Mom banned from McDonald’s

28 10 2011

Yesterday I read that Erin Carr-Jordan, a college instructor and mother of four kids, was banned from 8 McDonald’s in Arizona for telling other costumers that she found MRSA (Methycillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) in the restaurant’s play area. She said she also found pathogens found in fecal material and mucus.

The restaurant’s representative said Carr-Jordan was banned because her actions were disruptive to the employees and costumers.

I have no opinion on McDonald’s decision to ban Dr. Carr-Jordan (she has a PhD in developmental psychology). I understand Carr-Jordan’s concern about the cleanliness of the places where her children play.  I have been inside those play areas… they are not clean. I have seen food thrown around, ketchup stains, and the occasional vomit. I don’t doubt she found bacteria present in feces and mucus. Kids being kids, it is likely they are sticking their hands up their noses and smearing them all over the place. (I don’t agree with USAToday’s use of the word pathogen. Not all bacteria are pathogens, and these are not interchangeable terms.)

I also know that those play places are incredibly difficult to clean. The tunnels are narrow, and I don’t think it’ll be easy for an adult (or even a lanky 16-year-old) to get in there and properly sanitize them.

I also think it very likely that Carr-Jordan found S. aureus in the play places. S. aureus  is pretty common, and it’s part of the skin’s bacterial flora (You might be familiar with it, it causes folliculitis and some cases of acne) and is transmitted by direct contact. I think it is likely that Carr-Jordan found MRSA, since about 1% of the population carry this strain (and in the greater Phoenix area someone is bound to have it). I also believe this is not exclusive to McDonald’s play areas.

I think Carr-Jordan is up to something, and there’s a great opportunity to get people talking about public health and shared responsibilities (Teaching your kids to wash their hands and not to lick everything is important, as is teaching them to pick up after themselves). Right now, though, some members of the public might see her as an alarmist. The fact that she just told a bunch of costumers about the bacteria didn’t help her case at all, if you ask me.

I advice her (although I doubt she’ll read this obscure little blog) to make public the lab tests that confirm the presence of MRSA, and any other pathogenic bacteria. Perhaps repeat the swabbings, and swab play areas in other restaurants. Then, get people talking. Bacteria are everywhere, and you can’t eliminate them completely, but you can learn how to lessen your risk of catching an infection.

I hope this leads to better hygiene standards in fast-food restaurants. I have been in McDonald’s in 3 countries and the restrooms were uniformly disgusting.

Oh, and if you want to know more abot MRSA, read the awesomely scary Superbug blog.

L’Aquila and Uncertainty

18 10 2011

Expert Risk communicator write a guest blog post in Scientific American, where he adds a new interpretation to the L’Aquila trials in Italy.

Some news outlets have said that science is on trial, while others call the trial an “inquisition.” Ropeik says that it is not an issue of the science being on trial, but it is rather an issue of how the risk was communicated.

Everyone on that committee failed the public. They all failed to provide information that would help people make healthy judgments about their safety. They apparently never even considered that critical aspect of their responsibility. There was no one with risk communication expertise at the table during the meeting, and the experts skipped the post-meeting new conference. They thought about the risk through their narrow expertise as scientists, and either out of ignorance, or hubris – probably both – thought that was enough. They aren’t on trial for failing as risk scientists. They are on trial for failing as risk communicators.

According to the blog post,  Dr. Bernardo De Bernardinis, then deputy chief of Italy’s Civil Protection Department, said that the situation “was favorable” and that the scientific community said there was no danger. As a result of these remarks, the people let down their guards, and didn’t prepare adequately for the Earthquake. The person communicating the risk was careless, and the rest of the committee members were not present in the press conference.

A big part of risk communication is about dealing with uncertainty (from predicting an earthquake, the intensity of a hurricane, or whether exposure to a certain chemical will make you sick). Uncertainty is difficult to handle, and while scientists are comfortable dealing with uncertainty, most politicians and reporters are not. And they should be. Being able to better communicate uncertainty will be a great help to their readers and constituents, who rely on them for information about how to react.

