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Something in the air: Is Hong Kong’s pollution problem worsening?

https://www.timeout.com/hong-kong/blog/something-in-the-air-is-hong-kongs-pollution-problem-worsening-092116

The government is trumpeting recent figures that show air pollution is significantly decreasing but is the news as good as it sounds? And what other forms of pollution should Hongkongers worry about?

Christie Tse and Joyce Au find out

“See the people walking by right now? Leisurely walking past, enjoying life, breathing the fresh air?” asks Dr Bob Tsui, vicechairman of NGO Clear The Air, as he points out his office window overlooking the streets of Jordan. You are being ‘attacked through your eyes, your cornea, your nostrils, your mouth and your skin” all the time, he follows up. As you’re reading this, tiny deadly pollution particles called magnetites are slowly moving up your nostrils, penetrating your brain tissue, nervous system and lungs. In a crowded, polluted city like Hong Kong, your body is constantly under attack, every second of every day according to Dr Tsui.

According to government statistics, though, air pollution has been decreasing for several years now. The Environmental Protection Department reckons that between 2011 and 2015, average concentrations of PM10, PM2.5, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide at roadside monitoring stations fell by 26 percent, 21 percent, 19 percent and 33 percent, respectively. The figures sound impressive and the government has been running adverts on TV trumpeting its success at clearing the air.

However, all is not rosy. Recent studies conducted by scientists in Mexico City have discovered a correlation between 100 and 200 nanometer magnetites released through the exhaust pipes of taxis and buses and the development of Alzheimer’s disease. This new information has sparked concern in the local scientific community since roadside pollution remains one of the leading causes of air pollution in our jam-packed city. “In the past 20 years, Hong Kong has not once met its own Air Quality Index standard or that of the World Health Organisation’s,” exclaims Patrick Fung, CEO of NGO Clean Air Network. Paul Zimmerman, Southern District councillor, believes this is unforgiveable, as ‘it’s almost like violence is around you the whole time’, he tells us.

And that’s not the half of it. You may think you can avoid pollution by simply turning recluse and staying at home, but you’d be very wrong.

Studies conducted at the University of Hong Kong reveal that our own kitchens discharge carcinogenic particles into the air every time food is made with vegetable oil. Dr Tsui states that vegetable oil is ‘the most dangerous oil you can use’ since it contributes to air pollution. Clear The Air has published an article that details the process by which vegetable oil, when subjected to high temperatures, oxidises into cancer causing chemicals. “People wonder how they get sick because they eat well all their lives,” Dr Tsui remarks, “but they don’t realise they’re constantly surrounded by these cancerous particles.”

The worst part of all of this is that the toxic kitchen discharge is completely preventable. According to Dr Tsui, the government has the ability and resources to go into restaurants and check their deep friers for dangerous particles.

“It’s a simple test strip and they can do it very easily,” he tells us. “But I have made this announcement for years and the government has not taken any action!” By placing steam jet filters in the kitchen stove, the carcinogenic particles could be released into water. This wouldn’t contaminate the water, according to Dr Tsui, because by the time the dangerous particles pass through the filter and hit the water, many things happen chemically to make the particles no longer harmful.

And cooking oil and air pollution are not the only worries we need have in Hong Kong. After the waves of rubbish that washed up on our beaches over the summer, Hongkongers should be acutely aware of the problem of landfill. Around 30 percent of landfill is made of Styrofoam and in 500 years, that same Styrofoam will still not have decomposed. What’s worse, Styrofoam is mainly composed of styrene, an extremely dangerous chemical that has been linked to cancer, vision and hearing loss, impaired memory and concentration, damage to the nervous systems and depression. “Styrene is dangerous,” Dr Tsui declares. “Styrene is vicious. Styrene should not exist in the food chain and yet, every restaurant [in Hong Kong] today still uses Styrofoam takeout boxes.” Worryingly, when we eat hot food or drink hot liquid from Styrofoam plates, boxes or cups, it’s possible for us to consume the styrene that leaches out of the hazardous material.

Once we’ve ingested these dangerous chemicals, they can swim into our bloodstreams, penetrate our organs and cause irrevocable damage to our bodies. Even Styrofoam that’s out in the ocean can ultimately affect us since when marine life, such as fish, consume it, styrene enters the food chain and eventually, Dr Tsui believes, ‘we’ll eat the darn thing’.

Dr Tsui asks: “How can the government be so blind and be so idiotic to allow this to go on?” Just as toxic kitchen discharges are preventable, so too is the use of Styrofoam. Not just in the food industry but all industries. Instead of using Styrofoam boxes for takeaway meals, companies should start using biodegradable containers, Clear The Air advocates. This minor innovation is also very much within the grasp of companies’ capabilities. Fibre generated from corn can be made to make the boxes and then coated in honey wax. Best of all, these resources are biodegradable.

Another solution that the government and corporations can consider implementing, according to Clear The Air, is changing the original chemical composition used to make Styrofoam. The government could order corporations to put titanium dioxide polymers in the Styrofoam so that once the material is dumped on landfill or into the ocean and exposed to UV light, the Styrofoam will disintegrate into carbon dioxide and water, which equates to less harmful pollution.

