Better living through green chemistry

Better living through green chemistry

Dr. Trevor Hancock

20 August 2018

696 words

“Better things for better living…through chemistry” was a bold and optimistic Dupont advertising slogan that ran from 1935 until 1982. The phrase – often shortened to ‘Better living through chemistry’ – has lodged in the public mind as an unintentionally ironic comment on the sometimes dubious benefits of the chemical industry. This industry is the largest manufacturing sector in the world, according to GreenCentre Canada, which claims that “chemistry makes everything we do possible”.

While in many respects that may be true, we all know that not all chemistry has brought us better living. The recent Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health reminded us that “chemicals and pesticides whose effects on human health and the environment were never examined have repeatedly been responsible for episodes of disease, death, and environmental degradation” and that “newer synthetic chemicals that have entered world markets in the past2–3 decades and that, like their predecessors, have undergone little pre-market evaluation threaten to repeat this history”.

Troublingly, we have known about these problems for decades, but have been glacially slow in addressing them. Rachel Carson warned of the environmental and health impacts of pesticides almost 60 years ago in her 1962 book Silent Spring, but we are still fighting against pesticides such as Roundup and the newer neonicotinoid pesticides, in spite of considerable evidence of their harm. That is hardly surprising when we are fighting against the largest manufacturing sector in the world.

But amidst all that bad news, here is some good news: ‘Green chemistry’ is gaining strength. So what is green chemistry? It is chemistry that is “focused on the design and implementation of chemical technologies, processes, and services that are safe, energy efficient, and environmentally sustainable”, according to GreenCentre Canada – a company funded in part by the Federal and Ontario governments and with links to Queen’s University in Kingston – that is in the business of “commercializing emerging Green Chemistry innovations originating from academia and the entrepreneurial community”.

GreenCentre Canada also points to a set of 12 principles, derived from a 1998 book by Paul Anastas and John Warner. These include prevention (“it is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it has been created”); safer chemicals (“designed to affect their desired function while minimizing their toxicity”); use of renewable materials “rather than depleting whenever technically and economically practicable” and design for degradation “so that at the end of their function they break down into innocuous degradation products and do not persist in the environment”. Hard to argue against that.

In fact, this column was prompted by the recent announcement that a team led by Professor Heather Buckley of the UVic School of Civil Engineering – one of a new breed of ‘green’ chemists – had just won first place in a global competition to identify new preservatives for use in cosmetics and household products. According to a UVic press release, the team won for its “reversible” anti-microbial that fights bacteria while in the container but breaks down into two harmless ingredients once outside of it.

The award came from the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council, a US-based organisation that “drives the commercial adoption of green chemistry”.Among other activities, the Council holds an annual Green & Bio-Based Chemistry Technology Showcase & Networking Event, at which start-up companies get to pitch their new green chemical products. At the most recent event, in May 2018, companies were pitching greener, safer “adhesives, coating technologies, flame retardants, monomers/polymers, ingredients for formulated consumer products (including personal care and household products), and recycling technologies”.

While it may be true that “chemistry makes everything we do possible”and that we want and need the benefits of all – or at least many – of these chemicals, we obviously don’t want all the environmental and health impacts that result. Thus we need to pressure corporations and governments to only allow new chemicals on the market that meet the standards for green chemicals. In addition, if the new, safer green chemicals are more expensive, governments must use taxation to tilt the market in favour of the greener products, allied with regulations to quickly rid us of the chemicals that bring us worse living.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018


Loneliness is an emerging public health concern

Loneliness is an emerging public health concern

Dr. Trevor Hancock

14 August 2018

698 words

It is ironic in this internet age, when everything and everyone seems to be connected, that we seem to be increasingly disconnected and lonely; moreover, many more of us are living alone. The 2016 Census found that the proportion of one-person households has been increasing steadily since 1951 (when it was 7.4 percent) to 2016, when it became the most common type of household, at 28.2 percent; more than households of couples, either with or without children,

Now living alone is not the same thing as being lonely; at various times we probably all want to be alone, and some people like to be alone a lot. But while being alone can be a choice, that is very different from loneliness, which the Oxford Dictionaries define as “sadness because one has no friends or company”.  That kind of being alone is involuntary, and the key word in the definition is sadness, which is only a step or two away from depression. After all, humans are social animals, sowhile being lonely on occasion is part of being human,chronic social isolation and loneliness is problematic.

