Thursday, June 19, 2014

Selected Readings on Human Health, Disease, and the Environment

The following are responses and summaries of various readings related to Human Health, Disease, and the Environment. 

Diet for a Dead Planet
Farming, while once thought of as one of the kinder industries to the environment, is now finding itself more destructive than many of the more feared industrious wasters.  Farmers have failed to follow pollution controls long established in other industries.  Pesticides, fertilizers, and animal waste combine in the farming industry’s toll on the environment.  No longer do most farmers practice crop rotation which keeps the topsoil fertile and prevents any one species of insect from gaining any advantage.  Instead, due to government subsidies for individual crops, farmers practice monocroping which drains the soil of its nutrients and allows particular pest species to become dominant.   This requires the farmers to apply fertilizers to the soil in order for the crops to have sufficient nutrients and pesticides to the plants and area to rid of the pests.  The pests who survive the chemical invasion reproduce and become all that much more virulent as the new population finds itself immune to the previous pesticides.  Thereafter the farmer must implore alternative, sometimes stronger pesticides.  All of these chemicals seep into the ground, sometimes spoiling water aquifers, wash down into nearby streams and creeks, become lodged inside the crop itself, and evaporate into the atmosphere.  Probably the biggest criminal of agribusiness though are the animal factories.  Here, thousands of hogs, chickens, or cows stand day after day in a pen just large enough for their frames eating protein-laden foods and ingesting antibiotics, while the urine and feces rains down through slats in the floor.  All this waste flows like a river into a large tub sitting nearby where it gets taken into nearby waterways and absorbed into the sky.  Research by the EPA has shown that this animal waste is the largest contributor to pollution in American waterways. 

Common Soap Antiseptic…
Many of the chemicals which we use are that harm the environment are really completely unnecessary.  In recent years there has been a great surge of household “germ fighters”: antibacterial deodorizers, surface cleaners, and lotions, usually alcohol based, dominate the market.  More recently this antibacterial revolution has hit the bathroom aisle with antiseptic soap, which has been in use for some fifty years in different aspects.  A kind of soap that purports to destroy bacteria; like soap alone does not perform up to par?  It turns out that the chemicals that make up the “antiseptic” part, triclocarban, does not filter out through conventional means at most water treatment plants.  There are two possible effects of this happening: the first is that the chemical itself may actually be harmless to people or to the local ecology which it comes into contact with and the second and much more scary is that more of the microbiological threat will be exposed to the toxin allowing for a greater rate of adaptation leading us to lose yet another tool in our fight against disease and bacteria.  Not enough is known about the chemical or its effects yet to make an affective conclusion, but this is merely another unnecessary abuse of modern technology which may in the end have long-lasting negative effects.
Modern Food Processing
The elderly, the young, and those with compromised immune systems are most at risk to acquire a foodborne disease.  Most of these illnesses can be attributed to contaminated meat products.  Camplybacter and salmonella are the most common of the foodborne diseases.  The contraction of camplybacter and salmonella can, in most cases, be avoided with proper cooking of meat products, especially chicken.  Foodborne diseases are most common in the more processed meats such as ground beef because there is much more surface area of meat thereby allowing for more oxygen for the growth of bacteria.  Typhoid fever, a disease caused by a strain of salmonella, is acquired through the consumption of food or drink containing trace feces from a person who is currently ill with or recovered from the bacterial infection.  Therefore it is most common in third world countries, or areas where the standard of hygiene is poorer or sewage is kept in the open or mixes with the water table.  Botulism is caused by the bacteria clostridium botulinum which causes muscle paralysis and potentially death.  Botulism cannot be spread from another person but must be acquired through direct contact with the bacteria which grows on food.  The bacteria prefers food which is low in oxygen supply, often those which grow underground, and temperatures within the safe food “danger zone” (33-140 F). Confined Animal Feeding Operations contribute to much of the disease issue with meat.  Because hundreds of these animals are kept in such close proximity to one another disease transmission occurs at a much faster rate than occurs naturally.  Therefore the managers of these “farms” feed the animals large doses of antibiotics in an attempt to stave off infection.  However, this overuse of antibiotics has causes new strains of bacteria to quickly emerge, thereby rendering the old antibiotics useless and sometimes making the human antibiotics ineffective as well.
Hanta Virus Death
A man recently died of the hanta virus in Utah after having been exposed to rodent droppings.  Rodent feces and urine can contain the hanta virus which is quite deadly to humans.  The September 3rd death was the first in Utah since 2004.  It is reported that the man was cleaning up rodent droppings and in doing so acquired the virus.  The virus can also be acquired by the inhalation of dust from the dried feces of rats.  According to the health department, one should use a “wet method” for the cleaning up of rodent feces.  Spraying the affected area with a disinfectant before cleaning and then using a wet mop or moistened towel to clean up the debris.  One should always avoid direct contact with the area and droppings and must also avoid any kind of dry cleaning such as mopping or vacuuming because this will only stir up the dust from the droppings. This is the tenth reported case of the hanta virus in the United States this year.
Internet Research

Since 1933 the United States has paid out subsidies to farmers.  Subsidies give farmers extra money for their crops and also limit the drop in price that one may fall victim to.  In other words the price of their crop will not fall below a set limit.  Subsidies allow for changes in production and prices to have a much lessened affect on the individual farmer, thereby keeping the domestic farming sector intact.  A country without agriculture is held at the whims of world trade.  Subsidies can drive the price of food down because it creates a surplus which would otherwise not be available.  The lowered price of food greatly outweighs the cost to the common tax payer as they usual spend more money annually on food than in payment of taxes. One of the problems with subsidies is that they go completely against the idea of free trade.  A farmer, since subsidies guarantee him a certain amount of money, does not need to focus on supply and demand and can just continue producing an unneeded crop. Businesses in other industries do not receive relief via the government from market fluctuations so why should farmers be any different.  Subsidies also can cause poverty in other nations.  One of the few sectors where third-world countries can be competitive is in the agriculture business.  With subsidies driving the prices of domestic crops way down, thereby making cultivation by third-world farmers unnecessary.  Finally, most of the subsidies go to big-business which uses its subsidies to buy up smaller farms.  From these smaller farms it gains additional money with which to buy up more real estate ever increasing its conglomeration.

The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 was a 288 billion dollar agricultural policy plan set to be in effect for five years.  The main focus of this farm bill was the advancement of biofuels and other organic energy sources.  The bill includes grants covering thirty percent of the cost for the development of advanced biofuels refineries and up to 250 million dollars for the construction of refineries.  The bill established a tax credit for the producers of fuels derived from the non-edible parts of plants, woods, and grass.  The bill enables the creation of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture as a federal agriculture center for research.  80 million dollars a year toward the research of organics growth, 230 million towards the research of specialty crops, and 118 million towards the research of biomass and development. 

Readings above may have been drawn from the following sources:
Six Modern Plagues and How We are Causing Them, Mark Jerome Walters; Shearwater Books, 2003, ISBN 155963992X
Life Support, The Environment and Human Health, Michael McCally, editor, MIT Press, 2002, ISBN 0-262-63257-8
Rx for Survival,  Philip Hilts, Pengquin Books.  ISBN 0-7394-6974-6
Emerging Infectious Diseases,  Stuart A. Hill, Pearson Eductation Inc., publishing as Benjamin Cummings.  ISBN 0-8053-3955-8
Under the Weather:  Climate, Ecosystems and Infectious Disease, National Research Council, National Academy Press.  ISBN 0-309-07278-6

This article originally written September 23rd, 2008 for OU IPE 3913 - Human Health, Disease, and the Environment.

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