Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Coping With Grief

"Everyone's talking about the heat. But I'm like, 'Bring it on'. I know what suffering is. I've seen it first hand, and this isn't [it]."
"It was hard. Finishing that last stretch on Queen Elizabeth. I was crying. I would run a marathon every day if I could have her [8-year-old daughter Kate] back. The running has been getting me out of bed. I could just feel her [presence] when I ran." 
"There was a happiness about [Kate]. Anyone she met she made them feel like they were her best friend."
Julie Drury, marathon racer, Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend

"[Kate] loved Ottawa's Race Weekend." 
"There's a lot of firsts without her. You just feel raw."
Brian Drury, race participant, Ottawa
The Drury family; Photo: Love Bunny Photography

Jack Drury, all of eleven years old, Kate's brother, was at the race weekend, too. The Drurys were a neat little family of four; mother Julie, father Brian, son Jack and daughter Kate. They've been reduced by one. Now they're a family of three; parents and a single child. Jack had donated bone marrow to his younger sister in hopes of saving her life. That was nine months ago. Jack raced the 5K in his sister's memory.

After the hopeful ordeal of the bone-marrow transplant, everything went "terribly wrong". And Kate died suddenly months after the procedure that failed, after all, to save her from the dark oblivion of death. The occasion of her death is still raw for her family. She died six months ago so that's hardly surprising. For her parents, their eight-year-old child's death will always be a raw memory.

Kate died from the effects on her young body of a rare type of mitochondrial disease identified as SIFD. It is a disease that can cause debilitating physical and intellectual disintegration; loss of muscle co-ordination, muscle weakness and pain, seizures, vision or hearing loss, gastrointestinal problems and organ failure. This is a dread disease for which there is no cure.

Kate's mother Julie organized 150 runners to specifically fundraise, to participate in the race weekend for the very particular purpose of raising research funds in memory of her daughter. She imagined how balming it might be to their ailing hearts to know they were instrumental in raising funds for research, that science might, through their efforts some day find if not a cure then a protocol to prolong life.

She was determined to raise $42,000, to reflect the 42.195 kilometres represented by Sunday's run. As Julie ran, the marathon supporters cheered for her. Her supporting team were all dressed in bright pink Team Mito shirts. "It's been an incredible show of support. The people who are signed up to run for us are friends, some are neighbours and there are some people who I've never met", Julie said before the race.
race weekend
Julie Drury and her son Jack Drury after finishing the 5K race part of Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend on Saturday. On Sunday, Julie Drury ran the full marathon to raise funds and awareness for mitochondrial disease, a disease her daughter, Kate, died from six months ago. CBC 
It was when the race concluded that it became clear they had met the goal and surpassed it. The $50,000 that was raised in Kate's memory is to be presented to a mitochondrial disease research group located at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario. The focus of the group will be the rare form of mitochondrial disease that had shortened Kate's young life so drastically and painfully.

Kate, in fact, was the first person in the world to have been diagnosed with the rare form of mitochondrial disease that lodged in her body. As a result, her cells were donated to enable the medical/scientific community to research and discover more about her disease so that others who are suffering might be helped.

Mitochondrial disease is not all that uncommon; it affects one in 4,000 people. It was Kate's particular form of the disease that is rare; a distinction that anyone would have preferred, if it had been humanly possible, to avoid.

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Monday, May 30, 2016

Not For The Faint of Heart

"It is impossible to build a school on the mountaintop because the area is too small. The school down the mountain has reliable power and water supplies and the living conditions are much better than in the village." 
"The government and the families try their best to ensure every child can receive education, because we all know knowledge can help them live a better life."
Api Jiti, Party chief, Atuler village, China

"Our main income is from the pepper and walnut. The buyers know we are from the mountaintop village and that we do not want to carry the pepper or walnuts back, so they offer a much lower price - we have no choice."
Atuler village head, Er Dijiang
Children scale 800-meter cliff on way to school
Children climb up a cliff on a vine ladder to an isolated village on the top of a mountain in Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture, Southwest China's Sichuan province, on May 14, 2016. Atule'er village, home to 72 families, is known as "cliff village" because its vertical distance to the ground is 800 meters. The routes leading to the outside world are 17 vine ladders. [Photo/VCG]

This is the establishment of paying a 'fair price' by taking advantage of circumstances deleterious to the seller, advantageous to the buyer, and leaving people in the village of Atuler in the mountainous west to live on a straitened income of less than a dollar a day. Vast multitudes of rural dwellers in China have always lived in endemic poverty, and China has made great strides in an astonishingly short period of time to bring many within its immense population of 1.3-billion people out of starvation.

It is, for the most part, urban dwellers who have been transformed by China's emergent economy to a middle-class lifestyle, and it was ever thus. It is typical that farming communities remain disadvantaged while much of the country, particularly its hugely populous metropolises are brought into modernity and comfort still denied those in the vast countryside. Despite their remote location and a life of privation, attaining an education holds high value for Chinese, to their immense credit.

During the settler days of North America when children living in the countryside attended one-room schoolhouses and had to reach them daily through exerting themselves physically to walk long distances, the determination to ensure that all children receive at least an elementary education bespoke the values of the society. Those days are long past, however, with readily accessible educational opportunities mandated by law.

The village of Atuler in Sichuan province is remote from such access to school for their children. Access to any point for any of the villagers is a difficult problem. To leave the village means that one must descend an ancient set of stairs comprised of a set of rope ladders beside a perpendicular wall of sheer rock, the side of the mountain. There, shopping for food is far more complex than driving to the nearest supermarket.

Anyone setting out for a marketplace in another village to bring back food for their family must access that same staircase, reputed to be hundreds of years old, according to Chen Jigu, one of the villagers, who explained: "We replace a ladder with a new one when we find one of them is rotten". The rattan series of ladders comprising the whole is secured against the mountainside enabling a descent of 800 metres.

