Conservation, Nature, Science

A Neighborhood With Lots of Trees Is Good for Your Health

Research has shown that living in a neighborhood with trees, parks, and lots of greenness is good for your health.
Research has shown that living in a neighborhood with trees, parks, and lots of greenness is good for your health. Photo: La Citta Vita| FlickrCC.

According to a new study from the University of Miami, more green space can be linked to a reduction in chronic illness in low-to-middle income neighborhoods. The study looked at health data from 2010-2011 for 250,000 Miami-Dade county Medicare beneficiaries over 65 as well as vegetation measurements based on NASA satellite imagery. The researchers found that blocks with higher levels of greenness saw 14% less risk of diabetes, 13% less hypertension, and 10% less lipid disorders. It’s the first study of its kind.

This is really interesting news, but it’s not that big of a surprise. Trees and other plants have a lot of benefits, and neighborhoods with more green spaces are generally perceived as safer, lead to more time spent outdoors, and have greater community cohesion. It’s almost as if people like being around greenery.

The specifics of how green spaces help health are complicated, but broadly speaking, they help to reduce air pollution, stress, and humidity, while also encouraging physical activity, and reducing heat island impacts by providing shade.

These benefits were seen proportionally across all racial and ethnic groups, meaning that increasing the level of greenness in a neighborhood can help bring health levels in line across those groups. It’s no secret that lower income communities tend to be less white and less healthy. Improving the greenness of those neighborhoods is not only a health concern but a social justice concern as well.

As with any study, additional research will be required, and the benefits may not be as broad in places other than Florida. Michigan residents, for example, might not help as much during the winter, but careful planning could mitigate that. Seattle is in a temperate zone as well, but there are an enormous number of coniferous trees, which are still pleasant to walk past even in winter, and applying a similar logic to other regions could help.

Nature, Science

Test-Tube Puppies May Help Save Endangered Canines

In vitro fertilization was used for the first time to produce these beagle and beagle-cocker spaniel mix puppies.
In vitro fertilization was used for the first time to produce these beagle and beagle-cocker spaniel mix puppies. Photo: Jeffery MacMillan | Simthsonian/Cornell.

Partnered with Cornell University, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute researchers have successfully bred the world’s first test tube puppies. They finally cracked the 30-year mystery of how to get in vitro fertilization (IVF) to work for canines. That’s a huge step forward for the conservation of endangered species like the Ethiopian Wolf, Darwin’s fox, or the Mexican grey wolf.

Lots of wild canines are endangered, but getting them to breed in captivity to shore up the numbers can be hard to do. It’s even worse if a wolf is incapable of carrying a litter to term or if she dies before being able to do so, thus reducing her genes from the pool. As these canine populations shrink, they lose genetic diversity, which makes them more susceptible to disease and genetic disorders.

Figuring out how to use IVF for canines was also difficult, because they have a much more complicated reproductive system than humans, or a lot of other mammals for that matter. This made the process a lot harder than it was expected to be, and a lot of it came down to figuring out the right timing for when to harvest eggs or to introduce them to sperm or to implant them in surrogate mothers.

The test tube puppies in question are five beagles and two beagle-cocker spaniel mixes that have all been adopted by scientists from the team. The puppies are happy and healthy, and they represent an important step in the process. More testing will be required, and a lot of different variables will likely be involved for applying the IVF process to other canines, but things are looking up for wild canine populations. And, with a deeper understanding of canine reproduction and how IVF works in those populations, we have a good starting point for investigating IVF as a viable procedure to shore up the numbers of other endangered species as well.

Conservation, Eco-friendly, Green, Uncategorized

All The Dirt You Need To Know About The International Year Of Soils

USDA Soil Science Deputy Dave Smith listens to Under Secretary Robert Bonnie speaks at the International Year of Soils 1st World Soil Day celebration held at the United Nations.
USDA Soil Science Deputy Dave Smith listens to Under Secretary Robert Bonnie speaks at the International Year of Soils 1st World Soil Day celebration held at the United Nations. Photo: USDA | FlickrCC.

In case you missed it, the United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. That ended on December 5th, but the importance of soil and soil conservation didn’t.

Soil isn’t something that a lot of people give much thought, but soil health is important to human health, and understanding the best ways to conserve it is a necessary part of modern science.

