Category: Environmental Effects

Study Tallies Heatwave Deaths over Recent Decades

Photo by Fandy Much

Between 1990 and 2019, more than 150 000 deaths around the globe were associated with heatwaves each year, according to a new study published May 14 in PLOS Medicine by Yuming Guo of Monash University, Australia, and colleagues.

Heatwaves, periods of extremely high ambient temperature that last for a few days, can impose overwhelming thermal stress on the human body.

Studies have previously quantified the effect of individual heatwaves on excess deaths in local areas, but have not compared these statistics around the globe over such a prolonged period.

In the new study, researchers used data from the Multi-Country Multi-City (MCC) Collaborative Research Network that included daily deaths and temperatures from 750 locations across 43 countries.

With the MCC data, the researchers estimated excess heatwave deaths around the world spanning 1990 to 2019 and mapped the variance in these deaths across continents.

During the warm seasons from 1990 to 2019, heatwave-related excess deaths accounted for 153 078 deaths per year, a total of 236 deaths per 10 million residents or 1% of global deaths.

While Asia had the highest number of estimated deaths, Europe had the highest population-adjusted rate, at 655 deaths per 10 million residents.

A substantial burden of estimated deaths was seen in southern and eastern Europe as well as the area between Northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Southern Asia.

At the national level, Greece, Malta, and Italy had the highest excess death ratios.

Overall, the largest estimated rates of heatwaves deaths were seen in areas with dry climates and lower-middle incomes.

Understanding the regional disparity of heatwave-related mortality is key to planning local adaptation and risk management towards climate change.

“Heatwaves are associated with substantial mortality burden that varies spatiotemporally over the globe in the past 30 years,” the authors say.

“These findings indicate the potential benefit of government actions to enhance health sector adaptation and resilience, accounting for inequalities across communities.”

The authors add, “In the context of climate change, it is crucial to address the unequal impacts of heatwaves on human health. This necessitates a comprehensive approach that not only tackles immediate health risks during heatwaves but also implements long-term strategies to minimize vulnerability and inequality. The strategies include: climate change mitigation policy, heat action plans (e.g., heat early warning system), urban planning and green structure, social support program, healthcare and public health services, education awareness, and community engagement and participation.”

Provided by PLOS

Extreme Heat Linked to Children’s Asthma Hospital Visits

Credit: Pixabay CC0

For children seeking care at a California urban paediatric health centre, extreme heat events were associated with increased asthma hospital visits, according to research published at the ATS 2024 International Conference.

“We found that both daily high heat events and extreme temperatures that lasted several days increased the risk of asthma hospital visits,” said corresponding author Morgan Ye, MPH, research data analyst, Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. “Understanding the impacts of climate-sensitive events such as extreme heat on a vulnerable population is the key to reducing the burden of disease due to climate change.”

Ms Ye and colleagues looked at 2017-2020 electronic health records from the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, which included data on asthma hospital visits by patients of the hospital, some of whom are from Benioff Oakland’s Federally Qualified Health Center, and demographics including patients’ zip codes. They used data from the PRISM Climate Group of Oregon State University to determine the timing of daily maximum (daytime heat waves) and minimum (nighttime heat waves) for each zip code. The researchers restricted their analyses to the region’s warm season (June to September). To evaluate the potential range of effects of different heat wave measurements, they used 18 different heat wave definitions, including the 99th, 97.5th and 95th percentile of the total distribution of the study period for one, two or three days.

They designed the study in a way that allowed them to determine the association between each heat wave definition and a hospital visit. They repeated the analysis for Bay Area and Central California zip codes.

The team discovered that daytime heat waves were significantly associated with 19% higher odds of children’s asthma hospital visits, and longer duration of heat waves doubled the odds of hospital visits. They did not observe any associations for night-time heat waves.

