Gloves Off: How Effective Are Gloves at Preventing the Spread of COVID-19?

It has been shown time and time again that masks are very effective at preventing the spread of respiratory illnesses. I’m sure you know this, but you should be wearing one every time you are in public. That much is no longer up for debate. The same, however, cannot be said for gloves. There is a real chance that we are throwing billions of gloves into our rivers and seas for no reason. The WHO, HSE and CDC have all released statements which tell us that there is no evidence that gloves are effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the general public.

The month of March is when Spring begins. For many, this March was the beginning of something much more sinister. We were terrified, and rightly so, by the emergence of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. Now, half a year later, not only are we still fighting the virus, we are also fighting the wave of people who believe that the virus is a hoax. But even those of us with good intentions have created new evils.

This Spring brought with it the familiar sight of brightly coloured patches appearing in our fields and meadows. You must have seen them, the brilliant blues and pure, snowy whites. Look closer; they are not flowers. Every day, we are throwing away millions of disposable masks and gloves, many of which end up contaminating the natural world.

If you don’t have a few cloth masks by now, you are behind the game. Not only do they save you money in the long run, they are also better for the environment and more comfortable. It has been shown time and time again that masks are very effective at preventing the spread of respiratory illnesses. I’m sure you know this, but you should be wearing one every time you are in public. That much is no longer up for debate.

The same, however, cannot be said for gloves. There is a real chance that we are throwing billions of gloves into our rivers and seas for no reason. The WHO, HSE and CDC have all released statements which tell us that there is no evidence that gloves are effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the general public.

Medical professionals are constantly touching contaminated surfaces and coming into contact with infected people. They are truly on the front line. For the most part, medical professionals only use gloves when there is a risk of coming into contact with a patient’s bodily fluids. Other uses would include surgery or if there is a chance of injury, for example, from a needle. Unless you are taking care of someone who is either vulnerable or infected with COVID-19, there is no benefit to wearing them.

Source: WHO

What’s more, medical professionals have been trained in how to effectively use, remove, and dispose of gloves. They know how frequently the gloves must be disposed of, and they know to be careful what they touch when their gloves may be contaminated. In other words, they are aware that it is not in any way a substitute for hand hygiene. In the medical profession, the use of gloves is absolutely necessary. For everyone else, however, it is a somewhat different story.

When you touch a contaminated surface, the virus transfers from the surface onto your hands. That is true whether you are wearing gloves or not. It doesn’t matter whether the virus is on your skin or the gloves. In both cases if you touch another surface, you transfer the virus to it. In both cases if you touch your eyes, nose or mouth, you can become infected.

When you take off a pair of contaminated gloves, the virus can easily transfer onto your skin. It is recommended, then, that you wash your hands every time you remove a pair of gloves. Do you see the problem here? It is cheaper, better for the environment and in fact more effective to simply cut out the middleman and wash your hands. You are adding an unnecessary extra step to the process; one which contaminates our rivers and seas.

Source: CDC

Wearing gloves gives people a false sense of security. We think we are protected, but in fact we are just as vulnerable to infection. If you are not wearing gloves, you are more likely to wash or disinfect your hands because you know the virus might be on your hands. When we think we are protected, we become complacent. What’s more, when you contaminate a pair of gloves and then throw them away, you have created a new surface for the virus to live on. That creates a new risk for the sanitation workers who have to pick the gloves up off the ground and dispose of them. The same problem does not happen when you wash your hands instead.

Source: HSE (https://www2.hse.ie/conditions/coronavirus/face-masks-disposable-gloves.html)

Another consideration is that when the general public uses vast amounts of medical gloves, they create a shortage for the people who actually need them: medical professionals. As was the case with hydroxychloroquine, uninformed panic has caused people to unnecessarily deplete necessary resources, to the detriment of doctors and hospital patients.

What happens when we have poisoned our oceans with so much plastic that the ecosystems within begin to break down? Plastic pollution has been shown to reduce the efficiency of the process in the oceans which transports CO2 from the atmosphere to the sea floor. That is worrying, since right now the ocean takes up about 30% of the atmospheric fossil fuel CO2 each year.

What’s more, 70% of all the oxygen on earth is produced by marine plants which include phytoplankton: small photosynthesising organisms in the oceans. The most abundant photosynthesising organism on earth, Prochlorococcus, has been shown to reduce oxygen production when exposed to the chemicals which leach out of plastics in the sea.

That is aside from the better-known impacts of plastic pollution, like those which occur when marine animals ingest or are entangled in plastic. If for whatever reason you are still using disposable face masks, make sure to cut the straps to prevent entanglement.  

Not only do animals ingest plastics, we ingest them too! A recent study tested 47 tissue samples from human organs and found that every single one of them contained plastic. We are creating a massive crisis for the future in the name of halting the current one, and it is not even helping. As good as our intentions may be, the use of gloves to combat COVID-19 may well be costing more lives than it is saving. If that’s true, why do it?

People are wearing gloves because they are scared and because they want to do everything they can to slow the spread of this deadly virus. That is admirable. We should be scared, and we should be doing everything we can to help. This virus is very real and very dangerous. The problem is that gloves likely don’t help, and they create new problems.

If you feel you must use gloves, you have to make sure that you change them as frequently as you would wash your hands. Do not touch your face while wearing them and be ready to take them off the moment you think they have been contaminated. The best way to remove them is to roll them down from the wrist, since this turns them inside-out, reducing the amount of contact between your hands and the surface of the gloves. You also need to make sure that you wash your hands when you take the gloves off or risk contaminating your hands.

UCD Doctor Makes Numerous False Claims About COVID-19

In an interview released on the 11th of May, UCD Professor Dolores Cahill claimed that the global lockdown in response to the COVID-19 crisis was unnecessary. Cahill also repeatedly made the controversial claim that once you have the virus, you are immune for life; a claim for which there is very little evidence as of yet. Indeed, the interview was packed full of misleading and inaccurate statements about the virus. The trusted fact-checker Health Feedback rated the interview as “based on inaccurate and misleading info”.

First Published in UCD College Tribune

In an interview released on the 11th of May, UCD Professor Dolores Cahill claimed that the global lockdown in response to the COVID-19 crisis was unnecessary. Cahill also repeatedly made the controversial claim that once you have the virus, you are immune for life; a claim for which there is very little evidence as of yet. Indeed, the interview was packed full of misleading and inaccurate statements about the virus. The trusted fact-checker Health Feedback rated the interview as “based on inaccurate and misleading info”

Both YouTube and Facebook removed the video from their platforms for violating their misinformation policies after Business Insider reported that the video was “filled with misleading claims about COVID-19”. John Quinlan, co-founder of the independent fact checker Infotagion was quoted in that article as saying, “when we fact-checked this video we found there was no scientific evidence to support any of her claims”.

A History of Misinformation

First, let us take a look at who Dolores Cahill actually is. Cahill has impressive academic credentials and is considered a leading figure in proteomics: the study of how proteins function and interact with each other. Cahill has been involved in a number of impressive projects, and in 1997 co-founded a company called ‘Protagen AG’, which exists to this day under the name ‘Protagen Protein Services’. Strangely, however, there is no mention of her name on the Protagen website. The College Tribune approached Protagen for comment on Professor Cahill’s claims, but received no response. 

Cahill also worked at the prestigious ‘Max Planck Institute’ in Germany from 1995 to 2003. When Business Insider contacted the Institute for their article, they were told that “The work [Prof Cahill] performed at our Institute has no relation to the claims she has made with regards to the pandemic. The Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics distances itself very clearly from them, and we do not want to be associated with any of her claims in any way”. 

