TIME Research

Flour Is the Main Cause of Work-Related Asthma in France

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Manuel Sulzer—Getty Images/Cultura RF

Bakers, beware: flour is a primary cause of job-related asthma in France, finds new research.

Researchers analyzed 330 cases of occupational asthma, with data provided by a network of respiratory doctors, over three years. Their findings, which were presented at the European Respiratory Society’s International Congress, showed that flour was the main cause and the culprit in 20% of the cases. The next biggest asthma-inducer at the workplace were the ammonium compounds found in cleaning products, blamed in 15% of cases.

It’s not a new phenomenon and even has a name: “baker’s asthma.” Flour may irritate the respiratory system, and some of the dust and enzymes in flour can cause allergy-related symptoms, researchers think.

The data also shows that people working in food manufacturing were at a greater risk for asthma than people working in agriculture, and women were more likely to suffer from job-related asthma compared to men.

The researchers hope that their study will help inform asthma prevention efforts.

TIME Addiction

Debate Over E-Cigarettes Lights Up

The debate over the safety of e-cigarettes, and whether they will help smokers to quit, or simply make it easier for them to start or continue lighting up, heated up this week.

On one side of the disagreement are those pushing for regulation. In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) began a review of data on e-cigarettes and based on studies conducted so far, last month recommended tighter regulation of the devices to protect consumers’ health. But in a new article published in the journal Addiction, other scientists argue that the WHO misinterpreted the data in a “misleading” way and that the group’s advice for more stringent oversight is problematic.

In the Addiction paper, the authors take issue with nine of WHO’s conclusions, some of which surround the safety of e-cigarettes, their toxin levels, and how likely younger people are to adopt them. They cite some of the same data as the original WHO review did, but interpret it differently, arguing that the benefits of e-cigarettes, especially as an effective tool in helping some smokers to quit, outweigh potential risks from the chemicals and nicotine used in the devices. Therefore, they say, e-cigarettes should be more accessible than the WHO recommendations would allow.

“…The WHO’s approach will make it harder to bring these products to market than tobacco products, inhibit innovation and put off smokers from using e-cigarettes, putting us in danger of foregoing the public health benefits these products could have,” said Ann McNeill, lead author of the paper and professor of tobacco addiction at King’s College London, in a press release. They’re not the only ones who have pushed back against the recommendations. More than 50 experts in public health signed a letter calling for a lighter approach, reported the New York Times.

Why the opposing interpretations of the same data? E-cigarettes are so new that research hasn’t had a chance to catch up with their meteoric rise in popularity. Some of the data based on earlier models of the devices, for example, might not even apply to e-cigs as we know them today, since the product has evolved so rapidly. The body of research is small. And because the devices are so new, much of it is funded by e-cigarette manufacturers.

In the latest paper in Addiction, for example, some of the work by one of the heavily-cited authors of the paper was conducted with funding from the e-cigarette industry.

On the first page in the “competing interests” section, the article discloses the following about Konstantinos Farsalinos of the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center in Greece (click “Get PDF” at the link):

Some studies performed by KF were carried out using funds provided to his institution (Onassis
Cardiac Surgery Center) by e-cigarette companies.

In the paper’s 45 references, Farsalinos is listed as an author in nine of them; it’s unknown which of those studies were conducted with the help of e-cigarette funding.

It’s not uncommon for someone who makes a product to then sponsor research on that product, and it doesn’t mean the findings are worthless, says Steven Schroeder, a professor in the department of medicine and head of the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center at the University of California, San Francisco. (Schroeder does not conduct research on e-cigarettes.) But it also doesn’t mean the results are entirely objective, either. The potential for bias leads journal editors such as those at the peer-reviewed Addiction to require conflict disclosures from both its authors and its senior editorial staff.

It’s not clear yet whether e-cigarettes will turn out to hurt or help smokers. It’s probable that they will contribute to a range of health effects, both positive — as a smoking cessation device — and negative — as a potential gateway to tobacco-based cigarettes or other drugs. The evidence, at the moment, points in both directions.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

Pesticide Poisoning Is The Leading Method of Suicide

For the more than 800,000 people who take their lives each year around the world, pesticide poisoning is the most frequently used method, according to a new report from the World Health Organization.

“Restricting access to the means of suicide is effective in preventing suicide – particularly impulsive suicide – as it gives those contemplating suicide more time to reconsider,” the report said.

Methods of suicide vary significantly from region to region, and pesticide poisoning is most common in rural regions where the chemicals are readily available. In the United States, easy access to guns helps make firearms the most common method.

The report argues that suicide is preventable and calls on communities to fight the stigma that surrounds mental health issues and to take action on the issue.

