Category Archives: Environmental health
If you’re reading this, then YOU can prevent wildfires. Also forest fires.
Both are indelible messages from Smokey Bear—an icon of public health and a friendly face from everyone’s childhood—who is celebrating his 70th birthday. Born August 9, 1944, the creation of the U.S. Forest Service and the Ad Council has over the decades become the center of the longest-running PSA campaign in U.S. history.
As part of the birthday celebration, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters have launched a new round of PSAs featuring outdoor enthusiasts thanking Smokey for his years of work.
Since the campaign’s launch in 1944, the average number of acres burned by wildfires has decreased from 22 million to 6.7 million. However, they still remain one of the country’s most critical environmental issues—as well as one of its most misunderstood. While many people believe that lightning is the cause of most wildfires, the reality is the vast majority—9 out of 10—are manmade. The causes range from unattended campfires and burning debris on a windy day to improperly discarded smoking materials and operating equipment without spark arrestors.
It doesn’t really matter why you download a parking app this weekend. You might get a perch at the parade faster, make it to the grocery store before the steaks sell out or get that much closer to the restaurant front door. Using any parking app can reduce your driving around time, and, therefore, reduce the emissions from your car.
Studies reported by the Boston University College of Engineering have estimated that, on a daily basis, 30 percent of traffic in the downtown area of major cities is due to searching for parking spots. Over the span of one year in a small Los Angeles business district, cars cruising for parking created emissions equivalent to 38 trips around the world, burning 47,000 gallons of gasoline and producing 730 tons of carbon dioxide.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, vehicle emissions contribute to air pollution and are a major ingredient in the creation of smog in large cities. Pollution has been linked to asthma and other respiratory conditions. In addition, a 2013 study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that 53,000 premature deaths occur each year in the United States because of vehicle emissions.
Visiting a new city or driving around at home? Search for “parking app” and the name of the city and you’ll find apps dedicated to finding parking spaces with ease. For example, the recently released Park Chicago pilot app includes meter rates for various areas of the city and directions to the closest spot, as well as hours, prices and directions for hundreds of parking garages in the city.
Getting familiar with a parking app will put you on good footing for “smart parking,” a growing concept that places sensors in parking spots and lets you reserve and even pay for a spot from your phone. The benefit to the driver is less time on the parking prowl. The benefit to cities is the data collected on how frequently spots are used, which can help cities better allocate space. Parker, an app developed by smart parking company Streetline, can even identify spots for disabled drivers, and share that data with cities to help determine whether the spaces are located where they are most needed.
But you still have to pay the bill, and check the meter. Down the road, parking apps will also be able to alert law enforcement to ticket your car if you run out your clock.
Lost in the late night guffaws over Chipotle’s report to investors last week that future weather changes could impact the price of avocados—and in turn the availability of guacamole—is that those changes may impact far more than just chips and dips.
The Chipotle annual report told investors that “Increasing weather volatility or other long-term changes in global weather patterns, including any changes associated with global climate change, could have a significant impact on the price or availability of some of our ingredients...[and] we may choose to temporarily suspend serving menu items, such as guacamole or one or more of our salsas...”
The chain’s concern comes from scientists’ predictions for hotter temperatures and less rainfall in upcoming decades, which could reduce the yields of crops such as avocados. But a drop in rainfall impacts so much more than guacamole. Several times this year multiple communities in California, which has faced a severe drought, issued water restrictions as stringent as how frequently people could flush their toilets.
Recently The Atlantic Cities published an online quiz about how much water it takes for common activities such as showers and laundry. The quiz was developed by an Indiana University professor who was surprised by the many wrong answers he got from the thousand people he surveyed.
Do you know how much water it takes to water the lawn? Check out the quiz here.
>>NewPublicHealth continues a new series to highlight some of the best public health education and outreach campaigns every month. Submit your ideas for Public Health Campaign of the Month to info@newPublichealth.org.
In honor of American Heart Month, held each February, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has created a new Public Service Announcement (PSA) to educate the public and health care providers about the risks of air pollution to the heart.
"Over more than four decades of EPA history, we've made tremendous progress cleaning up the air we breathe by using science to understand the harmful effects of air pollution," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “While EPA continues to fight for clean air, Americans can take further action to protect their heart health by following the advice in our new PSA.”
