Tag Archives: disease

CDC considers lowering threshold for lead exposure

The CDC is considering lowering its threshold for elevated childhood blood lead levels by 30 percent, a shift that could help health practitioners identify more children afflicted by the heavy metal.

Since 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which sets public health standards for exposure to lead, has used a blood lead threshold of 5 micrograms per deciliter for children under age 6.

While no level of lead exposure is safe for children, those who test at or above that level warrant a public health response, the agency says.

Based on new data from a national health survey, the CDC may lower its reference level to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter in the coming months, according to six people briefed by the agency.

The measure will come up for discussion at a CDC meeting Jan. 17 in Atlanta.

But the step, which has been under consideration for months, could prove controversial. One concern: Lowering the threshold could drain sparse resources from the public health response to children who need the most help – those with far higher lead levels.

The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.

Exposure to lead — typically in peeling old paint, tainted water or contaminated soil — can cause cognitive impairment and other irreversible health impacts.

The CDC adjusts its threshold periodically as nationwide average levels drop. The threshold value is meant to identify children whose blood lead levels put them among the 2.5 percent of those with the heaviest exposure.

“Lead has no biological function in the body, and so the less there is of it in the body the better,” Bernard M Y Cheung, a University of Hong Kong professor who studies lead data, told Reuters. “The revision in the blood lead reference level is to push local governments to tighten the regulations on lead in the environment.”

The federal agency is talking with state health officials, laboratory operators, medical device makers and public housing authorities about how and when to implement a new threshold.

Since lead was banned in paint and phased out of gasoline nearly 40 years ago, average childhood blood lead levels have fallen more than 90 percent. The average is now around 1 microgram per deciliter.

Yet progress has been uneven, and lead poisoning remains an urgent problem in many U.S. communities.

A Reuters investigation published this month found nearly 3,000 areas with recently recorded lead poisoning rates of at least 10 percent, or double those in Flint, Michigan, during that city’s water crisis.

More than 1,100 of these communities had a rate of elevated blood tests at least four times higher than in Flint.

In the worst-affected urban areas, up to 50 percent of children tested in recent years had elevated lead levels.

The CDC has estimated that as many as 500,000 U.S. children have lead levels at or above the current threshold. The agency encourages “case management” for these children, which is often carried out by state or local health departments and can involve educating families about lead safety, ordering more blood tests, home inspections or remediation.

Any change in the threshold level carries financial implications. The CDC budget for assisting states with lead safety programs this year was just $17 million, and many state or local health departments are understaffed to treat children who test high.

Another concern: Many lead testing devices or labs currently have trouble identifying blood lead levels in the 3 micrograms per deciliter range. Test results can have margins of error.

“You could get false positives and false negatives,” said Rad Cunningham, an epidemiologist with the Washington State Department of Health. “It’s just not very sensitive in that range.”

The CDC doesn’t hold regulatory power, leaving states to make their own decisions on how to proceed. Many have yet to adapt their lead poisoning prevention programs to the last reference change, implemented four years ago, when the level dropped from 10 to 5 micrograms per deciliter. Other states, including Virginia and Maine, made changes this year.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is close to adopting a rule requiring an environmental inspection — and lead cleanup if hazards are found — in any public housing units where a young child tests at or above the CDC threshold.

If the CDC urges public health action under a new threshold, HUD said it will follow through. “The only thing that will affect our policy is the CDC recommendation for environmental intervention,” said Dr. Warren Friedman, with HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes.

To set the reference value, the CDC relies upon data from the National Health and Nutrition Survey. The latest data suggests that a small child with a blood lead level of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter has higher exposure than 97.5 percent of others in the age group, 1 to 5 years.

But in lead-poisoning hotspots, a far greater portion of children have higher lead levels. Wisconsin data, for instance, shows that around 10 percent of children tested in Milwaukee’s most poisoned census tracts had levels double the current CDC standard.

Some worry a lower threshold could produce the opposite effect sought, by diverting money and attention away from children with the worst exposure.

“A lower reference level may actually do harm by masking reality – that significant levels of lead exposure are still a problem throughout the country,” said Amy Winslow, chief executive of Magellan Diagnostics, whose blood lead testing machines are used in thousands of U.S. clinics.

Menasha officials reject replacement plan for lead pipes

Menasha aldermen have rejected a proposal requiring homeowners to replace lead service lines on their properties at their own expense, saying it’s unacceptable.

Property owners could’ve paid between $800 and $2,500 to replace the lines, even though the city has received a $300,000 state grant to help reimburse property owners for some of the costs, The Post-Crescent reported.

Water utility manager Tim Gosz said the utility plans to pursue more grant funding for 2018.

Menasha Utilities officials estimate there are 1,200 to 1,500 lead service lines on private properties.

Lead service lines have been in the spotlight since scientists found Flint, Michigan, residents were exposed to elevated lead levels when the toxic metal leached into water from lead pipes.

Lead can be dangerous for children and expectant mothers, causing things like brain and kidney damage, increased blood pressure, deficits in attention span and hearing, and learning disabilities.

“I’d be concerned that this body only feels abatement is only important when grant dollars are involved,” said Alderman Marshall Spencer, who voted in favor of the plan. “I called it a good step forward but not a total solution before. The science is not debatable, it’s real.

“Anybody who doesn’t understand that, just spend a little time on Google and you’ll see a whole lot.”

The American Water Works Association said there are an estimated 6.1 million lead service lines across the nation.


Survey: Major U.S. food retailers flunk out on pesticide test

Of the top U.S. food retailers, 17 have received an “F” for failing to have a publicly available policy to reduce or eliminate pesticide use to protect pollinators.

Aldi, Costco (COST) and Whole Foods (WFM) received passing grades in this category, according to a report and scorecard released this week that looks at policies and practices regarding pollinator protection, organic offerings and pesticide reduction.

“U.S. food retailers must take responsibility for how the products they sell are contributing to the bee crisis,” said Tiffany Finck-Haynes, food futures campaigner with Friends of the Earth environmental group. “The majority of the food sold at top U.S. food retailers is produced with pollinator-toxic pesticides. We urge all major retailers to work with their suppliers to eliminate pollinator-toxic pesticides and to expand domestic organic offerings that protect pollinators, people and the planet.”

The report, “Swarming the Aisles: Rating top retailers on bee-friendly and organic food,” comes amid consumer pressure on food retailers to adopt more environmentally-friendly sourcing policies.

