’t finished forming yet. Nicotine may change the way their brains develop, and it may also cause an even stronger addiction than it does in adults. Plus, a lot of e-cigs have a different form of nicotine than what’s found in tobacco cigarettes. Users may be getting way more of a hit than they thought they were (and some teenagers had no idea they were vaping nicotine at all).

Because teens were never supposed to have access to nicotine, pediatricians are winging it when it coms to helping their patients quit. There is no scientific evidence about how best to help teenagers quit nicotine. Pediatricians can prescribe off-label NRTs, which have only been approved by the FDA for adults. These treatments are likely going to be safe, but whether they’re going to be effective is unclear.

Some of the doctors I spoke with were really anxious about the long-term health of their patients. We don’t know what causes vaping-related illness in e-cigarettes, let alone the long-term effects of inhaling e-juice on a regular basis starting at a young age. I expect we’re going to hear about the health consequences of vaping for a long time now.

Bonus fact: You may have heard that there was a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine—a big name in medical publishing—that found that e-cigarettes were better at getting adults to quit smoking than other NRT’s. It’s true: 18% of nearly 886 smokers who used e-cigarettes to quit had successfully quit after a year, compared to 10% who used NRTs.

But there was just one problem: at the end of a year (the study’s duration), 80% of e-cigarette users were still vaping, compared to 9% of NRT users who were still using either a lozenge, patch, or gum.

The point of quitting smoking is that you ultimately quit your nicotine addiction. This study makes it clear that e-cigarettes were never intended to help people quit smoking. They were designed to get people hooked on something else—which may or may not be safer, and is certainly a heck of a lot more profitable for e-cigarette companies.

Your lungs play a big role in the way your body stays (slightly) basic.

Found while reporting: There’s a simple way to curb youth vaping, and it isn’t a flavor ban.

The human body is very good at adapting to new scenarios (see: this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology medicine), but there’s some stuff that has to stay constant. Like your blood’s—and therefore most of your organs’—pH. (Certain areas of the body, like the inside of the stomach or vagina are acidic, but the blood running around them is the same.)

Human blood has a pH of ~7.4. A pH of 7 is neutral; anything above 7 is basic, and anything below is acidic. So really we’re all a little basic (insert basic pumpkin spice and leggings joke here).

Our lungs play a key role in maintaining this pH. It’s their job to take in oxygen, and then to get out carbon dioxide—a waste product from cells converting food into energy they can use.

Extra carbon dioxide in the blood lowers blood’s pH. In other words, it becomes more acidic. It’s like how extra CO2 in the atmosphere leads to ocean acidification.

The lungs share the responsibility of keeping a slightly basic pH in the body with the kidneys, which collect other acids and bases formed through metabolic processes and flush them out in the urine. Although both the lungs and the kidneys can compensate for one another to a certain extent, changes in the blood’s pH need to be addressed quickly, because they can be fatal.

E-juice used to contain stuff called “freebase nicotine,” which gives users a stronger hit of the chemical. The problem, though, is that freebase nicotine has a pH of around 9—meaning it’s painful for our more neutral lungs to take in. E-juice companies got around this by adding a weak acid to nicotine to make it a more neutral salt, which made vaping go down smoother.

One researcher I spoke with was adamant that instead of a flavor ban, the FDA needs to mandate that all e-juice has a pH of 9 or higher. It’s a cool argument that brought me back to Chem 101. Similarly to my days in Chem 101, I called my dad, a chemistry professor at Drexel, a few times while writing the story to make sure I was explaining buffers and salts correctly. As always, he was wonderfully clear and patient with me. Thanks Dad!

Bonus fact: The most prestigious awards in the world still cold calls winners the morning they’re announced to the public.

I covered the Nobel Prizes in medicine and physiology this week. They’re announced at 11:30 am local time, which is 5:30 am here in Washington, DC. Surprisingly, the winners of the prize are kept so secret before the prize is announced, the someone from the Assembly simply calls the winner just before it’s announced.

