After Brazil’s National Museum Fire, an Insurmountable Loss to History — and Science
One night was all it took to ravage millions of specimens— and countless years of scientific research — as a massive fire broke out just after closing time at Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.
While no deaths were reported, most the museum’s 20 million artifacts are thought to have been damaged or destroyed, including the skull of Luzia, believed to be the oldest human remains ever found in the Americas.
As the 200-year-old institution burned, scientists, including the museum’s deputy director, entered the building to salvage what little they could, though most likely lost entire collections crucial to their work. “In terms of [my] life-long research agenda, I’m pretty much lost,” Marcus Guidoti, an entomologist finishing his Ph.D., told National Geographic. Guidoti had been studying lace bugs, one of the largest collections of which was housed at the museum.
Though reeling from the devastating loss, museum workers said they knew the fire would happen someday. “Everybody here knew that,” Marcelo Weksler, one of the exhibit curators, told The New York Times. “It was our worst nightmare.”
In July, an architect had filed a complaint, highlighting hazards including unsafe wiring and the use of flammable materials on the building’s roof. “This unique collection in Brazil can catch fire at any moment, and it is a miracle it hasn’t happened yet,” the author of the complaint wrote. Just a month before that, after years of negotiation, the museum had secured $5 million in funding for a new fire safety system. It had yet to be installed when this week’s fire began.
Battling the flames for more than six hours, firefighters said the hydrants outside the building were empty, reflecting the breakdown in infrastructure and management that many blamed on the government.
Museum director Alexander Kellner said the museum has struggled to stay afloat following budget cuts in 2014, though local news outlets report that the issues stem back to the 1950s.
While the country’s culture minister deflected blame and called on Kellner to resign, a group from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, are set to arrive in Brazil next week to assess what pieces may be recovered.
Also in the news:
• Panic set in on Wednesday, as news came that 100 people on a flight from Dubai to New York had come down with flu-like symptoms. The plane was met upon arrival by ambulances — a scene documented on Twitter by the rapper Vanilla Ice — and 11 people were taken to the hospital for treatment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were notified and a spokesman later said the sick were likely suffering from influenza or the common cold. One passenger, Erin Sykes, reported that those boarding the plane were sick before they took off from Dubai. Some of the passengers were returning from Saudi Arabia, where they had participated in the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Just one day later, two American Airlines flights were held after arriving in Philadelphia, after 12 people came down with similar symptoms. While those flights came from Paris and Munich, respectively, the sick passengers were also believed to have been in Mecca. As a precaution, health officials said they were looking into the possibility of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, but so far tests have come back negative. (Vox, NBC News)
• While brick kiln operations represent just 1 percent of Bangladesh’s GDP, the industry generates nearly 60 percent of the particulate pollution hanging over the capital city of Dhaka. This often translates into noxious clouds of PM2.5 — the most deadly category of air pollution, given its diminutives size (2.5 micrometers or less in diameter) and its ability to slip past the body’s defenses and burrow deep into the respiratory system. Exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to lung cancer and other health problems, and at least one study has suggested that this sort of fine particulate pollution claimed 14,000 lives in Greater Dhaka in 2014. Two years later, researchers estimated that it was responsible for the deaths of more than 100,000 Bangladeshis nationwide. An Undark report this week noted that cleaner brickmaking technology is slowly making its way to Bangladesh, but the economics are forbidding — particularly for a developing nation where jobs are precious and resources are scarce. “My furniture gets covered in a layer of dust particles within a few hours of cleaning it,” said one North Dhaka homemaker, “and this makes me alarmed thinking how much of the dust is settling in my lungs.” (Undark)
• The saga of the mystery sickness at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba continues. After news emerged last year that more than a dozen American diplomats in Havana had suddenly suffered hearing damage and concussion-like symptoms, scientists were baffled. Many experts suspected a stealth sonic attack by Russia-friendly operatives, and the incident created a diplomatic rift between Havana and Washington. Now neuroscientist Douglas Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania and head of a medical team that examined the affected diplomats, has fingered a new leading suspect: microwave beams, which experts say can create false sensations that plausibly explain the diplomats’ symptoms. “Everybody was relatively skeptical at first, and everyone now agrees there’s something there,” Smith told The New York Times. Still, some scientists say that the microwave theory makes no sense. “The microwave auditory effect is a real stretch,” bioengineer Kenneth Foster, also of the University of Pennsylvania, told BuzzFeed News. “It is a biologically trivial effect.” The State Department continues to investigate the incident and says it has yet to identify the cause or source of the attacks. (The New York Times, BuzzFeed News.)
• Worried that the Trump administration might make good on threats to deny permanent legal status to immigrants who have accessed public assistance, many have begun asking to be removed from the federal Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which helps ensure pregnant women, infants, and small children receive adequate nutrition. Public health agencies in at least 18 states report they are seeing up to a 20 percent drop in WIC enrollment since the Trump administration announced it was considering its new policy. Both documented and undocumented immigrants are asking to be removed from the program, as concerns mount that a WIC recipient’s current and future immigration status could be jeopardized. WIC serves close to half of all babies born in the U.S.; it primarily helps pregnant women and families with small children buy infant formula and healthy food. Health advocates say the policy change would put more U.S. born babies and young children at risk of low birth weight and other developmental problems. (Politico)
• When was the last time you got 75 minutes of vigorous exercise or 150 minutes of moderate exercise in a week? Those are the World Health Organization’s guidelines for physical activity, and according to a report published this week in the Lancet Global Health journal, 1.4 billion people — or a quarter of the world’s adult population — aren’t getting enough of it. The study, which looked at 358 surveys from 168 countries, paints a particular bleak picture for high-income nations, including the U.S. and U.K., where inactivity increased by 19 percent between 2001 and 2016. Sedentary occupations and a dependence on motorized transportation, the authors believe, are partially to blame. A gender gap in activity was also noted: on the whole, 26 percent of men did not meet physical activity guidelines, compared to 32 percent of women. There are, however, a few bright spots: Citing growing enthusiasm for recreational exercise and the use of public parks in China, activity levels in East and Southeast Asian regions have increased by 12 percent since 2001. And in Uganda the inactivity level is at a low 6 percent. “If current trends continue,” the researchers write, “the 2025 global physical activity target — a 10 percent relative reduction in insufficient physical activity — will not be met.” (TIME)
• And finally: After the U.S. government issued a stern warning that cities planning supervised injection sites to help combat the opioid death crisis would be in violation of a 1986 federal law, state officials from San Francisco to Philadelphia issued their own combative response this week. The federal government should concentrate its enforcement actions again those providing the drugs, the Philadelphia Public Health Department said Tuesday, not “on preventing public health officials from acting to keep Philadelphians from dying.” Countries in Europe and elsewhere have adopted the use of supervised injection sites as a strategy to reduce the number of deaths, providing a more sterile environment to reduce infections and having antidotes on hand in case of bad reactions. While a recent metanalysis casts doubt on whether such methods can help prevent mortality, it did find that the strongest effect was a reduction in drug-related crime in areas with such centers. Still the U.S. Department of Justice has said that any cities or counties that allow supervised injection sites to open may face prosecution. (The Washington Post)