According to Ye, “We continue to see global temperatures rise due to human-generated climate change, and we can expect a rise in health-related issues as we observe longer, more frequent and severe heat waves. Our research suggests that higher temperatures and increased duration of these high heat days are associated with increased risk of hospital visits due to asthma. Children and families with lower adaptation capacity will experience most of the burden. Therefore, it is important to obtain a better understanding of these heat-associated health risks and susceptible populations for future surveillance and targeted interventions.”

The authors note that past research has suggested positive associations between extreme heat and asthma, but findings regarding hospitalisations and emergency room visits have been conflicting. Additionally, many other studies have focused on respiratory hospitalizations and not hospitalizations for asthma, specifically, and have not included or had a focus on children. This study is also unique because it investigated the effect of daily high temperatures but also the effects of persistent extreme temperatures.

The San Francisco Bay Area and California overall are unique areas of interest because the state is considered a coastal region with less prevalence of cooling units, such as air conditioners. While temperatures may not reach the extremes experienced in other parts of the country, this study demonstrates that even milder extreme heat temperatures may significantly impact health. These effects are more pronounced in climate-susceptible populations, including children and those who are medically vulnerable, such as those served by the urban paediatric health centre in this study. The authors hope these study results will lead to more equitable health outcomes and reduce racial/ethnic disparities observed in climate-sensitive events.

“These results can be used to inform targeted actions and resources for vulnerable children and alleviate health-related stress during heat waves,” they conclude.

Source: American Thoracic Society

How do the Myriad Smells of Nature Benefit Health?

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Contact with nature can lift our well-being by affecting emotions, influencing thoughts, reducing stress and improving physical health, as shown by studies. Even brief exposure to nature can help. One well-known study found that hospital patients recovered faster if their room included a window view of a natural setting.

Knowing more about nature’s effects on our bodies could not only help our well-being, but could also improve how we care for land, preserve ecosystems and design cities, homes and parks. Yet studies on the benefits of contact with nature have typically focused primarily on how seeing nature affects us. There has been less focus on what the nose knows. That is something a group of researchers set out to change, publishing their approach in Science Advances.

“We are immersed in a world of odorants, and we have a sophisticated olfactory system that processes them, with resulting impacts on our emotions and behaviour,” said Gregory Bratman, a University of Washington assistant professor of environmental and forest sciences. “But compared to research on the benefits of seeing nature, we don’t know nearly as much about how the impacts of nature’s scents and olfactory cues affect us.”

Bratman and colleagues from around the world outline ways to expand research into how odours and scents from natural settings impact our health and well-being. The interdisciplinary group of experts in olfaction, psychology, ecology, public health, atmospheric science and other fields are based at institutions in the US., the UK, Taiwan, Germany, Poland and Cyprus.

At its core, the human sense of smell, or olfaction, is a complex chemical detection system in constant operation. The nose is packed with hundreds of olfactory receptors, which are sophisticated chemical sensors. Together, they can detect more than one trillion scents, and that information gets delivered directly to the nervous system for our minds to interpret – consciously or otherwise.

The natural world releases a steady stream of chemical compounds to keep our olfactory system busy. Plants in particular exude volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that can persist in the air for hours or days. VOCs perform many functions for plants, such as repelling herbivores or attracting pollinators. Some researchers have studied the impact of exposures to plant VOCs on people.

“We know bits and pieces of the overall picture,” said Bratman. “But there is so much more to learn. We are proposing a framework, informed by important research from many others, on how to investigate the intimate links between olfaction, nature and human well-being.”

Nature’s smell-mediated impacts likely come through different routes, according to the authors. Some chemical compounds, including a subset of those from the invisible realm of plant VOCs, may be acting on us without our conscious knowledge. In these cases, olfactory receptors in the nose could be initiating a “subthreshold” response to molecules that people are largely unaware of. Bratman and his co-authors are calling for vastly expanded research on when, where and how these undetected biochemical processes related to natural VOCs may affect us.

