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Researchers Assess the Impacts of Living in a Chemical Soup
Inside Oregon State University’s Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Laboratory are rooms lined with tanks filled with thousands of zebrafish—silver, striped, one-to-two-inch creatures often found in home aquariums. The lab is the domain of Robert Tanguay, professor of molecular toxicology at Oregon State, whose zebrafish are helping to answer one of the most pressing questions in environmental health and toxicology: what are the health effects of chemical mixtures?
Tanguay has pioneered the use of zebrafish in toxicology. His lab is on the leading edge of this research, designing new experimental techniques and equipment that are enabling scientists to assess the impacts of multiple chemical exposures. Using zebrafish, Tanguay and other scientists are zeroing in on why certain chemical components of crude oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989 continue to adversely affect fish survival in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. With zebrafish, they also are learning why pesticide runoff can impair Pacific Northwest salmon’s ability to navigate and how oil from the ruptured Deepwater Horizon well is affecting marine species’ health in the Gulf of Mexico.
But zebrafish research goes well beyond the impact of chemical exposures on marine life. Zebrafish studies are also being used to assess the potential human health impacts of the chemical stew in U.S. Superfund sites. Tanguay’s lab is conducting research for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), evaluating the toxicity of thousands of chemicals used in countless consumer products. Zebrafish are also proving key to advancing our understanding of how particular chemical compounds affect the expression of individual genes that maintain and influence virtually every body system.
“Some people are still skeptical about how a fish can model human health,” said Tanguay during a tour of his lab earlier this month. “But during early development we are more similar to fish than at any other time in life.” Genes are particularly susceptible to environmental chemicals in early development. What happens then can set the stage for health throughout the rest of life.
The work of Tanguay and colleagues on mixtures is particularly important because, historically, chemicals have been evaluated and regulated one at a time. In reality, however, we are exposed to multiple chemicals daily throughout our lives. Because we now know that environmental chemical exposure can profoundly influence the development of disease, understanding how mixtures may affect human health has taken on an urgency.
“We live in a chemical soup,” says Linda Birnbaum, director of the U.S. National Toxicology Program and the National Institutes of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS).
Zebrafish have been used since the 1990s for genetic modeling and screening, but it was Tanguay, while working as a post-doctoral fellow in 1995, who suggested they might be used in toxicology. Because they are vertebrates, these prolifically reproducing fish turn out to be an extremely useful model for understanding how cells in other vertebrates, including humans, respond to environmental chemicals. Zebrafish, which progress from a translucent egg to a recognizable baby fish in just 24 hours, are ideal for investigating how chemicals may affect biological processes at various stages of development.
Because zebrafish eggs develop outside the mother, they can be manipulated, and Tanguay’s lab has devised equipment and techniques for isolating the eggs to examine the effects of chemicals. In one lab, Tanguay showed me a petri dish containing translucent zebrafish eggs, no bigger than a poppy seed, and the thread-fine, glass needles used to extract genetic material. Tanguay’s researchers use that material to determine which base pair—a rung in the DNA double-helix ladder—is targeted by a particular chemical exposure.
The results of these perturbations will tell the scientists if the exposure prompts any physical or health abnormalities. The zebrafish genome has been sequenced, enabling scientists to identify genes associated with specific diseases. Because many zebrafish genes have human counterparts, what’s learned from these fish can be used to inform human health research.
By figuring out which chemical targets a specific genetic receptor, scientists can begin to connect chemical exposure to health effects. Zebrafish development is readily visible, enabling scientists to identify changes in a fish’s phenotype—its physical characteristics. The zebrafish’s rapid development and short generational cycle make it possible to pinpoint effects that could be difficult to see in other animals. After linking chemical and physical effects, scientists then work to connect the phenotype with the genetic mechanisms that prompt it—or, as Tanguay says, to “connect phenotype with genotype.”
Some of these changes may result in physical abnormalities. Zebrafish exposed to certain dioxins, for example, had deformed vertebrae and skulls. Dioxin exposure also impaired regeneration of wounded fins. Other changes may become apparent in neurological, cognitive and behavioral testing. Still others may be exhibited as abnormalities in reproduction, altered developmental timing or changes in how metabolism and other body systems function.
Zebrafish are instrumental in the research that Nat Scholz, the ecotoxicology program manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, is conducting to investigate the effects of what he calls “cocktails of pollution” on different fish species, including Pacific Northwest salmon and herring. Among the combinations of chemicals he’s studying are those of various fuel oil compounds, particularly polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and pesticides.
