Archive for the ‘health’ Category

Sounds of the City


Wind Turbines by Jeff Meredthing

Even in rural areas, noise is a problem: residents in King City, Missouri, are complaining about the noise from wind turbines. Researchers are coining the phrase “wind turbine syndrome” to describe a collection of symptoms including headaches, anxiety attacks and high blood pressure. Researchers recommend that turbines be located at least a mile from homes, schools and hospitals. Credit: Jeff Meredith.

“America is the noisiest country that ever existed. One is waked up in the morning, not by the singing of the nightingale, but by the steam whistle. It is not surprising that the sound practical sense of the American does not reduce this intolerable noise.” – Oscar Wilde’s Impressions of America (1883)

America has evolved in noisier ways than Oscar Wilde could have ever imagined. In the place of the singing bird, one will hear car alarms, police sirens, motorcycles, jackhammers, and stereo systems as loud as jet planes. Urban settings, in particular, subject residents to potentially harmful levels of noise. Local governments are increasingly being pressured by city residents to either enforce existing noise ordinances or put new laws into effect that turn down the volume.

Normal conversations occur at 50-70 decibels, but many sounds in our environment are far above that level. Prolonged exposure to sound above 85 decibels may cause permanent hearing loss. Motorcycles commonly eclipse 85 decibels (at 65 miles per hour, they surpass 110 decibels), while small firecrackers can reach 100-110 decibels. Ambulance and police sirens fall in the 110-120 decibel range, and if you have poor enough judgment to attend a rock concert, you could experience 140 decibels. These sounds are staples of the urban experience. Out of the 28 million Americans who have some degree of hearing loss, one-third damaged their hearing through excessive exposure to sound.

Exposure to noise can do much more than make you deaf. There is a growing body of literature indicating that noise exposure can induce hypertension and ischemic heart disease, annoyance, sleep disturbance, and decreased school performance. Traffic noise has been shown to cause considerable disturbance and annoyance in exposed subjects. Evidence linking noise to changes in the immune system and birth defects is more limited, however.

The Washington, DC neighborhood of Capitol Hill is a hotbed for protesters and street preachers who not only like to shout their opinions, but amplify them – at a level often surpassing 90 decibels. “There are no regulations for amplified, noncommercial speech between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.,” says resident turned noise activist David Klavitter, who notes that this loophole allows people to use amplifiers as a weapon. “They’re not content using speech to influence or persuade; they’re using the sheer brute force of noise to harass people into submission,” he says.

Klavitter and other DC residents bothered by the din have urged the city council to limit noncommercial public speech during the day to no greater than 70 decibels. Under their proposal, fines would be assessed for louder speech, as measured 50 feet from its source. And eventually, DC activists want to be even stricter than measuring sound from 50 feet away. “We’ve offered some amendments like a property line or occupied residence provision. If someone sets up (an amplifier) underneath the window of someone’s house, they could be at 90 decibels,” says Klavitter. “A property line or occupied residence decibel level would provide additional protection for residents in DC. In an open field, you can be as loud as you want. But once the sound hits a property line where it will impact someone else, there should be limits.”

It takes an organized effort among residents to demand and implement changes which will result in a less noise-saturated environment. It starts from the ground up; most politicians are not concerned about noise or educated about its health effects. So their constituents have to speak up and be heard; they have to educate their elected officials. If it takes a little kicking and screaming to get the job done, that noise is entirely forgivable.

Story by Jeff Meredith. Read the rest of his research on the Visitor Contributions page.

Posted by Joseph, under health  |  Date: June 2, 2008
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BU Today Reports on the Roach-Asthma Link


Don Rivard explains Integrated Pest Management Earlier this month, I posted “Of Pests and Pesticides,” a video by me and my classmates on chemical-free pest control.

BU Today just posted their version of the story, which portrays the safer pest control movement, known as Integrated Pest Mangement or IPM, as an effort to prevent childhood asthma.

It’s a bit more complicated than that. Although research showing a link between childhood asthma and cockroaches does exist, it is still a theory. What researchers are finding is that harmful pesticide residues stick around in carpets and other fabrics for years after they are used. What could be causing the asthma, no one knows. Nor does anyone know whether better pest control can reduce asthma rates.

