For years I have photographed dogs, from Greenland to Alaska to the tropics. I particularly like photographing dogs and their owners. There is something special that happens when you capture them in their element. The owner’s face muscles are relaxed. They usually are smiling. There is some magic that is hard to quantify and describe.
During the last few months I was able to photograph a couple of dog owners and their beautiful companions. It does not take an expert to see what kind of happiness, and all its related health benefits, that dogs bring to people.
The dark and extremely gloomy days of Seattle are now settling in. For runners in this region who work normal day shifts, this signals the dark days of running that last up to five to six months, depending on what time of day one runs and how much free time one has. I find it more gloomy than Anchorage, where I lived and ran six years. I never minded running in the dark there, because the snow and clouds created very powerful ambient light that made running at night very pleasurable. But here, it is dark as a coal mine, and damp. People’s vitamin D levels are unhealthily low, and there seems to be widespread manifestations of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
First, let’s talk about why this is such a depressing time of year and can be such a bummer place to be.
The absence of natural sunlight impacts the body’s production of two key hormones that impact the body’s sleep-wake cycles, energy, and mood: melatonin and serotonin. Research indicates that melatonin is generated in greater quantities because of longer periods of darkness. Increasing the production of melatonin leads to sleepiness and lethargy. Serotonin, whose production rises with more exposure to sunlight, falls during these shorter days. Low amounts of serotonin are also associated with depression.
Another byproduct of the darkness is a decrease in the production of vitamin D, naturally created by the body. Though researchers have not fully determined whether low vitamin D contributes to symptoms of depression or whether depression itself contributes to lower vitamin D levels, higher levels of Vitamin D are associated with decreased risks of depression. But alas, anyone living in Canada, and the northern tier of the Lower 48 here in North America all require vitamin D supplements too to make up for the absence of sunlight come fall. Vitamin D also is critical in many key functions: enhancing the absorption of minerals in the gastrointestinal tract and kidney and thus into the blood, and it may protect against tuberculosis, gum inflammation, MS, and some cancers—at least according to my handy nutrition textbook: Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition. (I really love this tome – nicely written, well illustrated.) My response is to take vitamin supplements, but that is not enough.
So here I am in dark and rainy Seattle, deprived of naturally produced vitamin D, at higher risk of SAD. This is exacerbated by Seattle’s culture that seems to promote the absence of smiles and eye contact with strangers. What is a person to do?
Easy, go running. While hitting my local running grounds (Greenlake), I heard some walkers recently comment, “This is when the real runners come out.” The observation was referring to the near absence of mobs of fair-weather walkers and runners whose numbers thin by nearly 80% the moment the rains fall and that stygian Seattle glooms settles around mid-October. Paradoxically, running is the perfect antidote to anything resembling SAD or depression or everyday stress. I have done this since I was 15, and I continue running rain or shine, but particularly when it rains.
One of the earliest blockbuster books on the health benefits of running, the Joy of Running, by Dr. Thaddeus Kostrubala, came out way back in1976. In it, Kostrubala was among the first of the self-improvement health gurus to promote using an aerobic activity, running, to help treat mental illnesses such as depression. More recently, in September 2011, the UK-based Telegraph published a typical story that is the grist for many running magazines, Running outdoors can improve mental health. The story touted how running outdoors “can both raise your spirits and give you a real buzz.” Of course there are all sorts of web sites that list evidence-based findings that point to the health benefits of running–stress relief, blood circulation to the brain, chemical releases, sharpened cognitive functions, getting outdoors, and more.
There are also numerous, peer-reviewed scientific papers that highlight the mental health benefits of running, particularly in response to depression. I stumbled on one such paper doing a quick keyword search on the database PubMed, by D.I. Galper, et al., in the January 2006 edition of the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, called “Inverse association between physical inactivity and mental health in men and women.” That study looked at the associations between measures of physical activity and mental health in a large group of more than 5,400 men and women. Galper and his colleagues found that cardio-respiratory fitness and habitual physical activity were associated with lower depressive symptoms and greater emotional well-being.
Of course I and other dark and rainy weather runners did not need this study to confirm what our bodies are telling us every time we get out of our homes and get wet while splashing outdoors. I realize that not everyone has the time to get out after busy days. They may have classes, second jobs, kids, or all of the above. But even in the rain, in the blackness of a fall day, a run or even a walk is sure to improve one’s mental outlook, boost one’s mood, and stimulate the body’s chemistry. Here’s to the days and months ahead of soggy shoes, headlamps, and hopefully a few hellos from water-logged runners. You’re a fine crew.
As a former St. Louis area resident, I first thought my friend was pulling a prank when he shared a story on Sept. 29, which was picked up by the Daily Mail tabloid in the United Kingdom and alleged my old home city was intentionally contaminated by U.S. military researchers during the Cold war. I nearly deleted the email suspecting it was spam.
It turns out it was not a prank story in the Onion. During the last week of September 2012, St. Louis’ major broadcast news stations (KMOX and KSDK) broke a news story on recently completed research of government documents that showed U.S. military researchers conducted human subjects testing, in violation of the Nuremberg Code, on poor and minority residents in St. Louis during the 1950s and 1960s. The bombshell that was dropped by St. Louis Community College-Meramec sociology professor Lisa Martino-Taylor, in her PhD thesis, was that U.S. Army’s researchers sprayed an aerosol on human subjects that allegedly was laced with a fluorescent additive, a possible radiological compound, produced by U.S. Radium Corp. The company had been linked to the deaths of workers at a watch factory decades before.
