Weather and Health: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Autumn, with its crisp temperatures, is a favorite season for many. But for others, the decreasing daylight hours can bring on a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

According to the Mayo Clinic, SAD is a “subtype of depression that comes and goes with the seasons” and is most common in fall and winter. Its exact cause is not fully understood, but researchers say a reduction of sunlight can disrupt the production of serotonin and melatonin – chemicals in the brain that regulate mood and sleep patterns. SAD symptoms include low spirits, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, and changes in both sleep and eating patterns.

SAD is typically found in places that are far from the equator where daylight is at a minimum in the winter months. A report by the American Academy of Family Physicians says about 6% of the US population suffers from some degree of SAD, with most cases occurring in Alaska.

The most common treatment for SAD is light therapy. This involves sitting in front of a special lamp that gives off light that is similar to natural sunshine. It has been shown to trigger the brain chemicals that regulate mood. The more serious cases of SAD could require advanced talk-therapy or even medication.

While everyone can feel a little “blue” once in awhile, SAD is characterized by a prolonged feeling of depression. It can be a serious condition and should be diagnosed by a medical professional.

SAD. Credit: hercampus

The most common type of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) occurs in fall and winter. Credit: hercampus

Summer Colds can be Worse than Winter Ones

Dealing with a cold is annoying anytime of the year. However, during the summer, when you want to be outside enjoying the beautiful weather, it is especially frustrating. Adding insult to injury, summer colds also tend to be worse than the winter variety.

The reason for this, according to infectious disease experts, is that different viruses cause summer and winter colds. Winter colds are the result of rhinoviruses and summer colds are produced by enteroviruses.

Along with the usual coughing and congestion of a winter cold, enteroviruses can cause a host of other nasty symptoms. These include, fever, diarrhea, sore throat, and body aches. They also tend to last for a few weeks and can reoccur. Rhinoviruses, by contrast, usually run their course in a few days.

This resilient virus, according to the National Institute of Health, is present year round, but thrives in mild weather. Most infections occur between June and October.

Since most people spend more time outdoors during the summer months, summer colds are less prevalent than winter ones. Nevertheless, they are spread through contact with infected people and contaminated surfaces. To help reduce your odds of getting sick, doctors recommend you wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face.

Summer Colds. Credit: mlive

A Summer Cold.  Credit: mlive

Rip Current Awareness for the Summer Beach Season

Summer vacation season has arrived and millions of people will be heading to beaches to beat the heat over the next few months. As such, it is important to remember that the ocean is a dynamic environment that can pose a number of hazards for swimmers.  Chief among these are rip currents.

Rip currents are fast, localized channels of water moving away from the shoreline. According to NOAA, they are a result of “complex interactions between waves, currents, water levels and nearshore bathymetry.” They can form in several different ways on any beach with breaking waves. That said, they are typically found at breaks in sandbars and along permanent structures that extend out into the water such as jetties or piers.

Moving at up to 8 feet per second – which is faster than an Olympic swimmer – rip currents can easily drag unsuspecting swimmers hundreds of yards out to sea.  While they will not pull anyone underwater, they can cause fatigue and panic. According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association, rip currents are responsible for 80% of all surf zone rescues. Nationally, they cause more than one hundred deaths every year.

To spot a rip current, look for a gap in the breaking waves.  This is where the water is forcing its way back out to sea.  The water in this area is also usually murky and darker than the surrounding water.  On guarded beaches, red flags indicate hazardous conditions for swimmers.

If caught in a rip current, the Red Cross recommends not trying to swim against it.  Instead, they say to swim parallel to the shoreline until you are out of the current. Once free, you can start swimming back toward the beach.

For more information on beach safety, visit: http://www.redcross.org/prepare/disaster/water-safety/beach-safety

rip-current

Image Credit: NOAA.

Why U.V. Intensity Increases with Elevation

One of the most important items on the packing list for my trip to Colorado this past week was sun-block. Averaging 300 days of sunshine per year at a mean altitude of 6,800 feet above sea level, the U.V. index in the Centennial state can range from high to extreme during the summer months.

