Burning questions remain about Dublin’s ‘Waste-To-Energy’ incinerator


Dublin Waste to Energy [Pic Credit Blathnaid Mc Polin]

The Covanta Dublin Waste to Energy plant is now operating at full capacity, but questions remain around the safety and potential public health impact of the plant.

I visited the plant on 15th March 2018 to put these questions to its General Manager, John Daly, and to take a close up look at the technology that is required to incinerate 600,000 tonnes of black bin waste.

Listen below to the piece broadcast on Drivetime on 26th March 2018.



TCD scientists devise tool to predict impact of warming on parasitic disease.

Lyme Disease
TCD scientists have devised a method to predict the impact of global warming on parasitic diseases such as Lyme disease, which is caused by a tick. [Source: http://www.Macleans.ca]

The prediction of which infectious diseases will worsen and which will diminish with rising temperatures is now possible thanks to scientists at TCD.

The method can, the scientists say, identify which infectious diseases will have worsened or diminished effects with rising temperatures.

“Rising temperatures due to global warming can alter the proliferation and severity of infectious diseases, and this has broad implications for conservation and food security,” said Professor Pepin Luijckx, who led the study with William C Campbell, lecturer in parasite biology at TCD and graduate student Devin Kirk.

“It is therefore really important that we understand and identify the diseases that will become more harmful with rising temperatures, with a view to mitigating their impacts,” Prof Luijckx added.

Scientists have found it difficult to pinpoint the the precise  impact  rising temperature will have on the host and pathogen, and on disease, because temperature can affect these in different ways.

For example, while host immune function and pathogen infectivity may be higher as temperatures rise, pathogen longevity may be lower.   Additionally, to predict the severity of disease, scientists need data that doesn’t always exist on the temperature sensitivity of all the processes involved, especially for newly emergent diseases.


The solution, the TCD scientists say, is that the so-called metabolic theory of ecology can be used to predict how various biological processes respond to temperature.    This theory is based on the idea that each process is controlled by enzymes, and that the activity and temperature dependence of these enzymes can be described using simple equations.

Even with limited data, the theory thus allows for the prediction of the temperature dependence of host and pathogen processes.

In their study, the scientists used the water flea and its pathogen and measured how processes such as host mortality, aging, parasite growth and damage done to the host changed over a wide temperature range. They used these measurements to determine the thermal dependencies of each of these processes using metabolic theory.

The results showed that the different processes had unique relationships with temperature. For example, while damage inflicted to the host per pathogen appeared to be independent of temperature, both host mortality and pathogen growth rate were strongly dependent — but in opposite ways.

“What is exciting is that these results demonstrate that linking and integrating metabolic theory within a mathematical model of host-pathogen interactions is effective in describing how and why disease interactions change with global warming,” Prof Luijckx said.

“Due to its simplicity and generality, the method we have developed could be widely applied to understand the likely impact of global warming on a variety of diseases, including diseases affecting aquaculture, such as salmonid diseases like Pancreas disease, pathogens of bee pollinators, such as Nosema, and growth of vector-borne and tick-borne diseases in their invertebrate hosts, such as malaria and Lyme disease,” the Prof concluded.

Immune system found to work better at certain times of day

The immune system has been found to work to a 24-hour hour circadian cycle, like the rest of our body [Source: greatist.com]
The immune system works better at certain times of day than others, according to new research, which could help point the way towards the development of new drugs for autoimmune disease such as multiple sclerosis (MS).

In a study published in Nature Communications, Professor Kingston Mills and Dr Caroline Sutton of TCD and Dr Annie Curtis of RCSI (Royal College of Surgeons Ireland), show that immune responses and regulation of autoimmunity are affected by the time of the day when the immune response is activated.

“In the year that the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded for discoveries on the molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm, our exciting findings suggest that our immune system is programmed to respond better to infection and insults encountered at different times in the 24-hour clock,” said Prof Mills.

“This has significant implications for the treatment of immune-mediated diseases and suggests there may be important differences in time of day response to drugs used to treat autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis,” Prof Mills said. 

Using mice as a model organism, the researchers showed that a master circadian gene, BMAL1, is responsible for sensing and acting on time-of-the-day cues to suppress inflammation. Loss of BMAL1, or induction of autoimmunity at midday instead of midnight, causes more severe experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (an analogue of multiple sclerosis) in mice.