For William Kaelin Jr., one of the medicine winners who is at Harvard currently, the Assembly didn’t have his number; they dialed a wrong number first, and then ended up calling his sister, and THEN finally got in touch wit Kaelin himself. You’d think they’d have a better system—especially if you’re planning on waking people up.

You can get alcohol directly infused into your bloodstream—for science.

Found while reporting this obsession email on hangovers.

The tricky thing with alcohol research is that we know it’s bad. Knowing that booze is harmful to humans means that it’s really unethical to ask people to drink. Scientists have gotten around this by asking people to report how much they drink of their own volition, which I’d guess is going to be the way vaping research goes in the future.

But still, that makes it really hard for researchers to answer questions about exactly how the body processes alcohol. And that’s an important thing to know, considering people are still drinking!

So scientists have found one way where they’ve been able to do a handful of very small studies on the ways that we breakdown alcohol over time: The alcohol clamp method. Basically, what researchers will do is give you an alcohol-infused IV (so like, the opposite of one of those $200 banana bags you get for your hangover) to get you to a certain breath-alcohol concentration that you can maintain for a few hours at a time to see what happens.

This allows researchers to get an idea of how factors like gender and genetics may affect the way we break down alcohol, without the variability of stomach contents. The alcohol clamp method also eliminates the variations in the types of drinks—like wine, beer, or spirits—and how those may change the way bodies break them down (people have reported that different drinks make them feel differently).

It’s impossible to do these kinds of tests on many people at a time. Take this study, which looked at alcohol breakdown in exactly five adults. Still, this type of work is what leads researchers to the understanding that we all break down booze differently. That idea that it takes an hour to process a “drink”? That’s an average—there’s some evidence that suggests that some people can process booze three to four times as fast as others.

Animal of the issue: Pine martins

Do you want even more animal news, on a weekly basis? (hint: there is only one right answer.) Then you should be subscribing to Kat Eschner’s newsletter, Creature Feature. Kat is a freelance science writer, and she beautifully captures our relationships with the non-human forms of life on the planet.

I had never heard of pine martins before Kat introduced me to them two issues ago, and now I love them.

Image description: A pine martin taking a piece of food from a human had. (We probably shouldn’t be feeding pine martins, to be honest.)

Pine martins kind of look like a combination of a cat and a fox. They are mustelids, which means they’re in the same family as otters and weasels, and they’ve been just about hunted to extinction in the UK—although conservationists are hoping they can recover if they breed in an undisclosed location in the Forest of Dean. As Kat points out, Brexit will likely ruin this effort. These creatures are omnivorous, and they like their space—each requires about half a square mile of woodland to call their own.

Again, if you like “animal of the issue,” you must sign up for Kat’s newsletter. You can do so here.

Stuff I learned from others:

Honeycrisp apples are the third most profitable invention from the University of Minnesota, behind a vaccine for pigs and an HIV drug (h/t Walt Hickey at Numlock News). Coroners are the last first responders. China is breeding giant pigs to overcome their pork shortage. Zebra stripes help keep flies away, which researchers confirmed by painting stripes on cows. Light could be the new treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning we’ve all been waiting for (hopefully not literally). Ferrel hogs are the fastest reproducing large mammal. About 8% of our genome isn’t ours. Sometimes, being petty is a damn treat.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider hitting the “like” button at the bottom of this page, or sending it to a friend. You can also send your own scrap facts to scrapfacts@gmail.com to be featured in future editions. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

Issue 81

Risk perception, limbic capitalism, and embalming in the US

Sept. 29, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.

If you’ve been following my work for a while, you’ve probably noticed that Quartz installed a paywall. If you’d like to get around that paywall or get exclusive access to membership stories (some of which are featured below), you can become a member by signing up here. For half off, you can use the promo code “KFOLEY3089”.

We’re way more worried about the possibly of unknown risks than we are of known danger.

Found while reporting: The debate around 5G’s safety is getting in the way of science.

