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Our World Transcript — January 29-30, 2005


This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

Straight ahead "Our World," recycling old computers ... a swarm of locusts ... and a new approach to a major nutritional problem.

Zlotkin (:10): "There may be as many as 750 million children around the world with iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia. In fact the experts say that this is probably the last of the major problems that is yet to be solved."

Iron sprinkles, plus a visit with the disease detectives. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Yesterday's electronics are so yesterday. Here in the United States, National Safety Council projects that nearly 250 million computers will become obsolete over the next five years. Millions of mobile phones a year as users upgrade. All that waste is piling up, filling our landfills and polluting our water and air. VOAs Adam Phillips reports on the dangers of electronic waste, and what can be done about it.

PHILLIPS: Fact One: Most Americans love to embrace the new and dispense with the old. That helps explain why we generated over a million tons of computer and other electronic waste last year alone. Fact Two: Those computers and other electronic devices contain lead, among other toxic materials. When they are crushed and put into landfills, the lead can seep into the groundwater, and when that happens, it can cause brain damage in children who drink that water when it comes out of their taps at home.

Scott Mathews is a professor at the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. He says this lead comes from the melted solder in a computer’s “guts.”

MATHEWS: “If you’ve ever looked at a circuit board -- the ‘mother board’ where all the pieces are put together that serve as the main part of the computer - almost all of the connections on there are soldered. And while it’s not twenty pounds of lead per unit, when you start thinking about the amount of computers and other products that might be in landfills then it might really add up!”

PHILLIPS: Some manufactures have addressed the problem by making smaller computers. Less machine means less lead, they say. But according to Scott Mathews, that approach doesn’t help.

MATHEWS: “The problem is that just by making them smaller and lighter, it doesn’t mean that the substances and the materials that are used in the manufacturing process are gone. We have the same relative toxic materials in computers. In fact most of the time we’ve just miniaturized… but they are now much more densely packed.”

PHILLIPS: Japanese scientists are trying to develop a new toxin-free solder that will not damage the groundwater. One low-tech method for dealing with old computers is not to waste them at all, but to fix them.

Jim Lynch directs the recycling and re-use program at Compumentor, a nonprofit organization that specializes in helping low-income American families, non-profit groups and schools to enter the Information Age. Mr. Lynch says that’s (What is fixing them? If so, then we need to re-state it. Something like: Mr. Lynch says that fixing computers is one way to help the environment and society as a whole.

LYNCH: “It’s sort of our mission to direct all donations into 400 or so authorized refurbishers around the country in the U.S. and Canada. They are in pretty much every major city and most states in the country. And they’ll take the computers and they’ll get rid of the ones that aren’t working properly and take the ones that are reusable and get them in shape.”

PHILLIPS: While the lead in computer waste is a key concern, waste from other electronic equipment is also a threat. Mercury, a dangerous toxin, is found in thermostats, printed circuit boards, medical equipment, and mobile phones. And Professor Mathews warns us about the cadmium found in most rechargeable batteries.

MATHEWS: “We think that it can lead to organ malfunction like lungs and kidneys, perhaps even prostate cancer. There have been issues where we have had bone calcification. That was a big problem in Japan a while back as a result of cadmium getting into rivers.”

PHILLIPS: While the European Union has mandated that manufactures of computers and electronic gear phase out the use of some of these toxic materials over the next five years, few American regulators, and fewer U-S electronics manufacturers have focused on the problem. However, as public awareness of the hazards of electronic waste continues to grow, research into viable solutions is also quickening. I’m Adam Phillips.

It's been a while since we've dipped into the "Our World" mailbag to answer one of your questions. Today's question comes from Lagos, Nigeria, and listener Yusuf Haliru, who asks about why locust swarms are so unpredicable.

Locusts have plagued human civilization for thousands of years. In minutes, a swarm of locusts can strip the crops from a field, threatening farming communities with poverty and hunger. There may be tens of millions of locusts in a swarm, covering a thousand or more square kilometers. A swarm of locusts can eat the same amount of food in one day as thousands of people.

