Hunger grows as benefits end

Extra food benefits put into place for low-income people during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic helped drive down hunger. But now that those benefits have expired, food insufficiency is on the rise, new research shows.

After the pandemic was declared an emergency in March 2020, states were allowed to provide extra benefits to the more than 41 million people covered by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The payments were a success, preventing about 850,000 instances of food insufficiency a week, previous research found.

After the emergency payments ended, however, SNAP beneficiaries experienced a 21% increase in food insufficiency, a severe form of food insecurity in which people do not have enough food to eat, the new study said. Childhood food insufficiency also increased, according to the study, which was published Aug. 11 in JAMA Health Forum.

The findings suggest that more than 2 million additional U.S. households faced food insufficiency when the extra benefits ended nationwide in March 2023, the University of Pennsylvania researchers said.

Restaurant workers call for heat protections

Restaurant workers experience dangerous heat on the job and need an occupational standard to protect their health, according to a new report.

Released Aug. 9 by Restaurant Opportunities Center United, the report calls on the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to take action on indoor heat regulations for workers. The agency published a rulemaking notice for both outdoor and indoor heat protection standards in 2021 and is now working to assess potential impacts of a rule on small businesses.

In the meantime, restaurant workers are experiencing increasing heat, the new report said. Many restaurant kitchens are not prepared to handle higher and more frequent days of heat, such as those experienced across much of the U.S. in recent months, putting workers at risk for injuries, illness and even death.

Back-of-house restaurant workers — such as dishwashers, cleaners and cooks — often work in close quarters and are surrounded by hot ovens, stovetops, fryers and other equipment, the report noted. A 2013 study of commercial kitchens found that temperatures reached as high as 93 degrees during the summer indoors, stressing workers.

To protect restaurant workers, ROC United called for rules that require paid breaks in cool environments, limits on how long workers can be in high heat areas, access to water, training for employers and staff, record-keeping on illnesses and deaths, and other measures.

Discrimination linked to suicide risk among kids

Children who experience discrimination are at increased risk of becoming suicidal, a new study finds.

Published in the Journal of Pediatrics, the study found that kids who experience discrimination based on their weight, sexual orientation or race and ethnicity had significantly higher risk of suicidality a year later than their peers.

Children who experienced at least two forms of discrimination had up to five times higher risk of suicidality, which includes either thoughts or actions toward suicide. The findings suggest that discrimination has a cumulative effect on suicidality risk, according to the Uniformed Services University researchers.

Suicide rates are on the rise for U.S. children and young adults, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, rising 60% from 2011 to 2021. As of 2021, suicide became the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24.

The new study used data on 12-year-old children from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, a 10-year project that is following the health of more than 11,000 children.

Particulate air pollution raises dementia risks

Long-term exposure to air pollution, particularly from fires and agriculture, threatens cognitive health and raises dementia risks, a new study finds.

People exposed to high levels of fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, are more likely to develop dementia than those without such exposure, according to the study, which was published Aug. 14 in JAMA Internal Medicine.

While emissions from traffic and coal combustion were associated with dementia, the strongest risks came from emissions from agriculture and wildfires. Based on the findings, about 188,000 new U.S. cases of dementia a year are linked to PM2.5 exposure, the University of Michigan researchers said.

People of color and those with low levels of education or income were more likely to develop dementia, as were people exposed to higher PM2.5 levels. About 15% of older adults in the study developed new cases of dementia over 10 years.

Funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Institute of Aging, the research used data from the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal study that is following the health of more than 30,000 U.S. adults. Dementia is the seventh leading cause of death globally, according to the World Health Organization, and cases are expected to grow as the world’s older population increases over the next few decades.

Wealthy Americans profiting off greenhouse gas emissions

Investments by wealthy Americans are fueling nearly half of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, a new study in PLOS Climate finds.

Published today, the University of Massachusetts Amherst-led research looked at financial investments in emission-generating businesses, such as the fossil fuel industry, and linked them to U.S. income data.

The researchers concluded that the wealthiest 10% of Americans are responsible for 40% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. The top 1% of U.S. earners — who generally make at least $650,000 annually — generate as much as 17% of those emissions, they estimated.

“Super emitters,” who were linked to extremely high emissions and tended to fall within the top 0.1% of earners, were commonly associated with investments in fields such as real estate, manufacturing and mining.

The highest emission-linked income was found in white households, while the lowest was in Black households. About two weeks of income for a household in the top 0.1% of earners is linked to as much carbon pollution as a lifetime of income for a household in the lowest 10%, the study estimated. The researchers suggested that levying taxes on investors in carbon-intensive industries could be used to help slow global warming.

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