News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Wednesday/Thursday 22nd & 23rd April 2015

AIB executives weather finance committee storm


David Duffy denies AIB has been profit taking from variable rate customers

David Duffy, AIB chief executive officer, speaking to Conor Lenihan before addressing the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform at the Dail.

The chief executive of AIB David Duffy and other senior executives at the bank were grilled for more than two hours by the Oireachtas Finance Committee.

Mr Duffy was pushed to explain why the bank’s Standard Variable Rates (SVR) remained 4% higher than the base rates charged by the European Central Bank (ECB) forcing over 140,000 of its customers to pay hundreds of euro more in mortgage repayments than those with the same amount of money borrowed under a tracker mortgage.

Independent TD Stephen Donnelly asked Mr Duffy to explain why its SVR was 3.5% in 2012 when the economy was in a perilous state and 4.1% now when things have improved considerably.

Mr Donnelly said ECB rates had fallen 0.7% in the interval and the level of risk had fallen as had the cost of wholesale funding. He asked if the reason SVRs remained high was to increase shareholder profits.

This suggestion was rejected by Mr Duffy who did more than hint that almost 150,000 AIB customers with Standard Variable Rate mortgages are in line for a rate cut within weeks.

Anticipating questions about its high rates, Mr Duffy started out by saying that if market conditions and the bank’s costs of funding continue to improve over the next month or two – as is widely anticipated – then it will be in a position to cut its SVR rates.

He said funding costs and the risks associated with the loans had fallen over the first part of this year and operational changes had lowered the day to day running costs of the bank. “If we see that trend continuing over the next couple of months we will make a rate cut,” he said.

Mr Duffy denied that AIB had been profit taking from its SVR customers in recent years and said historically low ECB rates painted a misleading picture of the bank’s costs as it only supplied 3% of its funding.

“There is a narrative that AIB funds itself at the ECB rate, that is simply not the case,” he said. He said AIB’s net profit margin was 1.61% which was “below the level across the euro-zone”.

On arrears and the potential for home repossessions, he said the bank always tried to keep customers in their homes “if the customers engage with us” and he said the bank had adopted “a very pragmatic approach to residual debt”.

Fine Gael’s Kieran O’Donnell asked for Mr Duffy’s view on a possible change in the bankruptcy legislation which would see the term fall from its current three years to 12 months. “I don’t see any problem from the bank’s perspective with a reduction of the term,” Mr Duffy said.

Fianna Fáil Spokesperson on Finance Michael McGrath welcomed the “strong indication” from Mr Duffy that the bank could reduce its SVR’s “within the next month or two”.

He said the SVRs being charged by banks in Ireland on around 300,000 customers were “completely unjustifiable. With falling cost of funds and rapidly rising net interest margins, the banks are extracting more and more profits from variable rate customer,” he said.

He called on AIB to ensure Mr Duffy’s comments were “quickly backed up by a significant variable rate cut from the bank.

The pressure is now likely to fall on Bank of Ireland andPermanent TSB who charge SVRs of 4.5% to their existing customers.

Scientists have now succeeded in shutting down brain swelling


Researchers prevent tissue damage in rodent brains by turning off single gene.

MRI scan showing a human brain. Researchers have successfully shut down brain swelling in a rodent brain by turning off a single gene.

Researchers have identified a biological switch that shuts down brain swelling after a head injury or stroke. The discovery has widespread medical implications and could be valuable in reducing the risk to sportspeople after injury.

Turning off a single gene successfully stopped swelling in rodent brains, according to a team from the University of British Columbia and Vancouver Coastal Health.

The discovery opens up the possibility of a drug treatment to block brain damage after a head injury, heart attack, stroke or infection.

“This discovery is significant because it gives us a specific target,” said Dr Brian MacVicar, co-director of the centre where the study was conducted.

“Now we know what we are shooting at, we just need the ammunition.”

It has long been known that head trauma can cause a salt build up in brain tissues, which in turn draws in water to cause swelling in the days after injury. If the swelling becomes severe brain tissues can become squeezed, causing them to lose blood supply and die.