To learn more about locusts, we turned to Greg Sword, a research ecologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He studies locusts and their close relatives -- crickets and grasshoppers.

SWORD (:15) -- "People typically associate locust swarms with flying adults, but even before they develop their wings, as juveniles, or what's called nymphs, they move in huge groups, marching or walking on the ground, and these groups can contain up to millions of individuals."

Unlike many other pests, locusts will eat most any kind of plant material.

SWORD (:10) -- "They feed on a number of different plants, and that's in large part what makes them so devastating is [that] they will feed on a whole bunch of different plants, both agricultural and native.

Locusts may be most closely associated with the Middle East and North Africa, but Greg Sword says these pests do damage worldwide.

SWORD (:23) -- "There are actually outbreaks of locusts and similar things going on across the globe right now. There are swarming locusts in Mexico. We have the Australian plague locust in Australia, outgreaks of locusts and grasshopper outbreaks throughout Asia, and in North America we have an outbreak of the Mormon cricket, which is very similar to locusts.

Chemical pesticides remain the most effective way of combatting locusts. But scientists are looking at other methods of locust control, such as interrupting the insect's life cycle, especially when they switch into swarming, or migratory mode.

SWORD (:17) -- "As their population densities increase, they undergo a lot of physiological and behavioral changes that lead to migration, and people are looking very close[ly] at the underlying biology of this change that leads to migration in hopes that one day we might be able to come up with tools to prevent them from entering the migratory phase."

Getting back to our question about why locusts swarm -- and Dr. Sword says it's actually a very rare event for locusts -- it's partly about rain.

SWORD (:21) -- "'Cause the rain provides vegetation for them to feed on and moisture for their eggs to develop. But it's not a perfect predictor of outbreaks, which makes things a bit frustrating. Just because it has rained somewhere doesn't mean that you're going to get big locust populations coming out of that area, so it's a combination of weather and some local ecological conditions. We haven't quite tacked down what those are yet."

Greg Sword studies locusts and related creatures for the U.S. Department of Agriculture

We'll be sending a special VOA gift to Yusuf Haliru in Lagos for contributing an interesting question. If you've got something that's been bugging you about science, technology, health, space or the environment, email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or listen for our postal address at the end of the show.

Time again for Our World's Website of the Week: this week we salute Flags of the World, at flagspot.net, where today's national flags are just the beginning.

RAESIDE (:09) -- "There are flags of all sorts. I think we're running on the order of 48,000 images on the website at the moment, and probably another five or six thousand waiting to get added."

That's Rob Raeside, a geology professor and flag hobbyist in Canada, and current director of Flags of the World. The website includes pictures of flags, plus history and lore, which makes fascinating browsing for the casual visitor or a valuable resource for the serious student of flags, a discipline known as vexillology. The site is the collective work of an international band of volunteers now coordinated by Prof. Raeside, who stresses the range encompassed by Flags of the World.

RAESIDE (:11) -- "Flags of countries, military [and] naval agencies, we're looking at flags of states and provinces, flags of municipalities, cities and towns, even some of individuals, like the royal family and so on."

The website also includes flags of shipping lines, political parties, scouting organizations and international groups. Flags are a very old tradition around the world, and the Flags of the World website includes many historical flags as well as current ones.

RAESIDE (:18) -- "It's a bit of a debate when flags first appeared on the scene, but they certainly go right back to the 16th century and in some parts of Europe and Japan perhaps back to the 12th century. And any images that we can find, we try to post. We try to redraw most of them to show what it would look like if they were clean, flat [and] lying right there on the web page for you."

Flags of the World gets four to five million hits a month, and Professor Raeside says many users are youngsters working on school projects.

RAESIDE (:19) -- "The supply is apparently endless. Recently we've been adding many American municipal flags to the website, and we've been adding these at the rate of about two or 300 a week. And I'll put a plug in here to every municipality that's listening, to get their flags and their seals up on their web pages, and we'll include it if we can find it."

