Category: Health

autonomous vehicle smoking

In 2014, over 32,000 people were killed in car crashes in the U.S. In 2012, more than two million Americans visited the emergency room as a result of car crashes. And an estimated 94 percent of the crashes that cause these injuries and fatalities are attributable to human choice or error. These are sobering statistics. And because human behavior is at the heart of them, they raise an interesting question: Once we can take people out of the equation, could driving your own car become as socially frowned on as other risky habits, like smoking? It’s less an intriguing hypothetical than a near-future public health question thanks to the rapid development and emergence of self-driving cars. And a new federal policy for automated vehicles from the U.S. Department of Transportation has just given self-driving cars another nudge forward. Technology coming on fast, social consequences to follow Self-driving cars have progressed in leaps and bounds in recent years. In 2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched an autonomous vehicle grand challenge: Build a robotic vehicle able to “navigate 300 miles of rugged terrain between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.” In the first event, the top-scoring vehicle managed a meager 7.5 miles. Twelve years later, autonomous vehicles are heading toward becoming commonplace. The Tesla Model S, for instance, comes ready-equipped with the company’s “autopilot.” Top car manufacturers like Ford and Volvo are investing heavily in self-driving vehicles. And Google and Uber already have test vehicles on the road. Granted, these cars don’t have to navigate the desert terrain of the DARPA challenge (although it could be argued that urban roads present an altogether tougher challenge). And they’re still far from perfect (as recent crashes involving Google and Tesla vehicles demonstrate). Even so, progress over the past decade has been meteoric, and

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Navigating the risk landscape that surrounds nanotechnology development can be a daunting task – especially if you are an early career researcher just getting started in the field.  There are plenty of studies and speculations around what might – or might not – be risky about nanoscale science and engineering.   But surprisingly, there are relatively few guideposts to help researchers plot a sensible course through this landscape as they set out to develop successful, safe, and responsible products. Back in June, I wrote about seven basic “guideposts” that I find helpful in thinking about nanotech risks, from a researcher’s perspective.  You can read the the full article in the journal Nature Nanotechnology – here are the highlights though: 1.  Risk starts with something that is worth protecting. We usually think of nanotechnology “risk” as the probability of disease or death occurring – or in the case of the environment, damage to ecosystems – from release of and exposure to engineered nanomaterials.  Yet the risk landscape that lies between novel nanotechnology research and successful product is far more complex, and being aware of its shifting hills and valleys can help avoid early, costly mistakes. When stripped down to fundamentals, risk concerns threats to something you or others value.  Health and well-being tick the box here, alongside integrity and sustainability of the environment.  Yet so do security, friendships, social acceptance, and our sense of personal and cultural identity.  These broader dimensions of “value” often depend on who is defining them, and the circumstances under which they are being defined.  Yet they are critically important in determining the progress of nanoscale science and engineering in today’s increasingly interconnected world. 2.  “Nanotechnology” is an unreliable indicator of risk. While the products of nanotechnology do present risks that need to be understood and addressed, the term”nanotechnology”

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Nanoparticles in baby formula

There’s a lot of stuff you’d expect to find in baby formula: proteins, carbs, vitamins, essential minerals. But parents probably wouldn’t anticipate finding extremely small, needle-like particles. Yet this is exactly what a team of scientists here at Arizona State University recently discovered. The research, commissioned and published by Friends of the Earth (FoE) – an environmental advocacy group – analyzed six commonly available off-the-shelf baby formulas (liquid and powder) and found nanometer-scale needle-like particles in three of them. The particles were made of hydroxyapatite – a poorly soluble calcium-rich mineral. Manufacturers use it to regulate acidity in some foods, and it’s also available as a dietary supplement. Needle-like particles of hydroxyapatite found in infant formula by ASU researchers. Westerhoff and Schoepf/ASU, CC BY-ND Looking at these particles at super-high magnification, it’s hard not to feel a little anxious about feeding them to a baby. They appear sharp and dangerous – not the sort of thing that has any place around infants. And they are “nanoparticles” – a family of ultra-small particles that have been raising safety concerns within the scientific community and elsewhere for some years. For all these reasons, questions like “should infants be ingesting them?” make a lot of sense. However, as is so often the case, the answers are not quite so straightforward. What are these tiny needles? Calcium is an essential part of a growing infant’s diet, and is a legally required component in formula. But not necessarily in the form of hydroxyapatite nanoparticles. Hydroxyapatite is a tough, durable mineral. It’s naturally made in our bodies as an essential part of bones and teeth – it’s what makes them so strong. So it’s tempting to assume the substance is safe to eat. But just because our bones and teeth are made of the mineral doesn’t