Using zebrafish, Scholz and his colleagues have discovered that certain PAHs adversely impact cardiovascular development, leading to a heart failure syndrome that can be lethal to fish larvae and reduce adult fish survival. The work with zebrafish has enabled the scientists to discover why fish that looked normal were dying. By examining how low levels of PAH exposure interfere with genes involved in heart development, they have begun to understand how oil from the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon spills has impaired the cardiovascular function of fish at a cellular level.
While the PAH exposure prompts changes early in development, these effects may not become apparent until later on, when defects—in how the heart processes potassium and calcium and in heart structure—reduce cardiac function and cause swimming problems. Experiments with zebrafish have helped deduce which enzymes and genetic receptors are affected by which hydrocarbon compounds, something that’s not been possible with fish in the wild.
Tanguay’s lab is also working with the EPA and NIEHS on an ongoing project known as Tox21, which is assessing more than 10,000 commercially produced chemicals for a wide number of health effects. Zebrafish are being used as part of what is called “high-throughput” screening—the rapid testing of lots of chemicals. The goal is to fill the many gaps in toxicity data that exist for these chemicals and identify which chemical compositions or concentrations prompt specific health effects. Results of this screening are expected later this year.
“We call this Robot Row,” said Tanguay, showing me the lab area devoted to robotic machines designed to precisely dose hundreds of zebrafish eggs and genetic material samples. Because zebrafish develop so quickly, lots of variables can be examined concurrently using these machines. Tanguay’s lab uses what look like tiny paint palettes with an array of 96 little wells, each of which gets a zebrafish sample that is then dosed by a machine with a particular chemical at different concentrations. Some experimentally treated eggs are allowed to develop, while others are halted to examine impacts during embryonic development.
Tanguay is also working with Terry Collins, professor of chemistry and director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Green Science, to assess the toxicity of molecules Collins has invented to clean up environmental contaminants. These compounds, known as TAML activators, can be used to remove dyes and other toxic chemicals from water. The TAML compounds appear to be successful in degrading these hazardous chemicals, but Collins wants to make sure their use doesn’t produce other harmful compounds or effects. Collins’ and Tanguay’s labs have been testing TAML activators on zebrafish to determine any potential toxicity, including on endocrine hormones.
The scientists are examining a complex range of possible outcomes that may result from the chemicals’ interaction with specific genetic receptors at different stages of development. If no abnormal effects are seen after the various TAML exposures, Collins will be closer to determining the safety of his chemical products. If adverse effects are seen, he will have the information he needs to begin redesigning his compounds so they are safe to use.
Tanguay’s lab has also designed equipment to test cognitive and behavioral responses in zebrafish. Similar to tests used with other lab animals, including humans, these experiments reveal how the brain, nervous system and muscles may be affected by certain chemicals, such as organophosphate pesticides, known neurotoxicants that have been linked to adverse neurological effects in children. By using zebrafish, scientists have begun to locate which neurons these chemicals may affect at particular stages of development. These experiments are also being used to test the effects on fish of pesticide-laden water running off fields and roads.
The ultimate goal is to learn which chemical combinations, concentrations and structures alter the normal function of genes and hormones. There is strong evidence, for example, that interference with endocrine system hormones and the genes that regulate them can lead to metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity. Research has also shown that endocrine-disrupting chemicals can upset reproductive, developmental, immune system and neurological health. In addition, scientists have discovered that altered gene expression—distinctly different from genetic mutation—can be passed from one generation to another in what are called epigenetic effects. Pinpointing these precursors to disease is key to protecting and improving human health.
The ability to connect specific chemicals in the environment with mechanisms of disease is essential to finding and “eliminating those that are nasty,” explains Tanguay. In a world where manufactured chemicals are ubiquitous, the tiny, fecund zebrafish is playing a big role in discovering how this chemical stew is affecting our health.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jeremy Deaton
You may have heard about the hole in the ozone layer, which hovers over Antarctica. It has shrunk over time thanks to policies that curbed the use of ozone-depleting chemicals. In the nearly 40 years that NASA has kept track, it has never been smaller. That's the good news.
Polar stratospheric clouds activate the chemicals that deplete the ozone layer. NASA
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By Stephanie Woodard
Many Americans are now experiencing an erratic food supply for the first time. Among COVID-19's disruptions are bare supermarket shelves and items available yesterday but nowhere to be found today. As you seek ways to replace them, you can look to Native gardens for ideas and inspiration.