The entire enterprise is free to users, with no advertising, and it's a great example of the kind of expansive, collective effort that is perfectly suited to the World Wide Web. See if you agree. Point your browser to Flags of the World at flagspot.net, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/our world.

MUSIC - "The Flag Parade" (Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace)

You're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

We reported on "Our World" back in October that U.S. drug maker Merck had voluntarily pulled its popular arthritis drug Vioxx off the market after studies linked it with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

This week, government scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration published a report estimating the extent of the damage Vioxx has done to public health. Writing in the journal Nature, a team led by David Graham blames Vioxx for an estimated 88,000 to as many as 140,000 additional cases of heart disease in the United States since the drug was introduced in 1999. The report says many of those cases likely resulted in death.

The authors recommend greater care in approving new medicines when, as was the case here, pre-approval testing indicates the possibility of dangerous side effects.

The World Health Organization describes iron deficiency as the most common nutritional disorder in the world. The WHO estimates that as many as eight out of ten people may not be getting the iron they need.

ZLOTKIN (:13) -- "The estimate is that there may be as many as 750 million children around the world with iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia. In fact the experts say that this is probably the last of the major problems that is yet to be solved."

That's Stanley Zlotkin, a pediatrician and professor at the University of Toronto in Canada. He says there is a strong link between iron deficiency and global poverty.

ZLOTKIN (:16) -- "The main sources of iron are unfortunately the most expensive sources of food. So for example, meat, fish and poultry are great sources of readily bio-available iron, but for many individuals in the developing world, of course, these foods are extremely expensive."

Iron is an essential nutrient for both children and adults. Adults who don't get enough iron get tired more quickly, and there are special risks for pregnant women. But Professor Zlotkin notes that for children, particularly in the first two years of life, the consequences can be much more serious since a lack of iron impairs brain development.

ZLOTKIN (:08) -- "If you have iron deficiency you don't do as well in school, you don't get good jobs, and you don't earn as much money. So the effects of iron deficiency are marked long-term effects."

In fact, economists believe widespread iron deficiency among youngsters can have a major impact on a nation's economy.

Dr. Zlotkin says traditional remedies all have their shortcomings. An iron-rich diet is often too costly.

Another approach is to give an iron supplement. For adults, that's a pill, and that works fine. But children don't like to take pills, so the iron is usually given as a syrup, which presents its own problems.

ZLOTKIN (:10) -- "The supplement has a very strong, metallic taste, and most children object to taking it. The second problem is that the iron drops, they have a tendency to stain the child's teeth."

Also, it's hard for illiterate mothers to give the right dose, and the syrup is not very cost-effective. The challenge is to provide a way to get the proper dose to the child -- enough but not too much -- and how to get around the unpleasant taste of the iron supplement. Dr. Zlotkin's solution is what he calls sprinkles: iron and other nutrients "micro-encapsulated" in a neutral food product to mask the taste and served up in fine powder form that can be sprinkled onto food and mixed in.

ZLOTKIN (:08) -- "If you can imagine what flour would feel like, that's sort of what it feels like, and it looks like powder with some speckles of pepper in it."

The mixture is in a little packet called a sachet that provides the exact amount needed to meet a child's daily need for iron at a cost of three cents or less per day. The sachets also include vitamin C, which actually enhances iron absorption, plus vitamin A, zinc, and folic acid.

In research published this week in the journal PLoS Medicine, Dr. Zlotkin and his colleagues reported successful trials of sprinkles in West Africa, where sprinkles were at least as effective as other iron supplements, and parents using the product reported high level of satisfaction. Up until now, sprinkles have been distributed through UNICEF and private groups including World Vision and Helen Keller International, and through a few government programs -- for example in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The challenge, says Dr. Zlotkin in his paper, will be to expand distribution to all the children who are not now getting enough iron.

MUSIC: "Perry Mason Theme" (Buddy Morrow)

Disasters like last month's tsunamis may grab all the headlines, but day-to-day the big killers are diseases. Some are familiar old threats, such as malaria. Others are more recent. For example, AIDS and SARS.