A coalition led by Friends of the Earth and more than 50 farmer, beekeeper, farmworker, environmental and public interest organizations sent a letter urging food retailers to eliminate pollinator-toxic pesticides and increase USDA certified organic food and beverages to 15 percent of overall offerings by 2025, prioritizing domestic, regional and local producers.

This effort follows a campaign that convinced more than 65 garden retailers, including Lowe’s and Home Depot, to commit to eliminate bee-toxic neonicotinoid pesticides.

Bees and other pollinators are essential for one in three bites of food consumed in the United States. Without pollinators, grocery stores would run short of strawberries, almonds, apples, broccoli and more.

A growing body of science points to the world’s most widely-used insecticides, neonicotinoids, as a leading factor in pollinator declines, and glyphosate, the most widely-used herbicide worldwide, as a key culprit in monarch butterfly declines.

New data from a YouGov Poll released today by Friends of the Earth and SumOfUs found that 80 percent of Americans believe it is important to eliminate neonicotinoids from agriculture.

Among Americans who grocery shop for their household, 65 percent would be more likely to shop at a grocery store that has formally committed to eliminating neonicotinoids.

The poll also revealed that 59 percent of American grocery shoppers believe it is important for grocery stores to sell organic food, and 43 percent would be more likely to shop at a grocery store that sells more organic food than their current grocery store.

“Over 750,000 SumOfUs members have spoken out advocating that U.S. Hardware stores take action to protect our pollinators. And after years of pressure, Home Depot and Lowe’s have finally enacted more bee-friendly policies,” said Angus Wong, lead campaign strategist at SumOfUs, a consumer watchdog group. “And the findings of this poll show that a vast majority of consumers want to eliminate neonicotinoids from their grocery stores too. This is why food retailers must commit policies that protect our bees immediately.”

The report found that while consumer demand for organic and pesticide-free food continues to show double-digit growth only four of the top food retailers — Albertsons, Costco, Target (TGT) and Whole Foods — have adopted a publicly available company commitment to increase offerings of certified organic food  or to disclose data on the current percentage of organic offerings or organic sales.

In addition to these retailers, Aldi, Food Lion, part of the Delhaize Group (DEG) and Kroger (KR) disclosed data on the current percentage of organic offerings or organic sales.

None of the retailers have made a publicly available commitment to source organic from American farmers.

“To protect pollinators, we must eliminate pollinator-toxic pesticides from our farming systems and expand pollinator-friendly organic agriculture,” said Dr. Kendra Klein, staff scientist at Friends of the Earth. “Organic farms support 50 percent more pollinator species than conventional farms. This is a huge opportunity for American farmers. Less than one percent of total U.S. farmland is in organic production — farmers need the support of food retailers to help them transition dramatically more acreage to organic.”

Sixteen of the top 20 food retailers were predominately unresponsive to requests for information via surveys, calls and letters.

Primary sources of information for this scorecard include publicly available information, including company websites, company annual reports, SEC filings, corporate social responsibility and sustainability reports, press coverage and industry analyses.

On the Web

The reportSwarming the Aisles: Rating top retailers on bee-friendly and organic food, survey results, tips for consumers and letters to retailers can be found at www.foe.org/beeaction.

Researchers ID E. Coli bacteria with superbug genes

New Jersey researchers said on Aug. 29 they had identified perhaps the first strain of E. Coli bacteria in the United States with mobile genes that make it resistant to two types of antibiotics now considered the last line of defenses against superbugs.

Researchers said the strain of bacteria was found in a 76-year-old man who was treated in 2014 for a complicated urinary tract infection. Further analysis in 2016 showed the bacterium carried mcr-1, a gene that creates resistance to the last-ditch antibiotic colistin. It was also shown to carry blaNDM-5, a gene that blocks the effectiveness of carbapenems, which are considered medicine’s most reliable current antibiotics now that bacteria have found ways of outwitting other families of antibiotics.

Results of the study were reported on Monday in mBio, an online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

Although the patient was treated successfully with other antibiotics, researchers said the bacterium had the potential to spread and become a powerful superbug.

“The good news is that this did not cause a major outbreak of drug-resistant infection,” said senior study author Barry Kreiswirth, director of the Public Health Research Institute Tuberculosis Center at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.

(Reporting by Ransdell Pierson in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Hit by climate change, Central American coffee growers get a taste for cocoa

Farmer Abelardo Ayala took a tough decision on his estate in San Juan Tepezontes, a traditional coffee-producing region of El Salvador: to swap his coffee trees for cocoa as a warming climate hit his crop.

Ayala said his plantation — situated between 600 and 1,000 metres (1,969-3,281 feet) above sea level in the south-central department of La Paz — had been ideal for growing coffee. But with rising temperatures, production became difficult.

In the last four years, recurring drought, a plague of coffee borer beetles, and other problems linked to climate shifts put his coffee plantation on the ropes.

The farmer tried sowing varieties resistant to a widespread fungus called roya (coffee rust), which affects the leaves and harms bean production, but that failed to protect his harvest.

In low-lying areas, many producers have abandoned their crops, or sold their land to urban developers.

But Ayala started to study the benefits of cocoa, including its low cost of production, good price on international markets, and environmental value such as protecting water basins and wildlife.

“People here are starting to cultivate cocoa in zones where before there was coffee,” the farmer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Drought and climate change are making it impossible to work with coffee, so we produce cocoa now.”

Mexico and Central America, which together produce one fifth of the world’s Arabica coffee beans, have been hit hard by roya and the volatility of coffee prices in the last few years.

“The situation has led many producers to change from coffee to cocoa. It is happening step by step,” said Nicaraguan farmer Luis Moreno, referring to growers in Jinotega department, one of the country’s principal coffee regions.

“Where they have coffee, they get a harvest and then take out (the plant) – so now they are left only with cocoa cultivation,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


Moreno is technical coordinator for the People’s Community Action Association (APAC), which has been giving cocoa plants and technical help to small producers since 2014. He says the program has been a success so far.

The farmers find it cheaper to grow cocoa because it needs fewer workers and around 40 percent less investment in inputs than coffee, while international prices are buoyant. “It is more profitable,” Moreno said.

According to VECO, a Belgium-based NGO that works with small-scale farmers in developing countries, Central America has around 25,000 cocoa producers, spread across Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, growing cocoa on roughly 12,700 hectares (31,382 acres).

