Wednesday, 29 January 2014

DOC Ups the Ante with 1080 in 2014

The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) has just announced plans to increase their aerial drops of 1080 poison in forest areas to cover some 12% of public conservation land in New Zealand, up from about 5%. Calling the program “The Battle for Our Birds,” they claim it is in response to an anticipated “masting” in beech forests this year which they say will cause an increase in rodent and predator numbers.

I’m no fan of the use of 1080 poison. I’ve written about the use of this nasty chemical in previous posts. My very first blog post, Of possums and a serendipitous juxtaposition tackled this topic, and subsequently I wrote 1080 (just what is this stuff anyway?), Planned 1080 aerial drop inWellington’s back yard, and 1080 Update along with a couple of other related posts like Oh, Deer.
Over the past year I’ve been a bit quieter about this topic, and entertained hopes that with growing awareness of the nastiness of 1080—a toxic-to-all-oxygen-breathing-species poison banned in all but 4 or 5 countries—perhaps with time its use would be diminished. Alas, this seems not to be.  Ok, so where are we now?

Two years ago, it was a proclaimed war against the possum (see my post Villain or Victim?) that was used to fuel the public’s acceptance of aerial 1080 poisoning. Now the possum hardly gets a mention as the campaign swings into action to tackle rats and stoats. This is the logic DOC is feeding us: 

It’s called a “mast” when trees or plants have a year when they produce an unusual abundance of seeds, a common cyclical phenomenon in some plant species. It is anticipated that beech trees in New Zealand’s forests are likely to mast this year. Because of the unusually abundant food supply, it is argued that rats and mice in the forest will flourish, and since stoats eat rats and mice, they will flourish. When the seed supply runs out, there won’t be enough rats and mice to feed the stoats so they, along with hungry rats, will prey on birds, and New Zealand’s native birds will be at risk. DOC’s solution is to drop more than twice as much 1080 poison on the forests as they usually do. The rats and mice will eat the poison and die. The stoats will eat the poisoned rats and mice and die. The birds will be safe.

According to Conservation Minister Nick Smith, quoted in the article in the DomPost newspaper  this morning, rats and stoats and possums eat 25 million native birds every year. Now I cannot imagine—even when I put on my super-duper jet-propelled hat of  imagination—how they could know this. Where in the world does a number like this come from?

Kea with 1080 pellet
That aside, 1080 is not species- or mammalian-specific in its effects. Originally developed as an insecticide, it is toxic to any creature that depends upon oxygen for survival, and death by 1080 is not pretty. See the Graf Boys’ must-view award-winning doco Poisoning Paradise.

On the west coast, endangered Kea killed after 1080 drops are well documented—they love the bait. Robins and tomtits are also hit by drops. So are wild deer and pigs (which DOC consider pest species even if hunters don’t agree). There is rarely much publicity about dogs and farm animals dying from 1080 poison, but the stories abound when you start searching the internet. This stuff is really, really nasty.

This map (from the DOC website) shows proposed drop areas, along with the species they claim they are “saving”. Wake up, New Zealand. They’re poisoning our world.

New Zealand wants the world to think we’re “Clean, Green 100% Pure New Zealand.” As the Tui beer billboards suggest...”Yeah, right!” New Zealand (before this proposed more-than-doubling-of-usage) uses 85% of the world’s production of 1080 poison, on a land mass about the size of the US state of Oregon. We drop death from the air in tasty cereal and carrot pellets on our forests. It’s nasty, it’s toxic, and it affects the whole forest ecosystem. When will this madness end?

Monday, 13 January 2014

Derren Brown Makes Me Squirm

Derren Brown, photographed by Seamus Ryan
TV One in New Zealand has just been running Series One of The Derren Brown Experiments on televison. If you don’t know, Derren Brown is a British hypnotist, illusionist, psychologist, and performer, and he is very good at what he does. I have on several occasions enjoyed watching Derren Brown clips on you tube. In this television series, he examines a variety of psychological phenomenon by playing game host for a willing audience. So, why do these shows, and Derren himself, make me squirm?

