TIME Research

Aluminum May Reduce Sperm Count According to a New Study

The study, conducted jointly by researchers from France and the U.K., analyzed semen samples from 62 donors

Aluminum may be a major contributor to male infertility and reduced sperm counts, according to a new study released on Monday.

The study, published in the journal Reproductive Toxicology and conducted jointly by researchers at Keele University in the U.K. and the universities of Lyon and St.-Étienne in France, analyzed the sperm of 62 donors at a French clinic using fluorescence microscopy with an aluminum-specific stain. The researchers not only confirmed that semen does contain aluminum, but found that the sperm count is lowered as its aluminum content increases.

Professor Christopher Exley, an expert on human exposure to aluminum and the lead researcher in the study, said that endocrine disruptors and other environmental factors are generally blamed for the decline in male fertility that has been taking place over the past several decades.

“Human exposure to aluminum has increased significantly over the same time period and our observation of significant contamination of male semen by aluminum must implicate aluminum as a potential contributor to these changes in reproductive fertility,” he said.

TIME ebola

Connecticut Quarantines 9 People for Possible Ebola Exposure

Electron micrograph of Ebola virus
epa04374858 An image provided on 28 August 2014 by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows a scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus budding from the surface of a Vero cell of an African green monkey kidney epithelial cell line. EPA/NIAID / HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY / NO SALES NIAID / HANDOUT—EPA

None of them are showing symptoms of illness, but are being monitored as a precautionary measure

Nine people in Connecticut who could have been exposed to Ebola have been ordered to stay home for 21 days, the state’s Public Health Department said on Wednesday.

The people being watched by state health authorities are not showing symptoms of illness, but are being monitored as a precautionary measure, the Connecticut Mirror reports.

The quarantined people include three Yale University students, and all the others are from one family, the New York Times says. The people also include recent visitors to West Africa.

The home quarantines are the first use of the state’s toughened measures to keep Ebola at bay, after Governor Dannel Malloy declared a public-health emergency in the state and reserved the right to impose 21-day quarantines with twice daily temperature checks on at-risk individuals.

U.S. political and health officials are seeking to contain Ebola through state-ordered quarantines, after two Dallas nurses who treated an Ebola patient contracted the disease and illustrated its potential to leapfrog through the U.S., if not controlled. A quarantine in Texas for dozens of people possibly exposed to Ebola ended this week with all declared virus-free.

Federal health officials also said Wednesday that travelers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, who arrive in the U.S. through six states, will, as of next week, be ordered to communicate daily with health authorities for 21 days about their condition.

[The Connecticut Mirror]

TIME ebola

Here’s What Would Happen if Ebola Was Stolen From a Lab

Biohazard sticker on laboratory window
Adam Gault—OJO Images RF/Getty Images

The virus is considered a bioterrorism agent. But massive fines, jail time and a risk of deadly exposure may be enough of a deterrent

Scientists routinely study deadly pathogens like Ebola in order to find ways to fight them and discover potential cures. But what would happen if a sample of Ebola was taken from a lab illegally?

Under federal regulations, Ebola is considered a “select agent and toxin” that has the “potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety,” and it’s illegal to possess, use or transfer a deadly pathogen to another individual without a certificate from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says John Kraemer, an expert on infectious diseases and the law at Georgetown University’s Department of Health Systems Administration. Obtaining that certificate requires meeting a set of biosafety and biosecurity requirements. And the penalties for failing to do so can be steep.

The government has levied fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars to laboratories that have violated the select agent regulations. In 2008, HHS docked Texas A&M University $1 million for safety violations at its biodefense lab. Individuals who steal a disease sample could face similarly steep fines and time behind bars. Under federal law, HHS can fine a person up to $250,000 for each violation and can recommend imprisonment of up to five years.

But there is an additional layer of sensitivity to handling Ebola. The CDC considers viral hemorrhagic fevers, which includes Ebola, a Category A bioterrorism agent. And since 2001, several bioterrorism laws have strengthened criminal penalties against those who attempt to commandeer them. The Patriot Act in 2001 created a provision banning the transfer of a select agent like Ebola, and the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 gave more authority to the HHS to regulate those agents and diseases.