Other olfactory cues are picked up consciously, but scientists still don’t fully understand all their impacts on our health and well-being. Some scents, for example, may have “universal” interpretations to humans — something that nearly always smells pleasant, like a sweet-smelling flower. Other scents are closely tied to specific memories, or have associations and interpretations that vary by culture and personal experience, as research by co-author Asifa Majid of the University of Oxford has shown.

“Understanding how olfaction mediates our relationships with the natural world and the benefits we receive from it are multi-disciplinary undertakings,” said Bratman. “It involves insights from olfactory function research, Indigenous knowledge, Western psychology, anthropology, atmospheric chemistry, forest ecology, Shinrin-yoku – or ‘forest bathing’ – neuroscience, and more.”

Investigation into the potential links between our sense of smell and positive experiences with nature includes research by co-author Cecilia Bembibre at University College London, which shows that the cultural significance of smells, including those from nature, can be passed down in communities to each new generation. Co-author Jieling Xiao at Birmingham City University has delved into the associations people have with scents in built environments and urban gardens.

Other co-authors have shown that nature leaves its signature in the very air we breathe. Forests, for example, release a complex chemical milieux into the air. Research by co-author Jonathan Williams at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Cyprus Institute shows how natural VOCs can react and mix in the atmosphere, with repercussions for olfactory environments.

The authors are also calling for more studies to investigate how human activity alters nature’s olfactory footprint — both by pollution, which can modify or destroy odorants in the air, and by reducing habitats that release beneficial scents.

“Human activity is modifying the environment so quickly in some cases that we’re learning about these benefits while we’re simultaneously making them more difficult for people to access,” said Bratman. “As research illuminates more of these links, our hope is that we can make more informed decisions about our impacts on the natural world and the volatile organic compounds that come from it. As we say in the paper, we live within the chemical contexts that nature creates. Understanding this more can contribute to human well-being and advance efforts to protect the natural world.”

Not Just Sunlight – Individual Factors Influence Vitamin D Production

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A new study from Trinity College Dublin sheds light on the complexities of achieving optimal vitamin D status across diverse populations. The study, which was recently published in the journal Clinical Nutrition, showed that individual factors like age, sex and body mass index significantly affected vitamin D levels generated from sunlight exposure.

Despite substantial research on the determinants of vitamin D, levels of vitamin D deficiency remain high. Dr Margaret M. Brennan, Research Assistant, Department of Public Health and Primary Care, School of Medicine, Trinity College and first author, said:

“We hope this work can highlight the significant differences in vitamin D levels among different ethnic groups at northern latitudes and contribute to efforts to address the long-standing population health issue of vitamin D deficiency.”

The authors analysed data from half a million participants from the United Kingdom (UK,) and for each person, they calculated the individualised estimate of ambient ultraviolet-B (UVB) level, which is the wavelength of sunlight that induces vitamin D synthesis in the skin.

A comprehensive analysis of key determinants of vitamin D and their interactions revealed novel insights. The first key insight is that ambient UVB emerges as a critical predictor of vitamin D status, even in a place like the UK, which receives relatively little sunlight. The second is that age, sex, body mass index (BMI), cholesterol level, and vitamin D supplementation significantly influence how individuals respond to UVB. For example, as BMI and age increase, the amount of vitamin D produced in response to UVB decreases.

Professor Lina Zgaga, Associate Professor of Epidemiology, Department of Public Health and Primary Care, School of Medicine, Trinity College and the principal investigator, said:

“We believe our findings have significant implications for the development of tailored recommendations for vitamin D supplementation. Our study underscores the need to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach towards personalised strategies for optimising vitamin D status.”

Source: Trinity College Dublin

Air Pollution and Depression Linked with Cardiovascular Deaths in Middle Age

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A study in more than 3000 US counties, with 315 million residents, has suggested that air pollution is linked with stress and depression, putting under-65-year-olds at increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. The research was presented at ESC Preventive Cardiology 2024, a scientific congress of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC).1

“Our study indicates that the air we breathe affects our mental well-being, which in turn impacts heart health,” said study lead author Dr Shady Abohashemof Harvard Medical School, Boston, US.