Cahill has not been publishing scientific papers for several years, with the last paper she co-authored in 2016 being retracted by Oxford University Press “due to the discovery of significant errors relating to methods and presentation of results”. Cahill has instead focused on politics. She is currently the chairperson of the fringe political party known as the ‘Irish Freedom Party’. The far-right party’s platform revolves around support for ‘Irexit’; the idea that Ireland should follow the UK in leaving the EU. Cahill’s ‘Which Candidate’ profile lists one of her main priorities as being “to stop Political Correctness being used to intimidate people from speaking the truth.” The party is yet to win a seat in an election. 

The Irish Freedom Party arose from a meeting in the RDS which was addressed by conservative brexiteer Nigel Farage. Party leader Hermann Kelly has repeatedly warned about the ‘Great Replacement’, a xenophobic conspiracy theory which claims that people are being intentionally replaced by immigrants. According to the New York Times, this ‘theory’ was cited by the shooters in both the El Paso and New Zealand mass shootings. Kelly also achieved widespread disdain in 2007 when he wrote a book which claimed that Magdalene Asylum victim Kathy O’Beirne had lied about her experiences

I mention these political affiliations only because they may be relevant to the claims Cahill has made surrounding the virus. It is important to remember when reading her claims, that far-right parties around the world have been opposing lockdowns on the basis that the ‘nanny-state’ is unjustly depriving people of their freedom. It is also important to remember that such governments, like those in the US, Brazil and Russia, have proven far less capable of slowing the spread of the disease, since they generally prioritise the health of the economy over the health of their citizens.

So, What Did Cahill Actually Say? 

Straight off the bat, Dolores came in hot with the claim: “There should be a lot of hope that this virus isn’t as dangerous as it has been shown to be, and also there’s major issues like the media are reporting the number of cases, when actually someone who has had the virus (like me, I had this virus in January and February), your immune system clears it after 10 days and then you are immune for life. So, you’re not a case. You’re immune for life. And so that is very important because the way it has been done in the media is as if a case is something dangerous.”

Ok, so a lot to unpack there already. First thing to say is that there is no evidence that someone who has had the virus is immune for life. To use the WHO’s words, “There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection”. Our best guess, which is based on knowledge of other coronaviruses, is that someone who has been infected may be immune for a few months to 2 years, but that is very much still an unproven estimate. It all depends on the rate of mutation and the type of mutations which occur. 

When the media report the number of cases, they are not reporting the number of immune people. They are reporting the number of infected people. Whether or not those people will become immune after clearing the virus is unclear, but what is certain is that those people are likely to be infectious, and that their lives are at risk, particularly if they are elderly or have underlying conditions. So yes, a case is something dangerous. The media did not invent the approximately 400,000 people who have died globally at the time of writing. 

Cahill goes straight on to say: “we can see that in Ireland, as globally, half of the people who die are over 80 and that children and anyone under 50, unless they have chronic conditions like cystic fibrosis they will have no issue. So, what I am saying is there is no need for the lockdown and that we could actually all go back to work.”

The lockdown is indeed necessary. We all know already that elderly people are more vulnerable to this virus. In the absence of a lockdown, the virus would have spread through the population like wildfire, with low-risk people acting as a stepping-stone for the virus to reach vulnerable people like the elderly and those with underlying conditions. Our best shot at avoiding the mass deaths of vulnerable people, like we saw in Italy and now the US, was to stop the virus in its tracks. According to the vast majority of experts, the best way to do that was a lockdown.

Many people have made the mistake of thinking that because the virus has not been quite as catastrophic as predicted for Ireland, that the lockdown was thus unnecessary. This fails to take into account the cause-and-effect relationship between the strength of the lockdown and the severity of the outbreak. Had we failed to lock the country down, things could have gone much, much worse. It is like landing an airplane, then saying ‘well, it turns out we didn’t need the pilots after all because we landed safely’. If the pilots had not been present, then the outcome would have been drastically different. 

Over 1,000 academics and scientists have now called on the government to revisit its stance on the lockdown, suggesting that the restrictions should continue until the virus is eliminated. 

Other claims made by Cahill include that between 7 and 15% of Irish people were already immune to COVID-19 before the current pandemic began. She claims this on the basis that people have developed immunity to diseases like the 2003 SARS outbreak or subsequent MERS outbreak. This is simply false. Based on her wording, it seems that Cahill is claiming that 7-15% of people worldwide have SARS and MERS antibodies, and then extrapolating to Ireland. WHO records show that between 1st November 2002 and 7th of August 2003, during the height of the outbreak, only 1 person in the Republic of Ireland contracted SARS. No cases of MERS have ever been reported in Ireland. It is extremely unclear, then, how between 343,000 and 735,000 Irish people could have developed immunity to these diseases as Cahill claims.

Cahill even claims that “practically everyone in the world” is immune to SARS, a claim which Health Feedback calls “baseless, […] as the vast majority of the world’s population has not been exposed to the SARS virus and therefore cannot have developed immunity to the virus.” Further, while it is possible that immunity to SARS could to some extent protect people from developing the more severe symptoms of COVID-19, these antibodies are likely to be localised around east Asia where SARS actually took hold. Moreover, we have yet to prove that SARS antibodies actually provide significant protection against COVID-19. There is preliminary evidence that this kind of ‘cross-reactive immunity’ can also occur in people who have had related coronaviruses like some of the viruses we call the ‘common cold’, but the jury is still out on that too. 

Cahill also claims that if we had quarantined people with underlying conditions and people over 80, then told them to take vitamins C and D and zinc for a few weeks, there would have been “no deaths”. According to Health Feedback, vitamin C has been shown to reduce the risk of respiratory infection, “but this effect has been observed only in individuals experiencing severe physical stress, such as marathon runners, and not in the general community”. 

It is also true that vitamin D protects against respiratory infection, but this is likely to only be the case if you already have a vitamin D deficiency. A significant amount of people do have such a vitamin D deficiency, so taking supplements (or getting more sun) can’t hurt. It would not, however, stop the virus dead in its tracks as Cahill claims. A recent study has found that vitamin K helps to protect against COVID-19 specifically, but again only if you already have a vitamin K deficiency

Cahill also claims that wearing face masks can lead to hypoxia which weakens the immune response. In other words, she is saying that the decreased amount of oxygen you inhale makes you less able to fight off the virus. Again, this has been thoroughly debunked. The use of masks does not result in hypoxia in healthy people, nor does it weaken the immune response. It is recommended that masks are not used on children under 2 with respiratory problems, but that is it. 

Enter Judy Mikovitz

Cahill cites an American scientist named Judy Mikovitz as one of her heroes. Mikovitz came under significant fire in 2011, when a ‘breakthrough’ study she had conducted on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) fell apart under scrutiny. The results Mikovitz found could not be replicated by other researchers, leading many to believe that there had been a contamination. Mikovitz has been in the news more recently for attacking US disease expert Anthony Fauci and claiming that face masks ‘activate’ COVID-19. Sound familiar? 

It may seem strange that Professor Cahill’s hero is a researcher who was not well-known in the scientific community prior to her breakthrough study being discredited. Mikovitz, however, has become a martyr for the ‘anti-vax’ movement and has called for an immediate moratorium on all vaccines. Mikovitz has also recently repeated the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 did not naturally jump from animals to humans; a theory that has been extensively debunked in the scientific literature. 

Both Mikovitz and Cahill are public supporters of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, despite some initial studies suggesting that it could, in some cases, be fatal to patients. In the interview, Cahill claims that hydroxychloroquine is the “most efficient treatment” and that there is an “oversupply” of the drug globally. While it remains somewhat unclear whether the drug will prove to be effective, we categorically do not have an ‘oversupply’ of it, with malaria running rampant across Africa. A study published in the journal Medicine in Drug Discovery in March states that “clinically justified or not, the current shortage for HCQ [hydroxychloroquine] is acute”.

