Study: Self-affirmation targets the brain in way that makes us receptive to health messaging

Pump Handle - February 06, 2015

It’s a persistent conundrum in the field of public health — how can we open people’s minds to positively receiving and acting on health information? Previous research has found that combining health tips with messages of self-affirmation may be a particularly effective strategy, but researchers weren’t entirely sure how self-affirmation worked at the neurological level. Now, a new study has found that self-affirmation’s effects on a particular region of the brain may be a major key to behavior change.

In even simpler terms, researchers involved this new study — which examined how self-affirmation alters the brain’s response to health messaging — found that precisely activating a certain region of the brain could be a central pathway toward positive behavior changes. The findings could point to a relatively low-cost way to yield behavioral changes that could impact some of the nation’s costliest conditions and risk factors, from obesity to tobacco use. Plus, the findings illustrate one way to deliver health messages in a fashion that allows those most at risk to see value in what might otherwise be viewed as judgmental and threatening.

“It seems like we can change neural activity using this simple intervention and it does relate to behavior change down the road,” said study lead author Emily Falk, an assistance professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication. “Self-affirmation is a cheap, scalable intervention…and it turns out to have huge effects for a relatively low investment.”

To conduct the study, which was published in February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Falk and her fellow researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study a region of the brain involved in processing self-relevance known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC). To begin, sedentary study participants were first given a list of values — such as family and friends, religion or politics — and asked to rank them in order of meaningfulness. The study sample was then broken into two groups — both groups received the same behavioral health information, but only one group was first primed with a self-affirmation message based on their values ranking. The control group received similar self-affirmation messages, but they were based on values unimportant to them.

Study participants were also fitted with a device that measured their activity levels for a week prior to the study and for a month after the initial intervention. In addition, participants continued to receive text message reminders for a month following the initial intervention. The text reminders would include one self-affirmation message and one health tip. For example, Falk told me a self-affirmation text might prompt the person to think about a time in the future when friends and family might need advice; while the health tip would explain that inactivity puts a person’s health at risk or that the best parking spots are those furthest away from the store. Falk and study co-authors Matthew Brook O’Donnell, Christopher Cascio, Francis Tinney, Yoona Kang, Matthew Lieberman, Shelley Taylor, Lawrence An, Kenneth Resnicow and Victor Strecher write:

VMPFC has been consistently associated with behavior change in response to health messages in prior work. This prior research has suggested that the link between VMPFC activity during health message exposure and behavior change may stem from a recipient’s ability to process a health message as self-relevant or as having value to oneself. Thus, we hypothesized that if affirmation allows people to see otherwise-threatening information as more self-relevant and valuable, delivering self-affirmation before health messages should increase neural activity in VMPFC during message exposure.

And that’s exactly what researchers found. According to the study, people who received relevant self-affirmation messages before getting the health advice showed higher levels of activity in the VMPFC region of the brain at the time of receiving the health messages. However, study participants who were prompted to think about values not ranked as important to them, showed lower levels of activity in that particular part of the brain. And not only did the relevant self-affirmation messages light up the region of the brain associated with positive valuation, it also resulted in actual behavior change. Those who received relevant self-affirmation showed a steeper decline in sedentary behavior in the month following the initial intervention, while those who didn’t receive relevant self-affirmation maintained their baseline levels of sedentary behavior.

Falk told me that previous research has found that brain activity in the VMPFC region tends to be a complimentary predictor of behavior change — in other words, brain activity seems to provide additional information that goes above and beyond what researchers gain from simply asking people questions. However, researchers were somewhat stumped as to why that was the case. At the same time, self-affirmation was emerging as an effective health messaging strategy, but researchers didn’t really know how self-affirmation worked at the neurological level. Falk said this study helps bring all those pieces together.

“We wanted to find a way to precisely engage that region of the brain and self-affirmation is a good tool to do that,” she told me. “The next step in the research is figuring out how to do this at scale, and I do think that’s a possibility.”

To request a full copy of the study, visit the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

Categories: Health

Businessman’s problem: Workers can’t keep up with the machines

Pump Handle - February 06, 2015

The story was about US immigration policy, but my-oh-my what it said about working conditions in poultry processing plants.

NPR’s Jim Zarroli reported from Georgia on the impact on businesses of the state’s 2011 law targeting undocumented immigrants. The president of Fieldale Farms, a poultry processing company, indicated he used to rely heavily on workers from Latin America and admitted that the documents of some may have been forged. But under the new law, undocumented workers are avoiding jobs in Georgia, and this is causing a problem for Fieldale Farms and other employers in the state. Fieldale Farms’ president Tom Hensley told Zarroli:

“We’ve had to hire middle-aged Americans who have not been used to working in an industrial facility and they have difficulty keeping up with the machines.”