Aubrey Skye, Standing Rock Sioux tribal member, tills gardens for himself and other tribal members. He does some by hand, and others with this tractor. Photo by Stephanie Woodard.
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By Kristeen Cherney
Skin inflammation, which includes swelling and redness, occurs as an immune system reaction. While redness and swelling can develop for a variety of reasons, rashes and burns are perhaps the most common symptoms. More severe skin inflammation can require medications, but sometimes mild rashes may be aided with home remedies like aloe vera.
When Aloe Vera for Redness May Treat Irritation and Inflammation<p>Aloe vera has anti-inflammatory properties that may help <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/home-remedies-for-rashes" target="_blank">soothe skin rashes</a>. As a bonus, aloe is also thought to have antimicrobial capabilities, which may in turn help to prevent infections. Additionally, aloe vera gel is known for its ability to help moisturize your skin without leaving any residue that heavy creams sometimes can.</p><p>While aloe vera can't cure any skin disease or treat every single instance of skin inflammation, here are the instances where it could possibly help:</p><h3>Burns</h3><p>Aloe vera gel is perhaps best known for its ability to help treat burns. If you've ever had a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/skin/aloe-vera-for-sunburn" target="_blank">sunburn</a>, you may have used an OTC gel to help reduce itchiness, redness, and overall irritation. The same concept may apply to mild heat or chemical burns.</p><p>To use aloe vera for burn treatment, apply it liberally to the affected area multiple times per day. You may know it's time to apply more if your skin starts feeling hot. Aloe vera is safe to use until symptoms of your burn start to improve after a day or two.</p><p>While aloe vera may provide temporary burn relief along with a cooling effect, it won't reverse any damage that may have been done to your skin. It also isn't an appropriate treatment for <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/burns" target="_blank">more severe burns</a>, which can include symptoms such as boils, blisters, and peeling skin.</p>
When Aloe May Worsen Symptoms<p>Aloe can help alleviate symptoms of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/rashes" target="_blank">skin rashes</a> that are mild in nature. However, it's not considered an effective treatment for more serious inflammatory skin conditions. Aloe vera may also—in rare cases—cause skin inflammation. Don't use aloe vera if you have an allergy to it.</p><h3>Can aloe vera cause a skin rash?</h3><p>While considered safe for most people, there is a risk of an allergic reaction to aloe vera. In such cases, you might see signs of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/contact-dermatitis" target="_blank">contact dermatitis</a>, which can develop when your skin comes in contact with an irritating or allergenic substance. Symptoms may include:</p><ul><li>redness</li><li>hives</li><li>itching</li><li>skin rash</li></ul><p><span></span>If you've never used aloe vera before, you should conduct a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/allergy-testing#testing" target="_blank">patch test</a> to make sure you're not allergic. This involves applying the gel to a non-conspicuous area of skin, such as the inside of your elbow. The downside is you have to wait at least 24 hours to see if any irritation develops. If no such reactions occur, then it should be safe to use the product on your skin rashes.</p>
Can Aloe Vera Make Eczema Worse?<p>Aloe vera won't likely make eczema worse unless you're allergic to it. The greater risk is relying on aloe for eczema treatment when it may not actually work. Aloe vera gel could temporarily alleviate feelings of burning, but it can't treat the underlying causes of your eczema rashes.</p><p>Sometimes eczema rashes may bleed due to scratching. You should not apply aloe to broken skin, as this can increase burning sensations.</p>
When to See a Doctor<p>Aloe vera can help soothe certain cases of skin inflammation, but most effects are temporary at best. If your symptoms last longer than a few days, get progressively worse, or spread throughout your entire body, then it's time to see a doctor to evaluate your skin rash.</p><p>A doctor may also refer you to a dermatologist, who specializes in the treatment of skin disorders. They can help diagnose the cause of your rashes and help treat the underlying source of inflammation, rather than the symptoms alone.</p><p>You should also see a doctor if you experience any negative reactions after using aloe gel. This could indicate an allergy to aloe vera. If you suspect an allergic reaction, stop using aloe right away.</p><p><em>Never </em>take aloe vera gel or cream, aloe latex, or whole-leaf extract orally.</p><p>Seek immediate medical care if you suspect your rash <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/skin-infection" target="_blank">is infected</a>. Signs may include fever, blisters, and pus-filled lesions in your rash. Extremely painful rashes also require medical attention.</p>
Takeaway<p>Due to its ability to soothe inflammation and wounds, aloe vera can be a temporary solution to treat the symptoms of a mild burn or skin rash. However, aloe vera isn't a viable treatment option for more severe burns or severe inflammatory skin conditions, such as eczema and rosacea. Stronger medications are needed for more severe skin rashes.</p><p>While rare, aloe vera may also cause an allergic reaction in some people. Always conduct a skin patch test for use, and discontinue any aloe gel products if you notice any new rashes.</p>
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By Katie Lambert and Sarah Gleim
The United Nations suggests that climate change is not just the defining issue of our time, but we are also at a defining moment in history. Weather patterns are changing and will threaten food production, and sea levels are rising and could cause catastrophic flooding across the globe. Countries must make drastic actions to avoid a future with irreversible damage to major ecosystems and planetary climate.
