More Evidence of Causal Link between Air Pollution and Early Death

Strengthening U.S. air quality standards for fine particulate pollution to be in compliance with current World Health Association (WHO) guidelines could save more than 140,000 lives over the course of a decade, according to a new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The study, published June 26, 2020 in Sciences Advances, provides the most comprehensive evidence to date of the causal link between long-term exposure to fine particulate (PM2.5) air pollution and premature death, according to the authors.

“Our new study included the largest-ever dataset of older Americans and used multiple analytical methods, including statistical methods for causal inference, to show that current U.S. standards for PM2.5 concentrations are not protective enough and should be lowered to ensure that vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, are safe,” said doctoral student Xiao Wu, a co-author of the study.

The new research builds on a 2017 study that showed that long-term exposure to PM2.5 pollution and ozone, even at levels below current U.S. air quality standards, increases the risk of premature death among the elderly in the U.S.

For the new study, researchers looked at 16 years’ worth of data from 68.5 million Medicare enrollees—97% of Americans over the age of 65—adjusting for factors such as body mass index, smoking, ethnicity, income, and education. They matched participants’ zip codes with air pollution data gathered from locations across the U.S. In estimating daily levels of PM2.5 air pollution for each zip code, the researchers also took into account satellite data, land-use information, weather variables, and other factors. They used two traditional statistical approaches as well as three state-of-the-art approaches aimed at teasing out cause and effect.

Results were consistent across all five different types of analyses, offering what authors called “the most robust and reproducible evidence to date” on the causal link between exposure to PM2.5 and mortality among Medicare enrollees—even at levels below the current U.S. air quality standard of 12 μg/m3 (12 micrograms per cubic meter) per year.

The authors found that an annual decrease of 10 μg/m3 in PM2.5 pollution would lead to a 6%–7% decrease in mortality risk. Based on that finding, they estimated that if the U.S. lowered its annual PM2.5 standard to 10 μg/m3—the WHO annual guideline—143,257 lives would be saved in one decade.

The authors included additional analyses focused on causation, which address criticisms that traditional analytical methods are not sufficient to inform revisions of national air quality standards. The new analyses enabled the researchers, in effect, to mimic a randomized study—considered the gold standard in assessing causality—thereby strengthening the finding of a link between air pollution and early death.

“The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed retaining current national air quality standards. But, as our new analysis shows, the current standards aren’t protective enough, and strengthening them could save thousands of lives. With the public comment period for the EPA proposal ending on June 29, we hope our results can inform policymakers’ decisions about potentially updating the standards,” said co-author Francesca Dominici, Clarence James Gamble Professor of Biostatistics, Population, and Data Science.

Source: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Plant-based Industry Triples Over Ten Years in South Korea, One Fifth of the Population Now Reducing Meat

South Korean newspaper The Korea Herald reports that the plant-based meat industry there is beginning to take off. According to the Korea Vegetarian Union, veganism has tripled in the last 10 years, but the real difference in the Korean market is being driven by meat reducers who reportedly now make up almost a fifth of the population.

South Korea is interesting to look at in terms of plantbased acceptance, as a country where dining traditions are centred around tabletop meat BBQs and even the consumption of many raw, and often still-living, meat and seafood dishes. However, the number of flexitarians or semi-vegans who occasionally pursue a plant-based diet is growing, and the figure could go up to 10 million when accounting for such consumers, the KVU stated.

Supermarkets and stores are introducing their own plant-based ranges. Lotte Mart has Gogi Daesin, introduced in May this year, sales figures have not yet been released but the company is keen to get an early foothold in the market. 7-Eleven has also rolled out two new pre-packaged meals from Green Meat last month, using a meat alternative made of beans and mushrooms.

We reported in April that Zikooin, a plant meat company based in Seoul, is producing a vegan product called Unlimeat, which uses upcycled grains. South Korean investors are also reportedly getting into the alternative meat sector, with Pulmuone investing in US startup BluNalu and Mirae Asset Global Investments which led series F investment into Impossible foods earlier this year.

The Korea Herald goes on to say that Dongwon F&B signed an exclusive contract in December 2018 to import Beyond Meat from the US to South Korea. In March 2019, the food company introduced the flagship Beyond Burger to the Korean market and about 82,000 patties were sold there in that year, according to Dongwon F&B. Dongwon has now extended its range from Beyond to include Beyond Beef and Beyond Sausage, to its imported products.

