5 Burning Health-Care Questions for Valley Residents

Sydnee WilsonJanuary 8, 2024
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From blood-sucking bugs to celebrity weight-loss drugs, PHOENIX separates fact from fiction regarding five public health issues affecting Valley residents.

1. Is Phoenix tap water bad for you?

Photo Courtesy Adobe Stock Images
Photo Courtesy Adobe Stock Images

Water in Phoenix sparks frequent discussions. Whether it’s the ongoing droughts or the water quality itself, it’s an issue that resonates deeply with Phoenicians. The topic of tap water usually leads to conversations about toxic contaminants and health concerns, but Treavor Boyer, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, says Phoenix tap water is completely safe to drink.

“The tap water meets all EPA regulations, and no contaminants are above the regulatory limit,”  Boyer says.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes regulations that restrict the level of contaminants – including lead, arsenic, nitrate and fluoride – in public water systems. The City of Phoenix adheres to these regulations as well as state-level guidelines from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to ensure that Phoenix tap water is safe for consumption.

While it may be unsettling that there are still chemicals like lead and arsenic in the water despite the city’s filtration and disinfection treatments, Boyer says certain toxins are present in all water sources and some are safe in small quantities.

“No tap water, bottled water, spring water, etc… is 100 percent pure,” Boyer says. “There will always be other constituents in the water. Water quality researchers and scientists have determined the safe level for many chemicals in water, and the levels in Phoenix tap water are below the regulatory limit.”

Some unease surrounding water quality persists despite regular reports from the City of Phoenix and reassurance from experts like Boyer because of the taste and odor of tap water, which Boyer says are no cause for concern.

“Humans are very sensitive to odor and taste,” Boyer says. “Water can contain chemicals at very low concentrations that can be difficult to measure but can add odor and/or taste to water.

Most of these chemicals are naturally occurring in water or added during water treatment, such as chlorine for disinfection.”

The taste, odor and presence of contaminants can be disturbing to some, but Boyer says he doesn’t expect Phoenix tap water to have any adverse impacts on human health. 

2. Will Ozempic worsen weight-gain issues once patients stop taking it?

Photo Courtesy Adobe Stock Images
Photo Courtesy Adobe Stock Images

If you follow celebrity and entertainment news, you’ve probably heard of Ozempic. In recent years, the drug has emerged as a promising treatment for diabetes, but its ability to help patients lose weight has made it a trendy lifestyle drug, as well. With Jimmy Kimmel joking about it on stage at the Oscars and celebrities like Chelsea Handler, Elon Musk and Amy Schumer talking about taking the drug or other semaglutide medications used to treat type-2 diabetes and obesity, there’s no wonder it’s seized headlines. 

Dr. Farah Husain, the division chief of bariatric and metabolic surgery and vice chair of quality for the Department of Surgery at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix attributes the popularity of Ozempic and similar drugs like Wegovy to their novelty and effectiveness. 

“These drugs have become very popular because they are newer drugs that seem to be more effective at helping patients with weight loss and improvement in blood sugar,” Husain, who holds identical positions at Banner-University Medical Center Phoenix, says. “However, some people heard about the weight loss and decided they wanted to try the medication even if they didn’t have diabetes or obesity. The medication is very expensive and not covered by many insurances, so it became popular as a drug for those who have resources to pay for it.”

With the increase in attention, concerns about side effects and weight recurrence following use have also increased. 

Husain says Ozempic acts as the glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) hormone found in the gut. It helps the pancreas operate better and increases insulin efficiency. It also slows down food in the stomach to make people feel full faster, causes nausea for some so they don’t want to eat more and impacts how much sugar is made by the liver. Because the medication is nascent and acts as a hormone, the evidence for long-term effects is limited, making its lasting effects on weight loss – or weight gain – hard to predict. Husain says the limited evidence points to some weight regain following the use of Ozempic and other semaglutides.

“Most of the studies that followed patients long-term on semaglutide and then stopped it showed about a two-thirds weight recurrence,” Husain says. “The evidence we don’t know is what will happen over longer than about one year off of medication.”

Additionally, she says it’s likely that a patient’s GLP-1 hormone level may return to the level it was before the medication. This can cause inefficient use of insulin in the body or different production of sugar, causing both worsening of diabetes and weight regain.

3. Are mosquitoes getting worse in Phoenix?

Photo Courtesy Adobe Stock Images
Photo Courtesy Adobe Stock Images

Phoenix is known for its oppressively hot summer temperatures and dry climate, but despite the mostly arid conditions, mosquito populations still manage to survive and thrive. Worldwide, the tiny blood-sucking menaces are typically more abundant in humid regions because they need standing water to breed. Surprisingly, the urban and suburban layout of Phoenix provides more ideal breeding grounds than most would think – with pools, irrigation systems, bird baths, puddles and other areas that can hold water. 

Silvie Huijben, an evolutionary biologist and professor at Arizona State University, says it’s hard to tell if mosquitoes are getting worse in Phoenix.

“This is a difficult question to answer since the Phoenix metropolitan area has grown rapidly in recent years,” Huijben says. “Because of this growth, mosquito- and mosquito-borne-disease-monitoring efforts have also grown, and any increase in mosquito numbers and mosquito-borne diseases is related to increased surveillance and increased population size.”

