Citizen Science is blooming. There’s a growing number of examples of research projects in which the general population can participate. In this post at the blog Health ISGlobal, the researcher Irene Eleta (CREAL) talks about some of these projects which are related to air pollution and that scientists at CREAL /ISGlobal are leading, such as CITI-SENSE.
Manolis Kogevinas, Codirector of CREAL, one of the centres within the PRBB, has written this post recently in the “Health is Global” blog about how external factors play a major role in most cancers. He also talks about the new edition of the European Code Against Cancer, published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and addressed to all European citizens.
If you want to know more about the European Code against Cancer and the workings behind it, you can read the interview to Joachim Schüz, head of the environment and radiation section at the IARC and one of the principal investigators involved in its updating. He visited the PRBB a few months ago, and you will find the interview here, in page 4 of the Ellipse newspaper – the monthly publication at the PRBB.
Tom Cole-Hunter, a postdoctoral researcher at the CREAL, one of the centres within the PRBB, has written this post recently in the “Health is Global” blog about air pollution, cycling and the risks and benefits of their combination.
Cole-Hunter and his colleagues at the CREAL – an allied centre of ISGlobal – are involved in the European Commision-backed project CITI-SENSE , which aims to create real-time updated maps of air quality in several European cities.
[This text was originally published in Spanish in El País – Planeta Futuro]
Guest post written by Tom Cole-Hunter, researcher at the CREAL. Photos by Raül Torán.
In the months of September and October, the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL, an ISGlobal centre) collaborated with the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) as partners in the iSPEX-EU project. The essence of this project is to capitalize on large-scale, citizen contributions to science (‘citizen science’) such as observations of their environment with simple tools that compliment their existing way-of-life.
CREAL, identified by ICFO as now prominent in local citizen science activities due to leading roles in projects such as CITI-SENSE, was approached to assist in the recruitment of citizens. To participate in the project, citizens had to download an application and clip-on an ‘add-on’ to their smartphone to make an objective observation of the atmospheric air. The add-on, pictured above attached to a smartphone, works on the principle that aerosols (tiny liquid or solid particles, such as sea salt, soot and sand) interact with light in that they scatter and absorb it changing its intensity and polarization – this way the add-on, technically a spectropolarimeter, measures the amount, the size and the type of aerosols.
Although the idea is simple and the method fun, several challenges were presented for the recruitment of participants in iSPEX-EU. The first main challenge was that the associated smartphone application and add-on were only compatible with iPhone 4/4s/5/5s. The second was that clear weather and indirect sun were needed to make a measurement. Other challenges included limited time for being on the street recruiting. All of these challenges meant that we were not able to recruit as many participants as we had hoped. A lesson learned is that more inter-compatible products should be considered and developed if possible to allow the maximum participation of citizens.
Air quality and citizenship empowerment
It is imperative to involve the public in these types of campaigns as air quality has an impact on us all; it affects our health, our air transport system and the climate. Knowing the distribution of aerosol/particle sizes and types helps to inform regulation of air quality and policy decision-making. Some particles are small enough to bypass our natural filtration system in the nose and throat and reach deep into the lungs. The smallest of them may pass through the lungs through the circulatory and even nervous system and be found in organs such as the heart and even the brain causing serious health effects. Larger particles emitted with industrial processes like generating electricity with coal-fired power plants play an important, detrimental role in climate change. Additionally, natural disasters such as forest fires and volcanic eruptions can dramatically reduce visibility and may even stop air traffic due to the risk of crashing posed by engines being clogged and malfunctioning.
While natural disasters mostly cannot be prevented, acting to reduce traffic and industrial emissions can. CREAL’s involvement in the CITI-SENSE project is to help empower citizens with environmental health information so as to identify and move to improve air quality issues through awareness, education and services enabling change. One such service is the CityAir smartphone application, available for both Android and iOS, which enables citizens to make observations of the environmental quality of the places where they are based on their perceptions. These perceptions are anonymised, collected and shown on a public platform to identify areas of concern. This information can then be used to make a case for improving local, if not global, conditions.
