Category: Government Regulations

The Skinny On Sunscreen: Understanding the Regulations

I haven’t always loved sitting out in the sun, and I’ve been a very reluctant convert to the beach. But I’ve slowly come around to loving the time I get to spend relaxing in the sunshine with a good book. Particularly this summer after the long winter where I would go days without even venturing outside I’m loving the warm weather. But I’m also the kind of person that turns lobster red after more than a few minutes of soaking in the sun’s rays.

Being so fair comes at a cost, and I’m in the dermatologist’s office almost every six months. I would say I’m pretty vigilant about getting my moles checked and watching out for any signs of skin cancer.  I’ve had maybe a dozen moles removed, many of which had to be re-done after coming back with questionable test results. Being so aware of the risks that I’m taking when I step out in the sun has made me the self-proclaimed queen of sunscreen. My friends love their SPF 4, and mock me and my SPF 55 quite a lot – but aside from choosing the high numbers, I’ve realized that I don’t actually know all that much about sunscreen.

Ocean City, MD on my summer vacation!

New regulations released by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month, explain a lot about what sunscreen can, and even more important what it can not do. Sunscreen regulations in the US hadn’t been updated in more than 30 years, so we were long overdue for an overhaul. Starting next year, sunscreens will be broken into two categories, those that protect against skin cancer and those that don’t. My friends with their SPF 4… they aren’t getting any protection against skin cancer with an SPF that low. The new regulations will also require companies to cut out advertising and claims that promote longer durability (waterproof of sweatproof) or that make inflated claims about their ability to protect users from sun damage.

According to this article in Scientific American, the new regulations (if they are followed accurately) have the potential to reduce skin cancer rates in the US. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is responsible for 90% of non-melanoma skin cancers, which affect one out of every five Americans. UV radiation is also responsible for 65% of melanoma, which kills approximately 8,700 people a year. Skin cancer is such a prevalent problem, but will the new regulations actually make a difference?

I think as long as people know what to look for, they’ll be able to choose the right sunscreen. The FDA’s new regulations really focus on how sunscreen products are labelled, and I think that they will make it easier for people to make the right choices. The thing to look for on sunscreen bottles is “broad spectrum”. Under the new rules the only products that can claim to be broad spectrum will protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreen that can not be called broad spectrum, or that has an SPF lower than 15 will have to carry a warning label that says explicitly that it does not protect against skin cancer or premature skin aging from skin cancer.

Both UVA and UVB rays can cause long term skin damage, but UVB rays are the main culprit when it comes to that lobster red sunburn. SPF is a reflection of a sunscreens’ ability to protect against UVB rays which is really just a reflection of sunburn protection. Currently, lotions that only protect against UVB rays can have a very high SPF, but that doesn’t mean they are any better at protecting you from skin cancer because the UVA rays are still not being blocked. Under the new regulations it will be much clearer what really protects you against both UVA and UVB rays.

More of the beach in Ocean City, MD

Under the new regulations, sunscreen manufacturers will be required to be more specific with their claims. For instance the term sunblock, won’t be allowed because there is NO sunscreen that can block the sun’s rays completely. There is also NO sunscreen that stays completely on the body when exposed to water, so none of them are waterproof or sweatproof.

The other big news in the FDA’s sunscreen regulations? My SPF 55 is no better than SPF 50. In fact, any number higher than 50 is just making a trumped up claim. So that SPF 100 is not actually doing more for you than lower numbered sunscreens. This is because there is no evidence that suggests that SPF’s higher than 50 actually protect people more. But that doesn’t mean that all SPF’s are the same. Different SPF’s protect you in the sun for different amounts of time. So say I start to burn after 10 minutes with no sunscreen, and I put on SPF 15, the time it takes me to burn will be extended by a 15, so I’ll have 150 minutes before I turn into a tomato.

After getting several bad sunburns while wearing sunscreen, I became aware of the need to re-apply. Even if you don’t go in water, the chemical components in sunscreen break down over time and lose their efficiency. Putting on sunscreen at the beginning of the day just doesn’t cut it. So, under the new regulations, the FDA recommends re-applying sunscreen every two hours, and after going in the water or toweling off.

