Issue 485, 17 Aug 2018


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New from the SMC

Expert Reaction: Single use plastic bag ban 

Expert Reaction: Monsanto loses glyphosate cancer case

Expert Reaction: Bridge collapse in Italy 

Expert Reaction: It’s going to be abnormally warm till 2022 

Reflections on Science: Lose kauri and we lose a piece of ourselves – Amanda Black and Monica Gerth

New from the SMC global network

Spotlight on weedkiller

Use of popular weedkiller Roundup has been called into question again after a landmark court case in the US. 

The San Francisco jury granted US$289 million to a groundskeeper who said his lymphoma resulted from years of applying Monsanto’s trademarked Roundup herbicide, which did not include adequate warning of its links to cancer.

The decision prompted Environment Minister Eugenie Sage to ask the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider adding Roundup to a list of hazardous substances up for reassessment.

Dr Fiona Thomson-Carter, general manager of New Zealand's EPA's Hazardous Substances Group, said there is "no change to the science behind our current position, which is products containing glyphosate remain safe to use when you follow the instructions on the products label".

New Zealand scientists argued the US ruling shouldn't prompt a knee-jerk ban of Roundup here.

"Herbicide use is seldom exposure to just one specific product - and the dose, duration, type, and frequency of exposure is relevant to any potential risk," Associate Professor Brian Cox, a cancer epidemiologist at the University of Otago told the NZ Herald.

"A sudden reaction to one case in one US law court, that has not yet gone to the appeal court, is not an appropriate method of developing health policy in New Zealand."

There is debate over whether or not Roundup causes cancer. Massey University Centre for Public Health Research Professor John Potter told The AM Show that glyphosate — a key ingredient in Roundup - has officially been designated a "probable carcinogen" by the cancer research arm of the World Health Organisation: the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). He said councils that use the weed killer on verges, greens and schools should reconsider their use, as should wider agriculture businesses that use it.

However, Dr Belinda Cridge, a toxicologist from the University of Otago, told the SMC the IARC definition means glyphosate may cause cancer, but there is no evidence of cause and effect and it may only do so only under the right conditions and exposures. Red meat is also listed by IARC as a "probable carcinogen". She said the IARC reviews are "based on good scientific evidence" but that "wider factors are critical to determining full risk".

She acknowledged: "it is very difficult to model and track all possible interactions" of the additives in Roundup and it might be that the combination of these chemicals contributes to cancer — but this isn't something that's been tested yet.

"It's important to consider the whole picture. Roundup isn’t, and has never been, a safe panacea for all weed control. Scientists continue to learn more and more about this chemical and its effects. However, the alternative options aren’t very appealing and many are much much worse for both people and the environment."

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the court result and Environment Minister's response.

Quoted: RNZ


"It turns out it's kinda harder to [shoot something at the Sun] than you might think, because you've got to bring it rest. Because the Earth is flying through space, you want to slow it down so it will fall towards the Sun.

So what they're doing is flying it to Venus and multiple encounters with the gravity of Venus will shape its orbit cunningly using what's called a slingshot technique, until it flies closer and closer to the surface of the Sun.

Head of the University of Auckland's Physics Department
Richard Easther
on the Parker Solar Probe

Bridge collapse in Italy

A motorway bridge collapse in Genoa this week killed at least 38 people and injured dozens.

This image, posted on twitter by @antoguerrara, shows the bridge after the collapse.

The 200m section of the bridge came tumbling down when one of the huge 90m-high support towers collapsed onto the rail tracks, buildings and river below. Between 30 and 35 cars and three heavy vehicles were on the bridge at the time of the collapse, the BBC reported

By Thursday (NZ time), the Italian Prime Ministers Giuseppe Conte had declared a 12-month state of emergency in the region. The bridge - known as the Morandi bridge after its designer - is central to the country's motorway system as it connects three ports and travelers from all over the country to the Italian Riviera

Structural engineer Antonio Brencich reportedly warned there were problems with the bridge back in the 1990s and again in 2016, bringing to light a decades-long debate about ageing Italian infrastructure. Engineering Professor Alessandro Palermo from the University of Canterbury knows Brencich and he told Newstalk ZB: "the bridge needed so much maintenance after just 20 years, it would have cost just as much to replace it".

