Its always a thing to celebrate, getting these new papers out. This one covers a topic close to home. After years of doing global health work, I never thought I’d be doing domestic health and even less certain that I’d be covering topics just down the road from me.
Together with partners from Wayne State University (Health Urban Waters), UM-Dearborn and the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, we characterized the state of recurrent flooding in Detroit, MI and explore possible public health impacts. The article appears in the International Journal of Environmental Research in Public Health. This was extremely rewarding work.
Article is open access.
Household flooding has wide ranging social, economic and public health impacts particularly for people in resource poor communities. The determinants and public health outcomes of recurrent home flooding in urban contexts, however, are not well understood. A household survey was used to assess neighborhood and household level determinants of recurrent home flooding in Detroit, MI. Survey activities were conducted from 2012 to 2020. Researchers collected information on past flooding, housing conditions and public health outcomes. Using the locations of homes, a “hot spot” analysis of flooding was performed to find areas of high and low risk. Survey data were linked to environmental and neighborhood data and associations were tested using regression methods. 4803 households participated in the survey. Flooding information was available for 3842 homes. Among these, 2085 (54.26%) reported experiencing pluvial flooding. Rental occupied units were more likely to report flooding than owner occupied homes (Odd ratio (OR) 1.72 [95% Confidence interval (CI) 1.49, 1.98]). Housing conditions such as poor roof quality and cracks in basement walls influenced home flooding risk. Homes located in census tracts with increased percentages of owner occupied units (vs. rentals) had a lower odds of flooding (OR 0.92 [95% (CI) 0.86, 0.98]). Household factors were found the be more predictive of flooding than neighborhood factors in both univariate and multivariate analyses. Flooding and housing conditions associated with home flooding were associated with asthma cases. Recurrent home flooding is far more prevalent than previously thought. Programs that support recovery and which focus on home improvement to prevent flooding, particularly by landlords, might benefit the public health. These results draw awareness and urgency to problems of urban flooding and public health in other areas of the country confronting the compounding challenges of aging infrastructure, disinvestment and climate change.
Is pollen associated with suicide? That’s the question we sought to answer. Pollen related allergic rhinitis is associated with depressive symptoms, discomfort, pain, sleep disruptions, isolation and reduced quality of life in people who have them. Our team, led by UM researcher Dr. Rachel Bergmans, set out to test associations of suicide mortality in Ohio with pollen exposures using data from Ohio’s vital records and a novel prognostic, model based raster of daily pollen counts from Dr. Allison Steiner’s team at UM’s College of Engineering.
We explored associations of suicide with exposure to four types of pollens and the paper can be found here (Open access for 50 days). Suicide is serious. Though the causes of suicide are complex, pollen allergies are associated with depressive symptoms, isolation, pain, discomfort and for some, complete debilitation. #suicide#pollen#epidemiology
Background Seasonal trends in suicide mortality are observed worldwide, potentially aligning with the seasonal release of aeroallergens. However, only a handful of studies have examined whether aeroallergens increase the risk of suicide, with inconclusive results thus far. The goal of this study was to use a time-stratified case-crossover design to test associations of speciated aeroallergens (evergreen, deciduous, grass, and ragweed) with suicide deaths in Ohio, USA (2007–2015).
Methods Residential addresses for 12,646 persons who died by suicide were linked with environmental data at the 4–25 km grid scale including atmospheric aeroallergen concentrations, maximum temperature, sunlight, particulate matter <2.5 μm, and ozone. A case-crossover design was used to examine same-day and 7-day cumulative lag effects on suicide. Analyses were stratified by age group, gender, and educational level.
Results In general, associations were null between aeroallergens and suicide. Stratified analyses revealed a relationship between grass pollen and same-day suicide for women (OR = 3.84; 95% CI = 1.44, 10.22) and those with a high school degree or less (OR = 2.03; 95% CI = 1.18, 3.49).
Conclusions While aeroallergens were generally not significantly related to suicide in this sample, these findings provide suggestive evidence for an acute relationship of grass pollen with suicide for women and those with lower education levels. Further research is warranted to determine whether susceptibility to speciated aeroallergens may be driven by underlying biological mechanisms or variation in exposure levels.
Doing research in developing countries is not easy. However, with a bit of care and planning, one can do quality work which can have an impact on how much we know about the public health in poor countries and provide quality data where data is sadly scarce.
The root of a survey, however, is sampling. A good sample does its best to successfully represent a population of interest and can at least qualify all of the ways in which it does not. A bad sample either 1) does not represent the population (bias) and no way to account for it or 2) has no idea what it represents.
Without being a hater, my least favorite study design is the “school based survey.” Researchers like this design for a number of reasons.
First, it is logistically simple to conduct. If one is interested in kids, it helps to have a large number of them in one place. Visiting households individually is time consuming, expensive and one only has a small window of opportunity to catch kids at home since they are probably at school!
Second, since the time required to conduct a school based survey is short, researchers aren’t required to make extensive time commitments in developing countries. They can simply helicopter in for a couple of days and run away to the safety of wherever. Also, there is no need to manage large teams of survey workers over the long term. Data can be collected within a few days under the supervision of foreign researchers.
Third, school based surveys don’t require teams to lug around large diagnostic or sampling supplies (e.g. coolers for serum samples).
However, from a sampling perspective, assuming that one wishes to say something about the greater community, the “school based survey” is a TERRIBLE design.
The biases should be obvious. Schools tend to concentrate students which are similar to one another. Students are of similar socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicity or religion. Given the fee based structure of most schools in most African countries, sampling from schools will necessarily exclude the absolute poorest of the poor. Moreover, if one does not go out of the way to select more privileged private schools, one will exclude the wealthy, an important control if one wants to draw conclusions about socio-economic status and health.
