12/27/16

Climate Science #2 - Natural Variation?

In my last blog, I talked about greenhouse gases (GHG) as an important driver of climatic variation. Well, what about natural variation? Earth's temperatures have gone up and down in the past, so what if the current warming trend is just part of a natural cycle? Well, let’s discuss. 

Aside from GHGs, three distinct physical cycles have historically played a key role in earth’s major climate fluctuations. Collectively, these are known as the Milankovitch cycles, and include the following:

Precession (P) – If you’ve ever spun a top, you’ll notice as it slows it wobbles. Much like a top, the earth too spins with a slight wobble. Much slower than a top, however, the earth completes one full wobble about every 26,000 years. 

Axial Tilt (T) – Earth is currently titled at about 23.5 degrees from vertical. This  in fact gives rise to our seasons! As it turns out, this angle is not fixed, but rather fluctuates back and forth by a few degrees over time. One full fluctuation takes approximately 41,000 years. 

Eccentricity (E) – You all know that earth orbits the sun. What you may not know is that the shape of this orbit changes from oval to more circular at predictable cycles. One cycle takes about 100,000 years to complete. 

Figure 1. The three Milankovitch cycles depicted. 

Notice the above cycles occur at frequencies of tens of thousands of years. In other words, while the earth has warmed over the last two centuries, these three natural cycles have essentially remained constant. In fact, the current orientation of the Milankovitch cycles actually favors cooling, not warming. But again, these cycles are slow, and essentially play no role in recent temperature changes. 

Are there any other natural drivers of climate change? Sure, solar cycles. In contrast to the Milankovitch cycles, solar cycles actually occur at a much higher frequency—about every 11 years. In this case though, they occur too frequently to explain the gradual warming of the past couple hundred years. What then is the ex factor driving current climate change? Turning again to my last blog, we discussed GHGs. These gases are also known to be major drivers of climate variation. And, in fact, their concentrations in the atmosphere correlate perfectly well with the temperature changes we've observed. 

In a perfectly unbiased and politically neutral society, we would accept this with little resistance. It is quite clear and makes perfect sense. In a world influenced heavily by major industrial players who have high stakes in the game, however, this sense has been passionately battled. 

Let's recap! When we look at natural drivers of climate variation, they don’t explain the rapid increase in temperatures we’ve experienced in recent times. Those committed to refuting climate change, however, often cite such cycles as evidence against the major causes. And unfortunately, most people aren’t familiar enough with the issue to correct this fallacy. Hence, this blog! I hope I’ve informed you such that you can now inform others and refute the fallacy. 

In my next blog, I’ll present the temperature trends of the earth both in recent and ancient times as well as provide historical carbon dioxide concentrations. We will also discuss the implications of present day GHG emissions.

If you enjoyed this blog post, please support my writing by joining this blog site! Simply click “join this site” at the top right of this page, log into your account, and click “follow publicly.”  Thanks!

                                                                            Shahir Masri
                                                                            Doctor of Science
                                                                            Environmental Health Science



12/13/16

Climate Science #1 - How Carbon Warms the Planet

In my last post I mentioned the launching of an educational blog series on climate change. Through this, I hope to inform the public on the science of the issue, its importance, and the ways in which we can each take action to help mitigate its severity. Absent of nuclear war, climate change represents the most threatening issue of our time. It affects national security, the economy, human rights, health and disease, wildlife, and more. Sadly, the solution to the problem is one that threatens the very rich and powerful fossil fuel industry; namely, a shift to alternative energy. To prevent this shift, the industry has launched a massive mis-informational campaign designed to ensure inaction on the issue. Their goal has never been to win a scientific debate on climate change. After all, 97% of scientists agree on the facts. Rather, their goal has been to divide the public on the issue. To generate doubt. To prevent public mobilization and political pressure. And very successful they’ve been. Here we are, decades after scientists caught on to climate change, still languishing politically to address the matter.

As an air pollution scientist with zero industrial ties, I ask you to please take this blog series as an opportunity to learn about and understand the facts surrounding climate change. Do not let industry turn this into a "debate." In this series I'll explain why the climate is warming, the extent to which humans are a cause, the importance of a 2 degree temperature increase, and much more. We have a potentially catastrophic situation on our hands, and it is time to dispel the industry propaganda and truly become educated on the matter. The next step will be to seriously pressure the government for change. Our kids and grand kids will thanks us! 