There are many little things we can do to contribute to a more environmentally friendly society, such as switching off the lights when we leave a room, turning off the air conditioner when we leave the house, adding insulated panels to our windows and attaching solar panels to our roofs. The list is endless. But while every little helps, these changes are too-little-too-late because, ultimately, it is up to our local authority to enact the kind of legislative reform required to make a real difference. As Dr Tsui so clearly puts it: “No matter how rich or how poor you are, you are subjected to this kind of invisible attack. The government needs to stop with the [political games] and start working on practical solutions to eradicate pollution-induced cancer.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to asking the government for help, every issue seems like an urgent matter. Compared to global threats such as deadly diseases like the zika virus or even more mundane local issues like affordable housing, the largely invisible problem of pollution is all too often pushed to the bottom of the list of priorities.

The public, not just the government, underestimate the drastic consequences of air contamination since the effects are not as apparent as many other similarly pressing matters. But pollution is an urgent problem because it surrounds us all. It’s in the air we breathe, the places we walk and the supposedly safe confines of our own homes. We live and breathe pollution whether we like it or not, so it’s about time we paid attention.

For more information visit cleartheair.org.hk.

Alzheimer’s could be caused by toxic air pollution particles found in brain tissue

Abundance of magnetite in brains of people from Mexico City and Manchester described as “dreadfully shocking”

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/alzheimers-toxic-air-pollution-particles-brain-tissue-magnetite-barbara-maher-a7227891.html

Minute magnetic particles typically found in air pollution have been detected in “abundant” quantities in human brain tissue for the first time.

The tiny particles of iron oxide, known as magnetite, are toxic and it has been suggested they could play a role in causing or hastening the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

The study, in which brain tissue samples from 37 people were collected from those who had lived in Mexico City and in Manchester in the UK, is the first to prove magnetite particles found in air pollution have made their way into the brain.

Magnetite naturally occurs in angular formations in the brain. But for every one natural angular particle, researchers found as many as 100 smooth, spherical particles.

The smooth shape of the observed magnetite particles is characteristic of high temperature formation, such as from vehicle (particularly diesel) engines, power stations or open fires, researchers said.

The toxic magnetite particles disrupt normal cellular functions in the brain by causing oxidative stress, and by the creation of unstable free radicals – particles which damage essential structures in brain cells.

Though no definite link between magnetite and Alzheimer’s has been established, previous studies have found a correlation between high quantities of the compound and the disease in the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers.

The study was led by scientists at Lancaster University and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The World Health Organisation warned as many as three million premature deaths every year were the result of air pollution.

In the UK it is thought as many as 50,000 people die each year due to air pollution. A further 520,000 are affected by Alzheimer’s, a common form of dementia.

Physicist Barbara Maher, co-director of the Centre for Environmental Magnetism and Paleomagnetism at Lancaster University said in a statement: “Our results indicate that magnetite nanoparticles in the atmosphere can enter the human brain, where they might pose a risk to human health, including conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

“The particles we found are strikingly similar to the magnetite nanospheres that are abundant in the airborne pollution found in urban settings, especially next to busy roads, and which are formed by combustion or frictional heating from vehicle engines or brakes.”

Speaking to the BBC she added: “It’s dreadfully shocking. When you study the tissue you see the particles distributed between the cells and when you do a magnetic extraction there are millions of particles, millions in a single gram of brain tissue – that’s a million opportunities to do damage.”

Professor David Allsop, a specialist in Alzheimer’s at the University of Lancaster and co-author of the study, said: “This finding opens up a whole new avenue for research into a possible environmental risk factor for a range of different brain diseases.”

Geophysicist Joe Kirschvink at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who first detected naturally formed magnetite particles in the brain 25 years ago, told the journal Science, he believes the presence of the particle in the brain is “disturbing”.

He said: “Once you start getting larger volumes of [environmental] magnetite, the chemical reactivity goes way up.

“That nanoparticles of industrially generated magnetite are able to make their way into the brain tissues is disturbing.”

Dr David Reynolds, chief scientific officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, told the Press Association: “Little is known about the role of magnetite nanoparticles in the brain and whether their magnetic properties influence brain function.

“It’s interesting to see further research investigating the presence of this mineral in the brain, but it’s too early to conclude that it may have a causal role in Alzheimer’s disease or any other brain disease.

“We know that air pollution can have a negative impact on certain aspects of human health, but we can’t conclude from this study that magnetite nanoparticles carried in air pollution are harmful to brain health.”

Policymakers should take note of the results, Professor Maher told Science.

“It’s an unfortunately plausible risk factor, and it’s worth taking precautions. Policymakers have tried to account for this in their environmental regulations, but maybe those need to be revised,” she said.

Air pollution causes wrinkles and premature ageing, new research shows

Toxic fumes may be the primary cause of skin ageing in polluted cities such as London, New York and Beijing, scientists say

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jul/15/air-pollution-causes-wrinkles-and-premature-ageing-new-research-shows

Air pollution is prematurely ageing the faces of city dwellers by accelerating wrinkles and age spots, according to emerging scientific research.

The effects of toxic fumes on skin are being seen in both western cities, such as London and New York, as well as in more visibly polluted Asian cities and in some cases may be the primary cause of ageing. The pollution is also being linked to worsening skin conditions such as eczema and hives.

The scientific discoveries are now driving the world’s biggest cosmetics companies to search for solutions, including medicine-like compounds that directly block the biological damage. But doctors warn that some common skin care routines, such as scrubs, make the damage from air pollution even worse.

