The Global Fool

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As coal mining declines, community mental health problems linger
Aug02

As coal mining declines, community mental health problems linger

Roberta Attanasio, Georgia State University The U.S. coal industry is in rapid decline, a shift marked not only by the bankruptcy of many mine operators in coal-rich Appalachia but also by a legacy of potential environmental and social disasters. As mines close, states, the federal government and taxpayers are left wondering about the costs of cleaning up the abandoned land, especially at mountaintop removal sites, the most destructive type of mining. As coal companies go bankrupt, this has left states concerned taxpayers may have to pick up the environmental cleanup costs. But there are also societal costs related to mountaintop removal mining’s impact on health and mental health. As an immunologist, I reviewed the research literature for specific effects of mountaintop removal mining on the immune system. I did not identify any pertinent information. However, I did find plenty of clues suggesting that health and mental health issues will pose enormous challenges to the affected coal communities, and will linger for decades. Environmental contaminants The communities that reside in proximity to the devastated lands where mountaintop removal mining occurs – some of the poorest in the nation – are concentrated in a 65-county area in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee. They are also hit by the economic downturn caused by the decline of the local coal industry. Healthwise, Appalachian populations suffer disproportionately higher morbidity and mortality compared with the nation as a whole. A study that examined the elevated mortality rates in Appalachian coal mining areas for 1979-2005 linked coal mining to “socioeconomic disadvantages” and concluded that the human cost of the Appalachian coal mining economy outweighed its economic benefits. Results from research published in 2011 show that mountaintop mining areas, in particular, are associated with the lowest health-related quality of life even in comparison to counties with other forms of coal mining. So, what makes mountaintop removal mining such a scourge for human health? To remove the top of the mountains, coal companies use destructive processes. In order to extract the underlying coal seams, a peak’s forest and brush are clear-cut and the topsoil is scraped away. The resulting debris is often set on fire. Then, explosives are poured into huge holes to literally blast off up to 800 to 1,000 feet of mountaintops. Draglines – huge machines able to scoop up to 100 tons in a single load – push rock and dirt into nearby streams and valleys, damaging waterways and life associated with them. The result is not only a devastated landscape and the crushing of entire ecosystems, but also the dispersion in the environment of toxic pollutants. To learn more...

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Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water?
Apr25

Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water?

By Roberta Attanasio The problem of contaminated tap water in the U.S. goes well beyond Flint—and also beyond lead. There are many more toxic chemicals in our drinking water that we like to believe. Communities in New York, New Hampshire and Vermont recently found elevated levels of PFOA, a suspected carcinogen, in their water supplies. PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, is a synthetic perfluoroalkyl chemical used to manufacture nonstick pan coatings and water-resistant clothing. And, even more recent is the finding that water discharged from Burlington’s wastewater treatment plant into Lake Champlain—the source of drinking water for tens of thousands of people in the Burlington area—contains concentrations of pharmaceuticals high enough to reflect demographic shifts in the city. The presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water from different U.S. areas has been know for more than a few years. A report publicly released in 2011 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed that drinking water in some metropolitan areas contains pharmaceuticals, and raised concerns about their potential impact on human health. According to the World Health Organization “Pharmaceuticals are synthetic or natural chemicals that can be found in prescription medicines, over-the-counter therapeutic drugs and veterinary drugs. Pharmaceuticals contain active ingredients that have been designed to have pharmacological effects and confer significant benefits to society. Pharmaceuticals can be introduced into water sources through sewage, which carries the excreta of individuals and patients who have used these chemicals, from uncontrolled drug disposal (e.g. discarding drugs into toilets) and from agricultural runoff comprising livestock manure. They have become chemicals of emerging concern to the public because of their potential to reach drinking-water.” Emma Rosi-Marshall, a scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and lead author of a study published in 2013 on the effects of pharmaceutical pollution on aquatic life and water quality, said in a press release: “Pharmaceutical pollution is now detected in waters throughout the world. Causes include aging infrastructure, sewage overflows, and agricultural runoff. Even when waste water makes it to sewage treatment facilities, they aren’t equipped to remove pharmaceuticals. As a result, our streams and rivers are exposed to a cocktail of synthetic compounds, from stimulants and antibiotics to analgesics and antihistamines.” Results from a study published this year in the journal Science of the Total Environment show that water samples from private wells on Cape Cod are contaminated not only by perfluoroalkyl chemicals and flame retardants, but also by a dozen different pharmaceuticals. The researchers found that sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic used to treat urinary tract infections, and carbamazepine, a drug used to treat seizures, nerve pain, and bipolar disorder, were among the most common pharmaceuticals detected. The researchers also found that...

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Climate Change, Parasite Infections, and Immune Responses
Mar06