What Pest Consultant Don Rivard, (pictured above), does when he checks for roaches covers both possibilities. By using tactics such as sticky traps and gel baits to get pests, people use less pesticide sprays. At the same time, he kills more roaches.

Roaches and asthma are national issues, not just for low-income families in Boston Public Housing. Asthma has been linked to everything from smog to not going outdoors enough as a child. IPM keeps the possible connection in mind, but it is more about helping people live cleaner, healthier lives. It would have been nice to have seen the bigger picture rather than just the BU research connection. But that’s the difference between PR and journalism.

Posted by Joseph, under health, uncategorized  |  Date: May 27, 2008

Of Pests and Pesticides


Guess who’s coming to dinner? If you live in Boston Public Housing – Probably roaches. These creepy crawlers aren’t just ugly, they can worsen symptoms of allergies and asthma. The quick fix are pesticide sprays, but experts now know, this solution may be just as unhealthy. Nuño Domínguez, Jeff Meredith and Joseph Caputo of the Boston University Center for Science and Medical Journalism have the story:

Posted by Joseph, under health, video  |  Date: May 12, 2008

Under Mouse Arrest


After this week, my roommate is done with mice. She could handle watching a mouse pup crawl, soaking wet, out of the kitchen sink (she was just glad she didn’t turn on the garbage disposal). She was o.k. when the glue traps scattered across our apartment started filling with squeaking captives. But when a mouse stole the spoon and feed for her sea monkeys at 2 o’clock in the morning, my roommate broke. It’s war in our apartment now, and no form of pest control will be ruled out.

Although our location in Allston’s “student ghetto” could be blamed for our mouse problem, Boston does have a reputation for its rodents – scoring number 3 in the New York Times’ 2007 Rodent Risk Assessment. Numbers on the extent of the city’s infestation are difficult to find, although research by public health experts studying the relationship between asthma and pests have found high percentages of affected households.

Mice and Boston are also linked by research studies conducted on the creatures over the years. A quick Google search won’t bring up advertisements for pest control, but a press release for Boston College biologists who’ve built a better model for mouse cancer and articles such as “autism-like disorder reversed in mice.”

With a mouse problem in the apartment, it’s easy to forget their contributions to science. Instead, we’re experimenting with ways to manage our pests. Unfortunately, according to an Illinois Department of Public Health Website, as long as we eat, we’ll probably have mice. Aside from their insect-like abilities to crawl up walls, jump as high as 13 inches, and reproduce every three weeks – they can survive on very little food for long periods of time. When a meal is available, whether from a trash bag left overnight or a few crumbs on the counter, you can expect to find evidence of their rummaging come morning.

If cleaning the kitchen isn’t enough, then our best bet is “population reduction.” Earlier this year, we tried live traps that looked like big $15 condos for rodents. These worked really well. But, getting the mice out of the trap was difficult, as they were often too scared to leave. When money became an issue, we switched to the cheap glue traps. Despite being inhumane and illegal in some countries, they work. A good tip is to not fold them up as pictured above, leave them flat and in a place you know mice have been. Also, try not to touch any trap too much and place them with latex gloves – mice can smell humans.

If our glue trap strategy doesn’t work, other options include snap traps, poison and home remedies like peppermint and onions. Other advice is to control how mice get in and out of living spaces. Since we live in a 4th floor rental apartment, we have little control over the maintenance of our building (the multiple citations for dumpster overflow taped to the front door signals the kind of neglect students here endure). If our rodent problem continues, we can leave a hundred messages for maintenance or call a local “animal removal” service like Massachusetts Pest Control. Hopefully, for my roommate’s sake, the mice will learn of this plan and make a hasty retreat.

Posted by Joseph, under health  |  Date: April 12, 2008

On Screen: “The Truth About Cancer”


Scene from \

WGBH filmmakers, Harvard doctors, and people affected by cancer gathered last Thursday night at the Coolidge Corner Theater for what eventually became the equivalent of a scientific town meeting. It began as a free sneak preview of “The Truth About Cancer,” a 90-minute documentary to premier on PBS this Wednesday, April 16, but the film’s intensity, combined with primarily Boston-based interview subjects, (most of whom were in the audience), fueled a post-screening Q & A with writer/director/producer Linda Garmon that allowed a serious discussion on the state of cancer research to transpire between Ph.Ds and non-scientists.

