COAST CLEAR? The Obama family is taking a trip to Panama City Beach this weekend, hoping to set a national example by spending some presidential time and money on the beleaguered Gulf Coast. The Obamas were criticized in July for visiting Maine even as oil continued spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, but Michelle Obama cemented this weekend's Florida trip last month during a solo stop in the so-called "Redneck Riviera" (pictured). "It's welcoming, it's pristine, and everybody should come here!" she said of the area's beaches on July 12. "Truly, the best thing your fellow Americans can do is come down here and spend some money." So the first family will now take her advice, spending Saturday through Monday in Panama City Beach with no official business or public events planned — just a family vacation. It's an important and much-needed gesture, but as the Huffington Post's Dan Froomkin points out, the Obamas could have picked a needier beneficiary. Panama City Beach was hit with only scattered tar balls from the Gulf oil spill, not the beach-blanketing, marsh-mucking oil slicks that plagued more westerly beaches as nearby as Pensacola. If President Obama really wants to help out, he should take his family on a road trip along I-10 West, says Ping Wang, a researcher from the University of South Florida who's been monitoring the oil on shore. "I think they should inspect a beach that's contaminated more than Panama City Beach," Wang tells Froomkin. "If they look carefully, if they dig a hole on the beach, they'll find what's left over from a superficial cleanup." (Sources: Washington Post, PCBDaily, Huffington Post)

FOR PEAT'S SAKE: An apocalyptic pall has been cast over much of the planet this summer, and as the AP reports, it largely fits in with scientists' predictions about global warming: droughts and crop failures, floods and fires, melting glaciers and erratic storms. While all these recent disasters might well be a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions, one of them — the underground peat fires roaring across Russia — also has an even more direct link to human folly, the New York Times reports. That's because Russia's peat fields were once watery bogs that wouldn't burn this easily, but they were intensively drained by the Soviet Union in the early 1900s to supply peat for electrical power plants. The Soviets abandoned that strategy in the 1950s after natural gas was found in Siberia, but no one ever bothered to reflood the bogs, leaving them to increasingly dry out. Now Russia is battling a blaze that's even more dangerous and difficult to control than normal wildfires, since there are almost no visible flames and the smoke hugs the ground instead of wafting upward. With only dense smoke and smoldering mats of rotten plants to tip off their presence, peat fires make for unglamorous firefighting — crews must dig trenches, inject water underground and set up sprinkler hoses, all while looking out for sinkholes and falling trees. This summer's peat fires have been so bad that Moscow is considering whether to reflood the old peat mines, but as the country's top forestry official tells the Times, "Of course, they would be easier to put out if we had not drained the swamps." (Sources: Associated Press, New York Times)


TRUE BLOOD: Vampire bats are on the attack in Amazonian Peru, spurring a rabies outbreak among members of the indigenous Awajun tribe, the BBC reports. Four Awajun children have died after being bitten by the rabid bats, which normally drink blood from sleeping wildlife or livestock but occasionally feed on humans when desperate. Health workers have also given rabies vaccine to more than 500 other people who have been bitten, after Awajun leaders appealed for help in response to the children's deaths. Vampire bat experts tell the BBC that deforestation in the Amazon may be contributing to the recent attacks, since the nocturnal animals are known to seek more human blood when their rain forest habitat has been destroyed; some locals, however, attribute the bats' strange behavior to unusually cold weather in recent years. The outbreak seems concentrated around the northeastern Amazon community of Urakusa, near the border with Ecuador, and while Peruvian medical teams have now vaccinated most of the affected population, the country's health ministry says a few individuals have refused treatment. (Source: BBC News)

EAT YOUR HEART OUT: The next time you grab a handful of ketchup packets and napkins on your way out of a fast-food restaurant, what if you could pick up a few cholesterol-lowering statin tablets, too? You should have that option, according to researchers at the Imperial College of London, who suggest in a new study that fast-food chains could offer free statin at their condiment stations, so customers could neutralize the heart-disease risks from fatty foods. Statins whittle away at the unhealthy LDL cholesterol in the blood, and a variety of studies have shown they're highly effective at slashing a person's chance of having a heart attack; the researchers have even calculated that they can offset much of the increased heart-attack risk from eating things like cheeseburgers and chili fries. "Statins don't cut out all of the unhealthy effects of burgers and fries," says Darrel Francis, the study's lead author. "It's better to avoid fatty food altogether. But we've worked out that in terms of your likelihood of having a heart attack, taking a statin can reduce your risk to more or less the same degree as a fast food meal increases it." It would cost about the same per customer as ketchup packets, he adds, and there is a general precedent in other industries. "When people engage in risky behaviors like driving or smoking, they're encouraged to take measures that minimize their risk, like wearing a seatbelt or choosing cigarettes with filters," he says. "Taking a statin is a rational way of lowering some of the risks of eating a fatty meal." (Source: ScienceDaily)

Russell McLendon

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Photo (Michelle Obama in Florida on July 12): ZUMA Press

Photo (crews fighting peat fires in Russia): Misha Japaridze/AP

Photo (vampire bat): ZUMA Press

Photo (fast-food hamburger): Nina Prommer/Globe Photos

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

Weekend Briefing 8/13/2010
Obamas visit Gulf Coast, vampire bats attack Peru, statins may offset fast food risks, and more.