Subscribe to Featured

Children's Health

‘Water lady’ on front lines in campaign against arsenic in Georgia wells

McMahan preaches the use of water filters to eliminate contaminants in household water from wells.

Janet McMahan preaches the use of water filters to eliminate contaminants in household water from wells.

 

Janet McMahan figured it out five years ago — just before her son Ben was diagnosed with cancer.

Starting in 2008, she had skin cancers erupting all over her body, including parts “where the sun don’t shine.” Her two dogs had also developed cancer.

McMahan had just given a talk about world hunger at an Irwin County church, and had read about Bangladesh. In that impoverished South Asian country, millions of people were being exposed to arsenic in their drinking water from wells.

She says she woke up in the middle of the night in October 2009, contemplating pieces of a puzzle. “God put it together,” she says.

She told her husband, Dr. Howard McMahan, an Ocilla family physician, “I know what is wrong with me.”

The water.

The McMahans got their water from a private well on their Ocilla property.

They had the water from their tap tested, and it came back with negligible levels of arsenic.

At about the same time, their son Ben, a Valdosta State University student who had been a three-sport athlete in high school, grew sick.

Ben McMahan

Ben McMahan

The family thought at first that Ben’s problem was food poisoning. But he was diagnosed that November with gastro-esophageal junction adenocarcinoma. He was 24.

“It had to be the water,’’ Janet McMahan says now.

Seeing a pattern, the McMahans stopped drinking their well water.

Since that horrible diagnosis five years ago, Janet McMahan has been a crusader on environmental health in South Georgia, and especially on contaminated well water. During that time, health officials in Georgia came to recognize the potential danger of arsenic in well water.

Officials of the state’s Department of Public Health sent alerts last year to elected officials in 10 counties in South Georgia, as well as to UGA Cooperative Extension agents, health care providers, veterinarian facilities and local libraries, urging people to test their well water regularly to ensure what they were drinking was safe. A news release on the issue was sent to local media.

Public Health repeated the warnings this year.

But McMahan says many people across South Georgia haven’t yet gotten the word that the water coming out of their taps should be tested to make sure it isn’t endangering their health.

 

 

The unseen contaminant

 

McMahan says arsenic and other elements in unfiltered water from wells have led to many cancers and other illnesses in the southern part of the state.

She also believes that in agricultural areas, some of the arsenic contained in poultry litter fertilizer has seeped into the water that people drink. The drought of 2008 concentrated the arsenic at an abnormally high level, she says.

The family’s arsenic situation became clearer in early 2010, she says, when a woman who helped with Dr. McMahan’s medical billing said her husband had been hospitalized with arsenic poisoning.

Water contamination issuesAn extension agent had tested that couple’s tap water and found a negligible level of arsenic. Then he tested a sample drawn from their water heater, which showed much higher amounts of arsenic.

So the McMahans tested water that came from their own water heater. That sample had high levels of arsenic, iron and manganese, Janet McMahan says.

The state Department of Public Health estimates that one in five Georgians regularly drinks water from private wells — a figure that might surprise people in developed urban areas.

“We have a lot of rural areas that don’t have access to municipal water,’’ says the Department of Public Health’s Chris Rustin.

Most people in Irwin County drink well water, says Dr. McMahan, a past president of the Georgia Academy of Family Physicians. “There is no safe level of arsenic exposure,” he adds.

At least partly due to Janet McMahan’s advocacy, many people in Irwin County and surrounding counties have begun testing their well water for arsenic and other contaminants.

“Janet started it all,’’ says Wanda McLemore, a longtime UGA extension service employee in Fitzgerald before her retirement this year. “She’s brought a lot of awareness to it.”

“Everybody knows Janet,’’ says Betty Metts, 39, who has survived an extremely rare form of breast cancer.

Together, Metts and McMahan take reporters around an area near the Alapaha River in Berrien County where, they say, many residents have had cancers. All are from households that use well water.

 

Well-known but poorly understood

 

Arsenic, classed as a heavy metal, is an element that occurs naturally in certain rocks, ores and soils. The amount varies by region.

Ingested in large quantities, arsenic causes severe gastrointestinal illness and death relatively quickly. From ancient times until fairly recently (when advances in science made it more detectable), it was the favorite poison of murderers. Members of the Borgia clan of Renaissance Italy were infamous for using arsenic to dispatch their political enemies.

distagain

The South Health District has 10 counties.

Today at least, the greatest danger from arsenic is not homicidal, but environmental.

