The World Health Organization recently published an interactive map (click the image below) based on their “Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database,” which contains data on the concentration (micrograms per meter cubed) of particles less than 10 microns in diameter (1/7th the diameter of human hair) around the world, also known as PM10. Since major sources of these particles include motor vehicles, wood burning stoves/fireplaces, construction/agricultural/landfill dust, waste burning, and industrial sources, PM10 concentration is a good proxy for pollution level.
Apart from China, which has made news on repeated occasions for air pollution, I was particularly struck by the levels of pollution in Saharan Africa, the Persian Gulf, and within India. I can only imagine the human health health and ecosystemic effects of contaminated air in these regions. Of note, however, the vast majority of activities that result in PM10 production are tied in some way or another to economic productivity. Innovation at the level of technology, business, and governmental policy is clearly in need to enable less environmentally deleterious means of economic productivity in these regions of the world.
Data is an integral element of the world in which we live. Innovative companies analyze user-collected data to improve the efficiency of daily tasks like searching the Internet, navigating a city, and finding the best place to eat. Similarly, healthcare is an incredibly data-drive field. On a daily basis, physicians and medical students like myself integrate patient data with findings from large studies published in major medical journals to provide the best care possible. To this end, there are numerous collective databases that exist among groups of medical professionals such as transplant surgeons, oncologists, radiologists, and even plastic surgeons which enable larger sample sizes and thus more accurate determinations of health outcomes and the effect of various interventions among patients of a variety of backgrounds.
As a fan of open-source data, I was pleased to recently discover website healthdata.gov, one of the most powerful ventures by the United States Department of Health and Human Services in my opinion. I had forgotten just how much information the United States government collects through the services it funds such as hospitals, Medicare, Medicaid, and other national and state-based organizations. Whether digging through a geotagged database of toxic chemical spills in the United States or analyzing a database of cancer outcomes in low income elders, I can’t wait to delve into the plethora of eye-opening information that this website offers.
The information we need to make change already exists. It’s our job to put that information into action.
I recently wrote and recorded a new song about water conservation, contamination, and the undue influence of politics on them both. The footage included is from our trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, CA last year.
Conservation only for a day.
We take take take, take it away.
Gotta change something today.
Water water. They need water.
Politics are in the way.
Step aside. Step aside,
So His water brings another day.
Let’s face it, major social issues often take a back seat in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters. One unfortunate example of this is the systemic gender discrimination and rampant violence against women that continues to occur in Haiti (now 6 years after the colossal earthquake in 2010). The non-profit organization Human Rights Watch recently made a submission to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women regarding the systemic problems that contribute to the marginalization of women in Haitian society.
More specifically, this HRW submission to the UN provides eye-opening insight into the impact of gender-based violence and widespread lack of rights to fresh water and sanitation on women’s’ access to healthcare and education in Haiti. Perhaps most apparent is the direct infectious health risks that result from poor sanitation. Less obvious, however, is that the absence of easily accessible fresh water (a problem that was greatly exacerbated by the widespread destruction that occurred during the 2010 earthquake) is forcing countless girls and women alike to put themselves at risk of rape and other violence in order to retrieve water while also foregoing empowering activities such as education and entrepreneurship.
Simply put, systemic injustice at the level of government and society are responsible for perpetuating, if not creating, the large amounts of suffering among marginalized groups in countries like Haiti that have recently suffered major catastrophes. While it is undoubtedly difficult to eliminate these systemic issues overnight, the work of organizations like Human Rights Watch and the UN to raise awareness about the issues and their systemic causes is an important first step toward progress.
Durum wheat. While it’s not nearly as ubiquitous as corn within the diets of millions worldwide, durum comprises the second-largest grain market in the world. As a pasta lover, I’m certainly aware of my minor contribution to the multi-billion dollar global durum wheat trade. Interestingly, a recent article on Bioversity International brought my attention to a groundbreaking January 2016 article by Mengitsu, et. al. in the Plant Biotechnology Journal that will likely lead to major expansion of the durum wheat market worldwide. In this study, researchers performed genetic analysis and association mapping on a large number of durum wheat landraces bred and cultivated over centuries by Ethiopian wheat farmers. Much to their surprise, the researchers (the majority whom are Ethiopan themselves) found not only that there was a significant amount of genetic diversity between the different landraces, but also that many of these landraces of durum wheat are particularly well-suited to withstand the ever-increasing pressures of climate change (given various characteristics such as growth pattern and pest resistance). The amount of genetic diversity between durum wheat strains has declined significantly over the past few decades due to the monoculture, mass-production approach that has become the norm among wheat farmers worldwide. Unfortunately this has meant that local farmers are increasingly left with few options for wheat varieties best-suited to survive in the setting in which they live. Thus, one could easily argue that the identification of these genetically diverse and hearty variants could mean improved economic stability for wheat farmers worldwide.
However, thoughts of groundbreaking changes to a global market made me wonder: how can we be sure this development won’t turn into yet another example of the exploitation of local ingenuity by Western enterprise? After all, if these landraces become the new global standard for durum wheat, would the world’s largest wheat producers actually provide royalties to the farmers whose ancestors brilliantly developed these variants?
If Monsanto can make billions for creating pesticide-resistant crops, I think so should anyone that has what it takes to revolutionize a global market. As usual, only time will tell whether the world’s wheat producers will resist the temptation to exploit and instead choose to support the farmers who made their success even greater.