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Pollution and Global Disease: Washington's War on Americans' Health

January 8, 2018
Christopher Ingraham / The Washington Post & Alexandra Jacobo / NationofChange & Sophie Haigney / San Francisco Chronicle

American lives are shorter on average than those in other wealthy nations, and the gap is growing -- owing to electromagnetic radiation, pollution, and chemical addictions. In 2016, US life expectancy dropped for the second year in a row. Children with low birth-weights -- less than 5 pounds 8 ounces -- are at increased risk for diabetes, heart disease and hypertension in later life.


Americans Are Dying Younger than People in Other Rich Nations
Christopher Ingraham / The Washington Post

(December 27, 2017) -- American lives are shorter on average than those in other wealthy nations, and the gap is growing ever wider, according to the latest data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As recently as 1979, the typical American could expect to live roughly 1.5 years longer than the average resident of one of the other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development -- a group of 35 wealthy, predominantly Western nations.

The typical American baby born in 1979 could expect to live about 73.9 years, while the typical baby born in one of the other 34 OECD countries would live roughly to age 72.3.

But by 2015 that gap had flipped. The average American born that year could expect to live a little less than 79 years, while the typical baby born in an OECD country had an expected life span of nearly 81 years.


In 2016, US life expectancy dropped for the second year in a row, a statistical event that hasn't happened since the early 1960s. Numbers for the remaining OECD countries aren't yet available, but if prior trends continue, the gap between the United States and the rest of the wealthy world is likely to grow even larger.

The United States remains one of the wealthiest countries in the world. So what happened?

We can start with our health-care system, which is frankly something of a mess. We spend thousands of dollars more per capita on health care than any other country in the world, but in return we live shorter lives than people in most other rich nations.

While the care itself is generally quite good (it ought to be, for the price we're paying), access to it remains spotty: The United States is the only OECD country without some sort of universal health-care coverage, and as a result millions of Americans have no form of health insurance. The recent repeal of the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate will cause that number to swell by millions more in the coming decade.

Violence is also taking a toll on our life expectancy. While our homicide rate has been steadily falling since the early 1990s, Americans are still more likely to be murdered than people in nearly any other rich nations. A 2016 study found that "US homicide rates were 7.0 times higher than in other high-income countries, driven by a gun homicide rate that was 25.2 times higher." Easy access to guns is the big factor there.

The United States also stands out for the stinginess of our social safety net relative to other rich countries. A 2014 review noted while plenty of individual factors lurk behind our short life spans -- tobacco use, obesity, violence and disease among them -- the lion's share of the difference between American life spans and those in other countries can be explained by "variations in non-medical determinants of health, some of which result from dramatic differences in public policies across the US and other OECD countries."

Among other things, that study noted:
* American kids start their schooling later in childhood than kids in other rich countries.

* The United States spends far less public money on early-childhood education and care than nearly any other OECD country.

* The United States is the only high-income country in the world that does not mandate paid maternity leave.

* Ditto for sick leave and vacation time.

* US unemployment benefits are less generous than in most other OECD countries.

* Housing assistance in the US is minimal, relative to other wealthy nations.

* Because the American tax code is more generous to the wealthy than tax systems in other rich countries, US income inequality is among the highest in the OECD.

A study published in December of last year found that if these and other social welfare factors were brought up to the OECD average, it would add nearly four years to our collective life expectancy. "The US mortality disadvantage is, in part, a welfare state disadvantage," the authors concluded.

Americans are dying young, in part, because of deliberate policy choices we've made over the decades: rejecting single-payer health care. Cutting taxes for the rich. Shunning universal basic income. Abandoning universal child care.

Those choices increasingly set us apart from the rest of the wealthy world.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.

Exposure to Air Pollution from Traffic
Increases Risk of Low Birth-weight, Study Shows

Alexandra Jacobo / NationofChange

(December 7, 2017) -- A new study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found that exposure to air pollution from road traffic has a negative effect on fetal growth, increasing the chance for low term birth weight.

The study was the largest UK study on air pollution and birth weight. It took place from 2006 to 2010 in Greater London and surrounding counties and measured the weight of 540,365 babies born at term to women living in those areas.

It found that for every 5 microgram per cubic meter increase in PM 2.5 (fine particulate matter) from traffic pollution, the risk of low birth weight increased by 15 percent.

Term low birth weight, defined in the study as a weight less than 5 pounds 8 ounces, can have lifelong implications for health, with increased risk for diabetes, heart disease and hypertension in later life.

"The results from this large study add to a growing body of evidence on the association between air pollution from road traffic and its adverse impact on babies' health, even before they are born," Dr Patrick O'Brien, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) said in an email statement to WebMD. "It should place renewed pressure on Governments to adopt meaningful environmental health policies to reduce air pollution and give babies a healthier start in life."

Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency standard for fine particulate matter is 12 micrograms per cubic meter, averaged over three years. But Mireille B. Toledano, lead author of the BMJ study, says there is really no safe level of air pollution.

"For every 10 percent reduction in PM 2.5," she said, "we can prevent 90 babies being born with low birth weight in London. The current limits are not protecting pregnant women, and they're not protecting unborn babies."

Radiation Typical of Cell Phones and
Wi-Fi Linked to High Rate of Miscarriages

Sophie Haigney / San Francisco Chronicle

(December 17, 2017) -- A study of hundreds of pregnant women in the Bay Area found that those who were more exposed to the type of radiation produced by cell phones, wireless networks and power lines -- radiation that grows more and more common -- were nearly three times as likely to miscarry.

The Kaiser Permanente study, published last week in the journal Scientific Reports, did not show definitively what was causing the higher rate of pregnancy loss, nor did it isolate the potential impact of cell phones or other producers of electromagnetic fields, or EMFs.

But the authors said the results underscore the need for more research.

"EMFs have been very controversial because from a public health point of view, everybody is exposed," said lead investigator De-Kun Li, a reproductive and perinatal epidemiologist for Kaiser's research division in Oakland. "If there is any health effect, the potential impact is huge."

Kaiser started the study by asking hundreds of pregnant women in its Bay Area network to spend 24 hours wearing an EMDEX Lite, a commercially available device made by Enertech Consultants Inc. that measures EMFs and is slightly larger than a deck of cards.

The women were asked to keep a diary of their activities during the day they were studied and were interviewed in person afterward. While 913 women took part, the main findings were based on a group of 453 women whose time spent wearing the meter was deemed to be "typical," reflecting their usual work and leisure activities.

The results were stark. While 10.4 percent of the women in the lowest quartile of exposure miscarried, 24.2 percent of the rest of the women lost their pregnancies.

When researchers controlled for factors known to influence the risk of miscarriage -- including nausea and vomiting, past history of miscarriage, alcohol use, caffeine intake, fever and infections -- they determined that women who were in the three highest exposure quartiles were 2.72 times as likely to miscarry.

The rate of miscarriage reported in the general population is between 10 and 15 percent, Li said.

The link between higher exposure to EMFs and miscarriage was generally consistent, regardless of a woman's race or education level, Li said. The study didn't seek to explore differences in women in different types of jobs.

EMFs can be generated by electric appliances, power lines and transformers, and all sorts of wireless devices. Despite their wide footprint, Li said, the potential health impacts have been relatively understudied. Most inquiries have focused on potential long-term problems such as cancer, which can be difficult to measure.

"Everyone studies EMFs and cancer, but the problem is that cancer takes decades from exposure to development," he said.

Joel Moskowitz, a public health researcher at UC Berkeley who has studied cell phone radiation, called the Kaiser study a "well-designed and carefully executed" contribution to research into the link between electromagnetic field exposure and risks of miscarriage.

He noted, though, that the results were limited because the study didn't distinguish between varying sources of EMFs. It would be helpful, he said, if women knew how much of their exposure came from hair dryers or cell phones or other devices.

"It would be really useful if you could find out what kind of devices are putting out large fields," Moskowitz said. "A limitation of this study is the lack of knowledge of what the source of those fields are."

Links between electromagnetic field radiation and health problems have long been debated in the age of the cell phone. Some studies have suggested links between cell phones and cancer, decreased sperm count and other illnesses, but other research has found no such connection.

Cell phone manufacturers have long resisted attempts by state and local government to require warning labels, saying the evidence of risk is simply not there.

In the spring, The Chronicle reported that the California Department of Public Health had for years kept secret a set of guidelines about health risks associated with cell phone use.

On Wednesday, the same day the Kaiser study was published, the health department released updated guidelines and best practices for smartphone users.

"Although the science is still evolving, there are concerns among some public health professionals and members of the public regarding long-term, high use exposure to the energy emitted by cell phones," agency Director Karen Smith said in a statement. "We know that simple steps, such as not keeping your phone in your pocket and moving it away from your bed at night, can help reduce exposure for both children and adults."

Li said concerned consumers can take simple precautionary measures to reduce exposure to EMFs, such as increasing the distance between them and their devices.

"It doesn't have to be drastic," Li said, explaining that keeping a cell phone a few feet away from the body can dramatically reduce exposure.

Li said that while it was unlikely a single study will shift public policy, "The hope I have personally is that we will get more studies, so people are no longer dismissive about this relationship."

Sophie Haigney is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.




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