When the element is present in drinking water, people can ingest small amounts over a long period of time without realizing it. Though the effect is not as swift or dramatic as what happened to the Borgias’ victims, serious health problems can develop.

Arsenic enters drinking water supplies from natural deposits in the ground or from agricultural and industrial practices, according to the EPA. It does not affect the taste of the water.

According to a fact sheet prepared by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), arsenic is a known human carcinogen associated with skin, lung and bladder cancer, and it has also been connected with kidney and liver cancer. The fact sheet adds that ingesting arsenic can also predispose children to other health problems later in life.

The U.S. government has put limits on how much of this toxic element is allowable in drinking water. The maximum level of inorganic arsenic permitted is 10 parts per billion (ppb). But while public water systems are routinely tested for it, there are no regulations that mandate testing of water from private wells.

Approximately 7 percent of wells in the nation are thought to have arsenic levels above 10 ppb, NIEHS says.

No Georgia or federal regulations govern wells that have fewer than 15 connections (water meters) serving fewer than 25 people. Owners of these wells are under no obligation to check the water for harmful bacteria or minerals.

Given that situation, most people who rely on these private wells “don’t know what they’re drinking,” the head of the University of Georgia’s water-testing laboratory, Uttam Saha, told GHN earlier this year.

A basic water test picks up most common problems affecting private wells. But homeowners can ask for broader testing to detect bacterial contamination or heavy metals. “You should ask for arsenic tests in South Georgia,’’ Rustin of Public Health says.

The arsenic in South Georgia’s water is linked to the Gulf Trough, a natural deposit of sediment underneath the Floridan aquifer that runs from the Florida Panhandle through South Georgia. It slashes straight through the health district that includes Irwin County.

Aside from a few outliers, most water samples that tested higher than the federal limit for arsenic came to the University of Georgia’s testing lab from wells along the Gulf Trough.

 

Thomas County water study

 

In 2011, a Thomas County resident told state officials that arsenic concentrations in private drinking water wells in that area exceeded federal standards. The Department of Public Health followed up with a study.

“The resident described health problems and reported that neighbors have health complaints they think may be a result of arsenic exposure, including cancer, weight loss, difficulty swallowing, night blindness, fatigue, hair loss, stomach, kidney and bladder problems, and sick pets,” said a 2012 report written by Jane Perry, director of Public Health’s chemical hazards program.

Thomas County

Thomas County

The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension analyzed 36 private water samples from Thomas County for arsenic. Twenty-five tested positive, and 18 exceeded the maximum level of 10 ppb. The report noted that the rates for several types of cancer were elevated in Thomas County.

As McMahan and others note, arsenic is sometimes used in agriculture, where it can seep into the water supply. (Agriculture is the main business in much of South Georgia.) The EPA says high arsenic levels can come from certain fertilizers and animal feeding operations.

U.S. poultry farmers were allowed for years to feed their chickens an antibiotic called roxarsone, which contains arsenic. The drug was pulled from the U.S. market in 2011. American companies can still use a different arsenic-containing drug, nitarsone, to protect turkeys and other poultry from deadly infections.

Litter is a mixture that includes manure, feathers and other materials from where poultry are kept. Farmers often choose it as a cheap and effective fertilizer. But litter from chickens that have ingested arsenic-containing drugs can retain arsenic, a UGA Extension Service report says.

Wells that have been tested in agricultural areas more often contain trace elements such as arsenic than did those in urban areas, the U.S. Geological Survey reported in 2011.

And in Southern states, including Georgia, farmers would dip their cattle in large vats containing arsenic to ward off pests, up till the 1960s.

When arsenic seeps into the ground, it doesn’t break down or decay over time.

Buying more time

 

Ben McMahan’s cancer was very unusual, his father says.

“Nobody in their 20s has this,’’ says Dr. McMahan. “He was very healthy — never had a health problem,’’ he adds.

(A decade earlier, Dr. McMahan says, he had noticed some strange esophageal cancers among his patients.)

Ben received treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where surgeons removed most of his esophagus, the top third of his stomach, and lymph nodes in his chest.

“He had a tremendous response,” and his health improved, Dr. McMahan says. The next year, Ben had 10 inches of his colon removed at Sloan Kettering.

Then, in 2012, Ben had a recurrence. He took chemo again. He had surgery on his colon, again at Sloan Kettering.

“They couldn’t find the tumor anywhere,’’ Janet McMahan says.