In the first episode, after a fairly long selection process—keeping in mind that the general rule is about 10% of people cannot be hypnotised, about 10% are incredibly susceptible, and the remaining 80% fall somewhere in the middle—he chooses a likable and likely (e.g., highly susceptible) fellow and sets out to prove whether the old belief that you’d never do something truly abhorrent under hypnosis is true or not. The subject is (unknowingly) groomed for months to commit an abhorrent act--in this case the public assassination of a popular public figure--and when all of the pieces are in place, he is subliminally cued to pull the gun and shoot. Will he do it? The program is nail-biting, and the result when he pulls the gun thought-provoking. You can watch the episode here:

Squirm factor while I was viewing it? Yep, I was squirming. But I was still squirming, and thinking about it, after I went to bed, and again the next day, not so much because of the ramifications (yes, Virginia, you CAN be brainwashed to do unspeakable things), but I was even more bothered that Brown would take this poor guy and put him through this experience, and I wondered what that would do long-term to the psychological well-being of his subject? What sort of man exploits his subject for public entertainment? (Okay, perhaps there was some genuine insight gleaned from this experiment for everyone watching, but did the end justify the means?)

I was curious what would happen in the second episode, touted as exploring how crowd behaviour can affect our sense of right or wrong, and what our capacity for evil might be. This time a studio audience was given voting buttons and invited to cast their votes whether a completely innocent and rather likeable chap should have something good happen to him, or something bad. An elaborate set-up involved a variety of accomplices and plenty of hidden cameras. You can watch the episode here:

Now I find it disturbing enough that in every single instance, the studio audience voted to make this poor chap’s life increasingly miserable, but I can kind of see how and why that might happen. The audience was, for the most part, young and out for a good time, and Derren created a sort of surreal atmosphere by asking audience members to don masks. Every psychologist knows that when you take on a mask or alternative persona, it carries with it permission to do things you might not normally do. 

Furthermore, Derren Brown provides entertainment, and the audience was there to be entertained. Perhaps there is a greater entertainment factor when people face adversity than when nice things happen to folks--its more “interesting.” And entertainment is the name of the game—this WAS presented as a game show—and all the action was seen on a big screen reminiscent of a movie or tv show or Xbox game (in fact, the computer game analogy is particularly apt given the participating audience member’s ability to choose the future of their “character”). Furthermore, Brown seemed particularly delighted each time he reported that “over half of you voted to make this man’s life worse,” a positive response that undoubtedly encouraged more “nuke him” votes.

It was bad enough that this guy was accused of a variety of things he didn’t do and made to look foolish, hauled down to the police station in a paddy wagon, told he was being made redundant from his job, and in the coup d’etat the audience voted to have him kidnapped by thugs. I think what bothered me the most, though, was the Darren Brown affiliate who broke into the man’s apartment, made himself a sandwich in the man's kitchen, prowled through the chap’s bathroom for things to chortle over in front of the audience (he found a nail clipping and managed to generate some hilarity out of that...personally, I thought it was a remarkably tidy flat, and bathroom!), tore up the bed, went through the man’s underwear drawer sharing giggles and snide comments for the whole audience, and smashed up the man’s television. Now the audience told him to do this stuff, but the idea of making fun of someone’s personal life, home, and belongings within a public forum (not just the audience, but everyone who ever watches this program on tv or you tube video) to me is so incredibly abhorrent that I can hardly believe anyone would be so cruel as to do this. This was beyond a practical joke, worse than bad taste, this was criminal. (And the new tv and letter left behind for the guy to find when he got home after his horrible night out seems no compensation at all.)

I sometimes work with people who have had traumatic events occur in their lives, and I know how even small things that others might have considered a bit of harmless, insignificant fun can sometimes have a negative impact on some people for the rest of their lives. Home invasion is particularly nasty, akin almost to rape in some cases. To have a home invasion made so incredibly public and apparently condoned by the program makers for whatever ulterior motive (Darren claims he wanted to show how group behaviour can make monsters of us all) is the ultimate in nasty. No wonder it made me squirm.

No stars for this one, Derren Brown. What you did was stinko. Meanwhile, I hope our hapless victim managed to pull some good out of this, and I wish HIM all the best. 

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Is Cholesterol Good or Bad?

The cholesterol issue comes home, quite literally, when someone close within the family suddenly finds themselves with blocked coronary arteries and ends up doing a stint on the operating table. Suddenly cholesterol-lowering statins and heart-regulating beta-blockers become de rigueur, and a seriously low-fat diet (except for fish oils) is on the daily menu. This post examines the cholesterol/statin issue. I’ll leave diet for another time.

Anyone who knows me at all knows I’m not one to blindly accept the doctor’s advice without doing my own investigation and research. Although they almost always mean well, doctors promote “best practice” medicine, which usually relies heavily on what they’ve been taught, “conventional wisdom,” and the drug treatments encouraged by pharmaceutical companies anxious to increase sales of their products. Like antidepressants (one of my pet topics, see my post on psychiatric med use), statin drugs are heavily promoted in spite of some rather questionable assumptions about the role of cholesterol in the body.