In September, the Obama administration issued new regulations for federally funded labs that work with contagious diseases like Ebola. Some researchers have criticized the guidelines as not being strong enough over fears that the pathogens, which are often made stronger in a lab, could potentially be used as bioweapons.

Kraemer says two scenarios could likely play out if Ebola samples fell into the wrong hands. If a researcher acquired Ebola for misguided research, for example, then they would likely get fined by HHS and could be sentenced to five years in prison.

“If however someone broke into a hospital to steal Ebola for some other reason, it’d be at least 10 years,” Kraemer says. “If someone acquires Ebola with an intent to weaponize it, then they can get life in prison. And, of course, if you actually use Ebola as a weapon, you can be prosecuted under federal anti-terrorism laws, with penalties up to the death penalty.”

Given the security required at labs authorized to handle potential biological weapons, as well as the risk that someone stealing a pathogen may also become infected by it, those latter scenarios are highly unlikely.

“Stealing an Ebola sample would be extremely dangerous because the thief would face a significant risk of exposure,” says Robert Field, a professor of law at Drexel University. “Other pathogens would be safer to steal because protection is easier.”

Like, for instance, anthrax.

TIME Infectious Disease

Amber Vinson’s Family Says She’s Ebola-Free

Amber Vinson Courtesy of the Vinson family

“Officials at Emory University Hospital and the Centers for Disease Control are no longer able to detect the virus in her body,” Vinson's family said in a statement

Amber Vinson, one of two health care workers based out of Dallas who contracted Ebola while caring for Thomas Eric Duncan, is reportedly cleared of the virus.

“Officials at Emory University Hospital and the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention, or CDC] are no longer able to detect the virus in her body,” her family said in a statement released Wednesday. Vinson is reportedly still under treatment in the Serious Communicable Diseases Unit, but has been approved for transfer from the isolation unit.

Officials at the CDC and Emory University Hospital have not yet confirmed to TIME that Vinson is cleared of the virus, but in a recent image sent to TIME, Vinson can be seen smiling and looking alert.

Vinson’s mother Debra Berry said in a statement that she and the family are “ecstatic to receive this latest report on her condition.”

“We all know that further treatment will be necessary as Amber continues to regain strength, but these latest developments have truly answered prayers and bring our family one step closer to reuniting with her at home,” Berry said.

Vinson, along with Nina Pham, was infected with the deadly virus while caring for the first patient to be diagnosed with Ebola on U.S. soil during the current outbreak. According to the Dallas Morning News, about 108 people in Dallas are being monitored by the CDC for signs of Ebola, though some 66 people have already been cleared.

TIME ebola

Obama ‘Cautiously More Optimistic’ About Ebola

President Barack Obama speaks to the media after holding a meeting with his newly-appointed 'Ebola Response Coordinator' Ron Klain, along with other members of the team coordinating the Obama administration's ebola response efforts, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Oct. 22, 2014.
President Barack Obama speaks to the media after holding a meeting with his newly-appointed 'Ebola Response Coordinator' Ron Klain, along with other members of the team coordinating the Obama administration's ebola response efforts, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Oct. 22, 2014. Jim Lo Scalzo—EPA

"If people want to make sure that... their families are safe, the very best thing they can do is make sure that everybody in their family is getting a flu shot"

President Barack Obama said Wednesday he is “cautiously more optimistic” about efforts to keep Ebola from spreading in the United States as his administration looks to centralize its response to the disease.

Speaking to reporters following a meeting with aides, including his new “Ebola Response Coordinator” Ron Klain, Obama expressed relief that many of those who were potentially exposed to the first U.S. victim, Thomas Eric Duncan, have made it through the 21-day incubation period without contracting symptoms.

“What we’re seeing is that the public health infrastructure and systems that we are now putting in place across the board around the country should give the American people confidence that we’re going to be in a position to deal with any additional cases of Ebola that might crop up without it turning into an outbreak,” Obama said, reiterating that “the prospect of an outbreak here is extremely low.”

“If people want to make sure that, as we go into the holiday season, their families are safe, the very best thing they can do is make sure that everybody in their family is getting a flu shot, because we know that tens of thousands of people will be affected by the flu this season, as is true every season,” Obama said.

Obama’s comments come a day after U.S. officials required all travelers from West Africa to fly through one of five U.S. airports where enhanced screening procedures have been implemented. On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it would begin monitoring all travelers from West Africa for 21 days.

