Category Archives: health

Are these apps changing our lives?

Hello! I’ve been writing a lot lately about how new apps and the proliferation of smart phones are changing our lives. Since I’ve neglected this blog for way too many months, I wanted to bring you up to date with some of these recent articles.

capbikeshareLast week, the Washington City Paper ran my cover story on the “sharing economy.” In a departure from my usual third-person style, I was able to call on couple of years of personal experiences as a “collaborative consumer” for this story. I also talked to other people using D.C.’s car and bike shares, Airbnb and eatFeastly hosts, and interviewed pundits who say the burgeoning “sharing economy” is ushering in big changes in the way we live.

Here’s an excerpt from the story:

Sharing enthusiasts see a future with less pollution, inefficiency, and injustice—not to mention fewer cars. But sharing services aren’t always green (you can, after all, share a private jet). They seem more likely—not less—to accentuate class differences and perpetuate the same bad behavior on commercial, labor, and environmental fronts that everything that came before them did. And while sharing depends on high-tech social media and smartphone apps, in many ways the collaborative world harkens back to the past: to barter systems; the hyper-localism of preautomobile societies; and the almost small-town importance of reputation, which will increasingly follow us around as “data exhaust” that could replace the credit rating. Still, the changes afoot are propelled by decidedly 21st century realities: population growth, booming cities, rising costs, and shrinking personal space.

READ THE STORY

Photo courtesy of Asthmapolis

Photo courtesy of Asthmapolis

Earlier in February, the Washington Post published my latest story on “geomedicine,” an emerging field in which doctors and other caregivers use mapping tools and “Big Data” to gain insights into their patients’ lives so they can offer better treatment and advice.

The story features Asthmapolis, a company that makes a new asthma inhaler that has a GIS sensor for mapping the patient’s every puff. Other experiments in “geomedicine” are using social medial platforms to share information, not just about illnesses, but about environmental exposures, as well as mapping farmers’ markets, healthy eateries, parks and other recreational outlets. It’s proponents say the geo-mapping can help us understand the environmental factors driving an individual’s health problems and then map out ways to address them.

READ THE STORY

ItalyTrashScientific researchers are also using geographical information and mapping to delve more deeply into the precise origins of illnesses and how environmental factors play a role in health. Italian researchers, for instances, have linked skyrocketing cancer rates, birth defects and other illnesses in communities outside of Naples to mafia-related dumping of industrial waste in an area that has come to be known as “the triangle of death.”

READ THE STORY

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Geo-medicine: Mapping our pollution exposures

My latest post on The Atlantic’s Cities website explores geo-medicine, a new field that uses GIS mapping to correlate environmental conditions to health risks like heart attacks and cancer. There’s even a free app that allows you to map the types of toxic exposures in everyplace you’ve ever lived and correlate them to the likelihood of developing cancer or dying of a heart attack.

Beyond charting the potential for your own personal doomsday, however, geo-medicine has many other applications: It can allow doctors to zoom in on a patient’s life to create a geographically enhanced medical history. Or it can zoom out to give public health officials, city planners and activists detail-rich insights on how to improve the well-being of entire communities.

Check out my story and let me know what you think!

NGO “dissolves” after questions raised over corporate funding

prescription drugs in bottle

By Somegeekintn. Creative Commons license

The Washington Post reports today on the demise of the nonprofit group, the American Pain Foundation, that used its funding from big pharmaceutical and medical device companies to play down “the risks associated with opioid painkillers while exaggerating the benefits from the drugs.”

Today’s story follows up on an exposé published last December that used the foundation’s annual report to explain how more than 90 percent of its $5 million budget came from the makers of such drugs as Oxycontin and Vicodin. Those revelations led to a Senate Finance Committee investigation launched yesterday. Also yesterday, the foundation reportedly announced it could no longer remain “operational” and would “dissolve.”

Had its corporate funders fled from the scandal? The post report says the foundation was not taking questions yesterday. But it would not be the first time a corporation has ditched a nonprofit partner after issues of propriety arose.