The Not So Vast Atmosphere

So let's begin with the basics of greenhouse gases. What are they, how do they trap heat, and are we really releasing enough to alter the atmosphere? While the atmosphere seems infinite, consider this. On a planet that spans 25,000 miles around, the bulk of our atmosphere (99%) is only 18 miles high. If you’re from Orange County, that’s the distance between Newport Beach and Dana Point! Alternatively, that’s 30 football fields side by side. The point is, though we can view the nighttime stars, our own atmosphere is nothing more than a thin veneer around the planet. 


The Greenhouse Effect

You’re all familiar with a botanical greenhouse. It stays warm even on the coolest of days, so long as the sun is shining. So how does it work? First, let me say that the sun emits short wave radiation. As objects absorb this radiation they become warm. This is of no surprise so far. What’s important, though, is that when objects warm they too emit radiation. They release long wave radiation. Now back to the greenhouse. It turns out that short wave radiation (sunlight) can pass uninterrupted through glass, while long wave radiation (from warm objects) cannot. The result is sunlight passing into the greenhouse, warming the internal environment, which then releases long wave radiation. That long wave radiation, unable to escape back out of the glass, becomes trapped. Heat then accumulates. In the case of the earth, our atmosphere is the glass. Well, not the whole atmosphere. Certain gases in the atmosphere behave as the glass of the house—gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane. Not surprisingly, we call these "greenhouse gases," or GHGs for short. With the earth, our glass ceiling is not a perfect heat trapper. It is more like glass with windows. As we emit more and more GHGs, however, those windows begin to close and temperatures rise. This is what’s been happening over the past 200 years. The graph below shows average CO2 concenrtions in the atmosphere, and the progressive closing of these windows. 


Figure 2. Carbon dioxide concentrations over the past 1,000 years. 

Notice in the above graph, also featured on the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website, that CO2 concentrations rise abruptly around the year 1800. This reflects the enormous spike in emissions following the industrial revolution, as mentioned earlier. This rise is no coincidence and is very substantial. From this, we might expect an increased trapping of heat and a rise in global average temperatures. Well, that's what we observe. And I'll present such temperature figures in the coming weeks. 

So what about natural climate variability? In my next blog I will cover this in detail. 

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                                                                 Shahir Masri
                                                                 Doctor of Science
                                                                 Environmental Health Science



11/17/16

Toxic Talk of the Month – Field Notes from a Catastrophe

In light of the recent U.S. presidential elections and the preceding debates, I was all too reminded of the lack of attention paid to the most pressing issue of our time; namely, climate change. While nations around the world rally to legislate international policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. has simply languished due to repeated blocks by a republican senate (yes, climate change has unfortunately become a partisan issue). With Donald Trump now bound for the White House, we can expect a Supreme Court that will likely block the only regulatory hope we had (the Clean Power Plan) at seriously curbing domestic greenhouse gas emissions. With that being said, it is time for Americans to break away from the politicization and partisan spin on climate change. We simply can't rely on political figures to deliver a message when their funding depends on their silence. We must rely on our scientists to deliver this message. To this end, I am initiating a blog series aimed at educating the public on the science of climate change. As a first step, I present to you Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change.
Field Notes from a Catastrophe is the first book on climate change I ever read. It is an excellent read that I would consider non-technical and enjoyable for the greater public, yet replete with essential information. It weaves the science of climate change into an interesting investigatory narrative, told by a journalist with a burning desire to understand and report on the issue. Throughout her book, author Elizabeth Kolbert travels around the world, interviewing climate scientists and visiting places afflicted by climate change. Her observations are very real, and her discussions with scientists very telling.  

Ms. Kolbert has been a staff writer for The New Yorker for nearly 20 years. Her book originally stemmed from a groundbreaking, National Magazine Award-winning three-part series in the Newspaper. She expanded on this story to put together this captivating book. Although originally published in 2006, her book was updated in 2015 to include several new chapters. Yes, climate change has only gotten worse, and the impacts more widespread! So I call on Americans and people around the world, please learn about climate change. Get to know the issue and what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint and, importantly, to pressure your local politicians to act on the matter. Expand your knowledge using unbiased, science-based websites. No corporate or political sites! This book is a good place to start. For other credible info sites, and how to avoid garbage info, read my previous blog. And importantly, stay tuned for my climate change blog series!

Please support my writing by joining this blog site! Simply click “join this site” at the top right of this page, log into your account, and click “follow publicly.”  Thanks!

                                                                                        Shahir Masri
                                                                                        Doctor of Science
                                                                                        Environmental Health Science



11/8/16

Election Day is Here - Go Vote!!!