Hmmm….difficulty keep up with the machines. Workers just can’t keep up.  I wonder….could it be that the machines are running too  fast?

If your average middle-aged Georgian can’t keep up with the poultry processing lines, does it seem right for a company to be expecting immigrant laborers to work at that pace?

When I hear about jobs that expect, by design, for people to contort themselves and work beyond their physical capacity, I know it’s a recipe for injuries. I can’t help but wonder if that’s what is going on when the poultry company president said this to Zarroli:

 “We hire 100 people a week. Because we have 100 people who quit every week, out of 5,000 employees. We’re constantly short.”

How many of those 100 people who quit do so because the work has taken a toll on their hands, wrists or other body parts? Doesn’t being ‘constantly short’ just compound the work pace problem? If those middle-aged Americans can’t keep up, how much worse is it when they have to do the job of two people? It’s a vicious cycle that can only be fixed by companies fitting the task to the worker, not the other way around.

What I wouldn’t do to track down those 100 former Fieldale Farms’ employees who quit last week. It would be enlightening to learn why they quit. And it’s too bad our official data on work-related injuries isn’t more than just a survey of employers. What if there was a complementary annual survey of workers? One question to ask would be: Did you quit a job last year because you were hurt or ill from your work?

Categories: Health

Maine’s Iconic Lobsters Face Threats From Ocean Acidification, Report Says

Yale Environment 360 - February 06, 2015
Maine’s lobster fishery, worth $1.7 billion to the state and a vital source of employment, could be

A Maine lobster threatened by acidifying ocean waters and rising sea temperatures, according to a new report. The report, issued by a state commission, called increasingly acidic ocean waters — caused by the absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere — an “urgent matter” that needs to be addressed by state and local governments and the fishing infustry. Facing the prospect that increasing acidity could interfere with the ability of lobsters to make their shells, the commission set forth a handful of goals, including a stepped-up research effort on the acidification of the coast’s waters and its impact on crustaceans. Maine lawmakers have already introduced legislation for limits on industrial and agricultural runoff, which contribute to coastal water acidification.
Categories: Environment, Health

Ultra-Efficient Solar Cells Can Be Adapted for Rooftops, Researchers Say

Yale Environment 360 - February 05, 2015
Extremely efficient solar cells similar to those used in space may soon be ready for installation on residential rooftops, according to a report in Nature Communications. Concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) systems, which use lenses and curved mirrors to focus sunlight onto small solar cells, produce energy much more efficiently than conventional solar panels — 40-percent efficiency compared to less than 20 percent for standard silicon systems. But they are typically the size of billboards and have to be positioned very accurately to track the sun throughout the day. Now researchers have overcome these obstacles by developing a CPV system that uses miniaturized gallium-arsenide photovoltaic cells, 3D-printed plastic lens arrays, and a moveable focusing mechanism. The new system is small and light enough to fit on a residential rooftop and should be inexpensive to produce, researchers say.
Categories: Environment, Health

Injuries and deaths on minds of striking Steelworkers

Pump Handle - February 05, 2015

Workplace safety is one of the core issues of concern for the thousands of refinery workers who went on strike February 1 at plants in Texas, California, Washington, and Kentucky. The workers are members of the United Steelworkers (USW), and say their employers— LyondellBasell, Marathon Oil, and Royal Dutch Shell—put lives at risk with excessive work hours, delayed maintenance, and production pressure. Their previous contract was negotiated and approved in 2012.

“Union members believe it is time to take a stand,” USW spokesperson Lynn Hancock told the Houston Chronicle. “If we don’t, our people will continue to get injured and killed on the job.”  The last time there was a walk-out of this magnitude by the USW was 1980.

Reporter Andrew Schneider with Houston Public Media spoke to picketing workers outside of LyondellBasell’s corporate offices.

“The union says the company is requiring excessive overtime which can reduce workers’ sleep time, and contracting out skilled jobs to unskilled workers less familiar with safety rules.”

Mr. Lee Medley, a pipefitter and president of USW local 13-1 told Schneider:

“’I was born in Texas City, I’ve worked in refineries for 35 years, my kids were raised here, so it’s us in the community, we live here. So if they’re hurting safety, they are putting my family and my friends at risk.’”