The standard medical view is based on a [rather shaky] assumption that too much cholesterol causes heart disease. Since statins lower the amount of cholesterol in the body, it is assumed that statins help prevent heart disease.  But what is this stuff called cholesterol anyway? Where does it come from? Does it really cause heart disease? Is it healthy to artificially control your body’s production of cholesterol? And are statins safe?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is manufactured by the liver. It is essential for the healthy functioning of every single cell in your body. It is so essential that without cholesterol, you would die. Kaput. Nada. End of story. It is also essential for the production of hormones, for digestion, for the healing of injuries, for the distribution of essential vitamins, and for brain function. In fact, the brain contains around 25% of the body’s total cholesterol, which may explain why many folks who take cholesterol-lowering statin drugs complain of brain “fuzziness” and memory loss.

A small portion of the body’s cholesterol may be derived from the saturated fats found in animal products, but the majority is made by the liver. Cholesterol is so essential to life, Mother Nature has ensured the body can produce this essential substance regardless of what a person eats.

Many health practitioners talk about two kinds of cholesterol, one called “good” cholesterol (HDL) and the other “bad” cholesterol (LDL). In fact, HDL and LDL refer to the lipoprotein molecules that transport the cholesterol around the body, not to the cholesterol itself. Cholesterol is just cholesterol. Cholesterol carried by HDL is more tightly bound to the carrier than that carried by LDL and therefore is less likely to be “off-loaded,” and thus is less likely to end up as part of the plaque build-up inside artery walls that is blamed for most heart disease. On the other hand, it is the cholesterol released by the LDL that helps repair and heal injuries that may have occurred to the artery walls. So you do want this stuff helping to heal your injuries or not?

A study begun in the 1940s identified high blood cholesterol levels as one of several factors linked with heart disease. When the pharmaceutical company Merck developed a drug that could block the enzyme responsible for the manufacturing of cholesterol in the liver in 1976, they thought they were on to something that could become a major money-spinner. They got their new drug lovastatin approved by the US FDA in 1987, after clinical trials demonstrated its effectiveness in lowering cholesterol.

Today, there are six statin drugs approved for use within the US, and they are widely prescribed for men and women (and, oddly, even children!) whether or not they have heart disease. However, a meta-analysis of eleven large studies showed no significant difference in mortality rate between people taking a statin and not taking a statin as a heart disease preventative, nor any benefit for women whatsoever, even if they have been diagnosed with heart disease. The benefit for men with diagnosed heart disease is small but statistically significant (a 2-4% decrease in mortality from any cause, depending upon the study and over the time period of the study, 4-6 years in most cases). See Barbara H. Robert's book The Truth about Statins for more details on these studies.

You can actually take this a step further. When Zoe Harcombe analysed the World Health Organisation (WHO) data on a country-by-country basis, it became clear that low cholesterol levels are associated with a HIGHER risk of heart disease, and high cholesterol levels are associated with a LOWER risk of heart disease, and that is a statistically relevant difference. But nobody wants to talk about that.

Clearly, there is good money to be made by the pharmaceutical companies if they can convince you and your doctor that preventative statin treatment IS of value, so they’re hardly going to go out of their way to point out their drugs don’t prevent heart disease.

Furthermore—and they don’t like to talk about this either—statins come with certain side effects and risks. A Dutch survey found 40% of statin users reported muscle pain, 31% reported joint pain, 16% reported digestion problems, and 13% complained of memory loss. The US FDA warns use of the drugs can result in liver damage, muscle damage, the development of diabetes, and brain impairment. A low cholesterol level, drug-induced or not, is also associated with a higher suicide risk.

I’d like to come back to the original supposition made by the medical community, that high cholesterol causes heart disease, and suggest an alternative. I think high cholesterol is a symptom of heart disease, rather than a cause, like a rash is a symptom of measles or bleeding is a symptom of a cut. When you’re immune system is out of whack or there is injury somewhere that needs repair, or you are simply going through a normal aging process (cholesterol levels naturally go up as we age) I think your body increases production of cholesterol to deal with those issues.

I have an enormous amount of faith in Mother Nature. I believe our bodies are intelligent and designed to serve us, and to heal when some damage has been caused. I don’t think a chemical intervention is superior—especially as a “preventative”—to Mother Nature’s own way. Just my thoughts.

If you’d like to know more, follow the links in the post. The  book The Great Cholesterol Con by Malcolm Kendrick and the documentary video Statin Nation are also recommended.