Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Shocking stat shows nearly 70 percent of Americans on at least one prescription drug

Photo: Daniel Rizzuti/
In a study that shows our shocking dependence on big pharma, the Mayo Clinic today reports that nearly 70 percent of Americans are on at least one prescription drug, and more than half take two.

Antibiotics, antidepressants and painkilling opioids are most commonly prescribed, their study found. Twenty percent of patients are on five or more prescription medications, according to the findings, published online in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Researchers find the data valuable because it gives insight into prescribing practices. The statistics from the Rochester Epidemiology Project in Olmsted County, Minn. are comparable to those elsewhere in the United States, says study author Jennifer St. Sauver, Ph.D., a member of the Mayo Clinic Population Health Program in the Mayo Clinic Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery.

"Often when people talk about health conditions they're talking about chronic conditions such as heart disease or diabetes," Dr. St. Sauver says. "However, the second most common prescription was for antidepressants — that suggests mental health is a huge issue and is something we should focus on. And the third most common drugs were opioids, which is a bit concerning considering their addicting nature."

Seventeen percent of those studied were prescribed antibiotics, 13 percent were taking antidepressants and 13 percent were on opioids. Drugs to control high blood pressure came in fourth (11 percent) and vaccines were fifth (11 percent). Drugs were prescribed to both men and women across all age groups, except high blood pressure drugs, which were seldom used before age 30.

Overall, women and older adults receive more prescriptions. Vaccines, antibiotics and anti-asthma drugs are most commonly prescribed in people younger than 19. Antidepressants and opioids are most common among young and middle-aged adults. Cardiovascular drugs are most commonly prescribed in older adults. Women receive more prescriptions than men across several drug groups, especially antidepressants: Nearly 1 in 4 women ages 50-64 are on an antidepressant.

For several drug groups, use increases with advancing age.

"As you get older you tend to get more prescriptions, and women tend to get more prescriptions than men," Dr. St. Sauver says.

Prescription drug use has increased steadily in the U.S. for the past decade. The percentage of people who took at least one prescription drug in the past month increased from 44 percent in 1999-2000 to 48 percent in 2007-08. Spending on prescription drugs reached $250 billion in 2009 the year studied, and accounted for 12 percent of total personal health care expenditures. Drug-related spending is expected to continue to grow in the coming years, the researchers say.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging and the Mayo Clinic Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Vitamin D deficiency may raise allergy and asthma risk in obese children, teens

One reason why obese children and teenagers are more likely to have hard-to-control asthma and allergies may be vitamin D deficiency, a new study finds. Results of the study will be presented at The Endocrine Society's 95th Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

"The increased risk for asthma and allergies, and for more severe cases of allergic disease, in overweight and obese adolescents has not previously been understood," said Candace Percival, MD, lead investigator and a pediatric endocrinology fellow at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, MD. "However, past research has shown that vitamin D is important for a normal immune system and that vitamin D deficiency is common in obese individuals."

The study, conducted in 86 subjects ages 10 to 18 years, aimed to determine whether vitamin D deficiency plays a role in the increased allergy risk in youth with excess weight.

Fifty-four study subjects were overweight or obese, as determined by their body mass index (BMI) being at or above the 85th percentile for their age and sex on growth charts. The remaining 32 subjects had a healthy weight. For each subject, the researchers calculated the BMI standard deviation, called the BMI Z-score. All subjects had a vitamin D blood test called serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D, and all obese subjects were vitamin D insufficient, Percival said.

She and her team also measured levels of certain hormones called adipokines that originate in fat cells. Specifically, they assessed leptin and adiponectin, which laboratory and animal studies have shown change with obesity, with leptin becoming elevated and adiponectin decreasing. They evaluated whether these two hormones correlate with vitamin D levels and, in some subjects, with the body's allergy signaling pathways—biochemical measures of allergic disease.

