"It is true, and thus the question of whether it is sad or happy has no meaning whatever."
Bernhard Schlink

Science is best when discussed: leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments!!

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Cyborgs and Fat Ladies 

A US study of women has found that those who eat more non-fat dairy products have more trouble conceiving than those who ate full-fat dairy. The results are a bit confusing - no one is sure why the effect is seen...it could be an effect of the processing involved in making nonfat products, or it could be something that's simply missing from the nonfat varieties that helps conception. The latter seems really unlikely, as I'm pretty sure that vegan women are generally able to have kids without trouble. Also, the study doesn't appear to have controlled for obesity - another risk for infertility, which could also motivate women to switch to nonfat foods.

Still, any excuse for ice cream will do.

Not really related, we have Chinese scientists' announcement that they have produced cyborg pigeons. Chips implanted in the flying rats' brains allows humans to 'remote control' their movements, possibly presaging a real reason to off that old lady next door who feeds the damn things: she's helping the gub'men spy on us! Seriously though, as scary as armies of robo-spies may be, this advance not only represents, but could dramatically further, our understanding of how the brain works.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dicks and Assess 

A Canadian survey found that 90% of teenage boys admitted to looking at porn, as did 70% of girls. The authors of the study are of course Very Concerned, in that they imagine that viewing 'too much' porn will damage young people's development, et cetera. They don't have any evidence for this fear, but clearly it's the only conclusion Sensible People could make. The report glosses over the much more important finding - that parents aren't discussing sex (specifically: safer sex) with their kids - and instead goes for thinly veiled moralizing about porn.

Speaking of thinking with the little head, remember the study on circumcision against HIV the NIH stopped because the results were so overwhelming? Well, it seems that the results may be even stronger than previously thought - as much as a 65% reduction in risk! The problem, of course, is that the study was not very well designed, selecting control and treatment groups solely by volunteerism, not randomization*.

Moving around to the other side of the anatomy, it seems that perfectionists and high-stress types may be more likely to develop Irritable Bowel Syndrome after bouts of gastroenteritis. Cognitive therapy is prescribed to train sufferers to be less obnoxiously Type-A.

But really speaking of assholes, the Bush administration looks unlikely to grant state governor's requests for extra SCHIP funding this year, to keep those programs going. The programs provide health insurance to children whose families ear too much to get Medicaid, but not enough to afford insurance, and are proven highly effective.

And finally, the good news: the First Circuit has reaffirmed that bloggers aren't liable for commentors' libel**, and it seems that ginko extract may be helpful in treating the mental retardation that comes with Downs Syndrome, by antagonizing GABA.

* This probably isn't as big a deal here, as placebo effects are totally implausible and the men who received treatment may also have been more likely to engage in risky behavior, given expectation of increased protection. All in all, these methodological issues are probably a wash.
** Why doesn't anybody comment here anymore? It was more fun and more interesting when we had some discourse!

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Science Needs You! 

A friend of mine, who has a fancy research job at Harvard, is conducting an experiment using the web, and needs lots more people to participate. So, I'm asking all of you, dear readers and passers-through, to please help him by clicking the link below and participating.

It takes about 5-10 minutes (seriously), and is a great way to take a break from passive blog-reading and do something different. Just please take it seriously, this is real research!

Anyways, here's the link...have fun, and thanks!

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Sunday, February 25, 2007


At the beginning of last year, I signed up for a frequent-flyer-gathering credit card from my bank, because I figure I might someday have time to travel, and miles could come in handy! So I got this fancy new bit of budgetary overindulgence, and have been using it (mostly) responsibly ever since.

Today I learned of a feature that this card, unlike my others, provides: a year-end account summary. Which is good, I guess, if only because it means I can put all the monthlies in cold storage and have this as an easier reference, should the need arise. The downside? The summary includes tabulations by type of purchase.