One of those risks—and it’s a big one–is the use of hydrofluoric acid (HF). It’s used at oil refineries in an alkylation process to increase octane levels in gasoline. Exposure to HF is dangerous and can be deadly. HF is extremely corrosive and can cause deep burns, including of internal organs. One safety data sheet explains:

“Even weak solutions of hydrofluoric acid will rapidly penetrate the skin, destroying the soft tissue and bone underneath.“

A release of HF will form a thick cloud that remains close to the ground. It can slowly travel miles from a site, poisoning and injuring those in its wake. In a 2013 report by the USW on HF, the union noted that 50 US refineries store and use large quantities of HF. (The USW represents workers at 28 of the 50 plants.) Surveys from those sites revealed a total of 131 HF-related incidents and close calls over the previous three years. More than half of the sites reported that neither on-site emergency responders, off-site emergency responders, on-site nursing and medical personnel, nor first receivers (e.g., hospital workers) were less than very prepared for an on-site emergency. Preparedness scores for the surrounding communities were even lower.

Gabriel Alvarado was 34 years old when an HF release changed his life. He was severely burned and ultimately lost a limb following the 42,000 pound HF release and fire in 2009 at CITGO’s Corpus Christi, TX refinery. The Chemical Safety Board estimated that 4,000 pounds of the HF likely migrated from the facility into the atmosphere. You’d think that CITGO learned a lesson, but in March 2012, another major HF release occurred again at the Corpus Christi facility. I think this is what USW’s Health, Safety and Environment Director Mike Wright meant when he said the following in the video Still Out of Control:

“I’ve never seen an industry where management is so casual about risk as the oil industry.”

Over the last 24 hours, press reports about the strike have used the terms “stalemate,” “progress,” and a “delicate situation.” I guess it depends who you ask. As for the workers’ safety concerns, Gary Beevers, USW International Vice President in charge of National Oil Bargaining, says:

“Onerous overtime, unsafe staffing levels, dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities without the industry doing much about it and the flagrant contracting out that impacts health and safety on the job.”

How will it end? Beevers says:

“We’re going to stop killing people, or we’ll withhold our work.”


Categories: Health

Agricultural Movement Tackles Challenges of a Warming World

Yale Environment 360 - February 05, 2015
With temperatures rising and extreme weather becoming more frequent, the “climate-smart agriculture” campaign is using a host of measures — from new planting practices to improved water management — to keep farmers ahead of the disruptive impacts of climate change. BY LISA PALMER
Categories: Environment, Health

Worth reading: Measles, heroin, and unsafe chicken

Pump Handle - February 04, 2015

A few of the recent pieces I’ve liked:

Tara C. Smith at Slate: Measles is Horrible

Jason Cherkis in the Huffington Post: Dying to Be Free (“There’s A Treatment For Heroin Addiction That Actually Works. Why Aren’t We Using It?”)

Sara Ainsworth at RH Reality Check: Lawyers for Fetuses? Yes, It’s Absurd, But It’s Worse Than You Realize

Wil S. Hylton in the New Yorker: A Bug in the System: Why last night’s chicken made you sick

Sarah Goodyear at Citylab: More Women Ride Mass Transit Than Men. Shouldn’t Transit Agencies Be Catering to Them?

Categories: Health

Plant-Like Sea Slug Can Steal Genes From its Food, Researchers Report

Yale Environment 360 - February 04, 2015
The emerald green, leaf-shaped sea slug known as Elysia chlorotica can live for months at a time by


Sea slug Elysia chlorotica photosynthesizing its own food, like a plant does, but until recently scientists did not understand how the slug acquired and maintained this rare ability. A recent report in the journal The Biological Bulletin shows that the slug steals genes and chloroplasts — the cellular machinery that converts sunlight into food — from algae that the slug eats. Genes lifted from the algae can maintain cholorplasts in the slug for up to nine months, the researchers say — much longer than the chloroplasts would last in the algae themselves. Moreover, the slug can pass on those stolen genes to its offspring. The process is a mechanism of rapid evolution, says one of the study's authors.
Categories: Environment, Health

Researchers map a policy route toward huge reductions in U.S. childhood poverty

Pump Handle - February 03, 2015

If national lawmakers took action on less than a dozen policy fronts, they could reduce child poverty in the U.S. by a whopping 60 percent. In sheer numbers, such a reduction would lift 6.6 million children out of poverty and significantly improve their opportunities for living long and fruitful lives. For the public health field, in particular, targeting poverty — a root determinant of lifelong disease and disability — could put an entire generation on a trajectory toward better health and well-being.

Those numbers are from the Children’s Defense Fund, which late last month released “Ending Child Poverty Now,” a report that provides a policy blueprint for cutting child poverty by more than half by building on policies and programs already in place. In fact, the report found that the nation could achieve this mark by investing just an additional 2 percent of the federal budget into existing efforts that increase employment, boost wages for low-income families and ensure that children’s basic needs, such as nutrition, are met. Currently, the U.S. has the second-highest child poverty rate among 35 industrialized nations — our children face a one in five chance of living in poverty. (The latest data show that 22 percent of U.S. children live in households with incomes below the federal poverty level — that’s less than $24,000 a year for a family of four.) The report reads:

Growing up poor has lifelong negative consequences, decreasing the likelihood of graduating from high school and increasing the likelihood of becoming a poor adult, suffering from poor health, and becoming involved in the criminal justice system. These impacts cost the nation at least half a trillion dollars a year in lost productivity and increased health and crime costs. Letting a fifth of our children grow up poor prevents them from having equal opportunities to succeed in life and robs the nation of their future contributions.

