Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Posts Tagged ‘politics

A Rant about Phenylethylamines.

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As a bit of a change today, we’ll have something that is not energy related.

I have a shocking cold/flu at the moment. It’s really not fun. So, today, I went out to grab some of ye olde decongestant tablets, and take them… only to realise that, eight hours and six tablets later, my nose is still running as much as ever. Checking the packet in detail, I realised that I have, for the first time, fallen victim to pharmacology’s answer to the dodgy used-car lemon that doesn’t work as advertised.

That dodgy lemon is called phenylephrine.

Phenylephrine has been making its way into oral cold and allergy medications in response to the perceived “epidemic” of methylamphetamine abuse in Australia (as well as in other Western countries) – but it is typically met with skepticism by pharmacists – because phenylephrine doesn’t bloody work, at least not when given orally at these sorts of doses. This is the first time I’ve actually been given something by a pharmacist which is not psuedoephedrine.

The loser in this war against methylamphetamine abuse will be the general public, if pseudoephedrine is pushed out of the over the counter market, as it is doubtful if the legal restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine to the public will reduce the availability of methylamphetamine. There is little evidence that medicines containing pseudoephedrine are used by large scale producers of methylamphetamine.[1]

The general public – the Australian public, the U.S. public, and everyone else – will be deprived of access to an effective nasal decongestant as pharmaceutical companies and pharmacists are pressured into switching to manufacturing and stocking an ineffectual medicine in phenylephrine.[1]

There is little if any clinical support for the efficacy of phenylephrine as a nasal decongestant, and its oral bioavailability is quite limited. In contrast the efficacy of pseudoephedrine as a nasal decongestant is much stronger and its absorption from the gut is uncomplicated.[1]

Oral phenylephrine is used as a decongestant, yet there is no published systematic review supporting its efficacy and safety.

No support has been found in the literature in the public domain for the efficacy of phenylephrine as a nasal decongestant when administered orally.
The only study involving an oral dose of phenylephrine reported that 10 mg phenylephrine (PE) was no more effective than placebo as a nasal decongestant, and a comprehensive recent Cochrane review provides no support for the efficacy of PE. In view of the extensive metabolism of PE in the gut wall, it seems unlikely that PE is an effective oral nasal decongestant. [2]

There is woefully insufficient evidence that oral phenylephrine is effective for nonprescription use as a decongestant, [3], and that’s not good enough. When people are paying for medicine, by rights, by law, they should be getting a product that actually works.

The PSA Code of Professional Conduct for Australian pharmacists states that a pharmacist must not sell any medicinal product where there is reason to doubt its efficacy. It could easily be argued that pharmacists have an obligation to advise patients that oral phenylephrine is not likely to be an effective nasal decongestant – or, to just not dispense it. Certainly, pharmacists are also obliged to avoid inadvertently contributing to the illicit manufacture of methylamphetamine. Does the replacement of psuedoephedrine products with phenylephrine containing products in pharmacies compromise the professional ethics of pharmacists, given that phenylephrine is ineffectual as an orally administered nasal decongestant? Pharmacists need to decide how they will approach this issue in their pharmacies and attempt to find a balance between the professional and legal obligations that surround the supply of psuedoephedrine and the professional and moral obligations of evidence based medicine.

In fact, studies in the USA indicate that restricting the sale of psuedoephedrine to the public as a medicine has had little impact on the morbidity and number of arrests associated with methylamphetamine abuse. [2]

So, you’re depriving people of legitimate, effective medicine, for legitimate use, and accomplishing nothing as a result.

Of course, if you really wanted to, in one fell swoop, completely do away with the whole issue of illicit use of psuedoephedrine as a precursor for methylamphetamine, then all you have to do is market enantiopure (1R,2R)-ephedrine in these medicines – which does have the full therapeutic effectiveness, with zero potential for illicit diversion.

The only question is how expensive the enantiopure drug would be.

It begs the question – will people with a flu pay more for the enantiopure drug if it means they can actually get the drug that is therapeutically effective, with no bullshit, without being treated like criminals?

To end up with the problematic D-methylamphetamine, from ephedrine, you need to start from (1R,2S)-ephedrine, or (1S,2S)-(psuedo)-ephedrine – if you started with (1R,2R)-psuedoephedrine or (1S,2R)-ephedrine, then you only end up with L-methylamphetamine, if you reduce the stuff. (In case you’re getting confused, they call it psuedoephedrine where both the chiral carbons have the same stereochemistry, and call it ephedrine when they’re different.)

