Our previous research has shown that exposure to contaminants in outdoor and indoor air can affect respiratory health, especially in children. This is important because diseases such as asthma, bronchitis and other conditions are very common and affect many families.
We have also previously written about the discovery that houseplants could potentially improve the quality of indoor air by filtering some common pollutants. Different kinds of plants may be able to absorb different kinds of pollutants from the air and from soil.
More recently, I was interviewed by Julia Ries for an article on Healthline. The article is about a recent study by researchers from the University of Washington in which they show that genetically-modified pothos ivy can absorb benzene and chloroform from the air. For the article, I was quoted as follows:
“Air pollution is a major contributing factor in diseases, including cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases such as asthma, and potentially brain development in children,” said Luz Claudio, PhD, a tenured professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
“We have better control of the environment inside our homes, so it’s worth having clean air indoors as much as possible,” Claudio said.
The original scientific article from the laboratory of Dr. Stuart E. Strand was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology and can be found HERE. In their study, the Strand team showed that introducing a detoxifying gene that is normally expressed in mammals (a cytochrome called P450 2e1) into pothos ivy plants not only made the plant express the gene, but also made the plant able to detoxify benzene and chloroform from the air.
Although this type of research holds promise as a way to improve our environment, genetically-modifying plants is a controversial approach. We don't know if adding or modifying a gene in an organism can affect other properties beyond the characteristic intended for modification. In spite of those concerns, genetic engineering holds immense promise as part of the arsenal of approaches towards improving environmental health.
Ask your grandmother when she hit puberty. Then ask your mother. Ask other women in your family. Do you notice a pattern?
Yes. In recent years, girls have been developing at younger ages. Today, it is not uncommon to see middle school girls who look like grown women. But why?
Some investigators point to obesity as part of the explanation for this trend. Although that is far from conclusive, it seems to be an important factor. However, we also suspect that exposure to some chemicals in the environment may contribute to earlier puberty in girls.
I was part of a team led by Mary Wolff, PhD, that investigated the relationship between exposure to chemicals found in personal care products and signs of puberty in a group of African-American and Latina girls. In that study, we recruited girls at 6-8 years of age and followed them over time, assessing their exposure to chemicals, their BMI, diet, and puberty development.
A new study published by Dr. Brenda Eskenazi's team assessed whether exposure to these chemicals before birth could also lead to changes in puberty in children. Their study found that exposure to chemicals commonly found in personal care products may cause early signs of puberty in girls, but not in boys. The chemicals that they measured in this new study were phthalates, parabens and triclosan.
I was asked by journalist Lisa Rapaport to comment on this new study for Reuters, the news organization. Here is my quote: “The effects of these chemicals are very complex,” said Dr. Luz Claudio of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “Their effects on the hormonal system is different with different chemicals, they have different potencies, their effects can be modulated by other factors such as genetic predisposition, and importantly, their effects can be different depending on the timing of the exposure,” Claudio, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email. “With that said, this and other studies, together with the laboratory experimental evidence point to potential effects on children.”
It is possible that only very few of you have heard that the US Global Change Research Program issued an important report titled: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Vol II. The report was released the day after Thanksgiving, so I don't blame you if you didn't see it. You were probably laying on the couch, belly full of turkey. Or perhaps you were at the mall, fighting the Black Friday crowds. So, since maybe not too many people saw it, I wanted to give YOU a chance to know about this. I am sending this to you because I am your friend.
Unlike the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this new report focuses on the effects of climate change on the US.
Here are some key takeaways:
Divided in 29 chapters, it summarizes effects on communities, the economy, health, water, ecosystems, agriculture, infrastructure, oceans and coasts, air quality, tourism... Basically, every aspect of life in the US will be (or is) affected. The report also presents the expected effects by region of the US. Check out your region if you want to see a crystal ball into your (near) future.
In my view, the most interesting chapters are the two chapters on Reducing Risks through Adaptation and Emissions Mitigation.
"Communities, governments, and businesses are working to reduce risks from and costs associated with climate change by taking action to lower greenhouse gas emissions and implement adaptation strategies. While mitigation and adaptation efforts have expanded substantially in the last four years, they do not yet approach the scale considered necessary to avoid substantial damages to the economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades."
In my interpretation, the report basically emphasizes mitigation and adaptation actions LOCALLY (state, cities, private sector), rather than (or maybe in addition to) at the federal or global levels. I wonder why...
"Mitigation and adaptation actions also present opportunities for additional benefits that are often more immediate and localized, such as improving local air quality and economies through investments in infrastructure."