To analyze the potential impact, researchers from the Urban Institute examined nine policy changes: increasing the earned income tax credit for low-income families; increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10; creating subsidized job opportunities for unemployed and underemployed people in families with children; and expanding child care subsidies. The report also examined enhancing the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit; increasing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (the program formerly known as food stamps); making the child tax credit fully refundable; expanding access to housing vouchers; and disregarding child support payments when calculating eligibility for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) as well as passing full child support payments on to custodial parents (for TANF families, child support payments go through the TANF program and large portions are often kept by the state to offset the cost of assistance, though states can waive that option.)

Using the Supplemental Poverty Measure — a new measure the Census recently began using to better illustrate the complexities of poverty — researchers calculated a variety of far-reaching benefits. In addition to lifting 6.6 million children out of poverty, the proposed policy changes would reduce poverty among children younger than 3 by 64 percent as well as improve the economic conditions of an additional 4 million poor children, though those children would still be living below the poverty line. The changes would also reduce poverty among black children, who experience the highest poverty rates, by 72 percent, and single-parent families would experience a decline in poverty rates of 64 percent.

Getting down to the individual policy level, researchers found that expanding access to housing vouchers for low-income families with children had the greatest impact — a child poverty reduction of 21 percent. Increasing SNAP benefits was the second-most effective individual policy, reducing child poverty by 16.2 percent. Expanding the earned income tax credit would reduce child poverty by 8.8 percent, and expanding access to child care subsidies would reduce the rate by 3.1 percent. Assuming that a hike in the federal minimum wage would also affect workers making slightly below the current floor of $7.25 and slight higher than the new wage of $10.10, researchers calculated that raising the minimum wage would reduce child poverty by 4 percent. However, the change that affected income most was a transitional jobs program, in which an estimated 2.5 million parents would be expected to participate and which reduce child poverty by 10.7 percent.

Of course, reducing childhood poverty doesn’t happen without a significant investment. The Urban Institute researchers estimate that the policy changes would increase government expenditures by $77.2 billion. But to put that spending package in context, consider it equals just 0.5 percent of the size of the 2010 U.S. gross national product. Plus, the report found that the policy package would narrow the poverty gap by more than $28 billion, which translates into a 36.5-cent poverty reduction for every one dollar of new government funding.

“The Urban Institute’s analysis for (the Children’s Defense Fund) is clear: by investing more in existing programs the U.S. could substantially decrease child poverty immediately,” the report reads. “Shrinking child poverty by 60 percent and improving economic circumstances for 97 percent of poor children would improve the life chances of millions of children, bring child poverty in the U.S. in line with rates in other high-income countries, and help prevent poverty in the future.”

To read the full report, visit the Children’s Defense Fund. And click here for an accompanying report from the Urban Institute. Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more on child health and poverty.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

Categories: Health

Nine of 10 Cities in China Do Not Meet Air Quality Standards, Government Says

Yale Environment 360 - February 03, 2015
Roughly 90 percent of China's large cities did not meet national air quality standards last year, according to the country's

Smog over the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. environment ministry. Only eight of the 74 cities monitored by the ministry met standards for pollution metrics such as ozone, carbon monoxide, and fine particle concentrations, according to a report published on the ministry's website. The poor results actually represent an improvement over 2013, when only three of the 74 cities met air quality standards, Reuters reports. Last year, after residents grew increasingly alarmed about air quality in metropolitan areas, China promised to "declare war on pollution" by slashing coal use and closing heavily polluting factories. Still, the government does not expect the national average for fine particle pollution to reach official standards until 2030 or later.
Categories: Environment, Health

What’s at stake in TSCA reform

Pump Handle - February 02, 2015

When negotiations over legislation to reform the 39-year-old Toxics Substance Control Act (TSCA) broke down this past fall, among the major points that remained unresolved were how a revised TSCA would treat state and other local chemicals management regulations and how – and under what timelines – the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would prioritize chemicals for safety review. As of early this year, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate have issued statements about their commitment to produce a bipartisan bill. Chemical industry trade associations and environmental health advocates have similarly expressed “cautious optimism” that legislation will be produced that Democrats, Republicans and other stakeholders can support.

As we wait for introduction of a new TSCA reform bill, on which Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and David Vitter (R-LA) are expected to take the lead, The Pump Handle has decided to take a look at some of what’s at stake and revisit why the outcome matters to those who care about protecting and improving occupational and public health.

