Friday, May 30, 2003

Quorn to lose

A 41-year-old man with a long history of asthma suffered a severe attack one hour after eating Quorn, a well-known meat substitute. And on this shaky foundation, we are presented with a discussion of the safety of the aforementioned fungal snack.


I should perhaps devise a series of awards for news stories that lack any sense of perspective.

Quorn linked to asthma attack, BBC News, 30 May 2003

A happy Accident

I would normally be depressed to hear about people losing their jobs. But I have to admit that news of job cuts at the Accident Group is at least tempered by the thought that their business model might be failing. Basically, they encourage people to make personal injury claims on a no-win, no-fee basis where they sell insurance to cover the risk of the case being lost. They are the acceptable face of ambulance chasing. It's just one brick in the wall of the compensation culture but the fear of litigation is more and more at the back of people's minds in all sorts of fields, which fosters a precautionary outlook.

I had recent experience of this when helping out with the running of a conference in a public-run arts centre. The amount of regulation that went on, which seemed to add very little to people's safety, was extraordinary. Underpinning it all was this fear of litigation.

So, I hope the Accident Group, Claims Direct and all their kith and kin die a rapid death. And I hope all the staff get jobs in more worthy companies just as quickly.

Accident Group goes bust, BBC News, 30 May 2003

Pool panic

'Asthma rise is linked to kids' wee in swim pools', proclaims the Sun, quoting research by Belgian scientists. 226 children were tested for the presence of proteins linked to lung problems. Those children who regularly swam in indoor pools had a higher level of such proteins. Moreover, the researchers looked at a previous study of 1881 children and found that regular pool attendance was associated with higher levels of asthma.

However, even the researchers do not think that their study is in any way conclusive. All that they suggest is that this is a new theory to explain the increasing prevalence of asthma, and that bigger studies should be done. There may well be an association between pool use and asthma, but it could be the opposite way around: asthma sufferers get taken to the pool because it is a form of exercise they seem to react less badly to.

Explaining the rising asthma statistics is unlikely to be that easy. Previous explanations suggested include: increasing traffic fumes reacting with sunlight, obesity, wall-to-wall carpets, margarine, stress, genes, passive smoking, bacteria, viruses, dust mites, central heating, furniture, pollen, pets, poor domestic hygiene, excessive domestic hygiene...the list goes on. It could even be that part of the problem is a redefinition of other conditions as asthma in recent years. Giving general advice about how to avoid asthma seems pretty much impossible.

Parents will understandably feel confused. They get told not to let their kids play outside for fear of being kidnapped by marauding paedophiles or getting run over by a speeding motorist. Now, if they take them to the pool for some safe, well-monitored exercise, they could, apparently, get asthma. And if the kids stay in their bedrooms, spending hours on their PlayStations and watching TV, they will supposedly end up obese with greater risk of diabetes and heart disease.

The Sun quotes mum-of-two Cathryn Allen on why she will continue to take her kids swimming. 'I wouldn't pay it much attention. If you took everything to heart you would never do anything with your kids.' A much healthier attitude.

Asthma rise 'link' to pool chemicals, BBC News, 28 May 2003

(originally published on spiked)

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Spotting trouble

It seems that trainspotters are the latest victims of the war on terror. According to this story on BBC News, they are being asked to leave the platforms on sixteen of Britain's busiest stations as their behaviour (writing down train numbers, taking photographs etc) is deemed to be a security risk.

Peter Olding, a 37-year-old train spotter, told the BBC: 'I was just at the end of the platform, waiting for one of the trains, when a security guard came out and asked me what I was doing. I said I was train spotting. He said I would have to move, for my own safety, on to the concourse. It's a bit pointless trying to spot trains from the concourse. I was doing no harm there, I wasn't in anyone's way. While I can accept being the butt of a lot of jokes, I don't see why they want to make us public enemy number one.'

Clearly, our protectors have nothing to do but see demons everywhere. What next? Anorak-Qaida?

Terrorism fear derails train-spotters, BBC News, 28 May 2003

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

SARS update

Despite the media reports about the situation in Taiwan and Canada last week, the overall picture is still improving:

For the first time in months, there has been a day without any new cases in Hong Kong, and they are now running at a trickle. China's figures are much lower, day-to-day, than they have been. As this Excel spreadsheet shows, the number of outstanding cases in China is now falling quite sharply as recoveries outstrip new cases.

GM: A slippery slope

The Royal Society, which has previously argued that genetically-modified (GM) crops were no more dangerous than conventional varieties, has stated that GM crop monitoring will have to continue for years to ensure their environmental safety.

'If the decision is taken to allow commercial planting of GM crops, it is essential that regulators in both the UK and EU monitor the environmental impact to pick up any potentially beneficial or harmful effects over a long period...It will not be enough to make best estimates at the start and then assume that everything will turn out as expected,' said Professor Patrick Bateson.

However, the danger is not that GM crops won't be monitored, but that they won't be used at all. Any decision to extend monitoring should be based on some indication that there may be a specific risk related to a particular new type of crop, not just a general possibility of risk. Stating that there might be problem peculiar to all types of GM invokes a precautionary response of 'if there's a chance it might cause harm, what's the point?'

And, on cue, Friends of the Earth provided just such a response: 'If the Royal Society has concerns about the potential environmental impacts of GM crops it should oppose their commercial development...Long-term monitoring will not prevent damage that has already been caused. Biotech companies must not be allowed to turn our countryside into one huge outdoor experiment.'

Thus, the precautionary outlook which pervades the discussion of GM foods leads from a polite request to keep a check on things, just to be on the safe side, to an argument against GM foods full stop. Genetic modification is simply another means to create new varieties, with greater flexibility than ever before, and with many new potential applications. Equivocal statements from prestigious organisations like the Royal Society will only hamper the application of this technology.

GM crops 'need long-term monitoring', BBC News, 27 May 2003