The Conversation

Male fertility is declining. Studies show environmental toxins could be a reason

Ryan P. Smith, University of Virginia

In the U.S., nearly 1 in 8 couples struggles with infertility. Unfortunately, physicians like me who specialize in reproductive medicine are unable to determine the cause of male infertility around 30% to 50% of the time. There is almost nothing more disheartening than telling a couple “I don't know" or “There's nothing I can do to help."

Upon getting this news, couple after couple asks me questions that all follow a similar line of thinking. “What about his work, his cellphone, our laptops, all these plastics? Do you think they could have contributed to this?"

What my patients are really asking me is a big question in male reproductive health: Does environmental toxicity contribute to male infertility?

Infertility is defined as a couple's inability to get pregnant for one year despite regular intercourse. When this is the case, doctors evaluate both partners to determine why.

For men, the cornerstone of the fertility evaluation is semen analysis, and there are a number of ways to assess sperm. Sperm count – the total number of sperm a man produces – and sperm concentration – number of sperm per milliliter of semen – are common measures, but they aren't the best predictors of fertility. A more accurate measure looks at the total motile sperm count, which evaluates the fraction of sperm that are able to swim and move.

A wide range of factors – from obesity to hormonal imbalances to genetic diseases – can affect fertility. For many men, there are treatments that can help. But starting in the 1990s, researchers noticed a concerning trend. Even when controlling for many of the known risk factors, male fertility appeared to have been declining for decades.

In 1992, a study found a global 50% decline in sperm counts in men over the previous 60 years. Multiple studies over subsequent years confirmed that initial finding, including a 2017 paper showing a 50% to 60% decline in sperm concentration between 1973 and 2011 in men from around the world.

These studies, though important, focused on sperm concentration or total sperm count. So in 2019, a team of researchers decided to focus on the more powerful total motile sperm count. They found that the proportion of men with a normal total motile sperm count had declined by approximately 10% over the previous 16 years.

The science is consistent: Men today produce fewer sperm than in the past, and the sperm are less healthy. The question, then, is what could be causing this decline in fertility.

Environmental toxicity and reproduction

Scientists have known for years that, at least in animal models, environmental toxic exposure can alter hormonal balance and throw off reproduction. Researchers can't intentionally expose human patients to harmful compounds and measure outcomes, but we can try to assess associations.

As the downward trend in male fertility emerged, I and other researchers began looking more toward chemicals in the environment for answers. This approach doesn't allow us to definitively establish which chemicals are causing the male fertility decline, but the weight of the evidence is growing.

A lot of this research focuses on endocrine disrupters, molecules that mimic the body's hormones and throw off the fragile hormonal balance of reproduction. These include substances like phthalates – better known as plasticizers – as well as pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, toxic gases and other synthetic materials.

Plasticizers are found in most plastics – like water bottles and food containers – and exposure is associated with negative impacts on testosterone and semen health. Herbicides and pesticides abound in the food supply and some – specifically those with synthetic organic compounds that include phosphorus – are known to negatively affect fertility.

Air pollution surrounds cities, subjecting residents to particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and other compounds that likely contribute to abnormal sperm quality. Radiation exposure from laptops, cellphones and modems has also been associated with declining sperm counts, impaired sperm motility and abnormal sperm shape. Heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and arsenic are also present in food, water and cosmetics and are also known to harm sperm health.

Endocrine-disrupting compounds and the infertility problems they cause are taking a significant toll on human physical and emotional health. And treating these harms is costly.

The effects of unregulated chemicals

A lot of chemicals are in use today, and tracking them all is incredibly difficult. Today, more than 80,000 chemicals are registered with the National Toxicology Program. When the program was founded in 1978, 60,000 of those were grandfathered into the program with minimal information, and nearly 2,000 new chemicals are introduced each year. Many scientists believe that the safety testing for health and environmental risks is not strong enough and that the rapid development and introduction of new chemicals challenges the ability of organizations to test long-term risks to human health.

Current U.S. national toxicology regulations follow the principle of innocent until proved guilty and are less comprehensive and restrictive than similar regulations in Europe, for example. The World Health Organization recently identified 800 compounds capable of disrupting hormones, only a small fraction of which have been tested.

A trade group, the American Chemistry Council, says on its website that manufacturers “have the regulatory certainty they need to innovate, grow, create jobs and win in the global marketplace – at the same time that public health and the environment benefit from strong risk-based protections."

But the reality of the current regulatory system in the U.S. is that chemicals are introduced with minimal testing and taken off the market only when harm is proved. And that can take decades.

Dr. Niels Skakkebaek, the lead researcher on one of the first manuscripts on decreasing sperm counts, called the male fertility decline a “wake-up call to all of us." My patients have provided a wake–up call for me that increased public awareness and advocacy are important to protect global reproductive health now and in the future. I'm not a toxicologist and can't identify the cause of the infertility trends I'm seeing, but as physician, I am concerned that too much of the burden of proof is falling on the human body and people who become my patients.The Conversation

Ryan P. Smith, Associate Professor of Urology, University of Virginia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Space tourism: Rockets emit 100 times more carbon dioxide per passenger than flights. Now imagine a whole industry

Eloise Marais, UCL

The commercial race to get tourists to space is heating up between Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson and former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. On Sunday 11 July, Branson ascended 80 km to reach the edge of space in his piloted Virgin Galactic VSS Unity spaceplane. Bezos' autonomous Blue Origin rocket is due to launch on July 20, coinciding with the anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing.

Though Bezos loses to Branson in time, he is set to reach higher altitudes (about 120 km). The launch will demonstrate his offering to very wealthy tourists: the opportunity to truly reach outer space. Both tour packages will provide passengers with a brief ten-minute frolic in zero gravity and glimpses of Earth from space. Not to be outdone, Elon Musk's SpaceX will provide four to five days of orbital travel with its Crew Dragon capsule later in 2021.