It's VOTING DAY!! To the "no voters," third party voters, and swing state voters, please consider your decision very carefully. We have a candidate on the table who believes climate change is a hoax and has little to say about curbing greenhouse gas emissions. If you have children, your vote will affect them. If you plan to have children, their futures are at stake. Vote responsibly on their behalf. They will thank you in 20 years. While I don't claim Hillary is our savior, she at least recognizes what 97% of climatologists recognize, and she has tangible policies to address the matter. The most important piece of climate legislation our country has seen, The Clean Power Plan, will soon be decided in the Supreme Court. A Trump judicial appointee would likely kill this policy, furthering the world down a path of business as usual. A no vote essentially approves this reality. A third party vote essentially approves this reality. And a Trump vote essentially welcomes this reality. Be on the right side of history!!



                                                                              Shahir Masri, S.D. 
                                                                              Environmental Health Scientist 







11/4/16

Clinton vs. Trump on the Environment

Hey everyone!

We’re now days away from an important presidential election. You’ve watched them debate. You’ve seen them rally. What you probably haven’t witnessed is either candidate speak to issues of the environment, except for a brief question by beloved Ken Bone of course! Fortunately, both candidates were recently interviewed on these issues by www.ScienceDebate.org, so we can still gauge and compare their stances and knowledge. In this blog I do just that! Using this Presidential Science Debate 2016 interview, I have selected 8 questions that relate specifically to the environment and public health.  To assess the quality of each candidate’s response in the least biased manner, I generated a ranking system through which I scored each response by Trump and Clinton according to 6 separate criteria. Such criteria are described below, and the results are plotted in a bar graph for simple interpretation.


Scoring Criteria

Scoring was dichotomous. That is, candidates received either a “1” or a “0” in each of 6 categories, depending on their response.

Understanding of Topic
1 = candidate conveyed a good understanding of the topic, 0 = if not

Response Length
1 = only if response was twice the length of opponent’s response, 0 = if not

Concrete Goals 
1 = candidate described specific/quantifiable goals, 0 = if not

Provided Solution
1 = candidate provided some sort of solution to the issue at hand, 0 = if not      

Scientific Accuracy
1 = candidate’s response was scientifically accurate, 0 = if not

Avoided Vague Language           
1 = candidate used strong language such as “will” or “shall” in describing goals, 0 = candidate used soft or vague language such as “should” or “can”

The Results


As shown above, Clinton out scored Trump in all issues relating to public health and the environment. However, no issue separated the candidates’ scores more than climate change. While Clinton conveyed a sound understanding of the issue and the measures needed and proposed by experts to mitigate climatic impacts, Trump conveyed an overall lack of understanding of climate change and perception of its importance. To see where each candidate was penalized according to my scoring criteria, please see the table below (zeros are left blank).


As you can see, three common criteria penalized Trump, including 1) understanding of topic, 2) response length, and 3) concrete goals. Put into a single sentence, Trump’s responses were mostly very short, vague, and failed to convey an understanding of the topics. On average Clinton’s responses were a whopping 4.5 times longer than Trumps. By contrast, Clinton appears to understand these issues quite well and has taken the steps to formulate concreted goals relating to their solutions. In reviewing this Presidential Science Debate 2016 interview, it is therefore difficult to conclude anything but Clinton as the stronger candidate on issues of public health and the environment. 

Given the differences between the candidates on these issues, I shall conclude with a bit of my own opinion. The issue of climate change is particularly alarming as it relates to Trump’s demonstration of knowledge, understanding, and lack of proposed mitigation policies. Refuting climate change is refuting what 97% of climatologists are telling us. If you visited 100 doctors and 97 of them said you had the flu, would you still question whether you had the flu?? It is time to take this issue seriously. It is imperative to have a U.S. president who takes climate change seriously. The issue is not one of the environment exclusively, but one of human health as well. Trump appears to overlook this.

If you think that my analysis could be flawed by bias, I urge you to read on. I have provided a summary of each candidates response to all 8 interview questions. I think you'll conclude that my analysis was quite fair. You will notice my summaries of each candidate’s response are not equal in length. That is, I often summarize Clinton’s response using more text. This is because I’ve taken great care to write summaries that reflect the actual lengths of each candidate’s response. Yes, I did a Microsoft “word count” on each answer! So, if one candidate’s answer was twice as long as the other’s, then my summary of their response was twice as long. This was to give you the most unbiased and accurate reflection of their true answers.  If you don’t want a summary and wish to read the full interview, click the Presidential Science Debate 2016. Note that I didn’t provide the actual questions below, but rather the topic headers, which is sufficient to understand their responses.

