Health, Science, Environment | St. Louis Public Radio

Health, Science, Environment

Health, science, and environmental news

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015.
NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Data from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft suggest that a syrupy ocean filled with ammonia could dwell beneath Pluto's icy shell. 

There is no direct evidence for an ocean on Pluto, but scientists argue it's very likely, given that a subsurface ocean would explain the planet's particular rotation and tectonics. In a recent paper published in the journal Nature, researchers mused that an ocean at extremely low temperatures could be maintained if it contained ammonia. Ammonia has also been detected by the New Horizons probe on two of Pluto's moons. 

"It expands our ideas on what oceans can be," said Bill McKinnon, a Washington University professor and co-principal investigator of the New Horizons Mission. "We'll probably find, ultimately in our exploration, that things are even stranger than we think."

Missouri Department of Natural Resources

The Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club plans to put pressure on state lawmakers to make sure St. Louis and Kansas City are better represented on the Missouri Air Conservation Commission. 

The commissioners are responsible for enforcing the Clean Air Act in Missouri. Members are appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate. There are currently five commissioners and two vacant seats, which have been empty for some time. 

Environmental activists say that the current commissioners have been ineffective at addressing air quality in Missouri's metro areas. The St. Louis area doesn't meet federal air quality standards for ozone and Jackson County, which includes Kansas City, does not meet the federal air quality standards for sulfur dioxide. Both pollutants at elevated levels can pose a risk to children, the elderly and those with respiratory issues.

Tony Twitty, 55, founded his auto shop in 1999. Before the Affordable Care Act,it was hard for him to buy health insurance on his own.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

After running on a platform that included calls to repeal the Affordable Care Act, president-elect Donald Trump will take office alongside a Republican-controlled Congress in January. This leaves an estimated 20 million people who gained coverage through the law unsure of how their coverage will change.

In the weeks since the election, the general consensus among health law experts is that it’s unlikely that congressional Republicans will repeal the law entirely without a plan to replace it, particularly because Senate Democrats have enough seats to filibuster.

A needle exchange kit uploaded to Flickr in 2008.
Todd Huffman | Flickr

Needle exchange programs could become easier to operate in Missouri under a bill pre-filed for the state’s 2017 legislative session.

The programs make sure intravenous drug users have access to clean needles to prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV.  

Provided by Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Engineering researchers at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville are helping the Illinois Department of Transportation develop strategies for managing stormwater runoff on highways.

Highways and roads interrupt the natural flow of water during rains and especially heavy precipitation could cause much of the runoff to overload sewers. Runoff also can taint the water quality of the rivers and streams that it enters.

Michael Velardo | Flickr

The nation’s opioid crisis is threatening to undo decades of HIV prevention work, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

In response to a national survey of intravenous drug users in 22 cities, they’re calling for wider distribution of clean needles.  

“The science shows that syringe services programs work,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said. "They save lives, and they save money." 

Missouri’s two Planned Parenthood affiliates on Wednesday morning sued to overturn the state’s highly restrictive abortion laws, a move expected since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down similar laws in Texas in June. 

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Jefferson City, sets up a showdown over state statutes that were enacted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which held that the right to an abortion in the early stages of pregnancy is rooted in the Constitution.

Asha Paudel

Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election has put many environmentalists and scientists on edge about U.S. commitments to fight climate change, since the president-elect has previously called climate change a "hoax" and vowed to "cancel" the Paris climate agreement.

Among the nervous scientists is Missouri Botanical Garden ethnobotanist Jan Salick, who has studied the effects of climate change on indigenous peoples since the early 2000s. Earlier this month, Salick attended the United Nations annual climate change meeting in Marrakech, Morocco. 

She spoke to St. Louis Public Radio's Eli Chen about her research and the challenges scientists face in the current political climate. Here is the conversation:

An example of a safe sleeping practice for infants, without a crib bumper.
National Institutes for Health

A local initiative to prevent infant deaths in St. Louis is recruiting volunteers at a launch event this week.

After holding listening sessions with parents throughout the region, Flourish St. Louis has decided that transportation, mental health, and access to prenatal care are some of the main ways they can help prevent infant deaths.