Obviously, plants grow in soil, like the crops we eat or feed to livestock, or the trees that help produce oxygen and store carbon dioxide. As it turns out, soil also helps store carbon, and of course properly maintained soil is more resistant to being washed away or otherwise eroded as climate change impacts the world.

There are a lot of concerns scientists have about the state of the world’s soil, things like desertification, biodiversity loss, erosion, contamination, and a host of other issues, which can impact the world in a variety of ways. Luckily, there are researchers around the world who are investigating these issues, such as RECARE, a European Union funded project that is continuing its work well past the International Year of Soils.

RECARE, headed in part by Professor Coen Ritsema of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and including a team of Norwegian scientists, is working on projects around Europe to develop soil solutions and figure out how to put them into practice. They are currently running 17 case studies in which they are working with locals to develop simple yet scientifically informed practices to address soil issues.

The goal is to find efficient, simple, and relatively cheap ways to address problems that farmers and other people face around the world. Things like mulching or terracing to prevent erosion, or using plants, which can pull contaminants out of the soil around them.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards

Farm Work May Be Hazardous to Your Health

Sugar cane workers spraying a field in El Salvador
Global warming may be causing the deaths of sugar cane workers in Central America. Photo: Christopher Porter | FlickrCC.

Since 2002, a disease called Mesoamerican Nephropathy has killed about 20,000 people, mainly men working in sugar cane fields in Nicaragua and El Salvador. The disease attacks the kidneys and eventually results in their failure. So far, there are a number of hypotheses for its cause, including exposure to heavy metals, pesticides, or other chemicals, but so far we don’t know what causes it.

One doctor, Richard J. Johnson, of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus thinks the cause lies in global warming. His hypothesis is that the disease is caused by chronic and recurrent dehydration. His research team found that sugar cane laborers were consistently working in conditions that would violate heat standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) here in the United States. Despite workers drinking up to 2 liters of water an hour many suffered from dehydration due to the excessive heat out in the sugar cane fields.

Global warming becomes a possible cause of the sugar cane worker’s deaths because the temperatures in these regions have been steadily rising for the last century, by about 0.5 degrees Celsius each year since 1980 alone. That results in higher average temperatures, as well as higher temperature extremes which, coupled with the labor intensive work these men do, results in repeated dehydration.

If Dr. Johnson is right, this would be the first disease directly related to global warming and the first epidemic caused by it. Even if he’s wrong, being dehydrated that frequently is unhealthy. One of the major and serious side effects of dehydration is the overproduction of uric acid in the blood stream.

While we need to do more research on Mesoamerican Nephropathy, and more research into the effects of elevated uric acid levels on the kidneys, Dr. Johnson suggests that those workers need new work patterns. He suggests more frequent hydration with water or electrolyte-containing water, which has been reported to reduce uric acid. Better labor laws would help as well, to prevent workers from becoming dehydrated in the first place.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards, Health, Science

Climate Change is Bad for Our Health

Smoke stacks against a sunset
Unsurpisingly, climate change has been found to be bad for human health.
Image: Shutterstock

According to the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, an interdisciplinary group formed by UK-based medical journal The Lancet, climate change has a huge impact on human health. The commission was formed to investigate exactly that fact, and they have recently released a study, the most comprehensive ever done, on the impact climate change has on human health.

In short, the impact is quite negative. The commission argues that climate change is undoing the last half a century of amazing medical advances, for a number of reasons. Most obvious would be carbon emissions, which pump far more CO2 into the atmosphere than the Earth can currently handle. This can lead to all kinds of health problems, not to mention environmental issues. In fact, they suggest that fossil fuels, especially coal, are the worst health factor in the world, but that we could do a lot of good by cutting those things out immediately, or at least as soon as possible.

Another, more subtle threat, is human migration. Migration has always been a part of the human experience, but it brings with it certain problems, especially when large groups of people move quickly to a new place. Diseases spread faster, and resources become scarcer, impacting everyone. As humans render regions unlivable, people will have no choice but to more somewhere else.

Although the various experts who form the commission have a lot of bad news, there is a silver lining. They hope that, by framing climate change as a human health issue, people will be more likely to respond and actually do something about it. Doctors managed to put big tobacco in its place, for example, so maybe they can do the same to big oil and big coal. As they pointed out, a doctor with a sick patient would do something about that patient, not just talk about it once a year, which is pretty much all we’re doing about climate change so far.