Klain, a longtime Washington political operative, began working in the West Wing Wednesday to lead the administration’s response to the epidemic in West Africa and efforts to keep it from U.S. shores. He is reporting to National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Obama’s Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor Lisa Monaco.

Obama referenced the two Dallas nurses who contracted Ebola after treating Duncan, noting they appeared to be recovering. “Again, we’re cautiously optimistic,” Obama said. “They seem to be doing better. And we continue to think about them.” The president highlighted new CDC standards for personal protective equipment which were put in place following those infections.

“We’re going to systematically and steadily just make sure that every hospital has a plan, that they are displaying CDC information that is currently been provided so that they can take step-by-step precautions when they’re dealing with somebody who might have Ebola,” Obama said.

TIME Obesity

The Link Between Weight Loss Surgery and Headaches

Weight loss surgery may be a risk factor for a specific kind of headache, according to a new study published in the journal Neurology.

Researchers looked at 338 patients with a history of spontaneous intracranial hypotension—headaches typically caused by a cerebrospinal fluid leak—and found that 11 of those patients had undergone a form of bariatric surgery. Though 11 people, 3.3% of the sample, is a seemingly small number and certainly not enough to change clinical practice, it was still significant enough for the researchers to warn physicians of the possible relationship.

If someone is experiencing spontaneous intracranial hypotension, they typically feel a headache when they are upright, and the pain goes away when they lie horizontal. That’s due to the leaking spinal fluid, which can cause pain, nausea and neck stiffing. Body weight is thought to play a role in cerebrospinal fluid pressure, and it’s possible, the study authors suggest, that fat tissue loss may increase susceptibility to the headaches.

“It’s important for people who have had bariatric surgery and their doctors to be aware of this possible link, which has not been reported before,” said study author Wouter I. Schievink, MD, of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, in a press release. “This could be the cause of sudden, severe headaches that can be treated effectively, but there can be serious consequences if misdiagnosed.”

TIME ebola

Faster Ebola Tests Could Help Stem the Outbreak in West Africa

Liberia Races To Expand Ebola Treatment Facilities, As U.S. Troops Arrive
A health worker in Paynesville, Liberia, carries a girl awaiting her test results John Moore—Getty Images

Better Ebola testing in West Africa would save lives and could help bring an end to the outbreak

The dying at the tin-roofed clinic in the rural Kono district of Sierra Leone comes at a ruthless pace. In the first two weeks of October, 20 out of the 22 patients seeking treatment for Ebola died. That fatality rate, high even by the lethal standards of Ebola, could easily be brought down, says Dan Kelly, an infectious-disease doctor who is currently in Kono with the Wellbody Alliance, a medical nonprofit organisation he set up eight years ago. “The ability to test for Ebola, to test quickly, has become ever more important,” says Kelly, who believes the high death toll in the Kono clinic was due in part to the fact that there is no place to test for Ebola in the entire district. Instead, blood samples from suspected Ebola patients have to be sent to the capital over rutted mud roads that are often washed out by rain. “Even if we have the best treatments available, without a timely diagnosis people are still going to die,” says Kelly.

Work out quickly who does and does not have Ebola and you’ll get a long way toward stopping an outbreak that has killed at least 4,877 and infected thousands more. Right now that simple proposition can feel like a fantasy. In Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the three countries with the most cases, the need for rapid test results far outpaces the capacity to carry them out.

That means patients often aren’t getting treatment until it’s too late, when the disease has ravaged their bodies beyond repair, and when they may have already infected friends and family. “If patients are promptly diagnosed and receive aggressive supportive care, the great majority, as many as 90%, should survive,” wrote the global health expert Paul Farmer in a recent issue of the London Review of Books.

Even in a top U.S. laboratory it can take up to eight hours to search a blood sample for Ebola through an expensive and complex array of technical hardware and computer software called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. military have helped by setting up four additional labs in West Africa over the past six months—Liberia now has a total of five, Sierra Leone four and Guinea three—but capacity is still limited to about 100 tests per lab per day, not nearly enough to cope with an epidemic that could grow to 10,000 new cases a week by December, according to the World Health Organization. Laurie Garrett, an expert on Ebola at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, says that number could be brought down through better testing. “The only thing that makes a dent when you model what is going on with the epidemic now and what it looks like in two months, is being able to separate the infected from the non-infected.”