A handful of scientists are convinced that cell phones radio waves may cause cancer. That’s a pretty scary thought, considering there are now more cell phones than people.

Although the vast majority of scientists don’t believe this fringe group, it’s a pretty scary thought that won’t seem to die, for a couple of reasons: First, there is no data that proves that radio waves are perfectly safe. They should be, considering that they’re not energetic enough to cause damage to our DNA, but a study from the US National Toxicology Program that came out last year found that there may be an uptick in cancers when rats are exposed high levels of radio wave energy—much higher than our cell phones should be emitting.

I personally have some questions about the methodology and some of the results, which I outline in the article: The absolute number of mice who developed cancer was pretty small, and mice exposed to the highest radio frequency emissions also had the highest survival rates in the experiment. So basically, I don’t think that this particular study gave us much scientific clarity. And it’s this uncertainty that helps the hypothesis live on.

The second factor is that we tend to be suspicious of big businesses interests, Shannon Brownlee, a former journalist and vice president of the Lown Institute, a non-profit health care think tank in Massachusetts, told me for the story. We fear that companies (or governments!) may be trying to hide something from consumers for their benefit, financial or otherwise (but let’s be real, it’s usually financial). And the fact that both major telecom companies and the US government are gung-ho about rolling out 5G may cause some to raise an eyebrow.

This idea that there could be something we don’t know that’s beyond our control makes the potential concerns about 5G seem a lot scarier for some, Brownlee said. Even though we haven’t really seen the spike in cancer cases globally we’d expect to see if cell phone usage were tied to cancer, it’s the uncertainty that freaks us out the most. As I wrote in the story, “the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies radio-frequency electromagnetic fields as a “possible carcinogen” (pdf), that classification speaks to a wide range of potential risks—including no risk.”

To be clear, I highly doubt that 5G, or radio waves from cell phone towers, pose a serious threat to human and animal health—although if data proved the contrary, I’d change my tune. But I do think that the same idea of fear of the unknown is playing a major role in the current fears around vaping in the US.

At the time of writing, there have now been over 800 cases of VAPI (vaping-associated pulmonary illness—you know the person who came up with that acronym was just tickled) and 13 deaths as a result. The only thing patients have in common is they used an e-cigarette in the last month, and that the e-juice either contained THC (weed), or something they altered themselves. While these illnesses are serious, I think the reason users and public health officials are panicking is because of this element of the unknown: E-cigarettes were supposed to be, in theory, safer than cigarettes—which we know cause cancer. Vaping wasn’t supposed to make people sick and had the potentially to make people healthier if they quit smoking, which is why millions of people started using them.

In absolute terms, compared to the number of current vapers, the illness and deaths are probably a statistical blip. But the fact that we don’t know why they occurred is terrifying. The uncertainty, plus skyrocketing teenage smoking rates, has led to the proposed public health policies that included banning flavored cartridges. I have thoughts on that! And you’ll get to read them in the coming weeks as I continue to follow this beat.

This week, I spoke with the BBC Business Week about the news around Juul’s CEO swap (which you can listen to here), and on Friday I actually got to be on live TV to talk to host Aaron Heslehurst about what’s happening in the US (no link from them yet, but my mom took this video which you may be able to view here. Thanks Mom! Love you!).

Bonus fact: It was actually really hard to design cellular radio wave exposure experiment for mice and rats, because their tails have a pesky habit of acting like antennae, Ronald Melnick, one of the toxicologists behind the NTP study, told me. Cutest little antennae you ever did see.

One of the biggest US tobacco companies is making bank with “limbic capitalism.”

Found while reporting: Juul’s new CEO is a Big Tobacco veteran.

You may have seen that Altria, which owns 35% of Juul, and Philip Morris International decided not to pursue a merger in the wake of multiple federal investigations into Juul’s advertising. (To the FTC and FDA and authorities in the Northern California District, it seems like the company may have been advertising to teens and/or claiming their products were safer than cigarettes without the data to back it up.)