L-methylamphetamine is not nearly as addictive or active on the central nervous system as D-methylamphetamine, and only exerts effects on the sympathetic nervous system – it is a useful vasodilator and decongestant, but it is completely useless as a recreational drug.

There are a few more references out there, mainly papers in the scholarly literature, but I won’t link to those as most won’t be able to access them without subscriptions, and they can be found linked via the above-cited pages.


Written by Luke Weston

September 4, 2008 at 5:02 am

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“Nuclear Power Will Kill the Coal Industry”

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Many reader’s will be familiar with Australia’s Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and their now-slightly-infamous “nuclear energy threatens coal jobs!” position.

But could nuclear power really “kill the coal industry” in Australia? I don’t think so.

Total production of raw black coal in Australia in 2006 was 405 Mt (million tonnes). This production represented a small increase of 1.6% over the 2005 figure of 399 Mt. After processing, a total of 317 Mt of metallurgical and thermal black coal were available for both domestic use and export in 2006.
(I’ve taken these statistics from the Australian Coal Association website.)

In 2006, Australia’s domestic consumption of black coal for electricity generation amounted to 62.4 million tonnes of black coal. Hence, domestic electricity generators consume only about 20% of Australia’s output of processed black coal. Other domestic industrial uses of coal, such as steel production, account for about three percent, with the entire remaining 77% being exported.

(The ACA’s statistics refer exclusively to black coal – however, brown coal is a much smaller resource, relatively, and since we have the statistics for black coal, I’ll limit the discussion to black coal.)

Hence, under the worst case scenario (or best case scenario), we may envisage a future in which every coal-fired generator in Australia is closed down and replaced by nuclear power plants. This would result in cutting Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions in half – at the cost of a 20% reduction in coal demand. If we were to see half of Australia’s coal fired plants closed down and replaced by nuclear energy, we will see a 10% reduction in coal revenue.

I don’t think a 10% to 20% downturn in revenue constitutes “killing the coal industry” – and I really don’t think that the coal industry has anything to worry about for the foreseeable future.

Written by Luke Weston

August 31, 2008 at 8:48 am

Carbon Emissions Reduction Scheme: The Green Paper (Part 1)

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An extract from the green paper:

The key supply-side factor to consider is the relative emissions intensity of different production processes. If all entities in an industry use similar technology, they will all face a similar increase in costs under the scheme and entities will be able to pass these costs through to consumers to the extent allowed by their price elasticity of demand.

However, if an entity is significantly more emissions-intensive than others that sell the same product, it will not be able to increase its prices without fear that its lower emissions competitors will undercut them.

Competitors for such emissions-intensive entities are not limited to existing producers, but include potential new entrants that can use less emissions-intensive technologies.

Demand for electricity is relatively inelastic. This is important, because it indicates that, absent particular supply side issues, the industry as a whole may be able to pass a large share of its carbon costs to consumers.

Some generators may be constrained in their ability to pass on carbon costs to consumers. Different technologies are used to generate electricity in Australia, and they vary significantly in emissions intensity. Highly emissions-intensive coal-fired generators compete with lower emissions (but still emissions-intensive) gas-fired generators, and with zero emissions electricity sources such as wind or hydro generation.

In the context of the competitive structure of Australia’s major electricity markets, this variability might prevent coal-fired electricity generators, in particular, from passing on a significant portion of their carbon costs, reducing their profitability.

The profitability of emissions-intensive generators could be reduced in two ways.

First, generators could lose market share to generators with lower emissions intensity.
A reduction in volume is particularly significant for coal-fired generators, because they need to sell significant quantities of electricity to cover their high fixed capital and maintenance costs.

Second, competition with less emissions-intensive generators could reduce the margins earned on electricity sold by more emissions-intensive generators.

I can’t help but think they’ve overlooked something here. Here’s a bit of a tip for the federal government: emissions-intensive generators losing market share to generators with lower emissions intensity results in a reduction of the GHG emissions intensity of the market.

We can’t have that now, can we?

Written by Luke Weston

July 17, 2008 at 7:23 pm

Paris summit: Leaders pledge to work for WMD-free Middle East.

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Here’s a rather interesting news report.

Forty-three nations, including Israel and Arab states, pledged Sunday to work for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction at the close of a summit to launch an unprecedented Union for the Mediterranean aimed at securing peace across the restive region.