Poisonous air is already known to cause millions of early deaths from lung and heart diseases and has been linked to diabetes and mental health problems. But perhaps its most visible impact, the damage caused to skin, is just beginning to be understood.

“With traffic pollution emerging as the single most toxic substance for skin, the dream of perfect skin is over for those living and working in traffic-polluted areas unless they take steps to protect their skin right now,” said Dr Mervyn Patterson, a cosmetic doctor at Woodford Medical clinics in the UK.

“Unless people do more they will end up wearing the pollution on their faces in 10 years’ time. It is definitely something people now need to take seriously.”

Prof Jean Krutmann, director at the Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine in Germany, said: “UV [damage from the sun] was really the topic in skin protection for the last 20-30 years. Now I think air pollution has the potential to keep us busy for the next few decades.”

Air pollution in urban areas, much of which comes from traffic, includes tiny particles called PMs, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). “What is very clear is that PMs are a problem for skin,” said Krutmann, whose work has shown PMs increase age spots and wrinkles.

But one of the his newest studies showed NO2 also increases ageing. They studied people in both Germany and China and discovered that age spots on their cheeks increased by 25% with a relatively small increase in pollution, 10 microgrammes of NO2 per cubic metre. Many parts of the UK have illegally high levels of NO2, with London breaking its annual limit in the first week of 2016, with levels reaching over 200 microgrammes of NO2 per cubic metre.

Krutmann said other factors, such as UV exposure, nutrition and smoking contribute to ageing: “But what we can say is that, at least for the pigment spots on the cheeks, it seems air pollution is the major driver.”

“It is not a problem that is limited to China or India – we have it in Paris, in London, wherever you have larger urban agglomerations you have it,” he said. “In Europe everywhere is so densely populated and the particles are being distributed by the wind, so it is very difficult to escape from the problem.”

The accelerated skin ageing was seen in relatively young people and Patterson said: “If you are seeing these changes in middle age, these are worrying trends.”

Other recent research is summed up in a review paper in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science, which concluded: “Prolonged or repetitive exposure to high levels of these [air] pollutants may have profound negative effects on the skin.”

Understanding exactly how air pollution causes the skin damage is at an early stage, according to Krutmann: “We are just now dipping into the mechanisms.” But many of the pollutants are known to pass easily through the skin and cause a variety of impacts.

“These agents have a very irritating effect and once they get into the skin, they activate multiple pathways of inflammation,” said Patterson. “Some pathways ignite the melanocytes, which create far too much pigment and end up giving you unwanted sun spots.”

“Other pathways ignite messengers that make blood vessels grow, that’s what results in increased redness and potentially rosacea,” he said. “Also, if you damage skin, it goes into repair mode and excites enzymes which re-adsorb damaged collagen. When you have too much chronic inflammation, these enzymes remove more collagen than your skin can create. This produces skin laxity and that’s where fine lines and wrinkles come in.”

Dr Debra Jaliman, a skin expert based in New York City, says her patients are now worrying about the impact of air pollution on their skin, which she said can cause darkening of the skin and acne-like eruptions, as well as ageing.

“At the moment, there are not many products for prevention [of air pollution damage], however it may be a trend in the coming years as it becomes a much bigger issue,” she said.

Major beauty companies have begun their own research and are launching the first products formulated to battle skin damage from toxic air. Dr Frauke Neuser, senior scientist for Olay, a Procter and Gamble brand, has run studies showing significantly lower skin hydration in people living in polluted areas and lab studies showing that diesel fumes and PMs cause inflammation in skin cells.

Her team then screened for ingredients that could counteract some of the damaging effects. “We found niacinamide – vitamin B3 – to be particularly effective,” she said. “We have recently increased its level in several products by as much as 40%.”

Frauke’s work has also shown direct correlations between spikes in PM air pollution in Beijing and an increase in hospital visits by people with skin conditions including hives. “This indicates that not only skin ageing but also skin health are affected by air pollution,” she said.

L’Oreal, another cosmetics giant, published a medical study in 2015 showing that eczema and hives were more common in people in Mexico exposed to higher levels of air pollution, a conclusion supported by separate research in Canada. “The next step is to understand more deeply the environment-induced damages, in order to develop skin ageing prevention routines and products,” said Dr Steve Shiel, scientific director at L’Oreal.

Clinique, a big makeup brand, has already launched a sonic face cleansing brush it claims better removes pollution. “This [air pollution] is not going to go away. This is not a problem that is easily fixed,” said Janet Pardo at Clinique.

However, researchers are now working on medicine-like compounds that block the damage from air pollution from occurring in the first place. Krutmann’s lab helped Symrise, one of the world’s biggest suppliers of cosmetics ingredients, identify one, though the lab has no commercial stake in the product, which is called SymUrban.

“We found one molecule that can do the job,” he said, and it is now being registered as cosmetic ingredient. “In a few years from now I expect we will see cosmetic products that can specifically protect against skin ageing from air pollution.”

Patterson said it is possible for people to give themselves some protection now. “You don’t have to sit back passively and put up with it. You can take sensible, easy steps that will make a difference.”

“If your skin is really healthy, it is quite a good barrier,” he said, explaining that the top layer is like a roof – flattened cells like tiles separated by protective lipids.

