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The Right Chemistry: “Responsible scientific journalism is 2016 Trottier symposium focus”

STDFirst time I had a chance to watch television was in 1956, after I came to Canada in the wake of the Hungarian Revolution. Back then, there was only one channel and it was on the air for only a few hours a day. But the newscasts did provide a window to the world that I had not seen open before.

For breaking news, you depended on local radio stations, where you could also tune in to a variety of talk shows. There was the popular Joe Pyne, who would invite you to gargle with razor blades if you disagreed with him, and my favourite, Pat Burns, who had an opinion on everything and was not averse to abusing his callers. Indeed, it was Burns who stimulated my interest in skepticism.

One of the regular callers on the Burns Hot Line was a woman who was convinced that space aliens walked among us, specifically, on Ste-Catherine Street. She recognized them because of their distinctive eyes! Pat would humour her for comic relief and often goaded her into making outrageous comments. One day, he was stressed for time and told her that he couldn’t let her go on about “her little green men.” She didn’t take this well, and claimed that if Pat cut her off, the aliens would cut him off. “OK, tell me tomorrow why they didn’t,” he retorted, as he proceeded to cut her off. Then he went to the next call, but there wasn’t one. The station had gone off the air and stayed off for six hours. There was no explanation.

The woman called back the next day to gloat, but Pat just said “coincidence Doll, coincidence.” She stuck by her guns and maintained the aliens had done it. “So let’s see them do it again,” Burns fumed as he again cut her off. Well, you guessed it. The station went off the air again for half an hour! She called back the next day and this time Pat told her she could talk as much as she wanted, but she said there was no need because the aliens had made their point.

A remarkable coincidence? A publicity stunt? Someone actually hacking the transmitter? We never heard a reasonable explanation as to what really happened. What I do know, is that the bizarre affair triggered my interest in “aliens,” and much to my surprise, I found that the local library had quite a collection of books on the subject. I read about the 1947 Roswell incident, involving the crash of what some people believed was a UFO, as well as about all sorts of UFO sightings. By this time, I had developed an interest in science and found the “proof” for alien visits less than compelling. Many of the accounts were fanciful and it seemed to me that the writers were sometimes driven more by commercial appeal than by evidence. This led me to look at all news reports, especially in the scientific realm, with a skeptical eye, and I took to evaluating them in terms of adhering to the tenets of responsible journalism.

These days, with the tsunami of information and misinformation we face on a daily basis, that has turned out to be quite a challenge. We are no longer talking about one TV channel, but hundreds, satellite radio with access to thousands of stations and, of course, social media, which allow anyone to have a say on anything. As we witness on a regular basis, any twit can tweet. Then there is the Internet, featuring millions and millions of posts ranging from sound science to the inane blather of scientifically confused bloggers to whom responsible journalism is a foreign concept.

But what exactly is responsible journalism? What makes some journalists more trustworthy than others? How do some activists become so adept at communicating twisted facts? These are the sorts of questions that McGill’s Trottier Public Science Symposium will attempt to answer this year. The symposium is organized by McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, of which I am director.

We have reached out to four outstanding journalists who will explore the role of the media when it comes to science communication. On Monday evening, the CBC’s Erica Johnson, with five Gemini nominations for her work on the consumer program Marketplace, will detail her investigations of the pharmaceutical industry, alternative medicine and various marketing scams. She will be followed by National Magazine Award-winning journalist Julia Belluz, who covers medicine and public health for Vox.com. Julia will speak on “The Dr. Oz problem: How reporters should cover the peddlers of bad science.”

On Tuesday evening, the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach, whose National Geographic cover story about “The War on Science” was widely acclaimed around the world, will explore “How to Survive the Age of Bad Information.” Then Trevor Butterworth, executive director of Sense About Science USA will discuss “Facts, fiction, and science: where the lines become blurred.” Sense About Science is a non-profit organization that aims to equip people with the tools needed to make sense of science in an age permeated by nonsense. Their motto is “evidence matters.” Indeed it does.