Due to the amount of discussion dedicated to illness and death, a grief counselor was available at the screening for audience members, and rightly so. According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 1.3 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer each year, a puny number compared to how many more are touched by the disease. It doesn’t just take lives; it rattles patients and their families about until they are good and bloodied. The power of “The Truth About Cancer” is that it doesn’t focus on the science or statistics, it’s about the people. Garmon, who lost her husband Larry in 2001 to mesothelioma, a rare cancer linked to asbestos exposure, uses the film to weave his story into interviews with experts and current patients to find out where cancer treatment is today.

There is no mysticism in Garmon’s documentary, and she stated quite clearly at the Q & A that she believes in science. Unfortunately, science can be cold. A truth that emerges in the film is the failure of Nixon’s war on cancer. The next federal goal is to end death and suffering by cancer by 2015. Another insight is that clinical trials may not always benefit current patients because they require many mistakes before they are effective. Even more shocking, nine out of ten of these trials will fail. We also don’t know enough about cancer prevention. At the moment, even the most healthy individual can succumb to the disease. “The truth about cancer,” says Garmon in arguably the film’s most memorable line, “is you can follow all the rules and just have damned bad luck.”

The doctors featured in the film, all who saw it for the first time on Thursday, shared similar sentiments. “Modern cancer care never discusses that you don’t win very often,” says Dr. George Demetri of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the film. “It’s very American to think you can control your destiny, but when it comes to cancer, it’s all biology.” When asked about his response to the documentary during the Q & A, Dr. Gregory Ryan, a GI specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital replied, “This is torture to go through it a second time. To watch a person dying is not my thing, but there is nothing better than helping someone who needs help.”

The Truth About Cancer” can be viewed on the PBS Website for the next 7 years. In addition to being a well-crafted documentary, the film is an effective tool to learn about the science of cancer. Not only is the information easy to understand, it is kept relevant to the stories. (Part of this research was done by Karen Rowan, an intern on the film and a Boston University science journalism alumna. Nice Job.)

Posted by Joseph, under health, reviews  |  Date: April 11, 2008
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News to Watch: Bacteria and Kidney Stones


A 7 mm kidney stone positioned on the x-ray taken before surgery procedure. Notice the urine track above the stone and where the track collapses below cutting off flow. From iStock Photo.

Bad news for clean freaks: No matter how many floors swept, bathtubs scrubbed, countertops sprayed and windows washed, you will always miss a spot. No matter how sparkly the outside, there are trillions upon trillions of bacteria living comfortably inside your gut. It may sound like a germaphobe’s nightmare, but scientists say these intestinal tenants pay their rent by protecting us from disease.

Kidney stones, the sometimes-painful, crystal-like accumulations of waste in the kidney, were linked with great confidence last week to at least one gut bacterium. Researchers from Boston University’s Slone Epidemiology Center found that being colonized by Oxalobacter formigenes can reduce the risk of kidney stones by 70%. The link was first considered in 1986, when scientists learned the bacteria removes oxalate from the intestines. Oxalate is a key component of the most common type of kidney stone, so without it, the stones cannot form.

According to Dr. David Kaufman, lead author of the study published in this month’s Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, his group’s research is the most carefully conducted and largest-scale examination to date of the O. formigenes-kidney stone relationship. They analyzed the stool of participants with and without kidney stones for signs of the bacteria. The data revealed 17% of the 247 participants with kidney stones were colonized with O. formigenes compared to 38% of the 259 participants without stones.

If not having the bacteria increases your risk for kidney stones, then to prevent them, maybe you could just take a dose of O. formigenes? Enter the emerging field of probiotics, medicine that gives life to bacteria rather than taking it away. Scientists have already begun to experiment with bacteria-coated capsules, although the trials are still too small to be sure of their success. Years may pass before a probiotic kidney stone solution exists due to the pace of long-term clinical trials as well as unanswered questions as to how and when the bacteria colonize the gut, and whether its population remains constant or changes over time.

