Is it really healthier to live in the countryside?

But evidence-based research that can help us identify the healthiest environments to live is surprisingly scant. As scientists begin to tease apart the links between well-being and the environment, they are finding that many nuances contribute to and detract from the benefits offered by a certain environment – whether it be a metropolis of millions or a deserted beach.

“What we’re trying to do as a group of researchers around the world is not to promote these things willy-nilly, but to find pro and con evidence on how natural environments – and our increasing detachment from them – might be affecting health and well-being,” says Mathew White, an environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter Medical School.

White and other researchers are revealing that a seemingly countless number of factors determine how our surroundings influence us. These can include a person’s background and life circumstances, the quality and duration of exposure and the activities performed in it.

Generally speaking, evidence suggests that green spaces are good for those of us who live in urban areas. Those who reside near parks or trees tend to enjoy lower levels of ambient air pollution, reduced manmade noise pollution and more cooling effects (something that will become increasingly useful as the planet warms).

Wellington, New Zealand

The research shows that green spaces are good for urban dwellers, which should be welcome news to residents of Wellington, New Zealand (Credit: Getty Images)

Natural spaces are conducive to physical and social activities – both of which are associated with myriad benefits of their own.

Time in nature has been linked to reduced physical markers of stress. When we are out for a stroll or just sitting beneath the trees, our heart rate and blood pressure both tend to go down. We also release more natural ‘killer cells’: lymphocytes that roam throughout the body, hunting down cancerous and virus-infected cells.

Researchers are still trying to determine why this is so, although they do have a number of hypotheses. “One predominate theory is that natural spaces act as a calming backdrop to the busy stimuli of the city,” says Amber Pearson, a health geographer at Michigan State University. “From an evolutionary perspective, we also associate natural things as key resources for survival, so we favour them.”

This does not necessarily mean that urban denizens should all move to the countryside, however.

City residents tend to suffer from more asthma, allergies and depression – but they also tend to be less obese, at a lower suicide risk and are less likely to get killed in an accident

City residents tend to suffer from higher levels of asthmaallergies and depression. But they also tend to be less obese, at a lower risk of suicide and are less likely to get killed in an accident. They lead happier lives as seniors and live longerin general. (Read more aboutfive of the world’s healthiest cities).

City-dwellers live longer than their countryside counterparts and are happier as seniors

City-dwellers live longer than their countryside counterparts and are happier as seniors (Credit: Getty Images)

Although we tend to associate cities with pollution, crime and stress, living in rural locales may entail certain costs as well. Disease-carrying insects and arachnids can detract from the health factor of that otherwise idyllic cabin in Maine, for example.

In other cases, rural pollution poses a major threat. In India, air pollution contributed to the deaths of 1.1 million citizens in 2015 – with rural residents rather than urban ones accounting for 75% of the victims. This is primarily because countryside dwellers are at greater risk of breathing air that is polluted by burning of agricultural fields, wood or cow dung (used for cooking fuel and heat).

Indonesia’s slash and burn-style land clearing likewise causes a blanket of toxic haze that lasts for months and sometimes affects neighbouring countries, including Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Meanwhile, smoke pollution from fires lit in South America and southern Africa has been known to make its way around the entire southern hemisphere. (That said, the air in the southern hemisphere is generally cleaner than in the northern hemisphere – simply because there are fewer people living there).

Pollution can kill more people in the countryside than the cities

Because of practices like agricultural clearing, pollution can kill more people in the countryside than even in cities (Credit: Getty Images)

It’s not just developing countries, either: wildfires in the western US are wreaking havoc on air quality, while pollution from fertilizers used on farms are detracting from air quality in Europe, Russia, China and the US.

What about the idea of that pure mountain air? It’s true that black carbon aerosols and particulate matter pollution tends to be lower at higher altitudes. But trying to move above air pollution may cause other issues.

While people who live in in places 2,500m or higher seem to have lower mortality from cardiovascular disease, stroke and some types of cancers, data indicate that they also seem to be at an elevated risk of death from chronic pulmonary disease and from lower respiratory tract infections. This is likely at least in part because cars and other vehicles operate less efficiently at higher altitudes, emitting greater amounts of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide – which is made even more harmful by the increased solar radiation in such places. Living at a moderate altitude of 1,500 to 2,500 meters, therefore, may be the healthiest choice.