Children scale 800-meter cliff on way to school
A bird's-eye view of kids climbing cliff, May 14, 2016. It takes a young and agile villager about one and a half hours to climb up the mountain, and even longer for kids. When the whether is bad, no one goes out of the village. [Photo/VCG]
The village children, ages six to 15, from 72 families living in the village, fifteen in all, scale the cliff to take them to and from boarding school every two weeks. The school is located in Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture in Sichuan province. There is no cost associated with attending the school itself, but since the children must board there, room and board comes to 300 yuan ($45.70) a semester for every child.

Led by an adult, to climb up the cliff takes about two hours and the descent about one and a half hours. If someone from the village needs medical attention and is too ill to make the descent and ascent themselves, someone from the village ties that person onto their back to descend the cliff, with the assistance of two other villagers.

"It will cost about 60 million yuan to build a road connecting Atuler and two other remote villages. But the country government only has 200,000 yuan for the project", explained Jike Jinsong, an official of Zhaojue county government. Relocating the village down the mountain is not feasible since the village owns the land where they are now located and by moving they would be abandoning their land.

Children scale 800-meter cliff on way to school
Children climb a vine ladder on their way home, May 14, 2016. The children study at a school at the foot of the hill and go home twice a month. [Photo/VCG]
When news of the situation was published, bringing wide attention to the dangers inherent in this regular trek for the village's children, the Liangshan prefectural government announced they would see to it that a set of stairs in the form of a steel ladder would be built while a longer-term solution would be sought.

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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Incentivizing Corporate Humanitarianism

"It basically shows us that the end of the road isn't very far away for antibiotics -- that we may be in a situation where we have patients in our intensive-care units, or patients getting urinary tract infections for which we do not have antibiotics."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden

"The return on investment based on the current commercial model is not really commensurate with the amount of effort you have to put into it." 
David Payne, head, GlaxoSmithKline PLC's antibiotics drug group

Pharmaceutical companies are in business to make money. Big money, lots of it. Which is why they are jealous of their patent protection rights, and fight shortening the time of those rights' expiration before they fall into the public realm legally, and generic drug manufacturers who have not invested time and funding in research to produce those successful drugs that sell so well, can produce cheaper versions, more financially accessible to the health care system and patients.

Because the principle upon which they operate is investment for research and profitability very little attention is paid to orphan diseases which do not strike many people in a society, or chronic illnesses which, because of their rarity mean there will be a limited audience for new drugs launched on the market to treat them, at great cost. That cost, of course, is passed on to the consumer. And if that consumer happens to suffer from a health malady that not many do, they will either go without and suffer the dread consequences or pay handsomely.

But what to do when there is a daunting health crisis of extreme proportions that, in theory, can strike anywhere at anyone and any time, and the consequences are so dire that without that investment in discovery and manufacture of a remedy many will die, but pharmaceutical companies stick to their investment/gain game plan because this is their winning formula in a free enterprise, capitalist system? They are not moved by humanitarianism because this is not the philosophy that drives them.

And at this juncture in the history of human health and the science of medicine this represents a shocking wake-up since what is described as the "nightmare" of all superbugs, a prospect which has had epidemiologists on the edges of their beds, awake at night in a suspension of anticipation, has finally appeared. Researchers have discovered an individual carrying bacteria resistant to antibiotics; not just any antibiotics, but those of last resort, used when all others fail.

This most fearful of all bacteria was discovered in the urine of a 49-year-old woman in Pennsylvania; a strain of E. coli resistant to the antibiotic colistin. Colistin represents that last-resort antibiotic used for extremely lethal types of superbugs, which include a family of bacteria known as CRE, dubbed by health officials "nightmare bacteria". A nightmare bacteria has the capacity to destroy the lives of up to 50 percent of infected patients.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CRE is among the most urgent public health threats in the United States, which is a leader in medical science and technology.  According to American health officials, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are the cause of two million serious infections country-wide, and 23,000 deaths on an annual basis. And they will be on the rise with the introduction of this latest morbid bacteria.
Ironically, it is the overuse of antibiotics that has led to the rise of these resistant bacteria. And of course, those same profit-greedy pharmaceuticals who have made a literal killing off the sales of antibiotics used both properly and to excess. It is not only doctors who err in prescribing their use when they are counter-indicated, but patients suffering from viral conditions demanding them. Anti-bacterial soap, so widely used by an infection-wary public has added to the situation.

When antibiotics began showing up in livestock feed, the humans who eat the table meat that results end up ingesting additional antibiotics. They also end up in water systems and agricultural run-off, exacerbating an already dire situation of antibiotic surfeit. And while pharmaceutical companies are not entirely averse to spending research dollars to create more powerful antibiotics they feel entitled to financial compensation.

At the turn of the year 80 drugmakers and companies specializing in diagnostics inclusive of
Pfizer Inc, Merck & Co, Johnson & Johnson and Glaxo, signed a declaration calling for cooperation between government agencies and drug producers for the creation of incentives to make research and development of new antibiotics more attractive to the pharmaceutical companies. A new business model was recommended.

Profit not to be linked to higher sales. Governments and health groups to be prepared to proffer lump-sum payments for the development of successful new antibiotics. As a prelude to this potential future alliance between government and private industry, a panel representing the British government suggested drug companies be offered up to $1.5 billion for successful development of a new antibiotic.

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Saturday, May 28, 2016

That Elusive Moment of Fame

"The burns penetrate the skin and soft tissue and then involve the muscle. As they penetrate you lose fluid, causing dehydration and it causes all these inflammatory markers that drop your blood pressure and can put you into shock." 
"[Recovery from the consequences can take years]."
Dr. Robert Glatter, emergency room physician,  Lennox Hill Hospital, New York
Image for the news result
Is it that people are just too idiotically dense to understand the consequences of actions they take? Or is it that young people cannot imagine that anything adverse will occur to them, because they are young and destined to live a long and fruitful life, irrespective of the choices they make? Or am I just expressing in different words the very same question?

Young people do want to be noticed, they do take challenges, they want to be accepted, to be admired, to be part of a clique, to be considered special enough that others will be eager to befriend them. But in the process do they and must they take total leave of their reasonableness, their common sense?

The allure of posting a stupid trick like this on YouTube is evidently too great a draw.