VECO estimates cocoa production will expand to around 25,500 hectares in 2019.

“Many studies prove that coffee production will move higher up because of global warming,” said Karen Janssens, regional director of VECO. “For this reason, cocoa could be an alternative for producers whose estates are in lower zones.”


When the Spanish arrived in Mesoamerica in the early 1500s, they observed that indigenous people used cocoa seeds like currency.

Cocoa is a species native to the region, and was cultivated by the Aztec, Mayan and Pipil people until the 19th century when coffee was introduced from Africa, largely replacing cocoa.

Nestor Perez, a member of the Salvadoran National Indigenous Coordinating Council (CCNIS), said indigenous communities began re-introducing cocoa trees on their lands in 2014.

“We can see (this trend) not only from an economic or environmental point of view, but we can also link it with our cultural identity, because our people grew cocoa traditionally,” Perez said.

Indigenous peoples use cocoa to make chocolate, or in ceremonies where they burn cocoa seeds and chocolate in a wood fire to express gratitude to “Mother Earth” for the harvest.

But while cocoa production may be better suited to low altitudes in a warmer world, the writing is not yet on the wall for coffee.

Experts predict farmers will continue to produce coffee in mountainous areas, or adapt the way they cultivate it as the climate changes.

Some coffee producers are making an effort to revive their crop.

Francisco Flores Recinos, for example, has started planting cocoa and other fruit trees among his coffee plants to diversify production on his estate in Jayaque in central El Salvador.

Flores Recinos is growing around 4 hectares of cocoa interspersed with coffee as part of a project supported by the Salvadoran Agriculture Ministry, which is helping more than 300 farmers cope with climate shifts.

“I thought of mixing cocoa and coffee in some areas of my estate where there was water nearby, before roya attacked,” the producer explained.

If his coffee trees do suffer from roya, the profit from his cocoa crop will help cushion any losses, he added.
Reporting by Nelson Renteria; editing by Megan Rowling. Made possible by Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org.

Fighting HIV, one dirty needle at a time

The doctor on a mission met the homeless heroin addict who lived under a tree last year at Jackson Health System’s special immunology clinic when both men were struggling to overcome the odds. Jose De Lemos, infected with HIV and hepatitis C from a shared needle, had gone without treatment for almost a year.

He’d dropped 80 pounds, suffered from night sweats and a rash on his leg and chest. Even walking hurt.

He was in no mood for conversation with a well-meaning doc.

But Hansel Tookes, a University of Miami doctor with a degree in public health and a calling to public service, isn’t the kind of doctor who is easily put off. He talked to De Lemos anyway. Sent him to dermatology, started him on meds for HIV and hepatitis C, worked to find him a bed in rehab, and talked — about his own uphill battle to create a syringe exchange program in South Florida, the kind of program that might have prevented De Lemos’ infection.

A public health advocate in Miami, where new HIV infection rates consistently top the state and national charts, Tookes had been struggling for years to get a bill passed in the Florida Legislature to create a program in Miami-Dade County to help end that terrible distinction.

In that time, he had gone from medical student to doctor. Testified before legislative committees over and over. And learned just how hard he would have to fight to get what he considered a very modest proposal to save lives and improve public health through a conservative, Republican-dominated Legislature.

For De Lemos, his doctor’s commitment to the cause — an unpopular one, at that — was a revelation: “I’m hard-headed. And he’s persistent. He’s like, ‘If you get clean, you can talk about this. You’ll be great . You can help me.’ I admire him because he went through a lot but he kept going.”

Tookes recalled a different moment with his patient: “He started crying because he said he didn’t know people cared.”

For the next eight months, as De Lemos kicked heroin, endured a skin condition that caused blisters across his entire torso and finally saw his sky-high viral count drop, Tookes started seeing hope, too. His proposal, which had been stalled for years, started gaining traction. The nationwide heroin epidemic had changed the dialogue about blood-borne diseases. De Lemos’ appointments with Tookes now usually included an update on the needle exchange bill in Tallahassee. Sometimes, when there was a big vote, Tookes played video recordings of the committee meetings on his phone for De Lemos to see.

“The reception in the ER isn’t great. I had to prop the door open,” Tookes said, with a laugh. “But we watched.”

In March, a full five years after Tookes published a study in a medical journal when he was still a student that documented the harsh reality of illicit needle use in Miami, Gov. Rick Scott signed the Miami-Dade Infectious Disease Elimination Act, making Miami-Dade’s program the first legal needle exchange in the American South.

The victory didn’t mean his fight was over. Legislators weren’t unanimous when they approved the bill, and the IDEA act reflects that: It creates a five-year test program, only in Miami-Dade and without any public financing. Tookes and UM, which will run the program, must raise all the money for the program privately, through grants and donations. Tookes — doctor, public health advocate and needle exchange crusader — must now also become a fundraiser.

He’s undaunted. His determination has carried him this far, and he is already envisioning the rest.

“When I flew back to Miami after the bill had passed, I looked at the city as we were landing at MIA and I thought, what we just did is going to change the health of tens of thousands of people,” Tookes said. “And that was an amazing feeling. And that’s an amazing truth. And that’s where we are.”


Advanced HIV cases

Tookes, a 35-year-old internist, took on the against-the-odds fight for a needle exchange because he felt he had to. Too many people were coming through the doors of Miami-Dade’s public health system like De Lemos, with advanced cases of HIV in an era when the virus that causes AIDS is generally treated as a disease you live with, not one that kills you. Injection drug overdoses were rising, too.

The doctor knew getting people into treatment earlier could make a huge difference in their lives and reduce infections of others. (“I’m trained to look for public health solutions,” he said.) A needle exchange was a step toward that goal. Florida had never allowed a needle exchange program before. But why couldn’t that change?

His grandmother, Gracie Wyche, had set the bar high in his family. She was a pioneering black nurse in Miami who started out in the then-segregated wards of Jackson Memorial and eventually became a head nurse, concentrating on a mysterious illness in the 1980s that later became known as AIDS. Tookes became even more interested in public service during his undergraduate work at Yale University and a stint as an investigator for Project Aware, an HIV testing/counseling clinical trial at UM. He got a public health degree at UM, and then his medical degree.

Now a third-year resident who does his research through UM’s division of infectious diseases at the Miller School of Medicine, Tookes said his grandmother’s work set him on this path. “She inspired me,” he said. “There’s just a long history of service on both sides of the family.”

