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Our World Transcript — 2 September 2006


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

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... a checkup on the value of health-care spending ... a weather setback for the space shuttle ... and a world of big possibilities as lab equipment shrinks:

NOLL: "I think we're headed into an era of personalized medicine, and I think something like a small mass spectrometer in every doctor's office would go a long way towards that."

Those stories, using fast-growing bamboo to slow climate change, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Medical spending in the United States has increased dramatically in recent years, and critics note that other industrialized nations spend much less per person, yet seem to get better results by measures such as life expectancy and infant mortality.

U.S. medical spending per person is eight times higher than it was four decades ago, even after adjusting for inflation. But the co-author of a new study, Dr. Allison Rosen of the University of Michigan, says Americans are getting a lot for their money.

ROSEN: "What we wanted to do was look to see, actually, whether we're actually purchasing a reasonable amount of health for our spending, whether we're getting good value. And what we found was, over the last 40 years, that we are getting relatively good value for our health care spending."

The report points to major advances in the quality of health care in the United States. Four decades ago, a patient who might have died from kidney disease can now get dialysis or a transplant. Doctors now have ways to help premature babies who would not have survived forty years ago. A typical American born in 2000 will live seven years longer than one born in 1960.

How much do these medical marvels cost consumers? In the 1990s, Dr. Rosen and her colleagues calculated that $36,000 in medical care produced on average a gain of one year of life. That compares favorably with some estimates that a year of additional life is worth $100,000 or so. But that average masks significant age differences. It's a lot more expensive to add a year of life to a 65-year-old than to a 15-year-old.

Older Americans consume a lot more health care resources, in part because doctors are doing procedures, like open-heart surgery on 80-year-old patients, that they wouldn't have done in the past.

ROSEN: "You know, a few years ago we would have said, this person would not have survived the surgery, but now that we know that they will, we don't necessarily know when their last year of life is going to be, but we know that they can have a fairly good quality of life, so it's reasonable to go ahead with that spending."

We've been talking about years of life, which can be measured objectively, but Allison Rosen says that's but an imperfect substitute for a harder-to-measure quality — "health."

ROSEN: "There's more to health than life expectancy. We've got quality of life, and quality of life is particularly important the older you get and the more chronic diseases you have. And in fact, if we had included something to measure quality of life, we would have probably seen substantially higher quality because we do know, at least over the last decade to two decades, that disability has been declining fairly substantially in the U.S."

Rosen's study didn't include a comparison of the value of health care spending with other countries, but she said it would be useful to extend the analysis in the study, which was led by co-author David Cutler.

ROSEN: "I think it would be more interesting, now that we know that we get reasonably good value for our spending in the U.S., to look at a much more detailed level, so that we can focus our resources to maximize the value of our health spending."

That might include channeling more resources to health care for the young, where there is a greater benefit for each dollar spent.

Allison Rosen's article appeared this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.

In the plant kingdom, it's not always a sign of health to be green. Scientists have found that, for microscopic ocean algae called phytoplankton, green signals trouble. Large numbers of the tiny plants in the Pacific Ocean are failing to absorb as much carbon dioxide as they normally do. As VOA's David McAlary tells us, that could be contributing to global warming.

McALARY: Plants thrive on carbon dioxide just as animals do on oxygen. This is good for the atmosphere because plants soak up much of the carbon dioxide emitted by cars, industry, and forest burning. This prevents it from becoming a greenhouse gas that traps the sun's heat to contribute to global warming.

Phytoplankton have a particularly big role to play in absorbing carbon dioxide, acting as the lungs of the planet. This is especially true in the tropical Pacific, the largest natural source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Yet these single-celled plants may not be as effective in the region as once thought. Oregon State University botanist Michael Behrenfeld says 12 years worth of data gathered from research ships in the region show less than expected phytoplankton abundance because of a nutritional deficiency.

