Pacific Standard reported in 2016: [Cristin] Kearns is one of the only people who have found evidence that cane- and beet-sugar manufacturers contributed to public-health problems. That’s thanks in part to her having worked as a dentist both in private practice and in a low- income clinic, which helped her realize something was amiss when conversations about dental health rarely included considerations of sugar. But it’s more a tribute to her doggedness, her willingness to comb through even the most obscure corners of library archives, and her persistence even in the face of a large and well-funded target.
She’s also unusual in the world of academia, where she’s settled for now as a research fellow at the University of California–San Francisco. Most folks who study sugar and health at universities are chemists, biologists, or epidemiologists. They examine sugar’s effects on the body, or they analyze data about whether people who eat more sugar are more likely to be in poor health. No other academic researchers study the secret workings of sugar refiners’ science campaigns.
But companies’ activities — including how they formulate their food, how their advertising and marketing affect what people buy, and their scientists’ roles in crafting nutritional guidelines — could help explain a number of major public-health problems. They could be especially important to understanding so-called non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, which don’t spread from person to person the way cholera or the flu do.
“Most non-communicable diseases are spread by big corporations,” says Stanton Glantz, a public-health researcher famed for his analysis of tobacco industry documents in the 1990s, “because profit-maximizing behavior leads them to be out pushing products which end up causing disease.” Glantz is Kearns’ mentor at UCSF. “If you’re interested in disease control, in addition to understanding the detailed mechanics of how smoking causes heart disease or how smoking causes cancer at a molecular level, you’ve got to be looking up at what forces are out there that are promoting the disease because they’re making a lot of money doing it.”
Evidence of corporations’ influence on science can lead to certain policy changes that biological and epidemiological evidence alone cannot. “This kind of research is very useful to make the point that, yeah, you simply can’t have these guys at the table,” says Richard Daynard, an expert on public health law at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. Simply knowing that a product can be bad for people’s health isn’t enough to convince the governmental organizations to remove industry folks from policy discussions. There must be evidence of company wrongdoing too. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: The Trump administration has failed to fill crucial public health positions across the government, leaving the nation ill-prepared to face one of its greatest potential threats: a pandemic outbreak of a deadly infectious disease, according to experts in health and national security.
No one knows where or when the next outbreak will occur, but health security experts say it is inevitable. Every president since Ronald Reagan has faced threats from infectious diseases, and the number of outbreaks is on the rise.
Over the past three years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has monitored more than 300 outbreaks in 160 countries, tracking 37 dangerous pathogens in 2016 alone. Infectious diseases cause about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide.
But after 11 weeks in office, the Trump administration has filled few of the senior positions critical to responding to an outbreak. There is no permanent director at the CDC or at the U.S. Agency for International Development. At the Department of Health and Human Services, no one has been named to fill sub-Cabinet posts for health, global affairs, or preparedness and response. It’s also unclear whether the National Security Council will assume the same leadership on the issue as it did under President Barack Obama, according to public health experts.
“We need people in position to help steer the ship,” said Steve Davis, the chief executive of PATH, a Seattle-based international health technology nonprofit working with countries to improve their ability to detect disease. “We are actually very concerned.”
In addition to leaving key posts vacant, the Trump administration has displayed little interest in the issue, health and security experts say. The White House has made few public statements about the importance of preparing for outbreaks, and it has yet to build the international relationships that are crucial for responding to global health crises. Trump also has proposed sharp cuts to government agencies working to stop deadly outbreaks at their source.
The slow progress on senior-level appointments — even those, such as the CDC director, that do not require Senate confirmation — is hobbling Cabinet secretaries at agencies across the government. Temporary “beachhead” teams the White House installed are hitting the end of their appointments. The remaining civil servants have little authority to make major decisions or mobilize resources.
An HHS spokeswoman declined to comment on personnel decisions. An NSC official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the administration recognizes that global health security is a national security issue and that America’s health depends on the world’s ability to detect threats wherever they occur.
Trump’s NSC does not have a point person for global health security as Obama’s did, but global health security is part of the overall portfolio of Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, another NSC official said.
Global health experts warn that a pandemic threat could be as deadly as a nuclear attack — and is much more probable. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, moved late on Wednesday to reject the scientific conclusion of the agency’s own chemical safety experts who under the Obama administration recommended that one of the nation’s most widely used insecticides be permanently banned at farms nationwide because of the harm it potentially causes children and farm workers.
The ruling by Mr. Pruitt, in one of his first formal actions as the nation’s top environmental official, rejected a petition filed a decade ago by two environmental groups that had asked that the agency ban all uses of chlorpyrifos. The chemical was banned in 2000 for use in most household settings, but still today is used at about 40,000 farms on about 50 different types of crops, ranging from almonds to apples.
