From Kilimanjaro to Everest: how fit do you have to be to climb a mountain?



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Climbing a mountain has more to do with how your body deals with altitude, which you can’t control.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Julien Periard, University of Canberra and Brad Clark, University of Canberra

Since the commercialisation of high altitude mountaineering in the 1990s, the number of climbers has increased significantly. Mount Kilimanjaro, perhaps the most popular mountaineering trip in the world, now attracts around 40,000 climbers per year. And the number attempting summits above 8,000m (such as Mount Everest) has risen exponentially.

The main challenge for all climbers is the decrease in barometric pressure and thus reduction in oxygen availability as altitude increases. The severity of altitude is defined as low (500 to 2,000m), moderate (2,000 to 3,000m), high (3,000 to 5,500m), or extreme (above 5,500m).

Remaining at high altitudes severely affects our physical capacity, cognitive function, body mass and composition, and ability to ward off illness.

If we don’t acclimatise or stagger our ascent, we’re at greater risk of acute mountain sickness, high altitude pulmonary oedema (excess fluid in the lungs) and cerebral oedema (fluid on the brain). These illnesses are all commonly characterised by symptoms such as headache, loss of appetite, nausea, weakness, light-headedness, and sleep disturbance. The presentation of these illnesses often requires retreat to lower altitudes and in severe cases, evacuation via airlift from camp.

These conditions are among the greatest obstacles to successful summit attempts, particularly when ascending quickly.




Read more:
How does altitude affect the body and why does it affect people differently?


Acclimatising

Being fitter does not protect against altitude-related illness, nor does it ensure tolerance of the physiological challenges associated with high altitude exposure.

So acclimatisation is the more important factor. Acclimatisation is the process your body follows to adapt to the drop in oxygen availability. This is the best non-pharmaceutical strategy to prevent altitude sickness.

Mountaineers and trekkers can achieve acclimatisation by staying at moderate altitude (2,000-3,000m) for a few extra nights, then implementing a staggered ascent to higher altitudes. Gains in altitude should be between 300 and 600m of vertical elevation per day.

While many commercial trek schedules include rest days and acclimatisation days, some involving less technical climbing often ascend quite quickly. Some groups will ascend Kilimanjaro in four to five days (5,895 m).

To prepare for more rapid ascents, mountaineers may include some pre-trek acclimatisation, using natural or artificial environments to encourage their bodies to adapt.

Acclimatisation using artificial environments is known as “acclimation”. It can be achieved by either hypobaric hypoxia (normal oxygen concentration, lower barometric pressure), or more commonly via normobaric hypoxia (normal barometric pressure, lower oxygen concentration) using altitude tents or environmental chambers.

Technical experience, fitness and acclimatisation are equally important.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Of the two approaches, hypobaric hypoxia appears to be better for acclimation, though it relies on access to a hypobaric chamber or an ability to live at moderate/high natural altitude.

Although still relying on specialised equipment and expertise, more environmental chambers available mimic normobaric hypoxia. In some instances, you can even use tent or mask systems in your own home.

Acclimatisation can also mitigate the effects high altitude will likely have on exercise performance.

Training

Although fitness is not related to incidence rates of altitude sickness, trek schedules typically require many hours of hiking, often carrying a loaded pack, over at least four to five days. When combined with the gain in elevation, this means seven to eight hours per day of hiking at a moderate intensity, often over varied terrain.

So a program of targeted training will ensure trek participants are able to meet the strenuous demands of high altitude hiking and mountaineering. Evidence suggests fitter hikers report a lower sense of effort and lower levels of fatigue during high or extreme altitude trekking.




Read more:
Tall tales misrepresent the real story behind Bhutan’s high altitude tigers


Studies have also found experienced mountaineers don’t need to expend as much oxygen, which is valuable when there’s less of it available. So to further prepare for high altitude expeditions, trek participants should focus on building fitness over several months by trekking at lower altitudes and carrying loads of 20-30kg for several hours over varied terrain.