“That a bacterium can be potentially relevant for protection against a medical problem – that is not trivial,” says Dr. Kaufman. “Many other relationships need to be looked at between bacteria and disease, good and bad. The results will give further impetus to do these studies.”

Just something to think about next time you reach for the Purell.

The study: Kaufman, D.W., Kelly, J.P., Curhan, G.C., Anderson, T.E., Dretler, S.P., Preminger, G.M., and D.R. Vave. (2008). Oxalobacter formigenes may reduce the risk of calcium oxalate kidney stones. J. Am. Soc. Nephrol. (doi: 10.1681/ASN.200710101058)

Photo of kidney stone on X-ray from iStockPhoto.

Posted by Joseph, under health, news  |  Date: March 14, 2008

AAAS: Viral Forecasting


As President George W. Bush pressures the United States Congress to pass a $5 billion bill to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa, Dr. Nathan E. Wolfe, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, is pinching pennies to prevent the world’s next pandemic. While large-scale funding is crucial for controlling current outbreaks, the U.S. has been slow to support research that could find new diseases before they find us, said Dr. Wolfe, in a lecture delivered at the AAAS meeting last Sunday.”If your doctor told you that you had all the signs for a heart attack but that he wanted to wait for you to have the heart attack before treating you, you’d find another doctor,” he said.

With funding from a National Institute of Health Pioneer Award, a grant given to “risky” research, Wolfe looks around the world for emerging diseases. The staff at his sites, located primarily in Malaysia, China, Congo and Cameroon, do this by interviewing and collecting blood samples from people who interact with wild animals on a daily basis, especially hunters.

Wolfe’s teams also gather blood samples from wild animals. With the blood, they are building a comprehensive database of viruses, which they use to produce detectors to catch and control new pathogens.

When researchers do find signs of a non-human virus, they try to link the blood to the type of animal the infected person works with. In Africa for example, cases of Simian Foamy Virus in humans, a benign infection with no symptoms, were traced to gorillas.

One surprise from Wolfe’s research is that viruses jump from animal to human quite often. However, because many of these jumps happen in locations far from urban areas, they have been difficult to track. This also has means, even if we cure the existing strains of disease like HIV, there is no guarantee others wouldn’t emerge.

With more interest in preventing pandemics, argues Wolfe, we won’t miss the boat like we did with HIV.

Posted by Joseph, under AAAS, health  |  Date: February 18, 2008
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Health Insurance: A Rite of Passage


When the first bill came in the mail for a recent hospital visit, I thought it was a mistake. I was 20 and in college and under my mother’s plan so everything should have been taken care of. If you have insurance you don’t pay medical bills, right?Well they continued to come until “Final Notice” became burned onto the envelopes. Then the debt collectors called and I didn’t know what to say. My insurance should have covered it I told them, but they didn’t care, I was just another person with a story.

With Massachusetts residents now required by law to have health insurance, I worry what will happen when I graduate. Plagued by a lifetime of loans and an inflating rent check will I be forced to pay for a plan that doesn’t guarantee I will be fully covered in an emergency?

I’m not alone. The Boston Phoenix also pondered the plight of the young last October in two reports titled: Guinea pigs – The future of the nation’s health-care reform rests on the tattooed shoulders of Massachusetts’s young adults and Insure this! Why some twentysomethings won’t buy health insurance – even though it means they’ll be breaking the law.

To summarize, us young people are running on hope. Hope that we never fall off our bicycles and hope we never end up in the hospital. At the same time I look at people in their 30s and 40s and they are o.k. They can pay their taxes, have a mortgage and aren’t bankrupt. But where do you learn the skills of dealing with an insurance company? Is it all trial and error?

Apparently yes, according to a story told in the Boston Globe by Alison Bass. Her op-ed in Monday’s paper, appropriately titled An underinsured kick in the groin, describes her failed attempt at convincing an insurance company she had the legal right not to pay her son’s emergency room bills. Her biggest asset was the advice from a Boston nonprofit that helps people negotiate medical bills called The Access project.