Perhaps, if the spokesperson had been better prepared to handle uncertainty, the trial at L’Aquila would not be happening…

Here Comes the Sun…

15 10 2011

I have a buddy who takes pretty pictures. (I lie, I have several…  I’m lucky that way). He recently posted an amazing picture of the Sun. I was happy to see the Sun so active.

When I was in college I worked in a museum. I was in charge of the telescope, and spent many days looking at the Sun (With proper filters, obviously). I started working there during the solar max cycle of 2001. I got a chance to see how the Sun’s activity diminished over the years until it became a very boring yellow yolk. I missed the sunspots, and the flares, and I’m happy to see them again, after all, they are about a year late.

What does that have to do with crisis communication, you ask? Well, the presence of sunspots signal solar magnetic activity. When this magnetic activity increases, we have more flares, and more coronal mass ejections. Coronal mass ejections are “waves” of charged particles emitted by the sun. When they are sent in the general direction of the Earth, they interact with the magnetic field and Van Allen’s belt and cause pretty aurorae.

That’s all well and good, you say, because everyone likes pretty colors in the sky. Well, yes and no. The problem with coronal mass ejections is that they are charged particles. These particles can cause power lines to overcharge and cause blackouts. It has happened before. In 1989  a solar storm plunged Quebec into darkness . Even when the Earth is not directly in their path, solar storms can “kill” satellites.

How does this relate to crisis communication, then? Well, a solar storm can overcharge electrical circuits and cause blackouts. New York city gets a lot of its electricity from Canada, Quebec, to be precise… see where I’m going? Cities like New York, London or Stockholm could be plunged into darkness. The satellites that bring us entertainment, information, GPS  and cell phone service could be disrupted, turned into zombiesats that just drift aimlessly in the blackness… You can agree with me that having large areas without electricity and satellite communication down would be kind of a crisis. An event like this could seriously disturb production, transportation (planes need GPS, and subways need electricity), put a strain on hospitals and other care centers, and plunge people into boredom (no electricity means no cable, after all)

I will not even get into the irony of this happening on 2012…

Sun, by Cesar Cantu


Cartoon Care Communication

9 10 2011

I’ve been watching a lot of cartoons lately. Classic Disney from the 30s and 40s, and mostly featuring Donald and Goofy. It’s a nice way to spend a Sunday morning. It all started when I remembered the cartoons the used to broadcast near Halloween, particularly “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” which was my favorite growing up. I also remembered a particular cartoon about cars being on trial. Unable to remember the name of the cartoon, or whether Goofy was in it, I just googled “Goofy” and “Cars.”

I found a lot of cartoons, except the one I was looking for (I found it later, it’s called the “Story of Anyburg”). Among the ones I found were “Motor Mania” and “Freeway Troubles.”

I will focus on the more educational cartoon, “Freeway Troubles.” This cartoon appeared in 1960, but the script and the animation probably were done a couple of years before. Four years before the cartoon was released Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 and Inter-state highways became an integral part of American life.

As you all probably know, more people on the roads driving faster means more accidents, and potentially, more deaths. The risk increases if you have a great number of inexperienced drivers. This was probably the case when people moved from slow rural roads to fast, multiple-lane highways. So, Disney made a very entertaining example of care communication. The cartoon describes the different types of people one might encounter on the road (the shy driver, the impatient driver and the distracted driver) and the dangers they pose. The cartoon also delves into the physics of breaking, making quite clear why one must not drive bumper-to-bumper with the car in front.

I also found another cartoon, from 1943, that features the 7 dwarves teaching people how to combat malaria and the “tiny criminal” that transmits it. The film explains really well how malaria is transmitted, and the health and economical consequences of acquiring it. It offers good advice for controlling Anopheles populations (although some of it is very, very dated).

I also found two hilarious cartoons where Donald shows how to avoid accidents at home and at work 

They are very funny and entertaining, and certainly get their point across! Watch them!

I saw Contagion, and it was good!

