Study finds Coal cuts Lives by 5 Years for some who wouldn’t have Survived Childhood if it weren’t for Coal

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 13th, 2013

Week in Review

Early man did not have a long life expectancy.  Thanks to infectious disease and poor (or nonexistent) medical care people who got sick or injured often died.  Unhygienic living spread communicable diseases which killed large numbers in the community.  The lack of fuel to heat your home or cook your food exposed people to the elements and food-borne bacteria.  Causing illnesses that went untreated and added to the death toll.  And a high infant mortality rates brought down the average lifespan further.

There were a lot of old people in their 70s throughout history.  But go back a couple of centuries so many children didn’t survive their childhood that the average lifespan was in the 30s.  But thanks to the modern world of energy and medicine our life expectancies have never been higher.  Even though coal is taking some years off the additional years it gave some (see Burning Heating Coal Cuts Lives by 5 Years in China, Study Finds by Daryl Loo posted 7/9/2013 on Bloomberg).

People in northern China may be dying five years sooner than expected because of diseases caused by air pollution, an unintended result of a decades-old policy providing free coal for heat, a study found.

Coal burning leading to heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and respiratory illnesses may cause the 500 million Chinese living north of the Huai River — a rough line dividing the country’s north and south — to lose an aggregate 2.5 billion years of life expectancy, according to the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today.

The government gave free heating coal for people living north of the Huai River over a period of central planning from 1950 to 1980, and such indoor systems remain common today, the study showed. Burning coal in boilers is linked to the release of particulate matter that can be extremely harmful to humans, raising health costs and suggesting a move away from using fossil fuels would be attractive, according to Michael Greenstone, one of four authors of the study.

If the government took away fuel to heat and cook with how would that impact their life expectancies?

Yes, it’s sad that breathing particulate matter can remove 5 years of your life.  But how many more years did these people live because of coal?  They had to stay warm somehow.  And they needed to cook their food with something.  If they didn’t have coal these people would have been collecting firewood year round and burning that inside of their homes.  Releasing particulate matter into their homes anyway.  Only with a rise in lost appendages from swinging an axe.  More infected wounds from axe slips.  And they’d have rodents living in their wood piles.  Bringing disease into their homes.  Carried by the fleas on these rodents.

Coal may be taking 5 years away these people.  But they may be taking these years from a person who might not have survived his or her childhood if it weren’t for coal making their home a better place to live in.  It’s time we stop seeing only the bad that coal does.  And start recognizing the good that coal does.  For when it comes to human existence the good of coal far outweighs the bad.  For look where coal has taken us.  To the highest life expectancies in our history.  And it is still making our world a better and healthier place by creating electric power.  The essential ingredient in making the best medical care possible.  Thank you, coal.  Some of us appreciate the good that you do.

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Wells, Cesspools, Night Soil, 1854 Broad Street Cholera Outbreak, Fresh Water, Sanitation, 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 10th, 2012

History 101

Overflowing Cesspools in 1854 London led to a Cholera Outbreak along Broad Street

People eat and drink.  And, as a consequence, they poop and pee.  This made moving into cities a little more complicated than living in the country.  Or on a farm.  Where you drilled a well for your drinking water.  And built an outhouse (or privy) to do your business in.  Basically a small structure over a hole in the ground to provide a little privacy while you contemplated world affairs.  You kept the two separated so your business didn’t seep into the water table that fed your well.  As people moved into cities they brought their poop and pee with them.  Obviously.  And before plumbing and sanitary sewer systems people used chamber pots and dumped them out of their windows after using them.  Or built cesspits (or cesspools) to store their human waste.  Under their houses.  Where the liquid would leach into the ground.  While the solids broke down.  As the pile of the remaining solid waste grew men came around at night to remove this ‘night soil’.  Which they turned into fertilizer.