“Certain skin care products are very disruptive to the surface of the skin,” he warned. “So a darling of the industry is retinoids, but these have a very profound negative effect on barrier function. Another darling of the industry is glycolic acid, but it is also very disruptive to the external skin barrier. People think these are good skin care, making the skin look smoother, but they are not helpful for the overall health of the skin barrier.”

Patterson is also dismissive of face scrubs: “The skin is trying its damnedest to make this wonderful defence mechanism and what do women and men do? They scrub the hell out of it. It just doesn’t make sense.” He said products that help repair the skin barrier, by delivering the pre-cursor lipids the cells need, are beneficial, as are ones that tackle inflammation.

“You can also put on a very nice physical shield in the form of good quality mineral makeup,” he said. “That produces an effect like a protective mesh and probably has some trapping effect, protecting against the initial penetration of particles. But you also need always to try to remove that shield in the evening, washing the slate clean every night.”

Air pollution—crossing borders

http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(16)31019-4/fulltext

A silent killer responsible for more deaths than the number from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and road injuries combined. A killer indifferent to political agendas and that cannot be contained by borders. Air pollution is associated with around 6·5 million deaths each year globally. While premature deaths from household air pollution are projected to decline from 3·5 million today to 3 million by 2040, premature deaths from outdoor pollution are set to rise from 3 million to 4·5 million in the same period. Transformative action is needed to mitigate this death toll.

There is a dearth of information available on the health effects and economic impact of environmental pollution. Proven solutions are available, but implementation remains a challenge that requires coordinated efforts across sectors and nations. A report by the World Wildlife Fund’s European Policy Office, Climate Action Network Europe, the Health and Environment Alliance, and Sandbag has, for the first time, quantified the cross-border health effects of air pollution from coal use in electricity generation in the European Union (EU), estimating total associated economic costs of up to €62·3 billion. The report aims to promote debate on the rapid phase-out of coal-burning power generation and calls for action at the national and EU level. Toxic particles created by burning coal can be carried beyond the borders of the countries where the power plants are situated. In France, where coal burning is low, 1200 premature deaths a year are caused by air pollution from the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Spain, and the UK. The cross border nature of coal pollution highlights the need for governments to work together to urgently phase out coal burning.

The need for cooperation is reiterated in a special report on Energy and Air Pollution from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which campaigns for global action to overcome the negative environmental effects of energy use. The report cites energy production as the most important source of air pollution coming from human activity and presents strategies to tackle energy poverty in developing countries, reduce pollutant emissions through post-combustion control technologies, and promote clean forms of energy.

The Clean Air Scenario presented by IEA uses benchmarks for air quality goals, such as WHO guideline levels, to set long-term targets. Strategies outlined for the energy sector are adapted to different national and regional settings. In developing countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, a notable health impact arises from smoky environments caused by use of wood and other solid fuels for cooking; whereas power plants, industrial facilities, and vehicle emissions are the main causes of outdoor pollution in many high-income countries. Cities in particular are susceptible to becoming pollution hotspots due to concentrated populations, energy use, and traffic.

Although the report takes important steps in tailoring policies to local and national conditions, the proposals are not ambitious enough. For example, the report sets out a scenario in which the number of people being exposed to fine particulate matter levels above the WHO guideline in the EU will be less than 10% by 2040. Yet in the USA, average air pollution limits are already below national limits, having declined by 70% since 1970 despite growth in population levels and energy consumption. Setting half-hearted goals as far ahead as 2040 will only widen the gap between the USA and the rest of the world. The report recognises the need for clearly defined responsibilities, reliable data, and a focus on compliance and policy improvement to keep strategies on course. However, long-term goals can be easy to forget or conveniently ignore, particularly if the issue is allowed to slip down the political agenda. Now is not a time to become complacent, but to match the strides being made by the USA in improving air quality.

The Lancet, the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP), and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, with coordination from the UN Environment Programme and the World Bank, have united to produce a Commission on Pollution, Health, and Development. The aim of the Commission is to inform key decision makers globally of pollution’s severe and under-reported contribution to the global burden of disease and to present available pollution control strategies and solutions, dispelling the myth of pollution’s inevitability and combating apathy. In a turbulent political climate, environmental pollution must not be allowed to fall by the wayside. Policies should take centre stage and nations must come together in a spirit of mutual cooperation to tackle air pollution.

Air pollution becomes leading risk factor for stroke worldwide

http://www.news-medical.net/news/20160613/Air-pollution-becomes-leading-risk-factor-for-stroke-worldwide.aspx

Three quarters of strokes worldwide could be prevented by addressing behavioural risk factors such as smoking, poor diet and low physical activity

Air pollution – including environmental and household air pollution – has emerged as a leading risk factor for stroke worldwide, associated with about a third of the global burden of stroke in 2013, according to a new study published in The Lancet Neurology journal.

The findings, from an analysis of global trends of risk factors for stroke between 1990-2013, also show that over 90% of the global burden of stroke is linked to modifiable risk factors, most of which (74%) are behavioural risk factors such as smoking, poor diet and low physical activity. The authors estimate that control of these risk factors could prevent about three-quarters of all strokes.

The study is the first to analyse the global risk factors for stroke in such detail, especially in relation to stroke burden on global, regional and national levels. The researchers used data from the Global Burden of Disease Study to estimate the disease burden of stroke associated with 17 risk factors in 188 countries. They estimated the population-attributable fraction (PAF) of stroke-related disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) – ie. the estimated proportion of disease burden in a population that would be avoided if exposure to a risk factor were eliminated.