Late last year, and based in part on research conducted at Columbia University, E.P.A. scientists concluded that exposure to the chemical that has been in use since 1965 was potentially causing significant health consequences. They included learning and memory declines, particularly among farm workers and young children who may be exposed through drinking water and other sources. [Continue reading…]
Bloomberg reports: President Donald Trump pledged during the 2016 campaign that he would only “leave a little bit” of federal rules that protect human health and the environment. Now about 50 former officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are firing back in a lengthy analysis that details, program by program, what amounts to a starvation diet for the EPA.
Calling themselves the Environmental Protection Network, they worked through both Republican and Democratic administrations. The group’s members are putting aside their differences over policies and programs to stop what they say “appears to be nothing less than a full-throttle attack on the principle underlying all U.S. environmental laws—that protecting the health and environment of all Americans is a national priority.”
Even before formally registering as a nonprofit organization, the network has put together a 50-page analysis of the president’s proposed EPA budget, based partly on the White House’s fiscal 2018 budget blueprint. The blueprint, released on March 16, sketched out top-line cuts of 31 percent of the agency’s budget and 21 percent of its staff. The new administration’s targeting of the agency requires an independent, expert assessment of what’s happening there, the group says. [Continue reading…]
Jonathan Chait writes: With the collapse of the House health-care bill, the cause of repealing Obamacare, a right-wing obsession for seven years and a day, has died. The flame will never be fully extinguished in the hearts of the true believers — after all, in right-wing think tanks and other places far removed from electoral politics, anti-government zealots still dream of phasing out Social Security or Medicare. But the political project dedicated to restoring the pre-Obamacare status quo, in which people too sick or poor to afford their own insurance without the subsidies and regulations of the Affordable Care Act could be safely ignored, is gone forever. And it is dead for the best possible reason, the reason that undergirds all social progress: because a good idea defeated a bad one.
Conservatives have already collapsed into mutual recriminations for their failure. Reporters have blamed Trump’s deal-making skills. Trump’s loyalists are loudly blaming Paul Ryan. “I think Paul Ryan did a major disservice to President Trump, I think the president was extremely courageous in taking on health care and trusted others to come through with a program he could sign off on,” Chris Ruddy, CEO of the right-wing site Newsmax and a longtime friend of Trump’s, tells Bloomberg. “The president had confidence Paul Ryan would come up with a good plan and to me, it is disappointing.” David Brooks blames both Trump and Congress. “The core Republican problem is this,” he writes. “The Republicans can’t run policy-making from the White House because they have a marketing guy in charge of the factory. But they can’t run policy from Capitol Hill because it’s visionless and internally divided.”
The American Health Care Act is a truly horrendous piece of legislation. But it did not become the vehicle for the Obamacare repeal effort because Trump, or Ryan, or anybody insisted on it over some other option. It became the repeal bill because nobody in the Republican Party had a better idea. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Sickness and early death in the white working class could be rooted in poor job prospects for less-educated young people as they first enter the labor market, a situation that compounds over time through family dysfunction, social isolation, addiction, obesity and other pathologies, according to a study published Thursday by two prominent economists.
Anne Case and Angus Deaton garnered national headlines in 2015 when they reported that the death rate of midlife non-Hispanic white Americans had risen steadily since 1999 in contrast with the death rates of blacks, Hispanics and Europeans. Their new study extends the data by two years and shows that whatever is driving the mortality spike is not easing up.
The two Princeton professors say the trend affects whites of both sexes and is happening nearly everywhere in the country. Education level is significant: People with a college degree report better health and happiness than those with only some college, who in turn are doing much better than those who never went.
Offering what they call a tentative but “plausible” explanation, they write that less-educated white Americans who struggle in the job market in early adulthood are likely to experience a “cumulative disadvantage” over time, with health and personal problems that often lead to drug overdoses, alcohol-related liver disease and suicide. [Continue reading…]
E&E News reports: Growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania, Patrice Tomcik had never heard of Lyme disease — an infectious, flu-like illness transmitted by ticks.
But in the last few years, five of her friends have caught it, she’s had to have her dog vaccinated and she regularly finds herself pulling ticks off her children. It can be disconcerting, she said, having to worry about an illness that she had never been exposed to in the past.
“It’s getting warmer, so the season for ticks is lasting longer,” said Tomcik, a field consultant with Moms Clean Air Force. “There are so many more of them, and they just don’t die off. It’s a big issue here in Pennsylvania, because we have so much wood. Our family has 29 acres of land out in the woods, and I’m picking ticks off my dog and my kids like I’ve never seen before.”