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Blue Light Disrupts Your Sleep<p>Your body has an internal clock that regulates your circadian rhythm — the 24-hour biological cycle that influences many internal functions.<span></span></p><p>Most importantly, it determines when your body is primed for being awake or <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/10-reasons-why-good-sleep-is-important" target="_blank">asleep</a>.</p><p>However, your circadian rhythm needs signals from the external environment — most importantly daylight and darkness — to adjust itself.</p><p>Blue-wavelength light stimulates sensors in your eyes to send signals to your brain's internal clock.</p><p>Keep in mind that sunlight and white light contain a mixture of various wavelengths, each of which has a significant amount of blue light.<a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18075803" target="_blank"></a></p><p>Getting blue light, especially from the sun, in the daytime helps you stay alert while improving performance and mood.</p><p>Blue light therapy devices may help treat depression, and blue light bulbs have been shown to reduce fatigue and improve the mood, performance, and sleep of office workers.</p><p>Yet, modern light bulbs and electronic devices, especially computer monitors, likewise produce large amounts of blue light and may disrupt your internal clock if you're exposed to them during the evening.</p><p>When it gets dark, your pineal gland secretes the hormone <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/melatonin-and-sleep" target="_blank">melatonin</a>, which tells your body to get tired and go to sleep.</p><p>Blue light, whether from the sun or a laptop, is very effective at inhibiting melatonin production — thus reducing both the quantity and quality of your sleep.</p><p>Studies link melatonin suppression in the evening to various health problems, including metabolic syndrome, obesity, cancer, and depression.</p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>Blue light in the evening tricks your brain into thinking it's daytime, which inhibits the production of melatonin and reduces both the quantity and quality of your sleep.</p>
Tinted Glasses May Help<p>Amber-tinted glasses offer the easiest and most effective way to avoid blue light exposure at night.</p><p>These glasses effectively block all blue light. Thus, your brain doesn't get the signal that it's supposed to stay awake.</p><p>Studies show that when people use blue-light-blocking glasses, even in a lit room or while using an electronic device, they produce just as much melatonin as if it were dark.</p><p>In one study, people's melatonin levels in the evening were compared across dim light, bright light, and bright light with tinted glasses.<a href="http://press.endocrine.org/doi/full/10.1210/jc.2004-2062" target="_blank"></a></p><p>The bright light almost completely suppressed melatonin production, while the dim light did not.</p><p>Notably, those wearing the glasses produced the same amount of melatonin as those exposed to dim light. The glasses largely canceled out the melatonin-suppressing effect of the bright light.</p><p>Likewise, blue-light-blocking glasses have been shown to spur major improvements in sleep and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-brain-foods" target="_blank">mental performance</a>.</p><p>In one 2-week study, 20 individuals used either blue-light-blocking glasses or glasses that didn't block blue light for 3 hours before bedtime. The former group experienced major improvements in both sleep quality and mood.</p><p>These glasses have also been found to greatly improve sleep in shift workers when worn before bedtime.</p><p>What's more, in a study in older adults with cataracts, blue-light-blocking lenses improved sleep and significantly reduced daytime dysfunction.</p><p>That said, not all studies support the use of blue-light-blocking lenses or glasses. One analysis of several studies concluded that there's a lack of high quality evidence supporting their use.</p><p>Nevertheless, blue-light-blocking glasses may provide some benefits.</p><p><strong>Shop blue-light-blocking glasses <a href="https://amzn.to/2WmW4M8" target="_blank">online</a>.</strong></p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>Some studies suggest that blue-light-blocking glasses may increase melatonin production during the evening, leading to major improvements in sleep and mood.</p>
Other Blocking Methods<p>If you don't want to use glasses every night, there are a few other ways to reduce blue light exposure.</p><p>One popular way is to install a program called f.lux on your computer.</p><p>This program automatically adjusts the color and brightness of your screen based on your timezone. When it's dark outside, it effectively blocks all blue light and gives your monitor a faint orange hue.</p><p>Similar apps are available for your smartphone.</p><p>A few other tips include:</p><ul><li>turning off all lights in your home 1–2 hours before bedtime</li><li>getting a red or orange reading lamp, which doesn't emit blue light (candlelight works well, too)</li><li>keeping your bedroom completely dark or using a sleep mask</li></ul><p>It's also important to expose yourself to plenty of blue light during the day.</p><p>If you can, go outside to get sunlight exposure. Otherwise, consider a blue light therapy device — a strong lamp that simulates the sun and bathes your face and eyes in blue light.</p><p><strong>Summary</strong></p><p><strong></strong>Other ways to block blue light in the evening include dimming or turning off the lights in your home and installing an app that adjusts the light your laptop and smartphone emit.</p>