Response Summaries

1. Climate Change

Clinton
  • The science of climate change is clear
  • Climate change is an urgent threat
  • Will work to slash greenhouse gas pollution
  • Set 3 specific energy goals to be achieved within 10 years of taking office
    • Generate half of electricity from clean sources, with half a billion solar panels installed by the end of first term.
    • Cut energy waste in American homes, schools, hospitals and offices by a third and improve American manufacturing efficiency and pollution.
    • Reduce American oil consumption by a third through cleaner fuels and more efficient cars, boilers, ships, and trucks.
Trump
  • There is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of “climate change.” 
  • Perhaps our limited financial resources should be focused on issues of water, infectious disease, and food, along with developing alternative energy sources.

2. Biodiversity

Clinton
  • Conserving biodiversity is essential to maintaining our quality of life.
  • Climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, unsustainable management practices, introduction of invasive species and other forces pose serious threats to biodiversity.
  • Will work to double the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants program to help states, tribal nations, and local communities act earlier to conserve wildlife before they become threatened or endangered.
  • Will establish an American Parks Trust Fund to scale up and modernize how we protect and enhance our natural treasures, and to better protect wildlife habitat across the country.
  • Will work collaboratively with other nations to end trafficking in wildlife and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing that threatens our oceans
Trump
  • There will be shared governance of our public lands and we will empower state and local governments to protect our wildlife and fisheries. 
  • Laws that tilt the scales toward special interests must be modified to balance the needs of society with the preservation of our valuable living resources.  Will bring all stakeholders to the table to determine the best approach to setting that balance.

3. Energy

Clinton  
  • Make America a 21st century clean energy superpower.
  • Rejects notion that the economy, environment, and national security can’t go hand in hand.
  • Defend, implement, and extend smart pollution and efficiency standards, including the Clean Power Plan and standards for cars, trucks, and appliances that are already helping clean our air, save families money, and fight climate change.
  • Invest in clean energy infrastructure, innovation, manufacturing and workforce development to make the U.S. economy more competitive and create good-paying jobs and careers.
  • Ensure the fossil fuel production taking place today is safe and responsible and that areas too sensitive for energy production are taken off the table.
  • Expand clean energy production on public lands and waters tenfold within a decade.
  • Cutting billions of wasteful tax subsidies to oil and gas companies.
  • Cut methane emissions across the economy and create strong standards for reducing leaks.
Trump
  • It should be the goal of the American people and their government to achieve energy independence as soon as possible.
  • Obtaining energy independence should include exploring wind, solar, nuclear and bio-fuels.

4. Public Health

Clinton
  • Despite recent major events like contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, the spread of Zika virus, and the continuing need to address HIV, we are not currently investing in public health preparedness and emergency response the way we should.
  • Will create a Public Health Rapid Response Fund, with consistent, year-to-year budgets, to better enable the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state and local public health departments, hospital systems, and other federal agencies to quickly and aggressively respond to major public health crises and pandemics. 
  • Will ensure that our government has strong leadership and is organized to better support and work with people on the ground facing public health challenges.
  • Must focus on boosting our preparedness for biological threats and bioweapons, supporting research for new diagnostic tests and vaccines for emerging diseases, building capacity in public health departments, etc.
Trump
  • We cannot simply throw money at public health institutions and assume that the nation will be well served. 
  • Must focus on assessing where we need to be as a nation and then applying resources to those areas where we need the most work. 
  • Our efforts to support research and public health initiatives will have to be balanced with other demands for scarce resources.

5. Water

Clinton
  • Invest in infrastructure and work with states, municipalities, and the private sector to modernize water systems and provide all Americans access to clean, safe drinking water.
  • The federal government must become a better partner in supporting state and locally-led efforts to improve water security.
  • Create a coordinated, multi-agency Western Water Partnership to help fund water efficiency, consideration, and infrastructure modernization projects across the region, including significant new investments in water reuse and reclamation.
  • Establish a new Water Innovation Lab for better water efficiency and treatment solutions.
Trump
  • Invest in our fresh water infrastructure to ensure access to affordable fresh water solutions.
  • Explore all options to include making desalinization more affordable and work to build the distribution infrastructure.

6. Nuclear

Clinton
  • Nuclear power accounts for over 60% of our zero carbon power generation and is an important tool for meeting climate change goals.
  • Will increase research, development and deployment of advanced nuclear power. 
  • Must also invest in the security of our nuclear materials at home, and improve coordination between federal, state, and local authorities.
  • Must seek to reduce the amount of nuclear material worldwide – working with other countries to minimize the use of weapons-grade material for civil nuclear programs.
Trump
  • Nuclear power can be made safer and is a valuable source of energy that should be part of an all-the-above program for providing power for America long into the future. 