How else explain a 12-year-old attempting to perform a stunt that has become popular among young people? Are they trying to prove they're imbeciles by making the effort, or hoping to prove that they're invincible?

A boy in New York city spread flammable liquids on himself then lit a match and proceeded to set himself on fire. That was only part of the stunt. The rest of it was to leap into a bathtub filled with water, or a shower and that expeditiously planned solution to ensuring that the rubbing alcohol or nail polish remover he'd poured on himself was put out immediately for the "fire challenge" stunt to succeed.

This juvenile immaturity appears to have morphed into a craze across the United States involving both teens and pre-teens making the news at local news stations in their attempts to master the timing required, but lacking the cool split-second response to succeed.

Firefighters, in this instance, responded to a home in the Queens neighbourhood to discover the boy suffering serious burns over 40 percent of his body. Neighbours, alerted to the boy's situation when he ran out of his house, attempted to extinguish the fire with the water he had himself been unable to enlist in his aid.

It was all too late, unfortunately, to save him from serious burns, and he was taken to hospital in wretched condition.

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Friday, May 27, 2016

In The Interests of Science, Technology, and Decency

Under the auspices of the National Research Council -- Canada's venerable, highly respected innovator of new technologies and scientific advances in a multitude of spheres -- the National Fire Laboratory under its aegis operated their laboratory in a rural area of Mississippi Mills between two towns, Almonte and Carleton Place. The NRC is an institution which, needless to say, is expected to mount 'best practice' disposal of lethal or carcinogenic chemicals which are used in various types of experiments; any chemicals whatever in fact, should be disposed of appropriately, in a manner certain not to negatively impact the environment.
Researchers conduct a burn test at the National Research Council fire lab in Mississippi Mills. Pat McGrath / Ottawa Citizen
Let alone impact the health and safety of human beings and animals. A spectacular failure of due diligence has recently been reported that implicates this national institution of international repute and Canadian pride in a shameful incident that did indeed have the effect of threatening the health and safety of people and animals living in close proximity to the National Fire Laboratory. Where the method of dealing with waste chemicals appeared to be to flush overflow into the sewage system and from there into the environment.

When we read about the carelessly destructive manner in which Chinese state operations and private businesses dispose of harmful chemicals, in the process destroying the environment and the watershed and placing countless people living close by to health dangers resulting in various types of cancer, and other deadly diseases, we shudder and rest easy in the belief that such dreadful practices happen in China, never to occur anywhere in North America, let alone in Canada, an technologically advanced and scientifically and environmentally sensitive society. To discover how wrong we can be is quite unpleasant.

Which gives further credence to what we might otherwise label as "scare-mongering" from people like David Suzuki who writes things like: "Consider air, water, and food. We need air every minute of our lives to ignite the fuel in our body to give us energy. We suck two to three quarts deep into the warm, moist recesses of our lungs. Our alveoli are smeared with surfactants that reduce surface tension and enable air to stick so oxygen and whatever else is in that breath can enter our bloodstream. Carbon dioxide leaves our body when we exhale. Lungs filter whatever's in the air. Deprived of air for three minutes, we die. Forced to live in polluted air, we sicken."
"We are 60-to-70-percent water by weight. Every cell in our body is inflated by water. Water allows metabolic reactions to occur and enables molecules to move within and between cells and, when we drink it, we also take in whatever's in it, from molecules like DDT and PCBs to viruses, bacteria, and parasites."
"All the cells and structures of our body are molecules assembled from the debris of plants and animals we consume. If we spray or inject food plants and animals with toxic chemicals, and then consume them, we incorporate those chemicals into our very being, sometimes passing them on to our offspring before they're even born."

In 2013, the National Research Council was well aware that their laboratory in Mississippi Mills was contaminating its own groundwater. The 100,000-gallon underground tank on the property holds water used in firefighting experiments containing firefighting foam chemicals. When the tank becomes too full trouble looms. "When at full capacity, (the) tank overflow transports water to a septic system located north of U-96 (the laboratory building), which discharges to a small creek", according to an engineering report commissioned by the NRC itself.

While septic systems are engineered to break down human waste they do nothing to destroy industrial chemicals. Chemicals that were washed into the nearby creek entered the surrounding soil and groundwater on the property of the NRC where the fire lab stood. And although the NRC informed its employees that they were not to drink the water, supplying them with bottled alternatives, it said nothing for years to the people living nearby and nor did it test the soil off its property to determine whether chemical leakage impacted it.

Perfluorinated akylated substances, a class of chemicals used in firefighting and their impact on the environment and on the human population and animals living nearby is the concern. NRC has taken to latterly supplying people living nearby with filtration systems and bottled water; a situation resulting from tests on several dozen wells owned by nearby residents indicated low levels of PFAS. The National Research Council maintains that it is inconclusive whether or not the contamination found in surrounding property had its genesis from the National Fire laboratory, but it is planning a clean-up to take place in the summer.

Leaving nearby homeowners and their families with more questions than the NRC is prepared to answer.

NRC water woes

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Life As A Psychiatric Disorder

"The insurance companies told the rehabs they would no longer pay for inpatient rehab for heroin, cocaine, or alcohol unless there was also another Axis 1 psychiatric disorder like bipolar disorder or depression."
"I was working in a drug treatment facility when the change happened. Since addicts typically complain of anxiety and depression, a completely understandable emotional response to their toxic lifestyles, it was no problem to add a new label and throw a few psychiatric drugs at their now-[re] labelled 'dual diagnosis'."
Phil Sinaikin, psychiatrist, author: Psychiatryland

"[National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment has] received donations from pharmaceutical companies; its mission fairly straightforward, to:] Educate the public about the disease of opioid addiction and the buprenorphine treatment option; help reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with patients with addiction disorders; and serve as a conduit connecting patients in need of treatment to the buprenorphine treatment providers."
National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine (NAABT)

Well, that's quite the exchange; help to create a social environment of complete personal exoneration of responsibility for succumbing to addictions : to food, to alcohol, to drugs, to any kind of destructive lifestyle habit, in exchange for a general acceptance that what is involved is not a lack of willpower and the inability of many people to make sensible choices for themselves, but a psychiatric disorder that is responsible for destroying their lives.