What are the environmental consequences of a space tourism industry likely to be? Bezos boasts his Blue Origin rockets are greener than Branson's VSS Unity. The Blue Engine 3 (BE-3) will launch Bezos, his brother and two guests into space using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants. VSS Unity used a hybrid propellant comprised of a solid carbon-based fuel, hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB), and a liquid oxidant, nitrous oxide (laughing gas). The SpaceX Falcon series of reusable rockets will propel the Crew Dragon into orbit using liquid kerosene and liquid oxygen.

Burning these propellants provides the energy needed to launch rockets into space while also generating greenhouse gases and air pollutants. Large quantities of water vapour are produced by burning the BE-3 propellant, while combustion of both the VSS Unity and Falcon fuels produces CO₂, soot and some water vapour. The nitrogen-based oxidant used by VSS Unity also generates nitrogen oxides, compounds that contribute to air pollution closer to Earth.

Roughly two-thirds of the propellant exhaust is released into the stratosphere (12 km-50 km) and mesosphere (50 km-85 km), where it can persist for at least two to three years. The very high temperatures during launch and re-entry (when the protective heat shields of the returning crafts burn up) also convert stable nitrogen in the air into reactive nitrogen oxides.

These gases and particles have many negative effects on the atmosphere. In the stratosphere, nitrogen oxides and chemicals formed from the breakdown of water vapour convert ozone into oxygen, depleting the ozone layer which guards life on Earth against harmful UV radiation. Water vapour also produces stratospheric clouds that provide a surface for this reaction to occur at a faster pace than it otherwise would.

Space tourism and climate change

Exhaust emissions of CO₂ and soot trap heat in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Cooling of the atmosphere can also occur, as clouds formed from the emitted water vapour reflect incoming sunlight back to space. A depleted ozone layer would also absorb less incoming sunlight, and so heat the stratosphere less.

Figuring out the overall effect of rocket launches on the atmosphere will require detailed modelling, in order to account for these complex processes and the persistence of these pollutants in the upper atmosphere. Equally important is a clear understanding of how the space tourism industry will develop.

Virgin Galactic anticipates it will offer 400 spaceflights each year to the privileged few who can afford them. Blue Origin and SpaceX have yet to announce their plans. But globally, rocket launches wouldn't need to increase by much from the current 100 or so performed each year to induce harmful effects that are competitive with other sources, like ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and CO₂ from aircraft.

During launch, rockets can emit between four and ten times more nitrogen oxides than Drax, the largest thermal power plant in the UK, over the same period. CO₂ emissions for the four or so tourists on a space flight will be between 50 and 100 times more than the one to three tonnes per passenger on a long-haul flight.

In order for international regulators to keep up with this nascent industry and control its pollution properly, scientists need a better understanding of the effect these billionaire astronauts will have on our planet's atmosphere.The Conversation

Eloise Marais, Associate Professor in Physical Geography, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Sandwiched by billowing clouds above and smoke and steam clouds below, space shuttle Atlantis hurtles past the lightning mast on top of the fixed service structure on Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Atlantis will rendezvous with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope on the STS-125 service mission.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Sandwiched by billowing clouds above and smoke and steam clouds below, space shuttle Atlantis hurtles past the lightning mast on top of the fixed service structure on Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Atlantis will rendezvous with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope on the STS-125 service mission. Scott Andrews / Canon / Wikimedia Commons

The White House and city officials across the country are scrambling to avoid an eviction crisis

by Bryan Keogh, The Conversation

The White House and city officials across the country are scrambling to avoid an eviction crisis.

The federal housing eviction moratorium that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put in place in September 2020 expires on July 31, 2021. After that, millions of Americans who owe tens of billions of dollars in unpaid rent will lose that protection and may face eviction and a loss of their homes. Meanwhile, a group of landlords is suing the U.S. government to recover damages it says its members suffered from not being able to evict tenants who didn't pay rent.

Although Congress allocated more than $46 billion for emergency rental aid, most of it hasn't reached many of the people who need it as state and local governments struggle to distribute the money. Many renters are unaware relief is available.

We've been following the issue throughout the pandemic and picked three articles from our archive to get you up to speed.

1. Housing insecurity is a preexisting condition

Millions of Americans lost their jobs when the COVID-19 pandemic forced lockdowns across the country in March 2020, while many others strained to put food on the table or pay the rent.

But even before the crisis, tens of millions of people struggled to pay for housing, according to University of Michigan professors Roshanak Mehdipanah and Gregory Sallabank. As of 2018, an estimated 38 million, or over a quarter, of U.S. households spent at least 30% of their income on housing-related expenses. About 12 million spent half their income, making it hard if not impossible to afford other essential expenses like food and health care.

The CDC moratorium and similar eviction bans in states and cities across the country have helped low-income Americans endure the pandemic, but these solutions were always going to be short term, Mehdipanah and Sallabank explain.

“While these interventions have reduced a source of anxiety and stress for households, they are temporary," the scholars write. “Once they expire, these people will still have the same debts, same housing costs and the same bleak financial picture."

2. Evictions rising in some states

While the federal moratorium has ensured some renters don't lose their homes, many others haven't been so lucky as evictions continued throughout most of the pandemic.

For example, in Idaho, which didn't have a statewide eviction ban, evictions fell in April and May 2020 as most courts closed because of local lockdowns. But when courts reopened, evictions headed back toward 2019 levels. Other states and cities also saw eviction spikes after bans expired.

As coronavirus relief funds run out and the CDC eviction ban expires, more renters throughout the country will likely face eviction, argue Benjamin Larsen and McAllister Hall, who research housing issues at Boise State University.

“Those households may still be feeling the pressure from the pandemic – and may not be able to come up with current rent, much less months of back rent they might also owe," they write. “The aid may be coming to an end, but the potential for an eviction crisis remains – in Idaho, and around the nation."

3. Eviction courts favor landlords

Before landlords can evict a renter, they first must take them to court.

But eviction courts aren't about due process and getting a fair hearing, explains Katy Ramsey Mason, a law professor and director of the Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic at the University of Memphis.