Again, Ben recovered.

 

Spreading the word

 

Public Health officials and extension agents in Georgia have sent out advisories about arsenic and well water since 2011. David Kissel, head of the Agricultural and Environmental Services Laboratories at UGA, sent county extension agents an email about high levels of arsenic (and uranium) in some well water samples. The arsenic samples “were widely distributed geographically in Camden, Irwin, Tift, Bibb and Lowndes counties,” he said in the email.

“It is not our intent to alarm the public,’’ Kissel said, but his message urged agents to “encourage more testing of private wells used for drinking water.”

When Ben McMahan was battling cancer in 2012, Perry of Public Health sent his mother an email that said, in part: “The drought concentrates the levels of arsenic in groundwater.

The two McMahan dogs that developed cancer.

The two McMahan dogs that developed cancer.

“The levels of arsenic are high enough to increase the risk of cancer in south Georgia and we are seeing statistically significant rates of some arsenic associated cancer types in some counties; e.g., lung. . . . But as you know, it is very difficult to prove a cancer cluster, and even harder [to prove] that it might be caused by this or any other environmental exposure. Arsenic is the most complex chemical, in that it causes several different cancers. Most chemicals are organ system specific. However, I am impatient to get the word out too so that people reduce, eliminate exposure, and that those who haven’t tested, do so.”

The agency last year sent out an advisory for people in 10 South Georgia counties to test their well water for arsenic. It sent out another advisory this year.

But Rustin of Public Health, in an email to Georgia Health News on Friday, said that at this time, his agency cannot attribute cancer cases in Georgia to arsenic exposure. “It is important to note while the study indicates elevated incidence of some forms of cancer, they are not cancers typically associated with arsenic exposure.’’

Yet the Thomas County study found elevated levels of lung cancer for males from 2005 to 2009. That’s a type of cancer associated with arsenic.

Arsenic is not easily absorbed by the skin, and does not “stick” easily to hard surfaces (such as dishes) or clothing, so cleaning, laundering, brushing teeth, and bathing are not considered routes of exposure, Rustin added.

 

Smoking gun is elusive

 

High cancer rates have been found in the 10-county district that includes Irwin County. The rate of bladder cancer, which can be associated with arsenic, is slightly higher than the state average in four of the 10 counties: Lowndes, Ben Hill, Tift and Turner, according to the National Cancer Institute.

For Georgia as a whole, 18.6 people per 100,000 will be diagnosed with bladder cancer each year.

In the four counties mentioned above, annual incidence rates ranged from 20.4 to 20.8. In the other six counties of the district, the likelihood of being diagnosed was either negligible or no different from the rest of the state.

Irwin County

Irwin County

People living in the 10-county area are also more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer, another tumor associated with arsenic. Each year, 81.6 new cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed for every 100,000 people, which is significantly higher than the state average of 71 new cases per 100,000.

There’s a competing explanation for this, however: South Georgia generally has higher rates of smoking than other areas of the state, and smoking is the top cause of lung cancer.

Yet an Irwin County nurse who worked with an area hospice says she recalls four people who did not smoke but had lung cancer. “All of them were on well water,’’ says Crystal Brown of Irwinville, who gets water from a well herself. “I have children, and it definitely concerns me.”

The incidence of skin cancers, another common malignancy associated with arsenic, is statistically insignificant throughout most of the counties in the district, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Carcinogens can be identified in an area’s water, but it is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether a specific case of cancer is directly attributable to a water source.

Cancer clusters are also notoriously difficult to identify. In a true cluster, according to the CDC, a greater-than-expected number of cancer cases must hit within a specific period of time. Each case must either be the same type, or derived from the same cause.

One problem with establishing direct causation is that cancer is all too common. As the CDC points out, it is the second-leading cause of death in the United States. Nationwide, one out of four deaths are due to some type of cancer.

Since 1990, state and local health agencies around the nation receive about 1,000 inquiries each year from people wondering if deaths in a particular locality constitute a cancer cluster. Very few of these reports qualified as true clusters.

Still, McLemore, the longtime UGA extension service employee in Fitzgerald, says the area surrounding Irwin County has “an awful lot of cancers.”

“Clean and safe drinking water is essential to a healthy environment,’’ says Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, executive director of GreenLaw, nonprofit law firm that works to reduce pollution. “Many Georgians depend on private wells as their primary source for drinking water. Arsenic in well waters can be a health concern, as long-term exposure above the EPA limit increases the risk of some types of cancer.”