And thanks to a collaboration between the psychiatric industry and their counselling services in conjunction with pharmaceutical companies which fund their studies in return for their professional medical opinions diagnosing certain conditions then prescribing drugs purported to have been especially engineered to solve those problems of lack of will power and positive discrimination in choices, an industry servicing those two powerfully mendacious professions is born.

There is a huge demographic evidencing the need for some solution to the pandemic of overweight and obese people, weighing down universal health systems and creating for themselves miserable lives of pain, disease, and early deaths. Over two thirds of American adults are considered overweight, matching the 50%-plus of Canadians who are also overweight. Although the medical profession is beginning to go along with the pleas that people are innocent of having contributed to their impaired health conditions, obesity is mostly a symptom of over-consumption.

Just as alcoholism is a symptom of over-consumption, even while medicine points to inherited familial pre-dispositions, and just as drug-dependency as well symbolizes an entrapment mostly of willpower with, undeniably a certain amount of prescribed exposure in protocols gone dreadfully wrong. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the compilation of recognized health disorders recognized controversially throughout North America now lists Binge Eating Disorder as a mental illness.

Just coincidentally, many of those professionals who write the DSM have financial links to Big Pharma. New "diseases" have a tendency to coincide at the junction where Pharma stands to make huge profits from new drug formulas geared to solve newly-identified mental disorders handily appearing in the DSM. The definition of alcohol abuse has been "upgraded" from the previous edition of the manual, to the point now where in the most current version, DSM-5, craving alcohol itself can scoop up more people to fit the criteria of mental illness.

Addiction psychiatry is a booming business, matched with pharmaceutical companies who just cannot make enough profits to suit long- and short-range aspirations. Rehabilitation of alcoholics traditionally meant that people would seek out sources like Alcoholics Anonymous to enable them to become alcohol-free and leave their dependency behind. But in this new era of combined addiction psychiatry and Pharma, counselling has been set aside for the effectiveness of pill treatment of all those addiction ills.

In the States, the FDA is amenable enough, since unrestrained capitalism is the lifeblood of the economy, so three drugs have been approved for treating alcoholics: naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfram. Buprenorpine, marketed as Suboxone for opioid addiction, as an example, is a troubling addition to the pharmacopoeia since it is as addictive as the drug it is meant to replace as a curative, and just as difficult to stop using, valued for its own "high".

As for overeating in a society long grown accustomed to easy access to processed foods and savoury snacks available wherever one looks from school canteens to hospital snackbars to street vendors  and car washes, little wonder people are always grazing. Advertising and public relations extolling the virtues of sugar-fat-salt-laden food cleansed of all its nutritional properties encourages people to overeat. Life has become a disease.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Inequitable Funding of Cancer Research

"It is a great concern to us. [The relationship between public awareness through public relations campaigns resulting in research funding for the particular cancers those campaigns target.]"
"The rate of death from pancreatic cancer has now surpassed that of breast cancer..."
"By 2020, it will be the number-two cancer killer."
Michelle Capobianco, executive director, Pancreatic Cancer Canada

A new research study out of Queen's University has revealed troubling gaps in research focusing on individual cancers as opposed to the lethal toll that each disease takes. The finding outlined that cancers behind which marketing events led people's attention to those particular cancers have a decided edge on cancers that might be more prevalent and deadlier in their outcomes but which lack the public appeal to motivate toward research support.

Added to that seemingly insurmountable lead for cancers for which research is popularly supported through marketing and public support in focus and in fund-raising there is the additional problem related to the stigma which is attached to particular cancers where those sufferers are held by popular opinion to be responsible for their own malign health condition. To speak of lung cancer is to conjure up visions of lifetime smokers.

Malignancies of the lung account for four of every ten Canadians suffering and dying from cancer. So when just 15 percent of North American clinical trials have their focus on the disease, something certainly seems awry with respect to priorities. Then there is the issue of breast cancers which are responsible for ten percent of mortality as from 2013 (the study year), but toward which 30 percent of clinical trials are directed.

The research that focuses on each of the various types of cancer directly reflects the funding available through money raised by public fund-raising events launched by self-interested groups adopting those cancers as the disease whose fund-raising they are prepared to support above all others. A personal stake that arises out of skillful public relations events and personal identification with sufferers gives an enormous advantage to that specific disease.

No one could be too critical of scientific findings that advance knowledge of various types of cancer and the treatment that best address newer protocols to treat patients. But the defined focus on breast and prostate cancers means that other, perhaps more common and deadlier cancers are left with inadequate research being carried forward.

The research team from Queen's University examined North American research papers and clinical trial results published throughout 2013 focusing on the ten most lethal cancers, and the research-and-care funding allocated to each.According to Dr. Chris Booth, medical oncologist and Canada research chair in cancer population care, the study's leader, the disparity extent "was quite striking. There were huge differences."

As an example, colorectal cancer accounting for almost 14 percent of cancer deaths in North America yet had less than six percent of clinical trials published in 2013 while prostate cancer was the subject of 17 percent of trials and the disease represents less than eight percent of mortality. Breast cancer received 28 times more funding per patient ($14,000) than bladder cancer ($600).

Because of the outcome of the deadliest cancers there are fewer survivors to dedicate themselves to fashioning public campaigns. Though lung cancer also has the misfortune to be linked to tobacco use, irrespective of the fact that many lung cancer patients are non-smokers, the reality is that the link becomes a negative in the public mind.

"There is this overwhelming public perception: you must have brought it on yourself" University of Toronto's Margaret Fitch explains from the perspective of her psychosocial research around lung cancer.