States created eviction courts to offer landlords a “summary process" to ensure cases are handled very quickly – sometimes in less than a week. As a result, the odds are “stacked heavily in favor of landlords," she writes.

“Tenants who go through eviction court not only could lose their homes, but the final judgment also becomes a black mark on their credit reports, making it more difficult for them to obtain safe and affordable housing in the future," Ramsey Mason writes. “The current court process is not designed to account for these consequences, especially on the mass scale resulting from the pandemic."

Editor's note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation's archives.

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Bryan Keogh, Senior Editor, Economy + Business, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A scholar of ancient Greece explains what the modern Olympics have in common with the original

Joel Christensen, Brandeis University

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics started on July 23, 2021, amid a few different controversies. Beyond the question of whether it was safe enough to hold them despite rising hospitalizations from COVID-19 variants, there have been concerns about ongoing sexism, racism and prejudice against transgender athletes.

As a scholar of ancient Greek literature, I find myself looking at the Olympics every four years not for the idealized spectacle, but as the complex, confounding cultural phenomenon that they always have been.

The modern Olympics have shared positive and negative aspects with their ancient Greek models since the legendary founding of the games at Olympia in 776 B.C. Both were venues for showcasing human achievement and excellence. And both have also been exclusionary vehicles for an elite culture.

Contests and shared culture

In talking about the Olympics today, many of us focus on the contests of the same name, the sacred games at Olympia founded by the hero Herakles in honor of Zeus, the father and king of the gods. These events were of such cultural importance in ancient Greece that their four-year schedule was shared by the several thousand city-states that made up the larger Greek world.

Treaties would be ratified to last for a number of Olympiads. When Greek historians such as Thucydides want to give a date with a common reference, they often refer to a year of the Olympiad or the victors. Xenophon, the Athenian historian and philosopher, identifies what we now call 409 B.C. as “the ninety-third Olympiad."

The city-states of ancient Greece were separated by rough terrain and an independent streak, but united by the sea and trade. They had several main dialects, different political practices from one city to another and many different ways of viewing the world.

The Olympian Games were not the only international games in the ancient circuit. From Sicilian Syracuse to Rhodes and Cyprus, Greek aristocrats gathered nearly every year to compete in contests at centers such as Olympia, Nemea and Delphi, and near the Isthmus of Corinth.

These competitions were part of a small group of practices that are recognized today as indicators of a Panhellenic culture, the culture shared by all Greeks. Other markers of shared culture included worshipping at the oracular sites of Delos and Delphi and embracing the epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod. Competing in the Olympic Games, for ancient Greek communities, signaled shared values and identity.

From competition to social class

There's a kind of simple beauty to the idea of the games. They functioned as religious rituals where sacrifices were performed in honor of the gods and victories were signs of divine favor for participants and their cities.

For individuals, games were a venue to demonstrate personal excellence as well as piety. As the seventh century B.C. Theban poet Hesiod sings, “The gods made sweat the price of excellence."

But this opportunity was not open to everyone. With very rare exceptions, the games were only for male competitors; in many cases only men were part of the audiences. They were also restricted by social class. Only scions of noble families had the time to train for and travel to these competitions. And only the aristocrats had the finances to sponsor teams of horses for events days away from their homes.

Again, this is not so different from today. Estimates from the last Olympics had each medal costing around US$20 million in training and support costs. Such high stakes invited cheating and bribery: Opponents were bribed to throw matches, and judges conned to favor one side. And some athletes in the ancient world had sponsorship deals too, gaining financial and material support from wealthy patrons or athletic guilds that wanted to see their cities bring home the glory.

Yet even though these games were by and for aristocratic families, they attracted real interest in their hometowns. There was a relationship between the honor achieved by a citizen and the reputation their victory brought to their city.

In one of his many odes in honor of an Olympic victor, the fifth century B.C. Greek poet Pindar asks rhetorically, “What god, what hero and what man will we celebrate?" The god and the hero he goes on to praise are those associated with the victor's hometown. Even in the past, a victory in international games fanned the flames of city pride.

Not everyone was cheering, though. In Athens, an Olympic victor could expect to receive free meals for life at the public dining hall. According to the philosopher Plato in his dialogue the “Apology," his teacher Socrates proposed that he be given the same honor as an Olympic victor when he was put on trial for impiety and corrupting the youth. Socrates argued that his questioning of people's knowledge and basic belief systems was a far greater service to the city than any athlete could ever deliver.

Ancient Greek games like the Olympics provided a place for the international elite to compete and rival one another without killing each other on the battlefield. They also served as a place for cities to jockey for position in honor and bragging rights.

With so much influence collected at comparatively low stakes, they were also places for controversy, like today. There were political boycotts, conflicts over eligibility and even armed standoffs.

Games and crises

The games were so important that the ancient Greeks swore oaths to establish cease-fires even when the Persians invaded in the fifth century B.C. It was also so during the Peloponnesian War, the conflict between Athens and Sparta from 431-404 B.C. that included a plague.

Most people could never hope to participate in the spectacles, but they avidly followed them and cheered on their local champions at home. Holding them – despite natural disasters and conflicts – was a religious obligation and part of maintaining a shared calendar. But it was also an indication of how different the lives of the aristocratic classes were from those of the larger population that suffered the most during conflicts and disasters.

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If there's a universal spirit of the Olympic contests, it might just be this: a suspension of disbelief that transcends time and political borders. The distraction, though, I believe, might be something the global community needs. As Pindar writes in another ode, “The best doctor for the suffering we've undergone is celebration."The Conversation

Joel Christensen, Professor of Classical Studies, Brandeis University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Here's why the CDC has changed its advice for masking once again

by Peter Chin-Hong, University of California, San Francisco

Vaccinated people need to mask up again, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On July 27, 2021, the CDC recommended that everyone in areas with high COVID-19 infection rates wear masks in public indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status.

It's a reversal from the CDC's May 2021 advice that the fully vaccinated could leave their masks at home and brought U.S. guidelines more in line with World Health Organization recommendations.

