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If there’s a prize for reading a lot of scientific journal articles, our team in the Science Communications unit in the American Chemical Society Office of Public Affairs might be among the front runners. I thought I did a lot of reading during an earlier career in the National Press Building as science editor in the Washington Bureau of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Toledo Blade. Everything from Science, Nature, and the Journal of the American Chemical Society to the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, and The Lancet.

 

But the transition to the ACS in 2006 ― after the economic crunch in print journalism closed the bureau ― gave new meaning to the science writer’s bread-and-butter task of mining journals for news. Our team here at the world’s largest scientific society read more than 35,000 journal articles last year and will breeze through almost 36,000 in 2012. That’s almost 150 articles today and each day of the work week. ACS publishes those 35,000+ articles in its suite of more than 40 peer-reviewed scientific journals and a weekly newsmagazine, Chemical & Engineering News. Those journals are a literal gold mine of spot news, features, and background.

 

We know that journalists are busier than ever before, often writing not just for the print edition, but online as well. Chances are, you don’t have the time. So we do the reading for you, engaging in what must be one of the science writing community’s biggest and most intensive treasure hunts. That’s our task, exactly. Have you ever heard of any bigger search for science news? We’re looking for gems of science news that can be cut, faceted, polished, and packaged in the ACS News Service Weekly Press Pac, and distributed to journalists. The PressPac goes to more than 2,000 journalists worldwide. It’s a collection of brief news media alerts about the latest content in ACS journals, which ThompsonReuters ranks as among the most highly cited in chemistry. The alerts, which are not press releases, give journalists a heads-up summary of the new research, with a link to the full text article and contact information for the corresponding author.

 

Launched in 2006, the PressPac has been an overwhelming success, the main reason why ACS journals get media coverage in print and online sites with a combined circulation/monthly unique visit count of more than 3 billion. If you’re not on our distribution list of 2,000+ journalists worldwide, drop an email to newsroom@acs.org>. And let us know if you find the PressPac and what we might do to improve it.

What should I do with that old bottle of seasickness medication rattling around in a drawer in my bathroom? The expiration date passed long ago, and it’s been at the bottom of the drawer for so long that the label is illegible.


By some estimates, more than 200 million pounds of pharmaceuticals go unused in the U.S. each year, including everything from Tylenol to arthritis medications. Keeping these pills around the house isn’t a good idea, and not only because you’re sick of moving the bottle to find your nail clippers, like I am. Getting leftover drugs out of the medicine cabinet can reduce the risks of abuse and accidental poisoning.


Should I toss the pills in the trash? Flush them down the toilet? Drive to a local pharmacy with a take-back program to have them incinerated with other medical waste? A new study in Environmental Science & Technology says dropping them in the waste bin might be best.


Steven J. Skerlos and his colleagues write in ES&T that the hard part of getting rid of unwanted drugs is finding a good balance between release of APIs (“active pharmaceutical ingredients,” the compounds that make medicines work), which could harm people and animals out in the environment, and non-API releases like air pollution produced by transportation and incineration.


On one end of the spectrum, they found that flushing leftover pills is the best way to reduce non-API releases, because it doesn’t even require a garbage truck to carry the drugs to the landfill. It does, however, produce the most drug-related releases, because many of the compounds in the medicines go through wastewater treatment plants into rivers and lakes.


On the other end of the spectrum, the group says the best way to keep active ingredients out of the environment is incineration, at the cost of more air pollution. However, they cite studies showing participation rates in take-back programs, which incinerate the drugs, are usually less than 50 percent. The group says a national participation rate of 50 percent in a take-back program, considered to be a high level, would reduce releases of drugs by 93 percent. Besides a low participation rate and more air pollution, another downside of take-back programs is the expense of putting these programs into place at a national scale (about $2 billion each year).


An all-trash disposal program on its own would reduce API releases by 88 percent because most of the compounds are absorbed and retained in landfills. It produces more air pollution than flushing, from the garbage trucks that haul our trash, but much less than take-back programs.


The group says since 60 percent of Americans already put their pills in the trash, that’s probably the best option for reducing the numbers of drug compounds that make into the environment while keeping other pollution and costs low.


What do you do with your unwanted medications? Have you ever used a take-back program? Are you comfortable with trashing your meds, even though they might make it into the environment?