BEHRENFELD: "There are actually lots of nutrients up at the surface, and they don't seem to be taking it up. Why is that? What we found is that these tiny little plants are starved for iron."

McALARY: The iron for sea plants generally comes down from the dust blown away from arid areas like deserts.

Behrenfeld and colleagues assessed phytoplankton iron levels with a technique that measures their glow. The more phytoplankton glow, the less iron they have.

Lacking enough iron, phytoplankton do not take in as much carbon dioxide as healthier plants. Behrenfeld's team estimates that up to two-and-a-half billion more tons of carbon may escape into the atmosphere each year than once believed.

You would not know this by looking at color satellite pictures of the tropical Pacific. They show very green algae, a condition considered until now a sign of its robustness. But Behrenfeld says his findings show the opposite.

BEHRENFELD: "When phytoplankton are stressed by iron, they actually appear greener. Normally what we think of is that when plants are really green, that means they are really healthy, they are growing really fast. But in the tropical Pacific, that is often not the case."

McALARY: Behrenfeld says the green stress response occurs when the algae, rather than wither, add more plant cells filled with green chlorophyl. It apparently is an emergency effort to collect more iron.

McALARY: The phytoplankton study appears in the journal Nature. David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.

Another factor in climate change is deforestation. Cutting down trees, especially for firewood, can lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions. But fast-growing bamboo can help quickly replenish a forest stripped of timber, and it has other benefits, too. Frank Ling wrote our story, which is read by Bob Doughty.

TEXT: Forests are shrinking globally as people in developing nations seek wood for fuel and more land for farming.

Deforestation also affects global climate. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Burning trees and rotting wood left by loggers are thought to add to global warming by emitting more of the gas into the atmosphere, where it traps the sun's heat.

Experts say the loss of forests will continue unless alternatives to wood are found.

ONG: "Most of the forested areas have gone down by 70-90 percent, so we need a sustainable form of farming timber."

TEXT: This is water specialist Chin Ong at the International Center for Research in Agroforestry in Nairobi, Kenya. He says one promising substitute for wood is bamboo, a grass with a tree-like appearance. Some varieties grow more than 25-meters tall and 20-centimeters thick.

Ong points out that bamboo can be grown all over the world and has advantages over timber. One is its speedy growth.

ONG: "You can harvest after three or four years and then every year after that because it is a grass. Whereas if you grow a eucalyptus tree, you need five to 10 years before you can harvest again. Another reason is that bamboo has a very high water use efficiency, which is double that of any tree species."

TEXT: Ong says the plants can be an additional cash crop in areas where sugar cane and coffee are already established. He estimates that in the Lake Victoria region of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, as many as 150 million people can benefit economically.

MIDMORE: "In Taiwan, bamboo is grown on the hillsides along the edge of the mountains and it is sustainably harvested for its shoots and for its timber, and it is an environmentally friendly species because it is also preventing any erosion."

TEXT: Midmore says bamboo shoots are also an important source of nutrition and can withstand harsh climates.

In addition to providing lumber and food, bamboo plants can clean the environment. Chin Ong is studying how bamboo groves could remove toxins from dirty waters.

ONG: "We have been analyzing what are the heavy metals that can be removed by bamboo species. The bamboo species behave very similarly to papyrus, with natural vegetation to wetlands in this region. So they take up all these heavy metals and they can clean the water."

TEXT: Ong says there is an unfulfilled potential for bamboo to protect forests and improve agriculture.

The U.S. space agency NASA said Thursday it has selected Lockheed Martin Corporation to develop the Orion crew capsule, the next generation spacecraft designed to carry astronauts back to the moon. Orion will replace the Space Shuttle, which is due to be retired in 2010.

NASA faced a weather-related setback this week in its effort to get the next space shuttle mission into orbit, as tropical storm Ernesto approached the shuttle's Florida launch site. Officials decided to roll the shuttle Atlantis back into its hanger to protect it. But midway through the 10-hour trip, the forecast improved, and NASA returned the shuttle to the launch pad. The spacecraft will launch midweek at the earliest on a mission to bring key construction parts to the International Space Station.

