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Health, Science, Environment Rundown: Spring Fling

Daffodils in full bloom near the Gateway Arch in Luther Ely Smith Park in St. Louis as temperatures neared 70 degrees on a clear spring day in St. Louis on April 12, 2011.
(UPI/Bill Greenblatt)
Daffodils in full bloom near the Gateway Arch in Luther Ely Smith Park in St. Louis as temperatures neared 70 degrees on a clear spring day in St. Louis on April 12, 2011.

Last week, people all over St. Louis – and all over the Midwest and East Coast, probably – celebrated the official start of spring. They celebrated because the winter has been unusually long and cold and, somehow, darker than usual. And they celebrated with a tinge of worry that the brutal winter could give way to an equally brutal, hot summer.

If that does happen, be prepared for a lot of talk about climate change. 

Actually, climate change is something that many people think should be discussed more. This week, the White House unveiled a web-based app that is supposed to let anyone explore what impact climate change will have in their own backyards.

Grist.comcalls the website “geeky.” But it also reports that Google, Microsoft and Intel have all contributed time, talent and cloud storage space to help the project along.

The New York Times, which also reported on the new app, said the project is the work of President Barack Obama’s counselor, John Podesta, and the White House science adviser, John Holdren. It is being rolled out right before the administration is preparing to announce a host of initiatives to battle climate change by limiting emissions from coal-fired power plants. The Times points out, it’s part of a larger effort to defuse opposition to those efforts and to instill a sense of urgency in the public that climate change is a problem that must be addressed soon.

“Although a poll by the Pew Research Center last October found that 67 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, a Pew poll in January showed that Americans ranked global warming as 19th on a list of 20 issues for Congress and the president.”

It seems, however, that humans have more than the environment to worry about.  AWall Street Journal article reported that medical devices are being recalled at some of the highest rates ever.

Apparently, the number of recalls nearly doubled between 2003 and 2012, when there were 1,190 recalls. The number of recalls in which the product’s defect could reasonably cause death jumped markedly, from seven in 2003 to 57 in 2012.

One source in the story claims the recalls show that the medical device industry is more diligent in how it manages the safety of its products. Another source counters that if the regulatory process for approving medical devices were more rigorous in the first place, then we wouldn’t see so many recalls.

Going to a dark place

Now, you might think that those recalls -- not to mention climate change -- are part of a conspiracy theory. If that’s the case, then you aren’t alone in believing in conspiracy theories. In fact, NPR’s health blog, “Shots,”reports that half of all Americans subscribe to health-related conspiracy theories.  Half. 

That means 50 percent of Americans believe that vaccines are responsible for autism or that cell phones cause cancer or that the government is hiding information about cures for cancer.

"People who backed the conspiracy theories were less likely to rely on a family doctor. Instead they looked to family and friends, the internet and celebrity doctors for their health information. And people who relied on celebrity doctors, such as Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Andrew Weil, were most likely to favor conspiracy, with more than 80 percent agreeing with at least one of the theories.”

The article is based on research from a University of Chicago political science professor, and it also explores the age, education level and political leanings of those who believe in medical conspiracies.

Ending with something fun…

We've got little more than a week to go before the deadline for enrollment in insurance programs through the government’s online marketplace. After March 31, anyone who hasn’t signed up for insurance will pay a tax penalty.

So far, people haven't been rushing to sign up. The number of people – especially younger, healthier people – getting health insurance hasn't been as strong as the government hoped. So, Obama did the logical thing and went to talk to actor and comedian Zack Galifianakis about it.

For those unfamiliar with Galifianakis, he’s a stand-up comic who gained fame when he played the uncomfortably hilarious brother-in-law in the move "The Hangover."  He also hosts an uncomfortably hilarious online “talk show” (the term is used loosely here), called “Between Two Ferns,” in which he holds fairly absurd conversations with famous people.

Obama chatted with Galifianakis about the importance of signing up for health insurance and the results were highly enjoyable (in this reporter’s opinion), and appropriately awkward.

Apparently, the White House is pleased with the results of the president’s appearance on "Between Two Ferns." MediaBistro reports Obama’s senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett, as saying traffic on healthcare.gov jumped 40 percent after the show was posted.

Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis: President Barack Obama from President Barack Obama

Shula is the executive editor at St. Louis Public Radio.