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Back in 2008, carbon nanotubes – exceptionally fine tubes made up of carbon atoms – were making headlines. A new study from the U.K. had just shown that, under some conditions, these long, slender fiber-like tubes could cause harm in mice in the same way that some asbestos fibers do. As a collaborator in that study, I was at the time heavily involved in exploring the risks and benefits of novel nanoscale materials. Back then, there was intense interest in understanding how materials like this could be dangerous, and how they might be made safer. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when carbon nanotubes were in the news again, but for a very different reason. This time, there was outrage not over potential risks, but because the artist Anish Kapoor had been given exclusive rights to a carbon nanotube-based pigment – claimed to be one of the blackest pigments ever made. The worries that even nanotech proponents had in the early 2000s about possible health and environmental risks – and their impact on investor and consumer confidence – seem to have evaporated. So what’s changed? Artist Anish Kapoor is known for the rich pigments he uses in his work. Andrew Winning/Reuters Carbon nanotube concerns, or lack thereof The pigment at the center of the Kapoor story is a material called Vantablack S-VIS, developed by the British company Surrey NanoSystems. It’s a carbon nanotube-based spray paint so black that surfaces coated with it reflect next to no light. The original Vantablack was a specialty carbon nanotube coating designed for use in space, to reduce the amount of stray light entering space-based optical instruments. It was this far remove from any people that made Vantablack seem pretty safe. Whatever its toxicity, the chances of it getting into someone’s body were vanishingly

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Public universities must do more

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has been in the national headlines for months, culminating in its central role at a recent debate in the city when Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton slammed government officials for dismissing the health of residents. Sadly, not every marginalized community can depend on a political debate to highlight its cause. But in the absence of media frenzies and heavy-hitting politicians, to whom can beleaguered citizens turn? Before Flint’s water issues hit the big time, help arrived from two unexpected sources – Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, an assistant professor at Michigan State University and director of the Pediatric Residency Program and Hurley Medical Center, and Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech. Their interventions put the Flint water crisis on the map, ultimately leading to the national attention it’s received. Hanna-Attisha and Edwards both work for large public universities. Yet it was their personal actions – not those of their institutions – that gave the citizens of Flint a voice. How much more could have been achieved if public universities themselves had spearheaded efforts to address the water crisis in Flint from the get-go? This is a question I’ve grappled with for some time – both in my current position at Arizona State University (ASU) and previously. At the University of Michigan, for instance, I led a center that sought to connect academic research on risk to ordinary people who could use it. We were successful, although the only record of that now resides on the Internet archive site Wayback Machine. Even with this success, there were many times that I felt it was despite the institution we were a part of, rather than because of it. ‘Costs of doing science’ for the public good Unfortunately, as I’ve experienced firsthand, there’s a stark disconnect

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Cancer - Countering the bad luck hypothesis

A new study has just been published in the journal Nature that calls the so-called “bad luck hypothesis”of cancer formation into question, and concludes that cancer risk is heavily influenced by external factors.

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Are vegetarian diets really more harmful to the environment

Carnegie Mellon University had an eye-catching headline on its news feed this morning: Eat More Bacon. It was based on a new study that suggests fruit and veg have a higher environmental impact per calorie than meat. However, the analysis failst to take account of the nutritional needs in a healthy diet.

