Severe thunderstorms are still battering the U.S. for a fourth consecutive day, following another round of violent weather on Wednesday that spawned dozens of tornadoes in the Midwest, and even three or four in Northern California. Storm clouds will likely plague swaths of the Eastern U.S. from New England to the Gulf Coast today and tonight, CNN reports, while a separate system also swirls over the Northern Rocky Mountains. Large areas of the country still face a "particularly dangerous situation," according to the National Weather Service, including destructive tornadoes, large hail and wind gusts up to 70 mph. Fewer tornadoes are expected as the storms move east, but as residents of Joplin, Mo., know all too well, it just takes one to destroy a city.

At least 125 people have been confirmed dead from Sunday's tornado in Joplin, and authorities today will release the names of 1,500 people who are still unaccounted for. Storms Tuesday night and Wednesday morning killed another 16 people across Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas, raising the year's tornado death toll to more than 500. That makes 2011 the deadliest tornado season since 1953, when twisters killed 519 people around the country. A total of 221 tornadoes have been reported to the NWS this week alone, including 81 preliminary reports that came in Wednesday. In Oklahoma, only nine of the state's 77 counties aren't currently under a state of emergency. "Our hearts go out to those who lost their loved ones in the storms last night, and our thoughts and prayers continue to be with all the families and communities that have been affected," Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in a statement Wednesday.

While not as many funnel clouds are forecast to touch down today or Friday, the thunderstorms are moving into more densely populated areas as they churn eastward, points out AccuWeather meteorologist Alex Sosnowski. Millions of people in several big population hubs could be at risk, ranging from Birmingham to Toronto, and property damage could also still be high even if just a few tornadoes develop. In addition to twisters, powerful wind gusts and flash flooding are also expected to cause problems in several states.

(Sources: National Weather Service, CNN, Wall Street Journal, AccuWeather, San Jose Mercury News)


A coalition of environmental and public health groups sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Wednesday, hoping to force the federal government to stop letting farmers treat healthy animals with antibiotics to make them grow faster. The groups argue that such widespread and preemptive use of antibiotic drugs is irresponsible, letting more bacteria develop resistance to important medicines and evolve into so-called "superbugs." About 80 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are currently taken by farm animals.

"Accumulating evidence shows that antibiotics are becoming less effective, while our grocery store meat is increasingly laden with drug-resistant bacteria," says Peter Lehner of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the plaintiffs. "The FDA needs to put the American people first by ensuring that antibiotics continue to serve their primary purpose — saving human lives by combating disease." The lawsuit alleges the FDA knew as far back as 1977 that the practice of giving low doses of penicillin and tetracycline to healthy livestock could spur the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in people, yet did nothing about it. "[D]espite this conclusion and laws requiring that the agency act on its findings, FDA failed to take any action to protect human health," the plaintiffs said in a statement. The groups don't want to ban the use of antibiotics in animals that are genuinely sick, but aims to "compel FDA to take action on the agency's own safety findings, withdrawing approval for most non-therapeutic uses of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed." In addition to the NRDC, the plaintiffs include the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., is the only microbiologist in Congress, and she has also filed a bill that would ban seven types of antibiotics for farm animals unless they're ill, or unless drug companies can prove non-therapeutic use doesn't harm human health, the Washington Post reports. "We should be able to buy our food without worrying that eating it will expose our families to bacteria no longer responsive to medical treatments," she says. The president of the National Pork Producers Council, however, tells the Post that the lawsuit is the work of "anti-modern livestock-production groups."

(Sources: Washington Post, The Hill, Agence France-Presse)


Spending lots of time in traffic isn't just bad for your mental health — according to a new study by researchers at Harvard University, it can eventually kill you, too. Tailpipe emissions from traffic jams in the country's 83 largest urban areas led to more than 2,200 premature deaths in 2010, and cost at least $18 billion in various public health expenses, the study found. Los Angeles was among the cities suffering most from this problem, with 426 deaths and $3.4 billion in health costs, joined by New York (337 deaths, $2.7 billion), Chicago (251 deaths, $2 billion), Detroit (76 deaths, $603 million) and Atlanta (70 deaths, $549 million).

While big cities are often rife with various pollutants, the researchers concentrated specifically on automobile emissions, using several different models "to predict how much of what people are breathing in each urban area is attributable to emissions from traffic congestion." Overall, they say, their findings suggest city planners and other officials should pay more attention to pollution and public health when developing transportation projects and policies. "What the study says is when you are designing and evaluating policies, you should take into account the pollution impacts, because they do matter," co-author Katherine von Stackelberg of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis tells USA Today. A spokesman for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association is more blunt, arguing that officials have put too many of their constituents' eggs into one transportation basket. "The report highlights the complete failure of elected leaders to adquately invest in new capacity for all modes of transportation," says Matt Jeanneret of the ARTBA, one of 29 groups that commissioned the study. "Sadly, traffic congestion in America can be summed up this way: time lost, fuel lost — and now, lives lost."

There is one silver lining to this cloud of toxic exhaust, though: Premature deaths and public health costs related to traffic congestion have been falling slightly for a decade, and should continue that trend until 2030, when they're expected to begin rising again. "This reduction results from the continual turnover … to lower emission vehicles and the increased use of cleaner fuels," the report says.

(Source: USA Today)


People who lose their eyesight often develop a much stronger sense of hearing, but according to a new study published in the journal PLoS ONE, some also take that adaptation to another level. Much like dolphins and bats, some blind people can echolocate, learning to make clicks with their mouths and listen for the returning echoes. This helps them map out their surroundings in their mind, and can even be effective enough to let them go mountain biking, play basketball or explore unknown environments. And now scientists have conducted the first-ever study into how this works at the neurological level.

Researchers from the University of Western Ontario placed tiny microphones in the ears of blind test subjects, recording their clicks as well as the subsequent echoes while they tried to identify various objects, such as a car, tree or flag pole. They then played the recorded sounds back to the subjects while measuring their brain activity in an fMRI brain scanner. Not only were the subjects able to correctly name the objects off which their clicks had bounced, but the fMRI also showed activity in parts of the brain that normally process visual information in sighted people. Meanwhile, brain regions that handle auditory information were apparently uninvolved with the echolocation, suggesting that blind people can effectively "see" their environment using echolocation. 

Because this is the first study of its kind, more research will be needed to confirm its findings, the authors point out. Yet "even at this point," says lead author Mel Goodale, "it is clear that echolocation enables blind people to do things that are otherwise thought to be impossible without vision, and in this way it can provide blind and vision-impaired people with a high degree of independence in their daily lives." And while the benefits are obviously most useful to blind people, co-author Stephen Arnott adds that "there is the possibility that even in sighted people who learn to echolocate, visual brain areas might be recruited."

(Sources: e! Science News, Montreal Gazette, BBC News)


Plum Island research lab is built, international pact bans deep-sea trawling, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (tornado in Oklahoma on May 24, 2011): Kevin Burns/National Weather Service

Photo (hogs at a hog farm in Iowa): Scott Olson/Getty Images

Photo (cars stuck in a traffic jam): Oliver Berg/ZUMA Press

Photo (bat using echolocation): National Science Foundation

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Thurs. 5/26/2011
U.S. storms keep coming, FDA sued over superbugs, blind people can echolocate, and more.