“Every suicide is a tragedy,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan in the report. “The impact on families, friends and communities is devastating and far-reaching, even long after persons dear to them have taken their own lives.”

TIME Addiction

E-Cigarettes Are Gateway to Substance Abuse and Addiction

An e-cigarette on March 05, 2013 in Paris.
An e-cigarette in Paris on March 05, 2013 Kenzo Tribouillard—AFP/Getty Images

Nicotine, in any form, can prime the brain for harder drugs

For a product so young, e-cigarettes are already generating volumes of research. And the latest, appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggests that e-cigarettes serve as a “gateway drug” — meaning they could make users more likely to use, and become addicted to, other drugs like cocaine.

The wife-husband research team Denise Kandel and Eric Kandel has been studying nicotine for years, and in their earlier work they found that nicotine dramatically enhanced the effects of cocaine by activating a reward-related gene and shutting off inhibition. When mice had nicotine before cocaine, they behaved differently too — they ran around more and spent more time in the space where they were fed, likely driven by a need to satisfy their craving for the drug.

Denise’s epidemiological data shows that similar effects might be occurring in people; most who start taking cocaine were smoking at the time, and her studies showed that nicotine can prime users to turn to harder drugs to keep the reward system satisfied. While e-cigarettes don’t contain the tar and other byproducts of regular tobacco-burning cigarettes, they still rely on nicotine, and the Kandels believe they would lead to similar use of other drugs. “E-cigarettes are basically nicotine-delivery devices,” she says, and Eric agrees. “This is a powerful facilitator for addiction to cocaine and perhaps other drugs as well,” he says. “If people knew that this is in fact the danger … they’d be much less enthusiastic about using nicotine.”

While some, including those in the health community, have supported e-cigs as a tool to help smokers quit, the backlash against them has been building. Last month, the American Heart Association released a policy statement calling for stricter laws, more industry oversight, and a ban on marketing and selling e-cigs to adolescents. Toronto just banned e-cigs from the workplace. And the World Health Organization recommended a host of new regulations around the growing e-cigarette market. At the same time, it’s not clear whether the devices actually help smokers to kick the habit; at least one study found that they don’t.

The Kandels argue that it’s time to consider nicotine’s effect not just on the lungs but on the brain as well. “The fact that this is a significant influence on encouraging or facilitating the use of other drugs is never discussed, and it’s just a major omission,” Eric says.

“We’ve worked very hard to reduce smoking in this country, and I think it’s been a fantastic success,” Denise says. With the introduction of e-cigs, “Now I think we’re on the verge of destroying all of the progress that we’ve [made].”

TIME Research

Skin Cancer Risk Is Higher For Flight Attendants and Pilots

Flying increases exposure to UV rays that could cause melanoma

Pilots and flight attendants are twice as likely to suffer from the skin cancer melanoma when compared to the general population, according to a new Journal of the American Medical Association study.

Looking at data compiled from more than 260,000 people in 19 previous studies, the paper expanded upon past research that has suggested that flight crews are at a heightened risk for melanoma. The cancer, which kills nearly 10,000 Americans each year, is the most deadly variety of skin cancer in the United States.

The study suggests that occupational hazards like getting more exposure to UV radiation may contribute to the increased incidence of melanoma. The intensity of UV radiation increases by 15% for about every 3,000 feet above sea level, and planes regularly fly at 35,000 feet above sea level or higher.

For years, federal authorities have kept close track of ionizing radiation that could cause other cancers, but there has been little consideration of UV radiation. The study notes “important implications” for flight crew members, but doesn’t provide recommendations for policymakers.

TIME Research

Study: Pesticides Could Cause Unexpected Allergic Reactions

New regulations could stem the risk

Traces of antibiotic pesticides in fruits and vegetables may trigger unexpected allergic reactions for people with food allergies, according to a new study published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

“As far as we know, this is the first report that links an allergic reaction to fruits treated with antibiotic pesticides,” said lead study author Anne Des Roches in a press release.

The study looked at a patient who suffered from anaphylactic shock after eating a blueberry pie, despite not being allergic to any of the ingredients. After weeks of testing with both the patient and a sample of the pie, researchers concluded that the pesticide streptomycin, which is used in orchards, had triggered the reaction.

The use of such pesticides remains legal in the United States, though new Food and Drug Administration regulations may help address the issue, according to the study. The pesticides are illegal in some European countries, Roches said.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Training Your Brain Could Make You Prefer Healthy Food

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Which is more appealing: cheese pizza or salad? For many, the lure of lettuce hardly matches that of greasy comfort food, but new brain research from Tufts University published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes suggests that reconditioning can train adults to prefer healthy food and shun the junk.

