Archives : 2013 : February

Simple Test Developed to Determine the Presence of Mercury in Water

February 28th, 2013

Earlier this month, researchers from the University of Burgos in Spain announced that they have developed a new test to detect mercury in water that can be used by anyone, even those individuals without knowledge of water chemistry. This innovative test, which is discussed in more detail in the Analytical Methods journal, only requires submerging a test sheet in the water for five minutes. If mercury is present in the water at or above the EPA maximum contaminant level of 2 parts per billion, the sheet will turn red.

Credit:  J.M Garcia et al.

Color analysis of the mercury water test using a mobile device. Credit: J.M Garcia et al.

In addition to being able to quickly detect the presence of mercury, the researchers have also created the ability for a mobile device to assist in determining the amount of mercury present as well. The user first takes a picture of the sheet with a mobile phone or tablet. Image treatment software such as GIMP, which is free, open-access software, is then used to compare the particular shade of red with reference values. Essentially each shade of red represents a different concentration of mercury.  The ability to simply use a mobile device to analyze a water sample makes this test very unique. The researchers claim that this test is inexpensive however it is currently unknown how it will compare to mercury water test kits currently available.

Mercury is a toxic metal that can be released through processes such as the burning of coal and oil, incineration of mercury-containing materials, or through natural erosion of rock and soil. The mercury eventually is deposited in the water. Drinking water with high levels of mercury can harm the nervous system, leading to nervousness, irritability, changes in vision or hearing, and memory issues. Young children are particularly susceptible to the effects of mercury. It is unknown whether drinking water contaminated with low levels of mercury for a long period of time causes any effects as well.

Microorganisms in the water can also convert the mercury to methylmercury which is a highly toxic form of mercury that can accumulate in organisms such as fish and shellfish. When consumed, the methylmercury can damage the kidneys as well as the nervous system. Nearly all of the 50 states have had at least one fish consumption advisory related to mercury which suggests that it is an abundant contaminant. Since mercury is a contaminant of concern in both the US and abroad, an easy and potentially inexpensive analytical tool like this new mercury water test should prove to be very useful.


The Facts About the Novel Coronavirus

February 21st, 2013

Just a few days ago, the recently discovered novel coronavirus claimed the life of another person overseas. News of the fatality rapidly spread across the globe causing many to worry about the possibility of a new pandemic. If you would like to learn more about this new potentially deadly virus, read the facts listed below.

What is the novel coronavirus?

The novel coronavirus, also known as NCoV, is a new strain of coronaviruses, which is a large family of viruses that was first identified in the 1960s. This group includes viruses that cause the common cold as well as those that result in SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). Coronaviruses get their name from the crown-like projects that are present on the virus’ surface.

Virus Cells Attacking the Body

Where did this coronavirus come from?

All of the 12 confirmed cases are linked to the Middle East. Five people were from Saudi Arabia, two were from Jordan, and one was from Qatar. There were also four cases in the United Kingdom.  These individuals are related to each other. The first family member to contract the coronavirus had recently traveled to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

When was the first case of the virus reported?

The first confirmed case was reported in September of 2012 though the individual actually died from the illness in June 2012.

How many people have died after becoming infected with the coronavirus?

Six out of 12 known cases have been fatal.

How is this virus spread?

People contract the novel coronavirus when they inhale the air droplets that are produced when the infected individual sneezes, coughs, or talks. People can also contract the virus by touching a surface that is contaminated with the virus however this route is less likely.

What are the symptoms?

The confirmed cases have exhibited a fever, cough, shortness of breath, and overall breathing difficulties. It is unknown whether an infected person can experience more mild symptoms as well which would suggest the possibility that more people may be unknowingly infected.

What treatment is available?

There is no vaccine available. At this time, medical care can only help to relieve the symptoms.

How is the novel coronavirus different from SARS?

Thus far, there have only been a small number of confirmed cases indicating that this virus is not as easily spread from person to person as the virus that causes SARS. Experts believe that the novel coronavirus is not nearly as infectious.

Can infection be prevented?

The novel coronavirus can only survive for 24 hours when it is outside of the body and is easily destroyed by cleaning agents and detergents.

Are we at risk in the United States?

The CDC says that no cases have occurred in the US thus far and therefore the risk of Americans becoming infected with the virus is low. People can still travel to the Middle East but should seek medical treatment if they experience the symptoms listed above, especially if they have unexplained pneumonia or other respiratory illness that is not responding to treatment.

Though the novel coronavirus is related to SARS, experts do not currently believe that we should be concerned about an epidemic similar to the 2003 SARS outbreak in which the illness spread to more than two dozen countries, infecting over 8000 and causing 774 deaths. It is however a good idea to always practice good hygiene, especially if you will be traveling to the Middle East while the virus is still present.



