Can Ulster measure up?

[wide]Ulster[/wide]With state and federal support in question and Ulster County facing an obesity epidemic, the county health department has its challenges. At a meeting of nearly 100 health professionals entitled “A New Era of Prevention: Assess, Plan and Connect for a Healthier Ulster County” at SUNY Ulster on May 21, Dr. Carol Smith, Ulster’s commissioner of both health and mental health, said her department remained committed to the goal of making Ulster County the healthiest county in the state, as promised by County Executive Michael Hein in 2009.

Education in the schools and workplaces is key to creating “a culture of health and wellness,” she said. The goal is long-term and aspirational: “We may not change everyone in the current generation, but it’s important and achievable for the future.”

In his introductory remarks, Hein applauded the county’s emerging network of rail trails as not only an economic development tool but also as “a huge public-health initiative.” It provides the opportunity to get out and recreate, which will have an impact on obesity and gives inner-city youth access to nature, he said. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has committed $2 million to the trail network, which is already “65 percent built out.” It will eventually connect the Ashokan Reservoir to the Walkway Over the Hudson, the Hurley rail-trail and the Kingston waterfront.

Hein alluded to the planned closing of one of HealthAlliance’s hospitals. “The building is immaterial” to ensuring the quality of health care in the county, he said. Ulster County benefits from access to high-quality care in Albany and New York City.

Smith was appointed commissioner in April 2012. She is a medical internist who holds a master’s degree in public health and has resided in Ulster County for 20 years.

The state health department is requiring county health departments to collaborate with hospitals in preparing community health implementation plans to address county needs through 2017. The plans must be submitted to the state in November.

The state agenda focuses on five areas: preventing chronic diseases: promoting a safe and healthy environment; promoting better health for women, children, and infants; preventing HIV and other infectious diseases; and promoting mental health, including prevention of substance abuse.

Ulster County is focusing on two areas, preventing chronic diseases and promoting mental health. Heart disease, cancer and lung disease are the leading causes of death in Ulster County. (Heart disease is number one for women, followed by cancer and lung disease, while cancer is number one for men, followed by heart disease and lung disease.)

Think before you swim

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Photo by Dion Ogust
Photo by Dion Ogust

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Many of us head to our favorite swimming holes, those clear stretches of creek water gliding between sylvan woods that we assume are perfectly safe, certainly cleaner than a brick-littered public beach or some semi-stagnant inland pond or lake. But it turns out swimming in the Rondout and Wallkill creeks can be a serious health risk, according to the results of water quality tests for sewage-related bacteria conducted by Riverkeeper and citizen volunteers last summer and fall.

All but two of the 21 sites tested on the Wallkill from May through October had levels of bacteria exceeding U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for safe water. Of the 18 sites tested on the Rondout, 61 percent were unacceptable. The Esopus Creek is safer, with only two of its seven sites failing EPA safe water-quality standards.

The volunteers on the Rondout and Wallkill were “uniformly shocked by the results,” said Dan Shapley, membership and events manager at Riverkeeper who organized the citizen science program. “They felt not only sickened but also empowered. They want to see this water cleaned up.”

As part of the environmental organization’s six-year water quality testing program for the Hudson River estuary, the volunteers brought samples monthly for testing to Riverkeeper’s patrol boat. Riverkeeper tested for enterococcus, bacteria associated with untreated human sewage. (While the state Department of Conservation and many municipalities in the state test for E. coli, Riverkeeper tests for the related enterococcus because it is recommended by the EPA and because unlike the test for E. coli it can be done both in fresh and salt water.)

The bacteria cause gastrointestinal infections, resulting in a stomach ache and/or diarrhea. Fever, chills, headache, skin infections and even pneumonia are other illnesses linked to exposure to germs from sewage, which might also be infected with viruses that can cause eye infections, meningitis, encephalitis and liver infections. Young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems are at the highest risk of contracting a chronic illness from sewage-contaminated water. In 2005-06, the federal Centers for Disease Control reported that its survey reported over 4000 documented illnesses from recreational waters in the U.S. Since people may not associate their ailments with exposure to contact with the water, according to Riverkeeper, the number is likely much higher.