The legacy of the bridge-building frenzy of the mid-20C means "there are a large number of reinforced concrete bridges in Italy, Europe, USA, and Canada with the same age, which are suffering from corrosion of reinforcement and/or pre-stressing tendon," according to Dr Mehdi Kashani from the University of Southampton. 

Structural engineer Dr. Demitrios Cotsovos from Heriot-Watt University told the UK SMC that to prevent events like this in future, we need to find out what caused the Morandi bridge to collapse and use that to monitor similar structures globally.

Professor Palermo told Newshub the NZTA has a rigorous maintenance programme for bridges in New Zealand. "They have general inspections every two years, and then they have a more detailed inspection after six years. That also depends on the condition of the bridge [and] where the bridge is located."

The UK SMC asked experts to comment on the disaster.

It'll be ultra-warm till 2022 

As a heatwave tapers off in parts of the northern hemisphere, a new forecast system from UK and Dutch researchers has predicted the years 2018 till 2022 are going to anomalously warm, with a greater chance of extreme temperatures.

On top of higher temperatures caused by climate change, the forecast suggests the world can expect 'extra warming' in the next few years because of natural variability, the researchers found.

These natural changes occur as part of the cooling and heating of the planet's oceans, NIWA's chief scientist of Climate, Atmosphere and Hazards Sam Dean told RNZ.

"The last few years, we've had some really hot years, which were above that trend and this model is predicting that's likely to carry on for a few more years," he said.

The forecast is based on a statistical model that provides reliable predictions of global mean air and sea surface temperatures, taking into account external forces such as greenhouse gases and aerosols, along with natural variability.

Professor James Renwick from Victoria University of Wellington told Newshub the new 'decadal' forecast system (which predicts climate in the coming two to 20 years) is at the forefront of climate prediction research.

"If such forecasts could be made reliably they would clearly be of great value in many sectors: agriculture, energy, emergency management, public health, etc. Most research is focused on using dynamical global climate models (GCMs, as used for climate change simulations), where the ocean state is very carefully specified for the present day."

If the warming trend caused by greenhouse gas emissions continues, years like 2018 will be the norm in the 2040s, Prof Renwick told the NZ Herald, and would be classed as cold by the end of the century.

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the study.

Policy news & developments

ETS review: The government is consulting on: proposed improvements to the framework of the Emissions Trading Scheme, and reduced complexity and barriers to the ETS in forestry.

Foreign buyers ban: The Bill to put in place the Government’s policy of banning overseas buyers of existing homes has passed its third and final reading in the House. 

Pay deal for education support staff: Early childhood education and primary school support staff will get a pay rise of up to 30 per cent in a settlement for pay equity.

Canterbury quake tax relief extended: Parliament will extend tax relief for Canterbury businesses affected by issues relating to depreciation following the earthquakes.

Nelson Marlborough begins bowel screening: 30,000 people, aged 60–74, in the region will join the national bowel screening programme over the next two years, with the first invitation letters being sent out this week.

Organic production standard: Most public submissions support the Government’s preferred approach of a single set of rules for organic production. The next will be a draft Cabinet paper to progress the standard. 

Law changes for M.bovis eradication: Changes to the NAIT Act 2012, made under urgency aim to fix long-standing problems of the Act, and hold to account those who fail to declare those movements to NAIT. Meanwhile a new science advisory group has been established to help eradication efforts. 

M.bovis found in Tasman region: The cattle disease has been found for the first time in the Tasman district, on a sheep and beef farm near Motueka.