This can be extended to higher altitudes (3,000m to 4,000m) and several consecutive days and weeks to allow for developing the strength required to tolerate the rigours of extreme mountain climbing. This is especially important as muscle mass and body fat losses occur during the expedition.

For ascents above 8,000m such as Mount Everest, the trekking company will usually have specialised training approaches. This may involve at least one year of training in which trekking time, distance and altitude are increased progressively, as summit day can take up to 20 hours. Experience in high altitude climbing and sumitting peaks between 6,000m and 8,000m is also required before attempting peaks of this altitude.

Staged ascents and considered approaches to acclimatisation are most likely to protect against altitude illness and ensure trek success. This involves using a planned approached to climbing with altitude targets allowing for acclimatisation.

The ConversationImproving overall fitness and gaining mountaineering experience will prepare trekkers for the physical, psychological and technical challenges presented by high and extreme altitude adventures.

Julien Periard, Associate Professor, University of Canberra and Brad Clark, Researcher, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How does altitude affect the body and why does it affect people differently?



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How well you’ll cope on a mountain has little to do with how fit you are.
wynand van poortvliet unsplash, CC BY-SA

Brendan Scott, Murdoch University

Every year, thousands of people travel to high-altitude environments for tourism, adventure-seeking, or to train and compete in various sports. Unfortunately, these trips can be marred by the effects of acute altitude sickness, and the symptoms vary from person to person. To understand why people are affected differently, we have to look at how the body is affected by altitude.




Read more:
From Kilimanjaro to Everest: how fit do you have to be to climb a mountain?


How is ‘altitude’ different to sea level?

Air is comprised of different molecules, with nitrogen (79.04%) and oxygen (20.93%) making up the majority of each breath we take. This composition of air remains consistent, whether we are at sea level or at altitude.

However, with altitude, the “partial pressure” of oxygen in this air (how many molecules of oxygen are in a given volume of air) changes. At sea-level, the partial pressure of oxygen is 159 mmHg, whereas at 8,848m above sea level (the summit of Mt Everest), the partial pressure of oxygen is only 53 mmHg.

At high altitudes, oxygen molecules are further apart because there is less pressure to “push” them together. This effectively means there are fewer oxygen molecules in the same volume of air as we inhale. In scientific studies, this is often referred to as “hypoxia”.



Author provided/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

What happens in the body in high altitudes?

Within seconds of exposure to altitude, ventilation is increased, meaning we start trying to breathe more, as the body responds to less oxygen in each breath, and attempts to increase oxygen uptake. Despite this response, there’s still less oxygen throughout your circulatory system, meaning less oxygen reaches your muscles. This will obviously limit exercise performance.

Within the first few hours of altitude exposure, water loss also increases, which can result in dehydration. Altitude can also increase your metabolism while suppressing your appetite, meaning you’ll have to eat more than you feel like to maintain a neutral energy balance.

When people are exposed to altitude for several days or weeks, their bodies begin to adjust (called “acclimation”) to the low-oxygen environment. The increase in breathing that was initiated in the first few seconds of altitude exposure remains, and haemoglobin levels (the protein in our blood that carries oxygen) increase, along with the ratio of blood vessels to muscle mass.

Despite these adaptations in the body to compensate for hypoxic conditions, physical performance will always be worse at altitude than for the equivalent activity at sea level. The only exception to this is in very brief and powerful activities such as throwing or hitting a ball, which could be aided by the lack of air resistance.




Read more:
Tall tales misrepresent the real story behind Bhutan’s high altitude tigers


Why do only some people get altitude sickness?

Many people who ascend to moderate or high altitudes experience the effects of acute altitude sickness. Symptoms of this sickness typically begin 6-48 hours after the altitude exposure begins, and include headache, nausea, lethargy, dizziness and disturbed sleep.

These symptoms are more prevalent in people who ascend quickly to altitudes of above 2,500m, which is why many hikers are advised to climb slowly, particularly if they’ve not been to altitude before.

It’s difficult to predict who will be adversely affected by altitude exposure. Even in elite athletes, high levels of fitness are not protective for altitude sickness.