 

Water heater debate

 

Janet McMahan’s emphasis on water heater samples has raised skepticism among some water experts.

“You’re supposed to drink cool water and cook with cool water,” says Jake Mowrer of the Agricultural and Environmental Services Lab of UGA. “You don’t drink from the hot water heater.”

Sediment from the house’s water pipes builds up inside the tank over time – and since it’s not cleaned out regularly, trace amounts of minerals can accumulate into thick piles, he says.

“Given that drinking hot water heater water is not recommended and that no person would be expected to quaff back a huge Mason jar of orange water, common sense tells me that this water is not representative of what the well owners are actually drinking,” Mowrer adds.

The lab uses a special filtering process for water heater samples, he says.

McMahan argues that arsenic builds up in a water heater like it builds up in a human body.

She takes reporters to a rural area in Ben Hill County where four children were diagnosed with cancer within nine months back in 2008. Each was within a 6-mile radius of the others, and all drank well water, McMahan says. She believes that a severe drought during that period elevated arsenic levels in the water. Two of the children had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, while the other two had different forms of cancer, she says. All four are alive today.

Gage Kicklighter is one of the four. Nicole Kicklighter thinks her son’s cancer was caused at least partly by well water he drank. She admiringly calls Janet McMahan “the water lady.”

A survey conducted by UGA researchers found that Georgia had about 648,000 private wells in 2012. The Soil, Plant and Water Testing Lab receives samples from about 23,000 of those wells every year, or roughly 3.5 percent.

High levels of uranium — a naturally occurring element found at low concentrations in virtually all rock, soil, and water — were recently detected in Monroe County well water. This is a public health concern because drinking water with elevated uranium increases the risk for kidney malfunction.

(Thanks to a federal loan of close to $2 million, Monroe County will finally be able to provide water to the area where many home wells are polluted by uranium, the Macon Telegraph reported Saturday.)

At UGA's Soil, Plant and Water Lab (SPW),  tests determine how much coliform bacteria are in each sample. Each cell in this tray contains E. coli, the most dangerous type of coliform.

Well water can also contain dangerous bacteria. At UGA’s Soil, Plant and Water Lab (SPW), each cell in this tray contains E. coli, the most dangerous type of coliform bacteria.

 

Public Health officials urge Georgians to test their well water once a year for bacterial contaminants, and every three years for minerals such as arsenic.

Water tests are fairly cheap – $15 for the basic test, $30 for the bacteria test – and highly accurate.

McMahan preaches the use of water filters to eliminate contaminants in household water. She buys such filters “for little old ladies and for kids.”

 

Grief redoubles resolve

Since Ben’s illness began, Janet McMahan has been an evangelist for water testing.

She has a Facebook group that has topped out at 5,000 friends. “About 1,000 are moms of kids with cancer; about 1,000 have cancer; and about 1,000 have a family member with cancer.”

Janet McMahan with a photo of her son Ben.

Janet McMahan with a photo of her son Ben.

 

Ben McMahan’s cancer came back again in January 2013. This time it was inoperable. And by that point, his body couldn’t tolerate more chemo.

A third recovery was not possible. But though doctors gave him two to six months to live, Ben lived for 14 more months. He died in April at age 28.

His death has spurred Janet McMahan onward. She is a one-woman clearinghouse for people with possible water contamination or other environmental health problems in Georgia.

She has met Erin Brockovich, whose crusade against contaminated water in California was the basis for a hit movie.

On the importance of testing water and using filters, McMahan says, “I hammer, hammer, hammer it.”

“I have this bulldog tenacity,’’ she adds. “When I take on something like this, I can’t let it go.

“This is how I keep Ben’s story alive.”

 

Lee Adcock is a master’s degree health and medical journalism student at the University of Georgia. She is also a music critic for various media outlets.

 

Lee Adcock is a first-year health and medical journalism student at the University of Georgia. She is also a music critic for various media outlets.

- See more at: http://www.georgiahealthnews.com/2014/05/georgias-water-healthy-tastes/#sthash.dXkN6p1q.dpuf

Lee Adcock is a first-year health and medical journalism student at the University of Georgia. She is also a music critic for various media outlets. – See more at: http://www.georgiahealthnews.com/2014/05/georgias-water-healthy-tastes/#sthash.dXkN6p1q.dpuf
Lee Adcock is a first-year health and medical journalism student at the University of Georgia. She is also a music critic for various media outlets. – See more at: http://www.georgiahealthnews.com/2014/05/georgias-water-healthy-tastes/#sthash.dXkN6p1q.dpuf

 

The Medicaid pay raise: Doctors finally got it, but soon may lose it

Dr. Evelyn Johnson examines a patient in her Brunswick office.