The HIV numbers drove him, too. In 2014, the Miami-Fort Lauderdale region ranked No. 1 in the nation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the rate of new HIV infections in areas with more than 1 million people. That year, Miami-Dade County had 1,324 new HIV cases, the CDC said, while Broward had 836 cases. Statewide, in 2014, the Florida Department of Health said 110,000 people were diagnosed and living with HIV. People are still dying of the virus: In the United States, 6,955 people died from HIV and AIDS in 2013, according to the CDC.

Tookes saw the toll up close, in the examining room. A man in his 40s who had sex with men, no body fat and pneumocystis pneumonia, a disease often associated with AIDS _ who didn’t know he’d probably had HIV for years. An impoverished woman from Liberty City with a debilitating bacterial infection from a severely compromised immune system, who had never before been tested for HIV. Or a young man diagnosed with HIV a few months ago who revealed to Tookes during a clinic visit that he uses intravenous methamphetamine.

“Everything with this issue _ all of the advocacy that we did for this policy _ was to fix an issue that we were seeing in everyday clinical practice . I think as physicians, we had a duty to intervene,” Tookes said. “We knew there was something we could do for these people to help them from getting so sick, and so we decided to fight for it.”

He faced deep suspicion about the idea going back to the just-say-no 1980s. Although needle exchange programs have become increasingly common even in GOP-controlled states _ Indiana’s governor and now Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence changed his position last year after an outbreak of HIV and hepatitis C _ Florida remained a holdout. Some lawmakers continued to believe that giving addicts clean needles amounted to government-endorsed drug use.

Starting in 2012, Tookes — backed by a coalition including the Florida Medical Association, the Florida Hospital Association and the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office — tried to make headway with lawmakers. When he hit the wall of opposition, he didn’t give up. He didn’t get disillusioned or cynical. He tried again. And again. In the legislative sessions of 2013, ‘14, ‘15.

Then 2016 came along. The heroin epidemic created a whole new conversation around the issue of injection-drug use.

State Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat, sponsored the syringe exchange bill — over and over — because of the high rates of HIV and hepatitis C in his district. He said he saw opposition flag after Florida shut down its “pill mills” starting in 2011, sending opioid users to the needle.

“The first thing people hear is that you’re trying to empower drug users to use drugs,” Braynon said. “But the narrative changed over time … What started to happen is that drug use picked up. First it was people in the ‘hood. But now it’s some of the wealthier people.”

And so the Legislature’s attitude changed. Injection drug use — and the blood-borne diseases that can go with it — were no longer just “a Miami problem,” Tookes said.

“In the context of a nationwide heroin epidemic and in the context of what I believe were many more constituents across the state going to see their senators and representatives and telling them that this was something that was ravaging their communities, we had a lot more of a sympathetic ear from the Legislature this year,” he said.

A needle exchange program won’t fix Miami-Dade’s problem with HIV and hepatitis C. But Tookes says it will help. And though a small percentage of HIV infections can be traced directly to needle use and the biggest risk factor is still sex, reducing the number of shared needles reduces the community’s risk overall. People who share needles don’t always tell their sexual partners that they are at risk.

A needle exchange also brings the hard-core, drug-injecting population into the public health system to be tested and treated. That reduces the risk to everyone else and cuts costs of treating their illnesses.

This is not just theory. In Washington, D.C., the number of new HIV infections dropped from an average of 19 a month to six a month after a needle exchange program was introduced in 2008, according to a study released last year by George Washington University’s public health school. The reduction in cases saved taxpayers an estimated $45.6 million, using CDC estimates that the average lifetime of care for AIDS patients costs about $380,000.

Miami-Dade stands to save money, too, if addicts stop reusing needles. A study co-authored last year by Tookes showed that the cost of treating patients who had bacterial infections as a result of dirty needles ran about $11.4 million a year at taxpayer-funded Jackson Memorial Hospital.

For Tookes, all of these public health arguments start with what he learned on the streets of Miami interviewing intravenous drug users when he was still a medical student at UM. The study he published in 2011 showed that drug users in Miami were 34 times more likely to dispose of their needles in public than drug users in San Francisco, which has had a needle exchange program since 1988.

Tookes still sees the bits and pieces of drug equipment in bushes and along streets, even in upscale places like Brickell Avenue, lined with highrise condos and financial companies from all over the world.

“I still have syringe radar,” he said. “I spot them everywhere.”


Street needles

A few miles away from the Jackson clinics where Tookes works, in the shadow of the Metrorail station in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, Carlos Franco is handing out his precious stash of clean needles to addicts once again.

Franco, 67, says he began his underground one-man operation more than two decades ago after he was horrified to see his girlfriend share needles with other drug users. He buys the sterile syringes, 100 to a box, at his own expense when he has the money, from the North American Syringe Exchange Network.

Franco is instantly recognizable to many in the neighborhood, where orange caps from syringes are sprinkled in vacant, overgrown lots and along sidewalks and under bushes.

“φOye!” yells one man, hailing Franco from a block away.

The operation is quick, Franco reaching into his backpack and handing over several packs of needles. The man, identified only as Flaco _ “Skinny,” in Spanish _ nods his thanks, looks both ways and disappears behind a metal gate next to a house across the street.

Around the corner, near the Interstate 95 overpass, Franco points out the improvised “cookers” that litter the shrubbery, bottoms of soda cans fashioned to heat up drugs. As he’s talking, a blond, thin guy in a T-shirt and jeans walks up poking a toe into the shrubbery.

Franco pulls the box from his backpack. “You need this?”

The man nods, his face now eager. Franco hands him a packet of syringes. Sean says he is 41, from New Jersey, a construction worker when he can find work. He is a heroin addict.

Sean has hepatitis C, something he shrugs off. “If you’re on the streets, it’s sort of required,” he says, with a short laugh that reveals a few missing teeth.

He walks away. A moment later, only half-hidden by a metal fence, he hunches over his arm.

“What really bothers me,” Franco says, “is when the numbers on the side of the syringe are worn off because it’s been used so much. That, and when they use a needle so dull it looks like a nail going into the skin _ it can’t get through.”

Franco knows his needle distribution is both illegal and dangerous, but he’s not sure if he’ll give it up when the official needle exchange program is running. He supports the idea of a legal program but worries about the people who might be too afraid to try it.

“I’ll wait and see,” he says. “A lot of people on the streets know me. I’m not sure if they will go to an official program. The cops might harass the program.”