Health care: 6% (this is mostly paid by cheques to my insurance company)
Services (i.e., haircuts and Comcast...an odd pairing): 8%
Merchandise (includes groceries, clothes, books, and shoes): 31%
Restaurants (and bars): 41% !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I am well aware that I would be less broke if I cooked more, and drank less. I just really don't like being reminded. I also am reminded how annoyed I am that my school does not accept credit cards for tuition payment - that would allow me to go on a really fantastic post-graduation holiday extravaganza!

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Hairy Women, Geezers, Herpes 

And lots of other stuff too: it's been a crazy couple of days! First of all, Turkish researchers have found that drinking spearmint tea reduces free testosterone levels - offering a potential avenue for future treatment of severe hairiness. Also enough to drop mens' libidos, it seems, so boys should probably steer clear.

Speaking of looking good, Columbia researchers have found that living in densely populated areas, with a mix of residential and commercial spaces and transit options, is related to significantly lower BMI. Philosophically I hate BMI studies, as BMI is a terrible measure for obesity (while technically it should include a body composition component, in practice it's just weight/height^2), but it is a useful blunt instrument for this kind of study. Hopefully these results will result in people getting on with better smart development, etc.

We humans like to think that we're pretty special. We probably are, but we also have a lot more to learn about how other animals work. For instance, UK researchers have found that at least one species of bird, the western scrub-jay, conscientiously plans for the future - something only humans were believed able to do. In a really elegant-sounding experiment, the researchers taught jays that they might be denied their usual breakfast, but gave them the opportunity to store food instead. The birds not only hid food in the right places, but also hid a variety of it as well. Like setting up a menu. Cool!

And then there's chimps. Our closest cousins, they do all kinds of stuff that we used to like to think was unique to us. Now, researchers have observed wild chimps doing something really 'human': making spears to hunt prey. Whether or not we're actually seeing cultural evolution in action, or if this is an old trick we've just never before observed (unlikely), this is a really amazing discovery, and has huge implications for all kinds of stuff.

While animals are looking cleverer and cleverer, old people just got less clever and more annoying. OK, well, not really, now there's just a study to say so. A UVa study of older (60-80 years) and younger adults (under 60) found that while there were no differences in actual memory recall between the two groups, the old folks were much more adamant about their wrong answers. This study has implications not only for criminal justice (eyewitness accounts are the focus of the paper), but also for generally confirming how stubborn Grandpa is. And taking the leap of generalizing this to 80-100+ year-olds, who probably do have real memory problems, is a scary vision of a really frustrating place*.

And finally, to get to such stubborn old age, you have to not die first. One good way to die first is, of course, to get AIDS**. But, an African study has made an interesting discovery: an drug used to treat genital herpes seems also to reduce circulating HIV load by as much as 70%. Use of these drugs in HIV patients (who are frequently co-infected with HSV) could greatly reduce transmission and help prevent tons of cases. Assuming HIV doesn't mutate and render them ineffective. Also, it'll be really interesting to see how, exactly, the effect happens at a molecular level.

* To all who say that this stubbornness is part of old people's charm, I say yes of course it is: as long as it's someone else's problem.
** That's right kids - even with all the new modern treatments, including the one I'm about to tell you about, AIDS will still make you sick and die younger. So please, kill this 'barebacking' meme that's going around the gay community. Now.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Worried about proving yourself as manly as can be? Well, the bet way to do that may be to have fraternal twins. Danish researchers found that fathers of dizygotic twins had higher-quality sperm than did fathers of single-births. They also found the same to be true of fathers of monozygotic twins, which makes very little sense, so I am not sure I really buy this study. However, it was fun to say.

Canadian researchers have found that mice with an induced MS-like syndrome recover some of their myelin when pregnant, due to prolactin. If this finding can be translated safely into a drug regiment for humans, it could really improve the lives of MS sufferers, who currently have few real treatment options. Plus, why does prolactin have this effect? That's really cool!