Basically the new regulations make it easier to enjoy a day in the sun without the painful sunburn and dangerous skin damage that can go hand in hand with summer vacations by making it easier to choose an effective sunscreen. The things to look for? Broad spectrum, between SPF 15 and 50, and that all sunscreens have to be re-applied every two hours. If you keep these things in mind you can greatly reduce your risk of dangerous skin cancers.

Sunscreen regulations were greatly in need of a revision, and I for one (speaking for the fair people of the word) am very glad to finally know exactly what I need to do to protect myself in the sun.

Budget Breakdown: Federal Funding for the NIH

As my regular readers know, I use Science Decoded for my long form journalism class. As part of that, sometimes my posts have to meet requirements outlined by my professor. This week, the assignment was to write about budget. My recent post on Wisconsin’s budget protests brought up the issue of understanding what your government pays for, so I’ve decided to do a breakdown of the 2012 NIH budget.
As citizens it is important to know what is included in the federal budget. Among academics, intellectuals, people who are informed about their government, and people who pretend to be informed about their government this is a generally accepted statement. But why is budget important, really?

Well, my first answer is that you shouldn’t whine or praise something that you don’t understand. So (even though people do) you can’t say you disagree with or approve of the way things are budgeted, when you don’t even know what is in the budget, or why it is included and thus deemed worthy of public funding. I think it SHOULD be generally accepted that you don’t open your mouth about things you don’t understand (even though people always do…) so for the sheer ability to speak intelligently about your beliefs, I think people should know what is federally funded.

The other reason that I think people should take the time to look at budget appropriations (what money goes to who for what) is because people take federal funding for granted. The beautiful thing about being Americans is that what we want matters, and what we say can effect our government. We trust our government to do with our money what we want them to, but we should still make sure that the government follows through. You can’t just assume that what you believe deserves funding, is actually being funded. Do you want your money to be spent finding a cure for cancer? (I’ll assume you said “yes”) Do you know how much money the government actually spends trying to find a cure for cancer?** (I’ll assume you said “no”) Isn’t that a problem?

To be a part of the American democracy you need to know what your government does. At the very least, you should know who the government is giving your money to, so you can then decide if you support or are opposed to the government’s actions. Have an opinion. Have an informed opinion. The information is out there and readily available for those who seek it.

So now that I hope I’ve convinced you that you should care about budget, I come to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I know I’ll sound like a snot for saying this, but it AMAZES me that many people, whom I consider to be quite intelligent, don’t know what the NIH is, or what it does. The NIH is the federal government’s biomedical research organization. In addition to conducting its own research, the NIH is a huge funding machine that awards grants to thousands of researchers around the country (and even internationally) to pay for the costs associated with doing research. These costs include, but are not limited to, lab equipment (your test tubes and bunsen burners,) technology (from microscopes to genome sequencers,) consumable supplies (your reagents and pipettes,) and researcher or technician salaries.

Biomedical research is a multi-million dollar industry. But only a fraction of the research conducted in the United States is actually funded by industry. By far, the most important funding organization for researchers who are not industry based (ie: most college professors) is the NIH. Without federal support for these researchers, most would not be able to conduct their experiments. The budget that has been requested by President Obama for fiscal year (FY) 2012 to fund the NIH and all of its programs is $32.0 Billion. Yes, Billion.

The request by President Obama must be passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate before it is approved. But, these proposed numbers still demonstrate exactly why the NIH and its budget are so important. The proposed $32.0 billion represents an increase of $745 million from FY 2010 – an increase of 2.4%. However, current estimates place inflation from 2010 at 3%. So, even though the budget is going up, the NIH will be able to fund LESS projects than it did in 2010 because the increase will not be enough to counter the effect of inflation. In spite of this, the budget request still shows that research is a priority for this administration (ie: it could be much worse).

What does that $32 billion actually get you? Well, the NIH office of budget has a great table that outlines how the money is expected to be allocated among its institutes, in addition to a great document (with diagrams) that compares the budget for each institute over the last few years (which is where I pulled the following numbers from).

