08/07/2020

NYC Health Commissioner Steps Down After Butting Heads With Mayor

11:40 minutes

a woman and a man on a panel speaking
Former New York City health commissioner Oxiris Barbot (left) and Mayor Bill de Blasio (right). Taken in 2018. Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

It’s been a busy week for science news. Cities are still grappling with COVID-19, and in New York City, previously the country’s largest coronavirus hotspot, health commissioner Oxiris Barbot has resigned. She cited Mayor Bill de Blasio’s handling of the pandemic as her reason for doing so, issuing a scathing statement on her way out the door. Barbot is just one of the many health officials around the country who have butted heads with the politicians that oversee them during the pandemic.

And across the world, devastating explosions in Beirut, Lebanon have injured thousands and killed several dozen. As officials piece together why this happened, they’re pointing to a warehouse of ammonium nitrate as the source of the blasts. 

Joining Ira to talk about these stories, and other science news of the week, is Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American in New York, New York.


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Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is technology editor at Scientific American in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’ll talk about the climate plan Joe Biden has unveiled if he becomes president. And we’ll take a journey to the Peruvian jungle to see a boiling river. But first, it was a big week for science news, with COVID-19 still in full swing and Tropical Storm Isaias hitting the eastern US. Here to talk us through the big stories of the week, Sophie Bushwick, Technology Editor at Scientific American in New York. Welcome back, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s start with a story that’s close to home for both of us. New York city’s health commissioner resigned this week. What led to that?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So doctor Oxiris Barbot has resigned. And she said in her letter of resignation that she was disappointed with the way that Mayor Bill de Blasio handled the pandemic. And throughout the pandemic, the health department and the mayor’s office have clashed. There has been arguments that the health department was sidelined, and that responsibilities such as the contact tracing program were put under the purview of the city hospital system, instead of the health department, which has a history of doing that task.

IRA FLATOW: You know, we’re seeing this kind of conflict between the health officials and other leadership in other parts of the country, are we not?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, this is happening everywhere. If you just do an internet search for health officials and resign, you can see that in states all over the country, states and municipalities, that there are clashes between health departments and mayors and governors and other leaders.

IRA FLATOW: Is it because you the mayors and governors are not taking the advice of these health officials?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: A lot of times, yes, there’s that disagreement and how the pandemic is being handled. The types of restrictions that are being put into place, or in some cases, not being put into place, make it really hard for the health departments to do their job. And some of them feel like if their advice isn’t being followed, that they’re really unable to help.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to Tropical Storm Isaias, which hit the eastern US hard this week. And I know it hit my block very hard, with lots of trees down. It turns out emergency shelters stayed pretty empty this time, right, because of COVID?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. So this is particularly notable in Florida and the Carolinas, which were kind of the first states to bear the brunt of first hurricane, and then Tropical Storm Isaias. So in Florida, for example, it seems like fewer than 300 people tried to go to shelters. And in North Carolina, in some places, there were mandatory evacuation orders. And the state had availability in their shelters for more than 2000 people. But those shelters remain primarily empty, because people were worried about going to a place where they could, where large groups could spread coronavirus.

IRA FLATOW: And some of the states are getting like a double whammy. Because not only are they getting hit by the storm, like Florida and the Carolinas, they’re also getting hit by COVID, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. And some of the places that are being hardest hit by natural disasters– so California, where they’ve had wildfires, and like you say, Florida, where they are they were face to face with this hurricane, there those are also states that are suffering from very high rates of coronavirus transmission. So anytime when you’ve got a natural disaster on top of a pandemic, it makes things much more difficult. Because if you have an area that needs to evacuate, and people are too scared to evacuate, then they are being put into a different kind of danger.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to the devastating explosions in Beirut that happened this week, that injured thousands of people and killed several dozen. They’re being attributed to ammonium nitrate being stored in a warehouse. We have heard about ammonium nitrate before. Tell us exactly what it is.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Ammonium nitrate is used commonly as a fertilizer. But it also has potential as an explosive. So it is used as a mining explosive when it’s mixed with other substances, with fuel oil. And in the past, it has been used in terrorist attacks as well. So ammonium nitrate is also responsible for accidents. There is a case in 2013 in Texas where a fertilizer plant had a really devastating explosion that did kill some people and destroyed the facility.

IRA FLATOW: And we have the famous case of the domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City bombing using ammonium nitrate.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. It’s been used both deliberately, and it has also exploded accidentally, the emerging narrative in Lebanon seems to be that this was a tragic accident. It seems that there might have been– some fireworks were ignited by accident. And that explosion set off the larger ammonium nitrate explosion.

IRA FLATOW: Why would you store all this stuff in a warehouse? Such a dangerous amount of stuff. And it’s been sitting there for years, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. It’s been there for, it seems, where it seems to come from is that this was part of a ship’s cargo that was confiscated and then put into storage after the ship was abandoned. And it just remained there for about six years, sitting in this warehouse. And it seems that there must have been issues with bureaucratic indifference that led to it not being moved. But it is, the story is still developing. And it’s, I think, I’m hoping that we’ll get a better idea of why this happened, and that hopefully people will other places that have stored ammonium nitrate will be taking the precautions they need to make sure accidents like this don’t happen.

