October 20, 2011
On Monday, America will celebrate the first annual Food Day with a cornucopia of events across the country intended to raise awareness of the importance of safe, affordable and healthy food, produced responsibly.
Sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest with no corporate or governmental funding, the event is modeled on Earth Day, and is being guided by an advisory board that includes Los Angeles County Director of Public Health Jonathan E. Fielding, restaurateur Alice Waters, author Michael Pollan, preventive medicine expert Dr. Dean Ornish and a number of other esteemed activists, politicians and physicians.
L.A.-area events range from a weekend fruit pick in Granada Hills and a Westwood screening sponsored by the UCLA Maternal and Child Nutrition Leadership Training Program to a fundraising luncheon in Downtown Los Angeles sponsored by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.
And if you just want to celebrate with some delicious and healthy meals courtesy of celebrity chefs from around the country, click here for some great Food Day recipes.
July 20, 2011
If Carmageddon taught Los Angeles one thing, it’s that maybe we aren’t as dependent on our vehicles as we thought. By some accounts, traffic on the Westside was lighter than any time since the 1984 Olympics. Large numbers of residents heeded officials’ warnings and spent the weekend away from their cars–a healthy behavior that doesn’t have to change now that we’re back to normal again.
With the help of some online resources, we can convert our Carmageddon memories into a few new habits. Take, for example, one of the weekend’s most talked-about lessons: the story of how the bikes won.
Last weekend, in a highly publicized race, a team of cyclists made a trip from Long Beach to Burbank faster than the passengers of a Jet Blue airplane. Join them and other L.A. cyclists by participating in some of the many local organized cycling activities.
The Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition lists the major cycling events, and other sites like bikeboom.com list daily events on a local level. You can participate in CicLAvia, go off-road with the mountain biking crowd, or learn to do your own bike maintenance. More and more Southern Californians are realizing the potential of pedal power, and with a new L.A. County Bicycle Master Plan in the works, the region is only becoming more open to cycling.
Meanwhile, there’s the corollary to the bike lesson: Another racer came in a close second simply by using Metro and traveling on foot.
Take your own stroll with the Los Angeles Conservancy, which organizes docent-led walking tours focusing on the history and architecture of the best parts of the city. Self-led and commercial tours also can be found in places like Hollywood and the Miracle Mile, where walkers can visit the Petersen Automotive Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Page Museum, and the Craft and Folk Art Museum—all in a single outing. L.A. is famous for some of the fairest weather in the country, so almost any time of year is good for a walk.
If the hustle and bustle of the city isn’t your thing, there are peaceful trails and parklands all over the county to hike, bike, or even explore on horseback. Take a guided nature trek, learn to track wildlife, see how area Native Americans lived, or roast the perfect marshmallow at a family campfire evening. Check out the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy’s website for full listings of outdoor events and educational programs.
“We hope the public will come out and enjoy the many activities and programs our parks have to offer in the Santa Monica Mountains,” said Joseph T. Edmiston, the conservancy’s executive director.
Don’t wait for Carmageddon II to enjoy its benefits!
March 9, 2011
Don’t throw away yard waste, he exhorts. Composting can reduce water consumption by up to 50% per household. And don’t forget the lowly earthworm.
“Worm tea is the strongest organic fertilizer there is,” he likes to say.
Thomsen, an environmental consultant and master gardener based in Cerritos, has conducted the Countywide Smart Gardening initiative for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works since 1998. Launched 20 years ago as a way to reduce the amount of yard waste being sent to landfills, the program has grown to encompass not only green-waste recycling, but a range of assistance on the creation and maintenance of sustainable landscapes.
The county now operates nine demonstration and learning centers where visitors can learn—for free—about sustainable agriculture, native plants, water conservation and organic gardening. As a bonus, Thomsen’s weekend workshops offer subsidized compost and worm bins for $40 and $65, respectively—a healthy 60% discount.
Countywide Smart Gardening information stands have been installed in parks, schools, community gardens and nature centers. The program’s experts will make presentations at the L.A. County Fair in September and host a booth at the Natural History Museum next month as part of its “Sustainable Sundays” program on “edible landscapes.”
