SciTech Briefs

Exposure to PFCs could reduce immune response

A recent study suggests that exposure to perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) can reduce immune response to vaccines. These compounds have been used for decades and are most commonly found in nonstick coatings and food packaging. Studies in animals have already suggested that PFCs suppress immune response, but the effects of PFCs in humans have not been well understood.

The study, led by researchers at Harvard University, examined how children with high levels of PFC exposure responded to vaccinations. The results showed that five-year-old children with higher PFC levels had weaker responses to diphtheria vaccines, suggesting a possible link between PFC exposure to an underdeveloped immune system. The EPA is already taking measures to eliminate certain PFCs in manufactured products.

Source: NPR, Journal of the American Medical Association

Magnetically responsive soaps could aid in oil spill

Chemists at the University of Bristol in the U.K. recently developed magnetically responsive soap that can potentially be used to clean up oils without leaving behind harmful residues. To make the soap, the researchers dissolved iron particles in water that contained chlorine and bromine ions, common materials found in household cleaning products. The soap molecules contain metal centers, which allow them to be controlled by magnetic fields.

Using magnets, researchers were able to pull the soap through layered solutions of water and oil and demonstrate a simple way to recover the soap from the bulk solution. The physical properties of most soaps are controlled by temperature and pH, so the addition of magnetic functionality introduces another design parameter for creating new soap compounds.

Source: New Scientist magazine

New definition of autism is more stringent

For the first time in 17 years, the American Psychiatric Association is reassessing the definitions of autism and related disorders. Researchers from Yale University have performed a preliminary analysis on the potential impacts of this new definition of autism by assessing data from a 1993 study on children and adults with autistic disorders. They determined the fraction of those individuals that would no longer be considered autistic under the proposed definition.

Their results showed that 55 percent of high-functioning individuals would no longer qualify as autistic under the new definition, whereas only 25 percent of those previously diagnosed with “classic autism” would no longer be diagnosed with autism. Narrowing the criteria for autistic disorders would make it more difficult for individuals to qualify for health, educational, and social services.

Source: The New York Times

North Star slowly fading away in the night sky

The North Star, also known as Polaris, may be shrinking according to a group of German astrophysicists. Over 160 years of observations suggest that the star, which sits over the North Pole because of its alignment with the Earth’s axis, may be shedding an amount of gas equivalent to Earth’s mass every year. The scientists measured the star’s pulse — the length of time between periods when the star grows dimmer and brighter. The data show that since 1844, the star’s pulse has been decreasing, on average, about 4.5 seconds every year. The changing rate is higher than what would normally be assumed to match the standard model for stellar evolution, suggesting that the star may actually be shrinking.

Source: ScienceNOW, Astrophysical Journal Letters

Apple posts $13 billion in profits from latest quarter

Apple Inc. recently released figures for its first quarter earnings, which shattered sales records in several categories. Apple executives are “very happy to have generated over $17.5 billion in cash flow from operations during the December quarter,” according to Peter Oppenheimer, Apple’s chief financial officer.

The reported net profit of $13.06 billion this quarter is over twice the reported profits from last year, and several products have experienced growth in sales. A record 37 million iPhone units and 15.4 million iPads were sold this year, which rounds out to 128 and 111 percent, respectively, in unit gains compared to the previous year. The success of the iPhone as a smart phone and portable audio device comes at the expense of the iPod, which was the only product line to experience a decline in sales.

Source:, Wired magazine

China to finally set cap on carbon emissions

The Chinese government has called for seven cities and provinces to set caps on their greenhouse gas emissions. This is the first time the Chinese government has ordered any absolute caps on emissions, previously setting “carbon intensity” targets. This act is one of the first concrete steps that the country has taken to address climate issues.

Thus far, the Chinese government has delayed in setting a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions, citing the need for prioritizing economic growth. Rather than placing an absolute cap on emissions, targets have instead been set in terms of an amount of greenhouse gas per unit of GDP. The current five-year plan requires the country to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent per unit of GDP.

Source: New Scientist magazine