CITI-SENSE is a four-year Collaborative Project partly funded by the EU FP7-ENV-2012 under grant agreement No 308524, started in October 2012. iSPEX-EU is part of LIGHT2015, a project funded through the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 644964.
“Cancer prevention requires the vision, courage, and political leadership to make long term decisions”
Christopher Wild has been the Director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), since 2009. Married to a neuroscientist and father of three, this epidemiologist and Man United fan came to the PRBB in March to give the 3rd Global Health session co-organised by ISGlobal, CRESIB, and CREAL.
How has the burden of cancer changed over recent years?
The incidence of cancer globally has increased: there were 14 million new cases in 2012 and it is expected we will reach 24 million new cases by 2035. Also, about 70% of the world’s cancer deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries. This is due to the rise in population sizes and average life expectancy in general, particularly in these countries, but also because they are shifting towards ‘industrialised’ lifestyle habits such as increased smoking, alcohol consumption, unhealthy diets, obesity and lack of physical exercise, which we know are linked to cancer.
Who should ensure decisive action is taken against these known risks?
First the researchers need to provide reliable scientific evidence on which to base decisions. Once the scientific evidence is available it is down to national authorities to make informed regulatory decisions. However, scientists can probably explain the interpretation of their findings more clearly when presenting them to decision-makers.
Why is prevention so hard?
There are different elements involved. First, intervention may require co-ordination across different parts of government and society. Second, there are often infrastructural, economic or cultural barriers. For example, in some developing countries, vaccinating against human papilloma virus to prevent cervical cancer might be interpreted as a signal of sexual promiscuity. This is why I think much more research has to be conducted on the factors which affect the implementation of prevention in routine healthcare settings. This is an often neglected area.
Finally, sometimes the case is not made politically and there is a failure to translate scientific evidence into guidelines. One of IARC’s important jobs is to evaluate prevention strategies, to find out what works. This research must be independent of vested interests, and here the position of the Agency within the UN has a major advantage. It also gives us the opportunity to improve the translation of knowledge into action at the level of individual countries.
Where do we need to invest more in the fight against cancer?
Prevention is central to reducing the rising trend of cancer, and we know that more than 50% of cases could be prevented if what is currently known were to be implemented efficiently; if governments took strong action, such as enforcing anti-tobacco controls, ensuring vaccination against HBV and HPV, promoting healthier lifestyles and improving access to health care including the early detection of breast, cervical, and colorectal cancers. But investment in prevention requires the vision, courage, and political leadership to make decisions and financial commitments that will bear fruit, often many years in the future.
You can read a related post here.
The water we use to drink, shower or swim can affect our health. Listen to Cristina Villanueva explaining in this short video what they are studying at the Water pollution research programme of the Centre for Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL). Video produced by the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB).
The director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Christopher Wild, celebrated his birthday in style this year. On that special day, February 21, he gave a talk to a full auditorium at the PRBB, in what was the 3rd Global Health session co-organised by ISGlobal, CRESIB and CREAL. This was his second visit to the park, the first one being six years ago, when the building was pretty much empty. “It’s great to see how now everything is thriving!”, he said.
Wild started pointing out the three aims of the IARC, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO): describing occurrence of cancers, evaluating prevention strategies, and supporting implementation in clinical settings. He highlighted particularly the low-income countries where cancer cases are increasing exponentially, with 60% of cancers worldwide now being in developing countries.
The role IARC is crucial if we take into account that 30% of non-transmissible diseases in 30-70 years-old are due to cancer. And especially so if we look at the predictions based on demographics: according to the agency’s director, by 2030 there might be 21.7 million cases of cancer, when in 2012 there were 14 million.
“Cancer patterns are not static; as countries develop, so they do. We need to think forward”
As Wild pointed out, we cannot treat our way out of cancer, so what we need is prevention. Half of the cancers could be prevented by the knowledge we currently have. And taking into account that most cancers have environmental or life style causes, the potential to act is even greater. We have known for years that tobacco, infections, alcohol, lack of physical activity and obesity are factors that can increase your risk of cancer. And we know prevention works, as proven by the decrease of lung cancer cases in countries such as Finland of the UK after tobacco bans were introduced. But it takes a long time. Take the example of cervix cancer: screening and vaccinations against the papilloma virus can decrease its incidence, but at least 20 to 30 years have to pass before we can see an effect on the population! So, as Wild stressed, political vision and leadership is essential in order for prevention to work.