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Monday, February 19, 2007

A Good Way to Start the Week 

I was awakened this morning by a loud knock at my door. This being something that doesn't happen - none of my neighbors are the cup-of-sugar-borrowing type and it was way too early for friends to be stopping by - I nearly leaped out of bed to see what was up. It was the FedEx guy. I would have been more annoyed, except that he was delivering a very precious package: my college statistics notebooks.

My current crop of biostats classes are so based in the underlying mathematics that I feel I'm losing sight of what it's all used for...my college courses didn't suffer this problem, as they were almost all applied classes. Hopefully now the semester will get easier!

After that, there's of course good science news. An international coalition of researchers has identified a possible Autism gene: neuregulin 1, on chromosome 11p appears to be altered in autistics. Neuregulin plays a key role in interneural communication, so its involvement in autism is not a great shock. The discovery raises hopes for future targeted treatments for the condition, but almost certainly doesn't represent a complete etiologic profile. There must be more genes and environmental factors out there that play a role.

Lost a tooth? Nasty cavities? Well, a Japanese team may have a solution for you: they successfully grew mesenchymal and epithelial cells, first in culture and then in situ, into replacement teeth for mice. The procedure's nowhere near ready for testing in humans, but will hopefully lead to effective tooth regrowth technology in the future.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Steve Aoki, The Brazilian Girls, and Ladytron 

To everyone (all 500 of you know who you are) who failed to take my extra tickets to this show, an object lesson: this was, without question, one of the most amazing concerts I have ever experienced.

Aoki was spinning on the small stage upstairs when we arrived, playing an lighthearted (but heavy-beated?) set of dance music. Accompanied by a rotating pair of backup dancers. The set was a blast, and I would have stayed there all night dancing, if we had not suddenly noticed that everyone else was streaming towards the exits.

Intrigued we followed, and soon learned that the actual show was going to be somewhere else - on the main stage of which we had neither seen nor heard previous mention. Lucky we made it!

The Brazilian Girls were up first, opening with "Sexy Asshole" and continuing with some combination of music and performance art about begging for pussy and marijuana. The former visibly unnerved many of the trendier gay boys in the audience, thus making even bigger fans of my companion and I. There was clearly not pre-determined set list; the performance just flowed even as the band members visibly argued about where to go next.

The rest of their set was equally superb, and certainly aided by the scorching hotness of drummer Aaron Johnston. They played for about an hour, followed by a 45-or-so minute intermission, during which Aoki again took to the upstairs stage.

Then came Ladytron. What can I say about this set? They played for a full two hours, never missing a beat.
Most of the songs sounded remarkably like the album versions (I'd thought there had been more sound engineering involved - it seems that no, it's just their voices), except, most notably "He Took Her to a Movie." I love this song, in its original form, for, among other things, its sparse creepiness. The live version was busy, loud, and with two voices instead of one. It sounded awesome, like the sad creepiness of the original had grown into more of a dirty-old-man-in-the-park(-with-a-synthesizer-and-feedbacky-amp) creepiness. Did I mention they played for two hours?

We left the venue with sore legs, sweat-drenched clothes, and big goofy grins (sorry kids, my camera stayed home, you have to imagine this one!). Which we promptly stuffed with eggs, grits, and toast at a nearby diner. Sometimes a serious rock-n-roll ass kicking is just what the doctor ordered.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

You Come Here Often? 

Sometimes, looking at my refer logs for this site is just too much fun. Or, more importantly, just more fun than whatever I'm supposed to be doing at a given moment. Anywhom, it is from this sort of distraction that I have learned that The Articulatory Loop is Google's number one search result for the phrase "purell on the armpits."

So yeah. My expert advice to Mr/Ms 71.129.103. from Los Angeles? Raise your hand if you're Sure. If not, please do so only in the presence of people with a certain set of fetishes (NSFW!).

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Friday, February 16, 2007


This works...kinda. Except Cable's kinda old for me, and I'm looking for a guy TODAY! The rest of it works though.

