Category Archives: Urban Health

Genetically Modified Foods

As I continue on with my classes in public health subject areas, I have become more wary of the cocktail of chemicals in our foods and personal care products. One area I hadn’t looked into too deeply was genetically modified foods, until a presentation where I chose them as my subject.


A food product that is genetically engineered is a product “in which the crop DNA is changed using the gene-insertion techniques of molecular biology.”

Genetically engineering crops is just one of many methods that are used to increase production. Others include: crop breeding; chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides; crop rotation; and organic methods.

The advocates of GMOs promise the following:

  • GMOs are just a more precise way of breeding plants, a time tested and safe practice.
  • Nutrition can be improved in developing world.
  • Higher yield will feed the world on less land with economic benefits for farmers and consumers.
  • Less pesticide/herbicide application and fewer environmental impacts.

Norman Borlaug, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom have criticized the critics of GMOs as anti-science and elitists ignoring the food needs of the developing world.

The promises of GMOs have not been fulfilled since GMOs were introduced in mass to US agriculture in 1996. Instead, food allergies have skyrocketed along with rates of obesity and other health ailments. The food companies have been unable to prove that their products are unconnected to the rise in food allergies. Its time to just label it.

Hit the jump to address the promises of GMO foods…

Read the rest of this entry


A High Fat Diet Reduces Effectiveness of Asthma Medication

“This is the first study to show that a high-fat meal increases airway inflammation, so this is a very important finding,” says study author Leslie Wood, PhD, a research fellow at the University of Newcastle in Australia. “The high-fat meal impaired the asthmatic response to albuterol. In subjects who had consumed a high-fat meal, the post-albuterol improvement in lung function at three and four hours was suppressed.”

Yet another reason food deserts should be targeted for eradication in poverty stricken neighborhoods. No fresh apples in sight but plenty of fast food meals and obesity.


Create Jobs and Save Lives

At a recent public health forum, I learned that there are currently 80,000 chemicals being manufactured and distributed in the United States. The EPA has had the resources to look at 550 of them. Many were last investigated decades ago.

You see, here in the US, the burden of proof is on the people to prove that a chemical is harmful. Not on the chemical company making the potential poison. Is this good business? I think not. In fact, I think its criminal. If I were a more skilled chemist, I could concoct some brew of minimally toxic chemicals that have an unknown exponentially harmful effect on human health that surfaces after 10 or 20 years. I could then market this product without proving its long term safety, make a load of money to hire attorneys when folks start getting cancer.

Luckily, the European Union has laws in full effect. “Over the next 11 years, manufacturers will have to register safety data for around 30,000 chemicals already in use. These include thousands of everyday products – for example, flame retardants on sofa coverings, musks used in shampoos, and paints of all kinds – as well as specialized chemicals used only by industry.”

So, how will this create jobs? Well, these chemicals have likely been large contributors to cancers so society has been bearing the burden of unjust environmental laws while these companies had skyrocketing profits. Now, if those companies want to do business in Europe, they must invest far more heavily in their safety department. It “could cost U.S. companies some $15 billion if they want to tap into the $100 billion chemical market across the Atlantic.” But the investment is worth it. “An impact assessment in 2003 put the health benefits alone at 50 billion Euros over 30 years.”

And European environmental activists aren’t done yet. “But Lisette Van Vliet of the Health and Environmental Alliance (HEAL) wants tougher rules brought in. The new regulation should be compared to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, she says: it is a baseline, but not the final goal.”

I wonder what it’ll take to get legislation like that passed here. More regulation is needed and the companies that made it necessary should provide the funding for it.

Propoxur to Fight Bed Bugs?

I recently read that 25 states are petitioning the EPA to allow use of Propoxur against the bed bug epidemic.

According to the EPA who last had the funds available to release information about Propoxur in 2000, one study showed a chronic feeding study of propoxur in rats, tumors of the bladder and the uterus were observed at high doses. According the EPA’s 2000 data, no studies have been done to see if it causes birth defects or cancer in humans.  So if you or your landlord were to sprinkle propoxur all over your bed for bed bugs, not only would you be inviting you and your family to be guinea pigs in some case control study 15 years down the road, but the bed bugs would be back. Why? Because like other pests, they reproduce at a far higher rate than we do and within a few generations of natural selection (in a month) the  population in your apartment is far more resistant. Meanwhile, you and your children are not. But as long as you don’t immediately die, then it’s safe right?

When asked about treating bed bugs, “an agency spokesman, Dale Kemery, said the EPA has pledged to find new, potent chemicals to kill bedbugs, which can cause itchy, red bites that can become infected if scratched.”

Give me a break. Yes, bed bugs are a nuisance. And they are hard to kill with chemicals. But they are EASY TO KILL WITH HEAT! Bed bugs and their eggs permanently die at temperatures of 130 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. And natural selection has nothing on 100% extermination, guaranteed.