For half-a-century, an elite group of American doctors, scientists and public health experts have been watching for signs of the next outbreak of disease, which could come any time, anywhere. VOA's Jeff Swicord introduces us to this dedicated corps of specialists.

SWICORD: They are called the "disease detectives," the officers of the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia (EIS): an unusual group of epidemiologists who often find themselves in unfamiliar places, looking for clues to the world's most mysterious disease outbreaks.

Douglas Hamilton is the director of the EIS.

DOUGLAS HAMILTON: "We are often faced with situations where there is a disease problem, an outbreak where you don't know what the source is. Or you may know what the source is, but you don't know what the problem is and how it is being transmitted. And, our folks go in and gather the information necessary to try and answer the questions of who is at risk for this disease, how can we prevent this from spreading, and how can we stop the outbreak. And it really is a detective kind of process where you gather bits of information, there is deductive reasoning, and you come up with a proposed plan."

SWICORD: All EIS officers have completed a doctoral degree in fields such as medicine, veterinary studies, and biology. They serve a two-year training fellowship and then most go on to careers in public health. Some move on to work for local health services across the country and others become staff members at EIS. According to Doug Hamilton it takes a special person to become an EIS officer.

DOUGLAS HAMILTON: "We look for a couple of things. We look for someone who is really driven to find the answer to an unknown problem. Someone who really wants to tease out the puzzle or figure out what is going on. We also look for people who work well in teams. As an agency we provide assistance to other agencies and we are always on a team. We are not the leaders of the team but we are part of a team. So I have to have people that work well in that environment."

SWICORD: The work environment is not always optimal for scientific research. EIS teams often find themselves in remote small villages where there is no electricity or running water. Staff epidemiologist Joel Montgomery was deployed to a nepovirus outbreak in Malaysia and Singapore, a virus that can cause a host of neurological and pulmonary problems in humans. He teamed up with local health professionals to try to find how the virus was being transmitted to people. After an exhaustive investigation they surmised the virus was being carried by bats.

JOEL MONTGOMERY: "In Malaysia and Singapore there was an intermediate host, we had the bats actually foraging in these fruit. trees above pig pens. They would forage on apples or whatever and they would drop partially eaten fruit into the pigpens and the pigs would get infected and they acted as an amplifying or intermediate host. And they actually transmitted Nipah virus on to humans. And the cases in Malaysia and Singapore were due to pig exposure, not direct exposure to bats."

SWICORD: Investigations are not without their dangers. EIS officers were also deployed to the world's largest Ebola outbreak in Uganda. Out of 426 cases half resulted in death. Ebola is a horrible disease where its victims often die of massive uncontrollable hemorrhaging. It is also very contagious, requiring health care workers to wear protective clothing and follow strict procedures to protect themselves from infection. But as EIS officer Scott Harper points out, deadly mistakes were made.

SCOTT HARPER: "It is very easy with this virus to pick it up with a patient on a glove for instance and then all it would take would be to rub your own eye. Or to touch your own mouth to self infect. And so even with all the precautions in place -- the barrier precautions and head coverings and gowns and everything else and gloves etcetera -- at four o'clock in the morning if you get a call that a patient is basically bleeding all over the room, that patient is one of your colleagues, a nurse who might have been infected."

SWICORD: Challenges aside, most EIS officers think they have the most interesting jobs in the world.

DOUGLAS HAMILTON: "When interviewed for this job many years ago, one of the things that impressed me was when I talked to one of our current officers, he said to me that, 'the thing I like about this job is it is the first job that I have had where I look forward to coming to work in the morning.' That really impressed me and I think that is true for a lot of people who go through this."

SWICORD: Jeff Swicord, VOA News.

MUSIC: Closing theme

That's our show for this week. If you've got a question about science, technology, health or the environment, we'd like to answer it. And we've got a VOA gift for you -- IF we use your question on the program. Email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Ourworld is all one word. Or write us at -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our World is edited by Rob Sivak. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology...in Our World.

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