Dr. Evelyn Johnson examines a patient in her Brunswick office.

Dr. Samuel Church is among Georgia physicians who received their first pay raise in more than a decade this year for treating Medicaid patients.

The extra money gave a financial boost to Church, a family medicine doctor with a solo practice in the mountain town of Hiawassee.

With the increased reimbursement, he says, “I can cover the [office] overhead and a little more. . . . We’re already operating at narrow profit margins as it is.”

That Medicaid pay increase, though, will disappear in January if the budget recommendation from the Georgia Department of Community Health to the governor and Legislature holds up during the state’s budget process.

The proposal approved by the Community Health board last week for this fiscal year and next did not include what experts estimate as $50 million to $70 million in annual state funding to extend the pay hike for primary care doctors treating Medicaid patients.

Currently, the pay raise is being funded entirely by the federal government, as a provision of the Affordable Care Act, bringing doctors’ pay for Medicaid up to the level of Medicare.

The additional reimbursement, which goes to family physicians, pediatricians and internists, is scheduled to run out at the end of December.

Doctors say if that cutoff happens, Georgia’s poor will find it harder to find a physician to treat them. Roughly 60 percent of Georgia physicians currently accept Medicaid patients.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Nathan Deal, Sasha Dlugolenski, said in an email to GHN on Thursday, “The governor will be developing his budget recommendations throughout the fall and is aware of this issue – one of the early, blatantly obvious examples of Obamacare unloading costs onto the states. This was a short-term Band-Aid to a long-term problem, and now the states are left holding the bag.”

Sen. Judson Hill (R-Marietta) told the AJC that he supports compensating doctors fully for treating Medicare and Medicaid patients. But he told the newspaper that he is opposed to the state “being forced’’ to picking up the entire cost of maintaining the pay increase.

 

Taking new patients

 

For Church, going back to the former pay rate would be a big setback.

The area around Hiawassee, in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains near North Carolina, gets its main revenue from tourism. But the population base is small, and many residents have low incomes. The area has a severe physician shortage, Church says, and roughly 30 percent of his patients are Medicaid beneficiaries.

Dr. Samuel Church with a patient in his Hiawassee practice.

Dr. Samuel Church with a patient in his Hiawassee practice.

“It’s really scary,’’ says Church. “You have to be able to pay staff and overhead” to keep a practice going.

Recently, two physicians moved out of the area, he notes. “I’m the only doctor taking new patients in the community.”

Inadequate payment, Church says, “makes it difficult for new providers to choose service to vulnerable groups, even if their heart is there.”

The federal health law required that the raise be paid for two years, 2013 and 2014.

But the money didn’t arrive till this year. Eligible doctors received the pay hike retroactively, back to Jan. 1, 2013. Delays in the payments occurred in many states, including Georgia, that use managed care in their Medicaid programs.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study estimated in 2012 that the increase in Georgia’s Medicaid payment rate for doctors would be 48 percent.

A handful of states have announced they will continue to pay the higher rate in 2015, out of their own budgets. The six states include Alabama and Mississippi, according to a recent Kaiser Health News article.

The Medical Association of Georgia says it’s studying the impact of the loss of the extra pay in terms of physician participation in Medicaid. When fewer doctors participate in Medicaid, fewer patients have access to care.

 

Hard choices for physicians

 

Dr. Evelyn Johnson, a Brunswick pediatrician, says losing the pay hike would be devastating for physician practices.

A large majority of her patients in Georgia’s coastal region are on Medicaid. Johnson, president of the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says if the pay reverts to the former rate, “I wouldn’t be able to take new Medicaid patients.”

“I’m trained to serve the underserved,’’ Johnson says. But she adds, “There are only so many patients I can see in a day. If kids can’t get into a doctor to be seen, they will wind up in urgent care or the emergency room,” which will run up higher costs for the state.

Many physicians don’t take Medicaid patients, or limit the number they will take, notes Johnson, a solo practitioner.

Extending the pay raise “is the right thing to do,’’ Johnson says. Children, who make up the majority of Georgia’s Medicaid beneficiaries, need the medical foundation that pediatricians provide, she adds.