The Conversation asked Peter Chin-Hong, a physician who specializes in infectious diseases at the University of California, San Francisco, to help put into context the science behind the changing messages.

What science supports masking after vaccination?

Masks help stop the spread of the coronavirus. They're a literal layer between you and any virus in the air and can help prevent infection.

The reason public health officials are calling for more mask-wearing is that there is clear and mounting evidence that – though rarebreakthrough COVID-19 infections can occur in people who are fully vaccinated. This is particularly true with emerging variants of concern. The good news is that COVID-19 infection, if it does happen, is much less likely to lead to serious illness or death in vaccinated people.

Some conditions make a breakthrough infection more likely in a vaccinated person: more virus circulating in the community, lower vaccination rates and more highly transmissible variants.

If vaccinated people can get infected with the coronavirus, they can also spread it. Hence the CDC recommendation that vaccinated people remain masked in indoor public spaces to help stop viral transmission.

Where will the guidelines apply?

The CDC mask recommendation targets areas in the U.S. with more than 50 new infections per 100,000 residents or that had more than 8% of tests come back positive during the previous week. By the CDC's own definitions “substantial" community transmission is 50 to 99 cases of infection per 100,000 people per week, and “high" is 100 or more.

Los Angeles County, for example, far surpassed that mark in mid-July, with more than 10,000 coronavirus cases per week.

Using these criteria, the CDC guidance applied to 63% of U.S. counties on the day it was announced.

Who's actually protected by masking recommendations?

The recommendation that fully vaccinated people continue wearing masks is primarily intended to protect the unvaccinated – which includes kids under age 12 who are not yet eligible for vaccines in the U.S. The CDC further recommends masking in public for vaccinated people with unvaccinated household members, regardless of local community transmission rates.

Unvaccinated people are at a substantially higher risk of getting infected with and transmitting SARS-CoV-2, and of developing complications from COVID-19.

How do new variants like delta change things?

Preliminary data suggests that the rise of variants like delta may increase the chance of breakthrough infections in people who received only their first vaccine dose. For instance, one study found that a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine had an effectiveness of just 34% against the delta variant, compared with 51% against the older alpha variant in terms of warding off symptomatic disease.

The data is more reassuring for those who have been fully vaccinated. After two doses, the Pfizer vaccine still provides strong protection against the delta variant, according to real-world data from Scotland and a variety of other countries; and in preliminary studies out of Canada and England, researchers noted only a “modest" decrease in effectiveness against symptomatic disease, from 93% for the alpha variant to 88% for delta.

Other recent preliminary reports from highly vaccinated countries like Israel and Singapore are sobering, however. Before the delta variant became widespread, from January to April 2021, Israel reported that the Pfizer vaccine was 97% effective in preventing symptomatic disease. Since June 20, 2021, with the delta variant circulating more widely, the Pfizer vaccine has been only 41% effective in preventing symptomatic disease, according to preliminary data reported by Israel's Ministry of Health in late July. An analysis using government data from Singapore demonstrated that 75% of recent COVID-19 infections were in people who were at least partially vaccinated – though most of them were not severely ill.

In all reports and studies, however, vaccines remain very good at preventing hospitalizations and severe disease due to the delta variant – arguably the outcomes we most care about.

All of this emerging data supports the WHO's global recommendation that even fully vaccinated individuals continue to wear masks. Most of the world still has low vaccination rates and uses a range of vaccines with variable efficacies, and countries have different burdens of circulating SARS-CoV-2 virus.

With U.S. case counts and breakthrough infection numbers headed in what public health officials consider the wrong direction, it makes sense that the CDC would modify its masking recommendations to be more conservative.

What conditions in the US warrant masking up (again)?

It makes sense that the CDC didn't immediately change its recommendations to fall in line with the WHO's June guidelines. With an overall high countrywide vaccination rate and a low overall COVID-19 hospitalization and death burden, the U.S. has a COVID-19 landscape very different from that in most of the world.

Additionally, some experts worried that an official message that the vaccinated should don masks might dissuade unvaccinated individuals from seeking vaccines.

But as President Joe Biden put it on July 27, “new research and concerns about the delta variant" are behind the CDC's change in masking recommendations.

Some locations are seeing further increase in community transmission, even among vaccinated people. New preliminary research yet to be peer reviewed suggests the delta variant is associated with a viral load a thousand times higher in patients than seen with older strains. And early reports show infected vaccinated people with the delta variant can carry just as high an amount of virus as the unvaccinated that they can in turn spread to others.

The shifting recommendations don't mean that the old ones were wrong, necessarily, only that conditions have changed. The bottom line? Masks do help cut down on coronavirus transmission, but it's still vaccines that offer the best protection.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on July 22, 2021.The Conversation

Peter Chin-Hong, Associate Dean for Regional Campuses, University of California, San Francisco

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Worried about traveling with unvaccinated kids? 6 questions answered

by William C. Miller, The Ohio State University

Across the U.S., COVID-19 cases are rising again, primarily in unvaccinated populations. Most of these cases are due to the highly infectious delta variant of SARS-Cov-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Many children are among those who aren't vaccinated, simply because no vaccines have been authorized for children under 12. About a quarter of children aged 12-15 years have been vaccinated. Given the rise in cases and the inability to vaccinate young children, many parents are concerned about the safety of traveling this summer.

The risk of COVID-19 associated with travel is largely determined by how you will travel, where you're going, who will be there and what you will do there. By assessing these variables, parents can make informed decisions about their travel plans.

1. How much risk does COVID-19 pose for kids?

When thinking about COVID-19 and unvaccinated children, two types of risk should be considered – both the direct risk for the child and the risk of transmission to others. Children develop severe disease from COVID-19 far less commonly than adults, and they die much less often. But children do die from COVID-19. COVID-19 has caused nearly 500 deaths in children 17 years of age and younger in the U.S. And some children also suffer from long COVID-19 – the lingering effects of COVID-19 that are still not well understood.

