Health, Science, Environment | St. Louis Public Radio

Health, Science, Environment

Health, science, and environmental news

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.

A metallic green sweat bee sits in a case among other species at Associate Professor Gerardo Camilo's Saint Louis University lab.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

In a community garden in central St. Louis, Saint Louis University biologist Gerardo Camilo walked methodically, scanning the plants while holding a butterfly net. Then, he stopped and stared intently at a patch of impatiens. 

He was pursuing a bee that was weaving in between the stems of the flowers. In one fell swoop, he swung the net down and clutched the net with a fist to trap the bee inside. He examined his captive with a quizzical expression. 

"Wow! I have never seen this in my life," Camilo said. "What the hell are you?"

Camilo and other scientists have found that bee populations are abundant and very diverse in urban areas, compared to rural areas, a finding that could help save endangered bees, important pollinators.

Sidney Watson, a SLU law professor and local expert on the Affordable Care Act, answered questions about health insurance premium increases in Missouri on Friday.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

By now, you’ve likely heard the headlines, news bites and chatter around the dinner table: the prices for many individual Affordable Care Act health plans are going way up across the country. Here’s a good summary of what is happening nationwide.

The Indiana bat is on the endangered species list.
Provided by the Missouri Department of Conservation

The Missouri Department of Conservation is preparing to survey the bat population in the northern half of the state.

Tony Elliott is a resource scientist with the conservation department.  He said the survey will focus primarily on two species: the Indiana bat and the northern long-eared bat.

Van Tyler checks a list of names and addresses while delivering meals in Jennings for the Mid-East Area Agency on Aging in June, 2016.
File photo | Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

Since the Mid-East Area Agency on Aging saw its funding slashed by about $2 million during the recession, the agency has had to piece together grants for major projects.

“We’ve had to close senior centers over the years because we can’t support the number that were originally being utilized. And yet at the same time the population is growing,” Director Mary Schaefer said.

That could soon change. On Nov. 8, voters in St. Charles County, St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis will see a box for “Proposition S” on the ballot. The initiative would increase property taxes to pay for programs for seniors, to help them continue living at home.

Angela Merten is an in-person assister for the federal online marketplace at Touchette Regional Hospital. But she says most of the people she'll help sign up for health insurance will qualify for Medicaid under Illinois' expanded program.
File photo |St. Louis Public Radio

The eastern St. Louis metro area has been particularly hard hit by health insurance companies exiting the Affordable Care Act exchange. This week, the federal government released prices for 2017, which include substantial increases in western Illinois.

Insurance brokers in Belleville say three Metro East counties — St. Clair, Madison and Monroe — will have just one insurer to choose from this year: Blue Cross Blue Shield.

(via Flickr/KOMUnews)

In Missouri, 27 percent of  carbon emissions are caused by the transportation sector, according to a national report. 

Local environmental advocates are using the findings by the nonprofit think tank, Frontier Group, to argue that providing more carbon-neutral transportation options could improve public health and safety. The report includes multiple policy recommendations to reduce transportation's impact on the environment, including incentives for consumers to purchase electric cars and creating more paths for pedestrians and bikers. 

Ira Flatow, the beloved host of PRI's Science Friday, joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss the importance of science, STEM education and more.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis on the Air has a special treat for you: On Monday’s program, beloved public radio host Ira Flatow joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh to discuss what’s new in his world, science news and his show, Science Friday.

Flatow is in town ahead of his show in St. Louis on Tuesday night (which is now sold out!). 

We’ve excerpted four poignant things Flatow said during the conversation below. If you want to hear the whole discussion, listen here:

Children try out a stretch at the Pagedale Center  on May 20, 2016.
Criss Cross | Beyond Housing

A community development effort spearheaded by the local nonprofit Beyond Housing is being recognized as a national leader for supporting better health outcomes.