‘People are still dying’

No one knows exactly why Miami-Dade’s HIV infection rate remains higher than other metropolitan areas, even as medicines are better than ever, statewide rates have declined and mother-to-child transmissions _ AIDS babies _ are rare.

Public health officials rattle off a variety of contributing factors: Thirty-five years into this epidemic, younger people think of HIV as a treatable, chronic disease. Drugs like Truvada, which can prevent HIV infection if taken as a precaution, have added to that perception. HIV is largely an urban disease. Immigration brings people to Florida from places without much access to healthcare or health education. Miami is an international party town, and the highest risk for HIV is unprotected sex, especially for men having sex with men. Testing and medication in South Florida can be difficult to find.

Also, HIV has fallen out of the headlines for the most part, added AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s advocacy and legislative affairs manager Jason King.

“People are still dying. But you don’t get the press coverage … So it’s not at the forefront of people’s minds.”

Stigma is part of the problem, too. If you can’t admit you have HIV, your sexual partners are probably at higher risk.

“It’s not a death sentence like before but the stigma still exists,” said King, who is HIV positive. “And then they have to be conscientious about disclosing it to their next partner and they fear rejection.”

That’s definitely true in Miami-Dade, said Dr. Cheryl Holder, a general internist who works at Jessie Trice Community Health Center and is an associate professor at Florida International University.

Holder says stigma, especially in the African-American community, is one of the toughest issues she combats when she sees patients with HIV.

“We’re seeing changes in communities, but it’s still labeled as wrong and there’s something wrong with you … I still have patients who hide their medicine.”

Walking out of the health center at the end of a day not long ago, she saw one of her patients, a young man in a hoodie, waiting for a ride from a family member. “If it weren’t for his diagnosis, I would have waited with him for his family. But as I walked by, he didn’t look at me and I didn’t look at him. And that’s when I know it’s stigma. He couldn’t just pull me over and say, this is my doctor. We need to normalize healthcare so I don’t have to walk past my patient and not meet his mom.”


Raising money

In some ways, Tookes’ work starts again now. Though Congress lifted a ban on federal funding for needle exchanges late last year, no federal money can be used on needles themselves. And Florida’s bill specifies that no public money can be used for the program.

That leaves Tookes, working with UM, raising it all — about $500,000 a year. And the pressure is on: Other counties in Florida are watching to see how well the program works.

“This pilot program is going to make a big dent in the infection rate in Miami. All eyes are on us. We have to make this a success.”

He has raised $100,000 from private donors locally — including Joy Fishman, the widow of the inventor of Narcan, the “save shot” for people who are overdosing — and another $100,000 from the MAC AIDS Fund.

Nancy Mahon, global executive director of the fund, said that syringe exchanges are key to fighting HIV/AIDS. “Needle exchange programs like this halt new infections, period. There is still work to do, but providing sterile syringes and supportive services to IV drug users is a solid step in order to begin saving lives.”

Miami-Dade’s health department is joining the effort.

“Definitely, we will be helping in any way we can,” administrator Lillian Rivera said. “We can’t buy the syringes, but we definitely will be providing wrap-around services. As the patients come in, we will be ensuring that they will be tested for HIV and hepatitis … All of the services that we have will be available to the patients that come through the door.”

The IDEA Exchange, which will be run through UM, comes too late to prevent De Lemos’ infections. But it’ll help others as the 35-year war on the epidemic continues _ as many as 2,000 in the first year, Tookes said. A project manager will start work in August, and other staff members are next. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is donating the HIV and hepatitis C test kits with the agreement that those identified with one of the diseases will be linked with medical care. Tookes is hoping that other groups will follow.

And De Lemos — at 53, homeless no longer — will do his part, inspired by the fight of his doctor to pass the law. His viral load is so low it’s considered undetectable, and he is looking at life with new eyes. Service is part of his personal plan now. “I really want to be a part of this needle exchange program. If he can do that, I can do anything.”

Tookes says he will measure success with each HIV test, each syringe handed out.

“This has been a long journey … It’s a very exciting time for Miami. We’re going to save a lot of lives. We’re going to save a lot of money. We’re going to give people a lot of clean needles. We’re going to provide HIV tests. We’re going to get people into treatment … We’re going to change the world.”


Published via the AP member exchange.

Feds must decide whether to protect monarch butterflies by June 2019

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now legally bound to determine whether to protect imperiled monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act, according to the terms of an agreement reached conservation groups.

The agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety requires the agency to decide by June 2019 whether the butterflies will receive federal protection. The two conservation groups and allies petitioned in 2014 for protection of the species, which has declined by 80 percent over the past two decades.

“An 80 percent decline points to extinction if we don’t act fast. Protecting monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act is essential to their survival, and will provide a roadmap for safeguarding their habitat and ensuring their recovery,” said George Kimbrell, Center for Food Safety senior attorney and counsel in the case.

In March, the groups filed a lawsuit to force the agency to set a legally binding deadline for a decision on the petition. Under today’s agreement the agency must propose protection for the monarch, deny protection or assign it to the “candidate” waiting list for protection by June 30, 2019.

“The monarch’s future is bleaker today than ever before,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “On top of the loss of milkweed in its summer grounds, logging of its winter home in Mexico has increased, a severe winter storm this spring killed millions of monarchs, and a mine now threatens the Monarch Biosphere Reserve. Endangered Species Act protection can’t come soon enough for this beautiful but beleaguered butterfly.”

In March, a study by the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that there is a substantial probability that the eastern monarch butterfly population could decline to such low levels that they face extinction. Researchers estimate that there is between 11 percent and 57 percent probability that the monarch migration could collapse within the next 20 years. In April Cornell researchers published a paper indicating that in addition to loss of summer milkweed, monarchs are threatened during the fall migration by multiple factors including habitat fragmentation, drought and insecticides.

The butterfly’s catastrophic decline has been driven in large part by the widespread planting of genetically engineered crops in the Midwest, where most monarchs hatch. The vast majority of genetically engineered crops are made to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, a potent killer of milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s only food source.

The dramatic surge in Roundup use and “Roundup Ready” crops has virtually wiped out milkweed plants in midwestern corn and soybean fields. It is estimated that in the past 20 years these once-common butterflies may have lost more than 165 million acres of habitat — an area about the size of Texas — including nearly a third of their summer breeding grounds.