There were drawbacks with this, though.  For human waste is full of disease-causing pathogens.  Which made it a little risky to use as fertilizer.  Worse were these disease-causing pathogens leaching into our drinking water.  Which it did in London.  In 1854.  In the Soho district of London.  Where the new sanitary sewers did not yet reach.  On Broad Street.  That ran along the River Thames.  Where the water table is relatively high.  So when you drill a well you don’t have to go too deep.  Or you could get your water directly from the River Thames.  As the city’s population grew more and more people packed into houses.  Greatly increasing the production of human waste.  Quickly filling the cesspools beneath their homes.  And as they filled to capacity they overflowed.  And leached into that high water table.  And into the River Thames.   Which took in this burgeoning growth of disease-causing pathogens.

But then people start getting sick.  A lot of them even dying.  From a nasty outbreak of cholera.  Spread by disease-causing pathogens.  Back then people thought ‘bad air’ caused cholera to spread.  As well as other diseases.  Something John Snow refused to believe.  So he studied the pattern of deaths.  And he found a common factor.  The people who were dying drew their water from the public pump on Broad Street.  Determining that the source of the cholera outbreak wasn’t ‘bad air’.  But bad water.  Coming from that pump.  Contaminated from those overflowing cesspools.  Such that people were drinking their own waste.  This marked a new beginning in public health.  And public sanitation.  Perhaps the greatest of public goods that allows people to live in crowded cities.

The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami took out the Systems that kept Wastewater from Contaminating Fresh Drinking Water 

As cities and regions became more populated this balancing act of fresh water and sanitation became more critical.  Where fresh water flowed into our homes and wastewater flowed out and into the sanitary sewer system.  And on to the wastewater treatment plant.  Where treatment made the water safe to reenter the ecosystem.  And our drinking water supplies.  If all the pieces worked well the water flowed in only one direction.  Towards the wastewater treatment plant.  But if something should happen to interrupt or reverse that flow the wastewater would contaminate our drinking water.  And, sadly, something often happens.  Events that damage the infrastructure that manages that flow.  Such as war.  Earthquakes.  And tsunamis.

An earthquake in the Indian Ocean on Sunday, December 26, 2004, created a massive tsunami.  Sending walls of water as high as 50 feet crashing into Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and other coastal regions surrounding the Indian Ocean.  The damage these waves caused was devastating.   The advancing water just swept away communities on the shore.  After the waves receded more than 150,000 were dead or missing.  Millions were homeless.  In a hot and humid climate.  Where corpses everywhere began to decompose.  And injured people with open wounds invited infection.  As bad as the horror of that day was there might be worse yet to come.  For the conditions were perfect for pandemic disease.  For included in that destruction was the infrastructure that managed that water flow to wastewater treatment plants.

This was the greatest fear.  The tsunami waves wiped out the electrical grids that powered the pumps that maintained that water flow.  So the wastewater backed up into the drinking water.  Dense populations in tropical conditions with no fresh drinking water available to drink and with raw sewage backing up into the streets spelled a world of trouble.  Because people need to eat and drink.  And, as a consequence, they poop and pee.  But when the infrastructure is gone that separates the one from the other humans can’t live for long.  Because their waste is full of disease-causing pathogens.  Especially when the prevailing weather conditions create a natural incubator for these diseases.

In America’s most Populated Cities you can Turn On Any Water Tap and Drink the Water without Worrying about Cholera

Thankfully those areas hit by the 2004 tsunami did not suffer greater population losses due to outbreaks of cholera, diphtheria, dysentery, typhoid or hepatitis A and B.  Thanks to a fast-acting international community.  Providing some $14 billion in humanitarian aid.  Delivered in large part by the U.S. Navy and other military forces.  Who possessed the resources to move that aid inland to where the people needed it.  Chief among that aid was fresh drinking water.  And sanitation facilities.  To prevent the spread of disease.

It took some time to understand the connection between clean drinking water and public health.  But people did have some understanding.  Which is why a lot of people drank beer in early communities.  Because the brewing process killed the pathogens in the water.  Perhaps our first water treatment process.  They may not have known this.  They may just have correlated drinking beer to healthier living.  A good a reason as any to drink and be merry.  For those who drank beer did not suffer some of the same diseases that befell others.  As in the cholera outbreak in 1854 London.  Where the monks in a monastery adjacent to the outbreak area escaped the pandemic.  Why?  Because they only drank the beer they brewed.