Famed American journalist Sydney J. Harris once opined that “The words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.” The Trottier Public Science Symposium speakers will provide great information, and they will get through. You are all invited to two spirited evenings of presentations followed by a question and answer period. If any of those little green men who may have managed to knock Pat Burns off the air all those years ago are still around, well, they are invited too. We will look for their distinctive eyes.

It all happens Monday, Oct. 17 and Tuesday, Oct. 18 at 5:30 p.m. at The Centre Mont Royal, 1000 Sherbrooke St. West. There is no admission cost for terrestrials or extraterrestrials.

For more information on the Trottier Public Science Symposium, please visit the website.

You Asked: How can homeopathic teething “remedies” that essentially contain nothing have an adverse effect on infants?

question markThe FDA in the U.S has raised alarm about homeopathic teething pills that may have caused seizures in babies and possibly even caused some deaths. But how can homeopathic “remedies” do this, given that they contain nothing? The bizarre tenet of homeopathy is that a substance that causes symptoms in a health person can relieve those symptoms in a sick person as long as it is diluted to an extent that contains almost zero or a just a trace amount of the original substance. Homeopathic teething remedies are made by diluting a solution of belladonna in an extreme fashion.

Why belladonna is the preferred substance is bizarre since according to homeopathic doctrine, to relieve pain, it should cause pain when used at a high concentration. While atropine, the active ingredient in belladonna can cause many adverse symptoms, it doesn’t cause pain. In any case, when diluted homeopathically, it should have no effect.

Now it seems some homeopathic companies are not very adept at making dilutions and the effects on the babies were likely caused by an overdose of belladonna. Dilution is really a very simple process, so it is hard to see how they could get it so wrong. It seems homeopaths are not only incompetent when it comes to understanding chemistry and medicine, some are also incompetent at carrying out dilutions. Obviously homeopathy is not always just benign nonsense.

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The Right Chemistry: Sugar research left a bitter taste

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“Is it true that putting a piece of garlic in the rectum at night can cleanse the body?”

And with that single question posed by an audience member back in 1975, my chemical focus shifted to food and nutrition. The question came after one of my first public talks on chemistry at a local library, where I had described the role chemistry plays in our daily lives, mostly using dyes, drugs, plastics and cosmetics as examples.

I was sort of taken aback by the question, but managed to stammer something like “where did you hear that?”

Back came the answer, “from Panic in the Pantry.” After mentioning that my only experience with garlic had been with rubbing it on toast with some very satisfying results to the palate, I promised to check out the reference.

It wasn’t hard to track down Panic in the Pantry in a local bookstore. The title had suggested some sort of attack on our food system, but this turned out not to be the case. At least not in the way I had thought. Flipping through the book I came across terms like “chemophobia,” “carcinogen,” “additives,” “chemical-free” and “health foods.” I was intrigued, especially on noting that the book had had been written by Frederick Stare, a physician with a previous degree in chemistry who had founded the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health, and co-author Elizabeth Whelan. Within a day I had read Panic in the Pantry from cover to cover and was so captivated that I dove into the turbid waters of nutrition and food chemistry with great enthusiasm. Ever since then, I have been trying to keep my head above water, buffeted by the growing waves of information and misinformation.

Panic in the Pantry focused on what the authors believed were unrealistic worries about our food supply, vigorously attacking the popular lay notion that “if you can’t pronounce it, it must be harmful.” Yes, that daft message was around long before the Food Babe made it her anthem. In truth, the risks and benefits of a chemical are a consequence of its molecular structure, and are determined by appropriate studies, not by the number of syllables in its name. Stare and Whelan also challenged the “Delaney Clause,” a piece of U.S. legislation stating that no additive shall be deemed safe if it has been shown to cause cancer in any species upon any type of exposure. They pointed at studies that showed very different effects of chemicals in rodents and humans and maintained that it was unrealistic to condemn additives if exposure was not taken into account. “Too much sun can cause skin cancer, but does that mean we should stay indoors all the time?” they asked.