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is estimated to have caused 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2019.2 Mental illness has also been linked with premature death.3 This study examined whether air pollution and poor mental health are interrelated and have a joint impact on death from cardiovascular disease.

The study focused on particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, also referred to as fine particles or PM2.5. They come from vehicle exhaust fumes, power plant combustion, and burning wood, and present the highest health risk. To conduct the study, county-level data on annual PM2.5 levels were obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).4 PM2.5 exposure was categorised as high or low according to World Health Organization (WHO) standards. The researchers gathered data on the average number of days (age-standardised) that county residents experienced mental health issues – including stress, depression, and emotional problems – from the CDC.5 Each county was then categorised into three groups based on these numbers. Counties in the top third reported the most days of poor mental health (PMH).4 Age-adjusted premature cardiovascular mortality rates (under 65 years of age) per county, were obtained from the CDC.6 County characteristics were sourced from the County Health Rankings project.

The study included 3047 US counties, representing 315 720 938 residents (with over 207 million aged 20 to 64 years and 50% females) in 2013. Between 2013 and 2019, some 1 079 656 (0.34%) participants died from cardiovascular disease before the age of 65 years. The researchers analysed the associations between pollution, mental health, and premature cardiovascular mortality after adjusting for factors that could influence the relationships.7

Counties with dirty air (high PM2.5 concentrations) were 10% more likely to report high levels of PMH days compared to counties with clean air (low PM2.5 concentrations). That risk was markedly greater in counties with a high prevalence of minority groups or poverty. The link between PMH and premature cardiovascular mortality was strongest in counties with higher levels (above WHO recommended levels: ≥10 µm2) of air pollution. In these counties, higher levels of PMH were associated with a three-fold increase in premature cardiovascular mortality compared to lower PMH levels. Further, one-third of the pollution-related risk of premature cardiovascular deaths was explained by increased burden of PMH.

Dr Abohashem said: “Our results reveal a dual threat from air pollution: it not only worsens mental health but also significantly amplifies the risk of heart-related deaths associated with poor mental health. Public health strategies are urgently needed to address both air quality and mental wellbeing in order to preserve cardiovascular health.”

The levels of pollution across ESC countries can be viewed in the ESC Atlas of Cardiology.

Source: European Society of Cardiology

References and notes

1The abstract ‘Air pollution associates with poor mental health and amplifies the premature cardiovascular death in the United States: longitudinal nationwide analysis’ will be presented during the session ‘Young Investigators Award – Population Science and Public Health’ which takes place on 26 April 2024.

2World Health Organization: Ambient (outdoor) air pollution.

3Byrne P. Meeting the challenges of rising premature mortality in people with severe mental illness. Future Healthc J. 2023;10(2):98-102.

4CDC PLACES databases.

5CDC Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

6CDC WONDER databases.

7The analyses were adjusted for calendar year and county characteristics such as demographics, median household income, unemployment rates, violent crime rates, education level, food environment index, rates of health insurance, level of mental health provision, level of primary care provision.

Hot Days may Drive Inflammation and Accelerate Cardiovascular Disease

Photo by Fandy Much:

Short-term exposure to higher heat may increase inflammation and interfere with normal immune system functions in the body, which may, in turn, increase susceptibility to infections and accelerate the progression of cardiovascular disease, according to preliminary research be presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention – Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Scientific Sessions 2024, March 18-21.

An inflammatory response that is longstanding (lasting weeks to months) or that occurs in healthy tissues is damaging and plays a key role in the build-up of plaque in the arteries. This may lead to atherosclerosis. Heat waves are known to promote inflammation, however, studies examining air temperature and biomarkers of inflammation have had mixed results.