A subgroup of 39 subjects (19 with overweight or obesity and 20 with a healthy weight) underwent blood tests to measure their levels of immunoglobulin E (IgE), which is one of the main players in allergic reactions. Of these 39 subjects, 36 (17 overweight/obese and 19 healthy-weight) also underwent measurements of chemical messengers called cytokines that contribute to allergy and asthma, specifically interleukins (IL) 4, 6, 10 and 13 and interferon-gamma.

The investigators found significant correlations between the severity of the subjects' obesity, the adipokine levels and some biochemical measures of allergic disease. As expected, the higher the BMI Z-score was (indicating greater obesity), the higher the level of leptin and the lower the levels of adiponectin and vitamin D, the authors reported. Obese subjects also had increased levels of IgE, IL-6 and IL-13. However, Percival said, "the relationship between the BMI-Z score and the adipokines and markers of allergic disease seemed to depend on the vitamin D deficiency seen in the more obese patients, leading us to conclude that the increased risk for allergy in obesity may be mediated by vitamin D to some degree."

"This is the first study, to our knowledge, that ties together the relationship of vitamin D deficiency and increased allergy risk and severity in obese and overweight adolescents," she said.

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Monday, June 17, 2013

BPA linked to a common birth defect in boys

A new study links fetal exposure to a common chemical pollutant, bisphenol A (BPA), to defects of a testicular hormone in newborn boys with undescended testicles. The results, which were presented Monday at The Endocrine Society's 95th Annual Meeting in San Francisco, suggest yet another potential harmful effect of BPA, which is widely used in many plastics, liners of food cans and dental sealants.

"Alone, our study cannot be considered as definitive evidence for an environmental cause of undescended testis," said lead author Patrick Fenichel, MD, PhD, professor and head of reproductive endocrinology at the University Hospital of Nice in France. "But it suggests, for the first time in humans, a link that could contribute to one co-factor of idiopathic [unexplained] undescended testis, the most frequent congenital malformation in male newborns."

Cryptorchidism, the medical name for undescended testicles, occurs in 2 to 5 percent of full-term male newborns, according to Fenichel. Sometimes the testicles descend on their own within six months after birth. If the condition persists and goes untreated, however, it carries an increased risk in adulthood of decreased fertility and testicular cancer, he said.

Fenichel and his colleagues studied 180 boys born after 34 weeks' gestation between 2003 and 2005. Fifty-two were born with one or two undescended testicles, 26 of whom still had the condition at 3 months of age. The other 128 newborns did not have this birth defect and were matched for pregnancy term, weight and time of birth (the control group). Using sensitive immunoassays of the infants' umbilical cord blood, the researchers measured the newborns' levels of BPA and insulin-like peptide 3, one of the two testicular hormones that regulate descent of the testicles.

Testosterone level, which also controls fetal testicular descent, did not differ between the groups and was normal in the whole population, according to Fenichel.

The infants with cryptorchidism had significantly lower levels of insulin-like peptide 3, compared with the controls, the authors reported. These infants did not have greatly increased levels of BPA or several other environmental endocrine disrupters that were measured. However, in all 180 infants, the BPA level inversely correlated with the level of insulin-like peptide 3, meaning that the higher the BPA level, the lower the level of this important testicular hormone.

Fenichel speculated that BPA, an estrogenic endocrine disruptor, might repress, as other research has shown for estrogens in rodents, expression of the gene for insulin-like peptide 3. This could be a co-factor in the development of cryptorchidism, he said.

Animal research also has linked fetal BPA exposure to an increased risk of reproductive disorders and other health problems.

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Friday, June 14, 2013

Geneticist says menopause caused by men's preference for younger women

Photo: photostock/
After decades of laboring under other theories that never seemed to add up, a team led by biologist Rama Singh has concluded that what causes menopause in women is men.

Singh, an evolutionary geneticist, backed by computer models developed by colleagues Jonathan Stone and Richard Morton, has determined that menopause is actually an unintended outcome of natural selection – the result of its effects having become relaxed in older women.