What about the curious case of the clove of garlic in the rectum? An excellent example of a misinterpretation of information, something that I have seen much too often. In a discussion of food faddism through the ages, the authors introduced the antics of one Adolphus Hohensee, who had forged a career as a “health food” advocate after his real estate business had landed him in jail for mail fraud. The dietary guru told his audiences that the sex act should last an hour, and if they did not measure up to this level of sexual adequacy it was because they had a diet laden with additives.

Hohensee’s answer to the chemical onslaught was a clove of garlic in the rectum at night, with proof of its efficacy being the scent of garlic on the breath in the morning. Obviously, the garlic had worked its way from bottom to top, cleansing everything in-between. Far from promoting this regimen, Stare and Whelan had used it to highlight the extent of nutritional quackery.

I found most of the arguments in Panic in the Pantry highly palatable, but there was a discussion of one chemical that left a somewhat bitter taste. That chemical was sugar. I had been quite taken by Pure, White and Deadly, a 1972 book by British physiologist John Yudkin, who made a compelling case linking sugar to heart disease, cavities, diabetes, obesity and possibly some cancers. Stare dismissed sugar as a culprit, implicating saturated fats as the cause of coronary disease. That to me seemed not to meet the standard of evidence that was applied to other issues in Panic in the Pantry.

As it turns out, there was a reason for Stare’s dismissal of sugar as a health problem. In 1965, the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), the industry’s trade association, asked Stare to sit on its advisory board because of his expertise in the dietary causes of heart disease. The sugar industry was extremely worried about Yudkin’s growing influence and decided to embark on a major program to take the focus off sugar and direct it toward fats. Stare’s defence of sugar as a quick energy food that should be put in coffee or tea several times a day and calling Coca Cola a healthy between meals snack was welcomed by the industry.

As we have now learned from historical documents brought to light in a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the SRF paid members of Stare’s department to carry out a literature review, overseen by Stare, designed to point a finger at fats while expressing skepticism about sugar’s supposed criminality. That review was published in the New England Journal of Medicine without any disclosure of sugar industry funding and successfully steered readers away from associating sugar with heart disease. While Stare, who died in 2002, was correct about many aspects of unfounded chemophobia, his reputation has now been tarnished by the undeclared payments received by his department from the sugar industry.

Sugar, as we now know, is not as innocent as Stare had claimed. But at least he never did suggest garlic in the rectum to cleanse toxins. As far as I know, neither has the Food Babe.

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Alkaline Nonsense

DNAIt is so seductively simple.  If you want to avoid cancer, just make sure your body is “alkaline!”  Here is the rationale.  When a cell becomes cancerous it reduces its use of oxygen and cranks up its production of acids.  These conditions then allow such cells to multiply quickly.  To counter this, you have to ensure that cells get an adequate supply of oxygen and that the acids produced are neutralized.  How?  By introducing sources of oxygen such as hydrogen peroxide or ozone into the body and consuming “alkaline” foods.  If cancer has already taken a foothold, then it may be necessary to dose up on cesium, the “most alkaline nutritional mineral.”  So simple, and so wrong!

As so often happens, promoters of nonsensical therapies seize a few filaments of scientific fact and weave these into a tangled web that ensnares the desperate and the scientifically confused.  In this case, it all starts with the work of German physician Otto Warburg who received the 1931 Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on cellular metabolism.  Warburg showed that that the growth of malignant cells requires markedly smaller amounts of oxygen than that of normal cells and that their metabolism follows an “anaerobic” pathway leading to the production of lactic acid.  This notion lay dormant until the 1980’s when Dr. Keith Brewer, a physicist with no medical training, used it to support his perplexing theory of how potassium and calcium control the transport of glucose and oxygen into cells, and how irritation of the cell’s membrane interferes with this transport system.  The result, Brewer maintained, is the “Warburg effect,” which lowers the cell’s pH, reduces its oxygen supply, and causes changes in DNA characteristic of cancer.  He then went on to claim that cesium’s chemically similarity to potassium allows it to be readily taken up by cells, but that unlike potassium, it does not transport glucose into cells while allowing oxygen to enter.  As a result, cancer cells are enriched in oxygen, deprived of glucose, form less lactic acid, become more alkaline, and as a consequence, die.  Sounds good, but Brewer got the “Warburg effect” all wrong.  Cancer cells do shift to a mode of metabolism that doesn’t use oxygen, but this happens even in the presence of oxygen!