“Most research only considers temperature as the exposure of interest, which may not be adequate to capture a person’s response to heat,” said lead study author Daniel W. Riggs, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Louisville. “In our study, we used alternative measurements of heat in relation to multiple markers of inflammation and immune response in the body to investigate the short-term effects of heat exposure and produce a more complete picture of its health impact.”

Participants visited study sites in Louisville, during the summer months for a blood test, and researchers analysed the blood for multiple markers of immune system function. The researchers then examined associations between the markers of immune system function and heat levels, including temperature, net effective temperature (which factors in relative humidity, air temperature and windspeed) and the Universal Thermal Climate Index (UTCI) on that day. UTCI is a thermo-physiological model developed by the International Society of Biometeorology Commission that factors in temperature, humidity, wind speed and ultraviolet radiation levels, which was used to evaluate participant’s physical comfort.

The analysis found:

  • For every 5°F (2.8°C) increase in UTCI (in this study, the equivalent of going from a day with no thermal stress to a day with moderate thermal stress, Riggs said), there was an increase in blood levels of key inflammatory markers: monocytes (4.2%), eosinophils (9.5%), natural killer T-cells (9.9%) and tumour necrosis factor-alpha (7.0%). These immune molecules indicate activation of the body’s innate immune system, which spurs a fast and non-specific inflammatory response throughout the body to protect against pathogens and injury.
  • A decrease in B-cells (-6.8%), indicating the body’s adaptive immune system that remembers specific viruses and germs and creates antibodies to fight them, was lowered.
  • A lesser impact on the immune system was found when heat was measured by average 24-hour temperature or by net effective temperature, which incorporates humidity and wind but not sunshine.

“Our study participants only had minor exposure to high temperatures on the day of their blood test, however, even minor exposure may contribute to changes in immune markers,” Riggs said. “With rising global temperatures, the association between heat exposure and a temporarily weakened response from the immune system is a concern because temperature and humidity are known to be important environmental drivers of infectious, airborne disease transmission. Thus, during the hottest days of summer people may be at higher risk of heat exposure, they may also be more vulnerable to disease or inflammation.”

Adults over 60 years and adults with existing cardiovascular disease are particularly at risk for heat-related cardiovascular events and deaths, Riggs explained.

“It’s important for physicians to communicate with patients about the risk of adverse health effects from heat exposure. For example, cardiologists could conduct customised consultations and assessments to increase patient awareness about their susceptibility to the effects of high temperatures. Also, changes to treatment regimens may be important to consider to address other risks. For example, some medications could make people more susceptible to heat-related illness or some may not be as effective when the body is exposed to high temperatures,” Riggs said.

Source: American Heart Association

Microplastics Travel from the Gut to Other Organs

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In a recent paper published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, University of New Mexico researchers found that microplastics – released by the breakdown of plastics in the environment – are having a significant impact on human digestive pathways, making their way from the gut and into the tissues of the kidney, liver and brain.

Eliseo Castillo, PhD, an associate professor in the Division of Gastroenterology & Hepatology in the UNM School of Medicine’s Department of Internal Medicine and an expert in mucosal immunology, is leading the charge at UNM on microplastic research.

“Over the past few decades, microplastics have been found in the ocean, in animals and plants, in tap water and bottled water,” Castillo, says. “They appear to be everywhere.”

Scientists estimate that people ingest 5 grams of microplastic particles each week on average – equivalent to the weight of a credit card.

While other researchers are helping to identify and quantify ingested microplastics, Castillo and his team focus on what the microplastics are doing inside the body, specifically to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and to the gut immune system.

Over a four-week period, Castillo, postdoctoral fellow Marcus Garcia, PharmD, and other UNM researchers exposed mice to microplastics in their drinking water. The amount was equivalent to the quantity of microplastics humans are believed to ingest each week.

Microplastics had migrated out of the gut into the tissues of the liver, kidney and even the brain, the team found. The study also showed the microplastics changed metabolic pathways in the affected tissues.

