Living near major highways raises dementia risk

People who live near major roadways are at higher risk for developing dementia from air pollution, new research shows.

Published in Health Data Science, the study found that people residing close to heavily trafficked roads were up to 14% more likely to develop dementia than those who lived farther away. Researchers linked the increase largely to exposure to nitrogen dioxide and fine-particle air pollution, also known as PM 2.5.

Those who lived close to major roadways — defined as within two-thirds of a mile — also had changes in their brains, MRIs showed. Compared to those farther away, road-adjacent residents had smaller portions of gray matter, an abnormality associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

The research used data from the UK Biobank project, which has collected health information on more than 500,000 people in the United Kingdom for more than decade. The new study estimates that living close to major roadways accounted for 10% of all dementia cases within the study population.

While the study also examined the role of traffic noise exposure on dementia, which previous research has suggested as a risk, no association was found.

Report: Removing leaded water lines would cut state costs

Replacing all lead pipes that deliver drinking water to homes would save billions in health costs for almost every U.S. state, as well as better health for residents, a new report says.

In July, a Harvard University study estimated that eliminating the approximately 9.2 million lead service lines still in use across the nation would save $786 billion in health costs over 35 years. The new report, released Oct. 25 by the Natural Resources Defense Council, breaks down the cost savings by state based on their number of lead service lines.

On the low end, Alaska would save $124 million, and Hawaii, $819 million. On the high end, Florida, which has the nation’s highest number of lead service lines, would save $99 billion, and Illinois, which has the second-highest number, would save $89 billion. Michigan, home to the Flint water crisis that exposed thousands of children to lead, would save $25 billion, the report said.

The new report considers the cost of replacing the service lines, preferably with copper pipes that would not leach hazardous chemicals into drinking water supplies. The cost of removal per lead service line is estimated to be about $5,000, adding up to at least $46 billion nationally.

About 90% of the $786 billion in savings would come from reductions in cardiovascular disease, with about $28.3 billion in lead-related health costs prevented annually. Costs related to asthma, hypertension, preterm birth and other conditions caused or worsened by lead exposure, including damage to childhood cognitive development, would also be reduced.

The state-by-state breakdown comes as the Environmental Protection Agency is poised to release a new rule regulating lead in drinking water. The Biden administration has supported replacing all of the nation’s lead service lines, calling for them to be removed entirely within the next decade.

As many as 10 million U.S. households are estimated to receive drinking water from lead pipes, which were once favored for their durability and flexibility.

To ensure that health benefits of lead service line replacement reach low-income homeowners and renters, the council report recommended that the EPA require water utilities to cover all costs of the work.

Burnout increasing among U.S. health workers

U.S. health workers are increasingly burned out and considering leaving their jobs, a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds.

Almost half of workers in health occupations felt burned out in 2022, up from about a third in 2018, according to the study, which was published Oct. 24 in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Health workers surveyed for the study included nurses, doctors, emergency medical services staff, long-term care workers and public health professionals.

Reasons for the jump in burnout include an increase in workplace harassment, which doubled from 2018 to 2023. More than 13% of health workers reported bullying, verbal abuse and other harassment from patients and co-workers in 2022. Harassed workers were more likely to experience anxiety, depression and burnout, which was defined in the study as feeling emotionally exhausted and detached and having a low sense of work accomplishment.

While burnout was a problem before COVID-19 debuted in the U.S. in 2020, the pandemic worsened mental health among workers, who worked long hours under stressful conditions. Although the pandemic has ebbed, staffing shortages remain a problem and threats and violence against health workers have grown.

Nearly half of health workers said they planned to look for a new job in 2022, up from 33% in 2018, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health researchers.

Workers who said they trusted management, had help from their supervisors, had adequate to complete work and felt that their workplace supported productivity were less likely to report burnout than their colleagues, suggesting pathways for change, researchers said.

Pesticide use in Brazil’s soybean production linked to childhood cancer

Brazil’s status as the world’s leading soybean grower has come at high cost: A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences links the country’s heavy use of pesticides in soybean production to leukemia deaths in children.

Soy production in Brazil has increased significantly in recent decades, rising 20-fold in the Amazon region and tripling in the neighboring Cerrado region from 2000 to 2019. Related pesticide use also jumped considerably, with the nation now the second-leading consumer of the products. Brazilian soy farmers apply pesticides at twice the rate of U.S. growers, researchers said.

As the Brazilian soybean industry grew, so did deaths from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a common childhood bloodborne cancer. Study researchers, who were associated with three U.S. universities, found that each 10-percentage point increase in soy production was associated with an additional 0.4 child deaths from the disease. About half of pediatric leukemia deaths over a 10-year period in the regions may be linked to pesticide use in soybean agriculture.

Researchers said pesticide safety training and education for Brazilian workers may have been inadequate, as cases of pesticide poisoning have occurred among soybean farmworkers. People living in neighboring communities also show evidence of the chemicals in their blood and urine, likely from pesticide runoff into water used for drinking.

Brazil is now developing a certification program that requires pesticide applicators to undergo training and education, the study researchers noted. In the U.S., pesticide applicators are required to be licensed and participate in annual pesticide safety education and testing.

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