State vs. federal law

There has been some debate about how the language in the last draft of the Chemical Safety Improvement Act and its companion House bill, the Chemicals in Commerce Act, would actually play out with regard to state and local laws. But it was largely interpreted – including by numerous state legislators and attorneys general – to mean that the new legislation would change TSCA in a way that would effectively stop states from regulating chemicals independently of EPA and do so both retrospectively and prospectively. What the draft bills essentially said was that states could not regulate chemicals about which the EPA has made any type of determination – even if the federal agency decided not to regulate a chemical.

Putting arguments about the competing authority of federal and state law aside, here’s a reminder of why passions are running so high on this issue.

According to Safer States’ “bill tracker,” there are now at least 169 state chemical regulation bills that have been passed in at least 35 states. These include numerous laws that address chemicals and chemical uses that are not regulated under TSCA. Among these:

Other laws that could be affected by a TSCA state-preemption provision include Maine and Washington’s laws regarding “chemicals of concern” in children’s products. These require manufacturers to report on such chemical use and under certain circumstances include chemical phase-outs and substitution with safer alternatives. Other states – among them Connecticut, Florida, New York and Oregon – are now considering similar bills.

TSCA preemption could potentially affect California’s Proposition 65 – the state law that designates chemicals as carcinogens, reproductive and developmental toxicants and posts warnings on products and facilities where these substances are used. Such a provision could also affect California’s Safer Consumer Products Regulations – part of the state’s so-called “green chemistry” policy – that aims to replace hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives. The state is in the process of designating the regulations’ first chemical-product combinations that would be targeted for possible phase-out unless safer alternatives can be found.

For those not following this California process closely, the three sets of products selected for the round of “priority product” designation are children’s sleeping products containing the flame retardant TDCPP and two with obvious occupational health concerns: wet spray polyurethane foams with diisocyanates and paint and varnish removers containing methylene chloridea powerful respiratory and neurotoxin that’s also been linked to birth defects and cancer.

How long will it take?

Currently, TSCA makes it very difficult for EPA to restrict – let alone ban – the use of any chemical. For example, the same diisocyanates – known as significant factors in occupational asthma – that would be covered by the California “priority product” designation are subject to an EPA TSCA “chemical action plan” which is taking years to develop. EPA started the process in 2011 when it released its methylene diphenyl diisocyanate work-plan. The original public comment period on it lasted a year. It was then extended until April 2014. Then in March 2014, the comment period was extended again and now closes on April 1, 2017. In contrast, California’s first “priority product” list is to be finalized this year.

Another example involves nonylphenols and nonylphenol ethoxylates. These chemicals have adverse consequences for the environment and human health, including those occurring through occupational exposure. Nonylphenols and nonylphenol ethoxylates are toxic to aquatic organisms, have been found in human biomonitoring studies and appear to have estrogenic and endocrine system effects. These compounds are used in commercial and other cleaning products, to “cure” epoxies, and as surfactants in numerous other industrial and commercial products, including dust-control and deicing products.

Maine has designated nonylphenols and nonylphenol ethoxylates as “priority chemicals” under its Safer Chemicals in Children’s Products law. While this does not restrict their use, it requires manufacturers to report to the state the names of products that contain these compounds. EPA’s action on nonylphenols and nonylphenol ethoxylates has languished. The agency released its “action plan” for the compounds in August 2010. This past September, EPA proposed a Significant New Use Rule for these compounds – a TSCA provision that would require manufacturers to notify EPA of any new uses – the comment period for which closed on January 15. Chemical manufacturers and companies that use these chemicals in their products are objecting to this proposal in part because they say EPA is attempting to address ongoing rather than new uses of these compounds. Whatever EPA’s response to these comments, it’s likely – if EPA’s past performance is any indication – that any action on these compounds will be further delayed.

EPA’s past performance with the TSCA “action plan” timelines also illustrate another objection that’s been raised to the draft TSCA reform bills most recently considered: the lack of effective deadlines under which EPA would be required to act on chemicals of concern, including chemicals with well-recognized health risks. Other issues that remain unresolved include consideration of vulnerable populations and handling of confidential business information.