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I Won't Grow Up: Power, Death, and Health Insurance 

Peter Pan wanted to never grow old, and to stay a boy forever. Well, in a sense, people eating Peter Pan brand peanut butter might have been given such a chance: a lot of the stuff has been recalled due to salmonella contamination. No one died in the outbreak (thus losing the chance to be 'young forever'), but I guess the more aware I get of all these things (studying public health as I am), the more of them there seem to be. Or I could be paranoid.

Speaking of dangerous foods, the British Medical Journal has made the astonishing discovery that swallowing swords is a dangerous profession. I just don't even know where to begin on this one, so I'll just say: "Still no cure for cancer."

On the upside, Swedish researchers have found that the human brain grows new neurons in the olfactory bulb well into adulthood, using stem cells harbored in the ventricles. This is really cool, and has all kinds of potential implications for dealing with all sorts of diseases.

Speaking of new connections, Berkeley scientists have found a way to put organic molecules together in such a way as to get the Seebeck effect (direct heat-to-electricity conversion between two pieces (formerly of metal) at different temperatures). While the voltages are really small, this is a major proof-of-concept that could lead to big changes in how we generate energy.

And finally, we have energy, waste, birth, injury and death (well, mostly just waste and injury) all wrapped up in one story: the American health care system. An editorial in the NYT points out what has been obvious all along: the US needs to embrace a single-payer system. The author gives all the usual citations about how we spend twice as much as every other country in the world for lower quality care that covers fewer people, etc., but the only real novelty is the strength of the position: "Does a candidate who couldn’t persuade voters to embrace the single-payer approach deserve to be president," he asks.

Good question, and I would say that the answer is a resounding "no." Yes, the candidate will have to be able to shout over the (inevitably Republican) detractors, who will fervently claim that "better and cheaper and more efficient" actually means "bureaucratic impersonal communism," and that the facts are not the facts, but that's frankly what you sign up for, running for president. I really hope that Hillarbama (or whomever) can make this happen.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Good for You: Antibodies, Boobs, Bleeding 

We've known for some time that kids do better when they're breastfed as infants - they grow up healthier, smarter, and more secure - but that hasn't convinced many women to stick with it, so maybe this news might. Data from a huge follow-up study (96,648 new mothers over 16 years) suggests that breastfeeding is also good for the mothers: those who breastfed at least two years had significant reductions in cardiac events than did non-breastfeeders. There are lots of possible explanations for this effect, and I'll be interested to see what pans out.

If you're worried about your cardiovascular health, whether you breastfed your kids or not, you might consider giving blood. A good size VA study found that giving blood twice a year may improve circulatory health in younger people by reducing the body's stored iron. So give blood! Unless you're gay and barred from doing so. Just another way they wanna try and kill us off!

The alleged reason for the ban on gays giving blood is, of course, HIV. For which every blood donation is thoroughly screened, and with which at this point heterosexuals are about as likely to be infected, but that's another rant. The good news about HIV is that NAIAD researchers have published a picture of an important antibody at work blocking that nasty virus, hinting at possible targets for future vaccines. Awesome!

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Hold on to Your Testicles 

Another reason not to get The Chop: it seems that vasectomy may be related to an increased risk of primary progressive aphasia and of frontotemporal dementia. The case-control study found that men with PPA were 2.5 times as likely to have had vasectomies than men without PPA, so much more study is needed to see if this is a real cause-effect situation, but seriously boys - just use a condom!

Speaking of side-effects, it appears that yet another rotavirus vaccine may be causing intussusception in infants. The data are really preliminary - by which I mean non-existent - at this point, and don't really say what el Wapo seems to want them to say (that parents should be scared of the vaccine, which will be the only outcome of this article), but if there's any truth to it it would be both unfortunate (as rotavirus kills a higher percentage of babies than intussusception) and interesting (because why is this side-effect so prevalent for vaccines for this disease?).

Another drug in trouble is Ketek (telithromycin), a potent antibiotic approved a few years ago, to much protest from patient groups, for bronchitis, sinusitis, and pneumonia. Ketek has such severe side-effects, particularly liver damage, vision loss, and fainting, that FDA has moved (under pressure from Congress) to limit its use to community-acquired pneumonia, with stronger labeling. I was on this drug once, and gotta say, it was not pleasant.