To put that in perspective, the number of deaths due to influenza in a typical flu season is about 150 to 200 children in the U.S. But only one child is known to have died from the flu in the 2020-2021 influenza season. In the past year, COVID-19 has been one of the most common infectious disease-related causes of death in children.

But even when children do not get seriously ill with COVID-19 or show symptoms, they can still transmit the virus to other children and adults. The rate of child-to-adult transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is roughly half the rate of adult-to-child transmission. So even when the risk is low for children, transmission to other unvaccinated kids and adults is still a serious concern.

2. Are road trips safer than air travel?

People can encounter others more often when they are traveling than in their daily lives, which automatically increases the possibility of being exposed to someone with COVID-19.

With air travel, families need to consider the number of people they're exposed to in airports, as well as on the airplane. In airports, travelers are exposed indoors to many people, potentially from different parts of the country and world. But risk is reduced by the requirement to wear masks indoors at all times in U.S. airports.

On an airplane, travelers may sit near several people outside of their own family for a few hours, and some of these people may not comply with mask requirements consistently. Although outbreaks have been associated with air travel, fortunately these reported outbreaks have been rare.

In general, traveling by car is likely to be safer, with exposures limited to infrequent rest stops and short meal breaks.

3. How does the destination affect the risk?

Whether in one's own community or when traveling afar, a serious risk factor to consider is the rate of COVID-19 cases, including the incidence of delta variant in that community. When COVID-19 rates rise in a community, that destination becomes less safe, generally, than a community with low, stable rates.

In recent weeks, the highest COVID-19 infection rates have been seen in communities with the lowest vaccination rates. One way to assess the risk of a particular destination is to compare recent COVID-19 and vaccination rates in your destination to the rates in your own community using the CDC website.

4. What kinds of gatherings are safe right now?

When people travel, they come into contact with strangers, friends and extended family whom they would not encounter at home. These interactions, what epidemiologists call “mixing," increase the chances for people to be exposed to SARS-CoV-2.

The added risk from that mixing depends on the vaccination status of the people encountered, the number of people encountered, the nature of that encounter and the duration of the encounter. If you are near many people for several hours, the risk is greater than if you are near a few people for a short time. If almost everyone you'll come into contact with is vaccinated, the risk will be very low. But as the number of unvaccinated people goes up, the risk will go up as well.

5. What types of activities are safe?

An important rule of thumb is that being outdoors is safer than being indoors. Indoors, the virus can hang in the air for some time, increasing potential exposure. Outdoors, the virus disperses quickly, greatly reducing the chances you're exposed to virus shed by someone infected with the coronavirus.

The primary concern outdoors is when people are close to one another for extended periods. Sitting near other people for several hours outdoors, like at a baseball game or a music festival, could carry some risk, especially if people aren't wearing masks and the vaccination rate in the community is low. For kids playing together, an activity like wrestling in the grass is going to be less safe than playing soccer or tossing a Frisbee.

6. What steps can lower the risk of infection?

No decision is going to be right for everyone. Every parent will need to weigh the risks and make their own decisions. Traveling will inevitably lead to exposures to unvaccinated kids and adults. But the risk will be determined by the extent of that exposure.

It's important to remember that vaccination is only one of the tools that can be used to reduce risk. Consider using masks indoors whenever possible. Masks reduce transmission and have been proven to be an effective complement to vaccination. Wearing a mask indoors and in public spaces part of the time – even if not all of the time – further cuts down on risk.

Before traveling, families should talk through expectations and concerns, both within their own family and with others they will be meeting up with. These conversations can be difficult. People should talk openly, honestly and without judgment about who has been vaccinated and who hasn't and agree up front on a set of rules.

And then do your best to enjoy your vacation.

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William C. Miller, Senior Associate Dean of Research and Professor of Epidemiology, The Ohio State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The global supply chains have been revealed as a huge house of cards

by Glenn McGillivray, Western University

COVID-19 has laid bare many uncomfortable truths regarding society's overall preparedness for low-probability but high-impact events, especially global ones. These range from issues pertaining exclusively to pandemic readiness (like our domestic capacity to produce personal protective equipment, ventilators, sanitizer and vaccines) to matters that are considerably less esoteric, like the ability of global supply chains to operate regardless of the various stresses put upon them.

The latter goes far beyond the toilet paper supply issue experienced early in the pandemic. It expands to include a whole range of products like lumber and other building materials, tools, foodstuffs, seeds, furniture, cleaning supplies, aluminum cans, jars, pools and pool equipment, chemicals, bicycles, camping gear, household appliances and replacement parts of all kinds.

In many cases supply chains have been simultaneously squeezed on both ends — supply and demand.

Production and distribution disruptions

While unscheduled closures of manufacturing and distribution facilities, bottlenecks at borders and sick workers have caused choke points in supply lines, people being cooped up in their homes for months on end have driven up demand for a host of products.

There has also been a simultaneous shortage of labour, particularly in the licensed trades.

Throw in other disruptors, like the massive winter storm in Texas in February, the six-day blockage of the Suez Canal due to the grounded ship Ever Given in March and the six-day closure of the Colonial gasoline pipeline in the United States after a cyberattack in early May.

Also include the fact that shipping containers are being lost in record amounts for various reasons, with more than 3,000 going overboard in 2020 and the 2021 number already hitting 1,000 by the end of April.

The pandemic has shown us that global supply chains are a huge house of cards: fragile enough on a good day, but prone to come tumbling down when there's an unexpected breeze.

This has been particularly apparent with the manufacturing of computer chips.

Yahoo! Finance looks at global supply chain pressures.

The demand for microchips

Prior to COVID-19, there was already great pressure on the production of microprocessors, microcontrollers, motherboards and the like due to limited global production capacity and greater calls for product. The pandemic has placed additional pressure on an already pressed segment, as production and distribution bottlenecks have been met with increased pandemic-driven demand.

Not so long ago, disruptions in the production of microchips tended to impact only the manufacture of smart phones, tablets, computers, external hard drives and, more recently, flat screen televisions.