South Korea organic food concept. National flag background with basket full of vegetables on wooden table. Copy space for text.

Lee Won-bok who heads up the KVU stated: “Regarding the taste and texture there’s still much room for development”. He goes on to say: “It is an inevitable trend. People now care about the environment, and the rights of animals and they are more cautious of what they eat”.

Source: Vegconomics

Centenarian Study Suggests Living Environment May be Key to Longevity

Judith Van Dongen wrote . . . . . . . . .

When it comes to living to the ripe old age of 100, good genes help but don’t tell the full story. Where you live has a significant impact on the likelihood that you will reach centenarian age, suggests a new study conducted by scientists at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

Published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health and based on Washington State mortality data, the research team’s findings suggest that Washingtonians who live in highly walkable, mixed-age communities may be more likely to live to their 100th birthday. They also found socioeconomic status to be correlated, and an additional analysis showed that geographic clusters where the probability of reaching centenarian age is high are located in urban areas and smaller towns with higher socioeconomic status, including the Seattle area and the region around Pullman, Washington.

Uncovering the keys to healthy aging

“Our study adds to the growing body of evidence that social and environmental factors contribute significantly to longevity, said study author Rajan Bhardwaj, a second-year WSU medical student who took an interest in the topic after serving as a home care aide to his aging grandfather. Earlier research, he said, has estimated that heritable factors only explain about 20% to 35% of an individual’s chances of reaching centenarian age.

“We know from previous research that you can modify, through behavior, your susceptibility to different diseases based on your genetics,” explained Ofer Amram, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor who runs WSU’s Community Health and Spatial Epidemiology (CHaSE) lab.

In other words, when you live in an environment that supports healthy aging, this likely impacts your ability to successfully beat your genetic odds through lifestyle changes. However, there was a gap in knowledge as to the exact environmental and social factors that make for an environment that best supports living to centenarian age, which this study helped to address.

In collaboration with co-authors Solmaz Amiri and Dedra Buchwald, Bhardwaj and Amram looked at state-provided data about the deaths of nearly 145,000 Washingtonians who died at age 75 or older between 2011 and 2015. The data included information on each person’s age and place of residence at the time of death, as well as their sex, race, education level and marital status.

Based on where the person lived, the researchers used data from the American Community Survey, Environmental Protection Agency, and other sources to assign a value or score to different environmental variables for their neighborhood. The variables they looked at included poverty level, access to transit and primary care, walkability, percentage of working age population, rural-urban status, air pollution, and green space exposure. Subsequently, they conducted a survival analysis to determine which neighborhood and demographic factors were tied to a lower probability of dying before centenarian age.

Findings offer clues

They found that neighborhood walkability, higher socioeconomic status, and a high percentage of working age population (a measure of age diversity) were positively correlated with reaching centenarian status.

“These findings indicate that mixed-age communities are very beneficial for everyone involved,” said Bhardwaj. “They also support the big push in growing urban centers toward making streets more walkable, which makes exercise more accessible to older adults and makes it easier for them to access medical care and grocery stores.”

Amram added that neighborhoods that offer more age diversity tend to be in urban areas, where older adults are likely to experience less isolation and more community support.

Meanwhile, Bhardwaj said their findings also highlight the importance of continuing efforts to address health disparities experienced by racial minorities, such as African Americans and Native Americans. Consistent with previous research findings, for example, the data shows being white is correlated with living to 100. Looking at gender, the researchers also found that women were more likely to reach centenarian age.

Finally, the researchers wanted to see in which areas of the state people had a higher probability of reaching centenarian age. For each neighborhood, they calculated the years of potential life lost, or the average number of years deceased individuals would have had to continue living to reach age 100. Neighborhoods with lower values for years of potential life lost were considered to have a higher likelihood of reaching centenarian age, and vice versa.

When they mapped the years of potential life lost for all neighborhoods across the state, they saw clusters with high likelihood of living to centenarian age in higher socioeconomic areas in urban centers and small towns across the state, including the greater Seattle area and the Pullman region.

While more research is needed to expand upon their findings, the researchers said the study findings could eventually be used to create healthier communities that promote longevity in older adults.

Source: Washington State University


Today’s Comic

Working in the Sun – Heating of the Head May Markedly Affect Safety and Performance

Approximately half of the global population live in regions where heat stress is an issue that affects the ability to live healthy and productive lives. It is well known that working in hot conditions, and the associated hyperthermia (rise in body temperature), may impair the ability to perform physically demanding manual work. However, the effects on cognitively dominated functions, and specifically the influence from sunlight exposure on human brain temperature and function have not been documented.