Dr MacVicar and colleagues identified the single gene and its protein, SLC26A11, that acts as the channel that brings salt into the nerve cells.

The team switched off this gene, and this stopped the accumulation of fluid in and halted damage to brain tissues. They publish their findings today in the journal Cell.

Scientists now have a target that might help them develop a treatment post-head injury. It will take some years to find and test a drug that can block the action of the protein.

Sports injuries

Concussion is a worry in many sports, but this usually does not cause the severe swelling seen in stroke or accident, according to Dr Noel McCaffrey, sports medicine consultant and lecturer in the School of Health and Human Performance in DCU.

Even so, tragic sports incidents can occur, such as the death of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes, who died in November 2014 when struck in the head by a cricket ball.

Days later, cricket umpire and former Israel captain Hillel Oscar died after being hit by a ball.

These deaths were likely caused by bleeds into the brain which triggered swelling, Dr McCaffrey said.

Similar head trauma after a slip while skiing in 2009 caused the death of actress Natasha Richardson, wife of Irish actor Liam Neeson.

Cancer risk high in young Irish women drinkers


Women who drink alcohol between puberty and their first pregnancy are putting themselves at a greater risk of breast cancer, a public health expert has warned.

Triona McCarthy said young women should be discouraged from drinking alcohol because their breast tissue was more vulnerable.

Dr McCarthy, who works with the National Cancer Control programme, spoke at a conference in Dublin yesterday about the increasing toll alcohol is taking on Irish women.

The consultant in public health medicine referred to a US study that examined the breast cancer risk for more than 91,000 women who had no cancer history when the 10-year study began in 1991.

The researchers found more than 1,600 cases of breast cancer and 970 diagnoses of benign breast disease during the study period.

Drinking alcohol after the first menstrual period and before the first pregnancy was linked with a risk of both breast cancer and benign breast disease.

Dr McCarthy said the risk associated with drinking between puberty and first pregnancy was greater than drinking alcohol later on in life. She said the breast tissue of younger women was particularly vulnerable because of the proliferation and turnover of cells.

“The risk of breast cancer in younger women who drink alcohol is proportionately greater than those who don’t,” said Dr McCarthy.

She said young people should be encouraged to delay starting drinking.

“Even moving the stage at which they start drinking alcohol by a couple of years would make a big difference in the whole lifetime risk,” she said.

Dr McCarthy said at least half of the alcohol-related cancers could be avoided if people kept within the Department of Health’s alcohol consumption guidelines.

A 10-year look back at figures compiled by the National Cancer Registry found 300 alcohol-related breast cancers every year could have been avoided.

“Younger women who are drinking heavily are putting themselves at greater risk down the line because your risk of cancer depends on how much you drink over your lifetime,” said Dr McCarthy.

Another speaker, Canadian author and alcohol policy advocate Ann Dowsett Johnston, said women were starting to out-pace men in terms of risky drinking.

“We need to jump-start a public health dialogue on the meaning of low-risk drinking as soon as possible,” she said.

Ms Dowsett Johnston described herself as the “poster girl” for the modern alcoholic — well-educated, high- achieving, and high-functioning. She is now six years sober.

“I used alcohol to decompress in a high-octane life. We are now witnessing a tragic rise in this sort of behaviour,” she said.

“Alcohol has become the modern women’s steroid, enabling her to do the heavy lifting in a complex world. The truth is it works — until it doesn’t.”

Alcohol Action Ireland chief executive Suzanne Costello said the proliferation of alcohol products designed to appeal specifically to women had contributed greatly to harmful female drinking.

The plastic bag problem still hasn’t gone away in Ireland?

And It is still causing problems


New research from Trinity College has found that plastic litter is smothering marine life in Irish coastal marshes and even ‘biodegradable’ bags are having the same negative impacts as less environmentally-friendly options.

The study led by Dr Dannielle Green, an IRC-funded Research Fellow in the Biogeochemistry Research Group at Trinity College Dublin, found that in just nine weeks plastic bags smothered the surface of coastal sediment, prevented oxygen and nutrient flow, and blocked light.