The studies which came out in May claiming that the use of hydroxychloroquine in COVID-19 patients could increase fatalities were based on data from a small company called Surgisphere. This data is now coming under serious fire, with respected medical journal The Lancet retracting the study. According to The Guardian, Surgisphere has only 6 people in their employ; one of whom is a science fiction writer. The fact that this dataset may be unreliable, however, does not mean that the drug is in fact safe. A subsequent study, which has been hailed as relying on solid data and having a good methodology, found that hydroxychloroquine was “no better than a placebo”. I am not saying that hydroxychloroquine definitely does not work, but only that it is too early to say. 

The interview becomes more political towards the end, with Cahill calling for an inquiry into both RTÉ and the government for presenting the data in a misleading way. She claims that the media and politicians have been “using this as a fearmongering propaganda tool to try and take away rights from people and to make them more sick and to force vaccinations on us”. To respond strongly to a disease that has killed 400,000 people (that we know of) is not fearmongering, it is responsible leadership.

Another of Cahill’s claims is that people who have received a flu vaccine suffer a cytokine storm and more severe symptoms when exposed to COVID-19. This already debunked idea comes straight from the mouth of Judy Mikovitz. Mikovitz put forward the idea in a video called ‘Plandemic’ which has been heavily criticised for containing misinformation. Cytokine storms are an overreaction of the immune system to an infection. They can indeed be a complication of COVID-19 but have in no way been connected to flu vaccines. 

I hope that this information will go some way towards equipping people to refute the claims made by Cahill. Before being removed from YouTube and Facebook for containing misinformation, the video had been viewed over a million times, and it is still available online if you know where to look. These dangerously misleading claims will surely be repeated countless times, with Professor Cahill being cited as the seemingly reliable source. 

The truth is that a university professor with such an impressive background should be a reliable source for information at a time like this. If Cahill has simply made a great number of honest mistakes, then she should have done her research. If, and this is more likely in my view, she made these claims to further her political agenda, the university should investigate Cahill and consider relieving her of her position as a professor in the School of Medicine. 

Prof Cahill was contacted by The College Tribune for a comment but has not responded by the time of publishing. 

Carbon Neutral Lent: Week 1 – Food

Ireland’s carbon footprint is an unusual one. At 34% of the total national emissions, agriculture has a greater impact on our emissions profile than any other European country. For comparison, waste (which includes the footprint of all our plastic) is responsible for just 1.5% of our emissions. Even so, it seems like businesses and well-meaning citizens are far more concerned with ditching plastic straws than they are with reducing the footprint of the foods that we eat.

Welcome to the first week of Carbon Neutral Lent! The pancakes are gone, which means the time has come for spreadsheets. This week we will be looking at the messy and complicated topic of the carbon footprint of food. Don’t forget to head over to the CNL landing page to download the tracker spreadsheet which will allow you to estimate your carbon ‘foodprint’ at the end of each week by asking you one simple question! Also, come on down to our event in the Landmark pub in Dublin on the 3rd of March, where CNL founder Darragh Wynne will be joined by a variety of guests to talk about the carbon footprint of food. Come for the information, stay for the music!

Ireland’s carbon footprint is an unusual one. At 34% of the total national emissions, agriculture has a greater impact on our emissions profile than any other European country. For comparison, waste (which includes the footprint of all our plastic) is responsible for just 1.5% of our emissions. Even so, it seems like businesses and well-meaning citizens are far more concerned with ditching plastic straws than they are with reducing the footprint of the foods that we eat.

Our unusually high agricultural footprint is not, however, necessarily a result of our eating habits. It is because we make our money producing extremely high-carbon foods and then exporting them to other countries. To be precise, it is because we produce a whole lot of beef and dairy. Dairy cow numbers increased in Ireland by 27% between 2013 and 2018, in large part due to the removal of the milk quota in 2015.

This goes to show that the types of food we grow and eat can have a massive effect on our emissions. A kilogram of locally grown, in season carrots comes in at 0.25 kgs of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). The same weight of beef is a whopping 17kg CO2e. In other words, pound for pound, beef produces 68 times more carbon than locally grown carrots.

Of course, the comparison is not so simple as this. A kilogram of beef contains about 5 times more calories and about 25 times more protein than a kilogram of carrots. Still, 5 times the calories for 68 times the carbon is a monster trade-off. Getting 1 calorie from beef produces around 14 times more carbon than one calorie from a carrot. Plus, carrots contain far more fiber and carbohydrates and far less fat than beef.

As for protein, how much you need depends on how much you weigh and how active you are. The rule for a sedentary person is that you need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. As a 70 kilo man, I would need 56 grams of protein per day. Conveniently, that is exactly the average recommended intake for a sedentary man. That’s about 3.2 Tesco beef burgers of 84 grams each.

Alternatively, you could get that protein from non-animal sources for a fraction of the carbon price. Quorn burgers, for example, contain 18g of protein per hundred grams. In other words, I’d need 3.7 Quorn burgers of 84 grams each to get my daily dose of protein. What’s more, the carbon footprint would be reduced by 90%!

Quorn is far from being the only low-carbon source of protein. We get protein from almost everything we eat. 100 grams of chickpeas, for example will give you 20 grams of protein. Soybeans are also a great source, with 100 grams containing 16.6 grams of protein.  It is easy to see how, over the course of a day, we can take in as much protein as we need without the help of meat.

It is important to note, however, that the recommended protein intake for someone who partakes in a strenuous physical activity like weight lifting or endurance running is considerably higher. Nearly twice as high, in fact, with strength and endurance athletes recommended to take in 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. If I were to spend all day in the gym, then, I would need 119 grams of protein per day. For active people such as this, protein shakes can provide the rest of the daily protein that you are not getting from food. Plus, there are vegan options available!

That brings us nicely to the question of how much better veganism is for the environment than vegetarianism. One study found that you can cut 1.82 kilograms of CO2e per day by switching from a medium-meat diet to a vegetarian one. The same study found that switching from a vegetarian to a vegan diet would save nearly a kilogram more carbon per day. In other words, going vegan is a fair bit better for emissions.

Cheese is the third highest-emissions food after beef and lamb. That’s right, a kilo of cheese produces more emissions than a kilo of pork or chicken, although it must be said that cheese is usually eaten in much smaller quantities. Vegan food also uses less land and water to produce than eggs and dairy, further reducing a vegan’s impact on the environment. Whether or not food comes from animals is perhaps the best indicator of how high-carbon it will be. If you hadn’t guessed, animal products are almost always worse. But why is meat so bad for the environment?

The simple answer is that growing crops and eating them is a far more efficient process than raising animals for food. That is because you have to grow a lot of crops to feed to the animals while they grow big enough for slaughter. It uses much less land and water and produces far fewer emissions to cut out the middleman and go straight to the source of the nutrition; the plants.

Plants build their bodies using carbon they take from the air, water they take from the ground and energy they take from the sun. They don’t need to move, digest food, pump blood around their bodies or keep themselves warm and that saves them a lot of energy.

Animals, on the other hand, burn up most of the energy they take in from plants by walking around, breathing and keeping warm. If you feed a cow 100 calories in the form of grain, only 3% of those calories will be returned in the meat. That means that you have to feed them a whole lot more over their lifetime than you will get back in the end.

In the case of ‘ruminant’ animals like cattle and sheep, there is the added problem of methane. Ruminants are hoofed mammals that have a 4-chambered stomach, one of which is called the rumen. Microbes break down the ruminant’s food in a process known as ‘enteric fermentation’, which produces a lot of methane. To be precise, it produces 30% of all anthropogenic methane emissions.

Water use is another major consideration, with a 2003 study finding that “Producing 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein”. I worked out for a previous article that eating a pound of beef wastes about as much water as leaving your shower on for about 15 hours.

Eating plants is not just low-carbon. It is also gives a much higher yield per hectare than producing meat. In a much-cited study from 2013, Emily Cassidy et al. found that “given the current mix of crop uses, growing food exclusively for direct human consumption could, in principle, increase available food calories by as much as 70%, which could feed an additional 4 billion people”.