7. Vaccines

Clinton
  • Will protect child health in American and the globe through use of vaccinations and vaccine science.
  • The recent measles outbreaks in California’s Marin and Orange counties remind us that we cannot be complacent with our own nation’s vaccine policies.
  • Will work closely with talented physicians, nurses, and scientists in U.S. Public Health Service to speak out and educate parents about vaccines.
  • We need to engage stakeholders across industry, non-profits, foundations, and government to spur the development of a new generation of vaccines.
Trump
  • Should educate public on the values of a comprehensive vaccination program.

8. Ocean Health

Clinton
  • Our coastal and ocean resources play a critical role in providing nutritious food, good livelihoods, and critical storm protection for our nation.
  • With about 40 percent of our nation’s population living in coastal counties, 1.8 million Americans making their livelihood from fisheries, and 3 billion people globally dependent on the oceans for a major portion of their protein, we cannot afford to ignore the health of our oceans.
  • Will continue to recover and rebuild U.S. fish stocks by making sound management decisions based on the best available science.
  • Will work with our industry, and other countries, to implement strong traceability standards for our seafood from bait to plate.
  • Will work collaboratively across government, academia, and industry to build solutions that keep our waters clean, our coastal and ocean resources healthy, and our communities thriving.
Trump
  • Work with Congress to establish priorities on how to allocate fiscal resources.  
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                                                                         Shahir Masri
                                                                         Doctor of Science
                                                                         Environmental Health Science




11/2/16

Aerial Pesticide Spraying for Mosquito Control - News Publication!

Hey blog world,

Recently I discussed the Zika outbreak. One strategy being applied in the U.S. to combat Zika is aerial spraying of organophosphate pesticides (OPs) for mosquito control. Kill the mosquitoes and you'll reduce Zika. However, OPs come with their own set of health consequences. As recent flooding by Hurricane Matthew may bring a boom in mosquito numbers, it's quite possible we'll see OP spraying yet again commence. In an opinion piece published just yesterday in The Hill, I discuss this issue in detail. Check out the article below!


In the wake of Hurricane Matthew — to spray or not to spray?

"Confronted by devastating Hurricane Matthew, Florida residents and city officials have even more to deal with than the obvious destruction and loss at hand.  When floods and rain subside, stagnant puddles and newly formed ponds persist — a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. What this has meant previously is aerial spraying of highly toxic..." 
Get the full article at The Hill. 
Join my blog site by clicking “join this site” at the top right of this page, logging into your account, and clicking “follow publicly.”  Thanks!

                                                          Dr. Shahir Masri
                                                          Environmental Health Scientist


10/25/16

Toxic Talk of the Month – Omnivore’s Dilemma

This month, I present to you Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. This book not only earns my applause, but was named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post following its publication in 2006. Written by U.C. Berkeley Professor of Journalism Michael Pollan, this captivating read chronicles the lengthy and process-intensive journey of food as it travels from the farm to the dinner table. Mr. Pollan has also been a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine for about 30 years, and was named one of the top 10 “New Thought Leaders” by Newsweek in 2009, and one of the 100 most influential people by TIME Magazine in 2010.



Omnivore’s Dilemma brilliantly wrestles with issues of health, sustainability, the environment, and moral dilemma. It dives into the complexity of the food choices we must make, while providing an insightful history of the food industry. How some of our most beloved crops came to be number one is well explained.

In this book, Mr. Pollan actually demonstrates the difficulty of obtaining a single everyday meal by actually doing it himself…from scratch! That’s right; hunting, gathering, farming, and even evaporating bay water to get salt; always returning to the theme of today’s food industry and meal choices. After this book, you will no longer take your food for granted. You will also learn there are more ingredients in a fast food chicken nugget than an entire burger! This book is a very fascinating must read. Given Mr. Pollan’s background in journalism, he is able to deliver an interesting message while keeping the reader’s attention. For more on Michael Pollan and Omnivore’s Dilemma, visit Mr. Pollan’s website by clicking here.

To encourage future blogs of this kind, please join my blog site! Simply click “join this site” at the top right of this page, log into your account, and click “follow publicly.”  Thanks!

                                                                 Dr. Shahir Masri
                                                                 Environmental Health Scientist




10/13/16

Zika Virus – Severity & Extent of Outbreak

Origin of the Outbreak

The current Zika outbreak can be traced to Brazil. Brazil’s National Reference Laboratory confirmed the first cases of Zika in May of 2015. Unconfirmed cases in the country date back nearly two months prior, in late March.


Map showing geographic spread of current Zika epidemic (CDC, 2016). 