In a final declaration, Israel, Syria, the Palestinians along with countries across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa agreed to “pursue a mutually and effectively verifiable Middle East Zone free of weapons of mass destruction.”

So, does that mean that Israel is going to have Syrian inspectors allowed in there at Dimona, with freedom to inspect and independently verify that they have no nuclear weapons and no program for the development of same?

To be honest, I’m completely skeptical that that could happen. On principle, though, it sounds like a step in the right direction.

Written by Luke Weston

July 14, 2008 at 1:28 pm

ABC Q&A: It’s not easy being Green.

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The recording of ABC TV’s Q&A series this week, debating anthropogenic climate change, the mitigation thereof, and alternative energy systems to coal, featuring Craig Emerson, Helen Coonan, Christine Milne, Andrew Bolt and Linda Jaivine is available online now. It’s worth watching, if you’re interested.

Written by Luke Weston

July 11, 2008 at 8:08 am

Anthropogenic GHG emissions in the developing economic powers.

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In the discussion of anthropogenic greenhouse forcing and the international political efforts to respond to it, there isn’t much of an opportunity for discussion before somebody brings up the issue of the rising economic powers like India and China. I agree that there is a very large base of emissions in China and other developing economies – they’re building the equivalent of one large power plant every 10 days or whatever it is, but they’re building all the nuclear power and hydro that they can as part of that – but if they need coal fired plants as well in this early stage of their industrialisation, then they will build those, too.

Considering that energy consumption in most developed countries has usually grown faster than GDP during the early stages of industrialization, it is to China’s credit that although its GDP has grown by 9.5% per year over the last 27 years, their carbon intensity per unit of GDP has decreased during that time, rather than increasing along with the GDP. The reduction in carbon intensity for China has meant that its CO2 increase of about 5.4% per year has amounted to a little over half of its GDP increase during the same 27 years. [1] They’re doing a far better job than was done in the industrialisation of the Western societies.

Only one seventh of the population of China has access to constant reliable electricity. Are we to stop those Chinese having that access to electricity? They want to have a prosperous, developed, first-world standard of technologically developed society for all the Chinese people – who the hell are we to say that they shouldn’t, or can’t?

They want to have the same opportunity for industrialisation that the West has had – even if that means pollution first, and clean up later, exactly like it was done in the Western societies.

If the Australian government[s] were in charge of China, you can be sure they’d be doing a far worse job in managing the rate of increase greenhouse gas emissions whilst allowing economic development.

In discussions of the politics of responding to anthropogenic greenhouse forcing in the Western world, you’ll often hear the “Blame China – it’s all their fault, not ours!” position. So, what to do?

Is the anthropogenic forcing of climate change such a pressing, important issue that suppose we’re going to tell the Chinese, no, you’re not allowed to industrialize right now – maybe in 50 years or 100 years when everyone else has slashed their CO2 emissions? You’re joking, clearly – what are you going to do, go to war to stop them from having the same standard of living that we have?

Or, perhaps, we can give them as much aid as possible to build clean alternatives to coal fired power plants while they’re industrialising?

Chinese officials claim that they are doing a great deal that is often not visible, especially for a country as large, populous, and rurally undeveloped as it is.

But working against that, and equally non-visible, is the role of multinational ventures in China in contributing to its greenhouse gas emissions. As of 2004, 23% of China’s CO2 emissions were coming from China’s manufacturing of products destined for the West, providing an interesting perspective on China’s large trade surplus. [1]

Over half of those emissions driven by demand from the West are from multinationals and foreign owned factories in China, suppling all the crap that is destined for Wal-Mart and department store shelves in Australia, the US, and other western nations. It is pointed out that China is being demonised for having become the place where the western world effectively outsources much of its pollution.

Do we have a responsibility to deal with this in China, instead of just blaming them and refusing to do anything ourselves since they’re supposedly the problem?

We could fully encourage and support the export of all nuclear power, wind turbine, solar, hydro, etc technologies from the Western nations into China – and, given the seriousness with which anthropogenic greenhouse forcing is viewed as a grave issue, give them as much direct financial aid as we can to build these technologies as an alternative to new coal fired power plants.

Instead of, say, building a nuclear power plant in Australia, Germany, Italy, the US or UK or where ever to replace a coal fired power plant, what if we could just give the money to China and they will build them instead of coal plants – talk about an emissions trading scheme! That way, we’re making the same mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, we’ve silenced the “It’s all China’s fault, not our problem” talk, and we’ve also dealt with the political bickering in Australia (and a few other Western countries) over acceptance of nuclear power.