Altria is a Virginia-based company that sells products in the US. As I’ve said here before, it owns Philip Morris USA, which makes Marlboro cigarettes. But this week I also learned that Altria also owns:

  • The U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company

  • John Middleton, which makes cigars

  • Nat Sherman, which makes fancy cigarettes and cigars

  • Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which are wine estates

  • a “significant equity investment” in Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world's largest beer brewer

  • and it’s about to acquire Cronos Group, a cannabinoid company

I spoke with a source this week who referred to all these industries as “limbic capitalism”—companies that have recognized there’s big money to be made in altering our brain’s limbic system, which does a lot of emotional regulation. Even though Juul’s future is pretty uncertain at the moment, if I had to guess Altria as a whole will fare just fine because of its other assets.

Embalming in the US became a fad because of the Civil War.

Found while reading: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty.

I love a good memoir, and Doughty’s is both well-written and unique. Doughty is a mortician, and writes about her early days working in a California crematory. Her memoir is about her personal relationship with death and mortality, and also about the industry of death and funerals as a whole.

One of the MANY things she taught me is that embalming—the preservation techniques used to keep dead bodies lively looking for wakes—became popular in the US as a result of the Civil War.

And purification. Don’t forget that gorgeous, smelly biological process.

Prior to the Civil War, Americans would bury their dead after a funeral-like celebration (where corpses were kept on ice to keep them from breaking down) before they were buried. During the war, though, the bodies were piling up too fast for that process to suffice. Armies tried to get other soldiers to bury their dead on the battlefield seemed downright cruel, not to mention smelly. (The few times this has happened, soldiers were allowed to be drunk.)

Although armies could try to send soldiers back to their families, it became quickly apparent that bodies would rot on trains faster than they could get to their families to bury. Trains refused to carry bodies—unless they were in really expensive iron (read: smell-proof) caskets—which wasn’t feasible for most people.

Per Doughty, a new industry was born:

The situation brought out the entrepreneurial impulses of men, who, if a family could pay, would perform a new preservative procedure called embalming—right there on the battlefield. They followed the skirmishes and battles looking for work, America’s first ambulance chasers. Competition was fierce, with stories of embalmers burning down one another’s tents and placing advertisements in local papers reading “Bodies Embalmed by US NEVER TURN BLACK.” To market the effectiveness of their services, the embalmers would display real preserved bodies they had plucked from the unknown dead, propping the corpses up on their feet outside the tents to better demonstrate their talents.

Leave it to Americans to find a way to turn a profit in the face of a bloody tragedy.

Animal of the week: Moon jellies.

One thing that’s brought me a lot of joy these past two weeks has been rewatching the BBC Series “Round Planet” on Netflix. It’s a parody of nature shows, but with real facts. In an episode about ocean life, the narrator character, called Armstrong Wedgewood (voiced by Matt Lucas) refers to these jellies as “haunted marshmallows” and I was just so friggin tickled because it’s true.

Moon jellyfish love warm, open waters. Their mouth is also their anus and also four gonads. They can look purple if they’ve been eating crabs or more orange if they’ve been eating shrimp.

Stuff I learned from others:

Reproducibility and replicability in research mean two different things: The first has to do with crunching the numbers a second time for a single study, and the latter has to do with getting similar results with separate repeated studies over time. AARP is one of the biggest lobbying groups on Capitol Hill. Homebrewing alcohol was only legalized in 1978. The New York metropolitan area has one of the highest inequality ratios in the US, while DC has one of the lowest (honestly, surprising as a DC resident). The equation used to figure out how much member states have to pay for the UN is super complex. Light pollution is changing life on the whole planet. Your Tuesday could always be worse.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider hitting the “like” button at the bottom of this page, or sending it to a friend. You can also send your own scrap facts to scrapfacts@gmail.com to be featured in future editions. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

Issue 80

The great vape debate, "medicinal" tobacco, and rejected dementia research

Sept. 14, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.