  • Lung Cancer : 40.5% of cancer deaths: 16% of clinical trials: 12% of funding;
  • Colorectal Cancer: 13.5% of deaths: 5.7% of clinical trials: 11.4% of funding;
  • Breast Cancer: 10% of deaths: 30% of trials: 41% of funding;
  • Pancreas Cancer: 10% of deaths: 5% of trials: 6% of funding;
  • Prostate Cancer: 7.6% of deaths: 17% of trials: 20.5% of funding;
  • Gastroesophageal Cancer: 6.7% of deaths: 3.3% of trials: 2% of funding;
  • Bladder Cancer: 4% of deaths: 3.8% of trials: 0.7% of funding;
  • Kidney Cancer: 3.5% of deaths: 6.8% of trials: 2.2% of funding;
  • Melanoma Cancer: 2.4% of deaths: 8.4% of trials: 3% of funding;
  • Uterine Cancer: 2% of deaths: 3.3% of trials: 1% of funding.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Our Changing World

"It's clear that the warming temperatures and extraordinary drought are major players here."
"We probably wouldn't be seeing the scale of some of these fires if it weren't for these factors."
Thomas W. Swetnam, emeritus scientist, ecology, University of Arizona
Increases in wildfire activity for 2030 and 2090, from Canadian
Climate Centre general circulation model (GCM).
"Implications of changing climate for global wildland fire"
Flannigan et al. 2009.

The extent and ferocity of the wildfire that struck northern Alberta early this month, necessitating an evacuation of 90,000 residents from Fort McMurray and environs struck firefighters as a demon all their efforts were unable to vanquish. The lightning-swift spread of the fire that consumed all in its deadly path, leaving long-time firefighters in dread of the menace it represented informed them that they were dealing with an event whose destructive fierceness knew few precedents.

The fire and the smoke it bellowed out in great, black gusts of burnt detritus seemed to those who were involved in trying to contain it, a living, crafty entity whose purpose it was to oppose every known manoeuvre useful in the past to fight such runaway fires. They spoke of the fire as having the properties of an evil demon, and from their experience it must have seemed justified; an evil sorcerer had convinced nature to threaten the lives of humans and other animals, consuming vast tracts of boreal forest.

A site near Sandy River, NWT suffered a severe wildfire in 2014, only 10 years after a previous burn. With all the new growth consumed, the area is now like a desert. Photo Credit: Dennis Quintilio

Such wildfires, environmentalists warn, are on the increase. Great areas of the Canadian boreal forest are in danger of that kind of spontaneous combustion. And when they break out during hot, dry, windy conditions and they're far from human habitation the emergency response to tackle them loses its impact. Those fires and the onset of insect populations threatening the boreal forest, denuding conifers of their needles and killing the trees reflect beetles now able to withstand the rigours of milder winters.

It is not only Canada's boreal forests that are under threat in the changing environment where climates have undergone huge alterations affecting the health of the landscape. About 28 million hectares of boreal forest burned in 2012's Russia, according to newly released statistics relating to isolated areas of Siberia. Most of the boreal forest in the United States is in Alaska, and it experienced its second-largest fire season on record in the year just past, with 768 fires turning over two million hectares to charcoal.

A wildfire at Lake Baikal in Siberia in 2015. In Russia, extensive mining and drilling for fossil fuels are damaging the forest. Credit Anna Baskakova/The Siberian Times
Global warming which is universally suspected of having brought more extreme weather conditions like torrential rains, or drought, the warming of the oceans and melting of icecaps and glaciers is also thought to have brought together conditions that make these wildfires so difficult to predict and control. Northern regions of the world appear to be particularly hard hit by climbing temperatures with snow cover prematurely melting leaving forests to dry out earlier making them susceptible to excess heat and lightning strikes.

In the 1990s, Brian J. Stocks, a scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, wrote a dire forecast warning of such an outcome in the foreseeable future and beyond. Now retired and working as a consultant, he has warned that more is yet to come, and worse than has been experienced: "We're kind of at a crossroads. We anticipate more fires, and more intense fires, in the future", he emphasizes. And that is very, very bad news since we are so  hugely dependent on these forests as carbon sinks.

The world's forests help offset the rise of greenhouse gases. They absorb a huge part of the carbon dioxide resulting from the burning of fossil fuels. Scientists are concerned that if the wildfires continue to destroy huge tracts of forest, alongside the devastation caused by insects which at one time would die off during cold winter months and now no longer do -- moving steadily north, in their path of destruction -- carbon stored in the forests will be released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Acceleration of the pace of global warming is not a good news story, nor is the fact that winds carrying soot from these northern fires onto ice sheets in Greenland creating a darkened surface causes it to absorb more sun's heat, and ending up melting that ice. This has happened; soot contributed to the surface of the Greenland ice sheet melting in 2012, the first such event since 1889. Should that continue to happen, the sea level could be raised by over six meters.

Data coming out of Alaska suggests that wildfires have been more dire than what has occurred in the previous 10,000 years. While forest fires occured naturally throughout the history of the boreal forest, recent decades inform that their frequency and intensity has grown exponentially. Earlier melts of spring snowpack across the Northern Hemisphere as a result of global warming is thought to be leading to the hot, dry conditions hastening these ferocious wildfires.

A fire in the boreal forest of Alaska last week. The state had its second-largest fire season on record in 2015, with 768 fires burning more than five million acres. Credit Bill Roth/Alaska Dispatch News

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Monday, May 23, 2016

Venezuela, a Country on Life-Support

"There are people dying for lack of medicine, children dying of malnutrition and others dying because there are no medical personnel."
Dr. Yamila Battaglini, surgeon, J.M. de los Rios Children's Hospital, Caracas, Venezuela

"I had a patient just now who needed artificial respiration, and I had none available. A baby. What can we do?"
"What can we do here? Every day I pass an incubator that doesn't heat up, that is cold, that is broken."
Dr. Amalia Rodriguez Luis Razetti Hospital, Barcelona, Venezuela
No beds: Nicolas Espinoza's daughter sleeps in the children's cancer ward at Luis Razetti Hospital
No beds: Nicolas Espinoza's daughter sleeps in the children's cancer ward at Luis Razetti Hospital
This is the Bolivarian revolution in living colour in Venezuela, the brave new world of socialism, for the people by the people, of the people. A Venezuela that Hugo Chavez, the socialist dictator who used the natural resources of his country to buy the friendship of Cuba and Venezuela's neighbours but neglected to bank any of the financial windfall resulting in the country's vast wealth of oil. And nor did he invest in upgrading infrastructure, let alone in building the means by which his country could refine its own oil.