For Dr. Michael Satchell, an Albany family physician, the pay raise “has been instrumental in accepting more Medicaid patients in my practice.”

It has allowed him to hire a nurse practitioner and a medical assistant. “Before that, what I was paid wasn’t covering my overhead,” Satchell says.

If the state doesn’t act to preserve the current rate, patients will find access to care more difficult, he says, with “fewer providers to choose from.”

Home cooking: Schools put new emphasis on locally grown lunches

Chef Josh Aaron (far left) and Debbie Morris (far right) prepare the salad with food service manager Debra Patton.

Josh Aaron  and Debra Morris (far right) prepare salad with food service manager Debra Patton.

Fresh, locally grown fruits, vegetables and meats are the emerging stars of school menus across Georgia.

“Farm to school [programs] and bringing local foods into the school has been increasingly popular over the last couple of years,” said Nancy Rice, state director of the Department of Education’s school nutrition division.

Some schools purchase produce from nearby farms while school is in session, Rice said, while a few contract with local farmers who freeze summer produce that can be used during the school year.

The Jackson County School System is doing more: Chef Josh Aaron is building special menus around Georgia-grown food. Aaron owns The Savory Spoon restaurant in Jefferson, where diners feast upon fresh and locally sourced ingredients.

On a chilly day in mid-April, all 12 schools in the district served a “Spring Salad with Chicken and Local Lettuces,” featuring Georgia-grown Bibb and Romaine lettuce and fresh chicken. Other ingredients included strawberries from North Florida, apples, Parmesan cheese and Italian dressing.

The chef himself strolled among the lunch tables at North Jackson Elementary School, an imposing but friendly presence.

“I’m there to talk to the kids about local produce and get them interested,” Aaron said. He wants the kids to know more about the food whether they actually like eating it or not.

 

Push from first lady

 

Meanwhile, healthy school lunches made national headlines this week, as first lady Michelle Obama vowed to fight industry efforts at rolling back federal standards.

A House bill up for consideration this week by the Appropriations Committee would allow schools to apply for waivers from the federally mandated standards if the school’s food program has recorded a financial loss for six months in a row, the Washington Post reported.

YouTube Preview Image

Mrs. Obama urged health activists to fight agribusiness’s lobbying efforts to allow schools to opt out of the mandates to reduce sodium, increase whole grains, and increase servings of fresh fruits and vegetables in lunches.

In Jackson County, though, Chef Aaron wants to expose children to as many kinds of fruits, vegetables and fresh, unprocessed meats as possible.  If kids broaden their tastes while they’re young, their “number one, go-to” food is less likely to be fried chicken fingers or nuggets, he said.

This is the second Georgia-centered meal the chef has created for local schools. The first featured slow-cooked pulled pork, braised collard greens, and carrots marinated in a citrus vinaigrette. The carrots and the collard greens were harvested in Georgia, and the meal was served to all 12 schools in the Jackson County school system in March.

The goal is for students to know and care where their food comes from and to appreciate “good, wholesome, non-processed foods,” said Debra Morris, nutrition director for the Jackson County School System.

If a child is asked to imagine a carrot, Morris wants them to visualize root vegetables that grow in soil and vary in size and color – not a plastic bag of uniform “baby” carrots milled by machines.

Similar efforts are under way throughout Georgia.

 

‘Feed My School’

 

The Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) sponsors a program called “Feed My School for a Week,” and schools vie to take part.

Recently announced 2014 participants are Annie Bell Clark Elementary in Tifton, Cave Springs Elementary in Rome, Claxton Elementary in Claxton, Commerce Primary School in Commerce and Mossy Creek Elementary in Cleveland.

For a week next spring, these schools will serve meals made mostly from Georgia-grown ingredients. GDA will help the schools create recipes and get local food. The schools will host guest speakers who will teach students about food and agriculture, and run contests and taste tests.

This 3-year-old program aims to improve the health of Georgia students by changing cafeteria menus and bringing farms and lunchrooms closer by helping schools with Farm to School initiatives.

Farm to School is a nationwide initiative that emphasizes not only buying food from local growers, but also teaching children to raise their own vegetables in school gardens. The Georgia effort is led by Georgia Organics, a nonprofit organization that promotes Georgia farms and locally grown food.

Georgia’s Farm to School program “was a little slow for the first two years back around 2007, but the demand is higher than ever,” said state director Erin Croom.