Every year, approximately 15 million people worldwide suffer a stroke – of these, nearly six million die and five million are left with permanent disability. Disability may include loss of vision and/or speech, paralysis and confusion.

Globally, the ten leading risk factors for stroke were high blood pressure, diet low in fruit, high body mass index (BMI), diet high in sodium, smoking, diet low in vegetables, environmental air pollution, household pollution from solid fuels, diet low in whole grains, and high blood sugar (figure 2). About a third (29.2%) of global disability associated with stroke is linked to air pollution (including environmental air pollution and household air pollution). This is especially high in developing countries (33.7% vs 10.2% in developed countries).

In 2013, 16.9% of the global stroke burden was attributed to environmental air pollution (as measured by ambient particle matter [PM] pollution of aerodynamic diameter smaller than 2·5 μm) – almost as much as that from smoking (20.7%) (paper, table). From 1990 to 2013, stroke burden associated with environmental air pollution (PM25) has increased by over 33% (Appendix, table 4).

“A striking finding of our study is the unexpectedly high proportion of stroke burden attributable to environmental air pollution, especially in developing countries. Smoking, poor diet and low physical activity are some of the major risk factors for stroke worldwide, suggesting that stroke is largely a disease caused by lifestyle risk factors. Controlling these risk factors could prevent about three-quarters of strokes worldwide.” says lead author Professor Valery L Feigin, of Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand.

“Our findings are important for helping national governments and international agencies to develop and prioritise public health programmes and policies. Governments have the power and responsibility to influence these risk factors through legislation and taxation of tobacco, alcohol, salt, sugar or saturated fat content, while health service providers have the responsibility to check and treat risk factors such as high blood pressure,” he says.

“Taxation has been proven to be the most effective strategy in reducing exposure to smoking and excessive intake of salt, sugar and alcohol. If these risks take a toll on our health, and taxation is the best way to reduce exposure to these risks, it logically follows that governments should introduce such taxation and reinvest the resulting revenue back into the health of the population by funding much needed preventative programmes and research in primary prevention and health. All it takes is recognition of the urgent need to improve primary prevention, and the good will of the governments to act,” says Professor Feigin.

The relative importance of risk factors varied depending on age group, country and region:

  • Household air pollution was a more important risk factor for stroke in central, eastern, and western sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia (ranked 3rd), compared to North America, central, eastern and western Europe (where it was not in the top 10 risk factors) (paper, figure 2)
  • Low physical activity was a much greater risk factor for stroke among adults over 70 than among adults aged 15-69 (Appx, table 2)
  • Globally, the risk factor that was most reduced between 1990 and 2013 was second-hand smoke (31% reduction in stroke-related DALYs). The greatest reduction was in developed countries (Appx, table 4), but the contribution of second-hand smoke to global stroke burden still remains noticeable at 3.1% for 15-49 year olds, especially in developing countries where it reaches 3.2% (Appx, table 2).
  • The risk factor that was most increased was a diet high in sugar-sweetened beverages (63.1% increase in stroke-related DALYs). The greatest increase was in developed countries (Appx, table 4) but the contribution to stroke burden remains low at 1.6% for 15-49 year olds (Appx, table 2).
  • Air pollution, environmental risks, tobacco smoke, high blood pressure and dietary risks were more important risk factors for stroke in developing countries compared to developed countries.
  • Low physical activity was a more important risk factor for stroke in developed countries compared to developing countries.

The authors say that because of a lack of data, they could not include some important risk factors for stroke such as atrial fibrillation, substance abuse or other health conditions. They were also unable to account for patterns of some risk factors such as levels of smoking, BMI level or underlying genetic risk factors. The data does not differentiate between ischaemic and haemorrhagic strokes but the authors say that while the risk factors for different types of stroke may vary slightly at the individual level, global, regional and national policies tend to look at the overall risk of stroke.

The study also provides information on the contribution of all 17 risk factors for stroke for 188 countries, for example the top 5 risk factors for stroke in the following countries were:

  • UK & USA: high blood pressure, high BMI, diet low in fruit, diet low in vegetables, smoking (Appx, table 7 and 8).
  • India: high blood pressure, diet low in fruit, household air pollution, diet low in vegetables, diet high in sodium (Appx, table 7 and 8).
  • China: high blood pressure, diet low in fruit, diet high in sodium, smoking, environmental air pollution (Appx, table 7 and 8).

Writing in a linked Comment, Professor Vladimir Hachinski, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada and Dr Mahmoud Reza Azarpazhooh, Mashhad University of Medical Sciences, Mashhad, Iran, say:

The most alarming finding was that about a third of the burden of stroke is attributable to air pollution. Although air pollution is known to damage the lungs, heart, and brain, the extent of this threat seems to have been underestimated. Air pollution is not just a problem in big cities, but is also a global problem. With the ceaseless air streams across oceans and continents, what happens in Beijing matters in Berlin. Air pollution is one aspect of the fossil fuel and global warming problem, which is itself partly a result of westernisation and urbanisation, especially in India and China. In 1900, only about 15% of the world’s population lived in cities; now more than half the world’s population does. In cities, particularly in megacities (>10 million inhabitants), getting unhealthy food is easy and getting exercise is hard, emphasising the difficulty of achieving a healthy lifestyle in an unhealthy environment.