In the enterococcus test, which John Lipscomb, patrol boat captain at Riverkeeper, initially developed with the help of two scientists from Queens College and Columbia University, a reagent is added to the water sample, which is placed in an incubator to encourage the growth of microbes. The sample is then exposed to UV light, which illuminates the tiny wells of the sample water if they contain the bacteria. The safe EPA threshold for the bacteria is a count of 61 per 100 milliliters of water. (It’s higher for salt water.)

Getting some rays

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An Army private gets x-rayed in this Korean War-era image. (Otis Archives)
An Army private gets x-rayed in this Korean War-era image. (Otis Archives)

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Radiation may have its funny side. Offbeat superheroes use x-ray vision to see ladies naked. Off-balance individuals sport tinfoil hats to protect their brains from mind-control rays.

But too much radiation is deadly serious. With CT scans on an upswing in recent years, people are concerned about safe imaging and the possible effects of too much radiation.

“Don’t have too many x-rays” has always been the common wisdom. I cringe whenever one of my kids needs a hurt limb x-rayed or the dental hygienist puts a heavy lead apron on me and then hides behind a barrier.

With modern diagnostics, things have gotten more complicated. We’re urged to have regularly scheduled mammograms, dental x-rays and diagnostic screenings. We may get a CT scan for an unexplained ache or pain. Ironically, taking careful care of our health on a regular basis means we may be exposed to more radiation.

A variety of sources produce that emission of energy in high-speed particles or waves that we call radiation. From an hour on a sunny hilltop to nuclear fallout, we can be exposed to it in many ways. We receive radiation in some form when flying in an airplane, driving near a cell tower or nuclear power plant, or receiving cancer treatment in the form of radiation therapy. Some scientists think that a wee bit of “normal” exposure is even beneficial, like a little oil or a little wine. This school of thought is called hormesis.

The typical American gets exposed to 200 millirems a year of radiation just from walking around. We get it not just from that diagnostic testing but from cosmic rays from the sky, from radiation emanating from the ground or from housing materials, and even a small amount from radioactive material we ingest. This is considered a normal level of exposure.

There are two types of radiation, ionizing and non-ionizing. The ionizing variety, of which environmental radiation and medical radiation are two types, is high-frequency, with the power to zap molecules and atoms and affect the DNA of cells. The non-ionizing kind, low-frequency and weaker, is found in power lines, computer and TV screens, radio waves, cell phones, microwaves, most electrical devices and visible light. Most of this kind is not thought to cause cancer, although ongoing research is investigating to what extent non-ionizing radiation affects cells.

Lean and green

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Elenie Loizou, Emma Maloney, 8, and Sefie Loizou, 9, help out during April 20’s Kingston Clean Sweep Day. (photo by Phyllis McCabe)
Elenie Loizou, Emma Maloney, 8, and Sefie Loizou, 9, help out during April 20’s Kingston Clean Sweep Day. (photo by Phyllis McCabe)

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It’s a good thing when you can do an activity that works toward two worthy goals at once. Eco-fitness is one of these. You can work out while helping save the planet, improving your own physical health and the environment simultaneously. We may be more ecologically aware on or around Earth Day than at other times of year, so springtime, when there’s a thrill to getting back outdoors in the warmth and sun, may be the best time to consider the many ways to merge helping your body and helping the planet.

Combining a good brisk spring stroll with the stretch-and-limber exercise of picking up trash is a no-brainer. We know housework is good exercise; just extend it outdoors and make your aesthetic experiences more pleasant.

