Stronger focus on health equity needed in federal work

As many people of color in America continue to lead shorter lives and experience higher disease burdens, a new report is calling for officials to improve federal work on health equity. 

Released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine today, the report advises Congress to create a scorecard to consider the impact of proposed legislation on health equity. It also recommends that racial, ethnic and tribal equity work across federal agencies be coordinated by a new, permanent body.

The report was created by an NASEM committee of policy, economics and health experts, who examined federal health equity work at the request of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health and made recommendations.

The committee also called for:

• increasing the federal minimum wage, which has not changed for 14 years; 

• creating a scientific measure of racism that can be used in health surveys and research; 

• increasing federal spending for education, which can close racial and ethnic gaps, and for agencies that collect data on social determinants of health; and

• adjusting sampling in national surveys so that data can better reflect the diversity of the U.S. population.

Noting the overall poorer health status of American Indian and Alaska Native people in comparison to other Americans, the committee advised that the Indian Health Service be funded on par with other federal U.S. health programs. The report recommended that the Indian Affairs Committee be reestablished within the House of Representatives and that the position of IHS director — which was without a permanent occupant for much of the past decade — be raised to the level of assistant secretary.

Greater diversity needed in Alzheimer’s studies

People of color are underrepresented in brain imaging studies for Alzheimer’s disease, despite having a higher risk of developing the condition.

While white people make up only about 58% of the U.S. population, they account for more than 83% of participants in Alzheimer’s disease neuroimaging studies, according to new research in Communications Medicine.

Researchers looked at more than 900 Alzheimer’s disease brain imaging studies for which participants directly provided their race and ethnicity. About 7% of participants were Black, 3% were Hispanic and none were Asian. 

Researchers also looked at 1,700 studies where race and ethnicity was indirectly reported — such as through large databases that follow thousands of participants over years. In those studies, about 12% of participants were Black, 5% were Hispanic and 2% were Asian. 

According to U.S. Census Bureau, Black people made up about 12% of the U.S. population as of 2020, Hispanic people made up 19% and Asian people made up 6%. 

The disparities are particularly notable when Alzheimer’s disease risks are considered: Black Americans are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as white people and Hispanic people are 1.5 times as likely. Among people ages 65 and older with Alzheimer’s disease, Black patients have the highest rate of the condition, which researchers linked in part to socioeconomic and educational factors.

Only about 45% of Americans over 65 are expected to be white as of 2060, they noted, underscoring the need for research that is more diverse.

Oil and gas waste unaccounted for at landfills

Record-keeping gaps have left vast quantities of oil and gas waste unaccounted for, making it difficult for researchers to understand their impacts on the environment, a new study finds. 

Researchers working to track elevated radium levels in soil samples obtained records from environmental agencies in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania that monitor shipment of oil and gas waste. When they compared what was reported as shipped to landfills in 2019 to what was recorded as received, they found major discrepancies. 

About half of the landfills had either a shipment record or receipt but lacked an associated record on the other end, adding up to 800,000 tons of unaccounted-for oil and gas waste, according to the study, which was published in Ecological Indicators. 

The researchers had been hoping to examine whether oil and gas wastewater shipped to landfills was contaminating nearby soil, but were hindered by the poor records and lack of monitoring requirements. Liquid waste from oil and gas drilling and fracking can contain heavy metals, salts and radioactive material.

Wildfire air pollution comparable to indoor second-hand smoke

Air pollution levels during recent wildfire smoke days in the northeastern U.S. were on par with those in a room filled with cigarette smoke, according to New Jersey researchers.

Scientists at the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute and Rutgers School of Public Health measured air pollution levels as portions of New York and New Jersey were engulfed in smoke from Canadian wildfires. 

On the afternoon of June 7, levels of fine particle matter, also known as PM2.5, reached 330 micrograms per cubic meter — which the researchers said was comparable to second-hand smoke levels found in bars before U.S. indoor smoking bans were in place. Under National Ambient Air Quality Standards, 24-hour PM2.5 levels over 35 micrograms per cubic meter are considered potentially harmful.

The researchers are examining the air pollution samples to determine their physical and chemical composition, with plans to share their findings in a research paper.

Built environment influences infectious disease risk

Where people live can influence whether they end up with a case of infectious disease so serious that it requires hospitalization, a new study shows.

People who lived in neighborhoods with higher air pollution and lower walkability were more likely to be hospitalized with SARS-CoV-2 infections in 2020, the research found. 

Higher air pollution levels posed the highest hospitalization risk for Hispanic people, while neighborhood density and housing were linked to hospitalization risks for white people, according to the research, which was published in PLOS One.

The study, which was conducted in the Denver area in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, before vaccines were widely available to the public, also found higher hospitalization risks for people who lived in multi-family homes, such as high-rises, duplexes or townhomes.

Higher COVID-19 hospitalization rates were also found among people living near major highways and industrial areas with high air pollution, as measured by levels of PM2.5. The neighborhoods were more likely to have higher populations of Hispanic residents, showing a need for environmental justice work, the researchers said.

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