Courtesy USGS/Cascades Volcano ObservatoryThe gigantic volcano seething under Yellowstone National Park could be ready to erupt with the force of a thousand Mt. St. Helenses! Large parts of the U.S. could be buried under ash and toxic gas!
Or, y'know, not.
This story has popped up in a couple of places recently, including National Geographic's website and, more sensationally, the UK's Daily Mail. Shifts in the floor of Yellowstone's caldera indicate that magma may be pooling below the surface, a phenomenon that might be the very earliest stages of an eruption. Then again, it's difficult to predict volcanic eruptions with much accuracy because there's no good way to take measurements of phenomena happening so far below the earth's surface.
Incidentally, the contrast in tone between the two stories makes them an interesting case study in science reporting: The Daily Mail plays up the possible risk and horrific consequences of an eruption, while National Geographic is much more matter-of-fact about the remoteness of that possibility. Which do you think makes better reading?
As time goes on the H1N1 "swine flu" virus might infect and kill millions of people, or it might turn out to be one of those stories that the media hyped, but that never came to pass. As this video presentation from the website gapminder points out using some interesting statistics - there are many other diseases out there that barely make the news, even though they impact far more people.
I'm not saying that this recent influenza outbreak isn't interesting or news worthy (it is), but as a famous hip hop group once told us, Don't Believe the Hype!
Or at least give it a critical second glance...
I just stumbled onto a radio show that I bet a lot of folks who read this blog are already aware of, but in case you are not... I caught the WNYC show Radio Lab for the first time on NPR a couple of weeks ago, and it is really interesting. It's a show that seems to be mostly about science (it is funded by NSF) and its interesting. The past few shows have been on race, sperm, choice and diagnosis. The show is available to download or subscribe to from their site or from iTunes. I recommend checking it out.
There was a particular part of an episode that I thought was really great. As part of their "diagnosis" show they had a part called How To Cure What Ails You. Its about 20 minutes long, and you can listen to it from the link. Its crazy interesting, I think.
A little background first – “jenkem,” as far as one can tell, originated in Zambia, where it was used as a substitute for other inhalant drugs, like gasoline or glue (“Genkem” is an African glue brand, and “Jenkem” is thought to have derived from that as a generalized term for inhalants). Jenkem seems to have first surfaced in the mid-nineties, with several periodicals at the time reporting its abuse among street children in Lusaka, Zambia.
But, again, what is it? Well… uh… basically, jenkem is the collected gas of fermented human excrement and urine.
The gas supposedly acts as a powerful hallucinogen. The exact active components of jenkem aren’t known because, surprise surprise, no organization has yet put much research into the psychoactive effects of poop gas. It is likely, however, that the inhaled methane and hydrogen sulfide gas may play a role in jenkem’s physiological effects.
As you might already have guessed, a drug like jenkem is a symptom of utter poverty and social desperation. That jenkem caught on in a place like Lusaka, where AIDS and poverty have created tens of thousands of street children, is, sadly, perhaps not entirely surprising. It does not seem very probable, however, that a drug like jenkem would find much of a foothold in the United States, which is why its appearance in the news of the last couple weeks has been particularly interesting.
Last week, multiple local news crews across the country, um, got wind of a leaked sheriff’s bulletin from Collier County, Florida, warning of the use of jenkem among American teens. Stations began running stories warning parents of this “dirty new drug,” and urging them, in at least one story, to “wait up for them (their children) at night and not let their kids go to bed until they have seen them and smelled their breath.” A spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency even made the statement that “there are people in America trying [Jenkem].”
This storm of reaction is remarkable in that, despite the news stories and the DEA warning, no one has actually seen any direct evidence of the use of jenkem in America.
The original Collier County bulletin, it turns out, was based on one Florida teenager’s “trip report” posted on a website, with pictures of himself doing jenkem and a description of its effects. The kid, however, recently admitted that it was a hoax, and that the “jenkem” pictured was made using “flour, water, beer, and Nutella.” Probably not delicious, but not jenkem either.
Organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, as well as websites that specialize in documenting psychedelic experiences, admit that it’s possible that a few individuals in the U.S. may have experimented with something like jenkem, but are extremely skeptical of the claim that it has become anything more than that. The Partnership for a Drug Free America stated that they had not even heard of jenkem.
Pretty much everything about jenkem reeks of an urban legend.
Hallucinogenic drugs can be extremely dangerous, it’s never a good idea to get sewage close to your mouth, and while hydrogen sulfide (sewer gas) can be tolerated at low levels, higher concentrations (like, say, from huffing it) can be deadly poisonous. So, as bizarre as something like jenkem sounds, one shouldn’t forget how dangerous it is.
Even so, it seems like this reaction to the supposed appearance of jenkem in the U.S. had less to do with the actual danger of the substance than it did with the media’s love of scare stories, and a strange sort of “moral panic” over a vaguely perceived drug threat.
Fermented sewage. Weird.
Salon.com has a pretty good article on the whole thing here.