Word among those following TSCA reform closely and those involved in these discussion on Capitol Hill, is that new legislation is expected this spring. In the meantime, at least 24 states have 71 new chemicals management bills under consideration.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green ChemistryHigh Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific AmericanYale e360Environmental Health PerspectivesMother JonesEnsiaTimeCivil EatsThe Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

Categories: Health

Many California Farms and Orchards Idled By Drought, NASA Maps Show

Yale Environment 360 - February 02, 2015
In 2014 — the driest year ever recorded in California — farms and orchards in the state's Central Valley took a major hit


Status of CA farms in 2011 (left) and 2014 (right). and many agricultural plots were left fallow, as shown in these maps based on NASA satellite data. The maps depict the status of crop cultivation in California in August 2011 and August 2014. Brown pixels show farms and orchards that have been left fallow, or “idled,” since January 1 in each year. Green pixels show plots where at least one crop was grown during the year. The most recent year with average or above average precipitation across the state was 2011, and, as the map shows, relatively little agricultural land was left fallow that year. In 2014, a much higher proportion of farms and orchards were idle.
Categories: Environment, Health

Why is a reporter doing the work of a clinician? Pesticide drift in Washington State

Pump Handle - February 02, 2015

by Amy Liebman, MPA, MA

Pesticide drift from a pear orchard sickened 20 farmworkers laboring in a neighboring cherry orchard in April 2014, in Washington State, according to a new Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Interestingly, and critically, the exposure came to light because a newspaper reporter tipped off the Washington Department of Agriculture, who then contacted the Washington Department of Health. Where were the clinician reports?

Off-drift pesticide poisonings are serious occupational hazards that can be prevented; this instance was no exception. Two workers in full personal protective equipment including respirators applied three newly marketed pesticides to an orchard. Farmworkers in an adjacent farm, unaware of the scheduled spraying, began feeling ill within minutes of being exposed to the pesticide drift. Their crew leader called 911, and medical personnel provided emergency care on-site. Sixteen of those 20 sought additional medical care after receiving emergency care, with symptoms including headache, nausea, eye irritation, and respiratory issues. Two weeks later, authorities followed up with eight of the workers. Six of them were still exhibiting symptoms from the exposure.

While it is prohibited to apply agricultural pesticides when it can result in the exposure of people, no regulation requires farmers to notify neighboring farms of upcoming pesticide applications. California is the only state that recommends workers be notified of area pesticide applications. This case highlights why such notification is needed. It also underscores the importance of surveillance. When cases like this come to light, regulatory agencies can take appropriate action to strengthen policies. That is why it is a law in many states, including Washington, for clinicians to report pesticide exposures. These reports allow agencies like each state’s health department, the CDC, and the Environmental Protection Agency to follow trends, and to identify– and potentially remove — pesticides or practices that are repeatedly found to be hazardous. In this case, multiple clinicians likely treated the 16 workers who sought care, but none of them filled out a report.

Farmworkers do not always have a reporter inquiring about about pesticide poisonings. It is more likely there will be a clinician caring for a poisoned worker. That clinician can make all the difference for the overexposed worker — and other farmworkers– by reporting it. Clinicians have a critical role in preventing tomorrow’s pesticide poisonings by ensuring that today’s are accurately reported.

Amy K. Liebman, MPA, MA, is the Director of Environmental and Occupational Health at Migrant Clinicians Network, a nonprofit dedicated to health justice for the mobile poor, creating practical solutions at the intersection of poverty, migration, and health.

Categories: Health

Climate Consensus: Signs of New Hope on Road to Paris

Yale Environment 360 - February 02, 2015
After years of frustration and failure, a more flexible approach to reaching an international strategy on climate action is emerging – and it could finally lead to a meaningful agreement at climate talks in Paris later this year. BY DAVID VICTOR
Categories: Environment, Health

Study: Building walkable communities can change behavior for the better

Pump Handle - January 30, 2015

It’s not unusual for studies on community walkability to face the perplexing question of self-selection. In other words, people who already like to walk end up moving to walkable communities and so those communities naturally have higher physical activity rates. In even simpler terms, it’s about the person, not the environment. However, a new study finds that walkable community design does influence healthy behavior — even among people with no preference for walking in the first place.

Published in December in a supplement of the Preventive Medicine journal, the study examined changes in residents’ physical activities, social interactions and neighborhood cohesion after they moved into a walkable community in Austin, Texas, known as Mueller. (Disclosure: I live in Austin and frequently walk around the parks and neighborhoods of Mueller.) Mueller is a 711-acre community about five miles from downtown that will eventually accommodate 10,000 residents and 10,000 employees when it’s fully complete in 2018. It’s a compact development that’s home to residences, retailers, complete sidewalks, community gathering areas and lots of wide-open green space. To conduct the study, researchers surveyed more than 400 residents between 2013 and 2014 on their activities and perceptions of Mueller as well as their experiences before moving to Mueller.

Xuemei Zhu, the study’s lead author and an associate professor in the Department of Architecture at Texas A&M University, said Mueller represents somewhat of a rare opportunity for researchers. While planned walkable communities are growing in number, she said their popularity is still limited. And even though Mueller is still fairly new, residents have lived there long enough to experience a personal impact.