The U.V. index is a scale that measures the intensity of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Readings vary from place to place as local factors affect the amount of U.V. light that reaches the ground. These include, the thickness of the ozone layer, latitude, season, cloud cover, and elevation. Developed by the NWS and EPA in the early 1990’s, it informs the public about the daily health risk of unprotected exposure to the sun.

At high elevations, the atmosphere thins and is less able to absorb U.V. radiation. With every 1000-foot increase in height, according to the National Institutes of Health, U.V. levels increase by about 4%.  So, in Denver, “the Mile High City”, U.V. radiation is about 20% stronger than a location at sea level at the same latitude. Heading up into the Rocky Mountains, where peaks can reach above 14,000 feet, the U.V. intensity soars even higher.

Credit: EPA

Credit: EPA

EPA Seeks to Cut Carbon Pollution 30% by 2030

The issue of climate change mitigation was front and center in Washington, DC yesterday as the EPA unveiled its new Clean Power Plan. The proposed regulation would reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from all the fossil fuel based power plants across the United States.

According to the EPA, “The combustion of fossil fuels to generate electricity is the largest single source of CO2 emissions in the nation, accounting for about 38% of total U.S. CO2 emissions in 2012.”  Since coal is known to release more CO2 than any other fossil fuel, this new regulation targets existing coal-fired power plants.  Specifically, it calls for a 30% cut in carbon pollution compared to 2005 levels by 2030.

To comply with this new national regulation, individual states will have flexibility in how they choose to cut emissions. Some options include increasing energy efficiency, maximizing renewable energy sources like solar and wind, and joining a regional cap-and-trade program like RGGI in the northeast.

In addition to fighting climate change, this new rule would also improve air quality and human health. Issued at the direction of President Obama under the authority of the Clean Air Act, the EPA says this regulation will “reduce pollutants that contribute to the soot and smog that make people sick by over 25 percent.” In fact, the agency projects the lower emissions will help avoid as many as 6,600 premature deaths and over 100,000 asthma attacks in children.

While this new rule is not without its critics, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy emphasized the need for action. In a press conference, she said: “This is not just about disappearing polar bears and melting ice caps. This is about protecting our health and it is about protecting our homes.”  The new regulation – scheduled to be finalized next summer – will also help the U.S. meet its commitment to the U.N. to cut carbon pollution by 17% by 2020.

US Carbon Dioxide Emissions by Source.  Credit: EPA/Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2012

US Carbon Dioxide Emissions by Source.                          Credit: EPA/Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas            Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2012

State of the Air: 2014

Are you concerned about the quality of the air you breathe?  Air pollution, a by-product of our modern age, is an ongoing problem in many parts of the United States.

According to the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air Report, 147.6 million people – 47% of the nation – live in counties with unhealthy levels of particle and ozone pollution. That is an increase of 16 million from last year. One of the worst polluted cities is Los Angeles, CA, where the air is considered unhealthy 120 days of the year, on average. For a list of the most polluted as well as the cleanest cities, click here.

Particle pollution comes from a variety of sources, but chief among them are industrial emissions and vehicle exhaust.  When these emissions react with the U.V. light of the sun, they form ground level ozone. Both of these pollutants are known to have serious negative impacts on human health.  They especially affect individuals suffering from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

While air pollution continues to be a serious challenge in this country, the report also notes the fact that our air – overall – is cleaner now than it has been in previous decades. This is largely due to the regulations put in place by the Clean Air Act.

To check on the quality of the air where you live, click here.

Weather and Health: Extreme Cold

Persistent frigid temperatures have been gripping a large part of the United States recently.  In these conditions it is important to remember that, like extreme heat, extreme cold can be very dangerous.

Extreme cold causes the body to lose heat faster than it can be generated.  Prolonged exposure, according to the CDC, can cause serious health problems, including hypothermia and frostbite.