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Should indoor tanning be banned?

Just how dangerous is indoor tanning? A couple of weeks ago, colleagues from the University of Michigan published an article with a rather stark recommendation: an immediate age limited ban on indoor tanning in all U.S. states, followed by a five-year phase-in ban for all commercial tanning.

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Using animations in science communication - arsenic in food

Can short animations be used for effective science communication, asks guest-blogger Queen Alike, Public Health Specialist at the National Institutes of Health National Library of Medicine (NLM).

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Last Thursday, the second annual University of Michigan Innovation In Action competition concluded, with six stunning student pitches for startups that could make a significant dent on the health and well-being of communities. It was a great example of what can be achieved at the intersection of public health, entrepreneurship, and the creativity and energy that students can bring to real-world problems.

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Yesterday, I posted a piece examining the oft-quoted mortality rate for measles of one to two deaths per thousand cases of infection.  Today, I want to look at what can be learned from more recent and more comprehensive dataset – this one from the 2008-2011 measles outbreak in France. In the early 2000’s, measles was a relatively rare occurrence in France.  From 2008 to 2011 though, there was a dramatic increase in cases – peaking at over 3,000 new cases per month being recorded in 2011.  Because the outbreak occurred in a developed country where the disease was no longer considered a pressing pubic health issue, it provides a unique opportunity to estimate mortality rates following infection by the virus in economies with robust healthcare systems. In 2013, Denise Antona and co-authors published a comprehensive assessment of the outbreak in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.   Over the four year study period, there were 22,178 documented cases of measles.  11.6% of cases (2,582) involved complications , including pneumonia (1,375 cases, 6.2%), acute otitis media (321 cases, 1.4%), and hepatitis or pancreatitis (248 cases, 1.1%). According to the paper’s authors, diarrhea was reported in 100 cases (0.4%). Overall, there were ten deaths reported (0.05%). The data are particularly useful for examining morbidity and mortality rates associated with measles in a developed country like France, as with the relative novelty of the disease, the number of reported cases is likely to have been substantially higher than in earlier decades when the disease was commonplace. In table 1 below (based on Antona et al.’s paper), the number of measles-related complications per 10,000 cases of infection is given for different health impacts and age ranges, based on individuals who were hospitalized. Focusing specifically on mortality, the overall rate was 4.5 deaths per 10,000 documented cases of

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If you catch measles, what are your chances of dying? When I was a kid, measles was one of those things you were expected to catch.  I had it when I was five, and must confess, I don’t remember much about the experience.  I do remember being confined to bed.  And I also remember being told that measles could cause blindness – as a budding reader, this scared me.  But I don’t recall anyone hinting at anything worse.  If my parents were worried, they didn’t show it. And I’d certainly never heard of kids who had died – even in playground rumors. So as the current outbreak of measles in the US continues to spread, I’ve been intrigued by statements that the disease has a mortality rate of somewhere between one and three young children per thousand infected. Of course I know as a public health academic that measles is highly infectious and can cause severe harm – even death.  But there was a dissonance between what I was reading and what I felt was correct. Surely if one out of every few hundred kids died as a result of measles as I was growing up, I’d have got wind of it? The mortality rate of around 1 in 1000 though comes with a sound provenance.  It’s there in black and white on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) web pages: “For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it” A 2004 review in the Journal of Infectious Diseases provides further insight.  Using CDC data on reported measles cases in the US between 1989 and 2000,Orenstein, Perry and Halsey indicated that approximately three children under the age of five died for every thousand that caught measles, and that the overall mortality rate for all ages was also around 3 per thousand people infected – the table below gives the