Exposure to air pollution raises your blood pressure, Chinese study shows

Even brief exposure to chemicals found in air pollution can adversely affect blood pressure. Also in the news: women smokers more likely to give up by timing their quit date with their period

Both short- and long-term exposure to some air pollutants commonly associated with coal burning, vehicle exhaust, airborne dust and dirt are associated with the development of high blood pressure, according to new research in the American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension.

“In our analysis of 17 previously published studies we discovered a significant risk of developing high blood pressure due to exposure to air pollution,” says Tao Liu, lead study author from the Guangdong Provincial Institute of Public Health in China. “People should limit their exposure on days with higher air pollution levels, especially for those with high blood pressure; even very short-term exposure can aggravate their conditions.”

The 17 studies involved a total of more than 108,000 hypertension patients and 220,000 non-hypertensive controls. The meta-analysis found high blood pressure was significantly associated with short-term exposure to sulphur dioxide, which mainly comes from the burning of fossil fuel, and particulate matter (PM2.5, the most common and hazardous type of air pollution, and PM10). It was also significantly associated with long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is produced from combustion, and PM10.

No significant associations were found between hypertension and short-term effects of ozone and carbon monoxide exposure. Researchers said ozone and carbon monoxide’s links to high blood pressure requires further study.

Female smokers more likely to kick the habit by ‘timing’ their quit date with their menstrual cycle

Women who want to quit smoking may have better success synchronising their quit date with the period of time following ovulation and prior to menstruation, according to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. This period, according to the study published in Biology of Sex Differences, is when brain circuitry involved in making “good decisions” is optimal.

Penn researchers recruited 38 physically healthy, premenopausal women aged between 21 and 51 years of age who smoke and who were not taking hormonal contraceptives. Functional MRI scans were done on the women to examine how regions of the brain that help control behaviour are functionally connected to regions of the brain that signal reward.

Results revealed that during the follicular phase – which begins at menstruation and continues until ovulation – there was reduced functional connectivity between brain regions that helps make good decisions and the brain regions that contain the reward centre, which could place women in the follicular phase at greater risk for continued smoking and relapse. Using smoking cues (pictures of smoking reminders such as an individual smoking) was associated with weaker connections between cognitive control regions in follicular females.

“Interestingly, the findings may represent a fundamental effect of menstrual cycle phase on brain connectivity and may be linked to other behaviours, such as responses to other rewarding substances (ie alcohol and foods high in fat and sugar),” says study senior author Teresa Franklin.

Long-term memory test could aid earlier Alzheimer’s diagnosis

People with Alzheimer’s disease could benefit from earlier diagnosis if a long-term memory test combined with a brain scan were carried out, a study suggests. University of Edinburgh scientists, in collaboration with colleagues in the US, studied long-term memory in young mice, some of which had the equivalent of very early stage Alzheimer’s disease, and some of which were healthy.

They say testing memory over a long timescale reveals early deficits in the brain’s ability to remember that go undetected by checks for short-term forgetfulness, which is the current practice for diagnosis. They add that the type of memory loss revealed by such tests could potentially be reversed by the development of new treatments.

In the study, the mice were taught to locate a hidden platform in a pool filled with water, using signs on the wall of the room to navigate. When tested shortly after the initial task, both groups of mice were able to remember the way to the platform. However, when tested one week later, the mice in the Alzheimer’s group had significantly more difficulty remembering the route.

Professor Richard Morris, who led the research, says: “We recognise that tests with animals must be interpreted with caution, but the use of these genetic models in conjunction with appropriate testing is pointing at an important dimension of early diagnosis.”
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Source URL: http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/health-beauty/article/1962643/exposure-air-pollution-raises-your-blood-pressure-chinese

Why air pollution is damaging more than just your breathing

The worse the pollution gets, the higher the costs multiply for business

Air pollution caused some 1.6 million people in China to die prematurely in 2013, according to research presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) early this year.

The University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health found that air pollution caused some 2,000 premature deaths in Hong Kong and public health costs amounted to HK$27 billion in 2015.

And late last year, severe smog caused the government to issue Beijing’s first ever pollution “red alert”, closing down schools.

Most of us are well aware of the health effects brought by airborne pollution and the resulting costs this brings with it. But less known is the psychological effect it has on our behaviour, and consequently our performance in the workplace.

Such psychological effect is seldom considered when assessing pollution’s true economic impact.

In a recent research study. My research colleagues and I examined the effect of air pollution on workplace behaviour in the city of Wuhan in central China – a country infamous for having some of the most dangerously polluted urban environments in the world.

In our study we focused on a behavioural theory that essentially says that an individual’s self-control draws upon a limited pool of mental resources, one that can be used up and needs opportunities to restore.

Air pollution can drain our self-control resources psychologically, causing a range of conditions including insomnia, feelings of anxiety or even depression.

Through a study of 161 full-time employees across different industries, our research examined how pollution affects two kinds of behaviour – organisational citizenship behaviour and counterproductive workplace behaviour.

Organisational citizenship behaviour relates to employee actions that contribute towards the functioning of the firm, but are optional and not specifically part of their job.

Some might label it “going above and beyond the call of duty” which includes actions such as willingness to be helpful to others, to engage with their team beyond their job scope, or to take action that protects or improves the firm’s image.