In other words, if it were not for the fact that we waste plant nutrition by feeding it to livestock, the population could grow to 10 billion by 2050 (as projected) and we could still feed every person on earth with ease. According to the same study, “36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are being used for animal feed, and only 12% of those feed calories ultimately contribute to the human diet”. That is a huge amount of waste considering how many people do not have enough to eat.

That brings us very neatly to the incredibly important topic of food waste. In Ireland, over a million tonnes of food are wasted each year. The excellent Climate Queens podcast figured out that that’s enough to fill Croke Park with food waste twice each year. Globally, one third of all food produced goes to waste. That is more than enough to feed the roughly 11% of people in the world who are chronically malnourished.

If food waste were a country, it would have the third highest emissions of any country on earth after the US and China. That is because approximately 10% of all carbon emissions globally come from food waste, costing the world about €550 billion per year.

Food waste is a win-win area in which we can both seriously cut emissions and increase the total food available for consumption. Try keeping a journal of which foods you are throwing out. If you find that you are regularly throwing out half a tub of coleslaw, for example, you can start buying a smaller tub. It really is that simple!

There is so much more we could say about the carbon footprint of food. I haven’t even touched on the emissions from fertilizers, how different types of feed affect the emissions profile of livestock or the very important topic of animal cruelty in agriculture.

If you take two things away from this piece, however, let them be that
a) you should cut down on meat and dairy as much as possible and
b) you should eat the food that you buy.

If we all made these two simple rules a priority when it comes to which food we choose to buy, we could massively cut emissions of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide. In the process, we would also increase the land available for crop production, forests, wetlands and renewable energy projects. Plus, we would save a whole lot of money and water.

What are you waiting for?

For Peat’s Sake: Bogs, Bord na Móna and the Climate

Bogs and Irish culture have been intimately linked for centuries, cropping up in everything from our traditional songs to the work of our most beloved poets. They have provided us with energy, clean water, jobs and a home for our wildlife. Globally, degraded peatlands account for a quarter of all carbon emissions from the land-use sector despite covering only 3% of the land. They also contain 30% of the world’s soil carbon; that’s twice as much carbon as is stored in all the world’s forests. It is estimated that more than 80% of Irish peatlands have been damaged in some way.

My skull hibernated
in the wet nest of my hair.

Which they robbed.
I was barbered
and stripped
by a turfcutter’s spade

who veiled me again
and packed coomb softly
between the stone jambs
at my head and my feet.

-Seamus Heaney

Abbeyleix bog in Co. Laois is a rare example of a bog that has not been utterly destroyed by industrial peat extraction. Many of the peatlands I saw from my window on the bus down here were not so lucky. The barren and lifeless landscape of bogs that have been stripped bare is a common sight in the Irish midlands, and it is becoming more common every day. Abbeyleix very nearly met the same fate back in 2000. If it were not for the dedication and quick thinking of the community, the thousands of species in the bog would be homeless and hundreds of thousands of tonnes more carbon would be in the atmosphere instead of in the ground where it belongs. 

Bogs and Irish culture have been intimately linked for centuries, cropping up in everything from our traditional songs to the work of our most beloved poets. They have provided us with energy, clean water, jobs and a home for our wildlife. Globally, degraded peatlands account for a quarter of all carbon emissions from the land-use sector despite covering only 3% of the land. They also contain 30% of the world’s soil carbon; that’s twice as much carbon as is stored in all the world’s forests. It is estimated that more than 80% of Irish peatlands have been damaged in some way.

Peat forms because the water-logged and acidic conditions of a bog significantly slow the decomposition of bog mosses, also called sphagnum, causing a build-up of organic matter. Emissions from peatlands don’t just come from the burning of the peat; they also come from drainage. When the level of water in a bog (known as the water table) is reduced, this exposes more of the peat to the air. In this dry, oxygen-rich environment, the peat decomposes, releasing all that carbon back into the atmosphere.

Despite owning only 7% of Irish peatlands, the organisation primarily responsible for the industrial extraction of Irish peat is Bord na Móna, a semi-state company which was set up by the government in 1934 under the name ‘the Turf Development Board’. Since the inception of Bord na Móna proper in 1946, the company has been responsible for the development of 80,000 hectares of Irish bogs. Back in 2016, Bord na Móna rebranded themselves with the slogan ‘Naturally Driven’ and tried to position themselves as environmental stewards. The journalist John Gibbons called this campaign “profoundly, irredeemably dishonest” and “an exercise in cynicism”. He also quoted An Taisce as saying “We suggest they drop their new ‘Naturally Driven’ slogan and replace it with the phrase ‘Profit Driven’. Then Bord na Móna would at least be able to sell its business plan with a straight face”.

Abbeyleix bog had been owned by the De Vesci family since the early 1700s. In 1987, Tom De Vesci, who had previously attempted to have the bog designated as a heritage site, was coerced by Bord na Móna into selling the bog. “I was approached many times by Bord na Móna to sell it after my father died in 1983 and I always refused” Tom said in an interview. “But eventually I was informed that Bord na Móna would be taking ownership via a compulsory purchase order at a somewhat lower level of compensation than I would get if I sold it ‘voluntarily’ a few weeks earlier”. In 1989, Bord na Móna cut 66km of drains into the bog in preparation for future peat harvesting.

On Thursday, 20th of July 2000, Chris Uys, a member of the Heritage Company and now development officer for the Community Wetlands Forum, met with Jimmy Dooley of Bord na Móna to discuss plans for a walkway through the bog and to inform Jimmy of concerns regarding its development. The following day, locals noticed unfamiliar pieces of machinery on the bog, which had been delivered to the site by Bord na Móna overnight. Chris Uys raised the alarm in the community that development of the bog was about to begin. That Sunday, local resident Gary O’Keeffe parked a crane in the entrance to the bog under the guise that it had broken down during a bird-watching session in order to keep the rest of the machines out of the bog. By Monday morning, at least 50 people had gathered at the entrance to protest the development, with numbers swelling to around 100 by lunchtime.

After much pressure from the community, Bord na Móna finally agreed to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in April of 2001. They found that the Abbeyleix site was of “little or no conservation value”, an assessment which both the Abbeyleix community and the Irish Peatlands Conservation Council (IPCC) considered “incomplete and inaccurate”. An ecologist by the name of Doug McMillan was invited to carry out an independent assessment of the bog. Having only surveyed 20% of the land, Doug had already found over 500 species, and could reasonably conclude that the bog was home to thousands of species, including a butterfly which was protected by the EU. If Bord na Móna really had carried out an EIA, they had either done a poor job or they had lied about the results.

In 2002, An Bord Pleanála found that Abbeyleix bog was not exempted from the requirement for planning permission. This was the first time in Irish history that a peat development went through the planning permission process. Bord na Móna, in true form, took high court action against both the Laois County Council and An Bord Pleanála. In 2008, an ecologist by the name of Jim Ryan carried out another survey, finding that only 1% of the raised bog was still intact and forming peat. I am stunned when Chris tells me that, like in Abbeyleix, only 1% of active raised bog in the country remains. In other words, we have degraded 99% of carbon-rich raised bog nationwide through drainage and peat extraction. In April of 2009, more than 20 years after they were cut, work began to block the drains in Abbeyleix. In April of 2012, the Abbeyleix community signed a lease agreement which meant that the bog would be in their control for the next 50 years, provided that it was primarily used for habitat restoration. David had beaten Goliath.

I met with Chris Uys in the lobby of the picturesque ‘Abbeyleix Manor Hotel’ on the outskirts of the bog. He has brought with him a textbook on peatlands and a folder packed to the brim with documents. When I ask him why peatlands are so important for biodiversity, he tells me that “the interesting thing about the biodiversity in peatlands is that the combination of plants and… the way they interact has a wider role to play than just purely the biodiversity that is there because it helps to retain water content, it has to do with carbon sequestration, and it supports other ecosystems”. He tells me that bogs are very important for breeding birds and that they link different ecosystems together like a natural corridor.