Over time, human males have shown a preference for younger women in selecting mates, stacking the Darwinian deck against continued fertility in older women, the researchers have found.

"In a sense it is like aging, but it is different because it is an all-or-nothing process that has been accelerated because of preferential mating," says Singh, a professor in McMaster's Department of Biology whose research specialties include the evolution of human diversity.

Stone is an associate professor in the Department of Biology and associate director of McMaster's Origins Institute, whose themes include the origins of humanity, while Morton is a professor emeritus in Biology.

While conventional thinking has held that menopause prevents older women from continuing to reproduce, in fact, the researchers' new theory says it is the lack of reproduction that has given rise to menopause.

Their work appears in the online, open-access journal PLOS Computational Biology. The paper is available here:

Menopause is believed to be unique to humans, but no one had yet been able to offer a satisfactory explanation for why it occurs, Singh says.

The prevailing "grandmother theory" holds that women have evolved to become infertile after a certain age to allow them to assist with rearing grandchildren, thus improving the survival of kin. Singh says that does not add up from an evolutionary perspective.

"How do you evolve infertility? It is contrary to the whole notion of natural selection. Natural selection selects for fertility, for reproduction -- not for stopping it," he says.

The new theory holds that, over time, competition among men of all ages for younger mates has left older females with much less chance of reproducing. The forces of natural selection, Singh says, are concerned only with the survival of the species through individual fitness, so they protect fertility in women while they are most likely to reproduce.

After that period, natural selection ceases to quell the genetic mutations that ultimately bring on menopause, leaving women not only infertile, but also vulnerable to a host of health problems.

"This theory says that natural selection doesn't have to do anything," Singh says. "If women were reproducing all along, and there were no preference against older women, women would be reproducing like men are for their whole lives."

The development of menopause, then, was not a change that improved the survival of the species, but one that merely recognized that fertility did not serve any ongoing purpose beyond a certain age.

For the vast majority of other animals, fertility continues until death, Singh explains, but women continue to live past their fertility because men remain fertile throughout their lives, and longevity is not inherited by gender.

Singh points out that if women had historically been the ones to select younger mates, the situation would have been reversed, with men losing fertility.

The consequence of menopause, however, is not only lost fertility for women, but an increased risk of illness and death that arises with hormonal changes that occur with menopause. Singh says a benefit of the new research could be to suggest that if menopause developed over time, that ultimately it could also be reversed.

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Using Papaya seeds and clay could cut cost of water purification in developing countries; save lives

Photo: africa/
An inexpensive new material made of clay and papaya seeds removes harmful metals from water and could lower the cost of providing clean water to millions of people in the developing world, scientists are reporting. Their study on this "hybrid clay" appears in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering.

Emmanuel Unuabonah and colleagues explain that almost 1 billion people in developing countries lack access to reliable supplies of clean water for drinking, cooking and other key uses. One health problem resulting from that shortage involves exposure to heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury, released from industrial sources into the water. Technology exists for removing those metals from drinking water, but often is too costly in developing countries. So these scientists looked for a more affordable and sustainable water treatment adsorbent.

They turned to two materials readily available in some developing countries. One was kaolinite clay, used to make ceramics, paint, paper and other products. The other: seeds of the Carica papaya fruit. Both had been used separately in water purification in the past, but until now, they had not been combined in what the scientists term "hybrid clay." Their documentation of the clay's effectiveness established that the material "has a strong potential for replacing commercial activated carbon in treatment of wastewater in the developing world."

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Lab experiments question effectiveness of green coffee bean weight-loss supplements

A major ingredient in those green coffee bean dietary supplements — often touted as "miracle" weight-loss products — doesn't prevent weight gain in obese laboratory mice fed a high-fat diet when given at higher doses. That's the conclusion of a first-of-its-kind study published in ACS' Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. It also linked the ingredient to an unhealthy build-up of fat in the liver.