Further, schools based surveys are terrible for studies of health since the sickest kids won’t attend school. School based surveys are biased in favor of healthy children.
So, after this long intro (assuming anyone has read this far) how does this work in practice?
I have a full dataset of socio-econonomic indicators for approximately 17,000 households in an area of western Kenya. We collect information on basic household assets such as possession of TVs, cars, radios and type of house construction (a la DHS). I boiled these down into a single continuous measure, where each households gets a wealth “score” so that we can compare one or more households to others in the community ( a la Filmer & Pritchett).
We also have a data set of school based samples from a malaria survey which comprises ~800 primary school kids. I compared the SES scores for the school based survey to the entire data set to see if the distribution of wealth for the school based sample compared with the distribution of wealth for the entire community. If they are the same, we have no problems of socio-economic bias.
We can see, however, from the above plot that the distributions differ. The distribution of SES scores for the school based survey is far more bottom heavy than that of the great community; the school based survey excludes wealthier households. The mean wealth score for the school based survey is well under that of the community as a whole (-.025 vs. -.004, t=-19.32, p<.0001).
Just from this, we can see that the school based survey is likely NOT representative of the community and that the school based sample is far more homogeneous than the community from which the kids are drawn.
Researchers find working with continuous measure of SES unwieldy and difficult to present. To solve this problem, they will often place households into socio-economic "classes" by dividing the data set up into . quantiles. These will represent households which range from "ultra poor" to "wealthy." A problem with samples is that these classifications may not be the same over the range of samples, and only some of them will accurately reflect the true population level classification.
In this case, when looking at a table of how these classes correspond to one another, we find the following:
Assuming that these SES “classes” are at all meaningful (another discussion) We can see that for all but the wealthiest households more than 80% of households have been misclassified! Further, due to the sensitivity of the method (multiple correspondence analysis) used to create the composite, 17 of households classified as “ultra poor” in the full survey have suddenly become “wealthy.”
Now, whether these misclassifications impact the results of the study remains to be seen. It may be that they do not. It also may be the case that investigators may not be interested in drawing conclusions about the community and may only want to say something about children who attend particular types of schools (though this distinction is often vague in practice). Regardless, sampling matters. A properly designed survey can improve data quality vastly.
I was part of a short, but interesting discussion last night regarding this very good article on the political implications of data analysis. The argument made (assuming I understood it correctly) was simply that statistical measures are inherently ideological since they impose a particular view of the world from one social group (us, the elite) on another (the non-elite). She takes this further, stating that though the voice of the elite can be heard through anecdotes (and opinionated blog posts), the experience of the non-elite relies on statistics and numbers. Statistics, then, is the language of power.
The conversation went further to discuss the implications of statistical methods themselves, particularly the measures of central tendency: the mean, median and mode. With perfectly symmetrical data, these measures are all the same, but, of course, no set of data is perfectly symmetrical, so that the application of each will produce different results. Though any responsible statistician would make statements of assumptions, limitations and appropriateness, with politics, these statements are overlooked and the method chosen is often that which best supports one’s political position, asking for trouble.
Moreover, the measure of central tendency itself in inherently flawed since it concentrates on the center and silences the extremes, supporting the status quo, or so it was argued. The choice of measure, I would argue, depends on the goals of the particular study. For example, a study which sought to determine if average graduation rates lower for blacks than whites would necessarily use a measure of central tendency, while a study on which students in a particular school are the least likely to graduate might look at outliers and extremes.
Either way, I agreed with the writer that, no matter what, we are influenced by our ideology. However, there is a difference between performing a study which seeks to maintain impartiality for the greater good and one which seeks to deceive in order to merely win a political battle, particularly among those who benefit from marginalizing, for example, the poor and disenfranchised.
However, I found this passage quite interesting and it can be applied to a post on this blog regarding what we do and don’t know about the poor:
Perhaps statistics should be considered a technology of mistrust—statistics are used when personal experience is in doubt because the analyst has no intimate knowledge of it. Statistics are consistently used as a technology of the educated elite to discuss the lower classes and subaltern populations, those individuals that are considered unknowable and untrustworthy of delivering their own accounts of their daily life. A demand for statistical proof is blatant distrust of someone’s lived experience. The very demand for statistical proof is otherizing because it defines the subject as an outsider, not worthy of the benefit of the doubt.
Part of my academic work focuses on the refinement of measurements of poverty. I am keenly aware of the “othering” of this process and how these measurements use a language of the educated elite (me) to speak for the daily experiences of people not like me.
This “othering” is not limited to statistics at all. Even merely referring to “the poor” is a condescending labeling of a group of people who are mostly powerless to speak for themselves within global power structures. Moreover, “the poor” ignores the diverse and varied experiences of most of humanity.
When I first entered the School of Public Health at UM, I was extremely uncomfortable with the language used in studies of ethnicity and public health in the United States. Studies would simply throw people into simplistic categories of black, white, hispanic, asian and “other” (whatever that is), ignoring the great diversity of people within, for example, urban slums. The method of categorization seemed to be a horrible anachronism and bought back awful memories of Mississippi. Simply putting people into neat categories risked continuing an already divisive view of the world.
However, the more I thought about it, the method is justified since we are looking at the effects of a racist view of the world on the very people who are the most burdened by it. Certainly, there are better ways of viewing the world, but when criticizing social power structures, it can be advantageous to speak its language. I still don’t like it, but I’m at least more understanding of it.
It’s a fine thread to walk. On the one hand, as advocates for “the poor,” we have to work within the very structures which oppress, exploit and ignore them. To succeed, however uncomfortable it may be, we may be required to adopt the language of those structures. On the other, we must remain aware of the potentially dire implications of the ways in which we describe those we advocate for and how they can be misused.