If you’ve been following my work for a while, you’ve probably noticed that Quartz installed a paywall. If you’d like to get around that paywall or get exclusive access to membership stories (some of which are featured below), you can become a member by signing up here. For half off, you can use the promo code “KFOLEY3089”.

Vaping is the sequel to cigarettes. And if history has taught us anything, it’s gonna be a long franchise.

No one, not even me, can ignore vaping anymore.

In the past couple of months, at least 450 people have gotten seriously ill from what seems to be an acute vape-related lung disease, which has killed six people. The only thing these patients have in common is that they had all recently reported vaping.

Because vaping is so new (it really kicked off in the mid-2000s in the US), there hasn’t been enough data for scientists to say whether it’s definitively safe or not. Early data suggests that maybe e-cigarettes are better than other nicotine replacement therapies to quit smoking. But there’s also major concerns that teens who have never smoked cigarettes are picking up vaping at alarming rates. And now, after these reported illnesses and deaths, a lot of people are worried about its short-term and long-term safety.

Even President Trump bothered to read the news about it. This week he and officials from the US Department of Health and Human Services and Food and Drug Administration announced that they were planning to ban all flavored e-cigarettes from the market. The thinking is that by banning the flavors that draw in minors the most, they’ll be able to curb youth smoking rates.

I have a couple of concerns about that, though.

First, the FDA has threatened to crack down on vaping before. Last year they gave Juul, one of the leaders of the e-cigarette market, 60 days to figure out how to limit teen use of their product. There were so many rumors floating around that the FDA was going to ban Juul’s flavored cartridges, the company voluntarily stopped selling them. Ultimately, the FDA tackled flavored cigars and menthol cigarettes instead, and Juul quietly put its flavored cartridges back on the market. In other words: I’ll believe it when I see it.

But more importantly, any time in history the US federal government has tried to ban a certain behavior (think alcohol during prohibition, marijuana, and even sex work), people have still found a way to do it. Without the government’s blessing (read: regulation), these practices have only become more dangerous for the people who engage in them.

Banning flavored e-cigarettes would mean that only legit sellers would halt their sales. But that doesn’t mean people would stop smoking them. They’d just get them from more dubious sources. One of the troubles with vapes—including most of the ones that have been tied to these acute lung illnesses—is that there is already a huge black market of unregulated products that may contain unsafe chemicals.

For example, right now, marijuana is still a schedule 1 drug, which means the FDA doesn’t regulate any weed products. Several of the people who have gotten sick after vaping were smoking THC cartridges with questionable, unregulated chemicals.

Banning flavored e-cigs may stop some teens from vaping, but I worry that it’d harm a lot of other people for this reason. A product ban means scientists, who are performing a public health service, can’t (or won’t) do their jobs to assess flavored vapes’ potential dangers. Sure, vaping is already an epidemiological nightmare to research because there’s so much variety on the market. But that’s not an excuse to not try studying it.

Wanna learn more about vaping? On Monday I wrote this handy guide to answer the question: Is it safe to vape? I also wrote a longer story specifically about how the history of smoking can inform the future of vaping, and just how hard it will be to study. (You should read that second one. It’s really good. I’m proud of it.)

You can also hear me talk about the FDA’s decision to crack down on Juul’s marketing with the BBC here.

Bonus fact: Vaping is a bit of a misnomer, my colleague Jenni Avins points out in this overview of the field—you’re actually smoking aerosolized particles of liquid suspended in air, not a true gaseous form of anything.

In 18th century Europe, the number one way to revive a drowned victim was to blow smoke up his butt.

Found while reporting: Can a vaping health crisis be avoided?

One of the reasons tobacco has stuck around for such a long time is that nicotine is fun. It’s no surprise that people have been smoking it in some iteration for thousands of years. It’s also no surprise that, like alcohol, researchers have spent lifetimes trying to figure out ways that it could maybe be useful.