So – if I were head of the EPA, I would send that spokesperson to a basic Bed Bug workshop where he’d learn that many reputable pest control companies offer a heat treatment. They bring in a big machine and jack up the temperature of your apartment to 130 degrees. All the bed bugs and eggs die and never come back unless a fresh bed bug comes in from the outside world (or your apartment neighbor if your landlord didn’t exterminate all infested units in the building.) It can be expensive, but it’s far cheaper than trying with the chemical treatment several times unsuccessfully and then having to get the heat treatment anyway. Not to mention less of a headache.

Poisoned Waters Continued…

I finally got a chance to watch the PBS special on water pollution today. It really reinforces what I believe to be the greater health and environmental problem the next generation faces, and why I got into public health to begin with.

That is, when did we say it was ok for the government or whomever, to decide “yes, that is a safe level of toxic chemical A, B or C in your water, air, or environment.” Today, we allow these chemicals to have a chronic presence in our lives. Maybe that’s why we have so much chronic disease.

Our generation faces a brave new world. One in which point source pollution is no longer public enemy #1. We have chronic pollution [wiki endocrine disruptors] being put into nearly everything in our daily environment. And I’m afraid that we as a population won’t gain enough political will to call for solutions until it’s our sons, not just our fish, being born with ovaries AND testicles.

Here is the link to the full program. It is nearly 2 hours but after I finally made time for it, I’m glad I did. Full Program: Frontline, Poisoned Waters

And below are a few “sneak peaks” I found on youtube. They’re all quite short, so enjoy!

New Renovation, Repair, and Painting Rule: Applicable to Contractors Near You April 2010

Lead poisoning remains a problem to this day. In 2003, 12,000 children in Illinois were lead poisoned (10 ug/dl+). Today, about 15% of kids [Source: Chicago Department of Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention] are lead poisoned due to some sort of renovation or remodeling.

Illinois is high on the list for percentage of children exposed to lead, and Chicago is #1 in the country for number of children lead poisoned annually.

Because of this, then-Senator Obama really championed better protections for children against lead poisoning. One of those things was the RRP rule. “To protect against this risk, on April 22, 2008, EPA issued a rule requiring the use of lead-safe practices and other actions aimed at preventing lead poisoning. Under the rule, beginning in April 2010, contractors performing renovation, repair and painting projects that disturb lead-based paint in homes, child care facilities, and schools built before 1978 must be certified and must follow specific work practices to prevent lead contamination.”

This means that by April 2010, contractors doing work in pre-1978 buildings [ie: remodelling the kitchen in your 1963 split level in Anywhere, USA] will have to have at a minimum, the supervisor on site to have taken & passed an 8 hour training course on lead safe work practices. The fines will be quite high for those who choose to disregard this rule, so you can bet that by March, contractors will be rushing to get this course done if they want to continue to be able to work in pre-1978 homes [about 70% of Chicago’s housing stock]. Find a local training provider here.

For those of you who are not contractors but still like do-it-yourself projects, I’d recommend at least learning the basics. Why? Because a sugar packet’s worth of lead contaminated dust, spread over1/4th of a football field, is enough to lead poison a toddler. The videos below can show you the precautions you need to take.

Inspiring Healthy Homes

I found this audio file from 580AM in Champaign, IL. Professor Gregg Mitman talks about asthma, allergies, and his book “Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes.”

The file is from June 2007, around the time the book came out. The audio file isn’t embedding correctly, so feel free to open the link in a new tab to listen.

Professor Mitman talks about the history of asthma and allergy in the US, and how we’ve come to where we are today. In some neighborhoods, as many as 25% of children have asthma. In North Lawndale, where I work, it is quite common to meet people who know of someone who died from an asthma attack.

I took two classes with Professor Mitman, during my last two semesters at UW. If anyone gave my career direction, it was him. I’d go on about how inspirational he’s been and how to this day, I’ve embraced the lessons I learned in his classes…but I’ll end up sounding like a groupie if I haven’t begun to already.

Mitman argues that there have been different ways that we as a population have dealt with asthma and allergy. First it was going into the country. Next it was controlling the environment. Getting rid of ragweed for example. And since around WWII, it has been changing the environment within our own bodies. By taking drugs, we are able to change our reaction to an environment that would normally irritate us.

This is where the lessons I learned in his classes met real life. Sometimes, I’m still astounded that I found a job that fit so well with my most memorable class. I am so thankful to be working to implement the ideas that just over two years ago were only on paper for me.

When the ER doctor sees a 7 year old having an asthma attack, they’ll talk about medicine, if they were running around at the time, etc. But how many are thoughtful enough to ask about his/her indoor environment, in which the child spends 90% of their time. A huge percentage of the parents I work with have landlords that do not address the issues in their apartment that trigger their child’s asthma, like rodents and roaches.

It is largely because of Professor Mitman that I ever noticed this problem. A child living in the building that has roaches in the wall will be inhaling cockroach parts that have turned to dust. How much medication should they be taking to counter all that extra allergen they are inhaling?