If my experience as 20-year-old is just the beginning of the many battles to come over my health, then be educated on your rights as a patient is up their with wear a seatbelt, look both ways before you cross, and floss.

Posted by Joseph, under health  |  Date: January 21, 2008

Patriots Win! In Other News: A Potential Epidemic


The Boston Globe failed its readers last Tuesday. A new strain of the drug-resistant MRSA bacteria may be spreading through gay male populations in San Francisco and Boston, and the city’s leading newspaper prints a brief from the wire service Reuters. Days later, there has yet to be follow-up.

The Annals of Internal Medicine took extra care to release the finding a month ahead of print. Yes, it drew some media to the less-prominent journal, but it this case, it was more than a publicity stunt, it deserved the coverage. A short article in the New York Times on the second-to-last page of the Science section remained on the paper’s Web site most e-mailed for two days. I sent it to the friends I cared about who are at risk, because although this may not be a problem that will suddenly reverse its path, at least it will encourage people to seek help if they recognize symptoms.

In addition to the NYT, the new MRSA strain, similar to the previously recorded outbreaks in hospitals but potentially more virulent, was given a full coverage at the The Wall Street Journal, NPR, The Philadelphia Inquirer and even the BBC, but not the Globe. This is a shame since Fenway Community Health, Boston’s best known center for gay and lesbian health, was one of the institutions coming across infected patients.

The paper’s authors said they have been seeing MRSA in AIDS patients since 2004. According to the reports, it is now at the point where 1 out of 588 men in the Castro district of San Francisco, one of the largest gay communities may be carriers. Similar to herpes or HPV it spreads skin-to-skin and cannot be prevented by wearing condoms. The strain is resistant to all commonly-used antibiotics and can be deadly.

And here’s why The Boston Globe failed all it’s readers, not just gay men on Tuesday: Although drug-resistant MRSA may be gaining a reputation as a sexually-transmitted-disease in the gay community, because of the way it spreads, it will not stay in this niche. Unless treatments are developed, this has the potential to be a bigger health problem for the residents of Boston and the United States. We should all be disappointed.

The Study: Emergence of multidrug-resistant, community-associated, methicillin-resistant Staphlococcus aureus clone USA300 in men who have sex with men. Annals of Internal Medicine. v. 148, no. 4, 2/19/08

Posted by Joseph, under health, LGBT  |  Date: January 18, 2008
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No No Norovirus


Just when you thought you had a handle on the Boston winter comes another seasonal perk. An unusual outbreak of potholes? Nope. A lack of government aid for people in need of heat? Closer. A 48-hour virus subjecting its host to hours of vomiting and diarrhea? Bingo!It turns out Boston may be a favorite vacation spot for an emergent form of Norovirus, a non-enveloped. single-stranded RNA virus with a history of making cruise passengers miserable. Between 2006 and 2007 the city saw 18 outbreaks, and staff members of two local hospitals have begun the count for 2008.

On a national scale, the bug is nothing new. The Centers for Disease Control reported 348 outbreaks between 1996 and 2000 with the majority of the sources being foodbourne. The concern over Boston’s outbreaks, as well as those seen in the UK, North Carolina, Wisconsin and New York is a nearly 800% increase people infected.

When the Boston Public Health Comission first reported an odd surge in holiday ER visits related to abdominal problems last January, (3,700 visits in six weeks), they knew it was norovirus but couldn’t explain the high numbers of patients.

Two months later, in March 2007, Stephen Smith at the Boston Globe reported on the link between the illnesses and two emerging strains of Norovirus. After analysis, more than 3/4 of those infected were found to have anitbodies to either of the new strains.

As we enter 2008, there is reason for hospitals, restaurants and universities to be concerned. (Boston University’s Director of Student Health Services has already sent an advisory). Not everyone infected by Norovirus shows symptoms, and those who do may be contangious for up to two weeks after aquiring the virus (but more likely a few days).

To avoid turning your apartment building or workplace into a public health hotspot, experts say to wash your hands. That’s it. Or more specifically before and after eating and always after using the bathroom.

So good luck surviving the season, with another snowstorm heading this way, it’s just begun.

Posted by Joseph, under health  |  Date: January 12, 2008
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