“We really need moms, dads, grandparents, people from healthcare but also business, faith communities, funders, government. Anyone who feels that they want to work on any of these issues,” said Kendra Copanas, executive director of Generate Health, formerly the Maternal, Child and Family Health Coalition.

In some St. Louis zip codes, the infant mortality rate is more than twice the national average of 5.8 deaths per 1,000. The leading causes of death are congenital malformations, pregnancy complications and disorders related to prematurity or low birth weight,  according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

St. Louis County Officer David Meyer tests pushing the Narcan nasal syringe hard enough to create mist instead of dribbling out.
File Photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

The St. Louis-based agencies coordinating Missouri’s federal grant to prevent opioid overdose deaths are training their first batch of first responders Monday afternoon.

Officers and EMTs from the Warrenton and Wright City fire protection districts and the Eureka, St. Charles City, Marthasville and Columbia police departments will be taught how to administer the overdose antidote, naloxone, before collecting a supply of the life-saving drug to bring back to their jurisdictions.

Mioshi Ferrill holds a little girl named Arianna at the University City Children's Center. 11/21/16
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

In one of the baby rooms at University City Children’s Center, half a dozen infants are taking naps, drinking out of sippy cups, and trying to figure out how to roll over.

Mioshi Ferrill of St. Louis picks up a little girl with big brown eyes and plastic barrettes in her hair, and coos at her while she takes a bottle. Ferrill, 24, is halfway through her “on the job training” for a new apprentice program run by a local nonprofit, the LUME Institute. After 135 hours of classwork, 480 hours of training, and a year and a half of mentored work, she will be a credentialed provider of early childhood education. But the real payoff comes in moments, like the time she finally got a baby with stranger anxiety to go down for a nap.   

A dead zone with sediment from the Mississippi River carries fertilizer to the Gulf of Mexico.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Environmental advocates are calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to manage nutrient pollution from states that border the Mississippi River. 

The Mississippi River Collaborative, a group of environmental policy experts, recently released a new report that describes how the 10 states along the river are not making progress in reducing the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus that eventually make its way down to the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. 

An energy efficient light bulb.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Nearly 80 percent of St. Louis' greenhouse gas emissions comes from buildings, according to 2015 data from the city's sustainability office. A new partnership with a national energy efficiency initiative could help St. Louis address the impacts its buildings have on the environment. 

The city recently joined the City Energy Project, a joint initiative by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Institute for Market Transformation, which provides funding and resources to cities to create programs that improve energy efficiency in buildings. St. Louis expects to receive over $500,000 in assistance from the project. 

"In tackling our greenhouse gas emissions from existing buildings, a program that focuses on existing buildings is going to help us achieve some of our climate protection goals and objectives," said Catherine Werner, the city's sustainability director.

A cautionary sign at a fence around the West Lake Landfill Superfund site, which contains World War II-era nuclear waste.
Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio

The Environmental Protection Agency has extended its deadline to propose a plan to clean up the West Lake Landfill Superfund site. 

Federal officials had aimed to decide whether to partially or fully remove the World War II-era nuclear waste at the landfill by the end of December, but they decided to postpone the decision. Recently, there were allegations that radioactive contamination from the West Lake Landfill was found on residential property.

Karen Wheat, second from left, stands with fellow volunteers at the Immune Deficiency Foundation's Walk for PI (Primary Immunodeficiency Diseases) on 10/09/16.
provided by Karen Wheat.

Sometimes we swap more than stories when we gather around the Thanksgiving table.

Flu season generally runs from late fall into early spring, but the number of cases starts to increase when people come into contact with others around the holidays.  By getting a flu shot, people can protect themselves and those around them who may be unable to get vaccinated.

“For an immune compromised patient, this is a really hard time … we can’t fight the flu,” said Karen Wheat, 53, a Belleville resident who lives with common variable immune deficiency. The disorder affects more than 1 in 50,000 people worldwide.

Last week’s election results stunned a lot of people who get health insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act.

President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress say they want to scrap the law, but what might replace it remains unknown.