Tropical storm Ernesto was, briefly, a hurricane — the first of this year's North Atlantic hurricane season.

Hurricanes — the tropical cyclones that form off Africa's Atlantic coast and travel west — are among the most fearsome storms on earth. As we get into the thick of the hurricane season, our Website of the Week can help you keep track of the danger and drama with an impressive array of text and graphical tools, plus background information to help you understand the phenomenon.

JUCKINS: "The National Hurricane Center website is your complete source for all official tropical storm watches, warnings [and] advisories. And it also contains a wealth of information for preparedness and the ability to learn about hurricanes and tropical cyclones."

Christopher Juckins is the National Hurricane Center webmaster at nhc.noaa.gov. The site includes maps showing the current and projected location of current storms, probable wind speeds, animations, satellite photos and other types of data.

JUCKINS: "The information on the site is very detailed. There's a lot of links regarding preparedness, learning about hurricanes, how they form, archived information from past storms, some of the worst storms on record we have information about, storm names. There's really a lot of things on there."

Juckins says the forecasts on the National Hurricane Center website are based on land observations, weather balloons, aircraft and satellite data, and other sources.

JUCKINS: "And once that data is collected, it's basically all processed in large supercomputing facilities and creates what we call model forecasts out of that. And the model forecasts are what our forecasters use here to analyze the storm and basically do the difficult job of trying to figure out where it's going to go and how strong it's going to be."

Christopher Juckins says the National Hurricane Center website uses a variety of tools to get the word out, including text and graphics, and email, too. You can follow the latest storms, or just learn more about some of nature's most violent and fascinating phenomena at nhc.noaa.gov, or get the link from our site, voanews.com-slash-ourworld.

MUSIC: "Stormy Weather" — Glenn Miller

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

U.S. scientists have developed a miniaturized version of a standard piece of lab equipment that could help environmentalists monitor water quality or warn of dangerous chemicals in the air by identifying the molecules in a suspicious sample.

NOLL: "A mass spectrometer is a device that you can use to measure the weight or mass of a molecule."

Rob Noll of Purdue University in Indiana explained that just as computers have gotten smaller, he and his colleagues have been able to miniaturize a mass spectrometer. Their portable prototype weighs just 10 kilograms, but offers about the same performance as a larger and much heavier laboratory model. As a result, Noll says it opens up whole new ways to use a mass spectrometer.

NOLL: "Oh gosh, there's a lot of different things you could do. For example, one of my favorite applications would be for environmental analysis. You could take this out in, say, your canoe and sample a river for organic pollutants. You could also use this for air sampling."

Noll said there are also military applications, and the project was funded in part by military and homeland security agencies. But he seemed especially excited about the possible medical applications of a device small and cheap enough to be put in a doctor's office, where an instant analysis of a patient's blood or urine could allow highly-customized treatment.

NOLL: "I think we're headed into an era of personalized medicine, and I think something like a small mass spectrometer in every doctor's office would go a long way towards that."

Research scientist Rob Noll of Purdue University works at the lab that developed the "Mini 10" portable spectrometer. Details of their project were published in the journal, Analytical Chemistry.

Many medicines have specific recommendations as to how they should be taken. One drug may be most effective when taken on a full stomach in the evening. Another might bear a warning about not drinking alcohol while using the drug. Now, American and Danish scientists say exposure to environmental toxins may reduce the effectivness of some vaccines. As we hear from VOA's Rosanne Skirble, their findings could have important public health implications.

SKIRBLE: Researchers at Harvard University School of Public Health suspected that exposure to toxins could damage a baby's immune system and lessen a vaccine's effectiveness.