There’s some evidence those who experience the worst symptoms have a low ventilatory response to hypoxia. So just as some people aren’t great singers or footballers, some people’s bodies are just less able to cope with the reduction in oxygen in their systems.

There are also disorders that impact on the blood’s oxygen carrying capacity, such as thalassemia, which can increase the risk of symptoms.

But the best predictor of who may suffer from altitude sickness is a history of symptoms when being exposed to altitude previously.

How are high-altitude natives different?

People who reside at altitude are known to have greater capacity for physical work at altitude. For example, the Sherpas who reside in the mountainous regions of Nepal are renowned for their mountaineering prowess.

High-altitude natives exhibit large lung volumes and greater efficiency of oxygen transport to tissues, both at rest and during exercise.

While there is debate over whether these characteristics are genetic, or the result of altitude exposure throughout life, they provide high-altitude natives with a distinct advantage over lowlanders during activities in hypoxia.

The ConversationSo unless you’re a sherpa, it’s best to ascend slowly to give your body more time to adjust to the challenges of a hypoxic environment.

Brendan Scott, Senior Lecturer (S&C), Murdoch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Spending time alone in nature is good for your mental and emotional health



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Hiking the Savage River Loop in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska.
Lian Law/NPS

Brad Daniel, Montreat College; Andrew Bobilya, Western Carolina University, and Ken Kalisch, Montreat College

Today Americans live in a world that thrives on being busy, productive and overscheduled. Further, they have developed the technological means to be constantly connected to others and to vast options for information and entertainment through social media. For many, smartphones demand their attention day and night with constant notifications.

As a result, naturally occurring periods of solitude and silence that were once commonplace have been squeezed out of their lives. Music, reality TV shows, YouTube, video games, tweeting and texting are displacing quiet and solitary spaces. Silence and solitude are increasingly viewed as “dead” or “unproductive” time, and being alone makes many Americans uncomfortable and anxious.

But while some equate solitude with loneliness, there is a big difference between being lonely and being alone. The latter is essential for mental health and effective leadership.

We study and teach outdoor education and related fields at several colleges and organizations in North Carolina, through and with other scholars at 2nd Nature TREC, LLC, a training, research, education and consulting firm. We became interested in the broader implications of alone time after studying intentionally designed solitude experiences during wilderness programs, such as those run by Outward Bound. Our findings reveal that time alone in nature is beneficial for many participants in a variety of ways, and is something they wish they had more of in their daily life.

On an average day in 2015, individuals aged 15 and over spent more than half of their leisure time watching TV.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans Time Use Survey

Reflection and challenge

We have conducted research for almost two decades on Outward Bound and undergraduate wilderness programs at Montreat College in North Carolina and Wheaton College in Illinois. For each program, we studied participants’ experiences using multiple methods, including written surveys, focus group interviews, one-on-one interviews and field notes. In some cases, we asked subjects years later to look back and reflect on how the programs had affected them. Among other questions, our research looked at participant perceptions of the value of solo time outdoors.

Our studies showed that people who took part in these programs benefited both from the outdoor settings and from the experience of being alone. These findings build on previous research that has clearly demonstrated the value of spending time in nature.

Scholars in fields including wilderness therapy and environmental psychology have shown that time outdoors benefits our lives in many ways. It has a therapeutic effect, relieves stress and restores attention. Alone time in nature can have a calming effect on the mind because it occurs in beautiful, natural and inspirational settings.

Spending time in city parks like Audubon Park in New Orleans provides some of the same benefits as time in wilderness areas, including reduced stress levels and increased energy levels.
InSapphoWeTrust, CC BY-SA

Nature also provides challenges that spur individuals to creative problem-solving and increased self-confidence. For example, some find that being alone in the outdoors, particularly at night, is a challenging situation. Mental, physical and emotional challenges in moderation encourage personal growth that is manifested in an increased comfort with one’s self in the absence of others.