Yes. Sure. It would be good to act locally to mitigate and adapt to the expected effects of climate change. Sure, let's plant more trees in New York. Let's shut down more power plants. Sure. Would these local actions result in measurable benefits at the global level? Only if many, many places do the same.
Do we really think that we will be OK as California burns, Venice disappears into the ocean, and tropical storms flood the east coast? No. It is all interconnected. As the report says:
"Extreme weather and climate-related impacts on one system can result in increased risks or failures in other critical systems, including water resources, food production and distribution, energy and transportation, public health, international trade, and national security."
Believe or don't believe. Either way, take the time to understand what is happening. Do what you can to help mitigate and adapt.
Dr. Luz Claudio is an environmental health scientist and author of the book: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper: The Step-by-Step Guide. She blogs about life in academia, and environmental health news. Opinions expressed on this blog are solely her own and may not reflect the opinions of her employer or colleagues.
"Despues de la tormenta, vienen los tormentos", that is what my mother says. "After the storm, come the torments". She got that saying from her mother, who endured many hurricanes before this one, Maria, hit Puerto Rico. I suppose that this saying goes back many generations in my family, and it is true now more than ever.
Maybe the time has come to add a new saying to my family's repertoire: "Cuando lo pierdes todo, empieza como si nunca lo hubieses tenido." "When you lose everything, restart as if you never had anything."
People ask me how is my family surviving. Their resilience comes mainly from three things:
First, my family is close. They are physically close, most live less than an hour from each other. And they are emotionally close. My aunts, uncles, cousins, all get together often. So, those who have lost or damaged houses are doubled up with sisters, uncles, or cousins. They are sharing food, shelter, water, and everything they have with each other, with their neighbors, and with their community.
Like many of you, I watch the news in shock. Whole islands in the Caribbean rendered uninhabitable by unprecedented hurricanes. Major cities under water. Forest fires threaten urban areas. Tropical storms hit temperate zones. Extreme monsoons and cyclones.
It feels like the dystopian future that seemed farfetched in so many bad movies, is now real. Having seen the water rushing through the subway tunnels after Hurricane Sandy hit New York made me rub my eyes in disbelief. It looked just like another movie in which they destroy Manhattan had actually come to life.
Now worries about hurricanes affecting family in Puerto Rico, colleagues in Texas, and friends in Florida and Cuba keep me up at night.
I suspect that I am not alone in this state of worry.
If you are not being directly affected by these climate-related disasters, you probably have close friends or relatives who are.
There is much fear about what is next. There is frustration about continued denial even though things are happening right in front of our eyes and you don't have to be a scientist to see. The reality is that climate effects that seemed so far in the future are here, now.
Asthma is the most common chronic disease among children in industrialized countries. In some communities, childhood asthma is so common that parents expect it as just another part of growing up, like tantrums and falling baby teeth. For instance, in many of our Latino communities, childhood asthma is referred to as “fatiga” or fatigue, and may not be recognized as a major illness. This may also prompt a sense that there is nothing that can be done because so many children have it, it is a fact of life. In our work, we have identified some schools in which one in every 5 children had symptoms of asthma.
So why, why, why do so many children have asthma? And why, at least until recently, it seemed to be on the up, and up, and up? No one really knows, but I will venture an educated guess.
During my years of medical research training, I was taught that air pollution did not cause asthma. It was believed that air pollution triggered asthma symptoms in those who already had it. That was the dogma for many years and that is what medical professionals have been taught.
Incredible but true. It has been 20 years since president Clinton signed the Environmental Justice Executive Order. Ah, I remember it well ...
President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, titled “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low Income Populations.” It mandated federal agencies to create programs that would ensure environmental equity among affected populations. The order followed on the heels of the 1994 Clean Air Act, a federal law that set limits on how many pollutants states could allow to be released into the air. "Environmental Justice" became a buzzword for fed agencies, a rallying cry for community groups, and a way to study health disparities for medical institutions.
By then, I had worked at EPA for a little while and was a lowly faculty instructor in academia. Then EJ became all the rage. There were rallies, there were demonstrations, there were marches, there were politicians talking about it, and, there were requests for proposals from the government to study the problem.
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Dr. Luz Claudio is an environmental health scientist, mother and consultant, originally from Puerto Rico. She is a tenured professor of environmental medicine and public health. Luz recently published her first book: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper: The Step-by-Step Guide. Dr. Claudio has internship programs and resources for young scientists. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely her own and may not reflect her employer's views.