Among this week's Least Popular Americans, along with Rev. Fred Phelps, Rex Grossman's dad and FAA tech support, we might count the United States Preventive Services Task Force. That group released new guidelines on screening mammograms, recommending that women start regular mammograms at 50 rather than 40, and get them every two years instead of annually. The change has been met with a jet of venom from advocates, many medical professionals and much of the general public. Chicago has an interesting place in this controversy -- we've been hearing the national dust-up all week, and now here's a look at what this means for our part of the world.
It's clear that despite some jitters, many more people want the H1N1 swine flu vaccine than can get it so far. Reports from the first round of mass vaccinations in Chicago told of long lines, all-day waits and hundreds turned away. Round two came yesterday, and so I went. I was eager to witness the mass hysteria, riots and cannibalism sure to ensue, as people clamored for the scarce shots and nose spritzers. I did not find that. Instead, I found basically a bunch of pretty reasonable, patient people who understand that the health workers are doing the best they can with limited resources. That's not to say people weren't disappointed. I arrived at Truman College at about 4:00 p.m., just as they were starting to turn people away. The clinic was supposed to be open form 3:00 -- 8:00 p.m., to accommodate working stiffs who couldn't get there during the day. But all the doses were maxed out within an hour of opening the doors. One reason that people seemed largely to take this in stride is the fact that people got a number when they arrived, and when the numbers ran out, people were simply told to come back next time.
When we reporters go out and get stories, we use electricity. This electricity comes from batteries. These batteries die, and get tossed into boxes back here at the WBEZ mothership. These boxes pile up "¦ um, for years. In sum: we now have a modest-sized superfund site in the middle of our newsroom. I have watched the batteries pile up with morbid fascination. I have idly wondered: How much toxic waste is in there? How many birth defects could we cause? How many fish could we mutate, if we felt like it? And what the heck do we do with all of them? The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is sponsoring a household hazardous waste collection event this weekend in the northwest suburbs, where they accept disposable batteries, among other things. So I thought this was as good a time as any to investigate. The first task was to get a handle on the volume. This was accomplished with a bathroom scale, and documented by our crack multimedia team.
I confess, the results surprised even me. We have accumulated 184.4 lbs of used batteries. Now these aren't sealed in a drum in a storage area some where. These are on the shelves near the CD labels -- plus a hefty stockpile in Ammad Omar's cubicle (read: haz-mat disposal site). OK, now to find out how much mercury and sundry heavy metals are in one pound of AA batteries, multiply that by 184.4 pounds, and get one big scary number.
In Greek mythology, the mighty Lapiths had their butts handed to them by the centaurs. My question is this: what were you thinking, Lapiths? I mean, they're centaurs. They have horse bodies and man-heads. No way you're gonna beat that. Similarly, sort of, we're now confronting a hybrid little beastie of our own. The 2009 H1N1 flu virus is a crazy chimera of a thing. It is the love child of three species-specific viruses, a bird-pig-person germ. We might ask, how does this happen? And what makes it different from the regular flu? Well, I'm here to tell you something you may not know about viruses: they are promiscuous as hell. And here's something you may not know about pigs: they are little biological swingers clubs. Flu viruses don't have DNA like many organisms -- their genetic material is carried in strands of RNA. And, that RNA is divided up into little discrete segments. When viruses get to all bumpin' and rubbin' up on each other in a host cell, they freely swap these segments around. Filthy little buggers. The results of this, according to University of Chicago infectious disease expert Kenneth Alexander, is usually "¦ nothing. Most of the products of such unholy coupling are just failed viruses. But occasionally, you'll get a combination that works, and a new kind of virus survives and starts copying itself.
This week I got what we call in the biz a "plum assignment." I joined a group of Chicago-area teachers aboard a jet designed to create weightless conditions. It does this by parabolic flight -- a steep climb followed by a controlled nosedive. The crest of each hill produces weightlessness "¦ the trough produces 1.8 Gs of pressure (meaning, you weigh almost twice as much as usual).
The ostensible purpose of this trip is to promote science and math education in schools (and to drum up good PR for its corporate sponsor, the defense contractor Northop Grumman). Teachers brought aboard simple science experiments -- a basketball and hoop, stuffed animals suspended by rubber bands, etc. Most of these experiments were swiftly abandoned in favor of superman flight, backflips and manic giggling. Here's what it was like (complete with videos!).