“We could detect microplastics in certain tissues after the exposure,” Castillo says. “That tells us it can cross the intestinal barrier and infiltrate into other tissues.”

Castillo says he’s also concerned about the accumulation of the plastic particles in the human body. “These mice were exposed for four weeks,” he says. “Now, think about how that equates to humans, if we’re exposed from birth to old age.”

The healthy laboratory animals used in this study showed changes after brief microplastic exposure, Castillo says. “Now imagine if someone has an underlying condition, and these changes occur, could microplastic exposure exacerbate an underlying condition?”

He has previously found that microplastics are also impacting macrophages. In a 2021 paper published in Cell Biology & Toxicology, Castillo and other UNM researchers found that when macrophages encountered and ingested microplastics, their function was altered and they released inflammatory molecules.

“It is changing the metabolism of the cells, which can alter inflammatory responses,” Castillo says. “During intestinal inflammation – states of chronic illness such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, which are both forms of inflammatory bowel disease – these macrophages become more inflammatory and they’re more abundant in the gut.”

The next phase of Castillo’s research, which is being led by postdoctoral fellow Sumira Phatak, PhD, will explore how diet is involved in microplastic uptake.

“Everyone’s diet is different,” he says. “So, what we’re going to do is give these laboratory animals a high-cholesterol/high-fat diet, or high-fibre diet, and they will be either exposed or not exposed to microplastics. The goal is to try to understand if diet affects the uptake of microplastics into our body.”

Castillo says one of his PhD students, Aaron Romero, is also working to understand why there is a change in the gut microbiota. “Multiple groups have shown microplastics change the microbiota, but how it changes the microbiota hasn’t been addressed.”

Castillo hopes that his research will help uncover the potential impacts microplastics are having to human health and that it will help spur changes to how society produces and filtrates plastics.

Source: University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center

Radon Gas Contributing to Rise in Lung Cancer among Young Adults

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Although lung cancer is traditionally thought of as a “smoker’s disease,” a surprising 15–20% of newly diagnosed lung cancers occur in people who have never smoked, many of whom are in their 40s or 50s.

This concerning rise in non-smoking lung cancer cases is likely linked to long-term, high exposures of radon gas. This colourless, odourless gas is emitted from the breakdown of radioactive material naturally occurring underground that then seeps through building foundations. The gas can linger and accumulate in people’s homes and lungs silently unless they know to test for it.

Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends regular radon testing and corrective measures to lower exposure levels in homes, a new consumer survey conducted on behalf of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center (OSUCCC) showed that a stunning 75% of Americans have not had their homes tested for radon, and over half (55%) are not concerned about radon exposure in their homes, community or schools.

“Anyone with lungs can develop lung cancer, and as a community we should be aware and concerned about radon exposure because it’s thought to be one of the leading causes of lung cancer in never-smokers – and there is something we can do reduce our risk,” said David Carbone, MD, PhD, a thoracic medical oncologist. “There are relatively simple tests to measure radon in the home and actions to reduce radon exposure.”

This includes installing outside the home a radon remediation system that sucks air from the basement, where radon gas typically lingers. Increasing air flow by opening windows and using fans/venting in your home, and sealing cracks in the floors, walls and foundation is also important.

Lung cancer rising in young non-smokers

The No. 1 risk factor for lung cancer is long-term cigarette smoking; however, rates of lung cancer among non-smokers continue to rise. The symptoms of the disease are the same regardless of whether the person has smoked: generally not feeling well or feeling tired all the time, frequent cough, chest pain, wheezing, shortness of breath or coughing up blood. These symptoms happen with other illnesses too, but Carbone notes anyone – regardless of age – who has a lingering symptom that doesn’t resolve despite initial treatment should insist on having it checked out.

Lung cancer screening is currently available only to people at the highest risk for the disease – older adults with a history of heavy smoking.