Bugged Out: ’Tis the season that can drive you buggy

A big pink strawberry moon rose high, a rare full moon on the solstice.

Tam Burnett went to the water’s edge to welcome summer. She stood with binoculars in one hand and she swatted at mosquitoes with the other.

Then she swore.

Bugs bug Burnett, even though she’s used to them. She’s an avid recreational fisher who routinely encounters thick masses of mosquitoes, gnats and no-see-ums.

“They are pesky but they also can carry disease. Dude, you have to take precautions,” said Burnett, who wears a homemade repellent of cinnamon and thyme oil.

Burnett, who lives in Tampa, Florida, is hearing a lot of buzz these days about mosquitoes and Zika virus disease.

That buzz carries.

Monica Giménez is hearing the buzz in Racine.

“So, OK. I know the mosquitoes here are not supposed to carry Zika,” she recently told WiG. “But I think there’s a lot still to learn. Mostly I’m concerned because I go to Puerto Rico every September to see family.”

Global health emergency

Reports of outbreaks of Zika virus disease began making headlines in 2015 and, by February of this year, the World Health Organization had declared a public health emergency.

The Zika virus has affected at least 60 countries on four continents and is an epidemic in Latin America and the Caribbean. In Puerto Rico, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported more than 1,700 cases of infection.

Zika virus is spread to people primarily through the bite of infected Aedes species mosquitoes. But sexual transmission — Zika can live in semen for an extended period — also has been documented.

The most common symptoms are flu-like: fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis or red eyes. However, only about 20 percent of people infected with Zika show symptoms. In previous outbreaks, the illness has typically been mild, with symptoms lasting several days to a week after being bitten by an infected mosquito, according to the CDC.

However, evidence now links Zika virus in pregnant women to a serious birth defect of the brain called microcephaly and to Guillain-Barre syndrome, an uncommon condition of the nervous system that damages nerve cells and causes muscle weakness — and sometimes paralysis. In Puerto Rico alone, almost 200 pregnant women have been exposed to Zika so far.

In April, the CDC brought together more than 300 local, state and federal officials to discuss preparations for the likelihood of mosquito-born transmission of the virus in some parts of the continental United States. To date, the U.S. government is tracking active Zika transmission in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and America Samoa. There have been no reports of mosquitoes spreading the virus on the mainland.

“Everyone has a role to play,” CDC director Tom Frieden said in a statement released just before the meeting.

“The mosquitoes that carry Zika virus are already active in U.S. territories, hundreds of travelers with Zika have already returned to the continental U.S., and we could well see clusters of Zika virus in the continental U.S. in the coming months. Urgent action is needed, especially to minimize the risk of exposure during pregnancy.”

Public health officials returned from the CDC’s Atlanta headquarters to their cities and states to organize local and regional responses.

Southern states are on high alert, especially Texas and Florida. In the Florida Keys, there’s been discussion of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes to reduce populations of disease-carrying mosquitoes.

In the northern states, including Wisconsin, officials emphasize safe-sex precautions and the travel warnings, especially for women traveling to locations where there have been active transmissions.

Meanwhile, a recent study found two anti-Zika vaccines to be completely effective in mice. Human safety trials could start in months.

Wisconsin threats

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services has confirmed several Zika virus infections among Wisconsin travelers.

But officials emphasize the Aedes species that can transmit Zika has not been found in the state.

“In over 10 years of monitoring, we have not found the species of mosquitoes identified as Zika carriers in our community,” John Hausbeck, environmental health supervisor for Public Health Madison and Dane County, said after reporting in late May the first Zika virus infection in the county. The woman acquired the infection while traveling in Colombia.

“We will continue to monitor this upcoming season for these specific mosquitoes, in addition to other species that transmit disease,” Hausbeck said.

In Wisconsin, those who venture outdoors have greater reason to be concerned with the West Nile virus and northern house mosquitoes, as well as Lyme disease and deer ticks, which can be found throughout the state.

West Nile is an arbovirus transmitted by the bites of mosquitoes that become infected by feeding on infected birds.

An estimated 80 percent of people infected with West Nile don’t experience symptoms. Those who do may suffer a mild illness — fever, headache, muscle pains, skin rash, swollen lymph nodes. Less than 1 percent becomes seriously ill.

The first human case in Wisconsin was reported in 2002. In 2015, Health Services reported seven human cases of West Nile virus.

Dane County on June 20 reported the discovery of a bird that tested positive for the virus, the first finding after May 1, when surveillance for the season began.

“West Nile virus seems to be here to stay, so the best way to avoid the disease is to prevent mosquito bites and eliminate breeding grounds for mosquitoes,” said Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County.

The county health department — and many others in the state — also issued warnings about peak tick season.

“Because these ticks carry Lyme disease and other pathogens, people should take care to do tick checks whenever they have been out in woods, even in their own backyards,” advised Susan Paskewitz, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of entomology.

The UW-Madison’s Insect Diagnostic Lab in the entomology department is one of the best resources in Wisconsin on insect research and trends.

In its Top Insect Trends of 2015 review, the lab reported on the emerging health threat posed by deer ticks.

“Deer tick populations have exploded in the past few decades” and “one of the more alarming trends is urban encroachment,” the lab reported.

About 40 percent of adult ticks in Wisconsin carry the microorganism responsible for Lyme disease. So, “this is an issue that will continue to exist in the state for years to come,” according to the lab.

Lyme disease can produce a range of symptoms, including rash, fever, headache, fatigue, stiffness and joint pain. If left untreated, complications may include meningitis, facial palsy, heart abnormalities and arthritis.

The state reported more than 3,200 human cases of Lyme disease in 2015, and that number is believed to be just 10 percent of the total cases.

Deer ticks also can spread other diseases — including anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis — with similar symptoms to those of Lyme disease, so-named because it was first recognized in Lyme, Connecticut.

On June 23, in its weekly overview of conditions at state parks, trails and forests, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reported, “Mosquitoes and deer flies are out but some areas are reporting that so far — knock on wood — they have not been as bad as some recent years.”

That’s good news to outdoors enthusiast Andrew Colman of Milwaukee, who said he was finalizing plans for his family to go fishing on the Fourth of July.

“We protect ourselves, of course,” Colman said. “But less bugs is better.”

Giménez also has plans to get outdoors for the Fourth, with perhaps a biking trip in Kettle Moraine State Forest.

“Well, summer is the best time in Wisconsin,” she said.