Second-hand smoke also appears to have more side-effects than predicted. A UK study has found that people exposed to second-hand smoke had higher cardiovascular risk factors than did unexposed. Much as I hate them philosophically, those bar-smoking bans are really good for health.

Finally, a double-whammy. Certain alleles of the ApoE gene are known to increase your risk of Alzheimer's. The catch is, they seem also to make you more likely, as a newborn, to develop cerebral palsy. Interesting.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Artificial Bodies 

Japanese researchers claim that they've found a way to make breast implants from a woman's own tissue and stem cells. A surgeon at Tokyo University's medical school claims to have given 40 women as much as a 2-cup-size increase by injecting a slurry of stem-cell enriched fat cells into their breasts. Other researchers are, understandably, dubious. I really wonder about the safety of this kind of procedure in terms of breast cancer, if nothing else.

The FDA has approved its first recombinant DNA sutures for use in the US. The sutures absorb into the patients body, eliminating the need to have them removed (which can interfere with healing), and hopefully you're not allergic to them. Which the FDA's ruling suggests you may be.

But you know what's good for you? Naps. A large study of Greek men and women found that those who took frequent midday naps were less likely to die of heart disease than non-nappers. The study was big, and with a decent follow-up (n=23000 over six years), and looks convincing. Now, if only I could convince my employers to go for it!

And more from Captain We-Already-Knew-That-Really, a well-executed clinical trial has confirmed the utility of marijuana as treatment for AIDS-related nerve pain. Needless to say, the White House/DEA (both famous for scientific integrity) claim that the study was too small (n=50, which is almost certainly plenty), and invalid, etc., because it does not fit with their political ideas. Can we, as a society, move on please?

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Monday, February 12, 2007

More Armpit Sweat 

We learned last week that sniffing your coworkers' armpits may be a good way to decrease stress at work, but were left wondering why. Well, a Berkeley study has found that a male pheromone, androstadienone, secreted in sweat, caused exposed heterosexual womens' cortisol levels to become elevated. And they got turned on. So, it seems that maybe too much antiperspirant may not be a great idea.

Speaking of taking the romance out of things, US researchers have found that insecure babies grow up to have relationship troubles. What makes a baby insecure? Since no one knows precisely, we stick with the default: blame your parents!!!

You can blame everything on your parents, you know. After all, they gave you your genes. They may have given you a mutated SLC30A8 zinc transporter, increasing your risk of type 2 diabetes, or they gave you a common version of DARPP-32, which makes you a better thinker (by improving communication between the striatum and PFC) but may also put you at risk for schizophrenia (if the cortex is otherwise compromised and can't handle all that striatal input).

And finally, genes aside, your brain needs sleep. Mouse studies indicate that sleep deprivation inhibits hippocampal neurogenesis, and while we're not sure exactly what those new cells are needed for, it's probably a safe bet that their lack is related to the cognitive deficits seen in sleep deprivation.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Brains and Armpits for Stress Relief 

Modern life is a stressful place to live. We have nagging mothers, screaming children, overbearing bosses and co-dependent boy/girlfriends, unless we don't in which case it's even worse. How can you cope with all that stress? Well, you can take Prozac, exercise, or sniff your co-workers' armpits. No details are given on why this might work, other than the hilarity which might ensue trying it without warning, but ... wow ... I really don't know what to say.

Speaking of stress, now they really can read your mind. Not really, but just put it out there.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Incest on Facebook 

Yeah, so I pretty much could not resist taking a picture of this ridiculousness spawned by the Facebook.com friend-stalker. Read the last item.

Incest on Facebook

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Fat, Lonely, and A Hero, Type II 

Pennsylvania researchers have found what they call a 'master' regulatory gene for fat storage and metabolism. GCN2 eIF2alpha kinase, when activated, appears to make the body drop all of its stored fat in a really short time frame. Activated by leucine deprivation, the kinase modulates the body's starvation response, and could possibly be manipulated to treat obesity.

