Living near or downwind of unconventional oil and gas development is linked with an increased risk of early death

Elderly people living near or downwind of unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD)—which involves extraction methods including directional (non-vertical) drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—are at higher risk of early death compared with elderly individuals who don’t live near such operations, according to a large new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Just off Interstate Highway 25, Drill Rig 1548 – Encana Natural Gas, works closely with their fracking drill rig in front of homes in the town of Frederick in Weld County, Colorado. Pipes, vehicles and storage tanks also stand in front of homes as hazy, snow-capped front range of the Rocky Mountains stand in the background.

The results suggest that airborne contaminants emitted by UOGD and transported downwind are contributing to increased mortality, the researchers wrote.

“Although UOGD is a major industrial activity in the U.S., very little is known about its public health impacts. Our study is the first to link mortality to UOGD-related air pollutant exposures,” said Petros Koutrakis, professor of environmental sciences and senior author of the study. Added co-author Francesca Dominici, Clarence James Gamble Professor of Biostatistics, Population, and Data Science, “There is an urgent need to understand the causal link between living near or downwind of UOGD and adverse health effects.”

UOGD has expanded rapidly over the past decade. As of 2015, according to the study, more than 100,000 UOGD land-based wells were drilled using directional drilling combined with fracking. Roughly 17.6 million U.S. residents currently live within one kilometer of at least one active well. Compared with conventional oil and gas drilling, UOGD generally involves longer construction periods and larger well pads (the area occupied by equipment or facilities) and requires larger volumes of water, proppants (sand or other materials used to keep hydraulic fractures open), and chemicals during the fracking process.

Prior studies have found connections between UOGD activities and increased human exposure to harmful substances in both air and water, as well as connections between UOGD exposure and adverse prenatal, respiratory, cardiovascular, and carcinogenic health outcomes. But little was known about whether exposure to UOGD was associated with mortality risk in the elderly, or about exactly how exposure to UOGD-related activities may be contributing to such risk.

To learn more, the researchers studied a cohort of more than 15 million Medicare beneficiaries—people ages 65 and older—living in all major U.S. UOGD exploration regions from 2001 to 2015. They also gathered data from the records of more than 2.5 million oil and gas wells. For each Medicare beneficiary’s ZIP code and year in the cohort, the researchers used two different statistical approaches to calculate what the exposure to pollutants would be from living either close to UOGD operations, downwind of them, or both, while adjusting for socioeconomic, environmental, and demographic factors.

The closer to UOGD wells people lived, the greater their risk of premature mortality, the study found. Those who lived closest to wells had a statistically significant elevated mortality risk (2.5% higher) compared with those who didn’t live close to wells. The study also found that people who lived near UOGD wells as well as downwind of them were at higher risk of premature death than those living upwind when both groups were compared with people who were unexposed.

“Our findings suggest the importance of considering the potential health dangers of situating UOGD near or upwind of people’s homes,” said Longxiang Li, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Environmental Health and lead author of the study.

2021 Tied for 6th Warmest Year in Continued Trend, NASA Analysis Shows

Earth’s global average surface temperature in 2021 tied with 2018 as the sixth warmest on record, according to independent analyses done by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Continuing the planet’s long-term warming trend, global temperatures in 2021 were 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit (0.85 degrees Celsius) above the average for NASA’s baseline period, according to scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York. NASA uses the period from 1951-1980 as a baseline to see how global temperature changes over time.

Collectively, the past eight years are the warmest years since modern recordkeeping began in 1880. This annual temperature data makes up the global temperature record – which tells scientists the planet is warming.

According to NASA’s temperature record, Earth in 2021 was about 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit (or about 1.1 degrees Celsius) warmer than the late 19th-century average, the start of the industrial revolution.

“Science leaves no room for doubt: Climate change is the existential threat of our time,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Eight of the top 10 warmest years on our planet occurred in the last decade, an indisputable fact that underscores the need for bold action to safeguard the future of our country – and all of humanity. NASA’s scientific research about how Earth is changing and getting warmer will guide communities throughout the world, helping humanity confront climate and mitigate its devastating effects.”

This warming trend around the globe is due to human activities that have increased emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The planet is already seeing the effects of global warming: Arctic sea ice is declining, sea levels are rising, wildfires are becoming more severe and animal migration patterns are shifting. Understanding how the planet is changing – and how rapidly that change occurs – is crucial for humanity to prepare for and adapt to a warmer world.