Brewer went on to buttress his argument by claiming that cancer is almost unknown among the Hopi Indians of Arizona, the highland Indians of Peru and the Hunza of North Pakistan.  Why?  Because due to the cesium in the soil, they have a “high pH” diet.  Whether these people actually do have a lower cancer rate is questionable, and even if this were the case, it could not be ascribed to cesium in the diet without further investigation.  But then to take the cake (undoubtedly cesium enriched) Brewer in 1984 published a paper with the following claim: “Tests have been carried out on over 30 humans and in each case the tumour masses disappeared.  Also, all pains and effects associated with cancer disappeared within 12 to 36 hours; the more chemotherapy and morphine the patient had taken, the longer the withdrawal period.”  Not only had he discovered the cancer cure that had eluded the thousands of PhDs and MDs working in cancer research around the world, but he also showed that chemotherapy was actually harmful.  Quite a claim!

And just where were these miraculously cured patients, and who had treated them?  Brewer refers to Dr. Hellfried Sartori (aka Prof. Abdul-Haqq Sartori) who had accomplished this incredible feat in the Washington D.C. area.  This is the same Dr. Sartori who in July of 2006 was arrested in Thailand for fraud and practicing medicine without a license.  He was charging desperate patients were up $50,000 for “cancer cures” which included cesium chloride injections.  The good doctor, who routinely promised that he could cure his patients of any disease, has a rather illustrious history.  Known as the notorious “Dr. Ozone” in the U.S. , he served five years in prison in Virginia and nine months in New York for defrauding patients with unapproved therapies such as cesium chloride injections, coffee enemas and ozone flushes.  Needless to say, there are no records of the patients whom, according to Brewer, Sartori cured of cancer.  Australian police are now looking into the deaths of six people who died after intravenous injections of cesium chloride at clinics following Sartori’s protocol.

Introducing ozone or hydrogen peroxide to raise cellular oxygen levels is a scientifically bankrupt idea, as is raising a cell’s pH with cesium chloride.  Of course, it is not the absurdity of the theory that rules out its effectiveness, it is the lack of evidence!  There are no controlled trials showing cancer being cured with ozone or cesium.  But there is evidence that cesium chloride can cause cardiac arrhythmia and death.  Granted, it is unlikely that this can happen from the oral doses being promoted by numerous alternative practitioners aimed at raising the body’s pH, but the idea that cesium chloride can neutralize acids in cells is sheer nonsense.

Yes, cesium is an “alkali” metal.  Dropping a piece of cesium metal into water does indeed produce an alkaline solution (and an explosion).  But cesium chloride is not the same as cesium metal, it is a neutral salt.  In any case, the blood’s pH cannot be altered by cesium chloride ingestion, or indeed with the ingestion of any food.  It is a marvelously buffered system, meaning that it resists any change in acidity.  It doesn’t matter what we eat or drink, our blood contains substances that can act as acids or bases to maintain our blood pH at 7.4.  The only body fluid that responds to diet in terms of pH is the urine.  Breads, cereals, eggs, fish, meat and poultry can make the urine more acidic while most, but not all, fruits and vegetables make the urine more alkaline.  A diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in meat can indeed reduce the risk of cancer, but this has absolutely nothing to do with changing the pH of cancer cells.  The idea of an “alkaline” diet to prevent or treat cancer may sound seductively simple, but in reality it is just simple minded.

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The U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)

dangerAmidst the cacophony of jingoist, vacuous blather at the Republican Convention there were some noteworthy phrases that probably slipped by most viewers. A number of speakers talked about the need to reign in the activities of the Environmental Protection Agency, the “EPA.” That is something one would expect from Republicans who want as little government interference in their life as possible. But these are the same Republicans who voted to update the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act that finally was passed in June by Congress with bipartisan approval after ten years of debate. This update was very much needed because significant information has been accumulated since 1976 about exposure to chemicals in the environment and their potential effect on health.