The second behaviour is just the flipside. Counterproductive behaviour includes a range of negative employee actions such as working on personal matters during work hours, as well as rudeness, hostility or even outright bullying towards colleagues. A common term for this might be “deviance at the workplace”.

In our research we asked participants to record daily diary entries rating their perception of pollution levels, their level of mental resource depletion as well as organisational citizenship and counterproductive workplace behaviours.

We found a clear link between high air pollution and decreased levels of organisational citizenship behaviour. Likewise increased pollution saw a corresponding and marked increase in counterproductive workplace behaviour.

Taking into account variations for gender and age, we observed that air pollution leads to a decrease in self-control resource, which in turn leads to increased counterproductive and decreased organisational citizenship behaviours. Specifically the data gathered showed that the severity of air pollution accounted for an average of around 10 per cent of an individual’s daily self-control resource depletion.

The impact of air pollution makes us less giving or engaged at work and more deviant.

Moreover, in line with ego depletion theory it is apparent that both the direct physiological impact of air pollution and the individual’s own perception of its severity act to deplete resources affecting self-control.

A worker may experience little or no health effects from pollution while another in the same office may suffer badly. Likewise one individual’s perception of what constitutes “severe” pollution may be very different from another.

An essential factor in determining an individual’s ability to manage the effects of drained self-control resources is the support they receive – or feel they receive – from those around them. For example, demonstrations of active support from the firm can go some way to replenish an employee’s mental resource pool.

Indeed our study also found that the negative effects of air pollution on employees’ behaviour were mitigated when organisational support was high – i.e. when the employee perceived that their supervisor or firm was concerned for their well-being.

We also came across firms taking active steps to tackle the immediate effects of pollution, such as installing more effective air filters in their offices.

Similarly supportive firms might provide additional work breaks or the option to work from home on high pollution days, or they may provide easier and better access to
healthcare.

While this favours an argument that firms should do all that they can to support employees exposed to severe air pollution, all of this comes with a cost to the firm.

The worse the pollution gets, the higher the costs multiply for business – so at a broader level the best option would obviously be if there were no pollution at all.

By conducting studies like ours we can better understand the true social and economic implications of pollution, and in turn add weight to the financial argument for stronger and more effective policies to tackle pollution at source.

And in turn, create a cleaner and healthier environment for Hong Kong and China’s next generation to grow up in.

Sam Yam Kai Chi is Assistant Professor of Management & Organization at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

Source URL: http://www.scmp.com/business/article/1942630/why-air-pollutiondamaging-more-just-your-breathing

Environmental Impacts on Health – What is the Big Picture?

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This Baltimore 20-year-old just won a huge international award for taking out a giant trash incinerator

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/04/18/this-baltimore-20-year-old-just-won-a-huge-international-award-for-taking-out-a-giant-trash-incinerator/

Baltimore stands apart as the American big city with the most deaths caused by air pollution, and Curtis Bay is its dirtiest community. Several years ago, the air there stood to get even worse when the state approved a permit for a giant incinerator that would burn 4,000 tons of trash every day and emit up to 1,240 pounds of lead and mercury every year.

But destiny intervened. More specifically, a 17-year-old high school senior named Destiny Watford.

Outraged that her community was once again “being dumped on” and that the health of her family and neighbors was being “sacrificed for a profit,” the self-described shy girl led fellow students at Benjamin Franklin High School in a four-year campaign that mobilized Curtis Bay and halted the incinerator’s construction indefinitely.

As state environmental officials seek to revoke the permit for good, Watford is being honored with one of the world’s most prestigious environmental awards. On Monday, she was announced as a 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize winner for her community leadership.

Not only is Watford, at 20, the youngest of this year’s six recipients — who hail from Slovakia, Cambodia, Tanzania, Puerto Rico and Peru — she’s the third-youngest honoree in the history of the prize. She says she never imagined becoming an activist, let alone that her efforts would allow her to stand shoulder to shoulder with internationally recognized advocates of environmental justice. But her mother, Kimberly Kelly, isn’t surprised.

“I have five kids,” Kelly said, “and I just knew she was going to be different. She’s a debater. She wants to get her point across.”

Growing up in Curtis Bay, a community of rowhouses near Baltimore’s industrial southern tip, Watford watched her mother struggle with asthma. She knew neighbors afflicted with respiratory disease. During the campaign, when she and other students asked members of an art class at Franklin High if any of them had asthma, “almost every hand shot up,” Watford recalled last week.

A 2013 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that 113 people per 100,000 Maryland residents — higher than in any other state — die as a result of emissions from car and truck traffic, trains and ships, commercial heating systems and industrial smokestacks. Baltimore’s rate was far higher, exceeding that of New York City and smoggy Los Angeles.

Curtis Bay is Baltimore’s epicenter of pollution and bad health. Jutting into the bay where it meets the Patapsco River, it started out as a focal point for World War II-era shipping. It later gained a coal-burning power plant, a chemical-processing plant, a medical-waste incinerator and other industry.

And the air kept getting dirtier. In 2007 and 2008, Curtis Bay ranked worst in the nation for the release of toxic air pollutants, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project using emissions data from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The following year, it ranked second.

Like many residents there, Watford had no idea the incinerator had been approved for her community until she saw a story about it on the Internet in 2012.

