These doctors have a heart for recycling
This is part 3 of a three part series on a new generation of doctors leading the charge to make the health care industry more sustainable - for the benefit of their patients and the planet. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.
One could say that over 400 people owe their life to the fact that Carsten Israel fell in love. Twenty years ago, as a young doctor in Frankfurt, Germany, he began to court an au pair from Kenya, Elisabeth, his now-wife of 13 years with whom he has three children. When the couple started visiting her parents in Kenya, Israel wanted to check out the local hospitals, “just out of professional curiosity,“ says the cardiologist, who is currently the head doctor at the Clinic for Interior Medicine in Bielefeld. “I was completely shocked.“
Often he observed there were no doctors in the E.R.s, and hte nurses could render only basic first aid. “When somebody fell into a coma, they fell into a coma,“ Israel remembers. “There weren’t even any defibrillators to restart a patient’s heart,” while defibrillators are standard equipment in most clinics in the U.S. and Europe as lifesaving devices. When Israel finally visited the largest and most modern hospital in Nairobi, he found it better equipped but he learned that its services were only available to patients who could afford them. The cardiologist there had a drawer full of petitions from patients with heart ailments who couldn’t afford lifesaving surgery. Even two decades ago, a pacemaker cost $5,000 in Kenya, which made it unaffordable for most Kenyans who earn an average of $600 per month.
Since 2003, Israel and a team of two doctors and two nurses visit Kenya and Zambia once or twice a year to implant German pacemakers for free. Notably, the pacemakers and defibrillators Israel exports to Africa would end up in the landfill in Germany. Clinics have to pay for specialized services to dispose of this medical equipment. “In Germany, I could go to jail if I used a defibrillator that is one day past its expiration date,“ Israel says, “but in Kenya, people don’t have the money for the cheapest model. What nonsense to throw this precious medical equipment away while people in poorer countries die because they desperately need it.“
Israel works at the breakpoint between the laws in a wealthy country like Germany and the reality in the global South. The U.S. and most European countries have strict laws that ban the reuse of medical implants and enforce strict expiration dates for medical equipment. “But if a pacemaker is a few days past its expiration date, it still works perfectly fine,“ Israel says. “And it also happens that we implant a pacemaker and five months later it turns out that the patient needs a different kind. Then we replace it and we’d have to trash the first one in Germany, though it could easily run another 12 years.“
“If we get this right, we have lots of devices we can implant, hips and knees, etcetera. Where this will lead is limitless," says Eva Kline Rogers, the program coordinator for My Heart, Your Heart.
Israel has been collecting donations of pacemakers and defibrillators from manufacturers but also from other doctors and from funeral homes for his nonprofit Pacemakers for East Africa since 2003. Most funeral homes in the U.S. and Europe are legally obliged to remove pacemakers from the dead before cremation. “Most pacemakers survive their owners,“ says Israel. He sterilizes the pacemakers and finds them a new life in East Africa. Studies show that reused pacemakers carry no greater risk for the patients than new ones.
In the U.S., University of Michigan professor Thomas Crawford heads up a similar initiative, My Heart, Your Heart. “Each year 1 to 2 million individuals worldwide die due to a lack of access to pacemakers and defibrillators,” the organization notes on its website. The nonprofit was founded in 2009, but it took four years for the doctors to get permission from the FDA to export pacemakers. Since receiving permission, the organization has sent dozens of devices to the Philippines, Haiti, Venezuela, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Ukraine. “We were the first doctors ever to implant a pacemaker in Sierra Leone in 2018,” says Crawford, who has traveled extensively to most of the recipient countries.
Even individuals can donate their pacemakers; the organization offers a prepaid envelope. “My mother recently passed and she donated her device,” says Tina Alexandris-Souphis, one of the doctors at University of Michigan who collaborates on My Heart, Your Heart. The organization works with World Medical Relief and the U.K. based charity Pace4Life to maintain a registry of the most urgent patients and send devices to where they are needed the most.