The Bottom Line<p>Blue light, which is emitted from smartphones, computers, and bright lights, may inhibit your sleep if you're exposed to it at night.</p><p>If you have a history of sleeping problems, try reducing your exposure to blue light during the evenings.</p><p>Amber-tinted glasses may be particularly effective.</p><p>Several studies support their ability to <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/17-tips-to-sleep-better" target="_blank">improve sleep quality</a>.</p>
Junjira Konsang / Pixabay
By Matt Casale
For many Americans across the country, staying home to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) means adapting to long-term telework for the first time. We're doing a lot more video conferencing and working out all the kinks that come along with it.
The author (above) wrote this while working from home, baby in tow. Emily Anderson (author's wife/home office mate)<p>The coronavirus will pass, but it's looking more and more like remote work will stick around. This time has demonstrated that, despite the ups and downs many of us have experienced, <a href="https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/04/06/telecommuting-will-likely-continue-long-after-the-pandemic/" target="_blank">telework works</a> for way more of us than we knew.</p><p>Even before this we knew that there were several benefits for both employers and employees to sidestepping the office. <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/andrealoubier/2017/07/20/benefits-of-telecommuting-for-the-future-of-work/#3f278e0916c6" target="_blank">Studies have shown</a> that it can lead to increased productivity, higher morale and lower employee turnover. It can also reduce real estate and office operation costs for employers.</p><p>We may now also be seeing some larger societal benefits that make the case for taking telework even further. Our current situation has provided a window into how a reduction in driving, buoyed, in part, by a greater adoption of telework, could relieve some of the stress on our overburdened transportation system and help heal at least a portion of the environmental damage it causes.</p><p>Today, roads that would normally clogged at all hours of the day are <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/photos-empty-airports-trains-roads-during-coronavirus" target="_blank">virtually empty</a>, even during rush hour. And the reduced car travel leads to fewer crashes and less air pollution, which harms human health and contributes to global warming. Air that's usually cloudy with smog has cleared. Los Angeles, which has notoriously pollution-choked skies, could recently boast having the <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/07/us/los-angeles-pollution-clean-air-coronavirus-trnd/index.html" target="_blank">cleanest air in the world</a>. And this year, experts predict, the transportation transformation will contribute to the <a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-coronavirus-set-to-cause-largest-ever-annual-fall-in-co2-emissions" target="_blank">largest-ever annual decline in global carbon emissions</a>.</p>
Virtually empty Los Angeles streets on May 7. Chris Yarzab / CC BY 2.0<p>Clearly not every job can be done from home, and it's not just commuting for work that has come to a halt during coronavirus lockdowns. In 2017 only around <a href="https://nhts.ornl.gov/assets/2017_nhts_summary_travel_trends.pdf" target="_blank">28 percent</a> of total miles driven were work-related. Even if telework continues or expands on a much larger scale, non-work-related car trips — shopping, recreation, visits to doctors and the like — can be expected to go back to normal.</p><p>Still, telework's potential for taking cars off the road can clearly have an impact on global warming emissions and air pollution. Just how much of an impact could telework have? As it turns out, the answer is a significant one — and with a few important steps, the benefits can be even greater and more sustainable.</p>
How Much of the Workforce Could Reasonably and Permanently Transition to Telework?<p>According to the U.S. Census Bureau, <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/13/people-who-work-from-home-earn-more-than-those-who-commuteheres-why.html" target="_blank">5.2 percent of U.S. workers</a> — around 8 million people — worked from home in 2017. But that's still just a fraction of potential teleworkers. Earlier this month researchers at the University of Chicago found that <a href="https://bfi.uchicago.edu/wp-content/uploads/BFI_White-Paper_Dingel_Neiman_3.2020.pdf" target="_blank">37 percent of U.S. jobs can plausibly be performed at home</a>. The U.S. workforce reached <a href="https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/CLF16OV" target="_blank">164.5 million</a> in February 2020, before the pandemic, meaning approximately 61 million of those workers could plausibly telework permanently once the economy starts up again.</p><p>Of course, the full economic consequences of this public health crisis are still unknown. It's possible that coronavirus-related job losses will impact the overall number of those employed for some time. But for these purposes, this assumption of 53 million new remote workers will be useful to illustrate the potential impacts of telework.</p>
