Wednesday, August 8, 2007

No Free Lunch

One of the most important lessons to learn about environmental issues (which are a branch of public health) is that almost everything has a trade off. Every benefit has a cost, and as citizens we have to assess that cost before deciding on a method to achieve the benefit.

Take organic food, for example. Agricultural pollution is a major concern , with a number of rural water supplies showing levels of pesticides and manufactured fertilizers that worthy of concern. Going organic eliminates this problem, but creates several more. It turns out that the methods of organic food production release more carbon dioxide from the soil than industrial methods, and also require more land.

There are no simple solutions to problems. If there were, we would have solved all of our problems already.


Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Price of a Bag of Popcorn

Microwave popcorn is something quite tasty and a nice snack for home movies. Diacetyl, the flavoring that gives the popcorn its buttery taste is quite safe to eat. Even inhaling the vapors for a short period of time is not hazardous. However, like many chemicals, long term exposure at industrial levels (such as in a popcorn manufacturing plant) can have serious effects on the lungs. The characteristic lung damage has been termed Flavoring Worker's Lung. The Pump Handle, a public health blog, has more on the health hazards of prolonged exposure and the gradual efforts to protect workers from the substance. More on Wikipedia.

Naturally, there have been calls to ban diacetyl, and the matter is under debate. Bans or enforceable standards like an OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) actually are the best approach from a business perspective, as they level the playing field. This reminds me of a story about how hockey players did not wear helmets intially, despite receiving safety warnings. It wasn't that they didn't believe the warnings, but that they thought the helmets would reduce their fields of vision, thus putting them at a disadvantage. (It may also have had something to do with not wanting to look like a coward) They asked the League to require it for them so that they would all be equally effected. This logic is the ethical basis for nearly all regulatory law - it removes a decision from competitive pressure. Think about taxes: we all know the government needs money to perform its tasks, but it would be hard to get people to pay the money voluntarily. The Angry Toxicologist (who is actually one of the most dispassionate and rational public health bloggers) has more on this, as well as on the devastating effects of diacetyl on the lungs.

Now for a question to any of my readers: are you aware of an alternative to diacetyl? I've read many times that safe alternatives are available, but no actual chemicals are listed.


Sunday, August 5, 2007

Advances in Medicine: Worth the Cost

Cancer remains a major killer in the US and abroad. It's good to hear of new developments like electric field therapy. I almost lost a good friend to brain cancer, and I can only imagine how precious a few more months are to someone with a terminal disease.

Early detection is key to fighting cancer effectively. Generally, most cancers that are caught prior to spreading are treatable if not curable. That's why public health officials favor screening programs like mammograms and Pap smears. In public health terms, this is referred to as secondary prevention. Pancreatic cancer is known for being almost always fatal due to how hard it is to detect. This may change that. Remember that this kind of advance requires large amounts of time and effort, as well as money, next time you hear about health care costs.

Far more terrifying (to me at least) than terminal cancer is brain damage. For one such as myself who believes in the afterlife, death is lacks some of its sting. The thought of becoming a lesser being mentally is something out of nightmares. (Literally, in my case) The idea of bringing someone back from the abyss of brain death is still a ways off, but the idea of stimulating the brain back to a functional state is amazing. I wonder if this will cause us to reconsider what a persistent vegetative state actually is.