But he did ensure that when he died long before he was willing to give up the ghost, that his replacement would be, like him, a man of the people, a bus driver who so excelled at his job he knew how to pick people up and drop them off at the junction of their choice, for a fee. And now Nicolas Maduro is president of all he surveys and in his wisdom has refused to accept international aid for his faltering nation.

Food is scarce, and so is gasoline and energy, so government departments operate only two days a week. People spend all their time waiting in long lineups for pedestrian products that should be available readily and affordably. Availability and affordability are now foreign concepts in Venezuela. And the health care system has collapsed under the weight of unavailable funding, drug shortage, and equipment failure.

Horrific: Jose Villarroel waits for hours in an emergency operating room at Luis Razetti Hospital in Puerto la Cruz, Venezuela, in April

"Some come here healthy and they leave dead", explained Dr. Leandro Perez at Luis Razetti Hospital. With the largest oil reserves in the world there was no vision of the potential for hard times to arrive at some point, no thought that the price per barrel of oil would plunge to unsustainable depths. Looting has become commonplace, and the bolivar is close to worthless. Crime has soared.

"This is criminal that we can sit in a country with this much oil, and people are dying for lack of antibiotics", lawmaker Oneida Guaipe observed with despair for his country. Political opponents of the president have declared a humanitarian crisis and were prepared to allow Venezuela to accept international aid, but that humiliation was vetoed by President Maduro.

Pumps supplying water to the University of the Andres exploded, and it took months for repairs to be undertaken. In the absence of water, gloves, soap and antibiotics, surgeons undertook surgery in operating rooms covered in blood from previous surgeries. Two of nine operating rooms only remain functional at the J.M. de los Rios Children's Hospital in Caracas.

Lack of supplies: Jugs and soda bottles that doctors at Luis Razetti Hospital rigged to treat patients with broken legs in Puerto la Cruz
Lack of supplies: Jugs and soda bottles that doctors at Luis Razetti Hospital rigged to treat patients with broken legs in Puerto la Cruz

A month ago Aquiles Martinez, director of Barcelona's Luis Razetti Hospital was arrested, accused of stealing hospital equipment; machines to treat respiratory illnesses, intravenous solutions and 127 containers of medicine. The shelves in the hospital's pharmacy are partially bare reflecting a shortage of imports the government can no longer afford. When treatment is needed, doctors inform patients' families, handing them lists of medicines. Then they are sought on the black market.

Energy blackouts shut down maternity ward respirators leaving doctors to keep infants alive pumping air into their lungs for hours by hand. Newborn babies requiring ongoing respiratory treatment die. "The death of a baby is our daily bread", said Dr. Osleidy Camejo a Caracas surgeon, deploring the collapsing of Venezuela's hospitals and the anguish of doctors.

Shortages everywhere in society are so acute that hospitals see their supplies of gloves and soap evaporate, and medications for cancer can be found only through black market acquisition. Not enough water is available at the University of the Andes Hospital in the city of Merida to wash blood from operating tables and surgeons prep their hands for surgery with bottles of seltzer water.

"It is like something from the 19th Century", despairingly stated Dr. Christian Pino as the death rate of babies under a month has increased over a hundredfold in public hospitals. New mothers are dying in those hospitals by almost five times in the period between 2012 and 2015, according to a government report.

Patients rest where they can in little comfort in the hallways at the overcrowded public hospital in Merida, Venezuela, in January
Patients rest where they can in little comfort in the hallways at the overcrowded public hospital in Merida, Venezuela, in January

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Wonder Vitamin and the Sun

Vitamin D has been latterly rediscovered as a wonder substance, an element -- a neuroregulatory hormone -- about whose full potential there is still much to be known, but which helps us to be healthy human specimens. People who live in the northern hemisphere have been shown to have insufficient amounts of that vital vitamin in their systems, since exposure to the sun is critical to to ability of all living creatures to produce vitamin D.

It is the healing vitamin. There is not yet complete consensus on its absolute, complete potential to make us healthy, but it has demonstrated an almost miraculous capacity to ease depression, increase healthy bones structure, improve brain function, enhance the health of hearts, and even possibly to prevent cancer.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is naturally present in very few foods, added to others, and available as a dietary supplement. It is also produced endogenously when ultraviolet rays from sunlight strike the skin and trigger vitamin D synthesis. Vitamin D obtained from sun exposure, food, and supplements is biologically inert and must undergo two hydroxylations in the body for activation. The first occurs in the liver and converts vitamin D to 25-hydroxyvitamin D [25(OH)D], also known as calcidiol. The second occurs primarily in the kidney and forms the physiologically active 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D [1,25(OH)2D], also known as calcitriol [1].
Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption in the gut and maintains adequate serum calcium and phosphate concentrations to enable normal mineralization of bone and to prevent hypocalcemic tetany. It is also needed for bone growth and bone remodeling by osteoblasts and osteoclasts [1,2]. Without sufficient vitamin D, bones can become thin, brittle, or misshapen. Vitamin D sufficiency prevents rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults [1]. Together with calcium, vitamin D also helps protect older adults from osteoporosis.

 Woman shopping for dietary supplements

When the sun withdraws seasonally many people experience wild mood swings, depression and no small extent of irritability. It's called 'seasonal affective disorder', affecting mood-susceptible people during the winter months. The health benefits attributed by science to vitamin D are unparalleled by any other vitamin. Its health and healing properties were known in ancient times, when exposure to the sun was known to treat epilepsy, paralysis, asthma, jaundice, bladder and colon diseases and obesity.

Sun exposure was indicated in the treatment and relief of scurvy and rickets in the 1700s, when sailors in particular onboard vessels for prolonged periods of time suffered from the lack of food known to aid in the production of vitamin D. It's how the British acquired the sobriquet 'Limey' because of the penchant for the British Navy to stow limes aboard, known to fend off scurvy onset. Sailors, infamously, began to experience brittle bones, their teeth would fall out and they would become ill from lack of vitamin D.

