Feb 15, 2018

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

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1. Household products are big source of city air pollution

A smoggy Los Angeles skyline in 2006. Photo: David McNew / Getty Images

Common household products like cosmetics, paints, deodorants and cleaners may be a significant source of unhealthy pollutants in U.S. cities. According to a new study published Thursday in Science, chemicals released from these products create as much pollution in the form of ozone and particulate matter as burning fossil fuels.

The bottom line: Overall, air quality in the U.S. has improved due to strict regulations on emissions from cars. And, at the same time, the amount and proportion of other pollutants from consumer products has increased. Addressing that remaining source could further improve human health, according to some experts.

The big picture: The authors caution that more research needs to be done before any regulations can be passed because it's still not clear what specific products are the largest polluters, or if any one pollutant stands out.

Read the full story here.

2. What's going on in this terrible flu season

Vials of the Fluvirin influenza vaccine. Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The current flu season is particularly deadly due to the specific virus strains combined with a "fluke" that rendered this year's vaccine less effective than desired, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tells Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly.

Vaccine's effectiveness: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today announced interim results of the vaccine's overall effectiveness, which is 36%.

Why this matters: Healthy individuals are being struck down by the flu this season and some communities have taken steps like shutting schools to combat the contagion, which has killed at least 63 kids in the U.S. since the start of this flu season in the fall. While the CDC will update its influenza data soon, authorities say early indications do not show a slowdown yet.

Read Eileen's full story here.

3. Axios Science stories
  • Funding: President Trump's budget — which Congress will likely push back against — proposes increasing funding for opioid research programs, cutting it for climate change and clean energy initiatives, and reorganizing the National Institutes of Health, reports Erin Ross.
  • Drones: Ben Geman on a new study that found using drones to deliver packages may cut greenhouse gas emissions — under certain circumstances.
  • Ashes to ashes, genes to genes: Scientists have found a number of genes whose activity changes after a person dies, which could one day be used to pinpoint someone's time of death, per Erin. One strange thing: Some genes that are turned on during our early life development are reactivated after death.
4. What we're reading elsewhere
  • Troubled waters: In drought-stricken Cape Town, residents who are poor or live in rural areas are likely to be hit hardest if municipal taps are turned off, which is now set to happen in May, Laura Poppick reports for Smithsonian. And in the U.S., local drinking water systems in low-income rural communities have repeatedly failed to meet federal standards, per the NYT's Brad Plummer and Nadja Popovich.
  • Unknown origins: A preliminary study of U.S. diplomats who reported hearing sounds while working in Havana found they have symptoms similar to those from brain injury but the origin remains unclear. "It's like a concussion without a concussion," one of the study authors told JAMA's Rita Rubin.
  • AI: Microsoft researcher Timnit Gebru talks to MIT Technology Review's Jackie Snow about AI's diversity problem. "If we don’t have diversity in our set of researchers, we are not going to address problems that are faced by the majority of people in the world."
5. Something wondrous

A Hawaiian field cricket. Photo: Will T. Schneider

From Erin: Most male crickets are built to sing. They rub special "scrapers" on one wing against "files" on another in order to attract mates. But the Hawaiian field cricket’s song was also attracting a parasitic fly. The fly’s larvae killed the crickets, and the population appeared to collapse.

A few years later, the crickets returned, songless. Instead of scrapers, they had smooth wings, like females. A few singing males remained — just enough to attract females to mate with the non-singers.

What's happening: In a paper published Wednesday in Royal Society Biology Letters, researchers at the University of St. Andrews describe how they used light-reflecting tags to measure the males' wing movements.

They found that even though their chirps were silent, the songless crickets rubbed their wings in exactly the same way as the singers. Although these flatwing crickets will never make a sound, millennia of instinct keep them trying.

The big picture: Under the right conditions, evolution can change a body quickly. But behaviors as ingrained as singing is for crickets take longer to evolve. The Hawaiian field cricket's transformation over less than 20 generations is one of the fastest examples of evolution observed.

Alison Snyder