This caused a substantial reduction in the amount of ‘microalgae’ beneath the bags. The tiny algae form the base of the food webs makes them important for animals higher up the food chain, including worms and bivalves, such as clams and mussels. These species, in turn, are food for commercially important fish that feed within the marsh when the tide is in.

Because some of the animals affected during this study are known to be hardy and resilient to other types of pollution, other, more sensitive groups of animals like those living in coral reefs could be more strongly affected from smothering by plastic waste.

“The same effects were there regardless of whether the plastic in question was biodegradable or not,” Dr. Green explained.

“Biodegradable plastics are produced because they are thought to be better for the environment because their persistence is shorter, but our study suggests that the rate at which they break down may not be fast enough to have any meaningful advantage over conventional bags in marine habitats.”

Though it is already well known that plastic litter is harmful to organisms, this study showed that it can affect them within a matter of weeks.

A plastic bag levy in Ireland was first introduced in March 2002 and figures from 2013 showed it had raised over €200 million. Though many other nations since 2002 have considered or are considering similar legislation, the production of plastic has increased from 1.5 million tonnes in the 1950s to around 300 million tonnes in 2013.

Of this, single-use packaging items account for almost 40% and a not-insignificant portion could end up in the marine environment as litter, transported via wastewater flows, inland waterways, wind or tides. Plastic litter currently accounts for up to 80% of all litter found in marine habitats.

According to Green, even if plastics degrade and seem to disappear, they persist as micro-plastics and could cause harm to marine organisms that ingest them.

Mosquitoes ‘lured by Body odour odour genes’


The likelihood of being bitten by mosquitoes could be down to genes that control our body odour, a preliminary study in Plos One suggests.

Researchers tested pairs of identical and non-identical twins to see how attractive they were to mosquitoes.

Identical twins were more likely to have similar levels of attractiveness – suggesting shared genetic factors were at play.

The “intriguing” results must now be assessed in larger trials, experts say.

Researchers have long tried to understand what drives mosquitoes to bite certain people more than others. Recent work shows the insects may be lured to their victims by body odour.

And anecdotal reports suggest some relatives are just as likely to be bitten as each other.

Scientists from the UK and US wanted to find out whether genes were behind this phenomenon.

To test their theory they enlisted 19 non-identical and 18 identical pairs of twins in a pilot study.

Identical and non-identical female twins took part in the study

In a series of experiments each twin placed one hand at an end of a Y-shaped wind tunnel as air was pumped through, carrying odour with it.

Swarms of mosquitoes were then released and moved towards or away from each twin’s hand.

For identical twins – who share much of their genetic material – there was an even distribution of mosquitoes in both sections.

This suggests the insects did not prefer the odour of one hand more than the other.

In contrast, results for the non identical twins – who share fewer genes – were more varied.

Researchers say their works suggests attractiveness to mosquitoes could be caused by inherited body odour genes.

Their next step is to uncover which specific genes may be involved.

Further research is now under way. ‘Bespoke control methods’

Providing an independent comment, Dr David Weetman, lecturer at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, said: “This is a novel and intriguing finding.

“It is the first time a genetic basis has been demonstrated.

“But mosquitoes are not just attracted to scent – things like carbon dioxide also play a role.

“Larger studies will help assess how relevant these findings are outside the laboratory where other factors may be important.”

Lead author Dr James Logan, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “If we understand the genetic basis for variation between individuals it could be possible to develop bespoke ways to control mosquitoes better, and develop new ways to repel them.”

Pesticides give bees the buzz & get them on a high?


Bees seem to get a pleasurable ‘high’ from nicotine-like pesticides, a study suggests.

Bees get a “buzz” from nicotine-like pesticides in much the same way as smokers are stimulated by tobacco, startling new research suggests.

In a series of experiments, bumblebees and honeybees actively preferred sugar solutions laced with the neonicotinoid chemicals.

This was despite evidence that the bees could not taste the pesticides.

Rather than enjoying the taste, they seemed to be reacting to a pleasurable “high” as the chemicals activated reward centres in their tiny brains, the scientists believe.

