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Last week a US court shocked Monsanto — and many scientists — by hitting the company, recently bought by Bayer of Germany, with $289m in damages on the grounds that a groundskeeper’s terminal cancer had been caused by its weedkillers containing the chemical glyphosate.
Monsanto raged, citing “more than 800 scientific studies and reviews proving that glyphosate does not cause cancer” including from the US National Institutes of Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization.
While scientists generally sympathise with Monsanto — “from a purely scientific point of view I do not think the judgment makes sense,” as Paul Pharaoh, Cambridge university professor of cancer epidemiology puts it — the stock market has treated Bayer shares harshly, sending them last week to a five-year low. Around 8,000 US legal cases are pending.
Nor have Monsanto’s products got a completely clean bill of health. Prof Sophie Kamoun, director of the Sainsbury plant science lab in Cambridge, points out that the combination of Roundup and Ranger Pro in the US case is not scientifically equivalent to glyphosate even though it is their main ingredient. “I think that we as scientists should acknowledge that even if glyphosate is safe there is little data to conclude that Roundup and Ranger Pro are safe,” she says.
One problem for the company is that the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer decided in 2015 that glyphosate was a “ probable carcinogen,” emboldening environmental and consumer groups campaigning against the chemical.
The Environmental Working Group, a US activist organisation, reported last week that some oat-based breakfast cereals contained unhealthy levels of glyphosate residues. General Mills, the US-based food giant is facing a class-action lawsuit over traces in its products.
In practice, agriculture is so dependent on glyphosate that it could not be banned without a phase-out period of several years. As Stephen Carr, a UK farmer put it in Farmer’s Weekly, a ban would cause “disruption to our current farming practices and efficiency of an absolutely daunting magnitude.”
The public-private NHS New data prepared for the FT show no surge in private sector involvement in the UK's National Health Service, despite fears being voiced of “galloping privatisation”.
Malnutrition warning The UN’s Global Nutrition Report will warn of increased stunting, anaemia and obesity among children. “There will be more children falling into the chronic undernourishment category in a business-as-usual situation, with Africa being the most affected. It will be a reversal of all the gains we have made.” (Devex)
Measles and anti-vaxx bots Europe is experiencing a “dramatic increase in infections and extended outbreaks” of measles, the WHO said, pointing to lower take-up of vaccines, possibly fuelled by Russian bots. More than half the UK, France and Italy still thinks there may be a link between vaccines and autism. (WHO, Guardian, American Public Health Association, The Conversation)
Tropical disease threat Climate change and higher temperatures across Europe are helping disease-carrying vectors such as mosquitoes to transmit diseases. West Nile virus is spreading and dengue fever, Chikungunya and the Zika virus could also take hold. (The Guardian)
Tedros anniversary Young volunteers have received health insurance, lunch vouchers and time off, and could soon receive stipends, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in his first annual letter as World Health Organization chief. He said the agency had been involved in 50 emergencies in the past 12 months and that women now outnumbered men among its senior leaders. (WHO)
Sunshine and shadows The US vitamin D evangelist who helped push supplement sales to more than $900m received hundreds of thousands of dollars from related businesses including drug companies and the indoor tanning industry. Recent clinical trials have failed to confirm the benefits of vitamin D flagged in earlier studies. (Kaiser/NYT)
Struggling to breathe Air pollution globally kills more than three times the number of people than HIV/Aids and malaria combined. London shows just how intractable the problem can be — and Brexit could make things worse. New studies show how air pollution leads to cardiovascular diseases and is shortening lives around the world. (PLOS, FT, Jama, Heart, Environmental Science and Technology)
Bracing for Brexit The UK issued emergency plans for medical supplies in case of a “no deal” Brexit including warnings not to stockpile drugs. No deal would also mean the UK having to design a whole new range of health warnings for cigarette packs. (UK government, FT, Politico)
Mozzies and malaria World Mosquito Day commemorated the 1897 discovery by British doctor Sir Ronald Ross that malaria was transmitted by female mosquitoes. NPR looks at the role of cartoons in spreading the message — from The Seven Dwarves to Mozzie, the mass murderer. Scientists are developing “next-gen” repellents. (Quartz, NPR, Malaria Must Die, American Chemical Society)
Picture this Innovative solutions for dealing with dementia in the Netherlands include simulated bus and bike rides and the use of therapeutic robot seals. “Photo interventions” are one method of engaging sufferers. (New York Times, CNN)
Widening gene pools The UK Biobank— the database of genomic information from 500,000 volunteers — has been described as the “pinnacle of epidemiological science”. The data are heavily skewed to white Europeans but UK researchers are supporting projects with other ethnic groups. A study argues against automatic genome sequencing for newborns. (FT, Hastings Center Report )
Hidden health powers? The traditional diet of Inuit people, rich in unique helpful microbes, could help prevent chronic health problems such as diabetes and allergies. (Arctic Today)
Best from the journals
No safe level of alcohol Alcohol is linked to 2.8m deaths a year globally and is the leading cause for those aged 15-49 through problems such as TB, road injuries and self-harm. Any beneficial impacts are outweighed by other adverse effects. The bulk of UK drinks industry revenues are from heavy drinkers. (The Lancet, The Conversation)
Surgery in Africa Some 93 per cent of people in sub-Saharan Africa live within two hours of a major hospital that could theoretically carry out the “bellwether procedures” of laparotomy, caesarean delivery and treatment of an open fracture. Rapid development in Central Africa is increasing the risk of infectious disease outbreaks. (BMJ, NEJM)
AMR strategies Making antibiotics prescription-only in attempts to curb antimicrobial resistance could worsen health inequalities in poorer countries. (BMJ)
Universal healthcare Countries must balance the expansion of healthcare coverage with the quality of care delivered. Medical errors and hospital infections could undermine gains made under universal coverage. (Science)
Sleep and obesity Insufficient sleep and disruption of our circadian rhythms through shift work have long been linked with obesity, but a new study shows how they alter our metabolism, leading to weight gain and loss of muscle mass. (Science Advances)
Data-driven psychiatry Psychiatric practices have traditionally relied on subjective observation of patients but wearables and mobile devices now offer the opportunity to make treatment data-driven. (Nature)
Podcast of the week
DIY biology BBC radio's five-part series on “biohacking” continues with a look at those trying DNA and gene therapy on themselves. “We're at a tipping point where Crispr [genome-editing technology] is just starting to flow out of the lab and into wider society”. (BBC iPlayer, 14m)
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