Only a few schools signed up at first, but when the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted a national Farm to School census in 2011-2012, more than half of Georgia’s school districts  (52 percent) were on board. Another 19 percent said they might join in the future.

Nationwide, just 43 percent of schools had Farm to School activities during the 2012-2013 school year, and only 13 percent were considering such programs.

Although Georgia’s programs look successful by comparison, they have room to grow. During the 2011–2012 school year, respondents spent close to $10 million on locally grown food, but their overall spending on food was close to $155 million. However, more than half of the schools (66 percent) said they plan to supply their cafeterias with more local food in the future.

Josh Aaron answers questions from students

Josh Aaron answers questions from students at North Jackson Elementary

In Jackson County, chef Aaron’s initiative is gathering momentum. Commerce City Schools have served his two local food menus to their students, and the Jefferson City School System may join next year.

The chef says there is much more work to do, and he doesn’t see his partnership with the schools ending any time soon. His plans include creating more and better menus for kids and a hub where local, certified naturally grown and organic farmers can send their produce for school distribution. Aaron has already spoken with farmers who are interested in supplying the schools, even if they just break even.

“We have a large group of local business [owners] who have a vested interest in these kids’ health and want to do whatever it takes to make them more energetic and successful in the classroom,” Aaron said in an email.

Putting fresh, locally grown food on the menu was just Aaron’s vision a year ago. Now that it’s become reality, he wants to see more fresh food coming down the cafeteria line. “We’re right on the first stepping stones of this work, “ Aaron said. “Now [we’ve] got the next steps to take.”

 

Hyacinth Empinado is a freelance science writer. She is currently a first-year graduate student in the health and medical journalism program at the University of Georgia.

Autism and eye contact: Baby research yields surprise, hope

Baby

How long a baby looks into people’s eyes provides an early sign of whether the child will probably develop autism, research has shown.

Infants who later developed autism began spending less time gazing into people’s eyes between 2 and 6 months of age, according to a study by the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta.

But building off this research, a new Marcus Center analysis found that some babies with declining eye fixation undergo a “course correction” at 18 months. They show an increase in gazing — and don’t develop autism.

This phenomenon, the authors say, could mean there’s a “window of opportunity” for early treatment and intervention, and it may be a feasible goal to foster such “course corrections” in a larger number of children at greater genetic risk for autism.

Their findings were presented at the world’s largest autism research conference, the International Meeting For Autism Research (IMFAR), taking place in Atlanta this week.

More than 1,700 researchers, delegates, autism specialists and students are gathering to exchange the latest scientific findings and stimulate research into the nature, causes and treatments for autism.

One in 68 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a 30 percent increase from 1 in 88 two years ago, according to a March report by the CDC. Georgia has a slightly higher autism rate than the national average, which may reflect the better services and awareness in the state.

The disorder is characterized by difficulties with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.

Warren Jones

Warren Jones

There is no known cure for autism. But Autism Speaks, a national autism science and advocacy organization, says nearly half of autistic children who receive early intervention with applied behavioral therapy will recover “typical function” and another 40 percent will improve significantly.

Warren Jones, director of research at the Marcus Autism Center, and lead author of the new study, told GHN on Thursday that the children that showed a “course correction’’ actually began that change at 9 months old.

“Those infants found a way to learn about the social world,” making the change without treatment, Jones said.

But treatment could help babies who show greater vulnerability of developing autism, he said.

The average age of autism diagnosis is 4.5 to 5 years old. Jones said at some specialty clinics, diagnoses can be achieved at 18 to 24 months.

The Marcus Center, where more than 5,700 children received diagnostic and treatment services in 2013, currently has a treatment study of children 12 months old who have had early vulnerabilities identified.

“There has been an enormous increase in autism research,” Jones said. “We still have enormous amounts to learn.”

 

Do parents’ jobs matter?

 

A second study that garnered some interest at the conference is one that tracked the occupations of parents who have children with autism.

A researcher at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston discovered that certain jobs may be linked to a higher rate of children placed on the autism spectrum.

Aisha Dickerson of the Houston center used data from two previous studies with 273 children ages 7 to 18 years.

In these cases, fathers of the children were six times more likely to work in health care and four times more likely to work in finance, after adjustment for demographic variables, the analysis found.

Dickerson said Thursday that she divided the occupations into technical (not people-oriented) and non-technical (jobs that are people-oriented, such as teaching). She said she accounted for socioeconomic status in the analysis.