Vance Matthews, Kevin Croft and their team note that coffee is rich in healthful, natural, plant-based polyphenol substances. They cite evidence from past studies that coffee drinkers have a lower risk of obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and other disorders collectively termed the "metabolic syndrome." Chlorogenic acid (CGA), one coffee polyphenol, is the main ingredient in scores of dietary supplements promoted as weight-loss products. Much research has been done on mixtures of coffee polyphenols. Until now, however, scientists have not checked the effects of higher doses of CGA alone on obesity and other symptoms of the metabolic syndrome. Matthews' team decided to do that, using special laboratory mice that are stand-ins for humans in such tests.

They report that mice on a high-fat diet and mice on a high-fat diet plus CGA gained the same amount of weight. The CGA mice, however, were more likely to develop disorders that often lead to type 2 diabetes. They also accumulated fat inside the cells in their livers. "This study suggests that higher doses of CGA supplementation in a high-fat diet does not protect against features of the metabolic syndrome in diet-induced obese mice," they say.

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Drugs for hypertension, depression, and insomnia may influence the onset and progression of Alzheimer's disease
Multiple drug classes commonly prescribed for common medical conditions are capable of influencing the onset and progression of Alzheimer's disease, according to researchers at The Mount Sinai Medical Center.

Led by Giulio Maria Pasinetti, MD, PhD, a research team used a computer algorithm to screen 1,600 commercially-available medications to assess their impact on the brain accumulation of beta-amyloid, a protein abnormally accumulated in the brain of Alzheimer's disease and implicated in neurodegeneration.

They found that currently-available medications prescribed for conditions such as hypertension, depression, and insomnia were found to either to block or to enhance the accumulation of beta-amyloid, the component of amyloid plaques.

"This line of investigation will soon lead to the identification of common medications that might potentially trigger conditions associated with the prevention, or conversely the onset, of Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Pasinetti. "They may be a novel reference for physicians to consider when prescribing the most appropriate drug, particularly in subjects at high risk for Alzheimer's disease."

To validate the screening protocol, Dr. Pasinetti and his colleagues administered these drugs in mice that were genetically engineered to develop the hallmark amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease. After six months of treatment with blood pressure medicines, amyloid plaques and neurodegeneration were significantly reduced in the mice. One such medicine was Carvedilol, now under clinical investigation in Alzheimer 's disease with the intent to slow down memory deterioration.

"In recent years, amyloid plaques have become one of the main focal points in the search to understand and to treat Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Pasinetti. "Thus, identifying novel drug treatments that prevent harmful beta-amyloid generation will help in the development of treatments for Alzheimer's disease. For example, one very exciting finding of our study is that Carvedilol, already approved for treatment of hypertension, may immediately become a promising drug for the treatment of Alzheimer's as well."

The authors discuss the limitations of the research, noting that studies must be immediately verified in human-safety studies that examine the effects of the drugs independent of the original indication. Dr. Pasinetti hopes these findings will lead to multiple clinical trials in the future to identify preventive drugs, which will need to be prescribed at tolerable dosages.

"If we can repurpose drugs currently used for different indications, such as lowering blood pressure, this could have dramatic implications for this population," said Dr. Pasinetti.

The findings are published online in the journal PLoS One. 

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Deadly Middle East respiratory syndrome has the potential to cause a global pandemic

Source: Fox Health 

The World Health Organization is warning medial personnel to be on alert for symptoms of a deadly virus dubbed MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), which they say has the potential to circle the globe and cause a pandemic.

Workers are already in "alert phase" for two human strains of bird flu - H5N1 and H7N9, first detected in China in this spring.

"We are trying to find out as much as we can and we are concerned about these (three) viruses," Andrew Harper, WHO special adviser for health security and environment, told a news briefing.

"International concern about these infections is high, because it is possible for this virus to move around the world. There have been now several examples where the virus has moved from one country to another through travelers," the WHO said of MERS.

MERS-coronavirus, is a distant relative of SARS. It causes causes coughing, fever and pneumonia.It
emerged in Saudi Arabia last year has killed 31 people.