It’s not always true that the higher the altitude, the healthier the place

It’s not always true that the higher the altitude, the healthier the place (Credit: Getty Images)

There is a strong argument to be made for living near the sea – or at least near some body of water

On the other hand, there is a strong argument to be made for living near the sea – or at least near some body of water. Those in the UK who live closer to the ocean, for example, tend to have a better bill of health than those who live inland, taking into account their age and socioeconomic status. This is likely due to a variety of reasons, White says, including the fact that our evolution means we are attracted to the high levels of biodiversity found there (in the past, this would have been a helpful indicator of food sources) and that beaches offer opportunities for daily exercise and vitamin D.

Then there are the psychological benefits. A 2016 study Pearson and her colleagues conducted in Wellington, New Zealand found that residents with ocean views had lower levels of psychological distress. For every 10% increase in how much blue space people could see, the researchers found a one-third point reduction in the population’s average Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (used to predict anxiety and mood disorders), independent of socioeconomic status. Given that finding, Pearson says, “One might expect that a 20 to 30% increase in blue space visibility could shift someone from moderate distress into a lower category.” Pearson found similar results in a follow-up study conducted near the Great Lakes in the US (currently in review), as did White in an upcoming study of Hong Kong residents.

The more ‘blue space’ people saw in their everyday life, the less distress and anxiety

Researchers found that the more ‘blue space’ people saw in their everyday life, the less distress and anxiety they experienced (Credit: Getty Images)

Not everyone can live on the coast, however. So Simon Bell, chair of landscape architecture at the Estonian University of Life Sciences and associate director of the OPENspace Centre at the University of Edinburgh, and his colleagues are testing whether restoring neglected bodies of water throughout Europe can help. They are interviewing residents before and after restoration, including at a rundown beach outside of Tallinn, Estonia and an industrial canal near a Soviet bloc-style apartment complex in Tartu, also Estonia, among other places in Spain, Portugal, Sweden and the UK.

The team’s second analysis of nearly 200 recently redeveloped water sites will allow them to tease out how factors such as climate, weather, pollution levels, smells, seasonality, safety and security, accessibility and more, influence a given water body’s appeal. The ultimate goal, Bell says, is to find “what makes a great blue space.” Once the results are in, he and his colleagues will develop a quality assessment tool for those looking to most effectively restore urban canals, overgrown lakes, former docklands, rivers and other neglected blue spaces to make residents’ lives better.

How much we benefit from even a single visit to the coast depends on a variety of factors

How much we benefit from even a single visit to the coast depends on a variety of factors (Credit: Getty Images)

Still, when it comes to wellbeing, researchers do not know how lakes compare to oceans or how rivers compare to seas. Nor have they compared how beaches in, say, Iceland measure up to those in Florida. What they do know is that complex factors including air and water quality, crowding, temperature and even high and low tides affect how something as seemingly simple as a visit to the beach can influence us.

“There might be a million other important things besides weather and daylight that influence someone in Hawaii versus Finland,” White says.

People who live in less regularly sunny places, like Vermont or Denmark, tend to have higher rates of skin cancer

In terms of health, data also suggest that, counterintuitively, people who live in more intermittently rather than regularly sunny places – Vermont and Minnesota in the US, for example, and Denmark and France – tend to have higher rates of skin cancer, likely because sunscreen is not part of daily routines. (Read more aboutfive countries where people live the longest).

Just as some green and blue spaces may be more beneficial than others, researchers are also coming to realize that the environment’s influence on well-being is not evenly distributed.

People living in lower socioeconomic conditions tend to derive more benefits from natural spaces than wealthy residents, White says. That’s likely because richer people enjoy other health-improving privileges, such as taking holidays and leading generally less stressful lives – a finding with important real-world implications. “Here in the UK, local authorities have a legal obligation to reduce health inequalities. So one way to do that is to improve the park system,” White says. “The poorest will benefit the most.”