The example that comes to mind is The Nature Conservancy’s Land Legacy program with Centex, the homebuilder. For every home the company product, it kicked back $35 as a donation to TNC. Eyebrow-raising considering that other environmental groups had criticized Centex as a purveyor of suburban sprawl, a scourge to nature preservation. The deal created internal tension and discord among Conservancy staffers, according to a 2003 Washington Post expose on the nature group. What did Centex do? It took the program over to the Conservation Fund, and after Centex and Pulte Homes merged in 2009, forming PulteGroup, the fund was renamed the PulteGroup Land Legacy Fund. Besides renaming the arrangement, the company and the NGO have gotten savvier in how they discuss it. Today, they tout it as a $2.5 million “revolving fund” paying for “the protection of more than 73,000 acres, achieving dramatic results for wetlands, forests and waterways coast to coast.”

Questionable corporate funding of nonprofit groups is so often in the news these days (THINK: ALEC, Heartland Institute, the American Diabetes AssociationEnvironmental Defense Fund, and the Sierra Club, among others.) new revelations seem to have lost much of their shock value. For instance, you’d think CF’s dealings with the PulteGroup could tinge its reputation just as it sullied TNC’s, but apparently that’s not a good enough reason to turn down the cash.

Questionable corporate largess isn’t just limited to nonprofit groups. Tom Philpott has a post on Mother Jones today questioning the independence of universities that take research grants from Big Ag companies such as Monsanto.

Nonprofit groups are embedded in nearly every aspect of life these days (even ProPublica, the investigative newsroom that produced today’s exposé, is an NGO). But  the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t require nonprofits to tell the public much about their funding sources, which  leaves reporters and other watchdogs reliant on the information the groups choose to share. Many groups voluntarily publish at least a partial roster of donors, which ironically, exactly what ProPublica did; reporters used a donor list in its annual report to connect the dots between its corporate relationships and its public advocacy.

But how often do organizations leave out donations that might lead to awkward questions about corporate cash? As last year’s $26 million Sierra Club-Chesapeake Gas scandal illustrates, it’s much too easy to hide these relationships and obscure their influence.

Climate Change: Are we also the 99%

The GreenAccord conference took place last week.

I got back late last night from the GreenAccord environmental conference in Italy, an annual gathering that brings together journalists from around the globe with some of the foremost experts on climate change and the many interconnected environmental problems threatening human – and planetary – health.
The conference has always emphasized environmental justice, a focus made even richer by the large contingent of reporters from developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where some of the worst impacts of climate change are expected and have, indeed, begun. This year, however, the political dimensions of the climate debate were in even starker relief.  Several speakers suggested that the world’s elites are insulating themselves from the worst aspects of global warming. There were shades of the Occupy movement with its assertions that the world’s wealthiest 1 percent are ruining the world for the rest of us.

Resource economist William Rees argued that we’re already seeing the beginnings of “eco apartheid” as wealthy individuals, corporations and entire governments scramble to secure the best remaining cropland, water rights, mineral and fossil fuel deposits and other dwindling resources, while blocking climate responses that threaten their wealth. Robert Engelman, the new executive director at of the environmental think tank, Worldwatch Institute, expressed similar views. Meanwhile Brazilian philosopher Euclides Mance, of the World Social Forum, advocated dumping our corporate-dominated economy for one based on solidarity. He discussed experiments underway in Brazil and elsewhere to replace currency with a system of credits that would essentially allow people to barter for goods and services.

As soon as I shake off the jet lag, I must start writing an article that will discuss some of these ideas in more detail. Stay tuned!

While I was away, my story on the economy of food trucks posted to The Atlantic magazine’s “Cities” website. While off subject for those focused solely on environmental issues, it’s an interesting tale of how, even in a sputtering economy, agile entrepreneurs can find a path forward. Perhaps there is a more universal take-away there? You can find the story here.

Affordablity theme big in this year’s Solar Decathlon

Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Creative Commons license

In this year’s Solar Decathlon  wrapped up earlier this month with 19 homes – more than half of which cost less than $300,000 to build. Affordability was one of the 10 categories on which the homes are judged this year in the biannual competition pitting universities from around the United States and a few foreign countries. The new cost/affordability bar, which replaced the lighting contest, inspired the student designers to drive down the cost considerably. According to the event’s sponsor, U.S. Department of Energy, this year’s houses were about 33 percent cheaper this year than those that competed two years ago.  “Solar for less” was just one of the industry trends reflected in this year’s entries.