29 09 2011

I saw Contagion last Saturday. It was so awesome! The movie certainly had some advisers from the CDC, and they made great contributions to the script.

The director,  Steven Soderbergh (who won an oscar for Traffic) has an excellent use of light, and he has some very original takes.

As far as communication goes, I did like the way the script handled the different outlets of communication one can use during a crisis. First, you have the spokesperson for the CDC (played by Lawrence Fishbourne a.k.a Morpheus). This character is the one in charge of communicating with the public all the uncertainties that can arise during a crisis. This person makes a terrible mistake, though (spoiler alert! it involves a private communication with a loved one), that ends up backfiring and damaging his career and credibility. First rule of crisis communication: Don’t say anything off the record.

There is also the muckraker, portrayed by Jude Law (who does a great job playing an unscrupulous reporter), who’s hell-bent on uncovering the “truth.” This blogger starts off by sharing information that some news outlets do not bother to cover, but as the movie progresses one learns that he has been bought. This character is a great example of those people who think they possess some secret knowledge that other are covering up, and instead spreads misinformation and increases panic. There is a very interesting confrontation between Law’s and Fishbourne’s characters.

One can find these two characters (the one who speaks with science, albeit with uncertainty and the one one that believes to possess truth, but in fact spreads lies) in real-life issues, like vaccination, or global warming.

The movie is very well written, and has the right balance of suspense, mystery and human interest. It is very realistic, and I highly recommend it.

If I can’t convince you that it is awesome, then check the billboard they put in Toronto to promote the movie.

An agreement for reporting violence?

29 09 2011

As you may know, Mexico is going through a rather tough period. The “war” fought between drug gangs and the government has so far left 40,000 dead. This level of violence was, until recently, unheard of in the country, and particularly in my hometown. Recently, though, I have found something interesting that I am not sure I agree with.

A few years ago, the news media reported about the gang wars fairly often. As the events became more frequent, and more gruesome, the media suddenly stopped reporting. Then the rumor mill started moving. Since the general media was not covering the news, other outlets filled that niche. These were mostly online blogs that commented on the events, and became the only source of information regarding cartel violence.

A few weeks ago, a couple of reporters from these outlets were found dead, hanging from a bridge (a sight that has become frequent in some cities). Few people in Mexico heard about this through the local or national news media. I found out about it in a british newspaper.

I recently learned that the reason these events are not being reported is because of a law, called the Acuerdo para la Cobertura Informativa de la Violencia (Agreement for the informative coverage of violence). This agreement was signed by several news outlets and journalistic associations. This agreement says that the media should oppose violence, try not to become a “speaker” for the gangs, protect the victims, and the reporters, and not spread fear, the result was that these kind of news were not reported anymore.

Since the media were not doing their job of informing the population, people started using twitter and other social media to send out information–about shootings, blockades, etc–so that the people were able to navigate the city safely. Now, at least one state has passed a law that prohibits the spread of information that “alters public order” through social media.

This law will do little to keep public order. Public order is already altered. Could it be then, that this law, conceived to keep the population from panicking, is actually backfiring by fueling rumors? Is there a better way to report on these issues?

Radioactive Lad

23 09 2011

I recently read an article on the Sept-Oct issue of “Mental Floss” magazine. It is a profile of Taylor Wilson, the youngest person ever to build a nuclear reactor. 

This kid likes blowing stuff up, and likes to collect Geiger counters and uranium. Still, this kid refuses to drive.  Crazy as it seems, he might have his risks right. I thought it was hilarious. 

 Taylor says that pop culture has made people afraid of radiation when “household chemicals under [the] sink are more dangerous.”

This is what David Ropeik refers to as “the perception gap.” This phenomenon makes us believe that something unfamiliar, like radioactivity, or flying, is far more dangerous than driving, or drano, when the opposite might well be the case. 

This is why Taylor got in trouble with the dairy industry when he found that, after Japan’s earthquake earlier this year, spinach and milk contained trace amounts of radioactive elements. People heard “radioactive” and went crazy, burying the key phrase “trace amounts” under all the noise.