A walk through Abbeyleix bog feels like a walk through the history of this country. There is a calm here that soothes your aching bones like a hot bath. This is what is known rather robotically as a ‘cultural service’; one of many ‘ecosystem services’ provided by bogs like Abbeyleix. These somewhat stomach-churning terms are used by some environmentalists as an attempt to reframe the ecological crisis we have caused in the parlance of capitalism and thus convince business and industry to act. Gazing out over the endless beauty of this ancient landscape, I can’t help but think that it is downright insane to try and put a price on something that existed for so very long before our self-centred species ever dreamed up the concept of money.

Back in 1997, peat fires forced both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to close their airports for several days. The peat in question was burning over 1,000km away in Indonesia. Scientists have estimated that the CO2 released during this one fire was equivalent to 13-40% of the mean annual global emissions from fossil fuels. The carbon is not the only issue; the vast quantities of smoke released by the fire had serious effects on health, with studies showing decreased lung function in children who were present during the event. According to a study in Archives of Environmental Health, 527 people died in 2 months as a result of the smoke, with 58,000 cases of bronchitis and 1 and a half million cases of acute respiratory infection reported.  Fires like this have happened periodically over the last few decades, with one 2010 event in Russia leading to carbon monoxide levels in the capital that were 6 times the maximum acceptable level.

To the Irish, this all may seem like a distant threat, but were the Wicklow bogs to catch fire, the prevailing wind would carry all that lethal smoke right into the heart of Dublin. John Reilly, the head of the renewable energy branch of Bord na Mona, told me in an interview that “the biggest risk of wildfires is not posed by active peat production areas on drained peatlands, but rather the risk is high on virgin peatlands which are generally covered in vegetation such as gorse and heather”. He said that the major concern when it comes to fires was actually stockpiles of cut peat.

DCU-based peatlands expert John Connolly tells a slightly different story. “In one way he is right that the risk of fire (i.e. fire starting) on a drained industrial peatland may be less if all vegetation is removed. However, a lightning strike could start a fire and in that case drained peatlands are much more vulnerable than virgin (i.e. wet) peatlands”. Dr Connolly sent me a link to a 2016 study in ‘Nature’ which states that “the high burn severity of drained tropical/temperate peatland fires suggests that large-scale peatland drainage and mining in northern peatlands over the last century has also likely made managed northern peatlands more vulnerable to wildfire than natural (undrained) peatlands”. While there is an element of truth in what John Reilly told me, then, it seems that it was not the whole truth.

In 2006, an area of dried and cut peat the same size as Abbeyleix bog caught fire in the Irish midlands, leading to the evacuation of several Longford residents. While it was the stockpiles that caught fire rather than a bog itself, the incident shows how damaging peat fires can be. Smoke from the fire travelled 10 miles north. One Rooskey resident who had suffered from respiratory problems in the past was quoted in the Irish Times as saying “at the moment I am closing my windows and hope that will be enough”. A 2002 study of the Indonesian haze disaster, however, suggests that staying indoors only gets you so far in a situation like this.

They found that indoor concentrations of particulate matter were about half of what they were outside. That was a form of particulate matter known as PM10 because the individual particles are 10 micrometers or smaller in diameter. They could not find any difference, however, in the concentrations of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, which are particles 2.5 micrometers or less. The researchers said that “perhaps the size of particulates was so small as to travel and intrude into any space; the concentration of pollutants was extremely high, and the indoor environments of buildings in Indonesia were rarely exempt from these pollutants”.

When asked about Mr Reilly’s claim that the presence of vegetation increases the risk of wildfires, Chris Uys replies that “from that point of view yes, that is so. But if you are talking degraded peatlands, degraded means that you have dried. For me, there is a higher risk… when the peat below the surface is dry and there is an ignition of anything above, it starts to smoulder underground as well”. Chris tells me that Abbeyleix has suffered from this very problem; “we had a fire at one stage, and you could just see smoke. On nearer investigation it was actually starting to simmer underground. It just keeps going”. While vegetation fires on the surface are manageable, the dried peat below can keep burning for a very long time and release a lot of carbon before it is extinguished.

Thankfully, Bord na Móna have been trying to get out of the peat business for over a decade, with over half of their revenue coming from non-peat-related activities in 2019. John Reilly, who has been doing excellent work building renewable energy infrastructure with the company, tells me that “Bord na Móna developed the first commercial wind farm in Ireland back in 1992, on a joint venture basis with the ESB, so we have some considerable experience in the sector”. They also announced last year that they were closing 17 of their active bogs, with the remaining 45 bogs to be closed within 7 years. However, some have said that this amounts to greenwashing, since the planned closures are of bogs that have been exhausted and are no longer profitable. As UCD peatlands expert Dr Florence Renou-Wilson put it in an interview with the Guardian, ““It’s a bit of a smokescreen. It’s all revenue-driven… they’re are all done and dusted”.

Bord na Móna is not the only company extracting Irish peat, though it is the largest. A company called Harte Peat has come under fire recently for carrying out large-scale peat extraction without a license in the Derrycrave bog in Westmeath. Photos released last year by ‘Friends of the Irish Environment’ showed that Harte had been cutting the peat right down to the mineral layer below, leaving almost no possibility of recovery. Peat that had formed at a rate of about 1 millimetre a year until it was several meters thick was stripped down to the bone in the geological blink of an eye, depriving animals of their homes and future humans of their right to security. This tragedy has played out countless times across the country over generations, leaving us with little more than a silhouette of the beautiful and important landscapes which once dominated the Irish midlands.

The degradation of Ireland’s peatlands doesn’t just threaten our health, it also threatens our wallets. New regulations require that we start reporting the emissions from our peatlands to the EU from 2021. Ireland is already facing hundreds of millions of euro in fines for failing to meet our emissions targets and this will bring us further off target. Chris tells me that “We were fined 150 million for this already… and we’re gonna be fined again until these people stop… Bord na Móna don’t get fined. It’s the government that gets fined. They merrily go on. They can go on for another 30 years if the government allow them. But we get that fine”.

When asked to what extent Ireland will be able to cope with these changes to EU law, Dr Connolly tells me that “the government and the EPA have made some investments in funding research and research infrastructure over the past few years. These investments will allow scientists to provide some of the detail that is required in the legislation, however much more investment is needed in research, infrastructure and rewetting/restoration as peatlands in Ireland are severely degraded and emissions are unknown in many areas”. But does this mean more fines for the Irish government? “It depends. If peatland emissions can be reduced to zero by the start of the 2026 reporting period, then no. However, current emissions are estimated to be about 11 million tonnes of CO2 … The reduction of these emissions to zero over the next six years will be very challenging.”

I ask Chris if Abbeyleix bog became a net source of emissions following the drainage and, if so, if it is back to being a net sink. “Possibly we are not a net sink yet… the higher the water level the less carbon emissions,” he tells me. “Then it gets to a point where it changes and it starts to give out methane emissions. There is a sweet spot where you have the least emissions. The other problem with degraded peatlands is that if you don’t have vegetation formation, (sphagnum), then it does not negate the methane”. The blocking of the drains has not been in vain, however. Whereas only 1% of the active raised bog remained in 2009, Chris reckons that as much as 10-15% has recovered in the intervening decade.

It takes time for peatlands to regenerate; all the more reason to block as many drains as we can as soon as we can. The light is beginning to fade from the grey clouds overhead as I slip and slide across the wet wooden walkways. The first few drops of rain begin to fall once more on the mounds and ditches of Abbeyleix. This beautiful landscape serves as both a cautionary tale and a beacon of hope. It showcases the terrible consequences of degrading our bogs, but is also a reminder that with elbow-grease, dedication and time we can undo some of the wrongs we have inflicted on the natural world.

