Air Pollution Lurks Inside Your Home

photo of stir-frying
Photograph by kfisto via Creative Commons licensing.

How would you like a job that involves grocery shopping at Trader Joes with the company credit card and cooking dishes like stir-fry? This describes Tosh Hotchi’s job, but he isn’t a chef. He is part of a research team that studies how to build healthy efficient homes, including how to improve the quality of air inside a home through better ventilation. Hotchi is helping to study a major source of indoor pollutants – cooking.

When people think of air pollution, they usually picture a factory spewing a plume of toxic chemicals. But indoor air pollution causes significant health effects such as respiratory illness, asthma attacks, cancer and premature death. Californians spend over 45 billion dollars each year on these health impacts, according to a study by the California Air Resources Board.

Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have investigated which indoor air pollutants cause the greatest health consequences. In a paper published in Environmental Health Perspectives, they reported that fine particles with a diameter of 2.5 mm or less, formaldehyde and acrolein are the worst indoor contaminants for nonsmoking households.

Fine particulates are found indoors mainly due to cooking, burning candles or incense, and outdoor sources that leak inside. Formaldehyde is mainly emitted by materials used in home construction and furniture, such as particle board, paneling and foam insulation. Acrolein in the home is primarily from cooking, especially oils. All three of these contaminates also come from tobacco smoke.

“Think about what your putting in your home,” says Melissa Lunden, a Berkeley Lab staff engineer. “Most of us have to cook, but do you need the candles, incense and air fresheners? Freshening your air requires taking stuff out, not putting more stuff in.”

Berkeley Lab scientists are now looking for ways to improve indoor air quality, by developing better standards for residential buildings and new tests to measure these hazardous pollutants. Since cooking is a major source of indoor air pollutants, they have also evaluated the effectiveness of cooking exhaust hoods. Their study results showed that indoor air quality can be significantly improved by simply cooking on the back burners of your stove, using higher fan settings, and turning the fan on before you start cooking. Further research on cooking-induced pollutants is underway using a new demonstration kitchen to study real-life cooking conditions. During these studies, Tosh Hotchi’s stir-fry and cookies are just a happy bonus for his coworkers like Melissa Lunden.

For more information about indoor air pollution, check out my KQED Quest blog.

How Hot Will It Get?

Muir Glacer melt, Alaska. 1882 photo taken by G.D. Hazard; 2005 photo taken by Bruce F. Molnia. Courtesy of the Glacier Photograph Collection, National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology.
Muir Glacer melt, Alaska. 1882 photo taken by G.D. Hazard; 2005 photo taken by Bruce F. Molnia. Courtesy of the Glacier Photograph Collection, National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology.

Stay tuned for the next Science at the Theater, a free public lecture hosted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It will be held on Monday April 22 at 7 pm at the Berkeley Repertory Theater.

Scientists will talk about their latest research findings on how the earth’s climate is changing, from the arctic to the rainforest. Participating speakers will address critical questions: What happens when the permafrost thaws? What do computer models predict about our future climate – floods, droughts, hurricanes and heat waves? What role do our forests play in carbon absorption? What kind of carbon tax might actually work?

Come find out what to expect and if there is anything you can do about it!

Nerve Stimulation May Prevent Migraines

Photograph of the Cefaly anti-migraine device, courtesy of STX-Medssprl via Creative Commons licensing
Photograph of Cefaly anti-migraine device, courtesy of STX-Med via Creative Commons license

While shopping for groceries at Trader Joes, suddenly your peripheral vision disappears. This could be frightening, but you know what is coming — a one-sided pulsating pain, sensitivity to light and noise, nausea, vomiting and seeing flashing lights. You quickly drive home and cancel your plans, because you have a migraine coming. You need to lie still in a dark quiet room for the next 24 hours.

Migraines affect about 30 million Americans. This means that one in four households in the US have at least one member impaired by migraines. Women are three times more likely to be migraine sufferers than men.

Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for migraines. A migraine diary can help identify the headache triggers to avoid. Medications can also help reduce the number of attacks or ease the symptoms, but these medications are often ineffective or cause unpleasant side effects.

Instead migraine sufferers might find relief from a new non-medicinal alternative, a device called a supraorbital transcutaneous stimulator (STS) that stimulates the nerves around the eyes and forehead. A study recently published in Neurology tested the safety and effectiveness of this STS device designed to prevent migraines.

Conducted by researchers in five specialized headache clinics in Belgium, this study was a randomized controlled trial that compared the STS device with an identical-looking sham device. Study participants were aged 18 to 65 who routinely experienced a minimum of two migraine attacks per month. None of the 67 participants had taken anti-migraine medications in the three months leading up to the study.

Both the STS and sham devices used a self-adhesive electrode placed on the forehead that buzzed identically during treatment. Only the STS devices delivered electrical impulses. The participants wore one of the devices for 20 minutes per day for 90 days.

The participants’ migraine diaries indicated that the number of migraine attacks dropped by at least half for 38% of the participants using the STS device, compared with 12% for those using the sham device. Although the severity of the migraines was not reduced, people using the STS device had fewer days with headache, fewer total migraine attacks, and used fewer pain relief medications each month. Most importantly, there were no adverse effects seen in either group.

The study concluded that treatment with a STS device is “effective and safe as a preventive therapy for migraine.” However, only 67 migraine sufferers have been studied and the use of this device was only examined for three months. Larger studies with longer-term treatment are needed to confirm that this STS device is safe and effective.

For more information about migraines and the STS device, check out my KQED Quest blog.

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