The old law required companies to register new chemicals that would enter commerce with the EPA but there was no requirement to furnish any safety data, and there was no provision for EPA to tackle the risks associated with chemicals already on the market at the time. The assumption was that chemicals are safe unless shown to be otherwise. The EPA did have the power to ban a chemical, but the burden of proof of harm was on the agency. Also, the economic downsides had to be factored in before the use of any chemical was limited. With companies introducing about 700 chemicals every year, and the EPA inventory building up to some 85,000 substances, the task of ferreting out dangerous ones is overwhelming. While determining risk when exposure is high, such as in an occupational setting, is relatively easy, determining risk to consumers who may be exposed to some chemical in tiny amounts over a long period is daunting.

But under the new law, EPA has to examine a chemical before it is put on the market and make a decision about safety. The risk assessment will take into account how a chemical is used. For example, a fluorinated compound may be deemed to be fine for use in airplane fire extinguishers, but not as an oil repellant in pizza boxes. An important new feature is that the agency will now have the authority to ask for information from producers about studies that have been carried out and can even ask for further studies. Another new facet is that EPA does not have to consider the economic implications of declaring a substance to be toxic. Furthermore, it is going to be much tougher for a company to withhold information claiming trade secrecy.

There are also 90 chemicals that have been identified as meriting investigation and possible regulation with EPA having to adhere to mandatory deadlines. The new bill has the support of the chemical industry because it should reduce consumer angst given that EPA will now be charged with examining the safety of chemicals before they go on the market. But here is the issue. While Republicans in the House voted for the bill, they also voted to cut the EPA’s funding and staffing for 2017. If EPA is going to carry out its new duties effectively, it will need more, not less funding. The plan is that some of the shortfall will be offset by charging companies fees for submitting chemicals for EPA to review. That may not sit well with Republicans.

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There ain’t no cure for the summertime buzz!

adam brownThere’s a buzz in the air these days, a loud one. I’m sure you’ve heard it but it could have easily been mistaken for a malfunctioning drone plane stuck in the trees. The sounds of summer are slowly becoming dominated by the mating songs of male Cicadas, as their relatively long lives culminate in a grand finale. And it sure is noisy.

You may have seen the recent headlines from the media outlets that announced the imminence of a “Cicadapocalypse”, but I can assure you that it will be significantly less dramatic than that. As usual, however, there is some truth behind the warning, only that there may be many more Cicadas around this year than in others, due to the strange periodicity of the Cicada lifecycle.

Cicadas are large-bodied insects, closely related to aphids and plant hoppers, who spend most of their lives as larvae eating roots underground before they pupate to adulthood and crawl up the nearest tree to mate and lay eggs before dying. In Eastern North America there are seven kinds, which are known as Periodical Cicadas, four species of which have 13-year lifecycles and the other three have 17-year cycles.

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Cats and catnip

catWhat do we know about cats? You show them a litter box and they will from that moment on never make anywhere else in the house. Try that with a dog. Cats don’t have receptors for sweets, so you can’t train them by offering them sweet treats. In fact, you can’t train  them at all. That’s supposedly because they are too smart to cater to human whims. I don’t know about that; after all, they will chase the beam of a laser pointer ad nauseum, never learning that they cannot catch it.

If you think your cat is affectionate towards you because he or she rubs up against your leg, think again. They are just marking you as their territory, so that if they find themselves in danger, they’ll know where to run for protection. Cats do have a remarkable ability to land on all fours if you toss them into the air, and they are pretty good at catching mice and birds that they will then offer as a present to the household where they happen to be living. If you want to reciprocate to this kindness, you can offer them a little catnip. They’ll immediately turn on their back and wait for some tummy rubbing. Why they respond to the scent of this flowering plant is a mystery since it doesn’t seem to offer any evolutionary advantage. Actually, not all cats are attracted, but roughly three quarters of them are. Some sort of genetic trait is likely involved. Furthermore, only mature cats are attracted, kittens are actually repelled by the scent.