Being alone also can have great value. It can allow issues to surface that people spend energy holding at bay, and offer an opportunity to clarify thoughts, hopes, dreams and desires. It provides time and space for people to step back, evaluate their lives and learn from their experiences. Spending time this way prepares them to re-engage with their community relationships and full work schedules.

Putting it together: The outdoor solo

Participants in programmed wilderness expeditions often experience a component known as “Solo,” a time of intentional solitude lasting approximately 24-72 hours. Extensive research has been conducted on solitude in the outdoors because many wilderness education programs have embraced the educational value of solitude and silence.

Solo often emerges as one of the most significant parts of wilderness programs, for a variety of reasons. Alone time creates a contrasting experience to normal living that enriches people mentally, physically and emotionally. As they examine themselves in relation to nature, others, and in some cases, God, people become more attuned to the important matters in their lives and in the world of which they are part.

Solo, an integral part of Outward Bound wilderness trips, can last from a few hours to 72 hours. The experience is designed to give participants an opportunity to reflect on their own thoughts and critically analyze their actions and decisions.

Solitary reflection enhances recognition and appreciation of key personal relationships, encourages reorganization of life priorities, and increases appreciation for alone time, silence, and reflection. People learn lessons they want to transfer to their daily living, because they have had the opportunity to clarify, evaluate and redirect themselves by setting goals for the future.

For some participants, time alone outdoors provides opportunity to consider the spiritual and/or religious dimension of life. Reflective time, especially in nature, often enhances spiritual awareness and makes people feel closer to God. Further, it encourages their increased faith and trust in God. This often occurs through providing ample opportunities for prayer, meditation, fasting, Scripture-reading, journaling and reflection time.

Retreating to lead

As Thomas Carlyle has written, “In (solitary) silence, great things fashion themselves together.” Whether these escapes are called alone time, solitude or Solo, it seems clear that humans experience many benefits when they retreat from the “rat race” to a place apart and gather their thoughts in quietness.

The ConversationIn order to live and lead effectively, it is important to be intentional about taking the time for solitary reflection. Otherwise, gaps in schedules will always fill up, and even people with the best intentions may never fully realize the life-giving value of being alone.

Brad Daniel, Professor of Outdoor Education, Montreat College; Andrew Bobilya, Associate Professor and Program Director of Parks and Recreation Management, Western Carolina University, and Ken Kalisch, Associate Professor of Outdoor Education, Montreat College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Five ways hospitals can reduce their environmental footprint



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So many hospital items are used once and then thrown away.
from shutterstock.com

Forbes McGain, University of Sydney

Picture the environmental life cycle of many disposable surgical instruments. Iron ore from Western Australia is shipped to China and smelted, fashioned into stainless steel surgical instruments in Pakistan and exported as single-use instruments. In Australia, clinicians use these instruments once, then discard them.

So much that comes into patient contact is routinely used only once. This includes gowns, surgical drapes and covers for patients, anaesthetic breathing equipment, face masks and bed mats.

On top of this, energy is wasted in hospitals because heating, cooling and devices are left on when not in use. It’s not surprising then to learn that health care produces 7% of Australia’s carbon emissions; hospitals produce about half of this.

Here are five ways Australian hospitals can reduce their environmental footprint and improve their financial bottom line.

1. Employ a sustainability officer and get staff involved

A hospital sustainability officer examines ways to reduce energy use and waste, and encourages staff to participate actively in environmental projects. Although an “upfront cost”, in the absence of a sustainability officer activities known to save money and reduce our environmental footprint won’t occur.

At Melbourne’s Western Health, installing LED lights saved around 1,200 megawatt hours (Mwh) per year. This is similar to disconnecting around 165 Victorian houses from the electricity grid. The installation cost was paid back within two years.

Other sustainable activities included alternatively turning off one of the three hospital gas boilers during lull periods and installing large-scale (300kW) solar panels. These produce around 440 Mwh per year.

Since 2007, institutions that have similar daily energy requirements to 3,000 Australian homes or more have been required to annually report their energy use and greenhouse gas emissions to the federal government’s Clean Energy Regulator. Many medium to large hospitals fall into this range.