Public Works’ Smart Gardening Program Manager David Perez says the program has educated thousands of Southern Californians, who have been increasingly driven toward home gardening by concerns about the environment and sustainability.
“We do free workshops where the public can learn about composting, where they can see native plants and native gardens, where they can get a feel for the process,” says Perez. And one of the most popular features (besides the discounted composting apparatus) is Thomsen’s no-cost advice.
“I come from an agricultural background—we’ve done composting since I was about 5,” says Thomsen, who was born in San Gabriel and raised on farms in Oregon and Idaho. Thomsen earned bachelors degrees at Oregon State in business administration and statistics, with a special emphasis in agriculture.
He returned to Southern California in the early 1990s to get his certifications in solid and hazardous waste management at UCLA, just as municipalities were working to comply with a then-new law requiring cities and counties to halve the waste they were sending to landfills. Thomsen and his brother, Keith, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA in environmental science, began working with engineering consultants to help local governments set up composting facilities and recycling programs before the law’s 2000 deadline.
That expertise, he says, led to the creation of their own environmental consulting firm, BioContractors, Inc., through which Thomsen—with contract oversight from Public Works’ Perez—now runs Countywide Smart Gardening. Thomsen and his crew do 50 workshops a year at the learning centers, plus another 35 or so hosted offsite presentations that are co-sponsored by church groups, nonprofits and other municipalities. Spring is crunch time; between Earth Day observations and demand for spring planting information, his calendar is typically booked solid.
“Right now we’re at 31 events scheduled for April alone,” he says.
“The big push we like to do is vermi-composting because it has so much benefit to the environment,” Thomsen says. That’s composting with worms. Thomsen’s favorites are Eisenia fetida (also known as African Red Worms or Red Wigglers). Bred to thrive in the debris layer of jungle topsoil, they can process massive amounts of organic matter quickly, eating and excreting 80% to 100% of their body weight each day in food waste.
Besides aerating the soil, Thomsen says, they produce manure, or castings, that can be mixed with potting soil to create a high-nitrogen bioactive fertilizer. And, he says, the liquid from those castings—a substance called ‘worm tea’—can be diluted to create a systemic fertilizer, or used straight to kill gnats, aphids, white flies and most weeds.
Thomsen tells his audiences that even regular backyard composting can dramatically improve their garden yield—and make a crucial environmental difference. “The average person in L.A. County generates about a ton of garbage a year,” he says. “Forty percent of that is compostable.”
That’s 800 pounds of table scraps and grass clippings per year per person that could and should be fertilizing yards in L.A. County, “instead of going into a landfill.”
Is composting smelly? “No,” he says. “If you do it right, there should be no odor.”
Is it time-consuming? “No. About three minutes to put the bag of material in the bin and stir. You add water on a weekly basis.”
Does he compost at his house?
Here he laughs. Turns out Thomsen used to, but his current landlords, in Bellflower, are—for now—non-believers in his gospel.
“They won’t let me put in a composter, so I take all my stuff to the office. I have four worm bins there.”
Here is a video introduction to Backyard Composting, brought to you by L.A. County’s Countywide Smart Gardening program.
February 9, 2011
They can tell when unscrupulous dog importers are bringing in underage puppies with bogus paperwork claiming vaccinations that never happened.
And, increasingly, they can see how the well-being of humans and animals is interrelated—for better or worse.
The multifaceted mission of the Department of Public Health’s little-known veterinary unit is testament to how times have changed for animals and humans alike in Los Angeles.
“Now that animals are becoming members of the family, sleeping in people’s beds, we need to create ways to help people improve their pets’ health, and improve their own health, too,” says Ehnert, 50, a UC Davis-trained veterinarian who’s been acting director of the unit since June. “There’s an incredible human-animal bond.” Walking and exercising family pets outdoors can also play a broader social role in the county, helping people “take back their communities,” she says. “There’s a huge public health benefit.”
The vet squad dates from a time when hoof-and-mouth outbreaks were bigger news than Hollywood gossip, and people thought of anthrax as a cattle disease, not a terrorist weapon.