Tobacco is actually one of those things that European conquerors brought over from their escapades in the Americas. By the 18th century, it was common for tobacco to be used for medicinal purposes. According to Sawbones, my go-to listening for all things medical history, tobacco-smoke enemas were one of the most popular ways to try to revive drowning victims.

It’s true! Per Gizmodo, this practice was so common in the 1700s in England there were actually bellows, tubes, and fumigators lining the River Thames. It’s also where the phrase, “blow smoke up your ass” comes from—although today, that often refers to disingenuously complimenting someone.

It sounds like a bonkers theory, but in fact there was some logic to it. By that point in history, people knew nicotine from tobacco was a stimulant. The idea was that maybe, nicotine could startle a stopped heart. (There was also some thinking that the smoke would dry out any excess water from the drowning. This was wishful thinking.)

In the early 1800s, researchers noticed that nicotine harmed the hearts of animals who were exposed to it. Still, tobacco remained a part of medicine throughout the century, explained in this box from this paper, published by Anne Charlton, a former professor of medicine at the University of Manchester:

Charlton also notes that, even in the 1900s, an ointment made from tobacco was used as a cure for wounds and infections like ringworm (which is not, in fact, a worm). Perplexingly, she even managed to find a meta-review published in the late 1990s (as in, only two decades ago!) that found that smoking may have lowered risks for Alzheimer’s disease—the idea was maybe, nicotine as a stimulant was somehow protective for the brain.

At this point, though, we know that the cardiovascular risks of smoking are deleterious to the brain as well. Try as scientists did for literal centuries, they simply haven’t been able to find a good reason for why anyone should smoke other than the immediate pleasure of it.

Bonus fact: Friend of the newsletter Chris from Los Angeles informed me this week that Mel Blanc, one of the most prolific voice actors who was one of the voices behind several Looney Tunes characters (think Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and Pepé Le Pew), picked up smoking at age 9. He continued a pack-a-day habit until his late 70s, when he was diagnosed with emphysema. He died of coronary artery disease at 81.

The person who discovered Alzheimer’s backed one of the diseases’ most controversial theories today—no one believed him them, either.

Found while reporting this obsession email on Alzheimer’s:

As I’ve mentioned in this newsletter before, we’ve known about Alzheimer’s for over a century, thanks to the work of a German neuropathologist and psychiatrist named Alois Alzheimer. He was the first to note, just about 113 years ago, that cases of “presenile dementia” were the result of buildups of amyloid plaques and taus in the brain.

He discovered this while examining the brain of a woman who died at 50 (young by even the disease’s standards) after suffering for five years from dementia and troubled sleep (another characteristic of the disease).

Heart-breakingly, when he first presented the work at a big psychiatry conference, the head of the meeting, a psychiatrist named Alfred Hoche, completely dismissed him. Hoche either didn’t like the case report or didn’t care, and ushered on the next speaker after Alzheimer without allowing the audience to ask questions. Rude! But also: Hoche was a big proponent of eugenics and euthanasia for “lives that are no longer worthy.” The Nazis loved his work. So he was a bad guy for much bigger reasons.

Anyway, no one believed Alzheimer at the time—especially when he proposed that infectious agents were to blame. At the time, neuroimaging wasn’t good enough to recognize that the plaques and tangles were proteins, and not viruses themselves. It wasn’t until the amyloid-beta protein was discovered in 1984 that the infectious theory was abandoned. As I’ve reported here before, though, it’s making a comeback.

Some exciting news: I’m one of 14 reporters selected to be part of this year’s Journalists in Aging Fellows Program. This fellowship is supported by the Gerontological Society of America and Journalists Network on Generations, and they’ll be supporting some of my upcoming reporting on aging research and diversity in clinical trials.

Animal of the week: Elephant shrews

Like us, other primates, and a handful of bats, elephant shrews (which are actually some 20 species) menstruate regularly. They are mammals more closely related to elephants than shrews (the resemblance is uncanny) and they live in the forests of East Africa.