Today, however, such disruptions also impact the production of automobiles, as chips are increasingly being used in power steering and braking systems, car infotainment systems and other components. Indeed, both General Motors and Ford Motor Company have idled a number of plants in North America due to the global semiconductor shortage. And being relative newcomers to the microprocessor market, automakers don't have the clout that other buyers have, often leaving them out in the cold when supplies dry up.

The situation for automakers is only expected to get worse as more and more consumer goods get smart via wifi or Bluetooth connectivity.

The growing list of items that require microchips is disconcerting, as these components are almost solely manufactured in some of the riskiest places in the world from a natural disaster perspective: China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and California.

This has to change. We need more manufacturing facilities for microchips and these must be located in places with low risk to natural and other hazards.

Securing supply chains

But whether we are talking about microchips, wood chips or potato chips, corporations need to get intimately familiar with their supply chains if they aren't already: What they get, how often, in what quantities, from whom, from where, how and why. Business continuity, contingency plans and workarounds must be put in place ahead of time to deal with what-if scenarios. Risk managers — either in-house or third-party consultants — need to be in on these discussions, as do boards of directors.

Corporate insurance buyers and risk managers must understand the differences in key insurance coverages, like standard business interruption and contingent business interruption, and ensure that they have proper financial protection in place.

Finally, and from a big picture perspective, society needs to get a better idea of where choke points exist (both at the manufacturing and distribution levels and in the physical world) so these can be addressed, eased or even eradicated. Further, we need to do more research into understanding how consumers behave in the face of crises. The emerging fields of behavourial economics and decision science have much to contribute to this discussion.

It's a different world out there, a more interconnected, and a more dangerous one. And we are currently learning the hard way that global supply chains don't operate on auto pilot.The Conversation

Glenn McGillivray, Managing Director, Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, Western University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How Putin’s champagne label law could spark a trademark dispute with France

City, University of London and Magali Contardi, Universidad de Alicante

Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an amendment to a federal law reserving the use of the Russian term for champagne – Шампанское (shampanskoye) – to sparkling wines produced in Russia.

Putin's move has caused a stir with French producers, as it will require them to use the generic term “sparkling wine" on the back of their bottles sold in Russia.

“Sovietskoïé shampanskoye" is the Russian word established under Stalin rule in the 1920s that describes a cheap and low quality sparkling wine available in Russia. Its production method is different from the one used in France.

One could argue that obliging French champagne producers to add the generic term “sparkling wine" to their bottles and preventing them from using “shampanskoye" would violate international intellectual property law. It may also be considered discriminatory, as only Russian producers would be able to use the Cyrillic term for champagne.

The Champagne Committee, the trade association that represents the interests of French producers in the Champagne region, said that banning the use of this internationally protected brand is “scandalous". The statement noted that the “Champagne" brand is protected in over 120 countries.

The new legislation appears to have been introduced without expert consultation, and has been widely mocked by champagne drinkers on social media: “Now it's necessary to ban Scots and Americans from using the word "whisky", joked restaurateur Sergei Mironov.

Putin's move has, unsurprisingly, attracted harsh criticism from French champagne producers, who are protected by intellectual property rules established by the World Trade Organization (WTO). These rules – to which Russia is bound – are supposed to give them a strong monopoly over the use of their brand.

Major French producers like Moët Hennessy have expressed disappointment about the new provision, followed by a general call from the industry to suspend shipments to Russia.

The label change will cost the champagne industry hundreds of thousands of euros to obtain the new certification as well as further laboratory tests, new barcodes and labels for bottles.

Russian products for Russia

The Russian market for champagne ranks 15th globally, but it is still important because Russians tend to buy expensive bottles.

Russia imports around 50 million litres of sparkling wines and champagnes each year, 13% of which is champagne from France. In 2020, French champagne exports to Russia rose by nearly 10% to almost 1.9 million bottles, and were up by around 2% in value, to €35 million (£29.9 million).

Commentators have pointed out that the new rule has a hidden protectionist rationale, favouring sparkling wine producers in the south of Russia (Krasnodar) and Crimea (which was annexed by Russia in 2014). The Association of Russian makers of sparkling wines stated that around 250 million of their bottles are sold annually in the domestic market.

This is not the first time Russia has introduced measures favouring national manufacturers. In 2014, imports of foreign foods like Parmesan and Gouda cheeses and Iberian ham were restricted to promote local producers. And in 2017, a law was introduced raising excise duty on foreign sparkling wines.

A WTO dispute in sight?

France's foreign trade minister Franck Riester raised the possibility of starting a legal action against Russia at the WTO to defend the interests of French champagne producers.

The EU sided with France: “We will do everything necessary to protect our rights and take the necessary steps", European Commission spokeswoman Miriam Garcia Ferrer said.

The WTO treaty which protects brands explicitly prohibits states from introducing special requirements – such as the obligation to translate a brand to the local language – that would “unjustifiably encumber" the use of such trademarks.

This rule was unsuccessfully invoked by opponents of an Australian measure introduced in 2012, which requires tobacco manufacturers to remove colourful, eye-catching logos from their packaging.

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How 'in God we trust' bills are helping advance a Christian nationalist agenda

Kristina M. Lee, Colorado State University

City vehicles in Chesapeake, Virginia, will soon be getting religion.

At a meeting on July 13, 2021, city councilors unanimously voted in favor of a proposal that would see the official motto of the U.S., “In God We Trust," emblazoned on every city-owned car and truck, at an estimated cost to taxpayers of US$87,000.

Meanwhile, the state of Mississippi is preparing to defend in court its insistence that all citizens, unless they pay a fee for an alternative, must display the same four-word phrase on their license plates. Gov. Tate Reeves vowed last month to take the issue “all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court should we have to."

“In God We Trust" became the national motto 65 years ago this month. But over the past few years a string of bills and city ordinances has sought to expand its usage and presence. Such efforts include legislation requiring or encouraging the motto be displayed in government buildings and schools, on license plates and on police vehicles.

A sample license plate with 'In God We Trust' on it

Mississippi license plates carry the motto.