Weather stations, ships, and ocean buoys around the globe record the temperature at Earth’s surface throughout the year. These ground-based measurements of surface temperature are validated with satellite data from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Scientists analyze these measurements using computer algorithms to deal with uncertainties in the data and quality control to calculate the global average surface temperature difference for every year. NASA compares that global mean temperature to its baseline period of 1951-1980. That baseline includes climate patterns and unusually hot or cold years due to other factors, ensuring that it encompasses natural variations in Earth’s temperature.

Wikimedia Foundation Launches Wiki Unseen to improve information about Black culture and history on Wikipedia

The Wikimedia Foundation, the global nonprofit that operates Wikipedia, announced the launch of Wiki Unseen, a collaboration with artists aimed at expanding the visual representation of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in Wikimedia projects and advancing knowledge equity. 

Launched on Tuesday, the first iteration of the project, a collaboration with artists from Africa, North America, and the Caribbean, will help to address the visual and written underrepresentation of several Black historical figures on Wikipedia and in the media repository Wikimedia Commons. In addition to global artists, the Foundation is collaborating with, a Wikipedia-volunteer-led initiative to create and improve information about Black culture and history on Wikipedia, as well as Bēhance, a social media platform that showcases creative work on the initiative. 

Research shows that Wikipedia articles featuring illustrations increase audience engagement and views, creating an additional point of entry for visual learners and expanding understanding of the information presented. With this in mind, the Wikimedia Foundation and worked together to select 20 Wikipedia articles of BIPOC historical figures without visual representation, further collaborating with Bēhance to source a list of artists from the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean to create portraits of each. This year, the artists will create portraits for six of 20 total historical figures.  

The commissioned artists include Enam Bosokah from Ghana, Esther Griffith from Trinidad, and Bukhtawar Malik from the United States. Among the first articles that will feature new illustrations are: Marian Ewurama AddyWilliam GreavesRose Dieng-KuntzMay MillerMercedes Richards, and Asquith Xavier. These portraits will be published throughout the month of February; they include personalities whose images are not freely licensed and therefore unable to be added to Wikipedia articles.

“Wiki Unseen aims to make Black histories and those of other people underrepresented on Wikipedia more visible,” said Anusha Alikhan, Vice President of Communications at the Wikimedia Foundation. “Closing knowledge equity gaps — including visual ones — is key to ensuring Wikimedia projects are accessible to everyone and represent the breadth of the world’s cultures, experiences, and languages. We know that our work is incomplete until the diversity of our world’s histories is seen.”

When BIPOC histories are told, too often they lack visual representation. Of the 30+ articles in the African Royalty category on English Wikipedia, for example, only three pages picture their subjects. Visual aids and illustrations help people understand and retain the information; their absence reinforces and perpetuates biases.  

“Participating in this project is part of what I have been wanting to do as an artist in Africa. Black Africans have been excluded from history and knowing that I can contribute towards making this wrong right is an honor. Wiki Unseen has presented me with an opportunity to make a difference at a larger scale,” said Enam Bosokah “I hope more African artists will take heed of this call and contribute to the free knowledge movement.”

Wikipedia is powered by a global community of volunteer contributors working to advance Wikimedia projects in support of a vision to ensure that people everywhere can share in the sum of all human knowledge. A central pillar of the Wikimedia Movement’s 2030 strategy is to break down the social, political, and technical barriers preventing people from accessing and contributing to free knowledge, focused on communities left out by structures of power and privilege.  

Suicides by drug overdose increased among young people, elderly people, and Black women, despite overall downward trend

A new study of intentional drug overdose deaths, or suicides by an overdose of a medication or drug, found an overall decline in recent years in the United States, but an increase in young people aged 15-24, older people aged 75-84, and non-Hispanic Black women.

The study also found that women were consistently more likely than men to die from intentional drug overdoses, with the highest rates observed in women ages 45 to 64. In addition, factors such as time of year, length of day, and day of the week appeared to be associated with intentional overdose death rates. The study published today in the American Journal of Psychiatry and was led by investigators at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health.

Nearly 92,000 people died from drug overdoses overall in the U.S. in 2020. This represents the largest increase ever recorded in a calendar year and reflects a nearly five-fold increase in the rate of overdose deaths since 1999.