That is why I am going into public health. So many of today’s chronic diseases are being approached by research for that magic pill or vaccine. We know if we stop eating so many processed foods and get some exercise, obesity rates will go down. We know if we just upheld the housing code and had landlords buy the $5 worth of boric acid and caulk to mitigate a minor roach problem, many apartments would be pest free. I suspect if we hadn’t injected SO many poisons into our lives, we wouldn’t have the high rates of cancer that we have today.

I would argue that it is time to re-take control of our entire environment. Only then can we have control over the condition of our own bodies.

Poisoned Waters

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith details widespread pollution of America’s waterways in the PBS Frontline documentary Poisoned Waters.

AUDIO: NPRs Poisoned Waters [25 min]

This great piece done for NPR gives a great overview of today’s water problems.

Back in the day, when the Clean Water Act was first passed, it addressed the issues of the day, like point-source water pollution. But today, much like many other parts of our damaged environment, our water is poisoned from all of us collectively.

Today, one big part of the problem are these massive industrial farms. “There were 570 million chickens grown on the eastern shore of the Delmarva Peninsula [Delaware] last year and they produced 1.5 billion pounds of chicken manure, and that’s more manure than the human manure from the cities of New York, Washington, San Francisco, and Atlanta all put together.”

And unlike people-poop, which is put through a rigorous waste treatment system before going back into our waterways, animal waste goes right into the neighboring waterway with no regulation whatsoever.

So around DC, lots of people are noticing “not only fish kills but they began to find abnormalities in the fish, one problem called inter-sex, which is female eggs in the male gonads of small mouth bass. That’s a very alarming thing.

“I mean elsewhere in the country they’ve found alligators with small penises, they’ve found frogs with six legs, they’ve found mutations that are, when you stop to think about them, are really horrible. If they happened to human beings, people would be up in arms, and these are warnings, the scientists now believe, about what’s in these waters.”

These same chemicals causing these problems are known to cause similar problems in humans. Men already have lower sperm counts. Babies have elevated levels of these chemicals in their bodies.

“You walk down the aisles of a grocery store and you’re looking at a lot of these products every day. These are products that are now built into our modern lifestyles. A matter of fact, it’s very interesting just the other day, the EPA announced for the first time, and this is a big change over the last decade or so, announced that they were going to ask a number of companies to check into the certain chemicals, 65 specific chemicals, in these kinds of products.”

Storm water run off is another problem Smith mentions. “… as we drive down the road, our cars drop oil and grease, hydrocarbons, but they also drop bits of metal and heavy metals – chromium, aluminum, mercury.”

Smith then compares two different models in the DC area. Tysons Corner, Virginia which grew OUT in the last 30 years and Arlington, Virginia, which grew UP. And all it took was a smart city council in Arlington. Now that’s small government that works!

Chicago's Creative New Asthma Program

Asthma Program Targets Landlords

Above is the audio from our spot on Chicago Public Radio earlier this year. It’s pretty drama filled.

I have been working on Healthy Homes issues since 2007. First it was a lead poisoning prevention partnership. And now I have transitioned to this innovative and ambitious new program on the West Side of Chicago.

I believe in a holistic approach to health care.

I’ll never forget a training I attended in the winter of early this year. We learned all about asthma and it was very informative. But for whatever reason, at the end of the training, a representative from a well-known drug company [it will remain unnamed in this post] was invited to speak. He showed us a video of some quack Dr. with an M.D. from quack university (I googled the U later, and it definitely was not in the top 500 medical schools). This doctor was employed by the company and published various studies on why asthma rates just cannot seem to stop rising. He always concluded that they just aren’t taking enough drugs.

Well, if you know me, you know that whenever I am in a situation where I can envision myself telling the story to friends later, I never want to end the story explaining why I chose not to bite the hand that feeds me. This isn’t arrogance. It’s good story telling!

So of course, I decided to ask the representative, “We all know medication is necessary for people who already have asthma. But what is [company] doing to prevent this disease, especially in children?” The representative could have easily said, “Well we’re working with groups like yours to mitigate the underlying causes of asthma exacerbation, like poor housing conditions, yada yada…” But he didn’t. Instead, he told me that “[company] was working very hard on a vaccine for asthma.” And yes, I did have follow up questions. My boss was not happy with me for putting this guy on the spot.

Now I know its a drug company. What do I expect?

But lets go back to where I started: I believe in a holistic approach to health care.

Researchers still do not know what causes asthma, a LIFELONG, chronic lung disease. Many say they’ve grown out of asthma – nope. They just have not had an attack in a long long time.

The reasons I believe in a holistic approach are many. The reason this asthma partnership is so great is because it gives families the tools to tackle all the little problems that exacerbate their child’s already uncontrolled asthma. Yes, free drugs from the drug company are great.

a home I visited late this summer

But if the building you live in is not up to code and roaches scuttle about the surfaces on which your child plays, how much medication should they take to counter all the roach-frass that the child breathes in because of those lousy housing conditions you pay $800/mo for?

And so I argue – the answer to chronic diseases like asthma [or obesity, or cancer, etc] are NOT vaccines. It is to make our environment a salubrious one. Of course there are natural triggers of asthma – cold air, exercise, pollen – and then, aren’t we glad we have the drug companies?