Air pollution linked to dementia

Exposure to air pollution can significantly increase a person’s risk of developing dementia.

A study published April 5 in The BMJ found that dementia risks for people who regularly breathe fine particles, known as PM2.5, rise as the amount of pollution increases. Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health analyzed previously published studies that looked at dementia and PM2.5. They found a 17% increase in risk for developing dementia with even a small jump —2 micrograms per cubic meter of air — in annual exposure to PM2.5. 

More than 57 million people worldwide are estimated to have dementia, up to 80% of which is caused by Alzheimer’s. Almost half of dementia cases are linked to modifiable risk factors, including exposure to air pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed stronger air quality standards for PM2.5 in January.

Coal miners twice as likely to die from respiratory disease

Coal miners are at much higher risk of dying from respiratory diseases such as lung cancer than the general U.S. population, with today’s miners at greater risk than their recent predecessors.

A study in the March issue of Occupational and Environmental Medicine examined data on causes of death for about 236,000 coal miners over age 45 who died between 1979 and 2017. Scientists with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and other research institutions found that coal miners had greatly increased odds of death from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease. On average, their odds of dying from the diseases were twice as high as that of U.S. white men in the general population.

In Central Appalachia, home to much of U.S. coal mining, the odds of dying from the respiratory diseases were highest for the youngest miners. The disparity may be related to progressive massive fibrosis, a severe form of black lung disease that has been occurring more often in the region, the researchers reported. Beyond coal dust, miners can be exposed to carcinogens such as silica, asbestos and radon in their work.

Child labor laws at risk

More states are trying to undermine child labor protections and violations are on the rise.

Bills that would weaken child-labor laws have been introduced in 10 states in the past two years, according to a March 14 report by the Economic Policy Institute. Children of color, those from low-income families and immigrant kids are most at risk of harm from the loosened laws, which would extend working hours, allow subminimum wages and lift hazardous work restrictions, among other measures.

More than 3,800 minors were identified by the U.S. Department of Labor as working in violation of laws in 2022, nearly four times as many as in 2015. The department is investigating 13 meatpacking facilities for employing children as young as age 13 in hazardous jobs, including cleaning sharp meat-cutting equipment. The effort to weaken child labor standards is part of a coordinated campaign backed by industry groups, according to the report.

Private equity stake in health care growing

From dentistry and physician practices to nursing homes and end-of-life care, acquisitions of health-care providers by private equity firms have grown, particularly in the past five years. 

As for-profit investment companies, private equity firms are not subject to the same disclosures as nonprofits, “hindering the ability of regulators and watchdogs to monitor the effects,” a March 22 report by Public Citizen found.

More than 70% of hospice agencies acquired by firms from 2011-2019 were previously nonprofit. The equity firms have also bought traveling nurse organizations, gastroenterology practices, home health-care companies, staffing companies for emergency departments and more.

A 2021 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that living in private equity-owned nursing homes increased the likelihood that Medicare patients would die in the short term by 10%. Legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last year would require private equity firms to disclose their ownership of health care facilities.

Better EPA coordination can reduce wildfire smoke

While the EPA has been working to help communities handle wildfire smoke risks, the agency needs to do more to protect public health. 

In a report released March 13, the U.S. Government Accountability Office looked at the agency’s response to wildfires, which have been worsening with climate change. Authors found that the agency’s actions to protect air quality from wildfire smoke “are spread across programs and regional offices and conducted in an ad hoc manner with no dedicated program or budget.”

To help protect the tens of millions of people who are exposed to wildfire smoke, the EPA should develop a coordinated approach and align its work with other U.S. agencies, such as the departments of Interior and Agriculture, the GAO report recommended. For example, the agencies could work together to use tools such as prescribed burns to prevent large wildfires and “ultimately reduce smoke,” the authors said. In 2017 alone, wildfires accounted for a third of the fine particulate matter emitted in the U.S., according to the report.

Exposure to oil, gas well emissions harms people of color

People of color who live near active gas and oils in California are disproportionately exposed to drilling-related pollution.

Black, Hispanic and low-income people are more likely to live near the most extensive oil and gas operations in the state, subjecting them to more exposure to harmful emissions, said a study published in March in GeoHealth. Black residents were most likely to live near active wells, which researchers linked to a history of redlining policies that prevented them from living elsewhere.

About 1 million people in California live near active wells and about 9 million live near plugged or abandoned wells. Drilling-related pollution has been linked to asthma, preterm births and other health risks. A California law passed last year banned new drilling within a half-mile of homes, schools and parks, but was blocked by litigation from oil companies. The measure will be taken up in a 2024 state ballot referendum.

Gaps in deaths by worker class widen

Mortality gaps by occupational class are increasing in the U.S. workforce, threatening population health.

A study published in March in the American Journal of Public Health found that blue-collar, unemployed and service workers had lower survival rates over a 34-year period than white-collar workers, managers and corporation owners.

The gaps in survival rates have increased over time, and were greater for workers who were male or people of color and those who had lower education levels, Columbia University researchers found. The study noted that the U.S. class structure was stable throughout the study period, suggesting that socioeconomic segregation may contribute to the differences in survival rates.

The Watch is compiled by Michele Late, who has more than two decades of experience as a public-health journalist.