Stuff I learned from others:

The Loch Ness Monster is probably several giant eels. Champagne corks have more pressure behind them than car tires (watch your eyes!). Groupon is offering patients deals on medical services. Protesters in Hong Kong are adopting anti-surveillance fashion (and it’s really pretty cool looking.) Ghost crabs have terrifyingly rumbly tummies. Bee semen is even more horrifying than ghost crabs’ tummies. Tourism from China is so big, it’s changing global travel. The real-life Kool-Aid man would weigh 11,000 pounds.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider hitting the “like” button at the bottom of this page, or sending it to a friend. You can also send your own scrap facts to scrapfacts@gmail.com to be featured in future editions. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

Issue 79

Indonesia edition

Sept. 3, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.


Greetings friend!

I spent most of August traveling in Indonesia. I’d never been to Asia before, and we were gone for 21 days. I thought it was a long time, but as soon as we got to Jakarta I realized that it was laughably inadequate to see this massive country.

Indonesia is the fourth-most-populous country in the world; most people live on the island of Java, which is home to the country’s current capital, Jakarta. (There are plans to move the capital to Borneo, another island. Jakarta is 18 million people crowded and sinking, due to too much groundwater use.)

In our three weeks, we visited Jakarta, Yogyakarta (both in Java), Bali, Lombok, Satonda Island, Sumbawa Island, Komodo Island, and Flores, traveling west to east and then flying back to Jakarta. For a US comparison, it was kind of like traveling from the top of Florida to maybe Maine, in terms of ground covered.

I can’t overstate how huge and wonderful the country was. In addition to all the lessons I learned about traveling and teamwork, I learned so much from our trip, knowing fully well that we just scratched the surface of what Indonesia has to offer.

Puppeteering in Indonesia is one of the most distinct, cherished story-telling methods in the world.

One of my unexpected favorite museums we visited in Jakarta was the Wayang Museum. This museum was filled with all kinds of puppets. Specifically, it had a ton of wayang kulit puppets, which are made of buffalo hide, bamboo, and horn. In 2003, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designated wayang kulit as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

These puppets are incredibly intricate; their carving is designed to allow light to shine through and cast shadows that make them appear to be alive. A puppeteer, or dalang, manipulates the puppets and provides all the voices for all the characters in a story. These stories often revolve around characters from Hindu mythology, but are reportedly adapted to tell modern Indonesian stories, too. A single show may take all night.

Image description: a close up of the face of a two-dimensional puppet with a pink and red face and blue headpiece. The body of the puppet is gold, and there are hundreds of tiny cutouts as detail throughout the figure.

I took this photo at the museum (apologies for the quality). There weren’t a lot of placards in English, so I’m not sure who this puppet represented or what kind of story it’d be used to tell. The puppets we got to see in action were decorated like this one, and had six joints—one at each shoulder, elbow, and wrist. With the light coming through they while they move, they’re mesmerizing.

Komodo dragon are cannibals.

One of the highlights of this trip was going to see Komodo dragons. These lizards are the largest in the world. Males can reach up to 10 feet and 300 pounds. Their venom stops their prey’s blood from clotting, meaning they only have to strike once and then watch and wait while their meal dies a slow, grisly death before feasting. (Yum!)

These dragons live on a handful of islands in Indonesia, including one aptly named Komodo Island. On the island, there is literally just a park service, a few trails, a coffee shop, and about 1,200 dragons. Most of them are male. Like sea turtles, their sex depends on the temperature in which their eggs incubate.

We went during mating season, which sounds pretty unpleasant for everyone involved. Males fight each other sumo-wrestling style, but not before they prep by emptying their bowels by vomiting and defecating. The winner gets to move on to mate with the female in question, who will also put up a fight before the process.

Once a female dragon is pregnant, she’ll do her best to guard and incubate her 30 or eggs for several months. When they hatch, though, she is done.

Adult komodos eat their babies, forcing newly hatched and adolescent dragons to live in trees out of harm’s way. The guides at the island we visited told us that about 10% of eggs make it to adulthood. They weren’t worried about the population—or at least not in a way they expressed to us. But it still seems like an odd way for a species to keep itself afloat.