Lyme disease isn’t the only contagious illness that is venturing into new territories under a shifting climate. Across the country, physicians are noticing an influx of patients whose illnesses, they say, are directly or indirectly related to climate change. Now, 11 medical associations — representing around half the doctors and physicians in the country — are creating a group that intends to address the links between climate change and health risks. [Continue reading…]
This climate lawsuit could change everything. No wonder the Trump administration doesn’t want it going to trial
Chelsea Harvey reports: A groundbreaking climate lawsuit, brought against the federal government by 21 children, has been hailed by environmentalists as a bold new strategy to press for climate action in the United States. But the Trump administration, which has pledged to undo Barack Obama’s climate regulations, is doing its best to make sure the case doesn’t get far.
The Trump administration this week filed a motion to overturn a ruling by a federal judge back in November that cleared the lawsuit for trial — and filed a separate motion to delay trial preparation until that appeal is considered.
The lawsuit — the first of its kind — argues the federal government has violated the constitutional right of the 21 plaintiffs to a healthy climate system.
Environmental groups say the case — if it’s successful — could force even a reluctant government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take other measures to counter warming.
“It would be huge,” said Pat Gallagher, legal director at the Sierra Club, who is not involved in the case. “It would upend climate litigation, climate law, as we know it.” [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Children in Syria are suffering from “toxic stress”, a severe form of psychological trauma that can cause life-long damage, according to a study that charts a rise in self-harm and suicide attempts among children as young as 12.
A report by Save the Children and its partner agencies in Syria paints a harrowing picture of the country’s children, 5.8 million of whom are in need of aid, after a war which reaches its sixth year next week.
Authors of the study, the largest of its kind to be undertaken during the conflict, warned the nation’s mental health crisis had reached a tipping point, where “staggering levels” of trauma and distress among children could cause permanent and irreversible damage.
More than 70% of children interviewed experienced common symptoms of “toxic stress” or post-traumatic stress disorder, such as bedwetting, the study found. Loss of speech, aggression and substance abuse are also commonplace. About 48% of adults reported seeing children who have lost the ability to speak or who have developed speech impediments since the war began, according to the report, entitled Invisible Wounds (pdf). [Continue reading…]
Nicholas Kristof writes: There’s a broad consensus that the world is falling apart, with every headline reminding us that life is getting worse.
Except that it isn’t. In fact, by some important metrics, 2016 was the best year in the history of humanity. And 2017 will probably be better still.
How can this be? I’m as appalled as anyone by the election of Donald Trump, the bloodshed in Syria, and so on. But while I fear what Trump will do to America and the world, and I applaud those standing up to him, the Trump administration isn’t the most important thing going on. Here, take my quiz:
On any given day, the number of people worldwide living in extreme poverty:
A.) Rises by 5,000, because of climate change, food shortages and endemic corruption.
B.) Stays about the same.
C.) Drops by 250,000.
Polls show that about 9 out of 10 Americans believe that global poverty has worsened or stayed the same. But in fact, the correct answer is C. Every day, an average of about a quarter-million people worldwide graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures. [Continue reading…]
Annie Sparrow writes: For years now, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been fiddling while Syria burns, bleeds and starves. Despite WHO Syria having spent hundreds of millions of dollars since the conflict began in March 2011, public health in Syria has gone from troubling in 2011 to catastrophic now.
To put this in perspective, while life expectancy for someone born in the United States has risen half a year from 78.7 years in 2010 to 79.3 years in 2015, over the same time period in Syria, it has plummeted more than 15 years from 70.8 years in 2010 to 55.4 years in 2015.
This new and devastating figure is comparable with South Sudan (57.3) and considerably lower than Afghanistan (60.5), Rwanda (66.1), and Iraq (68.9) while disturbingly, the global average life expectancy for babies born in 2015 is 71.4 years, baby boys in Syria can expect to live just 48 years, baby girls, 65 years.
Even Haitian babies can expect to live an average of 63.5 years, despite two centuries of political turmoil and the worst rates of infectious diseases such as HIV and cholera in the Western hemisphere.