How Much Driving Would Full-Capacity Telework Avoid?<p>In 2019 Americans drove a total <a href="https://afdc.energy.gov/data/10315" target="_blank">3.23 trillion miles</a>, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The DoE doesn't break that down by reasons driving, but we know that in 2017 there were <a href="https://nhts.ornl.gov/assets/2017_nhts_summary_travel_trends.pdf" target="_blank">683 billion total commute miles</a> driven. Reducing the commuting workforce by about 32 percent (37 percent of total workers who could telecommute minus the 5.2 percent of them who already do) would theoretically decrease commuting totals by about 219 billion miles.</p>
A traffic jam on January 17. Raphael Labaca Castro / CC BY-SA 2.0<p>Of course telecommuting won't let us avoid logging <em>all</em> of those miles, since people may occasionally still need to travel to an office for meetings and may need to make new trips they wouldn't otherwise have taken (you can't stop at the grocery store on the way home from work when you work at home). Various studies have found that telecommuting actually reduces driving somewhere between <a href="https://ww3.arb.ca.gov/cc/sb375/policies/telecommuting/telecommuting_brief120313.pdf" target="_blank">60 and 90</a> percent of commute vehicle miles traveled (VMT). We'll split the difference and calculate that telework reduces commute miles by about 75%, meaning the new teleworkers could avoid around 164 billion miles driven.</p>
U.S. Department of Energy, Alternative Fuels Data Center<p>Still, that much of a transformation may not work for everyone, as people will still need to do face-to-face work — and, let's be honest, the other thing the lockdowns have taught us is to appreciate the value of regular social contact. That said, even if most people worked from home two to three days a week and the actual VMT reduction were closer to 2 or 3 percent, the difference would still be significant — especially considering that VMT has been <a href="https://afdc.energy.gov/data/10315" target="_blank">steadily rising</a> since the 1970s, except for a few years during economic downturns. Even if just a quarter of American workers started working from home one day a week, total vehicle miles traveled would fall by <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063006473" target="_blank">1</a> percent — not a huge amount, but enough to make a difference on a grander scale.</p>
Impact on Global Warming Emissions<p>The cars and trucks we drive every day are major sources of air pollution and global warming emissions. Transportation as a whole accounts for <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">28</a> percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., more than any other source. Light-duty vehicles and medium- and heavy-duty trucks are responsible for<a href="https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions" target="_blank"> 82</a> percent of the transportation sector's emissions.</p><p>The average American car or SUV emits <a href="https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/greenhouse-gas-emissions-typical-passenger-vehicle" target="_blank">404 grams</a> of carbon dioxide (CO2) per mile traveled. So reducing commuting by 164 billion miles would avoid 66 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually. These are significant emissions reductions, but they'd only make a small dent in total transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, which reached nearly <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">1.9 billion metric tons</a> in 2018.</p>
Impact on Health-harming Air Pollution<p>People across America regularly breathe polluted air, which increases their risk of attacks and other adverse health impacts, and even premature death. In fact, in 2018 <a href="https://uspirg.org/sites/pirg/files/reports/EnvironmentAmerica_TroubleintheAir_scrn.pdf" target="_blank">108 million Americans</a> lived in areas that experienced more than 100 days of degraded air quality. Our cars and trucks are a major source of this pollution, which includes ozone, particulate matter and other smog-forming emissions.</p><p>There's a reason the air has cleared over many of our major cities during the coronavirus lockdowns. When you remove cars from the road, you also remove smog. The lockdowns have resulted in an extreme reduction of VMT — between <a href="https://frontiergroup.org/blogs/blog/fg/america-pause-vehicle-travel-during-covid-19-and-what-comes-next" target="_blank">68 and 72</a> percent across the country (and in some places closer to 90 percent). Assuming that telework has contributed something close to its peak potential reduction of 7 percent, it seems likely that it has played at least a supporting role in helping to clear our skies.</p>