What falls under the NIH, and thus gets parts of its $32 billion? (listed from most funds to least):
National Institutes of…

  • Cancer (NCI) – $5,196,136,000 (**this is what the government spends finding a cure for cancer)
  • Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) – $4,915,970,000
  • Heart, Lung, and Blood – $3,147,992,000
  • General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) – $2,102,300,000
  • Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases – $1,837,957,000
  • Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) – $1,664,253,000
  • Mental Health – $1,517,006,000
  • Child Health and Human Development  – $1,352,189,000
  • Office of the Director – $1,298,412,000 (Former NHGRI head, Francis Collins is NIH Director)
  • Center for Research Resources – $1,297,900,000
  • Aging – $1,129,987,000
  • Drug Abuse (NIDA) – $1,080,018,000
  • Eye Institute – $719,059,000
  • Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases – $547,891,000
  • Human Genome Research (NHGRI) – $524,807,000
  • Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – $469,197,000
  • Deafness and Other Communication Disorders – $426,043,000
  • Dental and Craniofacial Research – $420,369,000
  • National Library of Medicine – $387,153,000
  • Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering – $322,106,000
  • Minority Health and Health Disparities – $214,608,000
  • Nursing Research – $148,114,000
  • Complimentary and Alternative Medicine – $131,102,000
  • Buildings and Facilities – $125,581,000
  • Environmental Health Sciences – $81,085,000
  • John E. Fogarty International Center – $71,328,000

The NIH funds a lot of smaller agencies, each with their own specific health focus. Still, even the smallest money allotment represents way more money that I could ever imagine having at my disposal (how my bank account would rejoice at seeing $71 million dollars). I hope that seeing the numbers actually broken down by agency will help people see why budget is important. There are a lot of agencies, handling a lot of money, but they are working on problems that effect the everyday lives of millions of Americans – from malaria to depression and everything in between.

Budget, particularly federal budget is a complex issue, and I haven’t by any means covered everything here. I encourage everyone to take their new understanding of how the NIH is broken down to follow the money trail even more and see what specific research projects are funded by each agency under the NIH’s leadership. The NIH’s RePORT system is one place where you can learn more about how much is spent on specific diseases. The NIH’s Office of Extramural Research can also help you learn more about how researchers go about applying for and receiving money from the NIH.

There is a lot of good information out there about budget. If you aren’t one for reading budget documents online, here is a video of the FY 2012 Health and Human Services (HHS) Department budget presentation. You’ll see Francis Collins (head of the NIH) third from the right, because the NIH falls under the jurisdiction of the HHS (that $32 billion for the NIH comes out of the even bigger HHS budget of $79.9 billion). Head of the HHS Kathleen Sebelius gives a pretty easy to follow breakdown of the important points in the FY 2012 budget.

Budget matters. It’s your money, don’t you want to know where it goes?
Update 2/21/11 – It is important to remember that the $32 billion number is just a request. It could very well change if Republicans pull their support from the NIH. Current predictions say the Republicans aim to cut $1 billion from the proposed budget. Check out the New York Times coverage for more information

What’s Up Wisconsin? (Protests, That’s What)

My adopted state of Wisconsin (don’t worry New Jersey, I’ll always love you most) is making major headlines this week due to protests against Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal which would essentially tie the hands of the teacher’s union (WEAC) while simultaneously requiring state employees to pay a significantly increased amount into their benefits.

While I don’t write about politics or education, and I am in fact quite biased on these issues being the daughter of two New Jersey state employees, I still think that it is important to highlight the media coverage being given to these events.

Madison, which is my temporary home while I’m attending UW, is the state capitol of Wisconsin. The protests that have been going on in opposition to the budget (an estimated 20,000 people outside the capitol building, according to CBS News 3) are just steps outside my front door. Classes at the University have been disrupted due to the protests (in addition to schools throughout Wisconsin having to close due to the absence of teachers).

As a grad student I have been privy to at least half a dozen (but I think more) emails about how teachers should act in response to the protests. Grad students are often tapped at TA’s or in some cases teach lower level classes, and while I don’t teach at UW, many of my colleagues have had to choose whether to show up for class, or throw their support behind the protesters.