A clean, oceanside city like Sydney may be one of the best options

A clean, oceanside city like Sydney may be one of the best options (Credit: Getty Images)

It’s also important to point out that simply moving to a relatively pristine coast or forest will not solve all of our problems. Other life circumstances – losing or gaining a job, marrying or divorcing – have a much greater impact on our health. As White puts it, no matter what environment you’re in, “It’s more important to have a house than to be homeless in a park.”

Bell adds that proximity to nature actually tends to rank low on people’s lists of the most important factors for selecting a place to live, after things like safety, quietness and closeness to key locations like schools and work. But while the benefits of green and blue spaces should not be overplayed on an individual level, they are important for the scale at which they work.

And even so, one takeaway seems obvious: those living in a clean, oceanside city with ready access to nature – think Sydney or Wellington – may have struck the jackpot in terms of the healthiest places to live.

By Rachel Nuwer 1 June 2018


An Australian railway man saved more than 2 million babies—including his own grandchild—with a simple donation of blood

Featured image
James Harrison. Photo by: Australian Red Cross

An Australian man who required blood transfusions to survive surgery as a teenager decided to repay the kindness of strangers by becoming a blood donor himself. Little did he know at the time that his blood contained a rare antibody required for a life-saving medication. By the time he retired from donating this month, James Harrison had saved an amazing estimate of 2.4 million babies!

James Harrison came to blood donation from personal experience. When he was 14 years old, he underwent major lung surgery that took hours and required a vast quantity of transfusions—13 units of blood, in fact. He remained hospitalized for three months. So he decided to pay it forward as soon as he could. In Australia, blood donors must be a minimum of 18 years old; so in 1954, when he turned 18, Harrison gave his first units of blood. Despite a fear of needles, he returned to donate every few weeks for a remarkable 60 years.

But the Good Samaritan’s good deed turned out to be more beneficial than he ever could have imagined. In the 1960s, researchers discovered that Harrison’s blood contained a rare antibody used in a medication called Anti-D that helps save babies from a potentially fatal disease. The Australian Red Cross reports that Harrison’s blood has been used in more than 3 million doses of Anti-D since 1967, and that he has helped save the lives of 2.4 million babies, including that of his grandchildren. His daughter, Tracey Mellowship, received the injection and had two healthy babies. The Red Cross called him “the man with the golden arm.”

The Anti-D injections are given to pregnant Rh(D) negative women carrying Rh(D) positive babies, whose blood-type incompatibility can result in miscarriage, brain damage, or even stillbirth, according to the Australian Red Cross. Around 17 percent of Australian women need the injections, which come only from blood plasma from a “tiny pool” of around 160 donors who have the rare antibody that Harrison has. Attempts to make a synthetic version of the medication have so far failed.

Harrison had been donating for a decade when researchers discovered his blood was perfect for their new Anti-D program.

A Man Saved A Condor Years Ago And The Bird Still Flies Back To Say Thanks

On May 11, Harrison, now 81 and retired from his job as a railway administrator, lay back and had his arm strapped and swabbed as he got ready to give his last donation. As always, he looked away from the needle, and gripped a stress ball in his other hand. Medical officials with the Red Cross said it was time for Harrison to retire and save his blood for his own health. He received the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1999 for his service to the Anti-D program. He also made it into the Guinness Book of World Records in 2003.

Harrison’s last donation at the Town Hall Blood Donor Center in Sydney was videotaped and shown on the local TV news. (Harrison, ever the proper railway man, wore a tie to the occasion.) Helium balloons above his head had the numbers 1, 1, 7, and 3 to represent the 1,173 times he had donated blood. A half-dozen moms who had benefited from the Anti-D injection program showed up, their babies in their arms, to commemorate the unassuming hero.

“The end of an era,” Harrison, who lives in New South Wales, told the New York Times. “It was sad because I felt like I could keep going.”

Harrison was proud of having helped though not unduly vain about his accomplishment. He hopes the publicity surrounding his retirement will inspire other blood donors to come forward; perhaps one will also carry the rare antibody.  “Saving one baby is good,” Harrison told the New York Times. “Saving two million is hard to get your head around, but if they claim that’s what it is, I’m glad to have done it.”