If detected in its earliest stages, the cure rate for lung cancer can be 90–95%. The bulk of cases, however, are not detected until the disease has spread throughout the lung or to other parts of the body, when treatments aren’t as effective. It is important that anyone deemed at risk for lung cancer get timely screening, and that people who might be at increased risk due to secondhand smoke, radon or occupational exposures (like firefighting) talk to their doctors about testing.

“Your health and the health of your family are the most important things you have. Really push to get your concerns addressed if your symptoms aren’t resolving, even if you don’t fit the typical ‘picture’ of lung cancer. It could truly save your life,” said Carbone.

Requiring radon testing in homes, schools and workplaces

Carbone noted that having high levels of radon exposure at school or work is just as much a health hazard as having high-level exposure in your basement.

He says he strongly supports potential legislation to require radon testing at schools, at places of business and during home sales to help reduce community risk. The effects of radon on your lungs is cumulative and can be delayed by decades.

“So your children playing in your basement or going to school today, exposed to unknown levels of radon, could be at risk for developing lung cancer 10, 20, 30 years from now,” Carbone said. “And because the gas is totally colourless and odourless, you would have no idea you were being exposed unless you knew the importance of proactively testing.”

Source: Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center

Risk Factors for Faster Aging in the Brain Revealed in New Study

Source: CC0

Researchers from the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford have used data from UK Biobank participants to reveal that diabetes, traffic-related air pollution and alcohol intake are the most harmful out of 15 modifiable risk factors for dementia.

The researchers had previously identified a ‘weak spot’ in the brain, which is a specific network of higher-order regions that not only develop later during adolescence, but also show earlier degeneration in old age.

They showed that this brain network is also particularly vulnerable to schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

In this new study, published in Nature Communications, they investigated the genetic and modifiable influences on these fragile brain regions by looking at the brain scans of 40 000 UK Biobank participants aged over 45.

The researchers examined 161 risk factors for dementia, and ranked their impact on this vulnerable brain network, over and above the natural effects of age.

They classified these modifiable risk factors into 15 broad categories: blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, weight, alcohol consumption, smoking, depressive mood, inflammation, pollution, hearing, sleep, socialisation, diet, physical activity, and education.

Prof Gwenaëlle Douaud, who led this study, said: “We know that a constellation of brain regions degenerates earlier in aging, and in this new study we have shown that these specific parts of the brain are most vulnerable to diabetes, traffic-related air pollution – increasingly a major player in dementia – and alcohol, of all the common risk factors for dementia.”

“We have found that several variations in the genome influence this brain network, and they are implicated in cardiovascular deaths, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, as well as with the two antigens of a little-known blood group, the elusive XG antigen system, which was an entirely new and unexpected finding.”

Prof Lloyd Elliott, a co-author from Simon Fraser University in Canada, concurs: ‘In fact, two of our seven genetic findings are located in this particular region containing the genes of the XG blood group, and that region is highly atypical because it is shared by both X and Y sex chromosomes.

This is really quite intriguing as we do not know much about these parts of the genome; our work shows there is benefit in exploring further this genetic terra incognita.’

Importantly, as Prof Anderson Winkler, a co-author from the National Institutes of Health and The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in the US, points out: “What makes this study special is that we examined the unique contribution of each modifiable risk factor by looking at all of them together to assess the resulting degeneration of this particular brain ‘weak spot’. It is with this kind of comprehensive, holistic approach – and once we had taken into account the effects of age and sex – that three emerged as the most harmful: diabetes, air pollution, and alcohol.”

This research sheds light on some of the most critical risk factors for dementia, and provides novel information that can contribute to prevention and future strategies for targeted intervention.

Source: University of Oxford

Opinion Piece: Ripples of Change toward Building a World of Water Equity and Unity

By Robert Erasmus, Managing Director at Sanitech

Photo by Hush Naidoo Jade Photography on Unsplash

World Water Day 2024 resonates deeply in South Africa, where access to clean water remains a significant struggle for many. Recent protests sparked by water scarcity highlight the urgency of this issue, reminding us that water is not just a resource, but a fundamental human right.

