Science & Environment

Reduvid bug

One night you are sleeping peacefully, when suddenly a small bug drops down from the rafters above and decides to feed on your face.  After sucking your blood to its heart’s content, the bug proceeds to defecate in the same space it had just enjoyed a meal.  You awake the next morning with a swollen bite and scratch away to relieve the itch.  In a few days you develop flu like symptoms – headache, diarrhea, fever, the works.  A few weeks later, you have conquered the sickness.  Years pass and the incident seems nothing more than the distant haze of a memory.  Then one day, 20 years into the future, your heart stops working and you die.  An autopsy reveals a megacolon (enlarged colon) and a megaesophagus (enlarged esophagus).

This story is repeated 20,000 times every year throughout the Americas.  Chagas: a parasitic infection passed through the fecal matter of reduvid bugs, is the disease behind the mystery.  Health services estimate eight to 11 million people carry the disease in the western hemisphere.  Though early treatment of the disease can prevent its delayed chronic symptoms, the majority of carriers do not know they have been infected.

T. cruzi

Chagas is caused by Trypanosoma cruzi, a unicellular flagellar protozoa, resembling a microscopic flat worm.  Once inside the blood, the parasite replicates itself by asexual binary fission and begins a long process of colonization throughout the tissues of the colon, nerves, esophagus, and heart.

Besides transmission via the reduvid bug, commonly referred to as the “kissing bug” for its habit of sucking faces, Chagas can also be spread through blood transfusions, organ transplantations, breast milk, and across the placenta.   Fourteen thousand infants are born with congenital Chagas every year and 13 percent of all still births in Brazil can be attributed to the disease.

The disease was first discovered in 1909, by Brazilian immunologist Carlos Chagas.  Though a major Chagas outbreak hit the country in the 1920s, it did not become an internationally accepted public health concern until the 1960s. Before discovery and treatment, the parasite went completely unchecked.  In fact, some evidence suggests that Charles Darwin had contracted Chagas during a stopover in Chile.  He described feeling ill for six months in the port of Valparaiso, but quickly recovered afterward to resume his travels.  A year after returning to England he developed mysterious symptoms, which debilitated him for the rest of his life.

The bug that causes the disease has a variety of different names, including vinchuca in Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay, bareiro or “barber” in Brazil, pito in Colombia, chinche in Central America, and chipo in Venezuela.  It is mostly found in rural areas, hiding in thatched roofs and other organic house materials.  Modern efforts to reduce the 40,000 cases occurring every year focus on spraying insecticide, raising awareness of bites, and encouraging testing and treatment.

On the bright side, once the initial acute symptoms of the disease have been identified, treatment is 60-90 percent effective in preventing the development of the chronic symptoms, down the road.  So if you fall asleep under a roof made of straw and palm fronds, check your face in the morning, do not scratch, and wash bug droppings from the bite.  Everything will be alright in a Chagas free future.

Chagas bite causes initial swelling of eye


Uruguayan wind farm

Howling winds across the plains of Patagonia, raging rivers from the mountains to the amazon, and the blistering sun of the Atacama Desert may propel Latin American countries to the forefront of renewable energy production.  Even volcanos offer a significant source of geo-thermal energy for some countries.  The power generated by nature throughout Mexico, Central, and South America could generate enough electricity to wean the Americas from carbon heavy alternatives.

However, Latin America and the Caribbean garnered merely 10 percent of the estimated $260 billion invested in clean energy development worldwide, in 2011.  The US attracted $55.9 billion and China $47.9 billion.  Currently, the region derives 7 percent of its 301 gigawatts (GW) from clean renewable sources.  But these figures conceal the fact that 65 percent of all electrical energy in the region comes from large scale hydropower – a renewable form of energy excluded from the category of clean energy.  By contrast, world reliance on hydro accounts for 16 percent of all electricity produced in 2011.  And Latin America has only tapped 30 percent of its total hydro capacity.

Moreover, improvements in the investment climate of many Latin American countries and other public policy initiatives, which seek to further clean energy development, may finally capture the region’s potential.

Many leaders have pursued ambitious policies to reduce carbon emissions, by encouraging private investment in the clean energy sector.  Costa Rica derives 99.2 percent of its energy from renewable sources, with a whopping 35.7 percent from geothermal.  Brazil, Nicaragua, Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, Panama, El Salvador, and Argentina have all launched significant clean energy development plans for the future.

Costa Rica geothermal plant

Within the next three years, Uruguay aims to generate half of its power through renewable means.  A series of 21 wind farms producing 1.2 GW are scheduled for completion in 2015 and will provide 29 percent of the country’s energy.  Argentina also plans to increase its wind power production by 1 GW.  This year, El Salvador revealed plans to construct a 14.2 megawatt (MW) solar farm and a 42 MW wind farm – its first utility-scale wind and solar projects.  Chile recently initiated its largest wind farm project set to produce 115 MW by 2013.  In Mexico, another 396 MW wind farm has been proposed for the windy Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in the state of Oaxaca.  Hundreds of additional projects lie in the works.

As a region with many developing countries, Latin America has the opportunity to use clean energy development to power the future.  Thirty million people currently live without electricity and consumers on the grid continue to demand more.   Latin America has the resources, needs, and ambition to pursue a clean energy future.  The main challenge is resisting an over reliance on abundant fossil fuel reserves, which continue to expand with new discoveries offshore.