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Forget Dr. Oz and The Food Babe – the Risk Bites Holiday Video has enough risks du jour for everyone, and then some. With a tongue in cheek tip of the hat to Tom Lehrer’s Elements Song, we’ve crammed 108 risks into a mere 80 seconds – everything from arsenic and Ebola, to mega storms and falling off a unicycle!  And if you can keep up, you can even indulge in a little song-along Risk Karaoke with the closed captions turned on! (the full lyrics are available here)   Actually, I tell a lie: This is a song about our favorite hazards, not risks.  As the song concludes: These hazards are enough to rattle anyone’s composure, But to turn them into risks they need a dollop of exposure. Of course, while anything on the list could potentially kill, maim, or otherwise harm you, that’s not going to happen unless you’re actually exposed to enough of the hazard to make a difference! Some readers of this blog will remember that I was only going to make the Risk Song video if we reached 10,000 subscribers on Risk Bites.  We’ll, we didn’t, and I did!  Why let a few subscribers stand in the way of so much fun? That said, do us a favor and subscribe to the channel if you haven’t already – it does make us feel that the sweat and tears that go into these videos might just be worth it! And a final word on unicycle hazards – just in case you thought we were making this up, the Houston Chronicle ran this headline last August: ‘Naked unicyclist’ dies in overnight traffic accident in La Porte Have a wonderfully hazard-filled but risk-free 2015!  

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The health impacts of concussions suffered while playing sports have been receiving increased attention in recent years.  According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association,  An estimated 3.8 million concussions occur each year as a result of sport and physical activity in the U.S., with sport-related concussions account for 58% of all emergency department visits in children, and 46% of all concussions in adolescents. Part of the problem is a culture around sport that has a tendency to discount the seriousness of head traumas against the importance of winning – a culture that was highlighted all too visibly in Michigan last September, with the return to play of quarterback Shane Morris after a head injury. As institutions, players and parents grapple with the potential health impacts of sports-related traumatic brain injuries and how to avoid them, I asked Doug Martini — a PhD student in the University of Michigan Neurosport Research Laboratory — what he thought it was important for people to know about concussion.  These are captured on this latest video from Risk Bites:   And just in case you are too impatient to watch the video for two and a half minutes, here are the highlights: If you suffer a concussion, you should get an early and accurate diagnosis. Follow-up care is important. It’s not yet clear what the long term health impacts of concussion might be. Multiple head impacts that don’t lead to a diagnosis of concussion may also be significant. Helmets are designed to stop skull fractures, not prevent concussion.   For more information on concussion, it’s worth checking out the following resources: General information: University of Michigan Neurosport Research Laboratory Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) information on concussion CDC Heads Up on Concussion Consensus statement on concussion in sport: the 4th International Conference on Concussion in Sport

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Two related news items caught my eye this morning: First, the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has just published a new study in The Lancet claiming that in 2012, between 3% – 6% of all cancers around the world were attributable to high Body Mass Index (BMI), and that indications are that the trend is increasing (read the press release here).  The association was higher in economies with very high and high Human Development Indices (such as the US).  63.6% of the cancers associated with BMI globally were Corpus uteri, postmenopausal breast, and colon cancers, with women showing on average a higher rate of associated cancers. The authors conclude “These findings emphasise the need for a global effort to abate the increasing numbers of people with high BMI. Assuming that the association between high BMI and cancer is causal, the continuation of current patterns of population weight gain will lead to continuing increases in the future burden of cancer.” The second item was a piece in Vox on the release of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) new calorie label requirements for eating establishments.  According to the FDA, “The menu labeling final rule applies to restaurants and similar retail food establishments if they are part of a chain of 20 or more locations, doing business under the same name and offering for sale substantially the same menu items. Covered food establishments will be required to clearly and conspicuously display calorie information for standard items on menus and menu boards, next to the name or price of the item. Seasonal menu items offered for sale as temporary menu items, daily specials and condiments for general use typically available on a counter or table are exempt from the labeling requirements.” The new FDA rule is clearly focused on