The issue of the U.S. government testing on unwilling and non-consenting persons for military and medical research during the Cold War has long been established, both in St. Louis, and also in the Inner Mountain West and in Washington State. At the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, in southeastern Washington, radioactive iodine (I-131) was intentionally emitted in 1949 ( the Green Run test) to measure the impacts of exposure on human health as part of the U.S. Air Force’s efforts to better understand and track Soviet weapons testing. For its part, St. Louis was one of 33 U.S. and Canadian cities and rural areas intentionally exposed to the spray that was dispersed from airplanes, rooftops, and vehicles. A subsequent National Research Council committee, in 1997, claimed these tests did not expose residents to chemical levels considered harmful. However, promised follow-up studies may not have been conducted. Residents in St. Louis were quoted in press reports claiming planes dropped a white powder that fell on people below, which residents did not view as potentially harmful.
According to Martino-Taylor, thousands upon thousands of St. Louis residents likely inhaled the zinc cadmium sulfide spray. In St. Louis, where tests were conducted in 1953-54 and 1963-64 by the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, Martino-Taylor said, ”The powder was milled to a very, very fine particulate level. This stuff travelled for up to 40 miles. So really all of the city of St. Louis was ultimately inundated by the stuff.” The Daily Mail reported one of the compounds sprayed unknowingly on St. Louis residents was FP2266 (radium 226), which according to the U.S. Army was made by U.S. Radium Corp. The compound was the same one that was linked to the death and of former U.S. Radium Corp. workers.
According to press coverage, the U.S. Army has admitted that it added a fluorescent substance to the “harmless” compound, but the issue of whether the additive was radioactive remains classified.
The story was immediately picked up by a number of blogs, which repeated the allegations and news coverage. Almost immediately, Missouri’s two U.S. senators, Claire McCaskill (D) and Roy Blunt (R), wrote to Army Secretary John McHugh demanding answers and to ask if follow-up studies promised in 1997 by the National Research Council were ever completed. The full text of McCaskill’s letter and press release can be found here.
According to an Oct. 3, 2012, AP story, aides to Sens. McCaskill and Blunt said they have received no response. At the time of the story, the U.S. Army declined to be interviewed by the AP. The AP’s story notes that St. Louis was chosen for reserach because it resembled some Russian cities. However, one of the primary areas that was chosen for testing was the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex, which was razed in the 1970s as a failed national public housing experiment–and one of St. Louis’ legacies as a decaying city. At the time of the spraying by federal researchers, the complex had 10,000 mostly African-American and low-income residents, 70 percent of whom were 12 and younger.
Martino-Taylor’s thesis (The Manhattan-Rochester Coalition, research on the health effects of radioactive materials, and tests on vulnerable populations without consent in St. Louis, 1945—1970) is worth examining first-hand, as it describes how she was tipped to the improbable and almost unbelievable tales of two women, both sharing stories of having been unwilling human subjects to military spraying and suffering health consequences from that research. Surprisingly, she knew nothing about these then allegations. Thus began her effort to request information under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act from the federal government, often in severely redacted form. A point that much of the media continues to miss is that her research focuses on the researchers as well as their victims. Her thesis statement states her work looks at how a “large number of participants inside an organization will willingly participate in organizational acts that are harmful to others, and how large numbers of outsiders, who may or may not be victims of organizational activities, are unable to determine illegal or harmful activity by an organization.”
The leaders of the studies, which she calls the Manhattan-Rochester Coalition, were the researchers who conducted the human-subjects research on nuclear weapons as part of the country’s efforts to prepare for, and win, a possible nuclear confrontation with the U.S.S.R. During the tests in St. Louis and other areas, according to Martino-Taylor, the U.S. Army violated the 1947 Nuremberg Code, the standard set after trials of Nazi doctors and war criminals, which established that “voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential” for any human-subjects testing. There was no such standard in these tests in St. Louis, Minneapolis, and elsewhere, Martino-Taylor maintains.
During the 1940s, the Nazi regime’s corrupt and criminal medical and scientific community committed horrific crimes at dozens of concentration and extermination camps in Nazi-occupied Europe, including live vivisections, gassings, cold water immersion tests, high-pressure testing, lethal injections, and intentional murder for “scientific purposes.” I in fact visited many of the rooms and buildings where these crimes against humanity occurred during my tour of the camps in the summer of 2000, so it was especially painful for me to know that my own government, in my former home city, may have been breaking established international guidelines that were codified following the defeat of the Nazis and their murderous state. (See my photo documentary here.) According to Martino-Taylor, the initial congressional investigation of the spraying program included testimony from experts that claimed the experiment team “chose to ignore Nuremberg.”
In the United States, following the Tuskegee Institute’s syphilis experiments on African-American men, reforms were passed in 1979 through the Belmont Report, which theoretically was supposed to protect human subjects from harm in research. However, even as the media report on this sensational story of testing on humans in two countries (Canada and the United States) in the 1950s and 1960s, researchers at elite universities and laboratories continue to violate the principles first set out at Nuremberg. Slate.com this year reported that “marginalized groups have frequently been coerced into studies that violate their right to consent. A recent review of the bio-ethics of human research in the U.S. offers little prospect for change.”
The Slate.com story, from Jan. 22, 2012, was gloomy in its overall assessment of the failure of safeguards to prevent unethical research on humans, particularly when large corporate interests are involved. The story said the Presidential Bioethics Commission issued a report on protecting human research subjects that trumpeted the United States’s so-called “robust” protections—rules that have repeatedly permitted and legitimized breaches of informed consent. “The failure to elicit consent is not confined to the U.S. One in every three U.S. corporate medical studies is now carried out abroad, usually in places where trials can be conducted more cheaply than in the U.S. Subjects are often unaware that the treatments are experimental.”
I am pretty sure the dust from this recent controversy will settle quickly, and even in St. Louis, the community will focus more on their beloved Cardinals’ bid for another World Series title. It is likely no one involved in these unethical if not possibly illegal studies will ever be held accountable for their actions against the civilians they may have harmed.