Burnett, meanwhile, will be on the water somewhere, bathed in her thyme-and-cinnamon repellent.

Did you know?

The tropical mosquitoes that spread Zika virus bite mostly during the daytime. The same mosquitoes also spread dengue and chikungunya viruses.

Home remedies,  pollinator protections

A pesticide is a substance used to control unwanted plants, rodents and insect pests. Pesticides include herbicides, rodenticides, fungicides and insecticides. WiG has published many reports about the environmental harm caused by chemical pesticides, especially insecticides.

There are many steps to deal with pest control without using pesticides:

• Avoid pest problems by burying infested plant residues, removing pest habitat and planting pest-resistant plants.

• Clear out any containers that collect water, as even a bottle cap of water can provide breeding ground for insects.

• Plant native flowering plant species to support pollinators. Also, chose plant species naturally resistant to insect pests, including lavender and catnip.

• Apply plant-based organic pesticides.

• Employ netting, screens or traps.

Sources: Task Force of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, Natural Resources Defense Council

Essential oils for outdoors

WiG invited readers to share their favorite natural insect repellents. Recommendations include: a mixture of lemon eucalyptus oil and sunflower oil or witch hazel; crushed lavender flowers mixed with sunflower oil; cinnamon oil and water; and thyme oil and water.

On the Web 

Recommended surfing:

Bugs of the Week, a blog by Kate “The Bug Lady” Redmond, www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/.

• Reports from the Insect Diagnostic Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, labs.russell.wisc.edu/insectlab/.

The Outdoor Report, an overview of conditions in state parks, trails and forests from the Department of Natural Resources, dnr.wi.gov/news/or/.

images - news - lavender

UN: Growing environmental threat from animal-to-man diseases

The most worrying environmental threats facing the world today range from the rise in diseases transmitted from animals to humans to the increasing accumulation of toxic chemicals in food crops as a result of drought and high temperatures, according to a U.N. report.

The U.N. Environment Agency’s Frontiers report also highlighted the threat to human health posed by the alarming amount of plastic waste in the oceans, and scientific evidence suggesting that losses and damage from climate change are inevitable, with “profound consequences” for ecosystems, people, assets and economies.

The report emphasizes “the critical relationship between a healthy environment and healthy people,” and stresses the importance of combatting global warming by moving to a low-carbon future.

According to the report, the 20th century saw dramatic reductions in ecosystems and biodiversity — and equally dramatic increases in the numbers of people and domestic animals inhabiting the Earth.

This increased the opportunity for viruses, bacteria and other pathogenic agents to pass from wild and domestic animals through the environment to cause diseases in people, the report said.

These diseases — called “zoonotic” or “zoonoses” diseases — include Ebola, bird flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Rift Valley fever, West Nile virus and Zika virus, it said.

In the last two decades these emerging diseases have had direct costs of more than $100 billion, the report said, and “if these outbreaks had become human pandemics, the losses would have amounted to several trillion dollars.”

According to the report, “around 60 per cent of all infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic as are 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases.” And “on average, one new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months,” it said.

While many zoonotic diseases originate in wildlife, livestock often serve as a bridge, the report said, citing the case of bird flu which first circulated in wild birds, then infected domestic poultry which in turn passed the virus to humans.

As for toxic chemicals in crops, normally plants convert nitrate into amino acids and protein but drought slows the conversion causing nitrates to accumulate and become toxic to animals, the report said.

Worldwide, over 80 plant species are known to cause poisoning from accumulation of nitrates and wheat, barley, maize, millet, sorghum and soybeans are among the crops most susceptible, it said.

“Acute nitrate poisoning in animals can lead to miscarriage, asphyxiation and death,” the report said, and it can ruin the livelihoods of small farmers and herders.

Another toxin associated with climate change is hydrogen cyanide or prussic acid that can accumulate in plants such as cassava, flax, maize and sorghum, it said.

Mycotoxins, which are chemical by-products of the growth of mushrooms and other fungi, “can cause severe damage to the health of animals and humans, even at small concentration,” the report said. And “mycotoxin-producing fungi infect many crops such as coffee, groundnut, maize, oilseeds, peanut, sorghum, tree nuts and wheat.”

Aflatoxins, which are fungal toxins that can cause cancer and stunt fetal growth, are another emerging problem in crops, the report said.

Throw some shade: Milwaukee’s trees, vital to urban well-being, are vanishing

To paraphrase Smokey Bear, only you can prevent the loss of our urban forest. Shade trees are essential to our quality of life, forming a canopy of foliage that plays an important environmental role. But the tree canopy is dwindling and local property owners are largely responsible.

Only one in five shade trees on private property that are lost to disease, old age and storm damage are being replaced — and that rate is far too low. According to Joe Wilson, executive director of the nonprofit Greening Milwaukee, the situation is especially worrisome within Milwaukee’s city limits.

“Property owners are no longer enamored of planting trees,” Wilson says. Instead, urban dwellers are investing in pergolas, awnings, umbrellas and other strategies to create shade. Changing lifestyles and successful marketing by landscape and home-improvement industries are making people forget about trees, he explains. Fire pits and patios made of pavers or concrete are leaving less space for substantial trees in urban yards that often are postage-stamp-sized.

Why does the declining tree population matter?

Shade trees — the tall ones that form a canopy of leaves — are as essential to life as water, Wilson says. They provide respite, beauty and habitats for wildlife. But they also contribute to clean air and water. They decrease stormwater flow and noise pollution. They reduce energy consumption.

The City of Milwaukee is doing its part to maintain trees in the city. City forestry manager David Sivyer told WiG that 98 percent of all felled trees on city streets are being replaced. In fact, the city has earned accolades for its urban forestry program. Milwaukee County also does its part in maintaining and replanting trees on public land.

Trees on public land, however, provide only part of our urban canopy.

Trees and well-being

Rich Cochran, president of Western Reserve Land Conservancy in Cleveland, cites research documenting a correlation between tree canopy and the health of communities. For example, in cities where the emerald ash borer wiped out tree canopies almost overnight, mortality from cardiovascular diseases jumped 10 percent. The mapping of trees in Cuyahoga County revealed a direct correlation between a small tree canopy and rates of crime and poverty.

He said the canopy varies among the Cuyahoga County’s municipalities, from about 20 percent coverage in poor areas to 80 percent in wealthy suburbs.