Image description: a portrait shot of a komodo dragon laying down calmly. He’s facing the right side of the frame, and his claws are several inches long.

Not all traveler’s diarrhea is created equally.

Diarrhea is not one syndrome, but rather an umbrella term for unpleasant, watery poops. It has hundreds of types of causes, many (but not all!) of which are related to pathogens.

Traveler’s diarrhea is also a vague term that generally refers to any kind of diarrhea you pick up while on the road, usually through food or water that contains bacteria your body isn’t prepared for.

There are a bunch of different types of bacteria that cause diarrhea, and they all do so in different ways. As I’ve written previously in this newsletter, some microbes, like bacteria from the shingilla and campylobacter family, slice open your intestinal cell walls, causing their fluids to spill out. Others, like the bacteria that causes cholera and some strains of E. Coli, release chemicals that trick your gut cells to pump out their water instead of holding it in.

The most common causes of traveler’s diarrhea are forms of E. coli that are called “enteroaggregative E. coli.” These strains of E. coli attach themselves to your mucus-lined intestines and neatly clump together to form little walls of bacteria reminiscent of “stacked bricks.” They may release some proteins that end up messing with your cells themselves, or they may just cause extreme immune reactions (like telling your cells to make more slippery mucus) that lead to your watery stool—the science is unclear.

The other main culprit behind traveler’s diarrhea is called campylobacter. These bacteria look like little corkscrews that drill their way into your intestinal cell walls. They release specific toxins to mess with your gut’s ability to suck water out of your waste, but exactly how is also unclear.

In most cases, the body can get rid of the infection that causes the diarrhea on its own. You just need plenty of rehydration fluids and patience.

But reader, let me tell you: patience is hard to come by when you’ve got liquids spewing out both ends and you’re supposed to be getting on a boat for several hours of travel. Fortunately, I had picked up some antibiotics ahead of time (a small bottle of azithromycin) before heading on this trip. Even though I spent 48 hours feeling lousy, these pills nipped my (likely E. coli, but who knows?) infection in the butt, so to speak, and I was able to enjoy the rest of our trip free of sinister poops.

Bonus fact: Jet lag is a deeply physical challenge.

Like traveler’s diarrhea, I vastly underestimated jet lag. Portions of this newsletter, in fact, were written at 4 am US eastern time, after I had been laying awake for a few hours and finally decided to just get up and do something.

Jet lag is the result of time-keeping cells in the part of your brain called the hypothalamus. Every day, they look for cues from your environment, like sunlight, to tell the rest of the cells in your body “Okay, folks, up and at ‘em!” When you travel across timezones, those usual cues may be missing, and these cells, called pacemaker cells, are confused, and essentially panic. (Tip of the hat to friend of the newsletter JoAnna Klein for her work explaining that concept ($))

There’s another hypothesis that jet lag affects our microbiome, too. Like us, the bacteria that inhabit our gut have their own natural rhythms. When our cells’ rhythms are screwed up, it messes with our bacterias’s, too. Jet lag can also change the composition of these microbes, killing some and allowing others to thrive, which can make us more susceptible to getting sick or changes in weight.

Obviously, traveling across more time zones messes with your body’s rhythms more. We were 11 and 12 hours ahead of US eastern time, where I am now. I spent a lot of time frustrated with my jet lag at first—I know that a 4 am wake up is going to make for a rough day, so why can’t I just sleep in?

But then I figured keeping time must be a tough job—my conscious self can’t do it without a watch or clock. Being frustrated was only stressing me out and making sleep harder to come by, so I may as well accept that I am going through an adjustment.

There’s a life lesson in there somewhere, I’m sure.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3 regularly programmed story Scrap Facts will be back in a couple of weeks!

If you love Scrap Facts, consider hitting the “like” button at the bottom of this page, or sending it to a friend. You can also send your own scrap facts to scrapfacts@gmail.com to be featured in future editions. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

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