That has left many Missouri and Kansas families in limbo, unsure what will become of their medical care.

Married couple Michael and Robbin Dailey sit in their home in Spanish Village. They allege that the radioactive contamination found on their property came from the West Lake Landfill.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

The Environmental Protection Agency is planning to test areas in Bridgeton for radioactive contamination.

Federal officials are responding to allegations made by residents near the West Lake Landfill. In a lawsuit filed Tuesday against against landfill owner Republic Services, Michael and Robbin Dailey claimed contamination from the Superfund site was found in their home.

According to a letter from an EPA lawyer, the agency plans to sample dust and soils at the home and other areas in Bridgeton.

EPA officials have previously said there is no evidence that radioactive material has migrated away from the site.

Amy Harmon covers science and society for the New York Times.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amy Harmon has been a national correspondent for The New York Times, covering the intersection of science and society, since 1997. On Thursday, she joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss the divide between public opinion and scientific data. She will address audiences on similar subject matter at the Danforth Plant Science Center on Thursday evening as well.

A map shows locations of retail pharmacies included in Dr. Paul Hauptman's study of heart failure drug pricing in St. Louis. Color coding corresponds to retail prices of a combination of digoxin, lisinopril, and carvedilol.
Paul J. Hauptman, MD, Zackary D. Goff, Andrija Vidic, et al

When St. Louis cardiologist Paul Hauptman got a call from a 25-year-old patient who couldn’t afford to buy his prescription for a generic drug to treat heart problems, he knew something was wrong.

“It was $100 at a local pharmacy. I thought surely, it was a mistake,” Hauptman said. “Most of the medications, we’re presuming at most pharmacies will be something like $4, $5, $6.”

Mike Cluck stands with his wife Nancy in the front hallway of their home in Edwardsville.  (Nov. 10, 2016)
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

An estimated 20 million people have health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, but dissatisfaction with the law helped propel Donald Trump the presidency. 

One criticism is a lack of choice for insurance plans bought on Healthcare.gov, an online marketplace established for uninsured individuals to shop for coverage. In three Illinois counties east of St. Louis, residents have just one insurance provider to choose from on the exchange for 2017, and enrollees say the coverage appears to have some serious gaps.

Revelers march down Market Street in this file photo from a previous Pride Parade.
Pride St. Louis | Provided

Pride St. Louis will open a new LGBT Community Center in its office building at 3738 Chouteau Ave., near Grand Boulevard.

The community has been without a meeting and education space for nearly three years, after the center on Manchester Avenue in The Grove area shut down.

The local LGBT population needs a physical space in which to gather and share resources, according to Pride St. Louis secretary Landon Brownfield.

“This marginalized community — the LGBT community, and especially LGBT people of color — it’s really important for all of us to be united and to be able to support each other and we think that the Center will facilitate that,” Brownfield said.

A Nissan Leaf getting charged up in a parking lot.
Nissan

Motorists in Missouri will soon see new signs pointing to alternative fuel sources along interstate highways. The signage is part of a recently announced Federal Highway Administration effort to create 85,000 miles of alternative fuel corridors across the country.

The signs aim to ease "range anxiety," or motorists' worry that they will run out of fuel, for those who drive cars that run on electricity, propane, natural gas and hydrogen. The initiative could encourage such motorists to travel further.

Spporting the use of low-emission vehicles could help the nation reach its goal of cutting at least 80 percent of greenhouse gases by 2050, the FHA officials say.

Charles and Doris Lehman, of Sparta, Illinois,  at the Pour House bar in Marissa, Illinois. (Nov. 1, 2916)
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

Thousands of former coal workers and dependents who worked for now-bankrupt coal companies could lose their health insurance at the end of the year if Congress does not pass legislation to fund it.

Retirees in southern Illinois say losing their health insurance would amount to a broken promise from the coal companies that would have devastating effects to their well-being. Without Congressional action, Republican president-elect Donald Trump’s promise to repeal of the Affordable Care Act makes the retirees’ coverage alternatives uncertain.

A researcher holds a tray of Zika virus growing in cells at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Huy Mach | Washington University School of Medicine

New research from Washington University provides the first evidence of a human antibody capable of protecting fetuses from the Zika virus. 