"The overall number of cases is limited, but the virus causes death in about 60 percent of patients," the WHO said.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Fetal changes associated with mother’s chemical exposure
A study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has for the first time found that a mother’s higher exposure to some common environmental contaminants was associated with more frequent and vigorous fetal motor activity. Some chemicals were also associated with fewer changes in fetal heart rate, which normally parallel fetal movements.

The study of 50 pregnant women found detectable levels of organochlorines in all of the women participating in the study—including DDT, PCBs and other pesticides that have been banned from use for more than 30 years. The study is available online in advance of publication in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.

“Both fetal motor activity and heart rate reveal how the fetus is maturing and give us a way to evaluate how exposures may be affecting the developing nervous system. Most studies of environmental contaminants and child development wait until children are much older to evaluate effects of things the mother may have been exposed to during pregnancy; here we have observed effects in utero,” said Janet A. DiPietro, PhD, lead author of the study and Associate Dean for Research at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

For the study, DiPietro and her colleagues followed a sample of 50 high- and low- income pregnant women living in and around Baltimore, Md. At 36 weeks of pregnancy, blood samples were collected from the mothers and measurements were taken of fetal heart rate and motor activity. The blood samples were tested for levels of 11 pesticides and 36 polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) compounds.

According to the findings, all participants had detectable concentrations of at least one-quarter of the analyzed chemicals, despite the fact that they have been banned for more than three decades. Fetal heart rate effects were not consistently observed across all of the compounds analyzed; when effects were seen, higher chemical exposures were associated with reductions in fetal heart rate accelerations, an indicator of fetal wellbeing. However, associations with fetal motor activity measures were more consistent and robust: higher concentrations of 7 of 10 organochlorine compounds were positively associated with one of more measures of more frequent and more vigorous fetal motor activity. These chemicals included hexachlorobenzene, DDT, and several PCB congeners. Women of higher socioeconomic status in the study had a greater concentration of chemicals compared to the women of lower socioeconomic status

“There is tremendous interest in how the prenatal period sets the stage for later child development. These results show that the developing fetus is susceptible to environmental exposures and that we can detect this by measuring fetal neurobehavior. This is yet more evidence for the need to protect the vulnerable developing brain from effects of environmental contaminants both before and after birth,” said DiPietro.

“Fetal heart rate and motor activity associations with maternal organochlorine levels: results of an exploratory study” was written by Janet A. DiPietro, Meghan F. Davis, Kathleen A. Costigan, and Dana Boyd Barr.

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Monday, June 10, 2013

Yuck! Only 5 % wash hands correctly; Men worst hand washers

A new study by Michigan State University researchers found that only 5 percent of people who used the bathroom washed their hands long enough to kill the germs that can cause infections.

What’s more, 33 percent didn’t use soap and 10 percent didn’t wash their hands at all. Men were particularly bad at washing their hands correctly.

The study, based on observations of 3,749 people in public restrooms, appears in the Journal of Environmental Health.

“These findings were surprising to us because past research suggested that proper hand washing is occurring at a much higher rate,” said Carl Borchgrevink, associate professor of hospitality business and lead investigator on the study.

Hand washing is the single most effective thing one can do to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Failing to sufficiently wash one’s hands contributes to nearly 50 percent of all foodborne illness outbreaks.

It takes 15 to 20 seconds of vigorous hand washing with soap and water to effectively kill the germs, the CDC says, yet the study found that people are only washing their hands, on average, for about 6 seconds.

Borchgrevink and colleagues trained a dozen college students in data collection and had them observe hand washing in restrooms in bars, restaurants and other public establishments. The student researchers were as unobtrusive as possible – by standing off to the side and entering results on a smart phone, for example.