This year’s theme, “Leveraging Water for Peace,” calls for unity and recognition of water’s universal significance. As we face the reality of inequality, it is important for us to renew our commitment to equitable water access for all, by fostering dialogue and taking action that is deeply rooted in empathy and ubuntu. Every drop should bring not only sustenance, but also the promise of peace and prosperity.

Connecting local struggles to global issues

South Africa’s water challenges mirror broader global concerns. Ranked a worrying fifth in global water risk, we share these strained resources with our neighbours. This interconnectedness cannot be ignored, and neglecting this truth is likely to fuel regional tensions. Instead, by highlighting our shared challenge, we can strengthen our position and emphasise the need for collaborative solutions. The depth of South Africa’s water scarcity isn’t just a domestic issue – it’s a regional one. Our ranking among the world’s worst puts us alongside stressed neighbours, suggesting the potential for cross-border conflict over shared resources.

Internally, competition between formal and informal users already creates friction, amplified by seasonal rainfall and inadequate infrastructure. To make matters worse, poor sanitation further contaminates water sources, escalating the crisis. The Institute for Security Studies’ Public Violence and Protest Monitor shows that in South Africa, community frustrations with water and sanitation delivery failures resulted in 585 cases of public protest between January 2013 and April 2021, of which incidents, 65% escalated into violent protests.

Aligning with the water rights framework

Although South Africa boasts a progressive water rights framework, our efforts must align with this framework, ensuring that the fight for water equity remains central to our pursuit of peace. Empowering communities with access to clean drinking water and sanitation and upholding water rights are essential steps toward conflict prevention.

Raising awareness is essential, but tangible action holds the key to progress. Businesses can play an important role in acknowledging South Africa’s water scarcity and investing in corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects that focus on addressing sanitation and water quality in the communities in which they operate. From an individual perspective, it is important that each citizen does their part to conserve water, while supporting organisations that work on improving water access, and raising awareness of related issues within their communities. At a government level, it is critical to prioritise infrastructure maintenance, address sewage contamination, and collaborate with regional partners and industries on sustainable water management strategies, to prevent civil unrest by addressing water equity issues.

Tapping into Ubuntu and empathy

Ubuntu, the South African philosophy of shared humanity, encourages us to understand and share the experiences of others. Cultivating empathy across communities, businesses, and government fosters inclusive dialogue and collaborative solutions. With the principles of ubuntu in mind, it is critical to address sewage contamination to preserve our scarce water resources. It is essential for municipalities and provincial governments to invest in infrastructure upgrades to reduce water loss and improve delivery.   Businesses operating within the sanitation and water treatment sectors have the potential to empower communities by providing filtration and treatment solutions for local water sources. Moreover, the broader private sector can contribute to corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives aimed at enhancing sanitation and water quality in vulnerable communities.

Amplifying voices through collaborative communication

Empowering community voices is vitally important. This can be achieved through increased awareness on water scarcity and its impact, as well as by supporting local initiatives that improve water access and quality. Based on the principles of ubuntu, we must advocate for the facilitation of open communication between communities, businesses, and government. Water advocacy groups such as South African Water Caucus (SAWC), and water project NGOs such as the Mvula Trust must continue to advocate for increased funding for water and sanitation projects, by holding the government accountable for meeting water rights and supporting regional cooperation on water management.

Uniting for peace and prosperity

In this way, individuals, organisations, and governments can turn the promise of World Water Day into tangible progress by working together. In prioritising equitable water access, addressing underlying challenges, and fostering collaboration, we can build a future where every drop flows towards peace, not conflict. Remember, water scarcity and strife does not have to be our inevitable future. Through collective action and commitment, we can ensure that this precious resource serves as a bridge to peace and prosperity for all.