Circadian rhythms or 24-hour rhythms are generated by the body clock, allowing us to anticipate and respond to the 24-hour cycle of our planet.

Maintaining a good body clock is generally believed to lead to good health for humans, and disrupting the circadian rhythm (for example, as happens in some people working night shifts) has been associated with immune diseases such as multiple sclerosis; however, the underlying molecular links have been unclear.

“Our study also shows how disruption of our body clocks, which is quite common now given our 24/7 lifestyle and erratic eating and sleeping patterns, may have an impact on autoimmune conditions,” said Dr Curtis.

“We are really beginning to uncover exactly how important our body clocks are for health and wellbeing,” Dr Curtis added. 

TCD group to investigate health effects in Ireland from diesel emissions

A TCD team is to investigate the health impact of diesel emissions in Ireland (Pic: TCD)

Nitrogen dioxide, or NO2 is an air pollutant generated, for the most part, by diesel engines and can irritate airways and lead to respiratory disease, especially asthma.

In the past, Irish governments have encouraged the purchase of diesel cars through tax incentives in order to help meet the country’s obligation to control carbon dioxide, or CO2, which is the most significant greenhouse gas.

However, it has become clear that nitrogen dioxide, which is released by diesel engines, is a serious hazard to public health so this policy may change.

For many years the US had strict controls on nitrogen emissions from vehicles, and the EU is now looking to follow with its own more stringent nitrogen regime.

This research will involve a team of engineers, hospital consultants and environmental scientists based at TCD, and is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency‘s Research Programme 2014 to 2020.

The researchers will investigate the associations between NO2 and health impacts as it pertain to Ireland, with particular emphasis on vulnerable groups including children, the elderly and the socio-economically disadvantaged.

The team will identify a set of characteristics for the locations in Ireland that are at most risk of experiencing high levels of NO2.

“Traffic in urban areas contributes significantly to air pollution and the impact on individuals living and working in those areas is difficult to quantify,” said Margaret O’Mahony, Professor of Civil Engineering, and the project lead.

“The EPA funding will enable the team to investigate the associations between NO2 and its impact on health and wellbeing, which is an important step forward for environmental and health research in Ireland,” Prof O’Mahony added. 

The team will also examine the HSE drug prescription database to establish much-needed baseline data linking NO2 levels with the prescription of drugs used to treat asthma and chronic obstructive airways disease.

Other databases, such as the Growing up in Ireland (GUI) and the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), subject to their availability, will be explored to investigate if relationships between prevalence of respiratory symptoms in vulnerable groups and NO2 levels exist.

Finally, the team will identify a set of effective and efficient solutions to mitigate the impact of the transport sector on NO2 levels in Ireland.

My weekly science news round up on East Coast FM: weight loss; mindfulness; ancient Egypt; super volcano; Chinese space station

The latest science news from around the world 

Broadcast on The Morning Show on East Coast FM (20/10/2017)

A group of scientists say there is no evidence for many of the benefits claimed for mindfulness (Source: http://www.positivepsychologyprogram.com)


Every two lbs overweight knocks nine weeks off your life

Source: Telegraph, UK

  • Study of 600,000 people study link between longevity and lifestyle
  • Smoke pack of cigs per day, die seven years earlier on average
  • Edinburgh University researchers did this as a so-called big data project, which means analysing and cross referencing vast amounts of data.
  • If you are two stone overweight, then it will take, on average, six months off your life.
  • Data came from Europe, North America and Australia, via the UK Biobank.
  • But… also found that life is extended by one year for every year a person stays in education after school, on average. That’s a massive effect.
  • Life expectancy continuing to increase, and in the UK it stands now at 79.5 years for a man, on average, and 83.1 for a woman.
  • But, Public Health England found this year that the average ‘healthy’ average life expectancy – the number of years a person can live largely free of illness – is less than the age people get the state pension