The study is one of the first to take into account factors such as duration of the hand washing and whether people used soap.
Specific findings include:
  • Fifteen percent of men didn’t wash their hands at all, compared with 7 percent of women.
  • When they did wash their hands, only 50 percent of men used soap, compared with 78 percent of women.
  • People were less likely to wash their hands if the sink was dirty.
  • Hand washing was more prevalent earlier in the day. Borchgrevink said this suggests people who were out at night for a meal or drinks were in a relaxed mode and hand washing became less important.
  • People were more likely to wash their hands if a sign encouraging them to do so was present.
Borchgrevink, who worked as a chef and restaurant manager before becoming a researcher, said the findings have implications for both consumers and those who operate restaurants and hotels.

“Imagine you’re a business owner and people come to your establishment and get foodborne illness through the fecal-oral route – because people didn’t wash their hands – and then your reputation is on the line,” he said. “You could lose your business.”

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Early exposure to bisphenol A might damage the enamel of teeth

photo: antpkr/
Are teeth the latest victims of bisphenol A? Yes, according to the conclusions of work carried out by the research team led by Ariane Berdal of the Université Paris-Diderot and Sylvie Babajko, Research Director at Inserm Unit 872 "Centre des Cordeliers". The researchers have shown that the teeth of rats treated with low daily doses of BPA could be damaged. Analysis of the damage shows numerous characteristics that are common with a recently identified pathology of tooth enamel that affects roughly 18% of children between the ages of 6 and 8.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical compound used in the composition of plastics and resins. It is used for example to manufacture food containers such as bottles or babies' bottles. It is also used for the protective films inside drinks cans and food tins, or as developers on sales receipts. Significant amounts of BPA have also been found in human blood, urine, amniotic liquid and placentas. Recent studies have shown that this industrial compound has adverse effects on the reproduction, development and metabolism of laboratory animals. It is strongly suspected of having the same effects on humans.

As a precautionary measure, the manufacture and commercialization of babies' bottles containing bisphenol A were prohibited in Canada in 2010 and in Europe in 2011. The prohibition will be extended to all food containers in France as from July 2015 and Canada is looking to follow suit.

Analysis of the teeth showed numerous characteristics in common with a tooth enamel pathology known as MIH (Molar Incisor Hypomineralisation) that selectively affects first molars and permanent incisors. This enamel pathology is found in roughly 18% of children between the ages of 6 and 8. Children affected by this pathology present with teeth that are hypersensitive to pain and liable to cavities. It is interesting to note that the period during which these teeth are formed (the first years of life) correspond to the period during which humans are most sensitive to bisphenol A.

Amongst the earliest observations made was the appearance of "white marks" on the incisors of rats treated with endocrine disruptors, one of which was bisphenol A (BPA). The researchers decided to define the characteristics of incisors of rats treated with low doses of BPA and to compare these with the characteristics of teeth in humans suffering from MIH.

Macroscopic observation of marks on both series of teeth showed similarities, in particular fragile and brittle enamel.

Microscope observation of the enamel showed a significant reduction of the Ca/P and the Ca/C ratios in affected teeth. This leads to mineral depletion, making the teeth more fragile and more liable to cavities.
Finally, analysis of the proteins present in the tooth matrix of rats showed an increased quantity of enamelin, a key protein for enamel formation, and a buildup of albumin leading to hypomineralisation. Analysis of the expression of key enamel genes highlighted two BPA target genes: enamelin and kallicrein 4.

According to Sylvie Babajko, the latest author of this article, "Insofar as BPA has the same mechanism of action in rats as in men, it could also be a causal agent of MIH. Therefore, teeth could be used as early markers of exposure to endocrine disruptors acting in the same way as BPA and so could help in early detection of serious pathologies that would otherwise have occurred several years later".

These results have been published in the American Journal of Pathology.

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Friday, June 07, 2013

Pollution from U.S. and Europe helped cause 1980s African drought

Photo: africa/
Decades of drought in central Africa reached their worst point in the 1980s, causing Lake Chad, a shallow lake used to water crops in neighboring countries, to almost dry out completely.