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I’m a bit of a cash register receipt junkie.  I obsessively stuff my wallet with those little slips of thermal paper telling me how much I’ve spent.  And it has to be paper – none of this e-receipt nonsense.  But an article published last week in the journal PLOS One gave me some pause to rethink this habit. Bisphenol-A The paper focused on the substance bisphenol-A, or BPA, a chemical that’s been in the news for a few years now as one that shows hormone-like behavior, and has been associated with a number of health issues.  BPA is a component of polycarbonate plastic, and is used as an additive in some epoxy resins and other materials.  In recent years, concerns over potential health effects have led to it’s removal or substitution in many cases, especially water bottles and baby bottles, even though the weight of scientific evidence still suggests that, under most circumstances, exposures to the chemical from consumer products are too low to cause concern. This was reenforced earlier in the year with a long and weighty review by the European Food Safety Agency, or EFSA.  Rather than reading the entire 500 pages (riveting as it is), you can catch the highlights in under five minutes in this Risk Bites video:   The EFSA review reiterated the findings of a number of other expert assessments and concluded that, while BPA has the potential to cause harm in the body at high levels, most exposures are so low that the risks are negligible based on current understanding. However, the vast majority of studies carried out so far – and the focus of the EFSA report – assume that ingesting BPA from contaminated food is the most relevant source of exposure.  Ingested BPA isn’t readily absorbed from your gut, and when it is, the substance is rapidly converted, or metabolized, into

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As of October 19, over 9,000 cases of Ebola had been reported, with close to 5,000 deaths, almost exclusively in West Africa.  And while there have been success stories such as the elimination of Ebola infections from Nigeria and Senegal, the numbers of cases in vulnerable economies continues to grow. While Ebola is unlikely to present a serious public health threat in countries with strong healthcare and infectious disease infrastructures, the long-term global health, social and economic impacts will be significant if strategic action isn’t taken.  Earlier this week, I asked a group of infectious disease and risk experts at the University of Michigan School of Public Health about their top concerns and priorities moving forward.  While their collective responses are by no means comprehensive (we didn’t discuss vaccine development for instance), they do provide a useful foundation for the path forward to combatting Ebola locally and globally. OVERARCHING THEMES There is no ‘secret sauce’ to managing infectious disease outbreaks. There is a wealth of experience in the US and globally on containing infectious disease outbreaks like the current Ebola outbreak.  The limiting factors in containment and control are not lack of scientific and technical understanding, but an inability to apply existing knowledge in a timely and effective manner, and to coordinate and manage international responses effectively. Sustained support for public health is critical. Future resilience requires greater and sustained funding in public health research and practice.  Stop-start public heath funding that is driven by short-term responsiveness and long-term amnesia cannot ensure that expertise and capabilities will be in place as and when they are needed. Intelligent risk and safety communication strategies are needed.  Communication strategies are needed that draw on current expert understanding of effective risk communication.  Communication should focus on changing the way people understand the virus to operate (their ‘mental models’)

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There’s something rather human about being scared of the ebola virus.  It’s a “bogeyman” virus – the stuff of nightmares; hovering in the shadows of our imagination like a half-glimpsed specter.  Like most imagined horrors though, the reality of ebola is much more mundane. The latest episode of Risk Bites takes a look at five things worth knowing about ebola that help demystify the virus:   Useful links to additional information: University of Michigan School of Public Health Ebola topic page University of Michigan Risk Science Center Ebola articles New York Times Ebola facts SciShow: What You Need to Know About Ebola (video) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Ebola resources National Library of Medicine Ebola Outbreak 2014: Information Resources Updated 10/23/14, 11:03 AM

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We’ve just posted a new video about the University of Michigan Environmental Health Science department that I’m quite pleased with. It’s aimed at students who may be interested in pursuing a graduate degree in the environmental health sciences (and perhaps don’t know this yet!), but it’s also a great 30,000 foot introduction to what environmental health science is.  

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2020 Science is published by Andrew Maynard - Director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University. More ... 

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