The media could also get a hold of this study and set off a new national fad diet involving induced leucine deficiencies. That's what I hope happens, because the results would be hilarious*.

As if being fat wasn't enough to be afraid of, it appears that loneliness may be a risk factor for developing Alzheimer's. In a fairly large cohort (823 patients over four years), Rush University scientists found that higher scores on a loneliness scale predicted lower levels of cognitive functioning. This is not a terribly surprising finding, but it emphasizes the importance of strong social networks and social participation as we age.

Speaking of people who may need more social interaction, we have gamerz. You know, that guy who spends 15 hours a day playing Grand Theft Auto only pausing to grab another bag of Cheetos and a Diet Coke? Yeah, Rochester's Daphne Bavelier wants to be his hero. Her research may or may not suggest that playing those action video games is actually good for your visual ability. The thing is, her study seems to have a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: avid gamerz had better vision than controls, but she does not appear to have addressed whether this is what makes them good players, or if it is a result of their playing.

* By 'hilarious' I of course mean "a disaster for the health of the people duped into following such a diet, but really they probably deserve it, because stupidity should be painful.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Stiffer than Diamond 

A team of researchers has made an alloy - bits of barium titanate immersed in tin - that is tougher than diamond. The thing is, it only has this grand title when it is between 58 and 59 degrees Celsius, so its immediate utility could be a bit limited. Still, as a proof-of-concept, it's pretty cool.

Not cool, however, is getting skin cancer. It seems that people who spend lots of time driving cars are at higher risk - especially if they keep the windows open - than are non-drivers. I have some trouble believing that the increase is entirely due to excess sun exposure (I, for instance, was getting lots more sun exposure when I lived in DC and walked everywhere, as opposed to now that I live in Atlanta and drive constantly, I am ghostly pale), but I was surprised that it seems most car glass only blocks UVB, not UVA rays. Weird.

Also bad: HIV. French researchers have found that HIV effectively 'hides' itself from drug treatments in mens' testes, helping to explain why viral load can be undetectable in blood, but the virus can still be transmitted sexually. You see, current drugs don't get to the testes - they are well protected by the body from foreign agents (for easily imagined reasons) - but targeting those cells in the future could reduce transmission of the virus. I do worry about side effects, however.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

People Will Buy *Anything* 

No longer content with the latte-addled wakefulness provided by the Starbucks on every street corner, wealthy people have decided that they need to pay premium prices to make themselves less sleepy by ... sleeping. That's right, yuppies and spoiled college students across the United States are apparently waiting in line to shell out for a nap. In special 'sleep spas.' I guess we really don't need any more evidence that we have too much spare time and money in this country.

Even further off the deep end, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has announced that he can cure AIDS (and asthma) in just three days. There's a joke about the assorted email-banking scams emanating from various African nations in here somewhere, but I am too high on cold medicine to come up with it.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Things Not To Try 

Sometimes, people get ideas that are so astoundingly stupid that I just have no words for it. For instance: a Maryland inmate was hospitalized for extreme drunkenness (a BAC of .33) due because he drank hand sanitizer. Yes: he was drunk on Purell. Aside from the stupidity of his own actions, the event was apparently so shocking to people that it merited publication in the New England Journal of Medicine, and a front-page mention from WaPo online. Including talk about the DANGER! of hand sanitizer use.

The real danger of hand sanitizer use - growth of more resistant bacterial strains - doesn't even seem to register next to the horror (The Horror!!!) that people might get high on it. Priorities, anyone?

Another pair if substances you might not want to put on your body, especially if you're a young boy, are tea tree and lavender oil. Another NJEM study found that some boys using shampoo and lotion containing these grew breasts. The oils appear to act as estrogens, and their effects on older males, and females are unclear. But the lesson here is: just say no to hippie hair products!

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