Just like smokers reaching for another cigarette, the bees returned to food tubes containing the “spiked” sugar again and again, choosing them over solutions free of pesticide.

The research is important because it suggests bees may be exposed to harmful doses of “neonics” as a result of being so attracted to the chemicals.

Lead scientist Professor Geraldine Wright, from the Institute of Neuroscience at the University of Newcastle, said: “Bees can’t taste neonicotinoids in their food and therefore do not avoid these pesticides. This is putting them at risk of poisoning when they eat contaminated nectar.

“Even worse, we now have evidence that bees prefer to eat pesticide-contaminated food. Neonicotinoids target the same mechanisms in the bee brain that are affected by nicotine in the human brain.

“The fact that bees show a preference for food containing neonicotinoids is concerning as it suggests that like nicotine, neonicotinoids may act like a drug to make foods containing these substances more rewarding.

“If foraging bees prefer to collect nectar containing neonicotinoids, this could have a knock-on negative impact on whole colonies and on bee populations.”

Previous research indicating that exposure to neonicotinoid residues might be decimating bee colonies led to a two-year European ban on the use of three of the pesticides on flowering crops that began in 2013.

But the move remains highly controversial, with some critics insisting it is not backed by sufficient evidence. While having to enforce the moratorium, the British Government has publicly stated it does not support it.

The new research is one of two new investigations reported in the journal Nature that sound further warnings over the use of neonicotinoids to control insect pests.

The other study, led by Dr Maj Rundlof from Lund University in Sweden, found the pesticides had harmful effects on bee populations in replicated agricultural environments, not just laboratory settings.

Oilseed rape sown from seeds coated in neonicotinoids reduced wild bee density, solitary bee nesting, and bumblebee colony growth and reproduction.

However, neonicotinoid exposure did not have a significant impact on honeybee colonies. As a result, tests on “domesticated” honeybees could not readily be extrapolated to wild bees, said the authors.

Neonicotinoid pesticides are chemically similar to nicotine for a good reason. Nicotine is a potently toxic compound used by some plants, notably tobacco, to defend themselves against herbivorous insects.

Prof Wright pointed out that although highly toxic, in very small doses nicotine – and presumably its neonicotinoid cousin – act as stimulants rather than poisons.

She said: “It’s complicated. A little bit’s medicine and a lot’s toxin. If you have a high enough dose of the stuff it will kill you. At very low doses, though, like the ones found in cigarettes, it’s got a pharmacological effect that affects the reward pathway in the human brain. I think what’s happening here is something very analogous.

“I don’t think they (the bees) can taste it at all. They’re learning the location of the food that contains it. And during the time that they’re eating it they’re getting a stronger feeling of reward.

“It must be very fast acting. As soon as it gets into their blood they’re getting a little buzz, as it were, and they’re responding to that.”

Prof Wright added: “We don’t have any evidence that it’s addictive, but it could be.”

The team recorded electrical activity from the bees’ mouth parts to show that the insects’ “taste” neurons were not reacting to neonicotinoids. This was strong evidence that the bees could not taste the pesticides.

Sandra Bell, from the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which has campaigned against neonicotinoids, said: ” The scientific evidence that neonicotinoid insecticides harm our under-threat bees keeps stacking up.

“These dangerous chemicals should have no place on our farms and gardens. Bees are essential to us – it is vital that action is taken to reduce all the threats they face.

“The next UK Government faces a key green test. It must support a complete and permanent European ban on these bee harming chemicals, and help UK farmers find safer alternatives.”

Biologist Professor David Goulson, from the University of Sussex, said: “At this point in time it is no longer credible to argue that agricultural use of neonicotinoids does not harm wild bees.”

But Professor Lin Field, head of biological chemistry and crop protection at the Rothamsted Research agricultural institute in Harpenden, maintained the two studies did not go far enough to put an end to the neonicotinoid debate.

She said: “We simply need more data before we can really say what the risks are. We also have to consider the reason why we use these compounds: can we afford not to control pest insects? Is it acceptable that yields would be reduced as a result? Are the alternative insecticides any safer to bees? These are questions that a two-year moratorium on neonics is unable to answer.”


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