Climate Change, Parasite Infections, and Immune Responses

By Roberta Attanasio Global climate change noticeably impacts human health—safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter are threatened by rising sea levels and severe weather events. Heat waves dramatically increase death rates not only from heat strokes, but also from complications arising from cardiovascular, respiratory, and cerebrovascular diseases. Although global warming may bring some localized benefits, such as fewer winter deaths in temperate climates and increased food production in certain areas, the overall health effects of a changing climate are likely to be overwhelmingly negative. For example, climate warming is predicted to increase the transmission of parasite infections. Now, results from a recent study show that host immunity can influence the impact of warming on host–parasite interactions and mitigate its long-term effects. For the study (Host immunity shapes the impact of climate changes on the dynamics of parasite infections), researchers focused on soil-transmitted gastrointestinal helminths, also known as parasitic worms. In humans, these worms cause some of the most common parasitic infections worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 2 billion people are infected with soil-transmitted helminths globally, mostly in the poorest and most deprived communities. They are transmitted by eggs present in human feces, which in turn contaminate soil in areas where sanitation is poor. However, the researchers focused on two parasitic worms of rabbits, Trichostrongylus retortaeformis and Graphidum strigosum. In previous studies, the researchers found that, in rabbits, infections from one of the parasites are controlled by the immune response, whereas infections from the other parasite species are not controlled, even though the rabbits do mount an immune response to the parasite. Therefore, the researchers designed the new study to understand the contribution of climate change and immunity on the long-term and seasonal dynamics of infections caused by the two rabbit parasitic worms. They examined samples collected monthly between 1977 and 2002 in Scotland. The study results show that climate warming—rising temperature and humidity—increases the availability in pastures of the infective stages of both intestinal worms. The intensity of infection increases for the worm not regulated by immunity. In contrast, there is no significant long-term positive trend in the intensity for the immune-controlled worm. Specifically, G. strigosum infection is not controlled by the rabbit immune response. Therefore, the intensity of the parasite infection increases with warming, leading to significant accumulation of G. strigosum in rabbits, mostly in adult rabbits. Why? The rabbits aren’t able to clear the infection caused by G. strigosum with their immune response; therefore, the rabbits accumulate more and more parasites as they age—the result is that older individuals carry most of the infection in the population. However, because T. retortaeformis infection is...

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Nature, Health, and Things in Between
Nov07

Nature, Health, and Things in Between

By Roberta Attanasio A decade ago, Richard Louv — author of the bestsellers Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle — coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the increasing disconnection between children and the natural world. Such disconnection negatively affects health and spiritual well-being. The concept, which was later extended to adults, provides the basis for a working framework to reshape our lives. Louv argues that by tapping into the restorative powers of nature, we can boost mental acuity and creativity; promote health and wellness; build smarter and more sustainable businesses, communities, and economies; and ultimately strengthen human bonds. Although results from several studies point out the deleterious health effects of our disconnection with nature, the current focus “is not so much on what is lost when nature experience fades, but on what is gained through more exposure to natural settings, including nearby nature in urban places.” Indeed, research shows that spending time in nature protects against depression, diabetes, obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and many more disorders. But, what are the pathways that lead from “exposure to greenness” to improved health? To answer this question, Ming Kuo, Director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), reviewed hundreds of studies examining nature’s effects on health, and published her findings in the scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology. Kuo’s findings indicate that nature enhances the functions of the immune system, thus leading to improved health. “Finding that the immune system is a primary pathway provides an answer to the question of ‘how’ nature and the body work in concert to fight disease,” she said in a press release. “I pulled every bit of the research in this area together that I could find, and was surprised to realize I could trace as many as 21 possible pathways between nature and good health — and even more surprised to realize that all but two of the pathways shared a single common denominator,” Kuo said. She added it was remarkable to see how important a role the immune system plays in every one of the diseases that nature protects against. One way to understand this relationship between nature, health, and the immune system, Kuo explained in the press release, is that exposure to nature switches the body into “rest and digest” mode, which is the opposite of the “fight or flight” mode. When the body is in “fight or flight” mode, it shuts down everything that is immediately nonessential, including the immune system. “When we feel completely safe, our body devotes resources to long-term investments that lead to good health outcomes — growing, reproducing, and...

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Global Threats: Climate Change is a Medical Emergency
Jun23

Global Threats: Climate Change is a Medical Emergency

By Roberta Attanasio For many years, we’ve been aware of the impacts of global climate change on human health and well-being. For example, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter are threatened by rising sea levels and severe weather events. Heat waves dramatically increase death rates not only from heat strokes, but also from complications arising from cardiovascular, respiratory, and cerebrovascular diseases. However, the impacts of global climate change on human health are even greater than previously thought — according to a report published today (June 23, 2015) in The Lancet, the threat from climate change is so great that it could undermine the last fifty years of gains in development and global health. The report (Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health) which frames climate change as a health issue, is by a multidisciplinary and international Commission — the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change — formed to map out the impacts of climate change, and the necessary policy responses, in order to ensure the highest attainable standards of health for populations worldwide. More precisely, the Commission includes European and Chinese climate scientists and geographers, social and environmental scientists, biodiversity experts, engineers and energy policy experts, economists, political scientists and public policy experts, and health professionals. By making the case for climate change as a health issue, the Commission hopes for greater public resonance. Public concern about the health effects of climate change has the potential to accelerate political action. The report shows that the direct health impacts of climate change come from the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, especially heat waves, floods, droughts and storms, whereas the indirect impacts come from changes in infectious disease patterns, air pollution, food insecurity and malnutrition, involuntary migration, displacement and conflicts. Because appropriate responses to mitigate and adapt to climate change have direct and indirect health benefits — from reducing air pollution to improving diet — concerted global efforts to tackle climate change represent one of the greatest opportunities to improve global health this century. Commission co-Chair Professor Peng Gong, from Tsinghua University, Beijing, China, said in a press release: “The health community has responded too many grave threats to health in the past. It took on entrenched interests such as the tobacco industry, and led the fight against HIV/AIDS. Now is the time for us to lead the way in responding to another great threat to human and environmental health of our generation.” The commission points out that a strong international consensus is essential to move the world to a global low-carbon economy, harnessing a crucial opportunity to protect human health —...

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