 E.L. Hamilton

Australia’s sea of crimson claws

Australia’s Christmas Island crab migration (Credit: Max Orchard)

(Max Orchard)

The migration starts with the first heavy rains in October, November or December. At that point, there’s enough moisture in the air for the large crustaceans, which can reach up to 11cm across, to make the arduous, five-day journey from their homes in wet inland forests to the Indian Ocean, covering up to 9km along the way.

Crab migration (Credit: Parks Australia)

(Parks Australia)

With so many of the creatures on the move, Parks Australia works before and during the migration to protect the crustaceans by closing roads, building fences and constructing underground tunnels. Drivers are encouraged to stop for the crabs.

Australia’s Christmas Island crab migration (Credit: Tracy Wilson)

(Tracy Wilson)

Upon reaching the sand, the male crabs dig burrows and fight each other for ownership of the shelters. When the female crabs arrive (usually five to seven days after the first males), they begin to mate, and the females stay in their beachside burrows until the last quarter of the lunar cycle. The females always wait for the first day of the last quarter – regardless of when they started the migration – to spawn and release their eggs into the sea. Researchers speculate that since this phase of the moon has the least sea level change between high and low tides, the eggs have higher chances of survival.

Australia’s Christmas Island crab migration (Credit: Justin Gilligan)

(Justin Gilligan)

This year, the possible spawning dates (and dates of the quarter moon) are 28 November or 28 December, so the initial migration will happen seven to 18 days before, depending on the weather. The crabs tend to be on the move in the morning and early evening when the air is cooler, but any dry spells will halt the migration until wetter weather prevails.

Follow the Parks Australia blog or the Christmas Island Tourism Facebook page to get an alert at the first signs of the cruising crustaceans.

Australia’s Christmas Island crab migration (Credit: Parks Australia)

(Parks Australia)

Actor James Cromwell was motivated to become a full vegan and animal advocate after playing Farmer Hoggett in “Babe”

Getty Images

Trivialized by many as a pig movie for children, Chris Noonan’s Babe proved many people wrong and captured the hearts and minds of children and adults alike. The touching story of a cute talking piglet, who wants to become a sheepdog, hit theaters around the world in 1995 and almost instantly went beyond expectations to become a true smash hit, earning over $250 million over the years.

But profit is least important when talking about such story whose emotional warmth can’t be bought with any money in the world. Who would’ve thought that we can learn so much about humans by watching this tiny pink piglet? Its story and adventures profoundly changed the lives of many people who went vegetarian after watching the movie. But no other human being experienced bigger change than James Oliver Cromwell, who portrayed the character of Farmer Hoggett in Babe. The movie that was released more than 20 years ago earned Cromwell an Oscar nomination, but also made him an outspoken vegan and animal rights advocate.

The wider audience knows the legendary actor as “the guy from Babe” but he’s never been too concerned about this because he gave some quite outstanding performances in other iconic movies such as Star Trek: First Contact, The Green Mile, LA Confidential, The Artist, American Horror Story: Asylum.

Cromwell has always been interested in acting and started his career in theater, performing in Shakespearean and experimental plays. His first TV appearance came in 1974 in the Rockford Files and one year later he made his film debut in Neil Simon’s Murder by Death. He appeared in several other films and television series, but finally achieved critical acclaim and got Academy Award recognition for his role as the kindly Farmer Hoggett in the movie Babe.

Adapted from Dick King-Smith’s book The Sheep-Pig, the movie takes place in Australia, and it is about a pig who wants to be a sheepdog. The movie is widely considered as one of the best family movies ever made and received seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Cromwell won an Oscar nomination for his masterful portrayal of Arthur Hoggett and, as mentioned above, it was this movie that made him an outspoken vegan and animal rights advocate.

Cromwell had been a vegetarian since the mid-1970s but became an ethical vegan in 1995 while filming Babe. In his interview with TakePart, the actor explains how he came to the decision:

I was doing a picture in Australia called ‘Babe,’ working with a lot of animals and animal trainers. I cared about their welfare and then, of course, you have lunch and it’s all there in front of you, and I thought, I should go the whole hog, so to speak. So I made that decision and kept that during the shooting. When I came back, I got involved with PETA, and of course, the film opened and it was very successful”.