About 5% to 7% of these overdose deaths are recorded as intentional. Because it can be difficult to determine whether overdose deaths are intentional, the actual numbers are likely even higher. Many people who have a substance use disorder also develop other mental illnesses, such as mood and anxiety disorders, which are independently associated with increased suicide risk. In addition, many people who are diagnosed with other mental illnesses are often diagnosed with a substance use disorder, emphasizing the need to address co-occurring mental health conditions holistically. 

“The distinction between accidental and intentional overdose has important clinical implications, as we must implement strategies for preventing both,” said Nora Volkow, M.D., senior author on the study and director of NIDA. “To do so requires that we screen for suicidality among individuals who use opioids or other drugs, and that we provide treatment and support for those who need it, both for mental illnesses and for substance use disorders.”

Not much is known about who is most at risk of suicide by drug overdose and whether this has changed in recent years. The current study addresses this gap by analyzing data from 2001 to 2019 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics System, which provides data on multiple causes-of-death (including drug overdose death) based on death certificates for U.S. residents.

The NIDA researchers focused on data related to overdose deaths that were classified as intentional. They analyzed these by sex, age, and race/ethnicity, as well as by the month of the year and day of the week when the overdose occurred, to understand the characteristics of these factors. In this study, deaths were reported per 100,000 people to allow for consistent comparisons as the population changed over time.

Despite the steep increase in overdose deaths broadly, the study found that intentional overdose deaths in general have declined in recent years, decreasing among women between 2015-2019 (from 1.7 to 1.5 per 100,000 people), and among men between 2012-2019 (from 1.6 to 1.2 per 100,000 people). Intentional overdose rates generally were higher in women than in men. In each year analyzed, women ages 45 to 64 had the highest rates of intentional overdoses.

However, the investigators also found that age-adjusted intentional drug overdose deaths continued to rise in certain population subgroups. Notably, the rates increased among:

  • young men ages 15 to 24 (from 0.6 per 100,000 people in 2015 to 0.8 in 2019)
  • young women ages 15 to 24 (from 0.6 per 100,000 people in 2014 to 1.0 in 2019)
  • older men ages 75 to 84 (from 0.7 per 100,000 people in 2001 to 1.6 in 2019)
  • older women ages 75 to 84 (from 0.8 per 100,000 people in 2001 to 1.7 in 2019), and
  • non-Hispanic Black women (from 0.4 per 100,000 people in 2013 to 0.7 in 2019).

The researchers also investigated when overdose deaths were most likely to occur in terms of both days of the week and months of the year. They found that intentional overdose rates were highest on Mondays and lowest on weekends (Friday to Sunday). The researchers pointed out that social factors, such as increased social interactions over the weekend or a reluctance to begin the work week, may contribute to the variability.

Intentional overdose rates also varied by month, with lowest rates noted in December and highest rates in late spring and summer. These findings align with previous observations of seasonal variations in suicide risk. The authors posited some theories that may help explain this pattern, noting that both social and biological factors may play a role in these fluctuations. For instance, low rates in December may be related to a more positive and hopeful mood during the holiday season. Furthermore, they noted that the increase in intentional overdose risk with longer daylight hours in May through August may be related to seasonal changes in the availability of molecules called mu opioid receptors in the brain. These opioid receptors influence mood and behaviors and are targets of opioid drugs, the most frequent substances identified in intentional overdose deaths.

“This research underscores the importance of external support structures and environmental factors in determining a person’s suicide risk,” said Emily Einstein, Ph.D., chief of NIDA’s Science Policy Branch and an author on the study. “The risk of intentional overdoses, and suicide risk in general, is not static. This is crucial for clinicians to keep in mind, as they may need to assess patients’ suicide risk frequently rather than at one point in time. It is also important for friends and family members of people who may be at an increased risk of suicide, and for those people themselves, so that they can be aware of the greatest periods of risk and seek help when needed.”

NIH launches first phase of $9.8 million competition to accelerate development of neuromodulation therapies

The National Institutes of Health has launched the first phase of the Neuromod Prize(link is external), a $9.8 million competition to accelerate the development of neuromodulation therapies — targeted treatments that adjust nerve activity to improve organ function. The competition seeks scientists, engineers, and clinicians to submit novel concepts and clinical development plans to demonstrate solutions for precisely stimulating the peripheral nervous system to treat disease and improve human health.