Short Change: Artificial Visionaries

Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland are investigating the possibility of partially restoring sight to the blind by using a device known as an optic nerve implant (ONI). The device works by bypassing the eyeball and sending electrical signals directly to the optic nerve, the pathway through which visual information reaches the brain.

First published in UCD College Tribune

Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland are investigating the possibility of partially restoring sight to the blind by using a device known as an optic nerve implant (ONI). The vision created by these ‘bionic eyes’ is known as artificial vision. The device works by bypassing the eyeball and sending electrical signals directly to the optic nerve, the pathway through which visual information reaches the brain. 

For cases in which this pathway is itself damaged, a device can be implanted directly into the visual cortex. One such implant, known as ‘Orion’, was recently used with great success to restore partial vision to 6 people who had been completely blind for a number of years. However, this surgery is quite risky. ONIs allow people with damaged eyes to recover sight without the need for invasive brain surgery. Macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa are examples of ocular afflictions that can be treated in this way.

The researchers at EPFL have shown that ONIs can produce specific and unique responses in the brain. This means that the artificial vision produced by the implant can theoretically inform the user about things like the location and movement of objects. When you close your eyes and put pressure on your eyelids, the flash of light that you see is known as a ‘phosphene’. In other words, phosphenes are the sensation of seeing light without any light actually entering the eye. This is roughly what artificial vision looks like, so people must undergo training in order to interpret what they are seeing. 

The WHO estimate that around 2.2 billion people worldwide suffer from some sort of vision impairment or blindness. That’s about 1 in every 3 and a half people on earth. It is easy to see how this technology could have a truly positive impact on the lives of countless real people. EPFL’s Diego Ghezzi has recently said that “from a purely technological perspective, we could do clinical trials tomorrow”. 

The New Frontier: Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

Every minute, the equivalent of a truckload of plastic enters the sea. Since 2004, humans have produced more plastic than we did in the previous 50 years combined. As the global population rises, our need for cheap and sturdy materials rises with it. The problem with plastics is that they are too sturdy. Every piece of plastic ever produced still exists somewhere in the world. Once the plastic has finally disintegrated, that is by no means the end of the problem. Plastics in the ocean break down into tiny particles known as microplastics. Such particles are found throughout marine ecosystems; from the stomachs of fish, to the stomachs of the seabirds who eat them.

Every minute, the equivalent of a truckload of plastic enters the sea. Since 2004, humans have produced more plastic than we did in the previous 50 years combined. As the global population rises, our need for cheap and sturdy materials rises with it. The problem with plastics is that they are too sturdy. Every piece of plastic ever produced still exists somewhere in the world. Once the plastic has finally disintegrated, that is by no means the end of the problem. Plastics in the ocean break down into tiny particles known as microplastics. Such particles are found throughout marine ecosystems; from the stomachs of fish, to the stomachs of the seabirds who eat them.

Microplastics are not only dangerous, but also extremely difficult to clean up since they are spread out by currents all across the sea. In order to be classified as a microplastic, a piece of plastic debris must be roughly the size of your little fingernail or smaller. There are over 320 million cubic miles of water in the world’s oceans. For a sense of scale, you could fit roughly 320 million cars into a single cubic mile. Scientists have estimated that there are up to 50 trillion pieces of microplastics in the oceans. Given these figures, to say that removing microplastics from the ocean is no easy task would be the understatement of the century.

The reason that high levels of plastic in the ocean are problematic is that plastics have serious detrimental effects on the health of almost all ocean life. Over 800 species of animals have so far been shown to be negatively affected by plastic pollution. Considering that number was closer to 600 in 2012, it is safe to assume that the figure will continue to rise dramatically in the coming years. What’s more, almost 20% of the animals shown to be affected by plastic pollution are already classified as endangered due to human activity. There are two major ways in which plastics can harm or kill marine life. First, they can be ingested. When marine animals ingest plastic, the pieces can remain in their stomachs for the rest of their lives. As the amount of plastic increases, the space remaining in the stomach decreases, causing the animal to starve. In addition to this, most plastics are toxic to animal life, causing conditions like cancer and birth defects. Second, marine animals can become entangled in the plastic. If this happens at a young age, the plastic can restrict the growth of the animal, causing them to become severely deformed. This is seen most often in sea turtles. The worst offenders when it comes to entanglement are pieces of discarded fishing gear.

The phenomenon of marine life being caught by gear that has been abandoned by fishermen is known as ‘ghost fishing‘. Nets, hooks, lines, and cages continue to catch and kill fish long after the fishermen have stopped using them. Roughly 30% of all fish that are caught by humans are caught in ghost fishing gear. When you consider the sheer scale of human fishing, this percentage is astonishingly high. Leaving plastic fishing gear in the ocean, plastic or otherwise, is both short-sighted and despicable. Fishing gear is specially designed to kill as much marine life as it can. When it is under the control of a fisherman, protected marine life like whales and sea turtles can be avoided or released. Even so, fishing of any sort is devastating to endangered species. When the gear is abandoned, however, there is no targeting of species, leading to indiscriminate destruction of marine habitats.

There have been a lot of stories in the news recently about how companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks are ditching plastic straws. While this is a step in the right direction, straws only account for roughly 1% of the plastic debris in the ocean. In order to make a real difference, the companies would have to stop using plastic straws, containers, bags, cups, lids and everything else. This is a perfect example of what’s known as corporate ‘greenwashing’. If the public perception of a company is that they are trying their best to reduce the environmental damage they are causing, less people will boycott the company’s products, leading to higher revenue. Because of this, companies make the calculated decision to sacrifice a small portion of their profits in order to further their public personas as stewards of the environment. This is not to say that small steps forward like those taken by McDonald’s and the like are not helpful. Carlsberg have recently announced that they are ditching the plastic rings connecting cans in favour of glue dots. This is a positive development, since these connector rings have been shown to strangle and stunt the development of marine life and seabirds.

Plastic is not distributed evenly throughout the ocean. There are 5 major places, known as gyres, where currents have forced plastics to accumulate into huge expanses of debris. The largest of these gyres is called the great pacific garbage patch (GPGP) and contains about 2 trillion pieces of plastic. That’s 250 pieces of plastic for every human on earth in just one place. The GPGP is around the size of Texas and weighs about the same as 500 jumbo jets. The accumulation of plastic in gyres like the GPGP makes it somewhat easier to clean up oceanic plastic, but it is still a monumental challenge.

When he was just 17, Dutch aerospace engineering student Boyan Slat devised a huge U-shaped machine to clean up the GPGP that he believes could clear 50% of the plastic in just 5 years. The device uses ocean currents to move with the plastic, but since it is largely above the surface, it moves faster than the plastic, gathering it as it goes. It was deployed in the gyre in September of last year but was immediately faced with a slew of setbacks. The device was not travelling fast enough, allowing some of the plastic to escape, then a 60-foot section of the machine broke off, meaning that it had to be brought back to shore for repairs. Another issue with the device is that it cannot collect microplastics. However, it is important to gather up as many of the large pieces of plastic as we can now, since they will become microplastics in the future which will be much more difficult to clean up. We are in full damage control mode.

Despite valiant attempts to reduce our plastic consumption and remove the plastic we have already dumped in the ocean, it is highly unlikely that this problem will be solved any time soon. If anything, it will get much much worse. Humans have a history of showing up at a new location and decimating the native wildlife populations. When we first arrived in Australia, huge animals roamed the land. These included a 2-and-a-half-ton wombat, a flightless bird twice the size of an ostrich, and a predatory marsupial the size of a tiger. Within a few thousand years of humans showing up, 23 of the 24 animals that weighed over 50 kilograms had become extinct. We have spread all over the planet now, leaving only a few havens in which animals may thrive. The new frontier of animal extinction is marine life. Plastic pollution, overfishing and ghost fishing have devastated marine life and seabirds already, and the rate of destruction is only going to increase. All we can hope for is that people wake up to the genocide we are committing under the waves in time to save at least some of the majestic creatures who call the sea their home.