A history of the department, written by Dr. Patrick Ryan, who retired last year, is full of fascinating and sometimes gruesome tidbits chronicling L.A.’s bygone livestock quarantines, tuberculosis-tainted dairy herds, disease-ridden slaughterhouses, garbage-swilling hogs and, during the Depression, roving rabid dogs attacking horses and cattle.
Well, L.A.’s no cow town anymore. And Ehnert and her unit are evolving to serve a metropolis in which people outnumber livestock, and canine rabies has long been wiped out, thanks to widespread vaccination programs. The last time a Los Angeles dog was reported to have had rabies was in 1962.
A primary mission of the team these days is still rabies control, but the culprits now are very different, with bats the likeliest to be infected, followed by skunks and foxes. This “Rabies Tales” comic, created by one of the department’s veterinarians, Dr. Emily Beeler, gives a good overview of how to handle exposure to a potentially rabid bat. (It also provides the welcome news that rabies shots are not given in the abdomen anymore.)
The unit takes reports on virtually every animal bite that comes to the attention of medical or law enforcement authorities in the county. It currently is working on a community-by-community analysis of where dog bites are most prevalent.
And it has an educational role, communicating with veterinarians in practice throughout the county and with the public at large about disease outbreaks and protective measures, including the importance of regular vaccinations to prevent many pet illnesses.
Lately, it’s been using the department’s Twitter feed to spread the word about how healthy human habits can lead to healthier pets. One recent Tweet focused on how smoking hurts pets.
It’s also preparing an online “Pet Health and Safety Quiz,” modeled on the department’s Food Safety Quiz (in which home cooks can test their food preparation savvy against the department’s standards for restaurant inspection and grading.)
What’s more, the vet squad has been a key player in a multi-jurisdictional effort called the “Border Puppy Task Force,” aimed at stopping the importation of sick and unvaccinated puppies through Los Angeles International Airport.
Ehnert said her team’s spot checks at the airport as part of that effort found that 40% of the large shipments of puppies coming through had falsified paperwork. The phony documents would claim, for instance, that the incoming dogs were four months old and had been vaccinated when in fact they were less than 8 weeks old—too young to have teeth, let alone effective vaccinations. In recent years, popular imported breeds coming through LAX have included English and French bulldog puppies from Colombia.
The vet squad currently is working on a proposal to turn its spot checks into a more regular monitoring arrangement, working in tandem with federal officials stationed at the airport.
The unit has undergone its share of changes over the years. Its lab was closed due to budget cuts in the mid-1990s. Its veterinary staff was shifted for a time to the Department of Animal Care & Control but later rejoined public health. Now budget cuts may once again affect the unit, which has 4 licensed vets and a registered veterinary technician among its 19 budgeted positions. Ehnert says seven of those slots are currently vacant due to retirements and leaves of absence.
The budget uncertainty hasn’t stopped the vet squad from looking ahead.
Ehnert is proposing a “2020 Healthy Pets, Healthy Families” initiative that would bring together veterinary educators, local vets, animal control agencies and public health officials with the goal of producing new standards for pet health by the year 2020. “Healthy pets can lead to healthy people,” Ehnert says in her proposal for the effort, intended as a pet-centric offshoot of the federal government’s Healthy People 2020 initiative.
January 25, 2011
Increasing numbers of Los Angeles County residents are finding themselves in a blue state. And it has nothing to do with political affiliation.
A new report from the Department of Public Health shows that 13.6% of adults in the county report having been diagnosed with depression at some time in their lives—an increase of nearly 50% between 1999 and 2007. The rates went up for all adults, but the increases were most pronounced for those from 25-29 and 60-64. The condition continues to affect more women than men (16.6% compared to 10.3%) and is more common among whites and African Americans (17% and 16.6% respectively) than Latinos (12.4%) and Asians/Pacific Islanders (6%.)
The report said that those who have been diagnosed with depression are likelier than others to smoke and drink heavily and to get less exercise. It found that more than 35% of those who said they’d been diagnosed with depression also had chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. And it reported that many in the county said they’d been unable to afford mental health care or counseling when they needed it.
