Allergy And Access
9:15 pm
Sun May 4, 2014

Health, Science, Environment Rundown: Bad Air In St. Louis And Other Painful Things

Last week, the calendar turned from April to May, bringing with it plenty of budding leaves, flowers and allergies.  

The air isn't as clear as you think it is.
Credit (Flickr/Paul Sableman)

But it’s not just pollen in the air that could be causing your eyes to burn and your throat to itch. The American Lung Association also came out with its annual State of the Air 2014 report and the findings do not reflect well on the St. Louis area.

The city of St. Louis and St. Louis County received the following grades:

  • Ozone — F
    • The metro area suffered worse ozone pollution in 2010-2012; its ranking fell to 13th after having been tied for 25th for the most polluted in the nation in 2009-2011.
  •  Short-term Particle Pollution — C
  • Tied for 53rd most polluted for short-term particle pollution, which is no change from last year’s report.  
  • Tied for 8th most polluted for year-round particles and the metro area still violates the annual particle pollution standard.
  • Year-Round Particle Pollution — Pass

So, what does this mean? Ozone and particle pollution are the two dominant forms of air pollution in the U.S. Having such high levels of air pollution threatens our health and, in general, the quality of life.

The thing to note is that even though the Lung Association ranks our entire region, the hazards of air pollution still disproportionately affect low-income residents. The Lung Association has all kinds of articles to read about why low-income people as well as certain racial and ethnic groups suffer more from bad air. 

It’s also important to note the Lung Associated measured the city's ozone levels during 2011 and 2012 — two of the hottest summers we’ve ever seen.

Doctor calls (not house calls) in peril

Technology has filtered into our lives in all kinds of ways that we probably don’t even think about. Forget about your smart phone. There are now electronic toothbrushes that judge your tooth brushing prowess; dog collars that interpret what your dog is barking about.

And of course, rather than communicate with someone on the phone, we can do a video chat on our computers or smart phones.

Still, it was a little shocking to learn that the Federations of State Medical Boards approved a new policy in April that does not count traditional phone calls as part of its definition of an acceptable platform to treat patients. Video conference is OK, apparently. But not the ol’ telephone.

This is surprising news because, as an article in Vox.com points out, the percentage of Americans with telephone access is close to 100 percent, whereas about 70 percent of the population has either internet or broadband access.  And, unsurprisingly, those without internet access are disproportionately rural and poor.

As St. Louis Public Radio reported this year, there is a distinct shortage of medical practices and hospitals in rural areas. In Missouri, 41 rural counties have no hospitals. Nationally, 59 million people live in areas where there aren’t enough doctors to see them.

What do those people do when they have medical questions? They call their doctor. They call before they travel the 50-plus miles to the nearest doctor’s office or hospital to get a consultation on whether or not they need to actually make that trip.

But the Federation of Medical Boards recommends video conferencing, which requires Internet access. The federation’s chief executive points out that the guidelines are just that, guides, not requirements for how doctors should practice.

It remains to be seen whether doctors chose to adhere to the recommendations or decide to practice medicine in a way that they determine is best for their patients.

Something painfully fun

If you were looking at my face right now, you’d see I’m in horrible pain. Not from writing this column, but thinking so hard.

Or maybe you wouldn’t be able to see that I’m in pain. An article in the New York Times reports on research that finds that computers does a much better job than a human at detecting pain in a person’s facial expression. In fact, computers can not only read pain, they can tell when you’re faking it.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego developed software to detect when people are exhibiting real pain.  When tested, the computers outperformed humans. I mean REALLY outperformed humans. People who were trained to look for traces of genuine pain were correct 55 percent of the time. The computer was right 85 percent of the time.

As the article points out, the implications for treating patients — especially those who cannot speak for themselves — is pretty astounding.

If you think you can out-perform the computers, then take this very fun and slightly disturbing test that the NYT provides. You'll watch videos of people who may or may not be in pain, and then you have guess which one is faking it.

For the record, I'm a typical human. I scored 50 percent.