The actor became involved with PETA’s campaign rescuing pigs from school 4-H programs, and he also appeared in a video that features a hidden-camera investigation at a pork supplier that he claims is used by Walmart.

As reported by the Guardian, in the video presented by animal rights group Mercy For Animals, Cromwell details a hidden-camera investigation which he says has uncovered “torture” at a pork supplier in Minnesota, used by America’s best-known retailer.

In February 2013, James Cromwell was arrested at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for protesting about a school study that the animal rights group PETA says involves “abusive experiments” of cats. He was arrested for the second time in 2015, while protesting against the construction of a power station in Wawayanda, New York, near his home in Warwick. Last year he was among 18 others arrested during a protest against an energy company near Seneca Lake.

Babe inspired Cromwell to take ethical actions for the rights and well-being of animals through his diet and activism.

“I decided that to be able to talk about this [movie] with conviction, I needed to become a vegetarian,” he told the Vegetarian Times in 1998.

By Goran  Blazeski 

The man keeping the world’s lighthouses shining

The man keeping the world’s lighthouses shining

Restoration works at Graves lighthouse in Boston, MassachusettsImage copyright TIM NGUYENImage caption   Tim Nguyen’s team restores lighthouses all over the world

For more than 150 years, glassmakers in one of England’s landlocked regions gave light to the seafarers all over the world. It has fallen to one man on the other side of the planet to preserve their legacy.

Shining a fresh light on the forgotten past of the Midlands-based Chance Brothers is Tim…

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The man keeping the world’s lighthouses shining

Restoration works at Graves lighthouse in Boston, MassachusettsImage copyright TIM NGUYEN
Image caption   Tim Nguyen’s team restores lighthouses all over the world

For more than 150 years, glassmakers in one of England’s landlocked regions gave light to the seafarers all over the world. It has fallen to one man on the other side of the planet to preserve their legacy.

Shining a fresh light on the forgotten past of the Midlands-based Chance Brothers is Tim Nguyen, who has dedicated himself to restoring their work in 2,000 lighthouses across the globe.

The Australian’s quest to restore their optics using original parts and methods is unmatched by anyone.

He has spent 20 years honing his craft and hopes he will soon find a skilled glassblower to complete the team in Melbourne and recreate the traditional techniques used by the original Black Country firm.

The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851Image copyright  GETTY IMAGES
Image caption     Chance Glass produced 300,000 panes to glaze the Crystal Palace

Chance Brothers Glassworks in Smethwick manufactured glass used in everything from glazing the Houses of Parliament and Crystal Palace to the production of novelty ashtrays.

“If it was made in glass then Chance Brothers made it,” said Ray Drury, the firm’s final chief engineer, on its 150th anniversary.

When the company was founded in 1824, the world was changing rapidly. The booming shipping industry meant wrecks became a regular occurrence as more ships had to navigate treacherous coastlines, according to historian Malcolm Dick.

In response to this, Chance Brothers created optic lenses for lighthouses that were sent around the world, illuminating coasts and saving thousands of lives.

But since shutting its doors in 1981, the number of their lighthouses has dwindled and with it, the traditional skills needed to produce their hallmark glass.

A worker making the glass prisms for the lighthousesImage copyright  INPHO
Image caption    Workers at the glass firm made prisms for the lighthouses
The derelict factoryImage copyright MARK DAVIES
Image caption     The Chance Brothers factory in Smethwick closed its doors in 1981

Mr Nguyen has no attachment to the original company, which employed 3,500 people at its height.

But his team, which adopted the name Chance Brothers Lighthouse Engineers, has dedicated itself to restoring and repairing lighthouses using traditional methods and original parts and has done so at more than 100 sites.

Travelling the world, they gather broken parts and repair them and now have enough to be able to fix any lighthouse without replacing anything with modern technology.

