If RFK Jr. Gave Birth Today, His Child Would Have Diminished IQ: The Link Between Coal And Mercury

“Would you please turn the lights up,” Robert F Kennedy Jr. asked the stage crew as he took the floor of New York’s Town Hall in Times Square, about to deliver an environmental lecture to a roaring full house this Tuesday. “I want to be able to see if people are leaving.”


It was a joke, just the first of many for the evening, but the fact is that RFK, America’s most prominent environmental lawyer, Chief Prosecuting Attorney for Riverkeeper and Chairman of Waterkeeper Alliance, does have a hawk eye on us all—on polluters, on lobbyists, on fake think tanks funded by oil and coal, on corporations, on Jane and Joe Shmoe, and on the government.

One of the things RFK’s got his eye on right now is the link between the coal industry and today’s skyrocketing rates of mercury poisoning. Mythbuster: the toxic mercury making its way into your body and mine does not come in any significant quantity from old thermometers thrown in the trash. It comes from the coal that keeps our lights on and our computers running. Mercury is a byproduct of the coal industry, which dumps the stuff into our waterways to be ingested by fish populations and passed on to pescavore humans.

This past summer, RFK decided he wanted to learn more about his body’s chemical load, got his blood tested for toxins. What he discovered is that he had ten times more mercury in his blood—just from being an occasional pescavore, as most of us are—than the FDA considers “safe.” What that means, a top mercury specialist informed RFK, is that if he were a woman with those levels and gave birth, his child would definitely—not maybe, not probably, but definitely—have IQ loss, and permanent brain damage. Other conditions from which RFK’s hypothetical child might suffer include: speech impediments, ticks, autism, ADD, ADHD, language delay, and more.

“It’s not cheap,” RFK said of coal during a simultaneously hilarious and depressing rant about coal proponents who say the dirty fuel is cheap, abundant and clean. “It’s destroying people’s brains.” Not to mention the mountain tops that have been blown to smithereens in Appalachia and all over coal country as a result of mountain top removal coal mining, or the thousands upon thousands of miles of streams and rivers that have been filled and blocked up with coal ash and debris.

So what’s RFK’s solution to the problem of coal and the havoc it wreaks on American soil and the poisons it puts in our bodies? It’s multipronged: among other things—Obama, a new smart grid that allows green homeowners (like RFK himself, whose home is hooked up to geothermal power and has two solar panels) to make money selling their extra power back to the system, wind power in North Carolina (“the windiest place on earth”), and a free market. Not the kind we have today, but an actually free market, free of coal and oil subsidies. “Show me a polluter, I’ll show you a subsidy,” raged RFK. Oh, and a press that's committed to keeping the public informed about issues that matter. ("That does not mean the gradual emotional decline of Britney Spears.")

It takes one million dollars to keep a single soldier in Afghanistan for one year, bemoaned RFK. “Imagine what would happen if we spent that money hooking up every home to geothermal.”

Tuesday’s lecture was organized by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), with which RFK has worked closely for the past twenty years. The NRDC’s president, Frances Beinecke, introduced the green hero.

One of RFK’s more recent books, out in 2004, is titled Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy. “The subtitle makes it sound like it’s a criticism of the Bush administration,” RFK said with a wry glint in his eye, drawing an uproar of laughter from the audience. A few moments later, his cell phone rang, interrupting his mile-a-minute talk. “Would everyone please turn off your cell phones?” he faux-accused the audience, reaching in his breast pocket to retrieve his ringing mobile and switch it off. “Remind me to get that later,” he told the crowd as he placed it on the podium. Not only can the man sue big coal and win, folks, he can make ‘em laugh.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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