Gene Genie: The Scientist who Jumped the Gun on Gene Editing

Hence, geneticists worldwide have called for a moratorium on human germline trials. Critics say that gene editing technology has not yet been developed or tested sufficiently for use on human embryos. We simply do not yet know the long-term effects of genetic modification using CRISPR.

First published in the UCD College Tribune

In November of 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui made an announcement that astonished the scientific community. He claims to have helped to make the first ever gene-edited babies with the use of a revolutionary technology called CRISPR. The babies, twins by the names of Lulu and Nana, were born to a father infected with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS. If Dr He’s experiment is successful, the twins will have an immunity to the virus. While this may seem at face value to be a noble goal, many believe that the risks involved outweigh the benefits.

Dr He’s experiments used a type of editing called ‘germline’ editing, meaning that any children that Lulu and Nana may have in the future will also carry this immunity. Germline editing involves making changes to reproductive cells. This means that any changes made to the individual’s genome will be passed on from generation to generation. This can be distinguished from somatic editing, in which the only person affected by the edit is the person who undergoes the procedure.

One reason why somatic editing is seen as more acceptable than germline is that people who undergo somatic editing have given informed consent prior to the procedure. While the parents of Lulu and Nana have given consent, the children themselves and any future children the twins may conceive have not consented to the potentially high risks. While HIV immunity could potentially be inherited by the descendants of these CRISPR babies, so could a myriad of unwanted and possibly even deadly side-effects.

Another concern that has been raised is that it is not clear whether Dr He’s treatment fulfilled an ‘unmet medical need’. With modern HIV treatments, someone who is carrying the virus can have the same expected lifespan as someone who is not and their chance of transmitting the virus to their children can be brought down to just 5%. Hence, geneticists worldwide have called for a moratorium on human germline trials. Critics say that gene editing technology has not yet been developed or tested sufficiently for use on human embryos. We simply do not yet know the long-term effects of genetic modification using CRISPR.

Despite a myriad of imaginable ethical hazards, CRISPR has the potential to revolutionize the biomedical sciences. CRISPR allows biologists to edit genetic information by using an enzyme called Cas9, which has the ability to cut strands of DNA. The process was pioneered in bacteria as a defence mechanism against viruses. Geneticists use CRISPR to target specific areas of genetic code and cut it in a specified region. Cutting a strand of DNA in the right place can cause a certain gene to be disabled, activated or replaced by one introduced by scientists. The possible applications of CRISPR range from curing cancer to eliminating malaria from mosquitos. One team at Harvard led by Prof. George Church even famously claimed that they will be able to ostensibly resurrect the woolly mammoth in the next year or two using the technology.

Some scientists, including mammoth-man George Church, have come out in defence of He. While Church had reservations regarding He’s level of transparency, he suggested that enough studies had been carried out that maybe it was the right time to end the moratorium anyway. While he accepted the risk of off-target mutations, he said that the risk ‘may never be zero’ and that Dr He had done enough to minimise it. This contradicts the views of most scientists and institutions, including a statement released by Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health. Collins denounced He’s work, saying, among other things, that ‘the possibility of damaging off-target effects has not been satisfactorily explored’.

Genes are extremely complex things. Locating a single gene and modifying it requires an extraordinary level of precision and even when it is successfully targeted it is impossible to fully predict the consequences. Though we have been studying certain genes for a very long time, we still do not know what the indirect effects of certain edits may be as no long-term studies of how edits affect the human body have been carried out as of yet. Such unintended effects are known as ‘off-target mutations’.

The final concern is perhaps the most serious. While CRISPR may in the future be used to treat some forms of cancer, it is possible that premature germline editing like the kind He carried out may actually increase the risk of cancer in people like Lulu, Nana and their descendants. Two recent studies have raised concerns about an off-target effect that CRISPR may have on a gene for a protein known as the ‘guardian of the genome’: p53. This protein is responsible for repairing or destroying damaged DNA. A mutated or ineffective p53 gene has been shown to be responsible for nearly half of all ovarian cancers and a significant portion of many other types of cancer too. CRISPR interventions activate p53, since DNA has been cut and must be either repaired or destroyed and p53 undoes the work CRISPR has done. The worry is that this could result in a kind of artificial selection on the cellular level, as CRISPR is more successful in cells with ineffective copies of the p53 gene, which are more at risk of becoming cancer cells. So far, only certain forms of cells have shown evidence of raising the risk of cancer when modified using CRISPR and no company is attempting clinical trials using CRISPR on these cells. Some scientists have called the recent studies concerning p53 a ‘cautionary tale’ since they may affect future CRISPR trials that are yet to begin.

CRISPR is an incredible technology that will surely be responsible for many breakthroughs in biological and medical science. It may someday give us powers that we cannot even conceive of today. However, that time has not yet come. It is imperative that we do not jump the gun. Dangerous, premature experiments like Dr He’s harm the public perception of gene editing and, in turn, harm the funding available for important research. While we should not give up on gene editing, we should also not use it to play with human lives until we know more about the benefits and the risks.

Opting Out- The Future of Organ Donation

Despite both the effectiveness of the treatment and the general public support for organ donation, there is a persistent global shortage of transplantable organs. In recent years, governments and regulatory bodies have been exploring a variety of ways to decrease this shortage, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives. This article summarises the most significant regulatory and technological developments around the world and evaluates their effectiveness in increasing the availability of transplantable organs, focussing on the move from an ‘opt-in’ to an ‘opt-out’ system.

First Published in UCD College Tribune

Organ donation has long been considered an important and cost-effective treatment for a variety of conditions which lead to organ failure. For many patients suffering from such conditions, transplantation is the only chance for survival. Since 2010, approximately a million organs have been donated worldwide. Despite both the effectiveness of the treatment and the general public support for organ donation, there is a persistent global shortage of transplantable organs. In recent years, governments and regulatory bodies have been exploring a variety of ways to decrease this shortage, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

This article summarises the most significant regulatory and technological developments around the world and evaluates their effectiveness in increasing the availability of transplantable organs, focussing on the move from an ‘opt-in’ to an ‘opt-out’ system. The importance of informing the public on how states can legislate to increase the efficiency of their donation system cannot be underestimated in the fight to improve a system which saves countless lives but is capable of saving many more.

In an opt-in, or ‘informed consent’ system, organs cannot be harvested unless the donor has given explicit consent during their life. The presumption is that nobody has consented until we know otherwise. Countries which use this system include Ireland, America, the UK, Germany and Australia. Last year Ireland announced that it will join the long, and ever-growing, list of countries which use an opt-out system. By contrast, in an opt-out, or ‘presumed consent’ system, the presumption is that everyone has consented unless they have explicitly refused. Countries which use this system include Spain, Belgium, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Sweden and Turkey.

A highly regarded 2006 study in the Journal of Health Economics showed that countries with opt-out systems have donation rates 25-30% higher than those which require explicit consent. This makes perfect sense, especially considering evidence from the same study, which states that while 85% of US adults support organ donation, only 28% are registered donors. An opt-out system could bring those numbers much closer together.

The same pattern of widespread support for donation but low numbers of registered donors seen in the US appears around the globe. Busy lives and lack of motivation mean that many people who would consent if formally asked simply do not specify that they would like to donate, and this contributes to the shortage of transplantable organs. Would it not be better if inertia and busy lives resulted in more organs for transplantation rather than fewer?

Given that far more people support donation than not, an opt-out system also means that the presumption of the law is in line with the majority wish. A simple legislative shift has the power both to save lives and make the law more representative of how people actually feel about organ donation. Spain has been the world’s leader in organ donation for 25 years running by a significant margin. The most cited reason for this is their efficient opt-out system. Spain’s success can also be linked to better hospital protocols and the fact that they do not cap the age at which donor organs will be considered. High public awareness may also contribute to Spain’s edge over other opt-out countries.