Meteorite Explodes over Russia and a Near Earth Asteroid Expected to Fly by the Planet, February 15, 2012

February 15th, 2013

Today is a remarkable day for astronomical events.  Earlier today a meteorite streaked across the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia causing explosions that damaged buildings and injured approximately 500 people.  According to NASA , the meteorite, which was too small to detect far in advance, was flying by on a north to south trajectory when it entered the atmosphere.  Even though this event alone is newsworthy, NASA scientists predict that a small asteroid, called 2012 DA14, will pasAsteroids by the Earth today, though this object will be flying in the opposite direction, on a south to north trajectory. The asteroid is approximately 50 meters wide or about half the length of a football field. The near earth asteroid will be true to its name, passing about 17,150 miles above the planet’s surface which seems like a great distance but will actually be closer to the Earth than some of the man-made satellites. This flyby is quite an event since astronomers have never seen this large of an object come as close to the Earth since regular sky surveys began in the 1990s.

It is interesting that the meteorite event and the asteroid flyby will occur not even two months after the infamous date of December 21, 2012 which is the day that, according to interpretations of the Mayan prophecy, an apocalyptic event like an asteroid impact would cause the end of the world. Fortunately, the meteorite’s impact was localized and the asteroid, which is much larger in size, will not come close enough to be a threat to the planet in any way. NASA estimates however that if an asteroid that is the size of 2012 DA14 hit the Earth it could cause a local disaster or cause tidal waves that would flood low-lying coastal areas if it hit the ocean. Though this will not occur today, these impact events are expected to occur every 100 years or so. In fact, in 1908 an asteroid measuring 100 meters exploded in the atmosphere above a remote region called Tunguska in Siberia. It did not hit ground but the explosion was so large that it leveled more than half a million acres of forest.

While the likelihood of a large asteroid hitting the Earth and causing major damage is very low, NASA continues to monitor for any near Earth asteroids since the consequences of a collision could be devastating for a region. As of today, the Near Earth Object Program has classified 1,381 asteroids as potentially hazardous.  And after an eventful day like today, we all might want to watch the skies a little closer from now on.


Are Americans Prepared for a Disaster? Emergency Preparedness Polls Have Surprising Results

February 7th, 2013

As we saw with Hurricane Sandy back in October, a disaster situation can leave a family helpless for days with little assistance from rescue teams. Some people, who regularly practice emergency preparedness, had stockpiled basic emergency supplies months in advance and “weathered” the storm. Countless others, however, did not prepare until the last minute when supplies were running low, causing a frenzy at local grocery stores. A natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, after which approximately 8 million people were left without power for days and thousands had to be rescued from their homes, makes us wonder if Americans will be prepared for the next disaster. A national poll sponsored by the Adelphi University Center for Health Innovation suggests that the answer is no.11180656_s

The Adelphi Natural Disaster Survey, conducted in May 2012, questioned more than 1,000 Americans and, based on the results, estimated that approximately half of all Americans are not adequately prepared for a disaster or other emergency situation. Forty-eight percent of those surveyed do not have any emergency supplies stockpiled and 53% do not have at least a three-day supply of nonperishable food and water. Even more shocking, 44% of the individuals surveyed do not even have first-aid kits!

Aside from the more basic emergency essentials like food, water, and first-aid supplies, there are other items that people should have in their emergency preparedness kit but do not. For instance, 37% of survey participants do not have a list of drugs used by family members and 52% do not have copies of their health insurance documents readily available, which would prove useful if someone is injured or becomes ill during the disaster event. In addition to the emergency preparedness kit, FEMA and the American Red Cross recommend that families designate a meeting place in the event that they become separated during an emergency. Unfortunately many Americans do not consider this a priority since 52% have not established a family meeting place for emergency purposes.

So why are Americans not preparing for disasters or other emergencies? Recently, FEMA conducted a poll, asking the question, “What makes disaster prep hard?” and respondents provided a variety of explanations. The top five reasons were:

  1. Complacency: Many Americans are not concerned that they will ever find themselves in an emergency situation such as a natural disaster.
  2. Procrastination: Americans do not consider emergency preparedness to be a high priority.
  3. Time: Americans do not want to take the time necessary to make adequate preparations.
  4. Cost: An emergency preparedness kit requires an initial expense.
  5. Unknown Disaster:  Despite the fact that most emergency preparedness kits are very general and can be used for any situation, many individuals say that they do not know what type of disaster to plan for.

Number eight on the list of reasons for lack of preparedness is the thought that the Government will be available to help everyone if a disaster strikes. Interestingly, the Adelphi Natural Disaster Survey also received a similar response in their poll where 55% of participants believed that local authorities will rescue them following a disaster. This is a dangerous assumption. Depending on the situation, relief workers may not reach survivors for hours or even days which can have fatal consequences.

We all must be prepared to be self-reliant during any emergency. Unfortunately it seems that a large portion of Americans are not concerned about emergency preparedness for a variety of different reasons. Remember, a disaster can strike at any time so putting together an emergency preparedness kit should be a top priority. Preparation will require some time and an initial expense but the peace of mind that comes with having an emergency supply kit is priceless.


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