Whitebait season begins: DOC is asking whitebaiters to be responsible, follow the rules and watch out for barriers to upstream movements as whitebaiting season begins. 

What we've been reading

With an abundance of news stories to possibly read, watch and listen to, it can be hard to find the gems. Here we highlight some of the stories that caught our attention this week.

A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World
Jess Berentson-Shaw's new book explores the science of communicating and presents innovative ways to talk effectively (and empathetically) about contentious information.

The Big Leak
Leaky homes are an issue New Zealanders can't seem to get away from, but the messy court battle at the centre of Stuff national correspondent Steve Kilgallon's three-part series has three parties claiming they have been wronged.  

Fighting the vanilla thieves of Madagascar
The vanilla plantations of Madagacar are shaping into battlegrounds as vanilla thieves stalk the orchards to get a piece of the expensive, difficult-to-grow spice that last year cost as much as silver. It's gotten to the point where farmers are stamping their names, and sometimes serial numbers, onto individual vanilla pods while they’re still on the vine reports Nancy Kacungira for the BBC.

A semicolon in the arts
There have long been established guidelines for discussing suicide in the news media, but the rules for fiction are far less clear writes John Back for Lateral Magazine.

The nastiest feud in science
A Princeton geologist has endured decades of ridicule for arguing that the fifth extinction was caused not by an asteroid but by a series of colossal volcanic eruptions, writes Biana Bosker for The Atlantic.

New from Sciblogs - NZ's science blog network

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:
Understanding and Improving the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme

To chart a successful future for the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme, we need to understand its present and its past, writes Catherine Leining from Motu Economic and Public Policy Research.
Guest Work
USA Court ruling on glyphosate— the role of IARC and Eugenie Sage’s call

The role IARC seems to be very little understood, writes Grant Jacobs, the role is advisory and intends to alert scientific regulatory bodies of compounds they might further examine for risk.
Code for life

Upcoming events

Please see the SMC Events Calendar for more events and details.
  • Robots and Europa: 20 August, University of Otago, Dunedin;  21 August, Otago Museum. These public geology talks will explore Europa - what's in the cryosphere, and how researchers are using the autonomous underwater vehicle Icefin to explore harsh Antarctic environments to test vehicles that may one day explore below Europa's surface.
  • T-cell therapies: 20 August, Auckland. Visiting Washington Professor Catherine M Bollard  will focus on the recent advances in adoptive T-cell immunotherapies for lymphoma.
  • Great whites: 21 August, Christchurch. Anthropology doctoral student Raj Sekhar Aich presents a short documentary from his fieldwork in Bluff and the Foveaux Strait, where tourists dive with great white sharks.
  • Supervolcanoes: 21 August, Rotorua; 22 August, Tauranga; 23 August, Whakatāne. Colin Wilson continues his Rutherford Lecture series delving into the life and times of supervolcanoes.
  • Saving babies: 21 August, Auckland. Auckland University health and Liggins Institute researchers share finding that have contributed to decreasing some risks babies face during the early vital days.
  • What is a prison?: 22 August, Wellington. Auckland criminologist Dr James Oleson looks at the definitional limits of prison, in the hope it might answer questions about mass incarcerations.
  • Diversity in decision-making: 22 August, Dunedin. Political theorist Associate Professor Lisa Ellis explores why indigenous peoples still struggle to be included on their own terms in political debate and decision-making.
  • Making sense of Trump's rants: 22 August, Albany. This research seminar examines Trump’s communication, including his Twitter dialogue, from multiple perspectives and explores the possibility of dialogue between polarised groups.
  • Food for moods: 22 August, Christchurch. Psychology senior lecturer Dr Tamlin Conner shares insights on the role of fruit and vegetable intake on psychological well-being. 
  • Future liveable cities: 22 August, Auckland. Aotearoa in 2030 is the theme of the six-lecture series, presented by local and international experts, which delves into the pressing social and environmental challenges the country faces.

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