Environmental Hazards, Health

Treatment Is Making Antibiotics in Wastewater Stronger

Wastewater plant
A new study looks at how antibiotics in wastewater affect our health.
Image: Shutterstock

Antibiotics in wastewater is a problem, one that scientists have known about for years. But according to a recent study by Olya Keen, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UNC Charlotte, attempts to break down organic matter in wastewater is actually making those antibiotics stronger.

Chlorine is often added to wastewater in order to remove potentially dangerous organic matter within it. The chlorine is filtered out before that water is allowed to pass through to later stages. Unfortunately, chlorine isn’t able to destroy antibiotics, which pass through without a problem and can end up in streams and other water sources. Once there, these antibiotics interact with bacteria in those water sources, which can eventually develop immunity to those antibiotics.

Keen and her students isolated doxycycline, which is one of the more commonly used classes of antibiotic, for the study. They found that not only does chlorine not kill the antibiotic, it actually makes it stronger by changing its chemical makeup and creating new antibiotics.

As more antibiotics get out into the wild, bacteria will have the time and the room to adapt to them and become immune, resulting in bacteria that humans and other animals cannot fight off. This doesn’t normally happen with patients taking antibiotics, as the bacteria don’t have time to create enough generations to adapt and end up dying off.

The antibiotics in wastewater get there in a variety of ways. Any not broken down in the human body can end up being released through bodily waste, but many individuals and even hospitals dump old or expired antibiotics down the toilet, which is part of the problem. Runoff from factories and labs producing antibiotics contributes to the problem as well.

Keen’s research will give us more insight into the problem, and she hopes that it will lead to better solutions for removing antibiotics from wastewater or preventing them from entering it in the first place.


Does Healthy Equal Wealthy?

fast food
Fast food is often the most inexpensive food option.
Image: Shutterstock

Look out the window from where you live.  What do you see?  Do you see tree-lined streets with wide sidewalks and kids out riding their bikes?  Or do you see guys loitering on the sidewalk, next to a tobacco shop with a neon sign, smoking away?  Do you live near a grocery store?  Or, are you surrounded by Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King and liquor stores?

Your zip code may play a role in how healthy you are.  Health has been proven to be tied to economic means and that’s often tied, unfortunately, to race.  Sometimes kids ask the question, “How can poor people be fat?”  Grownups might tell them not to ask such a rude question, but maybe we should actually try to answer.

Look at people in other countries and you will see that the poor people are skinny.  They are not surrounded by what we have in the United States; they don’t have cheap fast food available in even the poorest community.  It’s a sad fact, but junk food is often the most inexpensive food option.  It’s not nutritional, but you can buy fries or a burger for $1.  Just $1.  Even a person begging on the street can afford that.

It’s sad, but true, that those who are most economically disadvantaged are being hit by the food industry’s lure of fat, sugar and salt – all at a nominal cost.  Students in poorer schools lug around huge bags of spicy Cheetos at lunch time.  They guzzle colas like water.  It’s no wonder this population is having an explosion of heart disease and early-onset diabetes.

Currently, one-third of all adults in the United States are obese.  That number is highest for non-Hispanic African Americans.  For that group, the number skyrockets to almost 50 percent!  This is unacceptable.

Clint Smith, teacher and poet in Washington DC, believes that living in a food desert is like being shackled and chained.  He says, “A food desert is “categorized as a poor, urban area where residents cannot afford or are not given access to healthy foods and grocery stores.”

Here are a few more facts: Women with college degrees are less likely to be obese than those from higher income families.  White women are less likely to be obese than women of any other race besides Asians, who have the lowest rate of obesity.

So, does your zip code matter?  Absolutely.  Even the state you live in matters.  States with the fewest obese citizens are Colorado, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.  Those with the highest number are in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

So, what can you do to overcome your circumstances if you happen to live in a food desert?  Make the drive to an actual grocery store and stock up on fruits, vegetables and lean meats and dairy.  It’s worth it to take the extra time to cook something your body can be happy about.  Don’t forget to exercise for at least 30 minutes 4-5 times per week.