Some of the increase in reported depression can be attributed to greater public awareness of depression and better diagnosis of the problem, as well as to a possible decrease in stigma attached to the condition, said Dr. Susie Baldwin, chief of the department’s Health Assessment Unit, which produced the report.
Even so, depression represents a huge personal and social challenge.
“From any perspective, depression takes a large toll in terms of disease burden, and is the most common mental health problem. We need to ensure that those suffering from depression get diagnosed early and receive timely care,” Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, the county’s Director of Public Health, said in a press release.
“The takeaway is that this is very common and not something that is the fault of the individual,” Baldwin added. She noted there are many ways to help—from family members being patient with a depressed loved one to public policy-makers providing funding for mental health programs. The report also lists several recommendations for things employers and companies can do to help with depression in their workforce.
The report emphasizes that the best way to fight depression is to get help from a mental health professional. It said that free and low-cost help is available and urged anyone who needs it to call the county Department of Mental Health hotline, (800) 854-7771. Other resources listed include the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services agency, which has a 24-hour suicide crisis line (877-727-4747), along with community outreach programs and other assistance available.
The report draws on information gathered as part of the L.A. County Health Survey, conducted every three years from thousands of randomly-selected telephone respondents. Because it does not include the worst years of the economic recession, it does not indicate whether increasing financial stresses, including job losses and home foreclosures, are pushing depression rates even higher in Los Angeles County.
Those factors will be examined in the 2010 survey, with initial results not expected until early 2012. “It’s going to be interesting when we get the new data,” Baldwin said. The next report also will indicate how many people are currently feeling depressed—not just whether they’ve ever been diagnosed in the past.
January 19, 2011
Three people have died in the county so far this flu season—a 48-year-old man, a 29-year-old woman and a 4-year-old boy. Both of the adults who died were obese, and all of the victims died from an influenza strain that can be prevented by the flu vaccine, public health authorities said. They urged flu shots for everyone over the age of six months to help protect them during a fast-moving flu season that is expected to accelerate through February and continue into the spring.
Unlike last year, when there were highly-publicized vaccine shortages and widespread public concern about H1N1, commonly known as the swine flu, this year’s influenza season seems to be attracting less attention so far.
But it can be just as dangerous.
And, as the cases involving this season’s first Los Angeles County victims show, obesity could play a role in how seriously the highly contagious virus plays out.
A Public Health department analysis of last year’s flu season, when the H1N1 pandemic was in full swing, shows that obesity was the No. 1 risk factor cited in those who died of the flu in Los Angeles County, followed by “underlying pulmonary, metabolic and cardiac conditions.” The vast majority of the 149 people whose deaths were officially attributed to last season’s flu—88%–had some kind of underlying medical condition, the analysis said. Overall, health officials estimate that the average flu season results in about 1,000 deaths a year in the county, although it is listed as the official cause of death in only some of them.
Last year’s flu season was unusual in that older people—those who are typically considered most likely to die from the flu—experienced fewer deaths and complications than younger people, probably because the elders are believed to carry greater immunity to H1N1. In L.A. County, last season’s flu proved most deadly to those between the ages of 50 and 64. Latinos had the highest rates of intensive care hospitalization and death, while Asians had the lowest. And young children were the most likely to be hospitalized for the disease, but the least likely to die from it.
The link between obesity and H1N1 complications is increasingly well-documented. A recently published scientific paper studied 534 California patients hospitalized for H1N1 during the 2009 flu season and found that half of them were obese—and that those who were the most obese were the most likely to die from the flu.
“I think it is just more evidence to the story that obesity is not just a social condition. It is a medical condition that has risks,” said Dr. Janice K. Louie, head of the surveillance and epidemiology section of the California Department of Public Health and the lead author of the study. She said that anyone with a high body mass index—greater than 30 and particularly greater than 40—should treat flu season very seriously. “If your BMI is 35 or higher, you really should be very aware that influenza is very severe and can kill you. And you should get your flu shot.”
The Centers for Disease Control recently added morbid obesity to its list of medical conditions that place someone at high risk of flu complications. The others include asthma, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and HIV/AIDS; the full list is here. Others at high risk include pregnant women, children under 2 and adults 65 and older.