One of EPA’s commitments in the U.S. Surgeon General’s National Prevention Strategy is to educate health care professionals on the health effects of air pollution, including heart risks. This PSA supports the Million Hearts Initiative, launched by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in September 2011, to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes by 2017.
Research has shown that air pollution can trigger heart attacks, stroke and worsen heart conditions, especially in people with heart disease—that’s one in three Americans. According to the EPA, very small particles are the pollutants of greatest concern for triggering health effects from exposure to air pollutants. These particles are found in transportation exhaust, haze, smoke, dust and sometimes even in air that looks clean. Particle pollution can also be found in the air at any time of the year.
The new PSA advises people with heart disease to check the daily, color-coded Air Quality Index forecast. At code orange or higher, particle pollution can be harmful to people with heart disease. On bad air quality days, it is recommended to reschedule outdoor exercise or to exercise indoors instead, and avoid exercising near busy roads.
Air Quality Index forecasts for more than 400 cities are available on the forecast map through a free AirNow app for iPhone and Android phones, and through the free EnviroFlash e-mail service. To sign up, visit here and click on the “Apps” or “EnviroFlash” icons.
A new report from the University of Michigan School of Public Health and published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives urges government at the local, state and federal levels to address noise pollution, which the study estimates impacts 104 million Americans. The researchers say noise not only impacts hearing, but also contributes to heart disease, hypertension, sleep disturbances, stress, learning difficulties and even injuries.
"Everyone complains about noise, yet we do virtually nothing about it in this country," says Richard Neitzel, PHD, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the School of Public Health and a co-author of the new report. “Noise is really up there in terms of health problems it causes, but it gets no attention—especially compared to other common exposures such as air pollution.”
Links between noise and health impacts are still being studied, but stress is thought to be a key factor.
The report suggests that noise be included in the federal public health agenda and recommends areas for regulation to reduce noise levels, including setting emission levels, improving information dissemination about the dangers of noise and a call to conduct more research to better understand the impact of noise on the population. Neitzel’s report includes recommendations for the National Prevention Strategy, a strategy to achieve prevention efforts across federal agencies:
- Exert noise control through direct regulation, setting maximum emissions levels.
- Require emissions disclosure on products, such as children’s toys.
- Improve information dissemination about the dangers of noise.
- Conduct more research to fully understand the impact of noise on the population.
The researchers also suggest ways state and local governments could fill the gaps:
- Enact regulations on sources of noise that aren’t covered by the Environmental Protection Agency or other federal agencies.
- Adopt procurement policies to reduce community noise caused by construction, emergency vehicles and maintenance equipment.
- Take steps to build or renovate housing that protects people from noise health initiatives across the federal government.
>>Bonus Link: Read a NewPublicHealth blog about a study by a visiting attorney fellow of the Network for Public Health Law on the health impacts of environmental noise.
NewPublicHealth Q&A: Florence Fulk and Tami Thomas-Burton on the Impact of the Environment on Health
Florence Fulk, MS, BS, a research biologist with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Tami Thomas-Burton, BS, MPH, of the Office of the Regional Administrator-Environmental Justice at EPA, will be speaking at the National Health Impact Assessment meeting this week on HIAs and environmental policy. NewPublicHealth caught up with Fulk and Thomas-Burton ahead of the conference to ask about EPA’s use of health impact assessments.
NewPublicHealth: What steps has the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) taken with respect to health impact assessments?
Florence Fulk: Within EPA is the Office of Research and Development, and within that office we have a Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program which is providing tools, models and approaches to support HIAs across the country. We’re also demonstrating HIA as an approach to integrate and weigh tradeoff in community decision making.
NPH: Why is the EPA investing in health impact assessments?
Fulk: The primary vision for the Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program is to inform and empower communities to look at human health, economic and environmental factors in their decision making, and to do it in a way that fosters community sustainability. And that vision is very closely linked to the values and the function of HIAs. The number of HIAs that are being conducted in the United States and the number of people that are conducting HIAs in the United States has formed this growing community of practice, which can inform our Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program by understanding the decisions that communities are facing and how they’re bringing health, economic and environmental information to the process.
We also see that by growing a community of practice as a network to disseminate EPA tools, models, data and guidance, the research that we do to support HIAs also gives us a way to raise awareness about sustainable alternatives in community decisions.