This new study shows clear negative effects of prolonged exposure of the head to sunlight, implying that we may have underestimated its true effects, as previous studies have traditionally been conducted in the laboratory, without accounting for the marked effect that sun radiation may have – in particular, when the head is exposed for a prolonged period.

“The novelty of the study is that we provide evidence that direct exposure to sunlight – especially to the head – impairs motor and cognitive performance,” says professor Lars Nybo, the project coordinator from Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, UCPH. He continues, “Adding to this, the decline in motor and cognitive performance was observed at 38.5 degrees, which is a 1 degree lower body temperature than previous studies have shown, which is a substantial difference.”

Direct sunlight to the head may affect productivity

Many workers in agriculture, construction and transport are at risk from being affected by exposure to strong sunlight, such as we experience in Europe the summer months. Postdoc Jacob Piil and professor Lars Nybo from UCPH headed this study in collaboration with colleagues from Thessaly University in Greece and they are convinced that the finding have implications not only for the workers’ health, but also for their work performance and safety:

“Health and performance impairments provoked by thermal stress are societal challenges intensifying with global warming and that is a prolonged problem we must try to mitigate. But we must also adapt solution to prevent the current negative effects when e.g. workers are exposed and this study emphasize that it is of great importance that people working or undertaking daily activities outside should protect their head against sunlight. The ability to maintain concentration and avoid attenuation of motor-cognitive performance is certainly of relevance for work and traffic safety as well as for minimizing the risks of making mistakes during other daily tasks,” says associate professor Andreas Flouris from FAME Laboratory in Greece.

Taken together, these results suggest that science may have underestimated the true impact of heat stress, for example during a heat wave, as solar radiation has not been investigated before. Future studies should incorporate sunlight, as this seems to have a selective effect on the head and the brain.

These findings highlight the importance of including the effect of sunlight radiative heating of the head and neck in future scientific evaluations of environmental heat stress impacts, and specific protection of the head to minimize harmful effects.

Facts about the study

Eight healthy, active males, aged 27 – 41, participated in the study. The motor-cognitive test consisted of four different computer math and logical tasks that relied on fine motor precision. Four lamps were positioned to radiate either on the lower-body or on the head (back, sides and top – to avoid blinding of the participants).

The study has been published in the article Direct exposure of the head to solar heat radiation impairs motor cognitive performance in the well esteemed journal ‘Scientific reports’.

Source: University of Copenhagen


Today’s Comic

Bacteria Differ From Your Cellphones to Your Shoes

Fears of the coronavirus have put germs on nearly everyone’s radar. But a new study points out just how little is known about the microbes that inhabit your environment.

You likely have thousands of different varieties of bacteria on your shoes and cellphone, including groups hardly ever studied by scientists, said researcher David Coil, of the University of California, Davis Genome Center, and colleagues.

“This [study] highlights how much we have to learn about the microbial world around us,” Coil said in a university news release.

The researchers analyzed the DNA of bacteria gathered from the cellphones and shoes of nearly 3,500 people who attended sporting events across the United States.

A consistent finding was that the shoes and phones of the same person had distinct communities of bacteria. Cellphone bacteria reflected those found on the person, while shoes had bacteria characteristic of soil. This matched previous results.

Populations of bacteria on shoes were more diverse than those on phones, according to the study.

Although samples were collected nationwide, the researchers didn’t find any obvious regional trends. In some cases, there were significant differences between samples collected at different sporting events in the same city. In other cases, samples from distant cities were quite similar.

The researchers were surprised to find that a substantial proportion of bacteria on shoes and phones came from groups called “microbial dark matter.” These bacteria are difficult to grow and study in a laboratory, so they have been compared to invisible “dark matter” believed to comprise much of the universe.

Dark matter groups of bacteria have only been discovered as scientists used genetic sequencing to search for microbes in different locations. Although many dark bacteria groups are found in remote or extreme environments — such as boiling acid springs and nutrient-poor underground aquifers — some have been discovered in more common habitats, such as soil.

“Perhaps we were naive, but we did not expect to see such a high relative abundance of bacteria from these microbial dark matter groups on these samples,” said study co-author Jonathan Eisen, of the UC Davis Genome Center.

The findings were published in the journal PeerJ.

Source: HealthDay


Today’s Comic