The first phase of the competition will award up to $800,000. NIH plans to launch a second phase awarding up to $4 million, and a third phase awarding up to $5 million, subject to the availability of funds. Details of the requirements and registration for phases 2 and 3 are expected to be announced at a future time. NIH is launching only phase 1 at this time.

The Neuromod Prize is part of the Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions (SPARC)(link is external) program from the NIH Common Fund. SPARC has made significant progress elevating neuromodulation as a therapeutic approach, closing fundamental knowledge gaps, and offering tools that enable open science(link is external) and innovation. With this competition, NIH hopes to bridge the gap between early-stage research and clinical use for solutions capable of independently targeting multiple functions involving the internal organs of the body.

The nervous system plays a role in all bodily functions, so neuromodulation therapies have the potential to treat a variety of health conditions, ranging from gastrointestinal disorders to heart failure, through targeted regulation of the nerves that connect with all parts of the body. Recent innovations in device technology and improved understanding of the interactions between the nervous system and target tissues and organs have led to a breakthrough moment in the field. As decades of research are applied in new ways, innovators are identifying novel neuromodulation approaches that are capable of selectively targeting multiple organs and functions.

“Through the Neuromod Prize, we’re asking potential solvers to use the foundational knowledge and technologies that have come out of our SPARC program and take it to the next level with their innovative concepts and ideas,” said ​​James M. Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, which oversees the NIH Common Fund. “This competition is an exciting opportunity to come up with tangible plans for harnessing the power of the body’s electrical system to help transform treatments for millions of people living with chronic or acute illnesses.”

Phase 1 participants will submit concept papers describing their proposed therapeutic approaches and their plans for conducting proof-of-concept studies, rationales for therapeutic use, and expectations for clinical impact. To learn more, potential participants can join a virtual information session(link is external) on February 7, 2022. Submissions through an online portal are due by 4:59 p.m. EDT on April 28, 2022.

A judging panel will select up to eight quarterfinalists to receive a share of the up to $800,000 first-phase prize pool. NIH subsequently plans to launch a second and a third phase, which will be announced at a later date. Phase 1 quarterfinalists will be exclusively invited to participate in the second phase, anticipated to take place starting in 2022, which will translate the winning ideas into preclinical studies. Semifinalist winners from the second phase will be eligible to compete in the final phase, expected to launch in 2023, moving their preclinical work into advanced translational and clinical studies as a critical step towards the regulatory approvals needed to bring new neuromodulation therapies to market.

Offering buprenorphine medication to people with opioid use disorder in jail may reduce rearrest and reconviction

A study conducted in two rural Massachusetts jails found that people with opioid use disorder who were incarcerated and received a medication approved to treat opioid use disorder, known as buprenorphine, were less likely to face rearrest and reconviction after release than those who did not receive the medication.

After adjusting the data to account for baseline characteristics such as prior history with the criminal justice system, the study revealed a 32% reduction in rates of probation violations, reincarcerations, or court charges when the facility offered buprenorphine to people in jail compared to when it did not. The findings were published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

The study was conducted by the Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network (JCOIN), a program to increase high-quality care for people with opioid misuse and opioid use disorder in justice settings and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health, through the Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative.

“Studies like this provide much-needed evidence and momentum for jails and prisons to better enable the treatment, education, and support systems that individuals with an opioid use disorder need to help them recover and prevent reincarceration,” said Nora D. Volkow, M.D., NIDA Director. “Not offering treatment to people with opioid use disorder in jails and prisons can have devastating consequences, including a return to use and heighted risk of overdose and death after release.”

A growing body of evidence suggests that medications used to treat opioid use disorder, including buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone, hold great potential to improve outcomes among individuals after they’re released. However, offering these evidence-based treatments to people with opioid use disorder who pass through the justice system is not currently standard-of-care in U.S. jails and prisons, and most jails that do offer them are in large urban centers.

While previous studies have investigated the impact of buprenorphine provision on overdose rates, risk for infectious disease, and other health effects related to opioid use among people who are incarcerated, this study is one of the first to evaluate the impact specifically on recidivism, defined as additional probation violations, reincarcerations, or court charges. The researchers recognized an opportunity to assess this research gap when the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and the Hampshire County House of Corrections, jails in two neighboring rural counties in Massachusetts, both began to offer buprenorphine to adults in jail, but at different times. Franklin County was one of the first rural jails in the nation to offer buprenorphine, in addition to naltrexone, beginning in February 2016. Hampshire County began providing buprenorphine in May 2019.  