There aren’t any mandated requirements to reduce energy use or greenhouse gas emissions, but the reporting allows hospitals to gauge changes over time and strive to improve. In the absence of a hospital sustainability officer, hospitals hire expensive contractors to ensure the reporting requirements are met.

Hospital equipment should be switched off when not in use.
from shutterstock.com

Although some hospital staff are interested in workplace sustainability and want to make a difference, there are many barriers to doing so – both physical and psychological. Local sustainability action plans can be put in place to help staff work together to improve hospital sustainability. Activities can include staff in operating rooms being involved in lighting “switch-offs”, recycling different items and sending unused, out-of-date equipment to less advantaged countries.

2. Reuse surgical equipment where possible

Single-use medical equipment often costs more money than reusable equipment. Studies conducted at Western Health and Yale-New Haven Medical Center in
the US found reusable anaesthetic equipment in operating theatres saved around A$5,000 a year per operating theatre.

The environmental footprint will vary according to the source of electricity. In the above studies, cleaning reusable anaesthetic equipment in Australia resulted in a slightly higher carbon footprint. This is because sterilisers and washers use a lot of electricity, which is derived mainly from coal in Australia. In the US, electricity is sourced from a less carbon-polluting energy mix (more natural gas in particular).

Research in Australia and Germany has shown reusing the standard breathing circuits used by anaesthetists to deliver oxygen and gases to anaesthetised patients does not increase the risk of microbiological contamination. Also, reusing these yearly for a six-theatre operating suite saved around A$5,500 and the equivalent electricity and water savings of one entire Australian household.

3. Recycle better

It is feasible to increase the amount of total recyclable hospital waste from very little to 35%, which saves money even in operating theatres. The most obvious first step to increase recycling rates begins with cardboard and paper products, which surprisingly even now may not be recycled.

It is also important to separate expensive hospital infectious waste from other less expensive, non-infectious waste.

Plastic from IV bags and oxygen tubes could be recycled.
from shutterstock.com

Several plastic types from hospitals can be recycled relatively easily, including PVC plastic. Some manufacturers in Melbourne are working with hospitals to convert PVC plastic from IV bags, face masks and oxygen tubes into agricultural pipes and children’s play equipment. More than 130 hospitals in Australia and New Zealand are involved.

All recycling efforts require collaboration between clinical staff, infection prevention, environmental services and recyclers.

4. Avoid potent anaesthetic greenhouse gases

Anaesthetic gases are hundreds to thousands of times more potent greenhouse gases than CO₂. Desflurane and nitrous oxide are the most problematic, but can be substituted without altering patient care.

These gases do have more rapid anaesthetic onset and offset durations, but other, less environmentally harmful gases can be used just as effectively. Due to familiarity and perhaps drug marketing, desflurane and nitrous oxide remain in common use by anaesthetists.

Several Australian hospitals have saved A$30,000 and hundreds of tonnes of CO₂ annually by substituting desflurane with other anaesthetic gases. Victoria’s health system alone could save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by such substitution.

5. Advocate and collaborate towards a low-carbon, low-waste system

It’s important to minimise patients’ need for care in a hospital as much as possible. This will involve increasing the role of general practitioners, public health care and disease prevention. We should also avoid unnecessary and potentially harmful tests, such as performing a variety of common blood tests on all pre-operative patients (even those who don’t need them).

The health-care system can’t become low carbon and low waste without leadership, incentives and direction. In 2008 the UK Climate Change Act legislated for an 80% reduction in CO₂ emissions by 2050 and formed the Sustainable Development Unit – a national body charged with reducing health care’s CO₂ emissions. By 2017 there was an 18% increase in UK health-care activity, yet an 11% reduction in CO₂ emissions. Nothing like this exists in Australia.

Australia’s current ad hoc, piecemeal approach by engaged clinicians to improve hospital sustainability and translate this to all hospitals is not working. The federal government, which funds around half of all health care, could promote environmental sustainability by:

The ConversationIt’s time for more sustainable use of health care’s financial, environmental and social resources. Our health depends on it.