The reason for Syria’s plummeting public health can be illustrated by the final, devastating fall of eastern Aleppo. [Continue reading…]
Gary Taubes writes: ‘Virtually zero.’ That’s a reasonable estimate of the probability that public health authorities in the foreseeable future will successfully curb the worldwide epidemics of obesity and diabetes, at least according to Margaret Chan, the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) – a person who should know. Virtually zero is the likelihood, Chan said at the National Academy of Medicine’s annual meeting in October, that she and her many colleagues worldwide will successfully prevent ‘a bad situation’ from ‘getting much worse’. That Chan also described these epidemics as a ‘slow-motion disaster’ suggests the critical nature of the problem: ‘population-wide’ explosions in the prevalence of obesity along with increases in the occurrence of diabetes that frankly strain the imagination: a disease that leads to blindness, kidney failure, amputation, heart disease and premature death, and that was virtually non-existent in hospital inpatient records from the mid-19th century, now afflicts one in 11 Americans; in some populations, as many as one in two adults are diabetic.
In the midst of such a public health crisis, the obvious question to ask is why. Many reasons can be imagined for any public health failure, but we have no precedents for a failure of this magnitude. As such, the simplest explanation is that we’re not targeting the right agent of disease; that our understanding of the aetiology of both obesity and diabetes is somehow flawed, perhaps tragically so.
Researchers in harder sciences have a name for such situations: ‘pathological science’, defined by the Nobel Laureate chemist Irving Langmuir in 1953 as ‘the science of things that aren’t so’. Where experimental investigation is prohibitively expensive or impossible to do, mistaken assumptions, misconceived paradigms and pathological science can survive indefinitely. Whether this is the case with the current epidemics is an all-too-regrettable possibility: perhaps we’ve simply misconceived the reality of the link between diet, lifestyle and the related disorders of obesity and diabetes? As the Oxford scholar Robert Burton suggested in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), in cases in which the cures are ‘imperfect, lame, and to no purpose’ it’s quite possible that the causes are misunderstood. [Continue reading…]
The Economist carried out an analysis comparing Donald Trump’s levels of support in 2016 with Mitt Romney’s in 2012 and found “the better physical shape a county’s residents are in, the worse Mr Trump did relative to Mr Romney.”
The data suggest that the ill may have been particularly susceptible to Mr Trump’s message. According to our model, if diabetes were just 7% less prevalent in Michigan, Mr Trump would have gained 0.3 fewer percentage points there, enough to swing the state back to the Democrats. Similarly, if an additional 8% of people in Pennsylvania engaged in regular physical activity, and heavy drinking in Wisconsin were 5% lower, Mrs Clinton would be set to enter the White House. But such counter-factual predictions are always impossible to test. There is no way to rerun the election with healthier voters and compare the results.
The public-health crisis unfolding across white working-class America is hardly a secret. Last year Angus Deaton, a Nobel-prize-winning economist, found that the death rate among the country’s middle-aged, less-educated white citizens had climbed since the 1990s, even as the rate for Hispanics and blacks of the same age had fallen. Drinking, suicide and a burgeoning epidemic of opioid abuse are widely seen as the most likely causes. Some argue that deteriorating health outcomes are linked to deindustrialisation: higher unemployment rates predict both lower life expectancy and support for Mr Trump, even after controlling for a bevy of demographic variables.
Polling data suggests that on the whole, Mr Trump’s supporters are not particularly down on their luck: within any given level of educational attainment, higher-income respondents are more likely to vote Republican. But what the geographic numbers do show is that the specific subset of Mr Trump’s voters that won him the election — those in counties where he outperformed Mr Romney by large margins — live in communities that are literally dying. Even if Mr Trump’s policies are unlikely to alleviate their plight, it is not hard to understand why they voted for change.
Scientific American reports: This past summer anthrax killed a 12-year-old boy in a remote part of Siberia. At least 20 other people, also from the Yamal Peninsula, were diagnosed with the potentially deadly disease after approximately 100 suspected cases were hospitalized. Additionally, more than 2,300 reindeer in the area died from the infection. The likely cause? Thawing permafrost. According to Russian officials, thawed permafrost — a permanently frozen layer of soil — released previously immobile spores of Bacillus anthracis into nearby water and soil and then into the food supply. The outbreak was the region’s first in 75 years.
Researchers have predicted for years that one of the effects of global warming could be that whatever is frozen in permafrost — such as ancient bacteria — might be released as temperatures climb. This could include infectious agents humans might not be prepared for, or have immunity to, the scientists said. Now they are witnessing the theoretical turning into reality: infectious microorganisms emerging from a deep freeze.
Although anthrax occurs naturally in all soil and outbreaks unrelated to permafrost can occur, extensive permafrost thaw could increase the number of people exposed to anthrax bacteria. In a 2011 paper published in Global Health Action, co-authors Boris A. Revich and Marina A. Podolnaya wrote of their predictions: “As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.”