Mr Nguyen's restoration workImage copyright    TIM NGUYEN
Image caption    Tim Nguyen says his team are the only people taking on the preservation work of lighthouses
Restoration works at Graves lighthouse in BostonImage copyright  TIM NGUYEN
Image caption     Although he repairs lighthouses around the world, including this one in the US, Mr Nguyen said the work made him feel closer to the West Midlands

Mr Nguyen said: “We travel the world to assist in restoration and salvage parts.

“Basically, we’re like a car-wrecker. That’s how we work until one day when we team up with a glassblower who can make crown glass – then we can make anything.”

Crown glass is the original type of glass used in Chance Brothers’ optics.

But new production methods mean that the colour and composition of modern glass would not match the original glass if it was added now.

A worker assembles prisms to form the lighthouse lensImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption     Lighthouses made in the Midlands saved thousands from shipwrecks as the shipping industry boomed

Mr Nguyen has so far not been able to find anyone with the glassblowing skills in Australia to replicate the Chance Brothers’ methods.

“We’ve looked everywhere and can’t find anyone that can cast crown glass,” he said.

“I believe some people in England can probably do it. If we have a chance of finding someone who can do it, it’ll be there.”

Nash Point lighthouse in south WalesImage copyright   CHRIS WILLIAMS
Image caption   This lighthouse in south Wales also has an original foghorn made in Smethwick

Mr Nguyen said with a crown glassblower on the team, they would be able to recreate the Chance Brothers’ original workshop and even return it to Smethwick.

“One day, when we have this operational workshop we would like to move it back to the Black Country,” he said.

“We’re trying to do this project on our own, which isn’t easy – but I believe it will be done in my lifetime.

“The community over there, their jaws would drop if we brought it back.”

Chance Brothers Lighthouse Engineers at workImage copyright    TIM NGUYEN
Image caption     There are about 2,300 lighthouses around the world with lenses that were made in the Black Country

Regional heritage projects and plans to redevelop the factory site go some way to ensuring the past is not forgotten, but Mr Nguyen wants to go further.

“Archives preserve the documents, the restoration will preserve the buildings, but nobody is trying to preserve the techniques,” he said.

“We are here to preserve and carry on the engineering side, because if we don’t it’ll be lost. After doing this work for 20 years, that knowledge is too valuable to be lost.

“Basically, we’re the only ones doing this work.”

But is Mr Nguyen vainly fighting the tide of modernisation?

Nash Point lighthouse in south WalesImage copyright    CHRIS WILLIAMS
Image caption     Nash Point lighthouse switched to a more modern bulb in 1998

Like many others, Nash Point lighthouse, near Marcross in south Wales, made the change to a new automated lens several years ago.

Attendant Chris Williams said the new 150 watt lens has a “much smaller bulb” but is “more reliable and stays brighter for longer”.

The original Chance Glass optic, which typically contained a 1,500 watt bulb, was left on display but out of use.

The original optics at Nash Point lighthouseImage copyright   CHRIS WILLIAMS
Image caption      The original optics at Nash Point are no longer in use, but remain on display

“Generally speaking, traditional optics are being phased out because new technology is so much more efficient,” according to David Taylor from the Association of Lighthouse Keepers.

“Restoring a glass optic is hugely expensive. Within 15-20 years there probably won’t be any left.”

Regardless, Mr Nguyen persists, so keen is he to preserve this slice of history. But he’s not the only one with an interest in keeping the tradition alive.

Chance Brothers Lighthouse Engineers at workImage copyright   TIM NGUYEN
Image caption      The small team based in Melbourne travel the world preserving lighthouse optics

Mark Davies founded Chance Glass Works Heritage Trust after stumbling across a Chance Brothers lighthouse, purely by happenstance, in Australia.

The group plans to regenerate the original factory site in Smethwick and build a 30m tall lighthouse to teach people about the area’s industrial legacy, which Mr Davies says is “our best-kept secret”.

“The story started at the top of a lighthouse in Australia. I saw the manufacturer’s plate and it said ‘Made in Smethwick’ and it stunned me.

“I was born four miles away and I didn’t know about it myself. Outside Sandwell, there aren’t many people that know about Chance Brothers.”

The Black Country’s history of light, it seems, needs a spotlight itself.