Health care workers on the ground say that more PCR labs are urgently needed. “Crushing this epidemic means getting 70% of the population with Ebola into isolation and care,” Kelly says. That could be achieved, he believes, by putting a PCR lab in every district.

The challenges don’t stop there. Testing can create risks even as it offers solutions. Medical personnel must draw blood from patients for a PCR test, a potentially lethal process for caregivers. “Taking samples is extremely dangerous,” says Dr. Estrella Lasry, a tropical medicine adviser in Liberia for Doctors Without Borders (MSF). At any time you risk a needlestick injury that can expose you to the virus.”

And then there’s the risk that patients without Ebola are being exposed to patients with the disease. Lasry estimates that 30% to 50% of people coming into the MSF clinics end up testing negative for Ebola and instead have other illnesses like malaria that have similar early symptoms. All those being tested for Ebola must wait in holding centers for their results, to ensure they don’t have an opportunity to infect others back at home if they test positive. That means patients with other illnesses must wait among patients with Ebola, increasing the chances of transmission.

Kelly hopes researchers can develop a test that could give readings at a clinic immediately and wouldn’t require trained technicians to interpret the results. “It would be a game changer if you could immediately identify patients needing quarantine from those who do not,” he says. Several versions of so-called point-of-care rapid diagnostic tests are already in development, but while some are at the testing stage, it is not clear when they could actually be used on the ground.

One U.S. company, Corgenix, received a $2.9 million grant in June from the National Institutes of Health to perfect its prototype, a pregnancy-test-style slip of paper that reveals a dark red line within 15 minutes when exposed to a drop of Ebola-infected blood. Instead of needles and syringes, test takers need only a pinprick to get the sample, much like an insulin test for diabetes patients. These tests, which would cost anywhere from $2 to $10 (PCR tests average about $100 each) could also be used in airports to confirm whether someone with symptoms has Ebola.

If the Corgenix test had been available, says one of its lead researchers, Robert F. Garry, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, it might have helped diagnose Amber Vinson, an American nurse infected with Ebola, before she boarded a flight from Cleveland to Dallas on Oct. 13. “This is a test that could be used anywhere you would want to test for Ebola,” says Garry. “Anyone could use it, and anyone could read it.”

With the epidemic worsening in West Africa, medical staff in Ebola-hit countries can’t afford to wait for companies like Corgenix to bring their product to market. Kelly has been hearing about better, faster tests almost since he started working on Ebola in June. He fears that pinning hopes on future technologies undermines efforts to ramp up testing facilities. “Everyone says they have a new test, but at this point I’m like, ‘Show me the money,’” says Kelly. “ We already have a working technology that is deployable. Get me a PCR in every district capital, and then we can start talking about faster tests.”

Garry says he has people in every U.S. time zone working “as fast as humanly possible” to get the Corgenix test out. “We want to make an impact on this outbreak,” he says. “With enough tests, we can shut it down it down.” Without them, Ebola may be here to stay.

TIME Research

Why Receipts and Greasy Fingers Shouldn’t Mix

Brown bag
Getty Images

“The chemicals used to make hand sanitizers, soaps, lotions, and sunscreen degrade the skin’s ability to act as a barrier"

An order of French fries may be bad for your health in ways that extend well beyond the outsize calorie count. According to a new study by scientists at the University of Missouri, people who used hand sanitizer, touched a cash register receipt and then ate French fries were quickly exposed to high levels of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical widely used to coat receipt paper.

BPA has been identified as an endocrine disrupting chemical for its ability to interfere with estrogen and other hormones. In human and animal studies, BPA exposure has been linked to adverse effects on the reproductive and neurological systems as well as increased risk for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Some animal studies also suggest that BPA can set the stage for certain cancers, including breast and prostate cancer.

The study, published in PLOS One, is the first to show how handling BPA-coated receipts can account for exposure at levels that have been shown to harm health.

Most studies of BPA exposure, including those that have informed current regulation of the chemical, have focused on exposure that happens through food or after BPA passes through the gut, explains study author Frederick S. vom Saal, Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

But this study shows that skin absorption of BPA appears to lead to higher levels of biologically active BPA in the body than when the chemical is digested with food. When scientists added in two other factors—scrubbing hands with hand sanitizer and eating greasy food—the evidence points to a super-sized dose of BPA.