Forbes McGain, Associate Professor, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Children living in green neighbourhoods are less likely to develop asthma



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Several studies have shown that spending time in nature is good for health. Now new research has looked specifically at asthma and found that living in green neighbourhoods protects children from developing the condition.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

Jeroen Douwes, Massey University and Geoffrey H. Donovan, United States Forest Service

Since the pioneering work of architecture professor Roger Ulrich, who found that patients with a view of a natural scene recovered more quickly from surgery, research has shown that exposure to the natural
environment is associated with a wide range of health benefits.

We have focused our work on asthma, and our research, published today, shows that children who live in greener neighbourhoods are less likely to develop it.

Not all greenness was equally effective, however. If a child was exposed to a broader range of plants, they were even less likely to get asthma. Exposure to landscapes with low plant diversity, such as gorse and exotic conifers, on the other hand, were a risk factor for asthma. Thus, greenness is good, but more biodiverse greenness is even better.




Read more:
How urban bushland improves our health and why planners need to listen


How nature protects against asthma

One intriguing explanation is provided by the hygiene hypothesis, which proposes that for children’s immune systems to develop properly, they need to be exposed to a broad range of microbes in early life. Without this exposure, children may be more susceptible to immunological diseases, like allergies and asthma.

The hygiene hypothesis explains why children living on farms, where they are exposed to a wide range of animals, are less likely to develop asthma. However, it’s not only farm children who benefit from exposure to animals. Having a pet in the house can also help protect against asthma. Similarly, children with more siblings are less likely to be asthmatic.




Read more:
Four ways having a pet increases your lifespan


Living around a more diverse range of plants may also increase a child’s exposure to microbes. In fact, past studies have shown that people who live in more biodiverse areas have more diverse skin bacteria. Exposure to the natural environment may, therefore, improve our health by increasing the diversity of microbes living on our skin and in our gut.

This, in turn, may promote a healthy immune response and reduce the risk of allergies and asthma. Reduced stress and increased physical activity, associated with living close to green space, may be another reason for the observed protective effects.

Tracking children’s environment

This study used the Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI), which is a large database of individual-level data maintained by Stats New Zealand. Currently, it contains 166 billion pieces of information on education, benefits, tax, families and households, health, justice and migration.

Using these data, we were able to track where children lived from birth until age 18, calculate the greenness of their neighbourhoods using satellite imagery and land-use data, and link to health records throughout each child’s life. This was all done anonymously, in a secure data lab, to safeguard the children’s privacy.

This study is an unusual collaboration between economists at the US Forest Service and epidemiologists in New Zealand. It contributes to our understanding of why asthma is on the rise.

Our results may lead to some innovative strategies to combat asthma, although there is a need to elucidate the underlying immunological mechanisms.

Improved prevention and treatment options for asthma are urgently needed as the burden of asthma is considerable, with 334 million people affected worldwide. Asthma prevalence in English-speaking countries such as New Zealand, Australia, the US and the UK is particularly high, with approximately one in six people suffering from it.

Good for people, good for the planet

Showing a link between biodiversity and human health may also change how we manage natural resources, especially in cities. Unfortunately, biodiversity is declining around the world due to population growth, climate change and intensive agricultural practices. Our work suggests that this is not just an ecological problem, but may also present a significant threat to public health.

The ConversationOther studies have suggested that the exposure to the natural environment also protects against low birth weight, heart disease, mental health disorders and breast cancer, although results have not always been consistent. Therefore, as the diversity of our natural environment and resultant microbial exposure declines, we may see further increases in diseases, such as childhood allergies and asthma.

Jeroen Douwes, Professor of Public Health; Director, Centre for Public Health Research, Massey University and Geoffrey H. Donovan, Economist, United States Forest Service

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Toxin linked to motor neuron disease found in Australian algal blooms



File 20180503 153873 1srnuq3.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Cyanobacterial blooms and algae are common in water bodies around the world. However, Australia is yet to monitor the growth of neurotoxins in our algae.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Brendan Main, University of Technology Sydney

Algal blooms in major Australian rivers are releasing a toxic chemical that may contribute to the development of motor neuron disease (MND).