State of Mississippi

The rise of bills across the country at this time is no coincidence. It fits with a concerted effort by Christian nationalists who view the motto as a tool to help legitimize an agenda of passing legislation that privileges conservative Christian values.

Christian nationalism is a political ideology that fuses conservative religious beliefs with a – usually white – American identity. Christian nationalists assume that the laws of the land should be based on Christian morals.

As a scholar of religious and political rhetoric, I have observed how Christian nationalists are using what I call “theistnormative" legislation – government-endorsed policies, rituals, laws and symbols that use vague religious references, such as “God" – to encourage people to view the United States as a theistic collective – that is to say, as a nation of believers in God.

From coins to national motto

Christian nationalists played a key role in getting “In God We Trust" put on coins during the Civil War and ever since have attempted to use the motto as “proof" that the United States is a Christian nation.

Early Christian nationalists criticized the Founding Fathers for failing to recognize the United States as an explicitly Christian nation in the Constitution. An early Christian nationalist organization, The National Reform Association, pushed for a “Christian Amendment" that would correct what they called the “original sin" of not recognizing Jesus Christ in the Constitution.

Their efforts failed. But Christian nationalists had better success in getting the more ambiguous motto “In God We Trust" put on coins in 1864. It followed a report to the U.S. Treasury by the director of the U.S. Mint, James Pollock, an active member of the National Reform Association, in which he asked: “We claim to be a Christian Nation – why should we not vindicate our character by honoring the God of Nations in the exercise of our political Sovereignty as a Nation?"

A handwritten letter in which Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase amends 'In God is our Trust' to 'In God We Trust' in an 1863 letter to James Pollock, director of the Philadelphia mint.

Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase amends 'In God is our Trust' to 'In God We Trust' in an 1863 letter to James Pollock, director of the Philadelphia mint.

National Archives and Records Administration

Amid fears of “atheistic communism" during the Cold War a century later, Christian nationalists in the U.S. again tried and failed to pass a “Christian Amendment." But they again found success in advocating for legislation that used vague religious references, culminating in the adding of “under God" to the pledge of allegiance and making “In God We Trust" the national motto on July 30, 1956.

Since it became the national motto, conservative Christians have used “In God We Trust" to justify opposing abortion rights and same-sex marriage by suggesting that they violate the principles embedded in the motto.

Earlier this year, Mississippi state Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith justified legislation that would ban voter registration on Sundays by holding up a dollar bill and saying, “This says, 'The United States of America, in God we trust.' … In God's word in Exodus 20:18, it says 'remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.'"

While most Christian nationalists claim to support religious freedom – which would seemingly apply to all faiths – most believe Christianity, specifically white conservative Christian values, should be privileged in the public sphere.

'Project Blitz'

Christian nationalists have increasingly turned to “In God We Trust" bills as a way to further legitimize their agenda. This is particularly evident in the “Project Blitz" initiative, led by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which states its aim as “restoring Judeo-Christian principles to their rightful place."

Project Blitz started in 2015 with the purpose of “blitzing" the country with legislation advancing Christian nationalism. As David Barton, a leader in the initiative, explained in a 2018 conference call with state legislators: “It's kind of like whack-a-mole for the other side; it'll drive 'em crazy that they'll have to divide their resources out in opposing this."

One such success in Project Blitz was in Chesapeake, where the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation is based. The organization successfully pushed for the motto “In God We Trust" to be displayed at the City Hall.

After Project Blitz generated negative publicity in 2018, it was misleadingly rebranded as “Freedom for All." During a recorded strategy meeting that was later circulated by the social justice think tank Political Research Associates, Lea Carawan of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation explained, “As soon as we understood that they knew they were on to us, we changed the name; shifted things around a little bit […] we've renamed and moved on but it's moving just as strong and just as powerfully."

Up to 2018, the initiative had helped more than 70 bills relating to their agenda get proposed. The group continues to have successes in getting legislation not only proposed, but also passed. According to BlitzWatch, a group tracking Project Blitz initiatives, this includes bills that support Bible readings in schools and policies that allow adoption and foster agencies and health care providers to deny services based on religious grounds. But it is the “In God We Trust" bills that have seemingly been the most successful for Project Blitz.

Pushing America's 'Christian heritage'

According to the initiative's 2020-2021 playbook – which was obtained by the religion news website Religion Dispatches – “In God We Trust" bills aim to recognize “the place of Christian principles in our nation's history and heritage."

While those behind “Project Blitz" claim the bills are not about converting people to Christianity, they also argue that the U.S. should be a Christian nation whose laws and policies “reflect Judeo-Christian or biblical values and concepts."

As such, “In God We Trust" bills set the foundation for more explicitly conservative Christian legislation.

The playbooks suggest “In God We Trust" bills can “shore up later support for other governmental entities to support religious displays" to help America accept its “Christian heritage." The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation also recommends legislators push for other types of bills including, as stated in their 2018-2019 playbook, a resolution to establish policy “favoring intimate sexual relations only between married, heterosexual couples."

The risk of opposing

What makes “In God We Trust" bills so successful is that they often receive bipartisan support. In Louisiana, for example, it was a Democratic governor who signed the 2019 bill requiring the motto be displayed in all schools. Politicians who do oppose “In God We Trust" bills run the risk of being labeled as “anti-faith."

Despite its being the national motto for only 65 years, Christian nationalists have framed “In God We Trust" as part of the U.S.'s founding tradition. Moreover, the motto has become an important rhetorical weapon for Christian nationalists – using it to advance their belief that governments and people are to “trust in God," and more specifically their perception of a conservative Christian God.

[Explore the intersection of faith, politics, arts and culture. Sign up for This Week in Religion.]The Conversation

Kristina M. Lee, Ph.D. Candidate in Rhetoric, Colorado State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We are all propagandists now

by Jennifer Mercieca, Texas A&M University

The U.S. is in an information war with itself. The public sphere, where Americans discuss public issues, is broken. There's little discussion – and lots of fighting.