State of the Outbreak

Originating in Brazil, Zika virus has since made its way through nearly every country of South America and the Caribbean, reaching as far north as Mexico and the southern United States. As of yesterday, October 12th, Zika cases (people infected with Zika) in the U.S. totaled to 3,936 (up by 100 compared to last week). On the plus side, most of these were travel-related cases. Locally acquired cases remain much lower (128 cases) and have occurred only in Florida (Miami-Dade County). What does this mean? It means while Zika has touched all 50 states, people are still only “getting” Zika elsewhere. The exception is for sexual transmission, which is responsible for less than 1% of total cases thus far. Other countries with reported Zika outbreaks include several countries in Oceania and the Pacific Islands, and a single country in Africa (Cape Verde) and Asia (Singapore). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued travel notices for these areas, including special guidance for those traveling to south Florida.

Pregnant Women with Zika

Currently in the U.S. there have been 878 pregnant woman reported with “any laboratory evidence of possible” Zika infection, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yes, this number is astonishingly high given total U.S. cases. But keep in mind, these are “possible” infections. The number is likely inflated by a high number of mothers visiting hospitals and the inherent delay before tests can be confirmed. Perhaps more noteworthy are the 23 babies with confirmed birth defects. This number reflects birth defects among live newborns in the U.S. infected with Zika either before or during birth. Because we don’t know how many infected newborns do NOT have Zika, we can’t identify the true rate of birth defects. But we can get a crude idea of birth defects per “possible” infected pregnancy, which comes to just over 2.5%—a low proportion at least!

Keep in mind there remains no vaccine for Zika, so if you’re pregnant or otherwise want to reduce your risk of contracting Zika virus, heed the travel warnings mentioned above!  

To encourage future blogs of this kind please join my blog site! Simply click “join this site” at the top right of this page, log into your account, and click “follow publicly.”  Thanks!

                                                         Dr. Shahir Masri
                                                         Environmental Health Scientist 


10/11/16

Zika Virus

As you all know, a virus called Zika has created a major epidemic, having even spread to the U.S. In this blog, I’ll highlight a bit of general info about Zika virus, including health effects and transmission. In my next blog I’ll return to Zika, touching on further points of interest.


A Brief History

Zika virus is nothing new, in fact identified as early as 1947 in a monkey in Uganda. Researches quickly identified mosquitos as a carrier, and not long after discovered the first human cases of the virus. What is new, however, is the occurrence of large-scale Zika outbreaks. The first large Zika outbreak in humans occurred as recently as 2007, in the Pacific Island of Yap. According to the World Health Organization, only 14 human cases of the virus existed prior.

Transmission

The virus is mostly transmitted via infected mosquitoes (Aedes mosquitos). With that said, as of 2008 sexual transmission has also been documented. We also know that mothers can pass the virus to their children either through transplacental transmission or during delivery.  Blood transfusion represents another possible mode of transmission, although in the U.S. the virus currently poses a low risk to the blood supply according to the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Health Effects

The most common symptoms of Zika virus are fever, rash, joint pain, red eyes, as well as muscle pain and headache. Many people infected with Zika, however, do not develop symptoms or will only have mild symptoms, lasting just several days to a week. Severe health affects do also exist. These mostly include birth defects; most notably microcephaly, in which a baby’s head is smaller than expected. Often this is accompanied by a smaller brain that may not have developed properly. Other problems with in-utero development include eye defects, hearing loss, and impaired growth. According to the CDC, evidence suggests that “Zika virus infection in a woman who is not pregnant would not pose a risk for birth defects in future pregnancies after the virus has cleared from her blood.” This is at least good news!

In addition to birth defects, research suggests that Zika can cause Guillain-BarrĂ© syndrome (GBS), which is an uncommon sickness of the nervous system. GBS results in a person’s own immune system damaging his/her nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. According to CDC, GBS has occurred in only 13 individuals. Given the number of U.S. Zika cases, this translates to just 0.035% infected people actually developing GBS. If we expand this to U.S. territories, where the epidemic is actually worse, the fraction is even smaller. This makes GBS extremely rare.

Based on current scientific evidence, the CDC asserts that once a person has been infected with Zika virus, he or she is likely to be protected from future Zika infection.

In my next blog I’ll return to the Zika epidemic. Importantly, we’ll dive into the up-to-date outbreak statistics and discuss the efforts being made to halt the spread of Zika. See you then!

