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The Case of the Deadly Bagpipes

Take a moment and assess your hobbies. Unless your idea of a good time is bungee jumping or scaling Mt. Everest, your favorite pastimes are likely pretty safe … right? Think again. Experts are calling upon doctors to consider the risks posed by patients’ hobbies after a British man died of a lung infection likely caused by his daily sessions on the bagpipe. They reported their findings in the journal Thorax.

The 61-year-old man had had a persistent cough and trouble breathing for seven years by the time he was referred to a lung disease clinic in the UK in April 2014. Previous doctors had diagnosed the man with hypersensitivity pneumonitis, or HP, an inflammation of the respiratory tract caused by exposure to some sort of pathogen. The man didn’t smoke, own birds (a common trigger), nor did his house show any signs of mold or water damage, yet his symptoms were getting progressively worse. He found a brief respite during a 3-month trip to Australia, during which he reported feeling well enough to take long walks on the beach. But almost immediately after the man returned, his symptoms did, too.

Five months after his initial visit to the clinic, the man’s condition had deteriorated. He was admitted to the hospital, where scans of his chest confirmed a diagnosis of HP. He was given a cocktail of antibiotics and antifungal medications, but the treatment came too late. The man continued to deteriorate and died in early October.

After his arrival in the hospital, doctors began to investigate other possible triggers for his illness. When asked about his hobbies, the patient said he played the bagpipes every single day—with the exception of his sojourn in Australia, when he left the instrument at home.

Researchers took samples from three sites in the bagpipes: within the bag itself (by squeezing the air into a chamber), in its neck, and in its reed protector. Here’s what they found:

The unfortunate bagpiper had been sucking in fungus and mold with every inhalation. The physicians can’t say definitively that the bagpipe pathogens caused the man’s death, but they think it’s pretty likely, especially since other doctors have noted cases of HP in trombone and saxophone players.

“This case highlights the importance of a careful clinical history including hobbies,” the authors write. “Clinicians need to be aware of this potential trigger for developing HP, and wind instrument players need to be aware of the importance of regularly cleaning their instruments to minimize this risk.”

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Why You Should Think Twice About Drinking From Ceramics You Made by Hand
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Ceramic ware is much safer than it used to be (Fiesta ware hasn’t coated its plates in uranium since 1973), but according to NPR, not all new ceramics are free of dangerous chemicals. If you own a mug, bowl, plate, or other ceramic kitchen item that was glazed before entering the kiln, it may contain trace amounts of harmful lead.

Earthenware is often coated with a shiny, ceramic glaze. If the clay used to sculpt the vessel is nontoxic, that doesn’t necessarily mean the glaze is. Historically, the chemical has been used in glazes to give pottery a glossy finish and brighten colors like orange, yellow, and red.

Sometimes the amount of lead in a product is minuscule, but even trace amounts can contaminate whatever you're eating or drinking. Over time, exposure to lead in small doses can lead to heightened blood pressure, lowered kidney function, and reproductive issues. Lead can cause even more serious problems in kids, including slowed physical and mental development.

As the dangers of even small amounts of lead have become more widely known, the ceramics industry has gradually eliminated the additive from its products. Most of the big-name commercial ceramic brands, like Crock-Pot and Fiesta ware, have cut it out all together. But there are still some manufacturers, especially abroad, that still use it. Luckily, the FDA keeps a list of the ceramic ware it tests that has been shown to contain lead.

Beyond that list, there’s another group of products consumers should be wary of: kiln-baked dishware that you either bought from an independent artist or made yourself. The ceramic mug you crafted at your local pottery studio isn’t subject to FDA regulations, and therefore it may be better suited to looking pretty on your shelf than to holding beverages. This is especially true when consuming something acidic, like coffee, which can cause any lead hiding in the glaze to leach out.

If you’re not ready to retire your hand-crafted ceramic plates, the FDA offers one possible solution: Purchase a home lead testing kit and analyze the items yourself. If the tests come back negative, your homemade dishware can keep its spot on your dinner table.

[h/t NPR]

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Marathon Running Won't Undo Poor Lifestyle Choices, Study Suggests
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Even marathon participants can't outrun an unhealthy lifestyle, according to a new study highlighted by The New York Times.

For years, expert opinion has been mixed on whether long-distance running helps or hurts hearts. In the 1970s, research suggested that marathon running and a heart-healthy diet would completely prevent atherosclerosis (a buildup of harmful plaque in the arteries). But since high-profile runners have died of heart attacks, scientists in the 1980s began to worry that running might actually harm the vital organ. Compounding this fear in recent years were studies suggesting that male endurance athletes exhibited more signs of heart scarring or plaques than their less-active counterparts.

Experts don't have a verdict quite yet, but researchers from the University of Minnesota and Stanford and their colleagues have some good news—running doesn't seem to harm athletes' hearts, but it's also not a panacea for heart disease. They figured this out by asking 50 longtime marathon runners, all male, with an average age of 59, to fill out questionnaires about their training, health history, and habits, and then examining them for signs of atherosclerosis.

Only 16 of the runners ended up having no plaque in their arteries, and the rest exhibited slight, moderate, or worrisome amounts. The men who had unhealthy hearts also had a history of smoking and high cholesterol. A grueling training regime seemed to have no effect on these levels.

Bottom line? Marathon running won't hurt your heart, but it's not a magic bullet for poor lifestyle choices.

[h/t The New York Times]

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