When I talk about politics, I try hard not to spout my own views, so I’ll just wrap up by giving you some links to check out for more information about the causes of the protests, the details of the proposed budget, how the city of Madison is being effected and how the nation is taking notice.

Reuters: Democratic Lawmakers Leave Wisconsin To Protest Union Curbs 
New York Times: Democrats Missing, Wisconsin Vote on Cuts is Delayed
Politico: The Politics of Education Upended
CNN: State Democrats Absent for Vote as Wisconsin Budget Protests Swell
CBS News: Wisconsin Protests Continue As Dems Leave State to Stall Budget Repair Vote
ABC News: Wisconsin Teachers Protest Ed Budget, Union Cuts
Bloomberg: Public Employee Protests Spread from Wisconsin to Ohio
Huffington Post: Wisconsin Protests: State Police Pursue Democratic Lawmakers Boycotting Vote

This is just an amateur video I snagged off of YouTube, but I think it gives you a good sense of what being in the crowd out here is like.

Humans Contaminate DNA Databases

Interesting research has been published in the online journal PLoS One, describing a problem with contamination in non-human DNA databases. DNA databases are libraries of genetic information about specific species. When a species has its genome sequenced, its genetic data goes into a database so that other research can be conducted based on that known genetic information.

When a DNA database becomes contaminated it means that there is other information that has corrupted the data stored in the database. In the new PLoS One paper the researchers (from the University of Connecticut) evaluated human contamination of databases that were supposed to contain other species – like the zebrafish. So contamination occurs when human DNA gets incorporated into the database for another species. When researchers go to work with the data about the zebrafish for example, they are actually working with human data without knowing it.

The University of Connecticut researchers looked for human contamination in NCBI genome databases, the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) databases, and the Joint Genome Institute databases. They found human DNA where it shouldn’t have been in a total of 492 of 2,749 evaluated databases.

This contamination issue is extremely problematic because research conducted based on contaminated information can not be trusted to be accurate. It can also be very difficult to track down which databases are contaminated unless the resources (time, money, etc) are spent to evaluate databases for clarity – as was done in this new research.

Database contamination is a relatively new issue brought to light be the massive influx of new genetic information made possible by improved genome sequencing technology. A similar issue that has existed for decades is cell line contamination which occurs when cells that are suspended in culture (alive outside of the body) are contaminated with cells that aren’t supposed to be there.

No regulatory body has stepped up and put a stop to cell line contamination in the last thirty years. I just hope that database contamination doesn’t follow suit.

To learn more, read the paper about Database contamination, or read an article I wrote for BioTechniques about cell line contamination. As taxpayers we spend a lot of money to fund scientific research, so it is important to know what problems (like contamination) exist in the research community.

What We Don’t Know

The site of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, where one of the world’s worst environmental disasters took place in 1986 doesn’t have a protective casing around it. Seriously? I wasn’t even born when Chernobyl exploded, how is it possible that all this time it hasn’t had a permanent casing around the radioactive wreckage?

Chernobyl in 2004. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Radiation contaminated huge swatches of land across Europe in the late 80’s due to Chernobyl, and no one ever found it important enough to spend the money to build a permanent casing around the damaged nuclear fuel rods. How is that possible?

Twenty five years after the Chernobyl explosion the money needed to put a protective casing around the damaged nuclear fuel rods hasn’t been raised. The existing protective casing was intended to be only temporary, and won’t be a permanent solution to the radiation problem. A permanent structure has been under construction, but money to build it is going to run out before it is completed.

Countries all over the world have pledged money to build the containment structure, with European countries leading with the most donations. I understand that we are currently in an economic crisis, but how have 25 years passed without enclosing the radioactive ruins becoming a priority? This should have been done long before the world experienced its recent economic downturn.

This story has me thinking about all the things we don’t know. I never would have thought that there wasn’t a permanent structure around Chernobyl. It wouldn’t have even occurred to me to find out if there was one because its the sort of thing I would just assume had been taken care of. I can’t help but wonder what other issues are just never publicized…scary things to think about.