The shrinking lake and prolonged drought were initially blamed on overgrazing and bad agricultural practices. More recently, Lake Chad became an example of global warming.

New University of Washington research, to be published in Geophysical Research Letters, shows that the drought was caused at least in part by Northern Hemisphere air pollution.

Aerosols emanating from coal-burning factories in the United States and Europe during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s cooled the entire Northern Hemisphere, shifting tropical rain bands south. Rains no longer reached the Sahel region, a band that spans the African continent just below the Sahara desert.

When clean-air legislation passed in the U.S. and Europe, the rain band shifted back, and the drought lessened.

Related research by the UW researchers and their collaborators shows that global warming is now causing the land-covered Northern Hemisphere to warm faster than the Southern Hemisphere, further reversing the pre-1980s trend.

Previous research has suggested a connection between coal-burning and the Sahel drought, but this was the first study that used decades of historical observations to find that this drought was part of a global shift in tropical rainfall, and then used multiple climate models to determine why.

“One of our research strategies is to zoom out,” said lead author Yen-Ting Hwang, a UW doctoral student in atmospheric sciences. “Instead of studying rainfall at a particular place, we try to look for the larger-scale patterns.”

To determine that the Sahel drought was part of a broader shift, the authors looked at precipitation from all rain gauges that had continuous readings between 1930 and 1990. Other places on the northern edge of the tropical rain band, including northern India and South America, also experienced dryer climates in the 1970s and ’80s. Meanwhile, places on the southern edge of the rain band, such as northeast Brazil and the African Great Lakes, were wetter than normal.

To understand the reason, authors looked at all 26 climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Researchers discovered that almost all the models also showed some southward shift, and that cooling from sulfate aerosols in the Northern Hemisphere was the primary cause.

“We think people should know that these particles not only pollute air locally, but they also have these remote climate effects,” Hwang said.

Light-colored sulfate aerosols are emitted mainly by dirty burning of coal. They create hazy air that reflects sunlight, and also lead to more reflective, longer-lasting clouds.

People living in the Northern Hemisphere did not notice the cooling, the authors said, because it balanced the heating associated with the greenhouse effect from increased carbon dioxide, so temperatures were steady.

“To some extent, science messed this one up the first time around,” said co-author Dargan Frierson, a UW associate professor of atmospheric sciences. “People thought that a large part of that drought was due to bad farming practices and desertification. But over the last 20 years or so we’ve realized that that was quite wrong, and that large-scale ocean and atmosphere patterns are significantly more powerful in terms of shaping where the rains fall.”

The models did not show as strong a shift as the observations, Frierson said, suggesting that ocean circulation also played a role in the drought.

The good news is that the U.S. Clean Air Act and its European counterpart had an unintended positive effect beyond improved air quality and related health benefits. Although shorter-term droughts continue to affect the Sahel, the long-term drought began to recover in the 1980s.

“We were able to do something that was good for us, and it also benefited people elsewhere,” Frierson said.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Research on household air pollution must be a global health priority

Addressing the burden of household air pollution from solid fuel combustion— the leading environmental cause of death and disability in the world—has led to the implementation of many important interventions to promote access to improved stoves and clean fuels, but there is little demonstrated evidence of health benefits from most of these programs or technologies. Such are the conclusions of a new Policy Forum article published in this week's PLOS Medicine by authors who also outline a set of research priorities for addressing household air pollution.

A group of international researchers, led by William J. Martin II from the National Institutes of Health in the US and funded by several US government sponsors, identified research gaps and priorities related to the health effects of household air pollution and unsafe stoves in seven areas: cancer; infections; cardiovascular disease; maternal, neonatal, and child health; respiratory disease; burns; and ocular disorders and gaps in four cross-cutting areas that are relevant to research on HAP (exposure and biomarker assessment, women's empowerment, behavioral approaches, and program evaluation).

The authors conclude: "It is vital that researchers partner with implementing organizations and governments to evaluate the impacts of improved stove and fuel programs to identify and share evidence regarding the outcomes of the many implementation programs underway, including the socio-behavioral aspects of household energy use."