But if prevention is proving difficult, there’s an area which is even more neglected: implementation. The speaker explained some successful cases. One involved aflatoxin, a known carcinogen produced by a fungus that grows on peanuts and corn. In 2005, intervention in some 20 villages in Africa, where simple resources were given to reduce exposure to the fungus (by using mats to reduce humidity, etc.), lead to 60% reduction in exposure. In turn, this lead to only 2% of the villagers having the toxin in blood, as opposed to 20% of people in villages in which intervention hadn’t taken place.
But despite the success of this proof of concept, eight years later nothing has been implemented at a general level.
It is clear that there is a lot of work to do in this area. When asked how far the IARC should go in terms of pushing for this kind of actions, the director was cautious. “Once you become an advocate, your science is under suspicion”, he declared. Sadly, this is the reality faced by some scientists working in the health sector, whose research result can be seen as the outcome of hidden interests if they are too active in pursuing policy changes. Should scientists then just publish their results, perhaps act as advisors in some committees, and then sit back patiently and wait until politicians decide is time to take action? Hearing some of Chris Wild’s arguments and examples, I personally think not. But his point about the dangers of advocacy was a good one. The debate is open….
A report by Maruxa Martinez, Scientific Editor at the PRBB
How is our health affected by pollution, green spaces, urban design and active transport? This is what Mark Nieuwenhuijsen is studying at the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL), located at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB). In this short video the Dutch researcher explains his studies on how outdoor contaminants affect health.
Coordinated by Martine Vrijheid from CREAL, HELIX has received €8.6M from the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme. It aims to build an early life “Exposome”, a collection of all early-life environmental exposures affecting children, and it has 4 years and a half, from January 2013 to July 2017, to do so. HELIX will develop tools to measure the exposome, including the use of smartphones and biological markers.
The project involves 13 partners from eight European countries, including two SME’s and six birth cohort studies from France, Greece, Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Exposure assessment in epidemiological studies is a tricky issue, because of the difficulty of constantly tracking people’s activity and location, both of which can affect the exposure to pollution. Researchers at CREAL have shown how using smartphone technology can help to reduce this bias in health effects estimates.
Audrey de Nazelle, a postdoc at Mark Nieuwenhuijsen’s lab who has currently started her own group at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College in London, used the CalFit smartphone technology to track person-level time, geographic location, and physical activity patterns for improved air pollution exposure assessment. CalFit is a ubiquitous sensing technology developed at UC Berkeley. It consists on using a GPS and an accelerometer in a smartphone to record the location and physical activity of the carrier through energy expenditure and activity tracking algorithms. de Nazelle and her colleagues at CREAL distributed CalFit-equipped smartphones to 36 subjects in Barcelona to obtain information on physical activity and geographic location. This information was then linked to space-time air pollution mapping.
The authors of the paper, published in Environmental Pollution, found that information from CalFit could substantially alter exposure estimates. For instance, travel activities – which wouldn’t have been measurable without the use of the mobiles – accounted on average for 6% of people’s time and 24% of their daily inhaled NO(2).
The potential of this technology for epidemiological studies is enormous. As the authors state, the large number of mobile phone users makes this technology a potential unobtrusive means of enhancing epidemiologic exposure data at low cost. In fact, they are now using it in several epidemiological projects they are involved in, such as the ERC-funded BREATHE study, the EC-funded PHENOTYPE, and the HELIX and EXPOsOMICs studies.
You can read a related interview to de Nazelle here.
de Nazelle A, Seto E, Donaire-Gonzalez D, Mendez M, Matamala J, Nieuwenhuijsen MJ, Jerrett M. Improvingestimates of airpollutionexposurethroughubiquitoussensingtechnologies.EnvironPollut. 2013 Feb 13;176C:92-99