Without our exposure to the sun all living things would expire. In the late 1920s sun therapy was set aside when penicillin was discovered, followed by science discovering antibiotics used in the treatment of so many ailments that previously increased sun exposure was prescribed for. A wide variety of illnesses, from bacterial infection such as anthrax, cholera and dysentery, to tuberculosis. The influence of Florence Nightingale was responsible for hospitals at the turn of the century increasing window space to maximize sunlight exposure.

Direct exposure to sunlight for 15 to 30 minutes in midday is required for the absorption and storage of vitamin D, leading to good health. That exposure should be increased the further north one lives. It is not absorbed through glass, but only through direct rays of the sun in the out-of-doors. During World War I, sun therapy was used to treat wounds and prevent tetanus and gangrene from setting in. Sun therapy was used in the treatment of skin diseases, the nervous system, circulatory system, and ear, nose and throat ailments.

Fear of prolonged exposure to the sun at peak sunlight  hours during the day has led people to be warned they must use sun block. Sunscreen is fine once the required daily exposure to the sun has been achieved. Too prolonged exposure without sun block on t he other hand can have a determinedly deleterious effect on the skin, from burning to premature ageing and some forms of cancers.

A diet high in produce helps build up an internal sunscreen as it were, lowering sunburn opportunities. Alternatives to the use of sun block such as light, white body-covering cotton clothing and hats to cover the skin at peak sunlight hours works as well. An antioxidant-rich diet is another invaluable assist.
Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for Vitamin D [1]
Age Male Female Pregnancy Lactation
0–12 months* 400 IU
(10 mcg)
400 IU
(10 mcg)
1–13 years 600 IU
(15 mcg)
600 IU
(15 mcg)
14–18 years 600 IU
(15 mcg)
600 IU
(15 mcg)
600 IU
(15 mcg)
600 IU
(15 mcg)
19–50 years 600 IU
(15 mcg)
600 IU
(15 mcg)
600 IU
(15 mcg)
600 IU
(15 mcg)
51–70 years 600 IU
(15 mcg)
600 IU
(15 mcg)
>70 years 800 IU
(20 mcg)
800 IU
(20 mcg)
* Adequate Intake (AI)

Sources of Vitamin D

Very few foods in nature contain vitamin D. The flesh of fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel) and fish liver oils are among the best sources [1,11]. Small amounts of vitamin D are found in beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks. Vitamin D in these foods is primarily in the form of vitamin D3 and its metabolite 25(OH)D3 [12]. Some mushrooms provide vitamin D2 in variable amounts [13,14]. Mushrooms with enhanced levels of vitamin D2 from being exposed to ultraviolet light under controlled conditions are also available.  

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Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Diplomacy of International Courtesy?

"The use of hydrazine has devastated the environment around Baikonur, Kazakhstan, the world's most heavily used [satellite] launch site. Residents of the surrounding countryside have high rates of cancer. Reports of 'acid' rain, followed by the death of livestock, have emerged after launches."
"Russia, which leases Baikonur from Kazakhstan, has paid compensation for hydrazine pollution on at least one occasion. But with a stockpile of hydrazine-fuelled SS-19 and Proton rockets left over from the Cold War, it [Russia] has little incentive to stop using them. These old rockets enable Russia to compete in the commercial space launch market, which  yields much-needed foreign currency."
Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair, Global Politics and International Law,  University of British Columbia

"Any debris should be considered potentially hazardous, and first responders should not attempt to pick it up or move it."
Federal Emergency Management Agency public warning, Canada
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The fuel that is used to power Russian SS-19s is unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (hydrazine) which is a stable compound whose common use is to fuel missiles and to power the thrusters that are used to manoeuvre satellites in space. This compound is toxic, so much so that technicians working with it must wear pressurized hazmat (hazardous material) suits while they are involved in working with the compound. Hydrazine, on contact with air, degrades, becoming an even more toxic compound: nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA).

Europe and the United States take steps to regulate the use of hydrazine; both American and European-produced rockets make use of less toxic fuels to achieve the same ends, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as well as the European Space Agency are in the process of developing alternative propellants to be used in future satellite thrusters. Canada, additionally, lists hydrazine as a dangerous chemical.

A Soviet-era SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missile, modified to boost a satellite into orbit has a launch date in early June, from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia which will take it to a trajectory where it will crash with highly toxic fuel on board, in the Canadian Arctic. The first stage of the missile will see it fall into the Barents Sea north of Norway and soon afterward the second stage will fall into Baffin Bay located just east of Ellesmere Island, in Canada's far north.

This will not represent a one-off or first-time event. In February, the second stage of a SS-19 fell in Baffin Bay, around 50 kilometres from Ellesmere Island, a location well within Canada's "exclusive economic zone", subject to its Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act. The second stage of a Soyuz rocket was dropped nearby as well in April, along the maritime boundary with Greenland. Impact zones, as it happens are predictable and quite precise, based on the parameters of launch site, rocket type and intended orbit.

Russia makes no effort to seek permission from Canada when its territory is impacted in this manner; which is to say, used as a dumping ground for toxic materials. On several occasions, the previous Conservative-led government had issued diplomatic protests when notified by Russia of incoming Russian rocket stages. While Russia makes no effort to seek permission from Canada, it does advise the Canadian government in advance of such launches and impact zones, whereupon a "notice to airmen" (NOTAM) is issued so aircraft are able to avoid such danger areas at critical times.

Canadian Inuit live nearby Baffin Bay at Grise Fiord and Pond Inlet. They travel on the water and sea-ice while hunting for traditional food. Baffin Bay supports large concentrations of seals, whales, polar bears and seabirds in its shallow waters and on its seasonal sea-ice. There are no scientific studies that indicate just how hydrazine interacts with the environment in Arctic conditions. Just an idea that it might react with the air, degrade into NDMA, and then be carried on the wind.

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A cloud of hydrazine could drift anywhere from Baffin Bay; toward Greenland or Ellesmere Island. Some could entrench itself into sea-ice, which later drifts in a southerly direction in the summer months, toward Labrador. Canadians living in the Arctic are not notified of impending space junk falling in their environment or that if any does fall where they are located, to avoid it. In light of this situation, both the Government of Canada and that of Russia should be collaborating to avoid any potential problems over and above the littering of Canadian territory with space junk and dangerous compounds.