(Of course, this is a little hard to reconcile with the usual Western approach where power plants, nuclear, fossil or otherwise, are built and operated by corporations who can sell their electricity for profit – it really only makes sense in the context of nations operating under state ownership of power plants, like, say France.)


Written by Luke Weston

July 10, 2008 at 11:30 am

Rudd rejects Labor nuclear push

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Rudd rejects Labor nuclear push

THE Rudd Government has flatly rejected calls from an influential unionist and the former Labor premier Bob Carr to embrace a nuclear power industry as it grapples with how to cut carbon emissions.

Kevin Rudd told ABC radio this morning the nuclear option was not needed.

And in a short media conference, Treasurer Wayne Swan, when asked about the renewed nuclear push answed: “No, a capital N-O.”

The issue was reignited after The Australian reported this morning that Australian Workers Union boss Paul Howes and Mr Carr had called on the Government to purge its prejudices and embrace a nuclear power industry.

Their advocacy came at the annual Australian-American Leadership Dialogue in Washington after a debate on climate change.

“If we are going to be a green Labor Government, then we have to look at nuclear,” Mr Howes told The Australian.

“If we don’t start today, we are going to put ourselves in a very precarious position in 10, 15 or 20 years time.”

“I’ve told ministers in the Rudd Government this is my view and the view of my union. I can’t tell you how concerned I am about this. It’s the greatest challenge the union movement has faced since trade liberalisation in the 1980s, if not greater.

“The only option for us, in my view, is nuclear. If we are going to reduce our carbon output and still want to have heavy industry then we have to look at renewable and new sources of energy – and that means nuclear.”

Mr Carr described nuclear power as the critical bridge between the carbon era and energy from renewable sources.

“There is no other bridging technology to get us from this catastrophic burning of coal and oil into the era of cheap and infinite renewable power,” the former NSW Labor premier said.

“We all want to get there. But it’s decades off and we need a bridge. The best the Western world can do to stop the melting of the polar icecaps is to sponsor the production of the most modern nuclear power plants.”

But the Prime Minister said today: “We believe that we have a full range of energy options available to Australia beyond nuclear through which we can respond to the climate change challenge, and we’re confident we can do that,” he said.

Mr Rudd also reiterated that the coal industry must remain part of a long-term solution and that clean coal technologies must be further developed, but he was optimistic about its future.

“What the nation needs to set for itself and the world is a goal to bring about the commercial application and scale of clean-coal technologies,” he said.

The climate change issue will continue to dominate the political agenda over the next week, with the Government’s climate change expert Ross Garnaut to release his interim report next Friday.

A Government green paper is to follow.

As the Government moved to dismiss the nuclear option, Mr Howes continued his push.

“In the UK, there’s going to be the expansion of nuclear facilities there,” he told Fairfax radio today.

“France now has 80 per cent of its power generated from nuclear, all as short solutions, that is 20 to 50 year solutions until other technologies, such as fusion and hot rock, … are developed and are widely available as baseload power.”

Nuclear power would always be a sensitive issue, he said.

“But we have 40 per cent of the world’s uranium in Australia.

“Labor has overturned the three mines policy and I think it’s now a time for another healthy, sensible and rational debate about this issue without falling back to alarmist sentiments.”

Rudd’s and Labor’s position on nuclear power is based completely on ideology and dogma, in the absence of any evidence. What is their scientifically, factually motivated argument against nuclear energy?

If we “have a full range of energy options available to Australia beyond nuclear through which we can respond to the climate change challenge” then what the hell are they, actually?

Rudd can either put up or shut up. Meanwhile, no impact is being made in the use of coal at all.

So, what are these magical options that Rudd has up his sleeve? How mature are the technologies? How much energy do they generate, how easily can they be scaled up, how much do they cost when scaled up to replace coal plants, and how much carbon dioxide and other forms of pollution do they emit – and why aren’t we using them to replace coal fired power stations right now, without the bullshit?

If there’s some magical thing that Rudd is sitting on that is superior to nuclear energy – which there isn’t – then let’s see it. I’m calling him out on it, right now. Since no superior option exists for replacing coal-fired power stations, nuclear energy is what is needed.

Even the AWU realises that burning coal in this way is completely unsustainable – why does the Rudd government insist on remaining committed to coal?

If we check out The Australian’s poll we see – once again – that a clear majority of Australians think the same way.

Written by Luke Weston

June 27, 2008 at 11:37 am