Additional Emissions Reductions From Reduced Traffic<p>The average American commuter wastes <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/22/us/traffic-commute-gridlock-transportation-study-trnd/index.html" target="_blank">54 hours</a> a year stuck in traffic. That's lost time with friends and families, lost productivity at work, wasted money, tons of unnecessary stress, and a lot more pollution from idling cars.</p><p>Traffic patterns are complicated because traffic is <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2014/12/4-steps-to-tackling-traffic-congestion/" target="_blank">non-linear</a>, meaning there isn't a one-to-one ratio of percentage of cars removed to percentage of traffic alleviated. As such, just a <a href="https://www.accessmagazine.org/spring-2017/the-access-almanac-traffic-congestion-is-counter-intuitive-and-fixable/" target="_blank">few extra cars</a> on or off the road can have an outsize impact on traffic. Reducing commute VMT by up to 7 percent would have a huge impact on rush hour traffic (when bottlenecks are at their worst and most of that driving occurs). A greater adoption of telework could give people back some of those 54 hours so they can spend it doing the things that matter to them. And slow moving or stop and go traffic results in <a href="https://www.accessmagazine.org/fall-2009/traffic-congestion-greenhouse-gases/" target="_blank">greater emissions</a> than free-flowing traffic. So freeing up the roads and alleviating traffic for the remaining will result in even greater emissions reductions.</p>
What Needs to Happen for Telework to Live Up to Its Potential?<p>It's clear that telework can have significant societal benefits, including less global warming pollution and cleaner skies. But significant benefits are only possible if everyone whose job could plausibly be done from home has that opportunity.</p><p>To reach that goal, several barriers must be overcome:</p><p><em>Technology: </em>We've all had technical mix-ups when using Zoom or Google Hangouts or one of the other conferencing platforms. But the real technological barrier is access to broadband. <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/#who-has-home-broadband" target="_blank">Roughly three-quarters</a> of American adults have broadband internet service at home, but the rate of access is much lower in rural parts of the country, according to a report by Pew Research Center. Those locations often don't have broadband infrastructure and even <a href="https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/04/06/telecommuting-will-likely-continue-long-after-the-pandemic/" target="_blank">14</a> percent of households in urban areas lack access, usually because they are not able to afford it. States should make funding available to develop broadband capacity in underserved areas.</p><p><em>Employer policies and managerial reluctance</em>: Coronavirus lockdowns across the country have forced employers and managers to adapt to large-scale telework quickly on an emergency basis, meaning these barriers are less likely relevant now than before. But general employer and manager <a href="https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/683455.pdf" target="_blank">reluctance</a> to embrace working from home has slowed this transition. Cities and states can encourage employer acceptance of telework by providing <a href="https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2019/07/25/gov-baker-proposes-telecommuting-tax-break-for-companies" target="_blank">tax benefits</a> or other incentives for greater adoption.</p><p><em>Car-centered transportation policies: </em>Our current transportation policies often incentivize driving or parking. From commuter and parking benefits to decades of outsized spending on <a href="https://uspirg.org/reports/usp/highway-boondoggles-5" target="_blank">highway infrastructure</a>, we tip the scales toward getting behind an automobile's wheel. In other words, our transportation policies are meant to move cars rather than incentivize things, such as telework, that would take cars off the road.</p><p>We need to rethink this approach and shift toward better "<a href="https://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/plan4ops/trans_demand.htm" target="_blank">Transportation Demand Management</a>." This requires the implementation of a set of strategies aimed at maximizing traveler choices. Those strategies should include greater employer and employee incentives for telework, as well as policies designed to facilitate more walking, biking, ridesharing, vanpooling and public transportation use.</p>
Bikeshare in Milan, October 2019. Guilhem Vellut / CC BY 2.0<p>That's important, because the potential gains we'd see from telework would only be sustained if that shift were paired with other policies to ensure those commuter miles aren't just replaced with other trips. We usually talk about this in relation to widening or building new highways, but when you open up highway capacity, it usually fills quickly. This is what the wonks call "<a href="https://uspirg.org/reports/usp/highway-boondoggles-5" target="_blank">induced demand</a>." People who otherwise would have driven at a different time of day, taken a different route, taken public transportation or would have avoided traffic on the highway some other way, come back to the road. The same could happen here if additional measures aren't taken.</p><p>It's likely that, even after the coronavirus lockdowns are over, telework is going to become more and more common in the American workforce. As it does, the environmental benefits will be significant. In a time when climate change presents an existential threat to life as we know it and millions of people across the world are subjected to unhealthy levels of air pollution, we need to be taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to solving these problems. Telework can clearly be a significant part of the long-term solution — especially if we take further steps to maximize its potential.</p>
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By Richard leBrasseur
The COVID-19 pandemic has altered humans' relationship with natural landscapes in ways that may be long-lasting. One of its most direct effects on people's daily lives is reduced access to public parks.
