Category Archives: Environment and health

Big data mining and new hypotheses in mental health research

BigdataThis is a guest post by the computational epidemiologist Dr. John Ayers:

Most of us are aware of the “big data” revolution fueled by electronic information. It has been suggested that big data, along with hypothesis-free methods popularized by films such as Moneyball, will allow for an unprecedented growth of knowledge across disciplines, including epidemiology and preventive medicine. While I am a bit more circumspect in expectations (there is no substitute for survey data in many cases), I do believe that electronic data collected for a fraction of the cost of survey data can work hand-in-hand with research derived from more traditional sources.

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Occupational health in the electronic age: disease in the new sweatshop

When we say our products are made “in China”, what we really should say it that they’re made in Shenzhen–a city in Guangdong Province, just north of Hong Kong. Shenzhen is one of China’s “special economic zones” (SEZs)–754 square miles of industrial space in which foreign corporations are permitted unique rules and regulations, permitting them to run high-throughput factories that currently use 3.3 million people to make products for the Western consumer market. This is where Xboxes and cell phones come from, produced by Chinese contractors like Foxconn (which makes the new iPhone). There is an unusually high rate of suicide in Shenzhen, and in Foxconn factories in particular; behind these suicides are a broader set of public health issues among electronic workers–from those who make the new gadgets, to those who dismantle them after we throw them away.

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Climate change and food safety: from algal blooms to proactive surveillance

The recent death of Paul Epstein, a physician who advocated for epidemiologists to consider the health impact of climate change, has renewed conversations about our future scientific path to understanding highly complex interactions between global weather and human disease. Ever since Epstein’s 1999 commentary in the journal Science, which argued that global warming would enhance the emergence of infectious diseases, epidemiologists have been avidly working to determine how to mitigate the negative implications of climate change on human health—from predicting outbreaks, to cleaning up superfunds, to counter-acting the marine pollution that followed the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One particularly interesting set of studies have identified climate change as a major factor in food safety—affecting the risk of zoonotic diseases, mycotoxin contamination, biotoxins in fishery products and environmental contaminants. In this week’s blog, we look at the food safety implications of climate change, from algal blooms to new strategies for surveillance.

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Can we design a heart-healthy home? Disease and the built environment

There is increasing evidence that the quality of our homes and cities is a critical determinant of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and lung conditions. As urbanization and economic change occur globally, whether we live in a house free of dust in a city with open parks and traffic regulations, or in a dusty tenement building next to a major road, seems critically correlated with our likelihood for having shortened life expectancy, poor nutrition, heart disease and lung problems. In this week’s blog post, we look at some of the mechanisms relating the “built environment”—our human-made surroundings of daily living—to the risk of illness. We ask the question: can we do for our hearts and lungs what the Bauhaus movement did for functional design?

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Peak oil and public health: preparing healthcare for another kind of transition…

“Three threats all arise from the Earth’s limited capacity to sustain unabated human growth and consumption,” wrote Peter Winch of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. “(1) Global climate change, (2) ecosystem degradation, and (3) peak oil production.”

We have to admit that, until a few weeks ago, “peak oil” was not on our bulletin board of phrases used in public health (frankly, most of us epidemiologists didn’t know what it meant). By contrast, it’s become clear that climate change may alter patterns of malaria and dengue fever transmission. And that ecosystem degradation can have long-term implications for water and food shortages. But what’s the public health effect of petroleum?

In this week’s blog post, we discuss the concept of peak oil, and summarize a series of recent studies suggesting that this term should become part of our regular public health lexicon…

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From climate change to food justice: insights from Oxfam’s GROW report

The international non-governmental organization Oxfam has just put out a major new campaign, the likes of which seem as large—or larger—than their “Make Trade Fair” Campaign that crystalized during the massive globalization protests of 1999.

The campaign—called GROW—sets out a discrete but complex challenge: with nearly one billion people facing hunger every day (about 1 in 7 people worldwide), and international prices of basic foods expected to double by 2030, how do we tackle food insecurity? The question is not a simple Malthusian excuse to promote biotechnological, industrial agricultural overload—after all, Oxfam is well aware that famine results from the inability to purchase food in a world where there is still enough to go around. Rather, Oxfam poses the question in the broader database of key facts: that women’s access to farming is limiting progress to reduce hunger; that three big multinational agricultural companies (Cargill, Bunge, ADM) control almost 90% of the grain trade; that climate change is anticipated to reduce agricultural yields dramatically; and that diabetes and hunger are both appearing in poor communities as manifestations of malnutrition (breaking down our medical dichotomy between the under-nourished and over-nourished, as we discussed in an earlier blog post). If power determines who gets to eat properly and who does not, then how do we shift power, and in what ways? And how can we do so within the world’s political and environmental realities—that is, with a viewpoint that is informed not only by public health and nutrition science, but also by agricultural insights, ecological findings and economics?

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