“Life Cycle Comparison of Environmental Emissions from Unused Pharmaceutical Disposal Options” Environmental Science & Technology

 

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What is the all-purpose vegetable that has been becoming more and more popular in the United States for everything from the main course to dessert and beverages? Here’s a hint: If you are lactose-intolerant or a vegetarian or vegan you probably have the answer on the tip of your tongue. The regal soybean is the answer. United States’ soy-based food sales have risen from $1 billion in 1996 to nearly $5 billion annually in 2010, says the Soy Food Association of North America.

 

Tofu, the cheese-like food made from curdled soy milk; edamame, those tender soybeans in the shell; and plain or flavored soy milk and other  soy products are filling shelves in grocery stores. And some fast-food restaurants are even selling veggie burgers made with soy protein.

 

The reason is that soy is a popular low-fat, very high-protein substitute for meats, as well as an alternative to milk. So I wasn’t surprised to see that there is even more good news about these special beans.

 

Soybeans contain a cancer-fighting substance called Bowman-Birk Protease Inhibitor (BBI). BBI has already shown promise for preventing certain forms of cancer in clinical trials. And low cancer mortality rates in Japan might be linked to BBI from the large amounts of soybeans in traditional Japanese diets. (People in Japan eat about 1 million metric ton of soybeans a year.)

 

To date, the only way to pull out this substance, has been through a complicated, time-consuming process.  The current method also involves harsh chemicals, so Hari B. Krishnan and colleagues decided to see if there might be a greener and more environmentally friendly way of obtaining the cancer-fighter.

 

The scientists, reporting in the ACS’ Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, say they have discovered that simply soaking soybeans in warm water (122 degrees Fahrenheit) dramatically speeds up and simplifies the process of extracting BBI, which the soybeans naturally release into the surrounding water. They also found that BBI significantly blocks the spread of breast cancer cells in a laboratory dish.

 

Imbibition of Soybean Seeds in Warm Water Results in the Release of Copious Amounts of Bowman–Birk Protease Inhibitor, a Putative Anticarcinogenic Agent,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry

 

Credit: iStock

 

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When I stumbled upon a paperhttp://pubs.acs.org/stoken/presspac/presspac/full/10.1021/es203388grecently about stoves in the developing world in Environmental Science &Technology, I vaguely remembered having heard of fundraisers to supply developing regions with new types of stoves. I thought that these appliances would perhaps help people cook their dinners faster — what’s the big deal?

 

It turns out that these new types of stoves (called “improved cookstoves”) aren’t for getting dinner cooked in less time, but for improving people’s health and the health of the environment.


Hundreds of millions of people in developing countries in South Asia, Africa and South America in many developing areas rely on cookstoves that are fashioned out of mud and stones. They use these stoves for heating and light, not just for cooking, so these stoves are going for many hours at a time.


Traditional mud stoves or open-cook fires generate lots of soot, and these particles can be inhaled deeply into the lungs and have been linked to health problems similar to those associated with cigarette smoking. Women and small children traditionally gather near these fires the most, and many wind up with the same clinical symptoms as cigarette smokers. “Day in and day out, and for hours at a time, women and their small children breathe in amounts of smoke equivalent to consuming two packs of cigarettes per day,” according to a 2006 World Health Organization report. In addition, black soot is a major factor in global warming.


Aid agencies and governments have been seeking replacements for traditional cookstoves and fires to remedy those problems. That’s where “improved cookstoves” or ICs come in. Until now, however, there have been little real-world data on the actual performance of ICs — which have features like enhanced air flow and a battery-powered fan to burn wood and other fuel more cleanly.


In the ES&T paper, Abhishek Kar, Hafeez Rehman, Jennifer Burney and colleagues report that they have conducted the first real-world, head-to-head comparison of ICs and traditional mud stoves. Surprisingly, they found that some of these ICs may at times emit more soot particles than traditional mud stoves or open-cook fires. The report raises concerns about ICs, which are the leading hope as a clean cooking technology in the developing world.


The researchers measured black carbon emissions from five IC models and traditional mud stoves. They did the test in real homes as part of Project Surya, which quantifies the impacts of cleaner cooking technologies in a village in India. Forced draft stoves burned cleaner than any other IC. However, black carbon concentrations from all ICs varied significantly, even for the same stove from one day to the next.


In a surprise twist, some natural draft stoves occasionally emitted more black carbon than the traditional mud cookstove.


The researchers did not just do a scientific test — they also made sure that the winner of the head-to-head comparison, an IC they call “FD1” in the paper, was distributed to 438 households in the Project Surya area.


“Real-time Assessment of Black Carbon Pollution in Indian Households Due to Traditional and Improved Biomass Cookstoves,” Environmental Science & Technology

 

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Credit: iStock