“We wanted to study how the built environment influences people’s behaviors, but it can be rare to have that type of opportunity,” Zhu told me. “We see the potential of involving more walkable and compact environments in making people healthier and making the environment more sustainable.”

In studying the Austin neighborhood, Zhu and her fellow researchers found that physical activity significantly increased after moving to Mueller among the entire study sample, except among those who had previously been sufficiently physically active. Overall, residents reported a 40 percent average increase in walking or biking after moving to Mueller. Specifically, 65 percent of residents said they experienced increased physical activity post-move, while 48 percent said their health had improved. The number of residents who took part in at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five or more days per week increased from about 34 percent to nearly 46 percent after moving to Mueller. In addition, residents reported spending significantly less time in their cars, which can be a boon for local air quality.

Digging even deeper, the study found that residents who previously lived in less-walkable communities reported significant increases in physical activity, while those who came from highly walkable communities did not report big changes after moving to Mueller. In particular, residents who came from medium-, low- and very low-walkability communities all reported nearly an hour of additional physical activity per week after moving to Mueller. Perhaps most notably, people who reported low levels of physical activity pre-Mueller experienced significantly increased levels of physical activity after moving to Mueller. In addition to the physical activity effects, residents also reported feelings of heightened neighborhood cohesion after moving to the more walkable neighborhood.

Zhu told me that while she wasn’t entirely surprised to uncover physical activity impacts, she was surprised to see such a positive impact on social interaction and cohesion. In fact, she said the social cohesion impacts might be even more dramatic than the physical activity effects, as positive feelings about social cohesion significantly increased throughout the entire study sample and not just in particular subgroups. To illustrate that finding, Zhu noted that while many of the Mueller homes have either no backyard or very small backyards, residents didn’t seem to mind — they were happy to sacrifice the backyard space in exchange for heightened social interaction with their neighbors.

“In many instances, (residents) mentioned how great the neighborhood support is…and that’s always very important for health conditions, both mentally and physically,” she said. “While we cannot claim (a direct association) right now, I would guess that social interaction acts as a mediator and actually encourages people to be more active. It’s mutually beneficial — if you’re more active, you have more social interaction, and if you have more friends in the neighborhood, you’re more likely to go out and be active.”

In the future, Zhu and her colleagues hope to follow Mueller residents over a longer time period as well as reach out to people before they move to Mueller to more precisely gauge the effects of living in a walkable community. They also hope to learn more about the effects on lower-income families, as Mueller was specifically designed as a mixed-income neighborhood. Still, she said this preliminary study does support the notion that designing walkable built environments can produce healthier behaviors, which could be a real boost for public health efforts to increase physical activity and curb the costly obesity epidemic.

“We need to further bridge urban planning and public health efforts,” Zhu said. “This is an approach that may be more likely to work for a majority of the population and is easier to sustain. It’s a win-win solution.”

To learn more about the study, visit Preventive Medicine or click here for a news release about the research.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

Categories: Health

Thunderstorms Move Ozone Toward Surface of the Earth, Research Shows

Yale Environment 360 - January 30, 2015
Thunderstorms move a significant amount of ozone from the stratosphere down toward the earth's surface — a process

Thunderstorms transport ozone toward earth. that could have important impacts on climate, according to a recent study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Ozone shields the planet from the sun's ultraviolet rays when it's in the stratosphere, the second-lowest layer of the atmosphere, but ozone acts as a powerful greenhouse gas and pollutant when it's nearer to the earth's surface, in the troposphere. The study found that massive thunderheads, which can rise 50,000 feet above the ground, disturb the atmosphere and allow ozone to pour into the troposphere. Scientists had not previously known that storms play a key role in transporting ozone. The new findings could impact climate models, researchers say, especially since storms are expected to become more frequent and intense as the earth warms.
Categories: Environment, Health

Iceland Rising as Climate Change Causes Glaciers to Melt, Researchers Say

Yale Environment 360 - January 29, 2015
The crust under Iceland is rebounding as climate change melts the island's great ice caps, researchers report in the

GPS stations measure Iceland crust movement journal Geophysical Research Letters. The current rapid rising, or uplift, of the Icelandic crust is a result of accelerated melting of the island's glaciers and coincides with a regional warming trend that began roughly 30 years ago, the scientists said. Some areas in south-central Iceland are moving upward as much as 1.4 inches per year — a surprisingly high speed, the researchers say. Whether the rebound is related to past deglaciation or modern glacial thinning and global warming had been an open question until now, said co-author Richard Bennett, a geoscientist at the University of Arizona. "What we're observing is a climatically induced change in the earth's surface," Bennett said.
Categories: Environment, Health