Despite the difficulty of accurately monitoring mosquito populations, there is one particular species that’s demonstrably on the rise: the “yellow fever mosquito” or Aedes aegypti. This species is not native to Arizona, but populations have been spreading throughout Maricopa County for the past few years.

“This mosquito is adapted to live near humans and their urban habitat and therefore does very well in Phoenix,” Huijben says. “These mosquitoes are also aggressive biters and love humans for their blood meals, so they are hard to miss when they are around. When long-term residents say there are more mosquitoes around than ever before, they are most likely referring to Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.”

Mosquitoes are unwelcome visitors while residents are trying to enjoy the cooler weather, but they’re still a part of the environment. Huijben says they serve as a source of food for some animals and spiders and can help fertilize plants, since nectar is their main food source. However, the potential benefits don’t outweigh the risks. 

Mosquitoes carry diseases like West Nile virus, which infected 1,500 people and killed 101 in Maricopa County in 2021, according to the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. Huijben says residents and Valley homeowners should try to reduce mosquito breeding sites by regularly checking their property for standing water and making sure their pools are treated.

“While not all mosquitoes are breeding on personal properties, a good proportion of them do, and we can all do our part in reducing mosquito numbers and keep everyone safe,” Huijben says.

4. Can you make home remedies in your garden in Phoenix?

“Anyone can make folk remedies anywhere they live if they stick to native plants,” says Diane Vaszily, a biologist, herbalist and member of the Desert Awareness Committee at The Holland Center in Cave Creek. She’s been teaching Arizonans about medicinal plants since the 1990s, but she’s been using herbal remedies since she was a little kid in Pennsylvania.

Arizona offers dozens of desert plant breeds that can be used to make medicine, but Vaszily says the main ones are prickly pear, creosote bush and mesquite. According to Vaszily’s medicinal plant list, prickly pear is used for food and ointments that assist in first aid and treating inflammation. Creosote bush is used as an antioxidant, antiseptic, anti-microbial and hair tonic. It can also help treat arthritis, blood issues, skin concerns, tumors and cysts. Mesquite is used to stop the spread of viruses and bacteria; shrink pores and make skin less oily; protect and soothe mucus membranes; wash eyes; make dye and more. Other medicinal desert plants include jojoba, saguaro cacti, yucca and sagebrush.

Vaszily says many of these remedies come from grandmothers and Indigenous groups. She says she has worked with many groups in Arizona including the O’odham and Navajo.

“Grandmothers in all cultures have the wisdom of plant medicine,” Vaszily says. “In some areas, they are known as ‘bush nannies.’ In my native Pennsylvania, they are known as ‘pow-wow doctors.’ They are literally herbalists following an ancient tradition of home healing [that] they have been handed down over the centuries.”

Most Indigenous groups in the Southwest prepare their traditional medicines as infusions or teas, according to Vaszily’s medicinal plant list. They can also be made into tinctures, decoctions and ointments.

What makes local remedies unique is that Phoenicians don’t need a garden to access them, Vaszily says. “They grow right in the desert soils as they are.” 

Residents and homeowners can typically find these plants in urban and suburban landscaping as well as in undeveloped desert areas surrounding the city. Always be sure to verify you’re using the correct plant, since some medicinal plants have toxic doppelgängers.

5. Do people experience higher levels of anger and depression in the summer in Phoenix?

Photo Courtesy Adobe Stock Images
Photo Courtesy Adobe Stock Images

Seasonal depression is common in places with harsh winters like Finland and Alaska, where evenings are long, dark and cold, but winter blues aren’t the only breed of seasonal sadness. The scorching and unrelenting Arizona summers can cause some people to experience higher levels of anger and depression – a phenomenon that some experts have ascribed to seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. In a 2016 PHOENIX magazine article, Chip Coffey, who was then the director of therapy services for St. Luke’s Behavioral Health Center, said summer and winter SAD are comparable.

“Those who have winter SAD go through episodes of cabin fever, where they’re holed up in their homes because of the snow or freezing temperatures and feel they can’t go out and readily do things,” Coffey told us. “The same thing happens in Phoenix – and Tucson, Yuma and other cities where we have that extreme heat. We’re just as trapped indoors by the heat as someone in a colder climate is trapped by the blizzard.”

While many equate summertime with pool parties and barbecues, summer in Arizona is a different beast. With temperatures repeatedly topping 110 and seemingly endless sunshine, people are necessarily driven into the air-conditioned indoors. Staying inside during the summer will protect you from potentially harmful sun and heat exposure, but Dr. Greg Gale, the chief medical officer at Terros Behavioral Health clinic, said this isolation can cause depression. The lack of vitamin D, sunlight exposure, outdoor activities and human interaction can deplete mood-boosting chemicals like serotonin in the brain and cause the development of SAD.

“People may not even be consciously aware of the fact that they’re isolating themselves in that way,” Gale told PHOENIX. “They may be staying indoors as a way of managing the internal tension or anxiety they feel from being exposed to the heat. But meanwhile, they’re limiting themselves from doing the activities that they enjoy, and all these things can bring forth depression.”

Summertime SAD may not affect everyone, but embracing cooler temperatures in the early mornings and evenings, getting regular exercise, speaking with a therapist, sleeping well, socializing and overall taking care of yourself are things Arizonans can do to prevent or cope with summer depression.