In pregnant women, the virus can cause severe birth defects, most notably microcephaly, in which infants are born with abnormally small heads. 

According to a paper published this week in the journal Nature, scientists tested multiple human antibodies on infected pregnant mice. One antibody, ZIKV-117, was able to defend the mice fetuses from all existing strains of the Zika virus. 

Wash U virologist Michael Diamond, a co-author of the study, said the finding makes significant progress in combating the virus.

A member of Washington University engineering professor Rajan Chakrabarty's laboratory lights up forest material in a combustion chamber.
Provided by Washington University in St. Louis

Recent studies have indicated that wildfires such as the ones that have raged in the western United States could have a cooling effect on our climate. But early findings by engineers at Washington University suggest that wildfire smoke could have a warming effect on the atmosphere. 

Using material from forests in the west, Wash U scientists have been recreating wildfires in the laboratory to understand the effects such events have on climate and public health. Research predicts that wildfires could occur more frequently and for longer periods of time. A 2012 study suggests that the area burned by wildfires in the United States could double by 2050.

A gray bat cave on St. Clair, Mo., resident Nick Norman's property. It is located several hundred feet from where Mermamec Aggregates has built a surface mine for gravel.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

It would be an understatement to call Nick Norman an animal lover. A visit to his family's 200-acre property in St. Clair, Mo., will reveal quickly that his mission in life is to save them.

For example, he has shared his home with Charlie, a 170-pound African spurred tortoise. When Norman found Charlie, he was a malnourished company mascot. Charlie now spends his days marching slowly around Norman's yard, feasting on watermelons. 

Deer visit the SIU-Edwardsville campus.
Pete Burzynski | Flickr | 2007

Madison County leads the state in vehicle crashes involving deer, and November is the most at-risk month for such accidents, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Eight people died, and more than 600 were injured in 2015 in 15,754 vehicle-deer accidents in the state. Nearly 45 percent of those crashes occurred in October, November and December. There were 440 accidents in Madison County followed by Cook County with 431. By comparison, St. Clair County reported 212 crashes involving deer.

WashU biomedical scientist G.S.M Sundaram, PhD., holds a model of the molecule fluselenamyl, which may improve PET scans for patients with Alzheimer's disease. Senior author Vijay Sharma, PhD, sits to his right.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

Think of the night sky when you look up through the smog of the city. Then, think of that same sky on a clear night in a rural area.

That’s the difference between two images of a 90-year-old man’s brain, after he passed away and donated his body to Alzheimer’s disease research. Both scans are dark blue, with points of light showing plaques consistent with the disease. But the sharper image uses a new compound developed by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis. 

Botanist Nigel Taylor checks the stems of cassava plants at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur.
File photo | Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis developers of genetically-modified organisms have called into question a New York Times report that compares the yields of genetically modified crops between North America and Europe.

Using data from the United Nations, an investigative report published over the weekend by the Times claimed that "genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides." Agriculture in the United States and Canada has embraced GMOs, while many European countries have banned cultivation of them for many years. The article also cites a National Academy report released this year that said there is no evidence that using GM crops have accelerated yield. 

In a statement released Monday, Monsanto said that it's tough to compare yields between large geographic areas, such as the United States and Europe.

Tara Hegger, right, looks through pictures with her cousin, Lisa Pepper. Hegger has stayed in Mercy Hospital's intensive care unit for three months, because she can't find a nursing home in the state of Missouri that will accept her.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

For three months, 32-year-old Tara Hegger has lived in the intensive care unit at Mercy Hospital.

She passes the time listening to music, visiting with family members and watching TV, mostly comedies. They keep her mind off of a painful decision that inches closer every day.

“The social worker came to me and basically told me I had to leave, because my days ran out," Hegger said, pausing between the pumps of oxygen provided by a ventilator next to her. "I had to make a choice.”

Like other Missouri patients in her situation, she will have to leave the state to find a nursing home that accepts her insurance — a dilemma tied to the state's low Medicaid reimbursement rate for long term care.

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