“We have to reforest our cities together,” he told a TED-X audience at Cleveland State University. “It’s not going to happen otherwise.”

Reforesting can transform an urban area into “a new kind of city … based on foundational laws of biology,” Cochran says.

He proposes that simply planting more trees in sparsely treed urban areas will dramatically change the overall environment.

Re-greening Milwaukee

Both public and private efforts are underway to address Milwaukee’s declining canopy.

City forestry manager Sivyer reports that Milwaukee’s tree canopy covers only about half of what it did in the 1970s. The canopy stood at about 23 percent of the city in 2013, down from around 30 percent in the 1990s and 55 percent in the 1960s and 1970s. A great deal of the loss is due to the blight of Dutch elm disease, which wiped out trees in Milwaukee and across the nation.

Greening Milwaukee, which is affiliated with Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful, has set a goal of reaching a citywide canopy rate of 40 percent, which is closer to rates that are common in suburbs and small towns.

Wilson acknowledges the goal is ambitious. To encourage tree planting, Greening Milwaukee offers 2,000 donated saplings each year. In 2015, only 500 city residents signed up for the free trees. Greening Milwaukee has planted the remaining trees in parks or on public land near the Milwaukee River that may be subject to erosion.

The City of Milwaukee is proactive in its canopy efforts, and that’s not gone unnoticed. The conservation organization Urban Forests named Milwaukee among the top 10 of the 50 most populous U.S. cities for its urban forest in 2013. (Others are Austin, Charlotte, Denver, Minneapolis, New York, Portland, Sacramento, Seattle and Washington, D.C.) The honor was based on factors that include civic commitment to maintaining the urban forest, governmental strategies for management and addressing challenges, accessibility of urban forests and other green spaces, overall health of the city’s urban forest and documented knowledge of the city’s trees.


City government also has taken a proactive approach to another major threat to tree canopy: the emerald ash borer. For now, the city is succeeding in keeping the scourge at bay through effective treatment before trees get infected.

The borer was discovered in Milwaukee in 2012 and the city has since ordered the removal of 603 ash trees on 222 private properties. The city’s preventive treatment of ash street trees to avert borer infestation has proven successful thus far.

Although ash trees are indigenous to Wisconsin, their dominance in the landscape, both naturally and through planting, has made the tree canopy vulnerable. John Lunz, who volunteers several days a week to remove invasive species from county parks and nature centers, laments the fact that urban foresters did not learn to prioritize biodiversity following the devastating loss 20,000 of elms to Dutch elm disease.

“Municipalities have been guilty of planting trees of little or no ecological value and also planting a near-monoculture of them — inviting disaster when a pest arrives,” Lunz says.

Wilson notes that the emerald ash borer crisis has finally gotten cities, including Milwaukee, to plant a more diverse array of street trees. But while street trees were replanted, property owners did not replace lost elms and other mature trees, he says.

Experts on sustainability warn of dire consequences if people fail to recognize the necessity of planting and maintaining large trees. For instance, Milwaukee will become hotter through the “heat-island” effect, which is caused by large areas of concrete surfaces that absorb heat and clusters of buildings that throw off heat. Heat islands contribute to global warming, which in turn exacerbates the problems created by warming. Green roofs and trees help to mitigate the damage.

Increasing the number of trees on private property will require mindset changes. Wilson says homeowners will have to start considering the community benefits of planting trees on their properties instead of focusing on concerns about possibly having to remove a mature tree someday or prune its limbs away from power lines.

It’s also crucial that homeowners commit to planting shade trees and not just ornamental or orchard trees, Wilson says: The latter do not significantly add to canopy cover.

Wilson says city officials can help by requiring developers to plant trees as a contingency for approving projects. For example, he doubts the new Bucks arena project is mandating an appropriate number of trees to be planted.

Wilson also thinks governments could take steps to incentivize planting trees on private property.

He hopes Milwaukeeans will “fall in love with shade trees” again, and look no farther than their own backyards for enjoying them.

WiG plants a tree

WiG advertiser Johnson’s Nursery is donating a musclewood tree, also known as American hornbeam, to be planted behind our office on East Capitol Drive. The musclewood is a not a shade tree, but a native tree that’s limited root system makes it perfect for small spaces near buildings and pavement.

According to the Urban Ecology Center: “Musclewood … usually grows in the understory of our mixed-hardwood forests. The foliage, bark and fruits are important food for lots of different songbirds, as well as squirrels, grouse, turkeys, foxes, cottontails and beavers.” — PHOTO: Courtesy
According to the Urban Ecology Center: “Musclewood … usually grows in the understory of our mixed-hardwood forests. The foliage, bark and fruits are important food for lots of different songbirds, as well as squirrels, grouse, turkeys, foxes, cottontails and beavers.” — PHOTO: Courtesy

According to the Urban Ecology Center: “Musclewood … usually grows in the understory of our mixed-hardwood forests. The foliage, bark and fruits are important food for lots of different songbirds, as well as squirrels, grouse, turkeys, foxes, cottontails and beavers.”

As we headed to press, the tree was slated to be planted on Earth Day, April 22. Send your #EarthDay thoughts and activities to @wigazette.

Get a tree for free

Homeowners and community groups can request free saplings by calling 414-473-TREE or visiting Greening Milwaukee’s website. Individuals can also make a donation to have Greening Milwaukee plant a tree as a gift for a wedding, birthday, anniversary, memorial or other occasion.

Tips for choosing and planting trees

Consider various types of trees. While all trees benefit humans and the environment, shade trees are especially needed on private property to maintain sufficient urban tree canopy. Shade trees can vary in size and other traits, including fall color.

Evaluate your site carefully for tree-planting options. Even small yards can accommodate a shade tree if it is placed correctly. Check for potential barriers and challenges to long-term growth both above and below ground. Then research the mature size and growth pattern, as well as light, soil and water preferences of potential choices.

Opt for native trees and ones not overly dominant in a neighborhood or city. Biodiversity makes ecosystems more resilient, while monocultures are more fragile. Trees that are indigenous to a region provide habitat for birds and others species.

Carefully follow planting and care guidelines. Poorly planted trees may not thrive. Sufficient water and protection also are essential.

Attentively maintain your trees. Ensure the ongoing health of trees with proper care, including effective pruning and timely attention to any problems. Consult a tree expert periodically to assess your trees’ health.

For more information on selecting and planting trees, visit the Arbor Day Foundation’s website at www.arborday.org/trees/tips.