In a 2017 report on connection and engagement, the Vancouver Foundation found that “14% of residents say they feel lonely often or almost always” – which is one in seven people. But among people with a household income less than $20,000 more than one in three people are often or almost always lonely, while it is almost one in three of 18 – 24 year-olds and around one in four of those who are unemployed or are aged 25 – 34. Clearly, loneliness is an issue that affects the young and the poor, not just an issue among seniors, although it is often thought of that way.

Indeed the mental and physical health consequences of loneliness are an emerging public health concern; the UK actually appointed a ministerial lead on loneliness earlier this year. This was greeted with derision in some quarters, perhaps in part because of a failure to understand both the difference between loneliness and being alone and the severe health consequences of loneliness.

In his landmark book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connections,the late Dr. John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, described loneliness as ‘social pain’ and ‘a deeply disruptive hurt’ analogous to physical pain. He reported loneliness affects our immune system and our stress hormones, and can lead to suicidal thoughts and other mental and physical health problems.

Even more dramatically,he noted“social isolation has an impact on health comparable to the effect of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity, or smoking”. In fact a 2015 review based on 70 studies from around the world found that on average those who reported they were lonely at the beginning of the study were 26 percent more likely to die – greater than the increased risk of death due to obesity overall, and comparable to the mortality risk for moderate and severe obesity.

If loneliness is largely a lack of social connection, then presumably the answer is to create social connections among those who are lonely or are at risk of being lonely. But it is not that easy, especially among those who are chronically lonely. Cacioppo makes the point that loneliness itself can “create a persistent, self-reinforcing loop of negative thoughts, sensations, and behaviours” that make it difficult to reach out or get out and make connections.

In a 2015 article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Cacioppo’s team largely dismissed such seemingly common-sense approaches as providing social support, encouraging social engagement or teaching social skills, commenting “interpersonal contact or communication per se is not sufficient to address chronic loneliness in the general population”. Instead they suggested a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and some hoped for medication in the future.

I find that completely unsatisfactory, not only because it would be individualized and very expensive, but because with such a large scale problem we need a population-wide public health approach, just as we do for smoking or obesity. Clearly we need to give a lot more thought to how we combat loneliness at a community level and strengthen social connections.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018


Making homes truly healthy

Making homes truly healthy

Dr. Trevor Hancock

8 August 2018

703 words

Interestingly, we have two different words for the place in which we live – house and home. The Oxford English Dictionaries define the former as “A building for human habitation”and the latter as “The place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household”. That matches my own sense of the term: A house (or apartment) is a building, but when we add people it becomes a home, a social setting, not simply a physical space.

Curiously, we don’t make this distinction for other important buildings in our lives such as schools or workplaces; I am unaware of a different word for these or any other buildings that distinguish the physical building from that same building as a social space. Which suggests that the home is seen as something different, something special.

Last week I suggested we should aspire to more than housing that is not a threat to basic health; surely we want to create homes, places that improve our overall physical, mental and social wellbeing – and that do so without harming the natural environment. In the 1990s, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation suggested “a truly healthy house (is) one that is good for the people who live in it, good for the community and good for the earth”.

But we should be careful not to be too environmentally deterministic. We might be able to design and build clean, green, healthy and beautiful houses, but that does not mean the people or family that live there will be healthy; there are lots of unhealthy and unhappy people living or working in seemingly healthy buildings. Conversely, there can be happy and healthy people living in housing that is far from ideal – although meeting the basic needs I discussed last week is a vital prerequisite for good health.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider how the physical design of a house can improve mental wellbeing. Oddly, I cannot find much work from architects explicitly focused on the impacts of their design on the mental wellbeing of the inhabitants of houses. However, there is quite a bit about designing healthy workplaces, schools and hospitals, and much of that would carry over into designing healthy homes.

In an  article in the Winter 2016/17 edition of Sustainable Architecture & Building, a Canadian magazine, Kaitlyn Gillis and Michelle Biggar suggest that “architects and interior designers now face the challenge of embracing  . . . an approach that puts people at the centre of the process” of design. They describe several aspects of this approach in a workplace context, but with some obvious implications for designing domestic interiors.