These parents of children with autism, she said, “may have characteristic symptoms or behaviors similar to autism.”

David Mandell, associate director of the Center for Autism Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, when asked to comment about the research, expressed reservations about it. He said that among other things, the occupation categories appeared too broad.

Dickerson told GHN she began the analysis after learning that many scientists and engineers had children with autism.

But she emphasized that she does not want to imply in her study “that people in technical occupations will have an autistic child.”

“It’s an exploratory analysis,’’ Dickerson said.

 

Camp with a special focus gives comfort and fun to grieving children

Camp Magik helps grieving children deal with their loss.

Camp MAGIK provides grieving children with professional counseling and fun activities

Weekend sleepover camps for children can be about more than crafts and canoeing.

During the past two decades, Rene McClatchey has helped hundreds of  grieving youngsters recover from devastating losses.

Every year, McClatchey, an assistant professor of social work at Kennesaw State University, runs three weekend-long sessions called Camp “MAGIK,” an acronym for “Mainly About Grief In Kids.” Registration is open now for this year’s first camp, which takes place April 25-27 in Cartersville.

Supported by charitable donations and volunteers, all three camps are free. They are divided into two groups, one for ages 7 to 11 and the other for ages 12 to 17.

While the children spending the weekend at camp get professional counseling for grief, they also get a chance to just be kids having fun. They go swimming, climb a rope course and hike the foothills of North Georgia. “Diversions” are important for these kids in a very literal sense.

The camps are especially for children suffering from what professionals call “complicated grief,” a condition that differs from normal mourning but can be hard to identify.

Children can be hit so hard by loss that they question the value of their very existence, said McClatchey. “It’s thinking, ‘I don’t know how I can go on, life has no meaning anymore.’ ”

“It becomes complicated when these feelings keep hanging on and there is no relief from them,” said McClatchey. Her camps are intended to get kids past this point, to give them hope, and to keep them moving forward. Sometimes it can be difficult to know which kids need help.

 

The unrecognized need

 

“The kid that gets into trouble at school after Mom dies, he’ll be sent to camp because they know something is going on with him. But the kid who is quiet and overachieves is the one that I’m concerned about,” said McClatchey, “because you usually miss that one.”

CampMAGIK_KidRepressed grief can have devastating consequences down the line, including suicide.

It doesn’t help that our culture pressures people to get over loss quickly.

“We don’t allow people to stay in a state of bereavement for very long, whereas in other cultures there can be a whole year of mourning,” said Betsy Vonk, Ph.D., a professor of social work at the University of Georgia and McClatchey’s research collaborator.

The timing of the death and whether it could be anticipated determine how a family responds. McClatchey and Vonk recently published a study showing that treatment may be more effective if the cause of death is taken into account, and counseling is tailored to the individual in bereavement.

When a loved one’s death comes as a shock, Vonk said, survivors might be left with “some very complicated relationship dynamics that were unresolved when the person died, and the grieving person can’t let go because they’re still trying to sort it all out.”

Environmental factors can also complicate grieving, and McClatchey says many of Camp MAGIK’s kids come from inner-city neighborhoods. “They hear ambulance sirens more often and there are more gunshots. So they become hypervigilant.” Children from low-income families are less likely to have access to mental health services, too, and Camp MAGIK may be their only chance to receive professional counseling.

 

Parents welcome

 

“We accept based on need,” said McClatchey. “We have to give preference to those who have lost a parent or sibling.”

Roughly 55 to 60 kids attend each camp. McClatchey says it would not be therapeutic if the camps were any larger. Due to high demand, they do not accept repeat campers.

Besides Cartersville, the camps are held in Hampton and Clarkesville.

Although Camp MAGIK focuses on children, McClatchey says the experience also helps parents who come along for the weekend. In fact, parents are encouraged to attend.

“What happens is that the child won’t talk to the parent because they don’t want the parent to start crying, and the parent doesn’t talk to the child about the loss because the parent doesn’t want the child to cry,” said McClatchey. “We encourage them to grieve together and we encourage them to answer questions honestly.”

For more information, visit http://www.campmagik.org/ or call 404.790.0140. Thanks to a grant from The Moyer Foundation and other private donations, Camp MAGIK sessions are free for children. Reservations are necessary.

 

Andrew Lowndes is a graduate student pursuing an M.A. in health and medical journalism at Grady College at the University of Georgia. He studied neurobiology as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and hopes to explore mental health topics as a science writer.

 

 

  • Sign up for our mailing list.