Energy Answers International was promoting the project — set to be the biggest of its kind in the nation — as an energy-producing power plant that would serve schools and other facilities. It would be located less than a mile from Franklin High and Curtis Bay Elementary, which state environmental regulations wouldn’t typically allow. But the rule became irrelevant when the Public Service Commission approved the incinerator as an energy plant.

The company said by email last week that the PSC granted the exemption because the tire rubber, vinyl, plastic, metals and other municipal waste burned at the site would be processed into a fuel elsewhere. About 1.5 million tons of landfill waste annually would be diverted, converted and marketed as renewable energy, making the facility, “by all definitions, an energy plant,” according to a company statement.

The statement noted the upper limits of lead and mercury emissions under the permit and said the company never expected the incinerator to approach those. The project would require 1,300 temporary construction workers and create 200 permanent jobs, the statement said.

Watford and her classmates were concerned more about the air. They formed an advocacy group called Free Your Voice and studied the history of industry and pollution in Curtis Bay, as well as in the nearby Brooklyn and Hawkins Point neighborhoods. They began knocking on doors, expanding their network to hundreds of residents who circulated petitions that resulted in thousands of signatures. Their rallying cry: “Clear air is a human right.”

About 100 Franklin High School students, community activists and union members march in late 2013 to the site of the highly contested incinerator as part of a campaign to stop its construction in Curtis Bay. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

Ten students were the core of Free Your Voice, but the Goldman Prize will be given to Watford, because “she’s kind of been the glue, the person who not just stuck around but deepened her involvement,” said Greg Sawtell, an organizer for the nonprofit activist group United Workers who acted as a mentor and helped nominate her for the award.

“She distinguished herself beyond the organizing with her ability to use writing and creative expression through video,” Sawtell said. “Older people said they got involved from their doors being knocked on by Destiny. She inspired a multigenerational struggle. She showed a lot of wisdom and patience.”

Watford, whose soft Afro frames a baby face, had never heard of the prize. When the Goldman Prize director called to congratulate her, she almost didn’t answer because the number showing on her cellphone was unfamiliar. Then she didn’t know what to say: “I was really confused. I didn’t know who he was or what he was talking about.”

He was talking about her work. Early on, the students thought they would win because of the incinerator’s proximity to the two schools. They persevered after that setback and discovered that the school district and city government agencies had signed an agreement to purchase energy from the incinerator, according to the Goldman Prize. Watford led students to a school board meeting at which they used artwork and video to convince members to reconsider. The board eventually took a student-organized tour of the proposed site and divested from the project.

In the end, the plant was derailed last fall on a different issue identified by Free Your Voice. According to state law, construction on an industrial project must begin during the 18 months before a permit’s air-quality provision expires. That never happened. In December, the 90-acre construction site was still only gravel and patches of grass.

The students pressed the point during a showdown at the Maryland Department of the Environment’s headquarters. With the help of United Workers, Free Your Voice brought 200 protesters to confront Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles. Only a few were allowed in for a discussion.

“We told them, ‘You guys have to take action. If not, there’s going to be a consequence,’ ” Watford recounted. The group would not accept the secretary’s explanation that his hands were tied by legal red tape, she said, and the protesters refused to leave until Grumbles declared that Energy Answers no longer met the air-quality provision. The agency officially notified the company last month of its decision.

“The permit had expired due to a lack of ‘continuous construction,’ ” Grumbles said in a statement last week. The statement acknowledged the students’ frustration over the months-long wait for his department’s final decision. It also singled out their leader.

“Destiny is a talented, resourceful and passionate young advocate,” Grumbles said, “with great potential to make a difference in the lives of those around her.”

The Goldman prize described her in similar terms, noting her “unwavering dedication and wisdom beyond her years.”

Energy Answers still holds a lease on the property and is fighting to build its plant, but at this stage of the process the company would have to get the community’s approval, which is unlikely. When Energy Answers President Patrick F. Mahoney attended a Curtis Bay meeting in March to talk about the jobs and revenue the plant would bring, he was shouted down by angry residents.

Watford, who is a junior at Towson University north of Baltimore, is now leading an effort to turn half of the proposed construction site into a community-owned solar panel farm. The project would provide energy to schools and businesses just as the incinerator would have — but without the same health risks.

Babies harmed by air pollution

Air pollution in the United States may be causing thousands of premature births each year and costing the nation billions of dollars, according to a new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The researchers concluded that just over three per cent, close to 16,000, of all the preterm births in 2010 could be attributed to fine particulate matter (PM).

It is believed that exposure to air pollution can cause inflammation of the placenta during pregnancy, which can ultimately lead to an early delivery. Preterm birth is associated with a variety of medical problems including an increased risk of infant mortality, breathing and feeding difficulties, cerebral palsy, increased risk of developing other diseases and developmental delays that can lead to cognitive impairment throughout life.

The direct medical costs were estimated at about US$ 760 million in 2010. Far weightier, though, were the costs associated with lost economic productivity, and altogether the medical costs and lost economic potential added up to just over US$ 5 billion.

Source: Washington Post, 29 March 2016

The study: “Particulate Matter Exposure and Preterm Birth: Estimates of U.S. Attributable Burden and Economic Costs”, by Leonardo Trasande, Patrick Malecha, and Teresa M. Attina. http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/15-10810/