Natural Gas Boom Brings Major Growth for U.S. Chemical Plants

Yale Environment 360 - January 29, 2015
The surge in U.S. production of shale gas is leading to the rapid expansion of chemical and manufacturing plants that use the gas as feedstock. But environmentalists worry these new facilities will bring further harm to industrialized regions already bearing a heavy pollution burden. BY RACHEL CERNANSKY
Categories: Environment, Health

Occupational Health News Roundup

Pump Handle - January 28, 2015

Will Uber change how we work? It’s a question Farhad Manjoo explores in a New York Times article about the company, which runs an on-demand car service using private drivers and a mobile app. Manjoo writes:

Just as Uber is doing for taxis, new technologies have the potential to chop up a broad array of traditional jobs into discrete tasks that can be assigned to people just when they’re needed, with wages set by a dynamic measurement of supply and demand, and every worker’s performance constantly tracked, reviewed and subject to the sometimes harsh light of customer satisfaction. Uber and its ride-sharing competitors, including Lyft and Sidecar, are the boldest examples of this breed, which many in the tech industry see as a new kind of start-up — one whose primary mission is to efficiently allocate human beings and their possessions, rather than information.

Manjoo writes about the benefits of such work arrangements, such as flexibility and the opportunity to make money even when wages are stagnant. But he also writes about the downside of this employment philosophy moving into the broader workforce and particularly its effect on the idea of stable income and employment. In addition, Uber drivers aren’t technically employees — they’re independent contractors, which means they receive no benefits and Uber isn’t held to the same standards as traditional employers. Manjoo points out that many taxi drivers are independent contractors, so the idea isn’t new to the industry. Still, it’s an employment philosophy that probably has many labor advocates concerned. Manjoo quotes former U.S. labor secretary and economist Robert Reich:

“I’m glad if people like working for Uber, but those subjective feelings have got to be understood in the context of there being very few alternatives,” Dr. Reich said. “Can you imagine if this turns into a Mechanical Turk economy, where everyone is doing piecework at all odd hours, and no one knows when the next job will come, and how much it will pay? What kind of private lives can we possibly have, what kind of relationships, what kind of families?”

To read the full article, visit The New York Times.

In other news:

The Hill: Reporter Lydia Wheeler writes that House Democrats are launching a “pressure campaign” that could force Republicans to take a stance on paid leave. On Monday, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., introduced the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, which would let federal workers take six weeks of paid time off for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child and which President Obama called for earlier this month. Wheeler reports: “The GOP has thus far panned the plan, and Democrats could not name any Republican who would support the legislation. Still, proponents of the measure, pointing to polling that shows most Americans back the idea, are resolved to make Republicans block its path through the Congress they have majority control over.”

Mother Jones: Perhaps not surprisingly, big retailers are trying to kill a new OSHA regulation that would create a workplace injury database for all industries, not just manufacturing. Reporter Erika Eichelberger writes that the National Retail Federation, a group that represents the likes of Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, is lobbying hard to get the new rule thrown out, arguing that it would be too costly and force them to disclose confidential information. However, Eichelberger notes that the companies are already required to keep such injury records — the new rule would just require them to electronically submit such data to OSHA each quarter.

MSNBC: In arguing against raising the federal minimum wage, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, may have inadvertently made the case for a minimum wage hike. In a recent interview, Boehner talked about all the “rotten” jobs he had as a young adult and how he wouldn’t have had a chance at employment if the government had kept raising the minimum wage. But reporter Steve Benen writes that federal lawmakers actually did raise the minimum wages at the time — raising it in 1974, 1975 and 1976. In fact, Benen cites Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein, who wrote: “[W]hen Boehner was first taking on those ‘rotten jobs,’ the minimum wage was actually at its historic high. And when the wage later dipped relative to inflation, Congress passed a series of hikes that raised it some more.”

In These Times: Shuttle drivers for some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley are hoping to unionize, writes reporter Alex Lubben. Following last year’s victory among contracted shuttle drivers working for Facebook, who voted to join the Teamsters, drivers for Yahoo, eBay, Apple, Genentch, Zynga and Amtrak are hoping to do the same. Lubben writes that service workers in the tech sector, such as those preparing food and shuttling employees back and forth, are reaping little of the sector’s massive profits. For shuttle drivers, in particular, Lubben writes “drivers work split shifts, driving in the morning, waiting during the day and resuming work in the evening. The result: Drivers need to be present for 12 to 16 hour days, but are paid for only eight hours of work.”

Huffington Post: Reporter Eleanor Goldberg writes about a new documentary, “Food Chains,” which chronicles the lives of agricultural workers, particularly those working on tomato farms in south Florida. She writes that despite the fact that tomatoes are a $1.3 billion industry in the U.S., the typical farmworker makes between $10,000 and $12,000 a year. Learn more about the film at and check out the trailer below.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

Categories: Health
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