“The chemicals used to make hand sanitizers, soaps, lotions, and sunscreen degrade the skin’s ability to act as a barrier and so act as skin penetration enhancers,” says vom Saal. So BPA enters the body more efficiently than it would otherwise. Food grease and other oils can act similarly because BPA itself is fat-soluble, explains vom Saal.

Vom Saal also explains that BPA can be absorbed rapidly by tissue in the mouth so that the chemical enters the body without first being metabolized–or broken down in digestion.

“The combination of dermal and oral BPA absorption led to a rapid and dramatic average maximum increase in unconjugated (bioactive) BPA…in blood and urine within 90 minutes,” write the study authors. In experiments, BPA was absorbed by people who held a receipt for as little as two seconds. The amounts absorbed in the study “are in a zone where effects associated with obesity, diabetes and neurological effects can result,” says vom Saal.

Many laboratory studies have shown that BPA can produce health effects at very low levels of exposure—or just a few parts per trillion. BPA has also been shown to effect developing embryos, which means a mother’s exposure to BPA can affect her children. Some studies have shown that a single BPA exposure can affect even a third generation as the chemical has the potential to alter the ovary and eggs of the exposed fetus. At the same time many studies have found associations between BPA exposure in humans and the health effects found in lab studies.

Given the concern about BPA’s health effects, manufacturers of baby bottles and toddler’s sippy cups have largely stopped using it. In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration withdrew its approval for use of BPA in these products. But its use is still allowed in other products that come into contact with food. Industry trade associations, including the American Chemistry Council, maintain that BPA is safe and that average exposure levels, including from receipts, are not harmful.

Meanwhile, 12 different states have passed laws barring BPA in various products—primarily food and beverage containers intended for use by children. Only one state, Connecticut, has passed a law banning use of BPA in receipts.

But simply switching to another chemical may not solve the problem. As vom Saal and his coauthors point out in this study, a common BPA alternative used in receipts is bisphenol S, which can also interfere with estrogen. In fact, in its assessment of available alternatives for receipts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found no chemical that was clearly safer than BPA. “What we need,” says vom Saal, “is an alternate technology.”

In the meantime, it appears that grabbing the fast food receipt before snacking on French fries may not only be packing on the extra calories. It might also be disrupting our hormones.

This post originally appeared on CivilEats.com.

Read next: Know What’s In Your Face Wash: Why Illinois Banned Microbeads

TIME Research

Many Colleges Fail to Address Concussions, Study Shows

helmet football concussion
Getty Images

A quarter of schools don't educate their athletes on the injury

Policies guiding concussion treatment at scores of colleges across the country still run afoul of rules set by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), according to a new study in The American Journal of Sports Medicine.

“The vast majority of schools did have a concussion management plan, but not all of them did,” said Christine Baugh, a Harvard researcher and one of the study’s co-authors. “The number of schools who reported to us that they didn’t have a concussion management plan in place affects tens of thousands of athletes each year.”

The study comes as the NCAA faces increased pressure to protect the health of college athletes. Earlier this year, the organization set aside $70 million for concussion testing and research to settle several class action lawsuits. The exact number of college athletes who suffer from concussions during practice and games is unclear, but some estimates put it in the thousands.

To combat concussions, the NCAA has mandated that colleges create “concussion management plans.” While 93% of the 2,600 schools surveyed said they had drafted such a plan to guide their response to concussions, many of those plans lacked components that Baugh says are critical to actually reducing the head injury. For one, about a quarter of schools don’t train athletes to detect concussions, making it difficult for athletes to recognize when they need to seek medical attention. And more than 6 percent of schools allow coaches or athletes who lack formal medical training to make the final decision about whether a student can return to competition after suffering a concussion.

“It may be the case that coaches and athletes are being extra cautious; despite being cleared by a clinician, they are withholding themselves or withholding their athletes,” said Baugh, who was a Division I athlete during her college years. “But it may also be the case that some of these schools, coaches or athletes are pressuring clinicians to prematurely return to play before their symptoms have been resolved.”

The study concludes with a recommendation for the NCAA: step up enforcement of concussion policies.

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