“We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta,” said study co-author and Tufts University professor Susan B. Roberts in a press release. “This conditioning happens over time in response to eating – repeatedly! – what is out there in the toxic food environment.”

The researchers studied the brain scans of 13 people, then assigned eight of them to a new behavioral intervention geared toward weight loss. The program taught lessons on portion control and distributed menu plans geared around specific dietary targets, encouraging people to get 25% of their energy from protein and fat and 50% from low-glycemic carbohydrates, with more than 40 g of fiber per day. After six months either on or off the program, a second round of scans showed the part of the brain associated with addiction and learning had changed in people who participated in the program and stayed the same in the control group. That brain region appeared more active and sensitive to healthier foods and less sensitive to caloric foods among people in the weight-loss group.

Though the study acknowledges the need for further research, the findings suggest that it may be possible to recondition our cravings from cheese puffs to carrots. “Our study shows those who participated in it had an increased desire for healthier foods along with a decreased preference for unhealthy foods,” co-author Sai Krupa Das, an assistant professor at Tufts, said in the release, “the combined effects of which are probably critical for sustainable weight control.”

TIME Obesity

Obesity Is A Big Contributor To Diabetes Boom

Diabetes is one of the most common diseases in the U.S., and there’s a single biggest culprit to blame, found a new study released today in Annals of Internal Medicine: our ever-increasing body mass index, or BMI.

The team analyzed data from five National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys of a nationally representative U.S. sample of 23,932 people. They found that the prevalence of diabetes almost doubled from 1976 to 1980 as well as from 1999 to 2004.

BMI explained most of the increase in the prevalence of diabetes, even more than other big factors like race, ethnicity and age, lead study author Andy Menke, an epidemiologist with Social & Scientific Systems, wrote in an email to TIME. “There has been a substantial increase in obesity in the US population during this study,” he wrote.

Intriguingly, diabetes prevalence increased more in men than in women. And after taking changes in age, race, ethnicity and BMI into account, Menke’s team found that diabetes prevalence still increased in men, but not in women. The reason for that gender gap is not entirely clear, but might be due to factors that fell outside the scope of the study like differences in survival between men and women after being diagnosed with diabetes, physical activity, sleep patterns, vitamin D levels, psychological stress and depression, and exposure to pollutants and toxins, Menke wrote.

“Decreasing the occurrence of being overweight and obesity remains an important intervention to reduce the burden of diabetes,” the study authors wrote. In the fight against diabetes, obesity is a clear place to start.

TIME Cancer

How Diet Can Lower Risk of Prostate Cancer

Tomato and bean consumption helps prevent the disease

Consuming more than ten servings a week of tomatoes and beans lowers the risk of prostate cancer, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Bristol.

The findings expand on previous research and suggest that men should consume foods rich in lycopene and selenium, which are found in tomatoes and beans respectively, to help prevent the onset of a disease that kills about 30,000 men in the United States each year.

The study compared the diets of more than 1,800 men between the ages of 50 and 69 who had prostate cancer to the diets of more than 12,000 of their cancer-free peers.

While the study’s conclusions provide some dietary guidance, researchers say more work needs to be done to develop further dietary guidelines.

“Our findings suggest that tomatoes may be important in prostate cancer prevention. However, further studies need to be conducted to confirm our findings, especially through human trials,” said Vanessa Er, a researcher at the University of Bristol who led the study. “Men should still eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, maintain a healthy weight and stay active.”

TIME Research

Journal Retracts Paper that Questioned CDC Autism Study

A paper that claimed government scientists covered up data showing a connection between vaccines and autism has been pulled by its publisher

Earlier in August, the journal Translational Neurodegeneration, an open access, peer-reviewed journal, published a re-analysis of a 2004 paper published in Pediatrics that looked at MMR vaccines and autism. The re-analysis of the data, by biochemical engineer Brian Hooker of Simpson University, claimed to find a higher rate of vaccination against MMR among a subset — African-American boys — of the original study population who developed autism than among those who did not, a finding that Hooker claims was suppressed by the authors of the original paper from the Centers of Disease Control. One of the co-authors of the 2004 paper, William Thompson, released a statement admitting to omitting the data after a secretly recorded conversation he had with Hooker was released on YouTube. (Thompson was not available for comment.)

MORE: Whistleblower Claims CDC Covered Up Data Showing Vaccine-Autism Link

Now, however, the editors of Translational Neurodegeneration have retracted Hooker’s paper, noting on its site that “This article has been removed from the public domain because of serious concerns about the validity of its conclusions. The journal and publisher believe that its continued availability may not be in the public interest. Definitive editorial action will be pending further investigation.”

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