In the 1970s and 80s, residents of the Bronx, one of New York City’s five boroughs, were so anxious to leave the crime-ridden area that many residential and commercial buildings—once majestic and architecturally rich—were torched and empty for decades. Now fifty years later there’s a waiting list of thousands for Via Verde, a new low- and middle-income Bronx housing complex that opened last year. Many features set the complex apart from almost any other housing development in the United States, including an emphasis on greenery from almost every vantage point of the building. This helps create a calming and beautiful atmosphere for the residents, many of whom grew up in crowded housing projects where any nearby parks were usually too dangerous to enjoy.
Why is housing important for health? A lack of affordable rental housing can push more tenants into substandard or overcrowded living situations. Living in unaffordable housing also leaves fewer resources for the things that can keep a family healthy, such as healthy food or preventative health care. Low-income housing also has a reputation for being unhealthy, and for good reason—more than 6 million housing units in the U.S. have deficiencies such as lead paint hazards; allergens, dampness and mold that can trigger asthma; and unsafe structural issues that can cause falls and other injuries. Via Verde and other similar efforts seek to change all that, with housing that is not only affordable but also safe, healthy and even environmentally sound and sustainable (which in turn also saves on costs).
The design for Via Verde was the winner of a 2006 competition hosted by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development; the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects; the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA); and the Enterprise Foundation. It was New York City’s first juried design competition for affordable and sustainable housing.
While residential use of lead-based paint has been banned in the U.S. since 1978, millions of homes still have the paint, and the health dangers it brings with it, on their walls. Lead paint has been linked to cognitive and behavior issues as well as anemia and even death, especially in young children because their brains are still developing. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half a million children ages 1 through 5 have potentially dangerous blood lead levels.
In Philadelphia, according to the 2009 American Housing Survey data, 91.6 percent of the housing units were built before 1978. Exacerbating the issue, close to 30 percent of families live in poverty, which can delay household maintenance and lead to peeling paint—a major lead risk to children in older homes. Studies also show that the number of children in Philadelphia with elevated blood levels is higher than the national average.
“This problem requires a public health solution since [preventing childhood] lead exposure…involves multiple stakeholders, including the child and parents, the property owner, and the local authorities who make and enforce laws, ordinances and codes,” says Carla Campbell an associate teaching professor in the School of Public Health at Drexel University. Campbell is the author of a new study on a lead court established in Philadelphia in 2003. The lead court is designed to speed the cleanup of lead hazards in apartments and rented homes. Campbell’s research was funded by the Public Health Law Research, a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, based at the Temple University School of Law. Campbell’s study appears in a special issue of the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law focused on public health law research.
NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Carla Campbell about Philadelphia’s lead court and the implications of its success for other public health issues.
NewPublicHealth: What did your study find?
What’s the number one littered item on U.S. roadways? Cigarette butts.
And that’s not much of a surprise given a new survey from Legacy, an advocacy group focused on ending youth smoking, and Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, which found that more than 44 percent of those polled who’ve smoked admit to having dropped a cigarette on the ground. And nearly 32 percent of responders who’ve smoked have dropped a cigarette out of a car window.
Cigarette butts do way more harm than simply adding to unsightly litter. The butts include the cigarette’s plastic filter, which pose risks to animals and biodegrade only under extreme conditions. And cigarette butts contain carcinogens that can leach into soil, as well as chemicals that are poisonous to wildlife and can contaminate water sources.
Legacy and Leave No Trace have developed a suite of materials to help push people to action and reduce the butt litter.
- An infographic on the dangerous materials in cigarette butts
- A toolkit to help spread the word about what people can do to rid the earth of cigarette butts
- Television and radio Public Service Announcement
Watch the PSA "Toxic Litter Everywhere" below.
Among the impacts of the East Coast’s Hurricane Sandy have been tens of thousands of uprooted trees, contaminated water and tons of compromised food. A recent article in the Journal of Environmental Health Natural recommends that environmental health become an integral part of emergency preparedness and that community stakeholders take a role in merging the two.
David Dyjack, DrPH, associate executive director of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, and a co-author of the study, spoke with NewPublicHealth about building momentum to include environmental health in disaster emergency preparedness.
NewPublicHealth: What does the article address?
David Dyjack: The article is the first step in a series of research steps looking at how best to integrate environmental health and emergency preparedness so that communities are more resilient and take greater responsibility for their own health and safety in the event of an environmental disaster.
NPH: What is distinct about environmental health emergency preparedness?