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                                                        Shahir Masri
                                                        Doctor of Science
                                                        Environmental Health Science


10/5/16

The Online Age of Misinformation

In an age where reading is becoming rare, the propagation of misinformation is becoming rampant. I notice this in my everyday life, particularly on topics relating to my field; health and science. People assert this or believe that. And it’s no thanks to the internet. While the internet has opened a wealth of great information to people around the world, it has also given a stage to untrained “experts” who are able to capture the attention of the public. There is a website on virtually any topic you can think of. Have a viewpoint? There’s a website dedicated entirely to that viewpoint. With the click of a button you can read on, uninterruptedly reinforcing your beliefs. But should this really be the way we carry on educating ourselves after high school or college? I think not. This clearly runs the risk of breeding ignorance and propagating bigotry. Yet this seems to be the way much self-education carries on today.


So whatever happened to validity and accuracy of information? With so much garbage floating around on the internet, and everyone serving as an “expert,” it’s become more important than ever to wear your garbage filter and think critically about what you read and hear. From so-called nutritionist to self-proclaimed journalists, there are online voices of all kinds building followers and spreading opinion and belief in place of fact. And all too often, the trusting public reads and hears these messages only to paraphrase them as facts the next day. There are no issues where identify misinformation is more difficult than those relating to science (including health!). This is an artifact of the inherent complexity of science compared to other issues. Deciphering fact from fiction when it comes to health and science usually requires years of scientific training. So where does that leave most people? All too often believing what they happen to encounter…aka, what they read online!

Assuming you’re not about to enroll in a science program, how do you distinguish the good from garbage on your favorites topics? First, try expanding beyond the internet since websites aren’t branded with accuracy ratings. Assuming you’re hell-bent on keeping your laptop open, good sources do exist. In general, government sources (websites ending in “.gov”) are quite reliable for scientific information and are usually easy to understand. If you’re worried about political bias, this is always possible. But it’s minimal compared to the biases of many business and citizen websites, which can also get quite wild and scientifically inaccurate in their assertions. Generally speaking, the science on U.S. government websites is sound and transparent. A brief list and description of reliable government and other websites relevant to my blog topics is below.
*Be cautious of the USDA Food Pyramid as it is known to be scientifically behind in terms of its dietary advice!

Other good sources of information include the websites of major universities such as Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Berkeley, and others. An example is Harvard’s website The Nutrition Source, which is an excellent source of current evidence-based dietary advice. Major universities pride themselves in cutting edge research and present things in an objective, evidence-based manner, highlighting research from numerous outstanding scientists of varying perspectives. Finally, to get credible scientific information, try the Google Scholar search engine rather than plain old Google! Google Scholar restricts your search to scientific studies. While these are usually complex, you can at least read the "abstract" sections which summarize each study. In contrast, a regular Google search will yield articles written by any old Joe, expert or not.

An example of when internet-based “facts” run amok is the so called issue of “chemtrails,” an issue borne by pseudo-scientists and conspiracy theorists concerned more with online story telling than critical research. It is also an issue that I hope to have successfully debunked in a series of previous blogs (Blog 1, Blog 2, Blog 3).

In summary, be cautious with what you read and hear online. Don’t let a single short read become your new perspective or source of facts. Read from multiple sources and multiple authors. If you don’t have time to read heavily or become an expert, apply critical thinking and seek trustworthy sources when you do read rather than mere Google results. If you find something interesting on Google, quality check it by searching the topic elsewhere on select trustworthy sites. You can otherwise descend the slippery slope of reading self-selected misinformation, reinforcing inaccurate beliefs rather than sound information. Think critically and search skillfully. Don’t let your self-education become un-education!

To encourage future blogs of this kind please join this blog site! Simply click “join this site” at the top right of this page, log into your account, and click “follow publicly.”  Thanks!

                                                                    Shahir Masri
                                                                    Doctor of Science
                                                                    Environmental Health Science

9/27/16

Toxic Tip Tuesday!! - Steer Clear of the Smoking Rear

Hey everyone!

Starting today, the last Tuesday of every month will be "Toxic Tip Tuesday!" Perhaps not as cool as Taco Tuesday, but valuable nonetheless. Short but sweet, each Toxic Tip will concisely lay out a new evidence-based way you can better your health! 

Today's Toxic Tip!

Steer Clear of the Smoking Rear

That is, avoid driving directly behind large vehicles such as cargo trucks, buses, and construction vehicles when you're on the road. Why?... read on! 

In 2008 I participated in a major air pollution field study led by my atmospheric chemistry professor Dr. Winer (one of my favorite profs!). As an intern for this study, my job was to drive around designated streets in downtown L.A. to measure air pollution. Yes, with probes and monitors abound, this meant piloting what you might call a "Back to the Future" mobile! I never failed to catch the eye of a passerby. Accompanied by a post-doc, I would often switch to passenger seat where I got to monitor the measuring equipment. It's what I frequently observed on the monitoring screen that I will share with you now. 