Hypothermia is a condition of unusually low body temperature – generally below 95°F.  It impairs brain functions, limiting a victim’s ability to think and move.  Symptoms include severe shivering, drowsiness, confusion, slurred speech, and fumbling.  If left untreated, it can be fatal.

Frostbite is a localized injury to the skin and underlying tissues caused by freezing.  It can cause permanent damage and extreme cases often require amputation.  Areas of the body most often affected include the nose, ears, cheeks, fingers and toes. Signs of frostbite include, numbness, skin discoloration (white or greyish-yellow), and unusually firm or waxy feeling skin.

While the symptoms of both hypothermia and frostbite can range in severity, victims generally require immediate re-warming and professional medical attention.

To stay safe in cold weather, the American Red Cross recommends:

  • Avoiding prolonged exposure to extremely low temperatures
  • Wearing layers of clothing to keep warm
  • Using hats and gloves to minimize the loss of body heat

Natural Disasters and Public Health

Weather-related natural disasters have occurred throughout human history.  Their frequency and intensity, however, have been on the rise in recent years and health professionals have taken notice.

According to a report recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, there were three times as many natural disasters between 2000 and 2009 as compared to 1980 through 1989. Dividing the events into two major categories, climate-related (storms, floods, heat-waves, etc.) and geophysical (volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, etc.), the report found that 80% of the increase was due to a rising number of climate-related disasters.

The report explains, “During recent decades, the scale of disasters has expanded owing to increased rates of urbanization, deforestation, and environmental degradation and to intensifying climate variables such as higher temperatures, extreme precipitation, and more violent wind and water storms.”  It also cautions that “natural disasters, particularly floods and storms, will become more frequent and severe because of climate change.”

Impacting nearly five billion people since 1990 (approximately 217 million people per year), each disaster has generated serious public health concerns including large numbers of fatalities, injuries, and the outbreak of disease.

EM-DAT International Disaster Database, Center for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters, University of Louvain.

Geophysical Disasters vs Climate-related Disasters                                                                            Graph Credit: EM-DAT International Disaster Database, Center for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters, University of Louvain.

WHO: Air Pollution Causes Cancer

Air pollution has long been linked to a number of health problems, including respiratory and heart diseases.  Now, it has been shown to cause cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization, released a report on Thursday which concludes prolonged exposure to air pollution and particulate matter can cause lung cancer and increase the risk of bladder cancer.  Unlike some other environmental carcinogens, air pollution is nearly impossible to avoid, as we all need to breathe. Caused by vehicle exhaust, power generation, industrial emissions, and residential heating, its sources are ubiquitous.

While the report did not quantify risk by country, some places are more polluted than others. Here in the United States, the Clean Air Act has helped improve air quality in recent years. Nonetheless, pollution continues to cause health problems for many people across the country.

Globally, according to the IARC, air pollution contributed to 3.2 million pre-mature deaths in 2010 alone.  More than 200,000 of those were from lung cancer.

Air Quality Improvements in NYC

New Yorkers can breathe easy.  The city’s air quality is the cleanest it has been in fifty years.

While speaking at a Climate Week NYC event yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city’s sulfur dioxide levels have decreased by 69% since 2008 and soot pollution has dropped 23% since 2007. This data is based on the results of a New York City Community Air Survey, which monitored air quality at one hundred locations across the five boroughs.

This impressive reduction is largely attributed to the Clean Heat Program, part of the larger PlaNYC initiative for an environmentally sound city.  The program encourages building owners to phase out the use of heavy heating oils that pollute the air.  Over the past three years, according to the mayor’s office, approximately 2,700 buildings have converted to cleaner fuels.  Following regulations established in 2011, the use of dirty heating oils in NYC will be illegal by 2030.

Since air pollution is known to aggravate cardiovascular and lung diseases, public health officials estimate that the cleaner air is preventing 800 deaths and more than 2,000 emergency room visits each year.