My Heart, Your Heart is also conducting a randomized controlled trial to provide further evidence that reused pacemakers pose no additional risk. “Our vision is that we establish this is safe and create a blueprint for organizations around the world to safely reuse these devices instead of them being thrown in the trash,” says Eva Kline Rogers, the program’s coordinator. “If we get this right, we have lots of devices we can implant, hips and knees, etc. Where this will lead is limitless.” She points out that in addition to receiving the donated devices, the doctors in the global South also benefit from the expertise of renowned cardiologists, such as Crawford, who sometimes advise them in complex cases.
And Adrian Baranchuk, a Canadian doctor at the Kingston General Hospital at the Queen’s University, regularly travels through South America with his “cardiology van” to help villagers in remote areas with heart problems.
Israel says that he’s been accused of racism, in thinking that these pacemakers are suitable for those in the global South - many of whom are people of color - even though officials in wealthier countries consider them to be trash. The cardiologist counters such criticism with stories about desperate need of his patients. At his first medical visit to Nairobi that he organized with a local cardiologist, six patients were waiting for him. “In Germany, they would all be considered emergencies,” Israel says. One eighty-year old grandmother had a heartrate of 18. “I’ve never before seen anything like this,” Israel exclaims. “At first I thought I couldn’t find her pulse before I realized that her heart was only beating once every three seconds.” After the surgery, she got up, dressed herself and hurriedly packed her bag, explaining she had a ton of work to accomplish. Her family was in disbelief, Israel says. “They told me she had been bedridden for five years because as soon as she tried to get up she would faint.”
Israel has been accused of racism, in thinking that these pacemakers are suitable for those in the global South even though they're considered to be trash by officials in wealthier countries. The cardiologist counters such criticism with stories about desperate need of his patients.
The hospital in Nairobi where Israel conducts the surgeries, charges patients $200 for the use of its facilities. If patients can’t afford that sum, Israel will pay it from the funds of his nonprofit. For some people, $200 far exceeds their resources. Once, a family from the extremely poor Northern region of Kenya told him they couldn’t afford the $3 for the bus ride to Nairobi. Israel suspected this was a pretense because they were afraid of the surgery and agreed to reimburse the $3, “but when they came, they were wearing rags and were so rail-thin, I understood that they really needed every cent they had for food.”
Israel is a renowned cardiologists in Germany. And yet, he considers his work in East Africa to be particularly meaningful. “Generally, most patients in Germany will get the treatment they need,” he says, “and I never before experienced that people have an illness that is easily curable but simply won’t be treated.” He also feels a heavy responsibility. Many patients have his personal cell phone and call him when they have problems or good news about how they’re doing.
Some of those progress reports come much faster than in Israel’s home country. Before he implanted a pacemaker in a tall Massai in Kenya, the man had been picked on by his family because he wouldn’t help much with the hard work on the family peanut farm. “When I examined him, he had a pulse of 40,” Israel says. “It’s a miracle he was even standing upright, let alone hauling heavy bags.” After the surgery, Israel advised his patient to stay the night for observation, but the patient couldn’t wait to leave. Two hours later, he returned, covered in sweat. He’d been running sprints with his brothers to test the new device. Israel shakes his head. In Germany, it would be unthinkable for a patient to engage in athletics immediately after surgery. But the patient was exuberant: “I was the fastest!”The success stories are notable partly because the challenges remain so steep. In Zambia, for instance, there is a single cardiologist; she determined to become one after losing her younger sister to an easily curable heart disease. Often, the hospitals not only lack pacemakers but also sterile surgery equipment, antibiotics and other essential material. Therefore, Israel and his team import everything they need for the surgeries, including medication. If necessary, they improvise. “I’ve done surgery with a desk lamp hanging from the ceiling by threads,” Israel says. He already knows that he will need to return to Kenya in six months to replace the pacemaker of one of his patients and replace the batteries in others. If he doesn’t travel, lives are at risk.
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”