Americans travelling to Mexico are careful about what they drink.  Drinking only bottled water.  Or beer and liquor.  To escape an unpleasant condition that can result from drinking the local water which is not as ‘treated’ as it is in the U.S.  Emphasizing a point few appreciate in America’s most populated cities.  Where you can turn on any water tap and drink the water that comes out of it without ever worrying about cholera, diphtheria, dysentery, typhoid or hepatitis A and B.  Which we’ve only been able to do for about a century or so in America.  While poor and developing countries are still struggling to do this even to this day.

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LESSONS LEARNED #70: ” There is no such thing as ‘consensus’ in science.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 16th, 2011

State of the Art Medicine – Balancing the Four Humors

Early science was sometimes by consensus.  Arrived at by some guesses that were almost educated.  Early medical science, for example.  The human body was and is a complex thing.  Most of our knowledge was based on the excretions we observed coming from the body.  Someone with a cold had a runny nose.  Someone with a fever sweated.  Someone with an upset tummy vomited.  And, of course, there’s poop and pee.  If you didn’t excrete enough of either there’s probably something wrong with you.  Even today we look at our poop and pee.  For things like blood.  Or other abnormal secretions.  Because that can be a problem.  So the human body is a plethora of excretions.  Or fluids.  Each telling a story.

Early medicine broke these fluids down into 4 basic fluids.  The four humors.  Black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood.  A healthy body had the four humors in balance.  A sick body had an imbalance.  Too little of one.  Or too much of another.  So early medicine looked at putting the four humors back into balance.  Either through putting humors into the body.  As in herbs or food.  Or taking humors out of the body.  As in bloodletting or inducing vomiting.  Or applying a poultice.  Out with the bad.  In with the good.

This was state of the art medicine at its time.  They even used it on George Washington in 1799.  The most important man in America.  He was making his rounds on horseback, inspecting his plantation one day in the rain and snow.  Got a bit of a sore throat.  Came in that evening for dinner.  Didn’t change out of his wet clothes so as not to inconvenience his guests.  The next day his throat was worse.  And he had a fever.  He also had trouble swallowing.  Today we’d see our doctor and ask for some antibiotics.  Before antibiotics, though, you tried to balance the four humors.  So they bled Washington.  State of the art medicine back then.  Washington died 6 days later.  Having never recovered from his sore throat.  Despite using what was then the consensus for the finest medical care.  Bleeding.

The Fight against both Smallpox and the Medical Consensus

Interestingly, George Washington was a healthy man.  He lived longer than most Washington men.  Even survived a run in with Smallpox in his youth.  Which makes his death from something starting out as a sore throat sadder still.  Because Smallpox was a killer.  People feared it like the plague.  In time, though, people found a way to make themselves immune to the disease.  By infecting themselves with a little of it.

England learned of this procedure from the Turks.  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu brought the practice (variolation) back from Turkey.  The king volunteered subjects for experimentation in England.  Which proved to be a success.  Even though there was a risk of death (about 1 in 1,000).  And during the procedure people were highly contagious.  Still, it was a whole lot better than dying from the pox.  So the Royal physician inoculated the Royal family.  And the practice slowly spread.  African slaves were doing it, too, and brought the practice to the New World and taught the procedure to the Reverend Cotton MatherEdward Jenner conducted further experiments.  Found a safer way to inoculate using cowpox.  Without the higher death rate.  Or with people being highly contagious during the process.  And the Smallpox vaccination was born.

But the acceptance of inoculation wasn’t easy.  The accepted medical practice did not include such a radical procedure.  Those in medicine belittled the procedure and anyone practicing it.  The medical consensus was that these were just some misguided people playing God who were going to turn people into cows after injecting them with cowpox.  But fear of dying can change minds.  Especially when there is a Smallpox epidemic in your country.  Which there was during the American Revolutionary War.  More soldiers died from Smallpox than were killed in battle.  A lot more.  More than half of the army.  Soldiers inoculated themselves using the puss from the pustules on infected soldiers.  John Adams’ wife, Abigail, inoculated her own children.  The inoculations saved the army.  And many of the cities.  And it was the successful fight against Smallpox that allowed the fight for independence to proceed.  Thanks to those who went against the consensus.

