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Gold mining with mercury threatens health of communities miles downstream

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May 28 (UPI) — Small-scale gold mining using mercury in the Peruvian Amazon threatens the health of communities 100 miles or more downstream, according to new research.

In 2015, scientists collected hair and blood samples of mercury from more than 1,200 Peruvian households in 23 communities, some close to mining operations and others more than 100 miles away. The research team returned a year later to retest the same households.

The data, published Thursday in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, showed adults and children living in native villages were more likely to have higher mercury exposures than non-native Peruvians.

The diets of many native communities in Peru feature large amounts of freshwater fish. Mercury pollution concentrates in large fish at the top of the food chain.

“Assumptions about exposure are not reliable,” study co-author Caren Weinhouse, an assistant professor at Oregon Health and Science University, said in a news release.

Previous mercury contamination surveys have mostly focused on people living closed to gold mining activity, but the latest research suggests the risk of exposure extends far beyond a mine’s immediate surrounding.

“If you look more closely, it turns out your first instinct may be wrong,” Weinhouse said.

A parallel study, published last week, showed Peruvian children living with the highest levels of mercury in their blood score lower on IQ tests and experience anemia, a dearth of hemoglobin that makes it harder for their oxygen to carry blood throughout the body.

“If you were going to have a high IQ anyway, you’ll probably still have a higher IQ after exposure, but for kids at risk for impairment, a few points can make a difference,” said Duke University graduate student Aaron Reuben, co-author of the neurocognitive study of Peruvian children.

While native communities downstream from gold mining were at greater risk of mercury exposure, researchers found elevated mercury levels in the blood samples of more than half the general population.

“Our paper describes some plausible biological pathways for that to happen,” said William Pan, an associate professor of environmental sciences and policy at Duke. “But really, this is something we need to understand a bit more.”



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Google honors physician and microbiologist Dr. Stamen Grigorov with new Doodle

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Oct. 27 (UPI) — Google is celebrating Bulgarian physician and microbiologist Dr. Stamen Grigorov with a new Doodle Tuesday, on what would have been his 142nd birthday.

Grigorov, who was born in 1878 in the village of Studen Izvor in the Trun region of Bulgaria, is the first scientist to discover the bacterium essential to the fermentation of yogurt. He also helped with the development of the first tuberculosis vaccine.

Google’s homepage features artwork of Grigorov being surrounded by multiple bowls of yogurt.

Grigorov, who worked as a research assistant at the Medical University of Geneva, Switzerland, started to inspect yogurt under a microscope after being intrigued by its reported health benefits.

The scientist found the rod-shaped microorganism that causes yogurt’s fermentation in 1905 after thousands of experiments. The bacterium was named Lactobacillus bulgaricus, in honor of his home nation of Bulgaria.

The following year, Grigorov released a groundbreaking paper demonstrating the first use of penicillin fungi against tuberculosis while working as chief physician at a hospital in Trun.

Studen Izvor is home to the world’s only yogurt museums.



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Vampire bats socially distance when they fall ill

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Oct. 27 (UPI) — New research suggests vampire bats are better at following CDC guidelines than some humans.

When a vampire bat gets sick, they spend less time around other members of the colony, helping to slow the spread of disease, according to a new study published Tuesday in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

Scientists had previously observed vampire bats practicing social distancing in captivity, but the latest research suggests wild bats also work to flatten the curve.

For the study, researchers captured 31 adult female vampire bats from a roost located in a hollow tree in Belize. To simulate the influence of illness, scientists injected half the bats with lipopolysaccharide, an immune-challenging substance. The control bats were injected with saline.

After attaching proximity sensors to the bats, researchers released them back into the wild.

The data revealed shifting interaction patterns among the different bats during the six-hour treatment period — before the effects of the injection wore off. The sick bats interacted with fewer members of the colony and spent less time their peers.

In the hours following their release back into the wild, the data showed a control bat had a 49 percent chance of interacting with another control bat, but only a 35 percent of interacting with a sick bat. Sick bats also spent 25 fewer minutes with their partners than control bats.

“The sensors gave us an amazing new window into how the social behavior of these bats changed from hour to hour and even minute to minute during the course of the day and night, even while they are hidden in the darkness of a hollow tree,” lead study author Simon Ripperger said in a news release.

“We’ve gone from collecting data every day to every few seconds,” said Ripperger, an ecologist at Ohio State University.

For most species, illness symptoms, such as lethargy and sleep, or reduced movement and sociality, prevent infected individuals from interacting with the rest of the community — a kind of involuntary social distancing. But the latest research suggests bats are part of a minority group of animals that purposefully self-isolate in cooperation with their colony mates.



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SpaceX launches public beta test of Starlink Internet service

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Oct. 27 (UPI) — SpaceX has launched public beta testing of its Starlink communications satellite program that aims deliver high-speed Internet globally, particularly in underserved areas.

The Elon Musk-founded aerospace manufacturer sent out emails to invite people who signed up on its Starlink website to hear updates about the program.

The initial Starlink service is called “Better Than Nothing Beta,” according to multiple screenshots of an email, CNBC reported.

Joining the public beta test costs $99 a month on top of a $499 upfront cost for the ground equipment, which includes a user terminal to connect to the satellites, a mounting tripod and a Wi-Fi router.

SpaceX also has a Starlink app listed on the Google Play and Apple iOS app stores, which helps users set up their systems and allows them to search areas of the sky for unobstructed views.

“As you can tell from the title, we are trying to lower your initial expectations,” the Starlink Team signed email said. “Expect to see data speeds vary from 50 Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all.”

SpaceX said that “nearly 700,000” individuals across the United States had expressed interest in potentially subscribing to the service.

“Under Starlink’s Better Than Nothing Beta program, initial service is targeted for the U.S. and Canada in 2020, rapidly expanding to near global coverage of the populated world by 2021,” SpaceX said in the description of its Starlink mobile app.

The company rolled out private beta testing over the summer for which users had to agree to keep their experience confidential.

“You may NOT discuss your participation in the Beta Program online or with those outside or your household, unless they are SpaceX employees,” the Starlink website said.

SpaceX said the network will cost about $10 billion or more to build, but the company’s leadership estimates that it could bring in up to $30 billion a year, which is more than 10 times the annual revenue of its rocket business.

On Saturday, SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket into space, carrying 60 Internet satellites into orbit to help establish connections to remote areas.

Earlier this month, Musk tweeted that Starlink’s constellation had grown large enough to begin beta-testing the Internet service system in the United States and southern Canada.

The company has launched nearly 900 Starlink satellites to date, which is only a fraction of what’s needed for global coverage, but enough to provide service in some areas.

Last week, SpaceX announced that it would offer Starlink’s broadband service free to families in Texas’ Ector County Independent School District, where more than one-third of the children and their families lack Internet access.



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