My colleagues and I tested algae from waterways in New South Wales, and found that a neurotoxin called BMAA was present in 70% of samples, including those from crucial water sources such as the Darling and Murrumbidgee rivers.

This compound is well known overseas, and has been found in waterways in the United States, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. But this is the first time it has been detected in Australia. Although its presence has been suspected, it was never specifically tested until now.

Two samples containing BMAA were collected from the Murrumbidgee River, which runs through the NSW Riverina, a hotspot for MND in Australia. Positive samples were also collected in Centennial Park and Botany wetlands in central Sydney, as well as Manly Dam on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.




Read more:
What we know, don’t know and suspect about what causes motor neuron disease


In the past 30 years, Australian rivers have had the dubious honour of hosting some of the largest algal blooms in history. In 1991 a bloom stretched along more than 1,200km of the Darling River, prompting the New South Wales government to declare a state of emergency. The army was mobilised to provide aid to towns.

Since then, southeast Australia has had four large blooms, most recently in 2016. The future isn’t promising either. Rising water temperatures mean blooms are likely to increase in frequency and duration in the future.

Multiple state agencies monitor populations of types of bacteria in Australia, regularly testing water quality and issuing alerts when blooms are present. This testing is necessary because of the impressive number of toxins that cyanobacteria can produce, ranging from skin irritants to liver and neurological toxins. Most of these compounds are relatively fast-acting, meaning that their effects take hold rapidly after exposure.

The neurotoxic compound BMAA, however, is not currently part of regular testing, despite links between long-term exposure to algal blooms and the development of diseases such as MND. BMAA is known to be produced by a type of freshwater and marine bacteria, as well as some species of algae.




Read more:
Watch out, Australia: a red-hot summer means blue-green algae


How BMAA affects our health

Research in America found that regular participation in water-based recreational activity resulted in a threefold increase in the risk of developing MND. Satellite mapping also revealed that lakes prone to algal blooms were often surrounded by clusters of MND patients.

Southwestern NSW has become a focus for MND researchers since 2014, due to the presence of a hotspot for MND cases around the Riverina. The town of Griffith has reported a prevalence of this disease that is nearly seven times higher than the national average of 8.7 cases per 100,000 people. Hotspots like these can help researchers identify environmental factors that contribute to diseases.

This is particularly important in MND, in which only 5-10% of patients have a family history. The other 90-95% of cases are sporadic, occurring without warning. It is possible that BMAA exposure, in association with genetic, or other environmental risk factors, contributes to the high incidence of MND in the Riverina.




Read more:
Exposure to algae toxin increases the risk of Alzheimer’s-like illnesses


BMAA also has a similar structure to the amino acids that make up the proteins in our body. We hypothesise that this contributes to its toxicity and ability to build up in animal tissue and in plants that are exposed to contaminated water.

Similar to mercury, BMAA can accumulate in the food chain, which means that people could be consuming relatively large amounts of it through their diet. A US animal study found that dietary exposure to BMAA resulted in the formation of plaques and protein tangles in the brain, which are hallmark features of neurodegeneration.

Research now needs to focus on tracking and monitoring algal blooms to detect the presence of BMAA, and determining how long it remains in the ecosystem after these blooms occur.

The ConversationThis can potentially help to reduce human exposure to BMAA. Although the factors that cause MND are many and varied, we hope this understanding could ultimately help to reduce the number of people who develop the disease.

Brendan Main, PhD Candidate, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why Australians need a national environment protection agency to safeguard their health


David Shearman, University of Adelaide

Australia needs an independent national agency charged with safeguarding the environment and delivering effective climate policy, according to a new campaign launched today by a coalition of environmental, legal and medical NGOs.

Most Western democracies have established national regulatory action, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency – yet Australia is a notable exception.