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Smoke exposure puts infants with family history of asthma/allergies at higher risk for severe infection

More evidence has surfaced that supports the war on smoking, especially if smokers have an infant in their household. A study published today in the June issue of Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, the scientific journal of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI), found that infants with a family history of allergic disease with lower respiratory tract infections, who are exposed to secondhand smoke are at risk for longer hospital stays.

An estimated 20 to 30 percent of otherwise healthy infants develop lower respiratory infections, such as bronchiolitis, annually. Of these, three percent are hospitalized.

"Respiratory infections in infants are common, but if the infant has a family history of respiratory issues such as asthma, they are at higher risk for infection and hospitalization," said allergist Meghan Lemke, MD, ACAAI member and lead study author. "Our research found that infants with a family history of allergic disease who are also exposed to secondhand smoke had a 23 percent longer hospital stay than those without secondhand smoke exposure."

Researchers examined 451 mothers and infants enrolled in a study focusing on childhood asthma and atopic disease outcomes associated with viral respiratory infections. In this group, 57 percent of infants were exposed to secondhand smoke. While 36 percent had a mother with atopic disease and an allergy, and 68 percent had an immediate relative with an allergic disease.

"Infants that are hospitalized for bronchiolitis have up to a 30 percent chance of developing persistent wheezing or asthma within the first decade of life," said allergist James Sublett, MD, chair of the ACAAI Indoor Environment Committee. "Secondhand smoke is extremely harmful to children with asthma and other respiratory illnesses, and has been shown to contribute to uncontrolled asthma."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), secondhand smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, hundreds of which are toxic and 70 that can cause cancer.

"Secondhand smoke can trigger asthma attacks in small children, which can be life-threatening," said Dr. Sublett. "It is critical that parents and other family members never smoke around children, young or old, especially inside of the home and car where smoke can linger."

Seven million American children have asthma, a disease that is a leading cause of missed school days and 456,000 hospitalizations in the United States annually. Asthmatics under the care of a board-certified allergist have a 60 to 89 percent reduction in hospitalizations.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Are Smartphones Disrupting Your Sleep?


Smartphones and tablets can make for sleep-disrupting bedfellows. One cause is believed to be the bright light-emitting diodes that allow the use of mobile devices in dimly lit rooms; the light exposure can interfere with melatonin, a hormone that helps control the natural sleep-wake cycle. But there may be a way to check your mobile device in bed and still get a good night's sleep. A Mayo Clinic study suggests dimming the smartphone or tablet brightness settings and holding the device at least 14 inches from your face while using it will reduce its potential to interfere with melatonin and impede sleep.

The research was among Mayo Clinic studies being presented at SLEEP 2013, the Associated Professional Sleep Societies annual meeting in Baltimore.

"In the old days people would go to bed and read a book. Well, much more commonly people go to bed and they have their tablet on which they read a book or they read a newspaper or they're looking at material. The problem is it's a lit device, and how problematic is the light source from the mobile device?" says co-author Lois Krahn, M.D., a psychiatrist and sleep expert at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"There's a lot of concern about using mobile devices and that prompted me to wonder, are they always a negative factor for sleep?" Dr. Krahn says. "We found that only at the highest setting was the light over a conservative threshold that might affect melatonin levels. If it's at the mid setting or at a low setting it's bright enough to use."

In the study, researchers experimented with two tablets and a smartphone in a dark room, using a meter on its most sensitive setting to measure the light the devices emitted at various settings when held various distances from a person's face. They discovered that when brightness settings were lowered and the devices were held just over a foot from a user's face, it reduced the risk that the light would be bright enough to suppress melatonin secretion and disrupt sleep.

Cleaner indoor air can also improve sleep quality. For more information on indoor air quality, pollution and chemical exposure visit or call to speak to an air quality expert about improving the air in your home 1-888-852-8247.