And permafrost is indeed thawing — at higher latitudes and to greater depths than ever before. In various parts of Siberia the active layer above permafrost can thaw to a depth of 50 centimeters every summer. This summer, however, there was a heat wave in the region, and temperatures hovered around 35 degrees Celsius — 25 degrees warmer than usual. The difference possibly expanded or deepened the thaw and mobilized microorganisms usually stuck in rigid earth. Although scientists have yet to calculate the final depth, they postulate that it is a number that has not been seen in almost a century. Permafrost thaw overall could become widespread with temperatures only slightly higher than those at present, according to a 2013 study in Science. Heat waves in higher latitudes are becoming more frequent as well. [Continue reading…]
In the Global Youth Development Index and Report 2016 (YDI), released by the Commonwealth Secretariat, the United States falls far below its self-acclaimed status as global leader. In overall ranking among 183 states, the U.S. comes 23rd.
Although there is no universally accepted definition of “youth,” the report’s authors primarily use the most commonly applied age bracket of 15-29, in line with other international organizations.
The YDI is a composite index of 18 indicators that collectively measure progress on youth development in 183 countries, including 49 of the 53 Commonwealth countries. It has five domains, measuring levels of education, health and wellbeing, employment and opportunity, political participation and civic participation among young people.
In its rankings within these five domains, the number on American youth that jumps out is for health and well-being: 106 — that’s below, for instance, Iraq (103) and Bangladesh (102).
There’s no mystery as to why the U.S. ranks so poorly in this regard. The primary reason: obesity. And the primary causes of obesity are diets loaded in empty calories combined with sedentary life styles.
The American way of life has become a system of factory farming in which a large proportion of citizens get fattened up and fed into a life-long disease management system. The primary beneficiaries of this system are the pharmaceutical industry, the manufacturers of sodas and junk food, and the entertainment industry.
Suppose a terrorist plot was uncovered revealing a plan to poison most Americans. This discovery probably wouldn’t generate a huge amount of alarm for the simple reason that however evil its ambitions might be, no terrorist organization could actually carry out a plot on this scale.
On the other hand, even though there has never been a corporate conspiracy designed to accomplish this goal, a largely unquestioned obedience to the principle of profit has brought America to this juncture. This is a chronic condition of commercial exploitation and social decay that has been decades in the making.
In “The Global Epidemic of Obesity: An Overview,” a report published in Epidemiologic Reviews, Dr. Benjamin Caballero wrote:
The sedentary lifestyle of the US population was already a concern in the 1950s, when President Eisenhower created the Council on Fitness and Health to promote physical activity in the population. While secular data to assess trends are limited, in 2000 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that less than 30 percent of the US population has an adequate level of physical activity, another 30 percent is active but not sufficiently, and the remainder is sedentary. A longitudinal study of girls aged 9–18 years documented the dramatic decline in physical activity during adolescence, particularly among Black girls. A number of factors may result in limited physical activity at schools, such as budget constraints and pressure to meet academic performance targets. Out of school, physical activity is also frequently limited. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a dramatic decline in the proportion of children who walk or bike to school, from close to 42 percent in 1969 to 16 percent in 2001. At home, the average US teenager spends over 30 hours per week watching television. This activity is not only sedentary but also associated with reduced consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, possibly related to consumption of snack foods while watching television and to the influence of food commercials, most of which advertise low-nutrient-density foods.
In the 1950s, the sugar industry sought to halve the amount of fat in the American diet and replace this with sugar which would result in a 30% increase in sugar consumption and “a tremendous improvement in general health,” according to the president of the Sugar Research Foundation, Harry Hass. The industry turned out to be tremendously successful in boosting sugar consumption, but instead of improving health it has poisoned America, setting multiple generations on a path towards chronic disease and premature death.
The New York Times reports: The World Health Organization said on Tuesday that 92 percent of people breathe what it classifies as unhealthy air, in another sign that atmospheric pollution is a significant threat to global public health.
A new report, the W.H.O.’s most comprehensive analysis so far of outdoor air quality worldwide, also said that about three million deaths a year — mostly from cardiovascular, pulmonary and other noncommunicable diseases — were linked to outdoor air pollution. Nearly two-thirds of those deaths are in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific region, compared with 333,000 in Europe and the Americas, the report said.
“When you look out through the windows in your house or apartment, you don’t see the tiny little particles that are suspended in the air, so the usual perception is that the air is clean,” Rajasekhar Balasubramanian, an air quality expert at the National University of Singapore who was not involved in the study, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
“But the W.H.O. report is a clear indication that even in the absence of air pollution episodes, the concentrations of particles suspended in the air do exceed what’s considered to be acceptable from a health viewpoint,” he said. [Continue reading…]