Making Healthy Places<p>Olmsted was born in 1822 but became a landscape architect rather late in his career, at <a href="https://www.olmsted.org/the-olmsted-legacy/olmsted-theory-and-design-principles/olmsted-his-essential-theory" target="_blank">age 43</a>. His ideas evolved from a diverse and unique set of experiences.</p><p>From the start, Olmsted recognized the positive effect of nature, noting how urban trees provided a "<a href="https://loa-shared.s3.amazonaws.com/static/pdf/Olmsted_Trees.pdf" target="_blank">soothing and refreshing sanitary influence</a>." His "sanitary style" of design offered more than mere decoration and ornamentation. "Service must precede art" was his cry.</p>
Olmsted's 1874 plan for the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, DC. Architect of the Capitol<p>Olmsted came of age in the mid-19th century, as the public health movement was rapidly developing in response to typhoid, cholera and typhus epidemics in European cities. As managing editor of Putnam's Monthly in New York City, he regularly walked the crowded tenement streets of Lower Manhattan.</p><p>At the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, Olmsted led efforts to improve sanitation in Union Army military camps and protect soldiers' health. He initiated policies for selecting proper camp locations, installing drainage and disposing of waste, ventilating tents and preparing food, all designed to reduce disease. And in 1866 he witnessed adoption of New York's <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Health_Bill" target="_blank">Metropolitan Health Bill</a>, the first city law to control unhealthy housing conditions.</p>
Antidotes to Urban Stress<p>The insights Olmsted gained into connections between space, disease control and public health clearly influenced his landscape architectural career and the design of many urban park systems. For example, his design for the interlinked parks that forms Boston's <a href="https://ramboll.com/-/media/files/rgr/lcl/bgi_final-report_mit_boston_20160403.pdf?la=en" target="_blank">Emerald Necklace</a> foreshadowed the concept of green infrastructure.</p><p>This system centered on stagnant and deteriorated marshes that had became disconnected from the tidal flow of the Charles River as Boston grew. City residents were dumping trash and sewage in the marshes, creating <a href="https://landscapes.northeastern.edu/water-sanitation-and-public-health-in-boston/" target="_blank">fetid dumps that spread waterborne diseases</a>. Olmsted's design reconnected these water systems to improve flow and flush out stagnant zones, while integrating a series of smaller parks along its trailways.</p>
Parks in the Time of COVID-19<p>Today researchers are documenting many health benefits associated with being outside. Spending time in parks and green spaces clearly benefits urban dwellers' <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2007.09.009" target="_blank">psychological, emotional and overall well-being</a>. It <a href="https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph10030913" target="_blank">reduces stress</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916591231001" target="_blank">improves cognitive functioning</a> and is associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s40471-015-0043-7" target="_blank">improved overall health</a>.</p><p>In my view, government agencies should work to make these vital services as widely available as possible, especially during stressful periods like pandemic shutdowns. Certain types of public green spaces, such as botanical gardens, arboretums and wide trails, are well suited to maintaining social distancing rules. Other types where visitors may be likely to cluster, such as beaches and playgrounds, require stricter regulation.</p><p>There are many ways to make parks accessible with appropriate levels of control. One option is stationing agents at entry points to monitor and enforce capacity controls. Park managers can use timed entries and parking area restrictions to limit social crowding, as well as temperature screening and face mask provisions.</p>
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