Flu shots and nasal mist flu vaccine are widely available. People can get the inoculations through their personal doctor or local pharmacy. They also can find a vaccination clinic by checking Public Health’s immunization program website, by accessing the Find-A-Flu-Shot locator, or by calling 2-1-1.
Whatever your risk factor, public health officials say that getting a shot is the responsible thing to do both from an individual and a community health perspective. And they point out that all of the old common sense rules of the season still apply: covering coughs and sneezes, washing your hands frequently and staying home from work or school if you’re sick.
“That’s probably the best way we can stop the spread of the disease,” said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, director of Communicable Disease Control and Prevention for Los Angeles County. It may not be easy to call in sick in this economic climate—but it’s the right thing to do. “Employers out there should recognize that this is beneficial to them,” Kim-Farley said. “It’s self-enlightened for them to have a healthy workforce.”
January 13, 2011
That’s the message from the county’s Department of Public Health, which says that second-hand smoke is more hazardous to your pets than you might realize. Animals who live with smokers get a chemical-laden residue in their fur or feathers and suffer higher cancer rates as a result, public health officials said.
“Pets living in a smoker’s home not only inhale smoke. They also eat it every day when they groom their fur or feathers,” the department said in a public service announcement. Smokers’ pets also may develop problems with breathing and irritation of the eyes and skin.
If you’re ready to quit smoking, check out this list of frequently asked questions on the Public Health website. Your pet will lick you for it.
January 6, 2011
Quit smoking! Stop drinking! Earn more! Owe less! Get that degree while shedding 10 pounds of belly fat!
If these are among your New Year’s resolutions, we’d suggest one more: buyer beware. For as surely as the ball drops in Times Square, scammers are gearing up to take advantage of your good intentions.
So how can you maintain your resolve in 2011 while steering clear of pitfalls? We asked Rigo Reyes, acting director of the county’s Department of Consumer Affairs, whose experts looked at some popular resolutions and offered these tips.
Get healthy. “We see a lot of weight-loss programs,” says Reyes, whose team recently has been forwarding complaints and inquiries to the California Medical Board about lap band surgery. But that’s just one get-healthy-quick pitch among many. Faith healers in bogus farmacias prey on Spanish-speaking consumers who want to quit drinking or smoking or overeating. And every year, Reyes says, he hears from couch potatoes who bought sales pitches from some gyms without actually reading the high-priced contracts. “People need to read the fine print and not just believe promises,” says Reyes. Short cuts are imaginary and costly. A walk around the block, on the other hand, is free.
Get out of debt. “This is a top priority for a lot of people in this economy,” says Reyes. But beware of credit repair scams and offers of foreclosure assistance and debt consolidation. No one can legally remove accurate information from a credit report, and if the information is inaccurate, you can get it removed for nothing. If you’re having foreclosure troubles, deal directly with the bank or get help from a HUD-approved nonprofit—don’t waste money on for-profit intermediaries. As for debt consolidation offers, Reyes says many leave consumers with high fees, unpaid debts and worse credit. Scams such as these have become so predatory that new laws have been passed to address them. Up-front fees are now illegal for credit repair, loan modification and foreclosure assistance in California. A new federal telemarketing rule also prohibits them for debt consolidation services offered through phone sales. If you really need help, Reyes says, contact the Consumer Affairs Department at (800) 593-8222 or (213) 974-1452: “We’ll help you out for free.”
Get a job. If the jobless rate is any indication, millions of Californians share this resolution. But employment scams are already worsening life for the desperate. “A lot of them are phishing schemes and bogus mystery shopper programs—you get an email from people claiming to be ‘recruiters’ who can get you a job if you just give them your information, which then leaves you vulnerable to identity theft.” Some of these job scammers go further. They send bogus checks to people to purportedly finance their “start-up” costs. The victims are told to deposit the checks and wire back a portion to third parties. Because the law requires banks to make the funds from the deposited check available before the check completely clears, the scammers get away with the money, which the bank will try to collect from you.