Contagions, not Bad Air, make you Sick

Part of the reason the disease was so contagious was because of poor sanitary conditions.  Soldiers cramped together in barracks.  Or in hospitals.  Crowded cities.  A lot of sick people in contact with a lot of healthy people got a lot of healthy people sick.  Some understood this and tried to stay away from sick people.  But they didn’t really understand germs.  They tried to stay away from sick people so they wouldn’t catch what they had.  By breathing the same air.  Not necessarily the breath they were exhaling.  But the air they were breathing in that made them sick in the first place.

A common medical opinion was that ‘bad’ air caused illness.  Thomas Jefferson believed this.  That’s why he hated leaving Monticello during the summer.  When the tidewater air was ‘bad’.  The coastal towns.  Where the government met.  He hated going to New York, Philadelphia and Washington.  Because they all had ‘bad’ air during the summer.  And that ‘bad’ air could give you malaria.  Of course, it wasn’t the air.  It was the mosquitoes who liked the marshy tidewater areas.  And understanding this was the first step in (almost) eradicating malaria.

Benjamin Franklin didn’t believe in ‘bad’ air.  Well, not the kind other people worried about.  He didn’t believe cold air gave anyone a cold.  Or the flu.  No one knew anything about germs or viruses yet, but he had an open mind.  And constantly questioned things.  He was, after all, America’s greatest scientist.  Why did he not get sick when traveling in the coldest of winters?  Yet he could catch cold in a warm and comfortable room when someone with a cold was in that same room?  The answer was obvious.  Bad air.  Created by the sick person exhaling their sickness into a room with no fresh air.  Whereby he had no choice but to breathe in this same air.  A contagion spread the sickness.  Not cold air.  Sure of this he would forever sleep with the window open.  Even during winter.  Even when sharing a bed with a sick John Adams during a diplomatic mission to discuss possible terms with the British on Staten Island to stop the rebellion.   There was no room at the inn.  So they had to share.  And they discussed Franklin’s theory.  Adams had a cold and wanted to close the window.  Franklin didn’t want to catch Adams’s cold and insisted on leaving the window open.  Adams returned to bed while listening to Franklin opine.  And fell asleep.  With the window open.  He was no sicker in the morning.  And Franklin did not catch his cold.

Before Modern Science there was Consensus and Bad Medicine

Poor sanitary conditions and a lack of understanding of germs killed a lot of people.  During the American Civil War, doctors would go from patient to patient without washing their hands.  After an amputation, they just wiped their saw on their apron before moving on to the next patient.  These were approved medical procedures.  The consensus was that it wasn’t necessary to wash your hands.  Or your saw.  And the result was an epidemic of gangrene.  And high mortality rates in Civil War hospitals.  Louis Pasteur‘s work on the germ theory of disease began to change things.  And Joseph Lister introduced the modern sterile and antiseptic operating room.

We were making progress.  Modern medicine was coming into being.  But we were still doing a lot of questionable things.  Even though it was accepted by the medical community.  Sometimes we just didn’t know any better.  Like giving people heavy doses of toxic mercury.  Then there were things where we should have known better.  Like sticking an ice pick through someone’s eye socket into the brain to sever the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex during the popular lobotomy craze of the early 20th century.  We don’t do these once accepted medical practices anymore. 

Before modern science and modern surgical tools and equipment there was little more than consensus in medicine.  No one knew anything.  So they started by guessing.  And if a guess won a popular vote, it became an accepted medical procedure.  For it was the consensus of the medical community.  Which until real science came along was the best they could do.  Thankfully, today, we have real science.  We no longer have to guess.  Or win popularity contests.  Which has greatly reduced the amount of bad medicine in our lives.  Thanks to those lone voices in the crowd.  The few who dared to go against the consensus.

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