IRA FLATOW: It sort of degrades over time and becomes more unstable, the older it gets. So it’s kind of scary.

Your next story is about mysterious seeds that are appearing in the mail of people in the United States. Sounds like a mystery novel. Should we call in Clouseau or somebody?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s an amazing mystery. But the probable culprit is not quite as exciting as you would get in a detective novel. So people all over the United States have been receiving these little packets of seeds from China. And often, they’re labeled as something like earrings, or jewelry, or some other substance. And at first, it was unclear what was going on. But now, what seems to be happening is that this was part of a brushing scam.

This is where somebody who has an online store, such as through Etsy or Amazon, if they want to artificially boost their rating, they need to have somebody write a fake review for them. But often, these places can’t have a review written unless the person writing the review has received a shipment from the store. So places will send a package of seeds, which are light and small and easy to send through the mail cheaply, to a place. And then the people who shipped them will use that tracking information on the package to then give themselves a positive review.

IRA FLATOW: Should we be fearful of any of these seeds that have arrived?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So far, the US Department of Agriculture has analyzed some of these seeds. And what they’ve said is that mostly, they seem to be regular, harmless seeds– so cabbage, some herb seed, sunflower seeds, rose seeds. But that doesn’t mean that they’re totally harmless. Because when you’ve got seeds coming in from out of the country, there’s the potential that if planted, they could develop into an invasive species. So some types of mustard, for example, are invasive. And you don’t want to take the risk of introducing that to the environment.

Another issue is that sometimes, seeds bring plant pathogens and viruses with them. So you don’t want to accidentally introduced that into the environment either. So the USDA has said, look, if you receive these seeds, do not plant them. Don’t even throw them away, because they could grow in a landfill. Instead, go to the USDA website and contact of representative, and then you can ship them to the Department of Agriculture’s team. And they can analyze just what these seeds are, and whether they’re potentially invasive.

IRA FLATOW: I know the USDA is going to figure out what kind of seeds these are. I mean, they’re really good at seeds, aren’t they?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. Experts can examine the size, shape, color, little external features of seeds, to tell what they are. But they can also extract DNA, or even plant the seed in a controlled environment, let it grow a little bit, and then extract DNA, from the green shoot in order to test it.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let’s move on to a really unusual story. I think our Science Friday fans will like this one. And that is, scientists have found that a type of insect can escape being eaten by frogs with an unusual exit strategy. How does the insect escape? Tell us about this.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is one of my favorite science stories I’ve heard about in months. So these water beetles escape from being eaten by frogs by crawling all the way through their digestive system and going out the rear exit. They get pooped out, and they survive.

IRA FLATOW: No wonder it’s your favorite one. I would like that one also.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s so cool.

IRA FLATOW: It is cool. It’s so it seems like a strange evolutionary adaptation, does it not?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, so there’s other beetles that have the ability to escape frogs or other predators by releasing a caustic chemical. And then the predator vomits the insect back out. But in this case, they found one of the insects managed to wiggle its way through the frog in just six minutes– although more often, it took them about an hour or two to several hours to finish their fantastic voyage through the frog and come out.

But what the researchers think is happening is that the insect is actively stimulating the frog’s digestive system wet by moving its legs and its body. And it does get kind of pooped out. So the frog’s own body helps it move along. Because the insects, when they were put into an enclosure with the frog, but with their legs kind of stuck together with wax, they weren’t able to wiggle through the digestive system. And they were excreted, dead, about 24 hours later.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, sort of an insect laxative.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, I don’t want it I don’t want to see that showing up in a store.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: A living laxative.

IRA FLATOW: You said it. Hashtag. Let’s end on a light note. Looks like we are this week. There’s a proposal to create a mascot for hand washing in the US fight against COVID-19? Tell us about this.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, so Dr. Kelly Lambert has proposed that as a way to modify behavior and encourage people, both adults and children, to comply with best practices for preventing the spread of coronavirus, that we need a mascot. And she’s co-created this little critter called [? Callo, ?] a raccoon that would be the mascot for best practices. Because if you think about it, raccoon are already wearing masks all the time. And if you’ve seen video, often, they rub their hands together in that gesture that kind of looks like their washing their hands.

And if you try to approach a raccoon, it’ll move away, and it won’t let you get within six feet.

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. Why might a cartoon raccoon be more appealing than say, public health officials, I mean? Who wouldn’t think so, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. I mean, nobody really wants to be told what to do. But media campaigns, often those that use mascots, are sometimes effective. So I think most people remember Smokey the Bear saying only you can prevent forest fires. That is one example of the really successful campaign to raise awareness about the danger of forest fires, and how people can prevent them, using this sort of charming mascot.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Interesting take, washing your hands like a raccoon. Will not forget that. Thank you, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You’re welcome.

IRA FLATOW: Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American in New York.

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