Get a degree. Great resolution, but only if you can use the diploma, so look out for unaccredited and for-profit schools. “The private post-secondary bureau in the state Department of Consumer Affairs used to license these schools, but the legislation authorizing it was allowed to sunset three years ago,” says Reyes. “People are trying to re-establish it, but in the meantime, there has been a free-for-all.” If you want to take classes or get job training, he says, apply to an accredited university, enroll at a community college or check out adult education programs at your local high school. “The Evans Adult School, which is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, has a very comprehensive program,” says Reyes, “and you don’t have to pay anything but $5 for a student I.D.”
December 15, 2010
This time of year can be such a mixed bag, and not just for Santa. There are great parties all over town—but has the guy in the next lane had a few too many? Is that glittering Christmas tree a tinderbox waiting to happen? And how’s the pet of the house expected to know that chocolate and poinsettias can be hazardous to his health?
If all this is starting to sound more like a minefield than a holiday, relax. Los Angeles County’s resident experts are here to help.
Their tips will help you navigate the pitfalls of the season—from the basics (driving sober) to the more arcane (making sure you’re not overcharged at the cash register.) They’ll even help you score a free bus ride on New Year’s Eve.
1. Don’t drink and drive.
This is rule No. 1 for a reason. Sheriff’s officials implore you to do the right thing, which means not getting behind the wheel if you’ve been drinking. If you need any reminders of the possible consequences, Sgt. Joseph Jakl, supervisor of the sheriff’s Traffic Services Detail, thinks this YouTube video from the city of Santa Clarita sums it up nicely. So designate a driver, call a cab or use public transportation if you choose to imbibe. (To make things easier, all Metro trains and buses are free on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve starting at 9 p.m.)
2. How to spot a drunk driver.
Jakl says to watch out for vehicles making overly wide turns, straddling the lane line, swerving, and randomly speeding up or slowing down. If you see someone who appears intoxicated and whose driving is endangering others, get the license number if you can do so safely and call 911 or your local police agency. The sheriff’s department and other law enforcement agencies also are planning DUI checkpoints across the county, through the holiday season and beyond.
If you have pets—or are planning on getting one at a “Happy Pawlidays” adoption on Saturday, Dec. 18–be aware that many of the hallmarks of the season, from shiny ornaments and treated Christmas tree water to candies and seasonal plants can be dangerous to animals. “While we are caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season, we may overlook some of the pet safety hazards,” says Evelina Villa, a spokeswoman for the Animal Care & Control department. A full list of the department’s holiday pet safety tips is here.
4. Practice safe shopping.
If you shop online, don’t tempt thieves by letting deliveries stack up on your front porch, says Lt. Scott Chew of the Malibu/Lost Hills sheriff’s station. Instead, he suggests having your packages delivered to your work address or to a neighbor who’s going to be at home during the day. Chew says it’s also common for people to leave expensive items like iPads and purses in their cars—an invitation to criminals year-round but particularly now. “Unfortunately, this time of year, there are people in the parking lots who are watching you,” Chew says. More tips, courtesy of the Santa Clarita Valley sheriff’s station, are here.
5. Check your receipt.
The Department of Weights and Measures wants to remind you to make sure that the amount you pay at the cash register matches the posted or advertised price. “Routine inspections reveal that overcharge errors do occur and often involve items with special promotional offers, ‘sales,’ and markdowns for which price information has not been updated in the scanner system,” the department said in a news release. “Holiday shopping presents many opportunities for such errors.” Here’s how to report an overcharge. And for a video report on the subject, check out this from the L.A. County Channel.
6. Scam artists don’t take the holidays off.
Bogus phone solicitations often crop up at this time of year, like this reported “green toilet scam” in Calabasas. And some would-be bargain hunters recently were victimized after setting out to meet someone advertising an “incredible price” for a camera on Craigslist. Instead, suspects in ski masks blocked their car and robbed them. Authorities advise skepticism and caution.
7. Keep the wrapping paper out of the fireplace.
County fire officials have put together this holiday tip sheet with advice on choosing, decorating and maintaining an indoor Christmas tree. They also say you should never burn wrapping paper in the fireplace; doing so “can produce dangerous sparks and a chemical buildup in the home that could cause an explosion.” Finally, they suggest getting an early jump on those New Year’s resolutions by making sure all of your smoke detectors are in good working order. Cheers!