While driving down random streets of L.A., one of the pollutants we measured was ultra-fine particles (UFP), which are not good to breathe! At times during our drives, UFP concentrations would suddenly spike to extremely high levels. I'm not talking about doubling or tripling, I mean jumping up 10 times background levels! Sometimes levels would even increase by 30 times! What was causing these extreme spikes in on-road pollution you ask? Large vehicles. School/city buses, cargo/shipping trucks, construction vehicles, garbage trucks, etc. These giant vehicles were exhausting giant pollution! We often think of compressed natural gas (CNG) buses as "clean," but these too were major culprits. The worst though were diesel vehicles. In spite of this blog's title, pollution was often invisible. 

So what's the takeaway? It matters where you drive! If you drive directly behind these dirty giants, you'll be subjected to incredible levels of pollution. Instead, merge to another lane. At the very least, slow down to allow a gap for dilution between you and them. Dr. Winer's official study publication estimated that dirty vehicles accounted for about 30-50% of on-road UFP exposure even though such vehicles were encountered only about 5-15% of the time while driving (Hu et al. 2012). Click on the study for more details. If you look you'll even find me in the "acknowledgements" section! :D

If you enjoyed this Toxic Tip, please show your support by following my blog! Simply click "join this site" at the top right of this page, log into your account, and click "follow publicly." Thanks!! =)

                                                                                   Shahir Masri
                                                                                   Doctor of Science
                                                                                   Environmental Health Science

References

Hu, S., Paulson, S. E., Fruin, S., Kozawa, K., Mara, S., & Winer, A. M. (2012). Observation of Elevated Air Pollutant Concentrations in a Residential Neighborhood of Los Angeles California Using a Mobile Platform. Atmospheric Environment (Oxford, England : 1994)51, 311–319. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.atmosenv.2011.12.055



9/22/16

Firefighting Obesity - A New Study!

       Firefighting a heroic profession no doubt! What you probably didn’t know is that the prevalence of obesity among firefighters is higher than almost any other profession. Yes, it’s surprising, and certainly counterintuitive. But it’s true. According to one study, this stems from fire station eating culture, sedentary work while not fighting fires, among other factors (Dobson et al. 2013). However, the reasons for firefighter obesity won’t be our focus here. Let’s turn to another study, and see what takeaways we might apply in our own lives.
       In a recent cross-sectional study by my friend and colleague Dr. Maria Korre at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 400 male U.S. firefighters were randomly assessed to identify significant predictors of left ventricular (LV) mass (Korre et al. 2016). Why LV mass? The left ventricle is an important part of your heart’s pumping system, and its mass turns out to be a strong predictor of cardiovascular disease events such as sudden cardiac death and heart attack. It also turns out that high LV mass is common among U.S. firefighters.



       So what were the strongest risk factors associated with high LV mass in the recent Harvard study? Or put another way, which attributes  most greatly increased a firefighter’s chance of having high LV mass? Given we’re dealing with firefighters, you might suspect something wild and unique. This was not the case. It turns out the most consistent and significant predictor of high LV mass was body mass index (BMI). Yet again, BMI sounding the health alarm! Though not everyone is a male firefighter, I think such findings should flag our attention.
       The importance of BMI to health and longevity has been stressed in my previous blog. Dr. Korre’s study, like many others, reinforces this. For those unfamiliar, BMI is essentially a height-adjusted weight metric that will tell you whether you are overweight. It would do us all good to know our own BMI. You can quickly and easily calculate it using this Standard BMI Calculator. To know what constitutes a healthy BMI, simply read my previous blog. For a full interview with Dr. Korre about her recent study, click here. On that note, thank you Dr. Korre for your excellent work at Harvard and for investigating the importance of BMI. Cheers to good health!

To encourage future blogs of this kind please join my blog site! Simply click “join this site” at the top right of this page, log into your account, and click “follow publicly.”  Thanks!

                                                            Shahir Masri
                                                            Doctor of Science
                                                            Environmental Health Science

References

  • Dobson, M., B. Choi, P.L. Schnall, E. Wigger, J. Garcia-Rivas, L. Israel, and D.B. Baker. 2013. Exploring occupational and health behavioral causes of firefighter obesity: a qualitative study. Am J Ind Med. 56(7):776-790.
  • Maria Korre, L.G.G. Porto, A. Farioli, J. Yang, D. C. Christiani, C.A. Christophi, D.A. Lombardi, R. J. Kovacs, R. Mastouri, S. Abbasi, M. Steigner, S. Moffatt, D. Smith, S. N. Kales. 2016. Effect of Body Mass Index on Left Ventricular Mass in Career Male Firefighters. The Journal of Cardiology. Accepted Manuscript.