Long-term exposure to wildfire smoke ups death risks

Increased exposure to wildfire smoke — which is worsening around the world with climate change — is linked to higher risk of premature death, a new study finds.

An international research team examined 11 years of data on wildfire-related fine-particle pollution, also known as PM2.5. The study found that a 10 cubic meter-increase of wildfire-related PM2.5 exposure was associated with a 0.4% higher risk of death across all causes. There was also 0.5% increase in risk of deaths from neoplasms, such as cancerous tumors. 

On June 8, when wildfire smoke from Canada blanketed parts of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States, PM2.5 levels reached 460 micrograms per cubic meter of air, the study noted. The 24-hour standard for healthy PM2.5 levels is 35 micrograms. The smoke returned to many of the same areas this week, with parts of the Midwest experiencing the world’s worst air quality on some days.

While other research has found increases in deaths from cardiovascular, respiratory and mental diseases from wildfire smoke, the new study, published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, did not. The researchers suggested that was because previous studies examined only short-term impacts while they used data that tracked people for more than a decade.

Improvement on cancer deaths slow in Appalachian Kentucky

Although cancer deaths rates have fallen significantly across the U.S. in recent decades, progress has been slow in a region with one of the nation’s highest cancer burdens, a new study finds.

Published in the June issue of the Journal of Rural Health, the study looked at data on lung, colorectal, cervical, oral cavity, pharyngeal and laryngeal cancers in Kentucky. While cancer mortality rates fell 27% overall across the the U.S. from 2001 to 2020, the decrease has been smaller and slower in Kentucky, with even more limited progress in Appalachian Kentucky, the study found.

Kentucky has long ranked first for cancer incidence and mortality rates among all U.S. states, driven by disparities in smoking, lower rates of cancer screening and other factors. Appalachian Kentucky, home to multiple coal mining companies and high levels of related pollution, bears the state’s greatest cancer burden.

Residents of Appalachian Kentucky also had lower rates of cancer screening and higher rates of obesity, according to the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center researchers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributes the overall drop in U.S. cancer death rates to screening, vaccines, new treatments and tobacco cessation. Kentucky has the nation’s second-highest smoking rate, surpassed only by neighboring West Virginia. 

Health is poorer overall in Appalachian Kentucky compared to the rest of the state. Counties on Kentucky’s eastern side consistently land at the bottom of an annual rankings report released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Disparities in suicide prevention at hospital emergency departments

While the rate at which people think about suicide is about the same across U.S. racial and ethnic groups, the odds that a patient will receive counseling for it when they visit a hospital because of alcohol use is not.

Specifically, people of color who visit hospital emergency departments because of alcohol use disorder receive less suicide-prevention care than white patients, according to a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Released June 20, the research found that 9% of white people visiting an ED for alcohol use disorder were diagnosed with having suicidal thoughts or ideas, versus 7% of Black people. Only about 5% of Hispanic and American Indian and Alaska Native people received the diagnosis. And while half of all diagnosed patients were hospitalized overall, only 32% of American Indian and Alaska Native patients were.

American Indian and Alaska Native people have the nation’s highest suicide rate, the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Tucson researchers found. They also have the highest rate of alcohol-use disorders, with almost 16% of the population ages 12 and up diagnosed with the condition in 2021. That compares with 11% of whites, 10% of Blacks, 10% of Hispanics and 6% of Asians. 

Previous research has found that alcohol, tobacco and drug use disorders are associated with a high risk of suicide, especially among women. Suicide rates in the U.S. increased about 4.8% from 2020 to 2021, with more than 48,000 deaths in the latter year.

Deaths from alcohol rise disproportionately for people of color

Alcohol-related death rates rose quickly across the U.S. during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they were especially high for people of color, new research shows.

From February 2020 — a month before the pandemic was declared an emergency in the U.S. — through January 2021, alcohol-related death rates increased almost 39% for white people ages 25 and older, said the study, which was published June 20 in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.

In comparison, the alcohol-related death rate increased 44% for Asian people, 56% for Hispanic people and 58% for Black people. Among American Indian and Alaska Native people, the rate jumped by more than 100%, researchers said.

The rates also varied by sex: While the alcohol-related death rate for men rose 43%, it increased 53% for women, who also had a faster monthly increase in deaths. Previous research has found that overall alcohol consumption increased during the pandemic, especially for women ages 30–59.

More than 178,000 deaths were linked to alcohol use from January 2018 to December 2021, with liver cirrhosis accounting for about half of them. The next most common causes were alcohol-related mental health problems and unintentional alcohol poisoning, the new study found.

Loosening pollution standards during heat bad for air

California gas plants released high levels of pollution during the state’s summer 2022 heat wave, with emissions especially impacting low-income communities of color, a new report finds.

Researchers looked at emissions and power output from more than 100 gas-powered power plants during California’s record-breaking heat wave, which swept the state from Aug. 31-Sept. 9. 

To help keep up with energy demand, pollution restrictions on gas plants were loosened, allowing the facilities to release 70% more nitrogen oxide, according to the report by the nonprofit Regenerate California. That increase alone caused as much as $27.8 million in negative health effects, the organization estimated.

During the 10 days of the heat wave, gas plants released 60% higher emissions overall, with an average of 214,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 30,000 pounds of nitrogen oxide, and 2,200 pounds of sulfur dioxide emitted daily. The carbon dioxide emissions alone were equivalent to the amount of pollution released by 43,000 vehicles in a year, said Regenerate California, a partnership between the California Environmental Justice Alliance and Sierra Club. 

Power plant emissions are linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and disproportionately harm low-income communities of color, which are often located close to gas plants. Average carbon dioxide emissions from gas plants in disadvantaged communities jumped to 67,860 tons a day during the heat wave, almost 10,000 tons above the usual baseline, the report said.

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