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This week in science: Peanut allergies, poop at the beach, and pet safety in heat

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is time now for our science roundup with our friends at NPR's Short Wave podcast. That would be Regina Barber and Aaron Scott. Hi, you two.

AARON SCOTT, BYLINE: Hello.

REGINA BARBER, BYLINE: Hey. How's it going?

KELLY: It is going great. OK. Let's get to it. We've got three stories this week. Give me a little tease.

BARBER: OK. We're going to talk about peanut allergies, pets in the summertime...

SCOTT: And poop on the beach.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: OK. I think we went downhill in that list. Why don't I circle back before I lose my appetite? Regina, kick us off with peanuts, please.

BARBER: Yeah. So for a lot of parents, it can be confusing when it's safe to introduce certain foods to your kids, especially things like peanuts. The current guideline today is, in most cases, that you should feed peanut products to infants early, around 4 to 6 months, to help them avoid the development of severe peanut allergies. But a study out this month in the journal Pediatrics surveying 3,000 people who care for infants found that most people are not doing this.

KELLY: Well, because it seems so counterintuitive - I mean, my personal experience, I have a son with a tree nut allergy, like walnuts, pecans and so on, and we've spent his whole life avoiding them like the plague. So this guidance is really different from the guidance some of us have been given in the past.

BARBER: Right. Exactly. I got the same advice over 10 years ago. The medical advice as currently as a decade ago was to avoid peanuts in infancy. And so now the new guidelines are counterintuitive. And some parents in the study actually said that they were scared to follow the new advice, thinking that early exposure might result in a severe allergic reaction in their kids. That didn't actually happen. Only 1% of babies in the survey had reactions, and they were relatively mild.

And research over the years has largely supported this idea that introducing peanuts to babies 4 to 11 months old is a good thing because it sharply reduces peanut allergies among high-risk kids. And that's why the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases released their current recommendations back in 2017 saying earlier introduction is better. But apparently that message is still not getting through to a lot of folks.

KELLY: And do we know why not, why this message is not getting out?

BARBER: Yeah. Well, not everyone is hearing it. It turns out that the guidelines are not being communicated to all the caregivers in the same way. For instance, the communities most likely to be aware of this new guideline are white, higher educated and wealthier, which researchers say reflects unequal health care access. Dr. Waheeda Samady, who led the study, says that even though the guidelines are starting to take hold...

WAHEEDA SAMADY: We still have a ways to go, and we specifically have targeted areas of the population that need this public health message.

BARBER: And just a final caveat here - caregivers should talk to their pediatrician about this if their child has a severe case of eczema or an egg allergy. They may need to be tested by a specialist before trying out peanuts for the first time.

KELLY: OK. It is safe to say that, in my long broadcasting career, I have never before pivoted from peanuts to poop.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: So here we go. Aaron, you have the honors. Lay it on me.

SCOTT: I know. Well, I mean, nothing says summer fun like fecal contamination at the beach. Am I right?

KELLY: Yuck. Yeah. Although we do keep seeing these headlines. It seems like every year a beach is closing, and it's because of dangerous water quality. How widespread is this?

SCOTT: So possibly more common than you think. Earlier this month, an organization called Environment America issued this report that found that more than half of the beaches tested in the United States had potentially unsafe levels of fecal contamination at least one day last year. And then about 1 in 9 of those beaches had unsafe levels at least a quarter of the days they were tested.

KELLY: Do I dare ask where it is coming from?

SCOTT: A number of places - there is pollution from things like failing sewage and stormwater infrastructure. And of course, you know, heavier storms are coming with climate change, so that will likely increase - and then from places like livestock and factory farms.

KELLY: This is not making me excited to go swimming, Aaron.

SCOTT: I'm sorry to say that it's not just the water. Other research has found that these fecal bacteria also live in beach sand. I spoke with Alexandria Boehm. She's a professor of environmental engineering at Stanford, and she studies coastal contamination. And she said that both wet and dry sand are home to all sorts of bacteria, viruses and other critters.

ALEXANDRIA BOEHM: And that's just natural. They are our friends for maintaining a healthy ecosystem at the beach. The problem comes when we have pollution at the beach that contributes microorganisms that may cause a health risk.

KELLY: OK. So yuck. However, it is hot, and I love the beach. So if we're going to swim anyway, how do we do it in a way that's safe?

SCOTT: No. I mean, go to the beach. Just kind of monitor your beaches. Like, Environment America put all of this data into a dashboard online, and you can look up beaches by state and see if they have past contamination. A lot of states themselves post this data, like the Florida Healthy Beaches program. And then when you're at the beach, you just want to practice good hygiene, like washing your hands before you eat, covering up a cut or wound so it doesn't get sand in it and then probably keeping it out of the water and, you know, keeping an eye out. If there's been a big rainstorm, you might not want to visit a beach with a history of contamination.

KELLY: Our third and final story - as we mentioned, it is hot in a lot of the country right now - really hot. And we've been talking about all kinds of ways to keep people safe. I want to talk about our pets. What's the advice?

BARBER: Yeah. So our NPR colleague Rachel Treisman wrote about this recently on npr.org. And some of the stuff she heard from experts is easy. Like, don't walk your dog in the middle of the day. Look out for hot asphalt. Keep an eye out for ticks and fleas, which are more active in the heat.

SCOTT: But there's one thing you might not know, and that is that pets can get sunburn just like us. So, you know, this is, of course, a bigger risk for animals that are hairless or that have thin or short coats. But it can be an issue for even the hairier beasts, like a husky or a golden retriever if you're grooming them with shorter hair. That can increase their risk of sunburn.

KELLY: I had no idea. I keep our dog's hair cut really short in the summer because I figure it's keeping him cool. Are we supposed to be putting sunscreen on our pets?

BARBER: I mean, you can. There are actually special sunscreens designed for that, but the easier thing is just not to keep them outside too long. Or, if they are outside, make sure they have lots of water and shade. But you don't want them in an enclosed place without airflow like a doghouse.

SCOTT: And then just keep an eye on that furry friend. You know, if you notice they're drooling a lot or if their tongue has taken on kind of a deep red or purple color or they seem a bit shaky, those could be signs of heat stroke, in which case, if you've got a pet thermometer, take their temperature. Anything above 105, and you're going to want to cool them down.

KELLY: And how are we supposed to cool them down? Like, do we run through the sprinkler, hop in the pool, what?

BARBER: I mean, those things work, right? And the key is to cool them slowly. So you could also use towels soaked in cool water - just not an ice bath because if they get cold too quickly, it can cause their blood vessels to constrict, which will actually make it harder for them to cool off.

SCOTT: And like Regina mentioned the hot asphalt and pavement earlier, one expert did tell NPR that if it is too hot for you to touch with the back of your hand, it could also be too hot for your pet's paws. So in that case, you know, seek out somewhere shady or walk them in the grass instead.

KELLY: Tips for our pets in this heat. That is Aaron Scott and Regina Barber from NPR's science podcast Short Wave, where you can learn all about new discoveries and everyday mysteries and the science behind the headlines. Aaron and Regina, thank you.

SCOTT: Thank you.

BARBER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATMOSPHERE SONG, "OKAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Regina G. Barber
Regina G. Barber is Short Wave's Scientist in Residence. She contributes original reporting on STEM and guest hosts the show.
Aaron Scott
Aaron Scott (he/him) is co-host of NPR's daily science podcast, Short Wave. The show is a curiosity-fueled voyage through new discoveries, everyday mysteries and the personal stories behind the science.