“There was sort of a ‘natural experiment’ where two rural county jails located within 23 miles of each other had very similar populations and different approaches to the same problem,” said study author Elizabeth Evans, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “Most people convicted of crimes carry out short-term sentences in jail, not prisons, so it was important for us to study our research question in jails.”

The researchers observed the outcomes of 469 adults, 197 individuals in Franklin County and 272 in Hampshire County, who were incarcerated and had opioid use disorder, and who exited one of the two participating jails between Jan. 1, 2015 and April 30, 2019. During this time, Franklin County jail began offering buprenorphine while the Hampshire County facility did not. Most observed individuals were male, white, and around 34 to 35 years old.

Using statistical models to analyze data from each jail’s electronic booking system, the researchers found that 48% of individuals from the Franklin County jail recidivated, compared to 63% of individuals in Hampshire County. As well, 36% of the people who were incarcerated in Franklin County faced new criminal charges in court, compared to 47% of people in Hampshire County. The rate of re-incarceration in the Franklin County group was 21%, compared to 39% in the Hampshire County group.

Additional analysis showed that decreases in charges related to property crimes appeared to have fueled the 32% reduction in overall recidivism.

The Massachusetts JCOIN project, led by Dr. Evans and senior author Peter Friedmann, M.D., of Baystate Health, is performing further research on medications for opioid use disorder in both urban and rural jails across more diverse populations, including women and people of color. The investigators are examining the comparative effectiveness of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved medications for opioid use disorder in jail populations, and the challenges jails face in implementing them.

“A lot of data already show that offering medications for opioid use disorder to people in jail can prevent overdoses, withdrawal, and other adverse health outcomes after the individual is released,” said Dr. Friedmann. “Though this study was done with a small sample, the results show convincingly that on top of these positive health effects, providing these medications in jail can break the repressive cycle of arrest, reconviction, and reincarceration that occurs in the absence of adequate help and resources. That’s huge.”

Global growth to slow through 2023 due to continued COVID-19 flare-ups – New Global Economic Prospects report

After rebounding to an estimated 5.5 percent in 2021, global growth is expected to decelerate markedly to 4.1 percent in 2022, reflecting continued COVID-19 flare-ups, diminished fiscal support, and lingering supply bottlenecks, according to a New Global Economic Prospects report.

The COVID-19 upsurge comes as the vaccine supply crunch persists.. Photo credit: United Nations

In contrast to that in advanced economies, output in emerging market and developing economies (EMDEs) will remain substantially below the pre-pandemic trend over the forecast horizon.

The global outlook is clouded by various downside risks, including renewed COVID-19 outbreaks due to Omicron or new virus variants, the possibility of de-anchored inflation expectations, and financial stress in a context of record-high debt levels.

The report states that if some countries eventually require debt restructuring, this will be more difficult to achieve than in the past.

Climate change may increase commodity price volatility, creating challenges for the almost two-thirds of EMDEs that rely heavily on commodity exports and highlighting the need for asset diversification. Social tensions may heighten as a result of the increase in between-country and within-country inequality caused by the pandemic. Given limited policy space in EMDEs to support activity if needed, these downside risks increase the possibility of a hard landing.

These challenges underscore the importance of strengthened global cooperation to foster rapid and equitable vaccine distribution, proactive measures to enhance debt sustainability in the poorest countries, redoubled efforts to tackle climate change and within-country inequality, and an emphasis on growth-enhancing policy interventions to promote green, resilient, and inclusive development and on reforms that broaden economic activity to decouple from global commodity markets.

Climate change may increase commodity price volatility

The near-term outlook for global growth is somewhat weaker, and for global inflation notably higher, than previously envisioned, owing to pandemic resurgence, higher food and energy prices, and more pernicious supply disruptions. Global growth is projected to soften further to 3.2 percent in 2023, as pent-up demand wanes and supportive macroeconomic policies continue to be unwound.

However, the report further noted that although output and investment in advanced economies are projected to return to pre-pandemic trends next year, in emerging market and developing economies (EMDEs)— particularly in small states and fragile and conflict -afflicted countries—they will remain markedly below, owing to lower vaccination rates, tighter fiscal and monetary policies, and more persistent scarring from the pandemic.