The 24:1 initiative, a collaboration between the 24 north St. Louis County municipalities within the footprint of Normandy Schools, has been awarded the Culture of Health Prize by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

St. Louis College of Pharmacy professor Amy Tiemeier demonstrates how to use a medication disposal pouch to promote National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. (Oct. 20, 2016)
Durrie Bouscaren| St. Louis Public Radio

Police departments, recreation centers and a handful of grocery stores will accept and dispose of unused medications in the St. Louis region as part of a semi-annual National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day on Saturday.

Public health officials recommend that people dispose of unused medications to prevent accidental poisoning or addiction. While flushing pills down the toilet may be effective, it can contaminate the water system. With that in mind, a growing fixture at the take-back days are plastic disposal pouches, filled with a carbon compound. They can hold up to 45 pills, and a once cup of water is added, the mixture breaks down into a substance that is safe for a landfill.

An underground fire has been smoldering in the southern part of the Bridgeton Landfill for more than four years. Now the state is concerned the north quarry may also be heating up.
Missouri Department of Natural Resources

This story was updated Oct. 20 with a response from Republic Services — The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has ordered Bridgeton Landfill LLC owner Republic Services to study the increased groundwater contamination detected at the site.

In a letter addressed to Republic Services engineer Erin Fanning last Friday, MDNR engineer Charlene Fitch provided a detailed review of groundwater sampling reports that span from October 2014 to April 2016. The sampling was conducted by a contractor hired by Republic Services. It noted increasing levels of hazardous substances that exceed federal levels, particularly benzene, which can increase the risk of cancer to those exposed to it.

The endangered running buffalo clover.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Outdoor activities like hiking and camping can help people appreciate nature and encourage public support for conservation, but a new study finds that such recreation can also be harmful to the environment. 

In the most comprehensive survey of threats to rare plants conducted in 20 years, researchers from the Missouri Botanical Garden and the University of Missouri-St. Louis analyzed data on threats to nearly 3,000 rare plants in the United States. As scientists report in the journal Biological Conservation, they discovered that outdoor recreation was the most common threat to plants, above residential development and agriculture.

The chlamydia bacteria, stained and viewed at 500 times.
National Cancer Institute | Dr. Lance Liotta Laboratory

Rates of three common sexually transmitted diseases have risen to a record high level nationwide, and St. Louis continues to rank high among cities, according to federal data released Wednesday.

The St. Louis region recorded 14,961 cases of chlamydia in 2015, the 17th highest per-capita rate in the country. Rates of syphyllis stayed relatively steady at just over 400 cases in the metro area. The city of St. Louis, however, measured the highest rate of both chlamydia and gonorrhea among counties and independent cities. 

“We’ve seen closures of publicly funded STD clinics around the country, and St. Louis is similar in that we have very few options for people to get tested and treated,” said Dr. Brad Stoner, medical director of the St. Louis STD/HIV Prevention Training Center.

An adult female chimpanzee arrives at a termite nest with two fishing probes. She transfers one fishing tool to her offspring, who uses it to fish for termites, while keeping the other tool for her own use.
Screenshot taken from video by the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project.

In 1960, Jane Goodall saw two chimps remove the leaves off of small twigs and used them as tools to fish for termites in the ground, which they ate.

It was the first time a scientist observed chimpanzees turning an object into a tool and using it for a specific purpose. But it was unclear how the chimps learned to do this. More than 50 years later, scientists have for the first time captured videos of chimpanzee mothers teaching their offspring to fish for termites.

The footage, taken in the Republic of Congo by researchers from the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project and Washington University in St. Louis, show several examples of mother chimpanzees handing termite fishing tools to their young.

Provided by The Land Institute

Story updated at 1:18 p.m. Oct. 18 | Originally posted at 7:45 p.m. Oct. 11

Some scientists dream of a future in which people can add sorghum, intermediate wheatgrass and other currently wild perennial plants to their diet.

In St. Louis, researchers at the Missouri Botanical Garden and Saint Louis University are developing a list of wild perennials, which live for many years, to recommend for domestication. Researchers say such plants have the potential to make agriculture more sustainable and feed a growing human population.

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