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Health Highlights: Sept. 6, 2016

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Powerful Animal Drug Linked to Spike in Overdoses in Cincinnati

An animal tranquilizer called carfentanil is believed to be most of the more than 200 drug overdoses, including three deaths, in the Cincinnati area in the past two weeks.

Carfentanil is a synthetic drug used on livestock and elephants and is 100 times more powerful than the synthetic painkiller fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin. An amount of carfentanil smaller than a snowflake can kill a person, an expert told The New York Times.

Carfentanil has been confirmed as the cause of several recent overdose deaths, the first confirmed cases in the United States, according to Hamilton County coroner Dr. Lakshmi Kode Sammarco.

Deaths dating back to early July are now being investigated to determine if carfentanil was the cause.

"We'd never seen it before," Sammarco told The Times. "I'm really worried about this."

Similar spikes in overdoses have occurred recently in Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia.

Officials believe the carfentanil is being made in China or Mexico and arriving the Cincinnati area in heroin shipments that come north on Interstates 71 and 75, The Times reported.


High Levels of Toxic Smog Particles Found in Human Brains

Researchers have discovered "abundant" amounts of toxic nanoparticles from air pollution in people's brains.

The discovery of high levels of the magnetite particles in the brain tissue of 37 people, ages 3 to 92, is alarming because recent research suggest a link between these particles and Alzheimer's disease, according to The Guardian newspaper in the U.K.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"This is a discovery finding, and now what should start is a whole new examination of this as a potentially very important environmental risk factor for Alzheimer's disease," said study leader Barbara Maher, a professor at Lancaster University, The Guardian reported.

"Now there is a reason to go on and do the epidemiology and the toxicity testing, because these particles are so prolific and people are exposed to them," she added.

The high levels of magnetite, an iron oxide, were found in brain tissue from people in the U.K. and Mexico.

"Magnetite in the brain is not something you want to have because it is particularly toxic there," because it can create reactive oxygen species called free radicals, Maher told The Guardian.

"Oxidative cell damage is one of the hallmark features of Alzheimer's disease, and this is why the presence of magnetite is so potentially significant, because it is so bioreactive," she explained.

"This is a very intriguing finding and it raises a lot of important questions," Jon Dobson, a professor at the University of Florida who not part of the research team, told The Guardian.

However, further investigation is needed, he added.

"One thing that puzzles me is that the [particle] concentrations are somewhat higher than those previously reported for the human brain. Further studies [are needed] to determine whether this due to regional variations within the brain, the fact that these samples are from subjects who lived in industrial areas, or whether it is possibly due to [lab] contamination," Dobson said.


Vitamin D Reduces Severe Asthma Attacks

Vitamin D supplements may help reduce the risk of severe asthma attacks, according to researchers.

They reviewed nine clinical trials that included hundreds and children and adults and fouind that taking vitamin D in addition to asthma medication lowered the risk of severe asthma attacks from 6 percent to 3 percent, BBC News reported.

Taking vitamin D supplements also reduced the rate of asthma attacks requiring steroid treatment from 0.44 to 0.28 attacks per person per year, but did not improve lung function or day-to-day asthma symptoms according to the independent review by the Cochrane researchers.

They said it's unclear whether vitamin D supplements only help asthma patients who are vitamin D deficient, and that further studies are needed before any official advice can be given to patients, BBC News reported.

People with asthma should talk to a doctor or pharmacist before taking a vitamin D supplement, the researchers advised.

"While this research shows promise, more evidence is needed to conclusively show whether vitamin D can reduce asthma attacks and symptoms," Erika Kennington, Asthma UK's head of research, told BBC News.

"With so many different types of asthma it could be that vitamin D may benefit some people with the condition but not others," she added.

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Posted: September 2016