Today in Canberra, the Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law (APEEL) will hold a symposium on the reform of environmental laws in Australia. If enacted, these proposals would offer protection to Australia’s declining biodiversity and environment, as well as helping to safeguard Australians’ health.




Read more:
Climate policy is a fiendish problem for governments – time for an independent authority with real powers


The proposal would involve establishing a high-level Commonwealth Environment Commission (CEC) that would be responsible for Commonwealth strategic environmental instruments, in much the same way that the Reserve Bank is in charge of economic levers such as interest rates.

The new CEC would manage a nationally coordinated system of environmental data collection, monitoring, auditing and reporting, the conduct of environmental inquiries of a strategic nature, and the provision of strategic advice to the Commonwealth government on environmental matters, either upon request or at its own initiative. The necessary outcomes would then be delivered by government and ministers via a newly created National Environmental Protection Authority (NEPA).

Tomorrow, this call will be echoed by a major alliance of leading environmental groups, including Doctors for the Environment Australia. Similar to the CEC/NEPA proposal, this group has called for an independent “National Sustainability Commission” that would develop conservation plans, monitor invasive species, and set nationally binding air pollution standards and climate adaptation plans.

The new body would replace the EPBC Act, which has failed to deliver the protections it promised in key areas such as land clearing and species protection, and has no role in limiting climate change which is a major factor in species loss.

The new agencies would be in a position to provide authoritative and understandable consensus reports, similar to those produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change but with a stronger legal basis on which the government should act on its advice.

Why change the system?

The rationale for reform is clear. Only last week the International Energy Agency reported that Earth’s greenhouse emissions have increased yet again. Meanwhile, extreme weather events have increased, while wildlife diversity is on the decline.

Having failed so far to arrest these trends, the governments of countries with high standards of living and high greenhouse emissions should be held particularly accountable. Clearing land and burning forest for firewood are understandable survival strategies for the poor, but unacceptable in rich nations.

Australia’s national laws would be strengthened to address the challenge of climate change and ensure we can mitigate, adapt to and be resilient in the face of a warming world.

Action on climate change, essential to protect biodiversity, is also vital to protect human health as a quarter of world disease has its root causes in environmental change, degradation and pollution.

The World Health Organisation regards climate change as the greatest health threat of the 21st century, a view recognised by the statements of the Australian Medical Association and Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Already, it is responsible for thousands of deaths worldwide, and that figure is projected to rise to 250,000 by 2030. In Australia, air quality reform could prevent an estimated 3,000 air pollution deaths per year.

Causes of current inaction

There are fundamentally two causes of inaction. First, in this increasingly
complex world, governments now more than ever need impartial advice based on the best available evidence. Yet all too often, such advice is politicised, ignored, or both.

Second, in leading democracies – particularly in Australia with its relatively short election cycles – the pressure to focus on re-election prospects dictates that governments emphasise jobs, growth, and living standards. It takes strong leadership to promote the interests of future generations as well as current ones.

It seems counterintuitive to suggest that for its survival, a government might need to delegate decisions for human survival to systems beyond its immediate political control. Yet it already does delegate crucial decisions, such as the monthly interest rate calls made by the Reserve Bank.

A newly created CEC and NEPA would be charged with safeguarding the climate, wildlife, fresh water and clean air. It would be in a position to improve air quality to standards recommended by the World Health Organization, protect water quality, and deliver effective climate change mitigation and adaptation policy uniformly in all states.




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The success of such a national system would manifest itself in a growing number of decisions similar to the recent rejection of the expansion of Stage 3 of the Acland coal mine. The judge in that case turned it down on the basis of a range of health and environmental transgressions, yet it is currently more common for states to approve this type of developments rather than reject them.

The ConversationNationally enforceable standards for resource developments are likely to bring effective preventative health benefits, as well as certainty of process. These reforms present an overdue opportunity for Australia to offer leadership and catch up on lost time, to ameliorate the progression of climate change and biodiversity loss, and thus lessen their future impacts.

David Shearman, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.