One reason why: Persuasion is difficult, slow and time-consuming – it doesn't make good television or social media content – and so there aren't a lot of good examples of it in our public discourse.

What's worse, a new form of propaganda has emerged – and it's enlisted us all as propagandists.

Persuasion versus propaganda

I teach classes on political communication and propaganda in America. Here's the difference between the two:

Political communication is persuasion used in politics. It helps to facilitate the democratic process.

Propaganda is communication as force; it's designed for warfare. Propaganda is anti-democratic because it influences while using strategies like fear appeals, disinformation, conspiracy theory and more.

Since there are few examples of persuasion in our public sphere these days, it is difficult to know the difference between persuasion and propaganda. That's worrisome because politics is not war, so political communication isn't – and shouldn't be – the same as propaganda.

The manufacture of consent

Mass propaganda techniques emerged with mass communication technologies like posters, pictures and movies during the first World War.

That old propaganda model was designed by political elites to “manufacture consent" at home so that citizens would support the war, and to demoralize the enemy abroad.

According to linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, the manufacture of consent was believed by elites to be necessary because they thought “the mass of the public are just too stupid to be able to understand things…We have to tame the bewildered herd, not allow the bewildered herd to rage and trample and destroy things."

During World War I, George Creel's Committee on Public Information, a federal agency, oversaw the production of pro-war films like the 1918 silent film “America's Answer." When Americans went to see the film in theaters, they would often encounter a speech from one of the “Four Minute Men" – the local citizens whom Creel enlisted to give patriotic speeches during the four minutes it took to change the movie reels.

After World War I, according to Herman and Chomsky, all sorts of elites turned to propaganda to “tame the bewildered herd." The old propaganda was good at taming citizens. But there was a nasty side effect that played out over almost a century of its use: disengagement. Political communication scholars in the 1990s and early 2000s worried about what they saw as the crisis in democracy, which was civic disengagement characterized by low voter turnout, low political party affiliation and rising distrust, cynicism and disinterest in politics.

The manufacture of dissent

The elite-controlled old vertical propaganda model couldn't withstand the changes in communication brought on by the new participatory media – first talk radio, then cable, email, blogs, chats, texts, video and social media.

According to recent Pew research, 93% of Americans are connected to the internet and 82% of Americans are connected to social media. We now all have direct access to communicate in the public sphere – and, if we choose, to create, circulate and amplify propaganda.

A lot of people use their social media connections and platforms to knowingly and unknowingly spread misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy and partisan talking points – all forms of propaganda. We're all propagandists now.

Rather than the elite manufacturing consent, a new propaganda model has emerged in the 21st century: what I call the “manufacture of dissent."

New crisis in democracy

The “manufacture of dissent" model takes advantage of our individual abilities to produce, circulate and amplify propaganda. It sets us in motion to, in Chomsky's words, “rage and trample and destroy things."

The new propaganda can emerge from anyone, anywhere – and it is designed to create chaos so no one knows whom to trust or what is true.

Now we have a new crisis in democracy.

Citizens are called upon and trained by political parties, media, advocacy organizations, platforms, corporations – and more – to become propagandists, even without realizing it. Though both sides of the political spectrum can and have used the new propaganda, it has been embraced more on the right, largely to counter the old manufacture of consent model embraced by the mainstream.

For example, the slogan topping daily emails sent by ConservativeHQ, a longstanding and influential conservative news blog, says, “The home for grassroots conservatives leading the battle to educate and mobilize family, friends, neighbors, and others to defeat the anti-God, anti-America, Marxist New Democrats."

From this perspective, politics is a “battle," it's warfare and ConservativeHQ's readers can fight by educating and mobilizing – by spreading ConservativeHQ's propaganda.

Likewise, the conspiracy website InfoWars tells its audience “there's a war on for your mind."

Social media platforms train users to communicate as propagandists: Recent research shows that platform users learn to express polarizing emotions like outrage through “social learning." Social media users are taught through app feedback – positive reinforcement through notifications – and peer-learning – what they see others do – to post outrage even if they don't feel outraged and they don't want to spread outrage.

The more outrage we see, the more outrage we post.

Dissent and distrust

Today's new model of propaganda has dangerous consequences.

The Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection was a direct result of the manufacture of dissent. Right-wing politicians, citizens and media used disinformation, misinformation, conspiracy, fear appeals and outrage circulated via the old and new propaganda to cast doubt on the nation's electoral process.

President Trump primed his followers to believe that the election would be “rigged," which led people to look for and circulate so-called “evidence" of fraud.

Courts and election officials certified the integrity of the election. Conspiracists saw that as further evidence of the “plot" and supported Trump's Big Lie that the election had been stolen.

Trump's supporters amplified the conspiracy via posts on social media, videos, text messages, emails and secret groups – spreading doubt about the election to their friends, neighbors and audiences.

When Trump told people to march on the Capitol to defend their freedom, they did.

Politics is war

But the Big Lie that led to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection was merely part of an even bigger lie.

Since the 1990s and the emergence of the manufacture of dissent, right-wing propaganda's major premise has been that “politics is war and the enemy cheats." Every news story from that perspective is an elaboration on that theme, including those about the 2020 election.

When politics is seen as war and the enemy can't be trusted, then every election is seen as dire and the electoral process that denies your side victory is seen as unfair. According to a recent Monmouth University poll, 30% of Americans still believe Trump's Big Lie.

The legitimacy of the American political system requires the actual consent of the governed, and its vitality and health requires we allow actual dissent. But our broken public sphere has neither.

Both come from persuasion, not propaganda.

This isn't about nostalgia for traditional propaganda. Both the old propaganda and the new propaganda are anti-democratic. The old propaganda manufactured Americans' consent, using communication as force to keep people disengaged and compliant.

The new propaganda manufactures dissent. It uses communication as force to keep people engaged and outraged – and it sets us in motion to trample and destroy things.

[_The Conversation's most important politics headlines, in our Politics Weekly newsletter.]The Conversation

Jennifer Mercieca, Professor of Communication, Texas A&M University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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