Little proof mindfulness meditation works, say scientists

Source: Scientific American

  • Scientists in the US now asking where is the proof that mindfulness works? Question asked by a group of 15 prominent psychologists and cognitive scientists in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.
  • Lots of studies have been done on mindfulness and it has been reported to relieve stress, pain and even slow ageing.
  • But, these researchers are critical of these studies because they say they are poorly designed, they have inconsistent definitions are what mindfulness actually is, and often do not use a control group to rule out the placebo effect.
  • Only some 9 per cent of studies on mindfulness has been tested in clinical trials, one report said, and meta analysis of mindfulness research not impressive.
  • In 2014, a review of 47 meditation trials, involving over 3,500 people found that no evidence mindfulness enhanced enhanced attention, curtailed substance abuse, helped sleep or controlled weight.
  • Mindfulness meditation and training is now a huge industry, so there are vested interests promoting its effectiveness, the scientists state.
  • Less than 25 per cent of trials on mindfulness monitor potential negative effects and that is causing worry among scientists too.
  • The 2014 review did find some benefits, modest benefits, for anxiety, depression and pain from the use of mindfulness.
  • A reputable trial this year found that mindfulness attention training reduced self perceived stress, but not the stress hormone cortisol. What does it mean?
  • Another trial found that mindfulness increased the thickness of the prefrontal cortex around of the brain, which is associated with complex behaviour, decision making and shaping the personality.

Ancient Egypt brought down by volcanoes and climate change

Source: Independent UK

  • Volcanic eruptions caused riots and rebellions against Ptolemaic rule and Cleopatra was one of those leaders.
  • Ancient Egypt relied on monsoon weather to provide water irrigate the nile delta region, as does 70 per cent of the globe still today
  • Researchers at TCD and Yale looked at the historical records and used climate modelling methods (working backwards) to do this study.
  • Summer floods helped crops to grow, fed population and were the fundamental basis for the wealth of ancient Egypt at this time 350BC to 30 BC or so.

Yellowstone Super Volcano could erupt inside decades causing global volcanic winter

Source: Independent UK

  • The last time it erupted was 630,000 years ago and created the Yellowstone caldera, which is 40 miles wide.
  • The volcano is so big that if it erupted, it could choke the Earth’s entire atmosphere with ash, blocking out a lot of sunlight, causing temperatures to dip, and this would continue for years.
  • That last massive eruption, scientists at Arizona State have found, occurred following two influxes of fresh magma into the magma chamber.
  • The temperatures increased around the volcano as this happened over decades, not centuries, as previously thought.
  • This shows that the the yellowstone volcano could become dangerous inside decades, at any point, when temperatures start to rise.
  • Large parts of the USA would be covered in dangerous ash if it erupted, the Earth would dramatically cool, sunlight would struggle to get through and the impact would last more than a decade. Life would get very tough, esp in US.

Chinese space station will crash to Earth in months

Source: Guardian UK

  • The 8.5 tonne orbiting laboratory (two large male bull elephants) is now out of control, and in a death spiral, and the ISS will follow perhaps as earth as 2020.
  • The Tiangong-1, or heavenly palace, lab was launched in 2011 as part of China’s push to become a space superpower.
  • Visited by taikonauts including China’s first female taikonaut Liu Yang in 2012.
  • Much of the craft will burn up in the atmosphere, but scientists in the west estimate that pieces as large as 100kg (16 stone man) will crash to Earth anytime between now and April 2018.
  • Impossible to predict when and where the pieces will fall scientists say.
  • No-one has been hurt by space debris falling to Earth, but in 1979 NASA’s 77-tonne Skylab space station crashed to the ground with some large pieces landing outside Perth.


Better treatments for nerve damage can follow new CÚRAM research

Better treatment methods for regeneration or repair of nerve tissue can follow new CURAM research (Pic: CURAM)

Better treatment options for those that have suffered nerve damage can result from new research at, based at NUI Galway, according to researchers.

The treatment of peripheral nerve injuries that result in the loss of motor or sensors remains a major problem around the world.

However, new research at the Centre for Research in Medical Devices, supported by SFI, can provide improved treatment options. The results of the new study were published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

Researchers have used artificial nerve grafts in recent years in an attempt to restore the function of the injured peripheral nervous system; which is that part of the nervous system that lies outside the brain and spinal cord.

This study explored the differences in nerve repair that result from the use of such grafts made of two different materials: collagen and polymer PLGA.

Both collagen and PLGA have been successfully used to repair damaged nerves in the laboratory, but this success has not transferred to patients in the clinic.

The CÚRAM study results supported the idea that the success of attempts to regenerate damaged nerves is dependent on the graft material used.

The different impact of graft material had been shown by many previous studies but this CÚRAM study provides a clearer understanding of how the body responds to collagen and PLGA grafts specifically.

According to the researchers, this paves the way for the development of specific nerve regeneration strategies based on the biomaterial used.

The study focused on a non-critical nerve injury and did not incorporate the effect of increasing gap distance on the regenerative response.