Read my story in Architecture Week.

I Want this Bike Helmet!

From Tree Hugger's Bike Helmet Fashion Show

So it might not go with all outfits, it’s a much bolder fashion statement than the standard offerings. And so much padding would be comforting if one’s skull were on a crash course with the pavement. If this one’s not for you, the TreeHugger site has an array of cyclist headgear on parade today. Several swerve decidedly into the fashion lanes. Others tilt toward practicality. I also like the collapsible helmet; unattractive but easily stowed. As a Capital Bikeshare members, I get tired of carrying my bulky plastic helmet around with me.

The Importance of Forests, Farmers + Product Safety

A few news stories of note this morning:

Seeing the forest’s role: “By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity and two-thirds of the world’s population may experience water-stress conditions. Forests capture and store water and can play an important role in providing drinking water for millions of people in the world’s mega-cities.” The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization calls on countries to recognize the links between healthy forests and drinking water supplies and do a better job protecting both.

Small farmers lead the way: In a just released short film series, TVE Asia Pacific profiles farmers in Cambodia, the Netherlands, Niger, and South Africa who are members of Prolinnov, a global network  that promotes local level innovation by small farmers.

New Consumer Product Safety Database targeted by “Koch congressman” – Quick, before U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo gets his way! Check out the government database Pompeo has targeted for extinction, some say as a way of paying fealty to his political patrons at Koch Industries.

Forget about Halloween, the global extinction crisis is a true cause for fright

Frightened by mass extinctions? Me too.

Some news stories seem to reoccur year after year despite their urgency.  Today’s page 3 story in the Washington Post,Global extinction crisis looms, study says,” is one of those. Here’s the first graf:

“A growing number of creatures could disappear from the Earth, with one-fifth of all vertebrates and as many as a third of all sharks and rays now facing the threat of extinction, according to a new survey assessing nearly 26,000 species around the world.”

Appalachia Rising in DC

Grace Burke protests Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining in front of the White House Sept. 27.

People from Appalachia and around the country marched to the White House today to send a message to President Obama about mountaintop removal coal mining: Stop it immediately.

Mountaintop removal — or “mountaintop mining” — as coal companies such as Massey Energy prefer to call it — is a form of strip mining. The companies use explosives to blast off the tops of the mountains and heavy machinery to scoop up the valuable coal seams underneath. Tons of so called “waste rock” (the parts of the mountain of no use to coal companies) are trucked down into valleys, where they are dumped, a process called “valley fill.” Since mountaintop mining began a few decades ago, hundreds of mountains in Appalachia have been blown apart in this way and a couple of thousand of miles of streams and lakes have been buried under waste rubble, according to the EPA.

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Cows will be Cows

Cows will be cows. Chesapeake Bay Foundation photo

Earlier this week, this blog discussed the dilemma facing people everywhere who want both spot-free dishes and clean watersheds. Well, yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency highlighted another part of the Chesapeake Bay‘s chemical runoff problem: It announced a crack down at the chicken and dairy farm run by the Petersheim brothers of Lancaster County, Pa.

EPA inspectors slapped the Petersheims with a $6,000 fine for allowing runoff from animal manure and milkhouse washwater packed with nitrogen and phosphorus to end up in a tributary of Chickies Creek, which feeds the Susquehanna River and eventually meets the bay.

According to the EPA press release, the brothers’ farm in Manheim, Pa., has about 80 dairy cows and produces eggs from about 36,000 hens. Is that a lot? After reading about the country’s massive factory farming operations that produce most of the eggs — and don’t forget the salmonella! — in the country, the Petersheim operation doesn’t sound terribly large and impactful. And, that just illustrates how diffuse and complicated a pollution problem the Chesapeake is facing. The EPA has outlined its plan to step up the long-running cleanup efforts, here. But the task is daunting and environmentalists have expressed lot of skepticism over the plans rolled out by the states bordering the bay. Meanwhile, the farmers are pushing back: A group of Virginia farmers are coming to Washington tomorrow to complaint about the EPA’s “heavy-handed” approach to the cleanup and lobby against stricter new legislation in Congress, according to this AP report.