Governments have also tried to increase the availability of organs by applying the ‘priority rule’, where people who are on the donation register are given priority when organs are being allocated. If there are two potential recipients who are in the same stage of organ failure, but only one of them is on the register, then that person will receive the organ first. The idea is that people will consent to donation on the basis that it will increase their chance of survival if they are ever in need of a transplant themselves.

While on the surface this tactic seems to appeal to self-interest, it can also be seen as a reminder of the hypocrisy of benefitting from a system to which you do not contribute. You cannot expect others to donate their organs to you if you refuse to donate your organs to others. This tactic for decreasing the shortage of transplantable organs has also proved, usually alongside an opt-out system, to be an effective tool for saving lives.

The final policy I address is controversial; in almost all organ donation systems worldwide, the family of the deceased has the power to veto the consent given by the deceased during their life. Even Spain gives families the power of veto, though high public awareness means that very few families actually do so. There is no reason, in my view, that families should be given this power. It is a violation of the donor’s autonomy and yet another obstacle between a potential recipient and the organs that could save their life. If my family has a problem with organ donation, they can choose not to donate their own organs, but what happens to my body is my call and mine alone.

According to UNOS, around 20 people die every day in the US alone due to a lack of transplantable organs. By making simple legislative changes like removing the family’s power to veto and introducing opt-out donation and the priority rule, they could in theory cut that number in half. This is not some elevated ethical debate to be discussed in classrooms. What legislators decide with respect to this issue has incalculable effects on normal people.

None of us know if and when we may require an organ transplant. We are all vulnerable to the dangers of disease, age and injury. By doing everything in our power to increase the number of organs available, not only do we save the lives of others, but we also ensure that if the time comes when we are in need ourselves, we can rest assured that there is an efficient and sensible system in place to save us.

The Powers that Bee: The Fight to Ban Neonics

Back in February, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released an updated report on the harmful effects of certain pesticides on a variety of bees. Confirming conclusions made in their 2013 report, the EFSA found a wealth of evidence supporting the claim that the world’s most popular pesticide group, neonicotinoids (or neonics for short) are harmful to both honeybees and bumblebees.

Updated 31/08/2019

Back in February of 2018, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released an updated report on the harmful effects of certain pesticides on a variety of bees. Confirming conclusions made in their 2013 report, the EFSA found a wealth of evidence supporting the claim that the world’s most popular pesticide group, neonicotinoids (or neonics for short) are harmful to both honeybees and bumblebees.

In April, following the EFSA’s findings, the EU put into place a complete ban on the use of neonics outdoors, expanding on the partial ban imposed in 2013 which prevented neonic use on certain crops. The move, which should see all European neonic use confined to greenhouses by the end of the year, was welcomed with open arms by environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides. This fight, however, is far from over.

Neonics are a relatively new kind of pesticide. The use of these ‘systemic’ pesticides only dates back about 20 years. According to the UK Pesticide Action Network, “Unlike contact pesticides, which remain on the surface of the treated foliage, systemics are taken up by the plant and transported to all the tissues”. This includes the pollen and nectar which bees collect to feed their colonies. Systemic pesticides have also been found to persist in soil, water, dust and even air long after the chemicals have been sprayed. An open letter written in April and signed by 242 esteemed scientists claimed that “the balance of evidence strongly suggests that these chemicals are harming beneficial insects and contributing to the current massive loss of global biodiversity”.

The use of toxic systemic pesticides, which has steadily grown in recent years, is not just problematic for bees. The WIA (Worldwide Integrated Assessment of the Impact of Systemic Pesticides on Biodiversity and Ecosystems (in case you’re wondering)) included a report on the impact of these pesticides on vertebrate populations. The report reviewed 150 studies and concluded that neonics were both directly and indirectly affecting terrestrial and aquatic vertebrate populations. Some birds, for example, are directly affected by ingesting seeds coated in toxic neonics.  Fish, too, have been found to be vulnerable.

While the report found that the amount of chemicals in the air were non-toxic to vertebrates at present, neonics are causing sub-lethal effects like stunting growth and reproductive success. Global populations of insect-eating birds, for example, are faced with a marked decrease in the amount of prey available to them. This is an example of an indirect harm caused by neonics. This food chain effect is incredibly important to consider. Bees are the ecological backbone of a vast number of ecosystems. A study published in Science in september of 2019 shows evidence that neonics have directly harmful effects on birds also. As well as delaying migratory habits, the study found that birds dosed with the equivalent of one tenth of one imidacloprid-coated seed lost 6% of their total body weight within 6 hours of being dosed.

The knock-on effects from the decline in bee populations will increase in scope and scale until a worldwide ban on neonics and other systemic pesticides is firmly in place.This goal, however, is far from being achieved.  A 2017 report published in Science found toxic neonics in 75% of the world’s honey. Another study conducted the same year in Germany found that three quarters of flying insects have disappeared in the last 20 years, a period which coincides quite neatly with the introduction of neonics.

Multinational companies like Bayer and Syngenta, which manufacture neonics like imidacloprid and clothianidin, will fight tooth and nail to prevent ecologically responsible policy from passing into law around the world. Back in 2013, when the partial ban was proposed, Syngenta went as far as to threaten legal action against individual members of the EFSA, whose job it was to carry out an unbiased scientific evaluation of Syngenta’s products. For these business giants, profit margins are, as usual, more important than preservation of biodiversity. We must be ready for their inevitable appeals.

That being said, in May of 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cancelled the registration of 12 neonics, allowing companies like Bayer and Syngenta to sell off existing stocks, but not to produce more of the toxic chemicals. Surprisingly, the cancellations were voluntarily requested by companies including both Bayer and Syngenta. It becomes less surprising, however, when one knows that they only did this as part of a settlement agreement with environmental groups. The 12 neonics which these companies sacrificed were simply cannon fodder. The EPA still has nothing to say about the other 47 types of neonics.

Ever since governing bodies and NGOs have started to ban neonics, the race has been on to find a suitable replacement. One prominent candidate, however, may not be as bee-safe as its manufacturers claim. Flupyradifurone (FPF), which was approved by the EU in 2015 and has been sold under the name ‘Sivanto’ ever since, has been marketed as a harmless alternative to neonics. It is true that higher concentrations of the chemical are required to cause harmful effects in bees when considered in isolation, but when combined with common fungicides FPF has also been shown to kill bees. FPF works in much the same way as neonics, leading some experts and NGOs to say that the chemicals are so similar that it is wrong to consider them separate entities. Surprise surprise, Sivanto is manufactured by Bayer.

The EU and others, like Canada, are setting the example for other governing bodies to follow. If this problem is not addressed soon, however, we will leave future generations with a planet far less diverse and bursting with life than the one we had when neonics were first concocted. Neonics aside, humans are already the cause of the most recent of earth’s six mass extinctions. It says something about a species when they can take their place on a brief list which includes both asteroid impacts and cataclysmic volcanic eruptions.

At this point, we are in full damage control mode. Conservationists are fighting not only against pharmaceutical giants which wield more power than it should be possible to wield, but also against the clock. The public, however, have proved that this is one issue with which they can affect real change. Alongside the EFSA’s report, a driving catalyst for the EU’s ban on neonics was a petition started on the campaign platform ‘Avaaz’. The petition has received a staggering 5 million signatures. It is clear that people around the world care much more about preserving the biodiversity of this planet than they do about Bayer’s profits.

The Avaaz petition is a reminder that there are more of us than there are of them and that we can in fact stand up to them. We all know that rich bullies want to destroy this planet to fill their pockets, but we must not let them get away with it. I urge you, if you see a petition or a fundraising event for this issue, to become as involved as you possibly can. This issue is, if you’ll pardon my language, extremely fucking important.

Header image credit – Farm Futures