The chemical in the scent of catnip that produces cat euphoria is nepetalactone. The plant does not produce this compound to attract cats. Since cats do not pollinate, and do not eat insects, there is no advantage to the catnip plant to attract felines. So we have to look elsewhere for any advantage offered to the plant by nepetalactone. It turns out that this compound happens to be a pheromone, or sex attractant, for aphids, the tiny sap-sucking insects that can sap the life out of a plant.

Obviously there is no advantage to the plant in attracting aphids. But there is an advantage in attracting aphid predators. The lacewing fly and creepy wasp find that aphids provide just the right environment for laying their eggs and have learned to hunt down aphids by going after the pheromone they produce. The catnip plant takes advantage of this phenomenon and churns out nepetalactone to attract the aphid predators that then lay their eggs inside the live aphids and end up killing them.

While cats love catnip, cockroaches do not. The scent of nepetalactone sends them skittering away.  Removing the roaches’ antennae renders them indifferent to nepetalactone, revealing that it is receptors on these rather than on the feet or in the mouth that respond. Nepetalactone also repels a variety of biting insects, including the mosquito. But it’s not a good idea to use an insect repellant based on this chemical if you are on safari. Catnip attracts big cats too. Like lions, tigers and leopards. I don’t think you want these guys rubbing against your leg.

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You Asked: Does the Magnetic Laundry System work?

question markMagnets are fascinating. Imagine the amazement of the ancient Greeks who discovered that some naturally occurring stones, later named magnetite because they were found in a region of Greece called Magnesia, attracted iron. The stones also quickly attracted superstitious beliefs. Magnetite was said to have had magical powers, the ability to heal the sick and frighten away evil spirits. Archimedes, in an undoubtedly apocryphal story, is said to have used magnetite to remove nails from enemy ships and sink them. Magnets never sank ships, but they were used to guide them. We are talking about the compass.

Thousands of years ago the Chinese also noted the properties of naturally occurring magnetite. When made into the shape of a needle and floated on water, the magnetite always lined up in a north south direction! By about 1000 AD, the Chinese had developed the compass that became the key to navigation. But magnets have also been used to navigate people away from reality. In the 1800s physician Anton Mesmer had people hold onto magnetized rods to attract disease out of their body. Mesmerism, as his antics came to be called, often worked. The success of the treatment had nothing to do with the magnets, rather it was based on the belief of the patient. Magnets are great placebos. Today, magnetized bracelets can be purchased to energize the gullible. And you can buy magnetic laundry disks for insertion into washing machines to allow laundry to be done without the use of detergents. The claim is that the magnets ionize water and thereby increase its cleaning ability. Nonsense.

Advertising for these products often attacks commercial detergents accusing them of containing cancer causing chemicals and hormone disruptors. The claim is that the magnetic disks reduce health risks by eliminating exposure to these substances while also saving money since there is no need to purchase detergents. Furthermore, use of the disks prevents the release of toxic substances into the environment. That all sounds very “green.” References are given to a patent for the laundry disks, as well as to a study supposedly demonstrating their cleaning efficacy.

It is important to understand that the only requirement for obtaining a patent is novelty. In this case, since nobody before had the idea of putting magnets into a washing machine, the patent was not hard to get. When it comes to the patent, there is no need to show that the magnets actually do anything, just that their use in this context is novel. How about the study carried out by a testing lab that examined the cleaning efficacy? Technicians actually took bundles of clothes, washed them in a magnet equipped washing machine and demonstrated they came out cleaner than they went in. Surprise, surprise! Water is an excellent solvent and cleans remarkably well even without any detergent. The “study” had no control. That is, there was no comparison between laundering with just water and laundering with the magnetized water.

Is there any rationale that the magnets can actually do something? Water is diamagnetic, which means that it will be repelled by a magnet. But the effect is very, very, small. If a vial of water is placed on a piece of floating Styrofoam and a strong magnet is brought close, it will slowly move away from the magnet. An interesting phenomenon, but nothing to do with cleaning ability. But there is something about the advertising for the laundry disks that is not contestable. They are guaranteed to last for fifty years, a guarantee that is indeed safe since magnets do not rot. That is more than what can be said about the claims of their miraculous cleaning properties.

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