An international ban might be timely, on the use of hydrazine-fuelled rockets. At the very least, to alert other countries and corporations that contract with Russia to purchase their commercial launches, that there is an environmental danger inherent in the process with the use of this dangerous substance, in a world that has become sensitive to the damage we do to our natural environment. Every country could use a reminder that this is their responsibility. No country should be acting with impunity on this file.

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Friday, May 20, 2016

On The Horns of a Nuclear-Waste Dilemma

"You look at parts of the world that seem to go from reasonable governments to chaos, and I don't think you can predict what kind of society will exist hundreds of thousands of years from now."
"When you look at the geological history of the area [Great Lakes Basin, Ontario], it's been so benign in geological activity in the last tens of millions of  years. I don't know how you could find a safer place to put it [nuclear waste]."
Derek Martin, professor, geotechnical engineering, University of Alberta

"It just keeps coming back to that main question. Is it safer where it is right now [hard by the Bruce Power site, buried near the surface]? We had a tornado in a town near here three or four years ago ... and that could've just as easily been in Kincardine. It was a devastating tornado. Wiped out the town."
"Is this stuff [nuclear waste] safer where it is now, or is it safer 650 metres down in rock that hasn't moved in aeons?"
Kincardine Mayor Anne Eadie

"No matter what process is followed, abandoning radioactive nuclear waste in the Great Lakes basin will always be a bad idea."
"If it must be buried, bury it outside of the Great Lakes basin and far from people, far from water."
"One thing is for sure: we shouldn't bury this lethal material beside the source of drinking water for 40-million people in two countries. We will never know if there  has been a leak until it's too late."
Beverly Fernandez, spokeswoman, Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, Southhampton, Ontario 

An aerial view of the Bruce Power nuclear generating station in Kincardine, Ont., on Aug. 16, 2003. Opponents of Ontario Power Generation's plan to store low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste in an underground rock chamber beneath the Bruce facility say the bunker will be too close to Lake Huron.
An aerial view of the Bruce Power nuclear generating station in Kincardine, Ont. Opponents of Ontario Power Generation's plan to store low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste in an underground rock chamber beneath the Bruce facility say the bunker will be too close to Lake Huron. (J.P. Moczulski/Canadian Press)

Nuclear-derived power is inexpensive, once the cost of building associated nuclear reactors is done with, and upkeep figured in; it is environmentally clean, and it is reliable. But the sheer harnessing of this kind of power involved in nuclear plants and the potential for things to go catastrophically wrong due to technical fault or human error remains a cloud of dark concern hanging over any country reliant on nuclear energy for power generation. 

The disaster that overtook Ukraine when its Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant erupted rendered the city of  Pripyat and the surrounding area unlivable, contaminated by radioactivity, leading to a mass exodus of its population. Japan suffered its own dreadful nuclear disaster when, following a huge earthquake, a tsunami disabled the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in 2011 and a similar evacuation was ordered with thousands of people relocated, and the area surrounding the plant off limits.

Those dreadful catastrophes aside, there is the matter of what to do with generations' worth of radioactive nuclear waste. Material  that science well knows takes thousands of years to decay before it becomes non-toxic. Ontario Power Generation, which operates the largest nuclear plant site in the world, is seeking federal government permission to bury its accumulated 50 years-worth of nuclear waste close to the Great Lakes region, in Ontario.

OPG contemplates blasting an area deep in the ground in a geologically stable area to dump and seal low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste from the province's three nuclear power plants. That toxic material would, in theory, be placed under layers of rock that have not moved in tens of millions of years, according to geologists. The fact that the planned Deep Geological Repository is located just over a kilometre from the bottom of Lake Huron is what has made it such a controversial subject.

Supported by dozens of scientists some of whom took part in a government-appointed independent review panel which approved the plan, the 680-metre hole would be dug below the water table, into ancient layers of rock, stable for over 50 million years. This is the plan considered to be the best solution available to ensure that the radioactive material is far removed from humans, well into the future. Environmentalists and political leaders on each side of the Great Lakes are not convinced.

Nuclear waste Jan Thomas, of Port Huron, holds a sign protesting a proposed nuclear waste dump site on Lake Huron, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015, as participants in the float down pass by during International Rally to Protect the Great Lakes at Pine Grove Park in Port Huron, Mich. (Andrew Jowett/The Times Herald via AP)

Ontario Power Generation speaks with confidence of their plan. "We're happy to respond to them [critics]. We've been open and transparent through this whole process, and we're happy to do what we can to help people understand it", insists OPG spokesman Bill McKinlay. But opposition has only gained momentum with over 180 county boards, city councils and other elected groups close to the Great Lakes in both Canada and the United States having passed resolutions urging a veto.

Some supporters of the plan have pointed out that high-level nuclear waste which takes ten thousand years to become non-toxic, is going to be buried at Yucca Mountain, outside Las Vegas. Michigan Representative Debbie Dingell, responds to that by stating: "This is different. A mountain is in an isolated place, better than water that is 20 percent of the freshwater in the world. If there's a leak or an accident at Yucca Mountain, it's in an isolated area", an observation difficult to find fault with.

Eight of Ontario's 20 nuclear reactors are located at the Bruce Power facility. The Bruce site has stored low- and intermediate-level waste for all Ontario power plants in above-ground bunkers and vaults since the early 1970s, across a concrete area near the reactor buildings. It is now looking for a permanent home for this dangerously toxic material. And its options have been starkly criticized by the fears of people contemplating disaster.

Great Lakes Nuclear Waste
This Nov. 1, 2013 photo shows rows of chambers holding intermediate-level radioactive waste in shallow pits at the Bruce Power nuclear complex near Kincardine, Ont. Ontario Power Generation is seeking permission from the Canadian government to permanently store low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste in a rock chamber that would be built 680 metres underground and 1.2 kilometres from Lake Huron. (John Flesher/Associated Press)

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