First Chilean solar in Atacama Desert

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Follow Up

Three Million in Peru Still Lack Electricity

Latin America Herald Tribune

LIMA – Some 3 million people in Peru’s rural areas still lack electricity and nearly a third of the population is using firewood as cooking fuel, the Energy, Development and Life, or EnDev, project, said

According to EnDev’s national coordinator, nearly 500,000 rural families must use battery-operated lights, candles and cigarette lighters to see at night and spend more than 40 soles (about $15) a month for low-quality power service.

The 1993 census indicated that just 7.7 percent of Peru’s rural population had access to electricity. By 2007, that figure had risen to 29.5 percent and the Energy and Mines Ministry’s latest report shows the proportion now stands at 63 percent, Moreno said.

Cuba power failure plunges millions into darkness – video

10 September, 2012

The Guardian

A large swath of Cuba was plunged into darkness on Sunday night due to a power failure. Weather on the island was clear and calm. No one at the state-owned electrical company could immediately be reached to explain the outage. Blackouts are not uncommon in Cuba, due to its aging electrical system

Who knew that dried endangered seahorse powder works as the perfect aphrodisiac and cure for asthma?  Just a pinch of the stuff is equivalent to popping a Viagra and taking a hit off an inhaler at the same time.  It is important to make sure that the product is endangered; do not be fooled by imitators boasting a ‘vulnerable’ status.

But, the market for ground seahorse medicine took a hit yesterday when Peruvian Police seized more than 16,000 dried seahorses before they could be exported illegally to Asian countries.  The warm waters off the northern Peruvian coast make the perfect breeding ground for slow moving, yet ironically horse-shaped sea creatures.

Authorities say the shipment weighed 160 kilos.  At $6,000 per kilo, the cargo could have been worth nearly $1 million at street value.  However, other sources put the total retail price at around $250,000 – a figure based on values from the 1990s, when the underground market was first publicized in detail.

Last year, law enforcement seized a total of 20 tons of dried seahorse throughout the world, with half a ton found in Peru.  The extensive trade is estimated to be a $20 million annual industry, with Hong Kong as the hub for sales to mainland China, Singapore, Korea, and Japan.  However, Australia and the United States also import hundreds of thousands of dried seahorses every year.

Seahorse medicine has been around since the Ming Dynasty began raising the creatures for consumption in the 14th century.  But in the late 20th century, the animals were declared endangered due to over collection and the industry moved underground.  All specimens used for medicinal purposes come from the genus Hippocampus and vary in size for 10 to 300 millimeters or 3 to 25 grams.

Though we rarely hear about this illicit market, busts such as the one in Peru reveal the extensive black markets outside the world of narcotics.  Profitable illegality pervades all types of products throughout the world and no seahorse or snow leopard is safe.

The process of extracting and refining natural resources is often a messy and dangerous one.  Events in Peru, Brazil, and California highlight this reality.

Antamina Mine

Two weeks ago in Peru, a pipeline carrying zinc and copper mineral slurry ruptured, shooting an 80 foot spray of mining material into the air.  The disaster, which directly exposed 200 people to toxic materials, occurred 14,000 ft. in the Andes at the Antamina mine: one the world’s largest copper-zinc mines.  The mine is owned by a collection of multinational firms including Xstrata, Teck Cominco LTd and Mitsubishi Corp.

Radio PSA [audio]

On Monday, 6 Aug, another pipeline burst at Chevron’s Richmond refinery, creating an explosion and sending a plume of black smoke over the eastern skies of the San Francisco Bay.  The leak began slowly, as workers tried to contain the problem without having to shut down the lines.  “It wasn’t visible, you wouldn’t be able to see it or smell it. So at that point in time, there was really nothing that we could advise the community to do,” said Mark Ayers, the refinery’s chief of emergency services.  But the leak caught fire, crippling the plant, which processes 1/8 of all west coast oil and is California’s third largest.  Surrounding communities were forced to stay indoors to protect themselves from the toxic plume.  The disaster marks the third leak in the last thirteen years.  In 2007, another fire erupted for nearly 10 hours.  Earlier in 1999, a blaze of toxic materials sent more than 1,200 Richmond residents to emergency rooms.

Chevron is also facing troubles in Brazil after an underwater leak at an oil rig operated by Transocean spilled an estimated 155,000 gallons of crude oil into the Atlantic.  This week, a federal court gave Chevron and the Swiss owned Transocean, 30 days to suspend all operations in the country.  The company will be fined $244 million for each day it fails to comply.  In April, a Brazilian prosecutor filed an $11 billion lawsuit against the company for the spills, which occurred in November and March.  The fate of these companies in Brazil is still very uncertain, as the nation attempts to expand exploration along its coast.

From developed countries to the developing and the in between, these mishaps are a dangerous reality of the global supply chain.  How firms respond to these externalities will be telling of its sustainability.

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Follow Up

Staff saved lives after Venezuela refinery blast: Ramirez

Another refinery disaster

August 28, 2012

Marianna Parraga, Reuters

PARAGUANA, Venezuela (Reuters) – Veteran staff at Venezuela’s biggest refinery raised the alarm about a gas leak before an explosion tore through the facility and killed 48 people, helping management save lives, the energy minister said on Tuesday

On Monday Chavez said he had created a $23 million fund to help pay for cleanup operations and to repair damaged houses. He also said 257 new homes would be made available in the coming weeks for families who lost theirs, 60 of them immediately.

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