Why people toss beer cans and fast-food wrappers out of their cars into the woods or on my lawn bewilders me. At the very least such behavior messes up the scenery, just the tip of the iceberg of what it does to the earth at large. It was instilled in our little minds when I was a child in Vermont in the 1970s not to trash nature — the famous TV spot with the saddened Native American tearful at the sight of littering attempted to bring that message nationwide. We’d spend every Earth Day out picking up roadside garbage and wouldn’t dream of throwing trash on the ground. Cleaning the neighborhood seemed something as normal and necessary as brushing our teeth.

“An average two-mile stretch of highway can contain roughly 32,000 pieces of litter,” says the state Department of Transportation. It is estimated that it takes 70 years for a plastic jug to decompose, 200 to 500 years for an aluminum can, and a million years for a glass bottle. That’s wickedly long karma. Not only is that stuff ugly but harmful to plants and wildlife, and picking it up well worthwhile for physical and planetary fitness both. The DOT adopt-a-highway and sponsor-a-highway programs provide collection bags and gear to volunteers who collect trash from community byways. See www.nysdot.gov for ways to sign up.

You can get off the main road and into parks and trails for a good workout while helping our spinning globe in many ways. Not only can you help maintain and clear trails for the enjoyment of happy hikers, but you also can help the ecology at large with activities like clearing invasive plant species. At I Love My Park Day on Saturday, May 4 you can help the park system at informal events all over the Hudson Valley, sponsored by Parks & Trails New York, the state office of parks and (naturally) Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Registration is already full for some of the more popular spots like Bannerman Island, but there are 70 participating parks statewide that include our local Fahnestock state park, the Harlem Valley rail-trail, Hudson Highlands state park, the Staatsburgh (Mills Mansion) state historic site, the Walkway Over the Hudson and more. To sign up for “I Love My Park” Day in any of the participating parks, go to http://ptny.org/ilovemypark/register.shtml.

The Mid-Hudson Adirondack Mountain Club (see midhudsonadk.org/) is participating in Minnewaska state park’s event, with a range of activities from removing invasive plants to helping transport materials to re-build a bridge planned. The MH-ADK club welcomes newbies participate in a couple of hikes and activities before membership is recommended.

Going gluten-free

[wide]gluten-free[/wide]That mild-mannered pile of flour on your pasta-making board could be evil. It probably contains the protein known as gluten, the “glue” that gives doughs their texture and elasticity and helps them rise to fluffiness. But a glue can be a danger. Although only 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, with its severe physical reaction to gluten, nearly a third of us — 29 percent — claim to be avoiding or planning to start cutting down on gluten, according to the NDP Group, a market-research company.

Reasons range from that celiac-disease diagnosis to a wheat allergy to wheat intolerance to just believing that wheat is so unhealthy for you that you feel better without it.

But giving it up is somewhat more complicated than leaving the bun off your burger, as gluten can lurk in many unexpected places. Plus, the prospect of a newly diagnosed intolerance of gluten, with no pizza, pasta, bread or cake ever again, is fairly earth-shaking. The majority of breads contain the wheat, rye and barley that contains gluten. So does beer, cereal and a lot of processed foods. Avoiding it is not an easy task, but a serious and necessary one for the person with celiac disease.

Celiac disease is a genetic disorder of malabsorption, an abnormal immune-response reaction to gluten that inflames and damages the small intestine. Symptoms common in children include vomiting, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea and constipation. Adults may have no symptoms at all, or feel fatigue, anxiety, depression, a blistering skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis, oral canker sores, missed periods, infertility, arthritis, bone or joint pain or seizures. It can lead to complications like intestinal cancer, liver disease, osteoporosis, anemia and malnutrition.

The symptoms of celiac disease can be confused with the manifestations of several other diseases. It can also remain dormant until an episode of stress, illness, pregnancy or childbirth triggers it.

Wheat allergy, one of the most common allergies of children and often outgrown, comes from an antibody to the proteins in wheat. Some of the symptoms include swelling of the face, coughing, wheezing, nasal congestion, difficulty breathing, anaphylaxis, itchy watery eyes and skin rashes such as hives.