In addition to discussing the importance of natural light and ‘biophilic design’, which is about “integrating nature and natural forms and processes into the built environment”, they discuss aesthetics and livability. While noting that the impact of aesthetics on health needs more research, they note that “the use of wood . . . can enhance user experience when left exposed to view”; others have noted the importance of colour in affecting our mood and behavior.

There is now an interesting evidence-based process to assess and certify buildingfeatures that “support and advance human health and wellness”. Launched in 2014, the WELL Building Standard, in its recently updated version, assesses 10 components of a building that are related to health and wellbeing: Air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind and community.

In the ‘mind’ component, the design requirement is for both direct and indirect access to nature, with the former focused on using plants, water, light and views and the latter involving the use of natural materials, patterns, colors or images. Both indoor and outdoor ‘restorative spaces’ – often involving nature – are also part of the mind standard, using access to spaces that allow for contemplation and relaxation; in our homes, that might be the bedroom or a living room or nook. Another standard, but one that would clearly overlap with this, is controlling both internal and external noise.

It is good to see that architects are turning their attention do these issues, now they must apply the lessons learned in workplace design to the places where we spend most of our time – our homes.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

Healthy homes – The basics and beyond

Healthy homes – The basics and beyond

Dr. Trevor Hancock

30 July 2018

700 words

As I noted previously, in Canada we spend about 90 percent of our time indoors, and according to a 1996 study, 65 percent of our time is indoors at home and a further 10 percent indoors at school or work. Thus the environment of our buildings, and especially our homes, is enormously important for us. As Sir Winston Churchil remarked, “First we shape our buildings, then they shape us”.

So if we want healthy people, it would be a big help if we had healthy homes. Which raises the question – what is a healthy home? And an even more interesting question – how well are we doing at creating healthy homes? Let’s start with that first question.

There are some basic health functions a home needs to fulfil. In 1989 the World Health Organization (WHO) published a set of principles for healthy housing. It needs to protect us from the elements, keep us warm, dry and safe, and should keep out pests and noise. Also, it must not fall down or catch fire easily and must be well drained. It must have a proper water supply and provisions for sewage and solid waste removal, and “adequate provision for storing food, to protect it against spoilage and contamination”. Indoor air quality is also important (remember, 90 percent of the time we are breathing indoor, not outdoor air), as are issues of overcrowding. These and other basic safety and health functions are the reason we have building codes.

Here we might stop and reflect on the extent to which housing that meets these basic health needs is not the case in Canada today. As Bernie Pauly and Katrina Barber noted two weeks ago in these pages, we have signed several international covenants, such as the International Declaration on Human Rights, which enshrine the right to shelter. One would think such shelter would need to meet the WHO’s basic principles.

But those living on the streets or in tent cities do not have these basic amenities. Indeed, when the Medical Health Officer in Nanaimo recently used the Public Health Act to order the City of Nanaimo  to provide clean water and sanitation to the tent city there, he was initially and  deplorably met with outrage by some, including the Mayor, who called the idea ludicrous.

Indigenous people in Canada are another group that lacks many of these basic housing needs. Statistics Canada reported last year that the 2016 census found that “One in five Aboriginal people lived in a dwelling that was in need of major repairs”; for First Nations and Inuit people, it was one in four people.‘Major repairs’ meant the housing had “defective plumbing or electrical wiring, (or) needing structural repairs to walls, floors or ceilings”. The only good news was that the rate was down by 2 – 3.6 percentage points (depending on the group) since 2011.

These high rates among Indigenous people are the legacy of 150 years of Canadian government neglect and colonialist policies. For comparison, 6.5 percent of dwellings overall in Canada needed major repairs, a bit less among owners, a bit more among renters. The rates for BC are much the same and are about one percentage point less in all categories in the Victoria region.

At the very least, a country as wealthy as Canada must ensure that everyone’s basic housing needs are met, that we all live in safe and healthy homes. But surely we should aspire to more than having housing that is not a threat to basic health? What is a health-enhancing home, one that improves our overall physical, mental and social wellbeing?

There are several aspects to this question. First, what  – beyond the basics – makes a home physically healthy? What makes it mentally and socially healthy – the latter implying that a home does not stand alone, so how does it – and how do we – relate to other homes and people in our neighbourhood. And finally, given our concern for the state of the environment, how environmentally friendly are our homes – and how might they be better for the environment as well as for us?

Next week, I will  go deeper into some of the leading edge ideas for creating healthier homes.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018