They studied children who had been exposed to polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs. These persistent organic chemicals are now banned under an international treaty. However, they continue to leak into waterways from old electrical equipment once used in industry.

PCB levels are especially high among people in the Faroe Islands of the North Atlantic who eat a traditional diet of whale blubber. PCBs — which are concentrated in fatty tissue like blubber — pass to babies through their mother's breast milk.

Lead author Philippe Grandjean says the findings indicate that PCBs can, indeed, interfere with vaccine effectiveness.

GRANDJEAN: "At age 18 months we saw a very clear association between the PCB exposure and the diphtheria antibody levels. And they decreased something 20 percent for each doubling of the exposure. And that is a substantial decrease. However, at age 7, diphtheria [protection] had become so low that 25 percent of the children no longer had protective concentrations of the antibodies in their serum."

SKIRBLE: The results were not as dramatic for tetanus, although researchers still saw an effect. Grandjean suggests that if PCBs can compromise a child's immune system, other toxins might, as well.

GRANDJEAN: "And perhaps pollutants could be part of the reason that children are not reacting that well, that the vaccines are not 'taking' so to speak."

SKIRBLE: Phillipe Grandjean says increased exposure to toxins could threaten the ability of vaccines to do their job, impacting public health. The study is published in the online edition of the Public Library of Science Medicine. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Staying healthy begins at your mouth — not just the food you eat, but how you care for your teeth and gums. That's why paying attention to oral health can improve the health of mothers, their families and — as Shelley Schlender reports — even their newborn babies.

SCHLENDER: As a mother with three young children and a baby, Jaime Warembourg scrambles to get the healthcare her family needs. She's glad she discovered a low-cost clinic in Louisville, Colorado, known as Dental Aid.

WAREMBOURG: "It's been a great benefit for these guys 'cause they have all their teeth, unlike their mom."

SCHLENDER: As Jaime's older daughter prepares for her checkup, a dental assistant marvels at four-week old baby Alex.

WAREMBOURG: "This is Alex."

NURSE: "Last time I saw you, you were so very, very pregnant. Oh, my goodness, he's so beautiful."

SCHLENDER: Jaime plans to help him stay strong and healthy through lessons she's learned here at Dental Aid. For instance, when Alex's teeth start coming in, she won't give him a bottle to help him fall asleep. That's because she now knows that juices and milk, sitting in a baby's mouth, can lead to cavities.

But it turns out that, long before Alex was born, he may have benefited from the regular care his mother's was getting at Dental Aid. According to the American Academy of Periodontology, a baby is more likely to be born full term, and normal weight, when the expectant mother has healthy gums and teeth.

KREBS: "Pregnant women who have periodontal disease were shown to be seven times more likely to have a baby born too soon or too small."

SCHLENDER: Dr. Ken Krebs is the president of the Academy, whose members specialize in the treatment of gum disease. That's a condition whose most common symptom is gums that bleed during brushing or flossing, and it's one that's usually easy to treat.

Krebs says that prevention of gum disease is a great boost to the health of an expectant mom. And, it's also a way to improve the chance of a baby being born healthy. This, in turn, can lower healthcare costs.

KREBS: "Without complications a pregnancy generally costs about $1,700 in the hospital. On the other hand, an infant born too soon or too small averages about $77,000."

SCHLENDER: Baby Alex got a better chance, because during his mom's pregnancy, she got affordable checkups through a Dental Aid program called Bright Smiles. Clinic president Karen Cody Carlson says that a key component of that program is education.

CARLSON: "Every single pregnant mom wants to do the best she can for that baby. But if you don't know or you haven't had any education regarding nutrition and oral health care, you don't have the tools that you need to be the most effective."

SCHLENDER: Sometimes, improving gum care is as simple as learning how to brush and floss. Or, it can involve a general tooth cleaning by a dental professional. Whatever care an expectant mother gets, Carlson says — and the county's data shows — that the Bright Smiles program is making a difference.

CARLSON: "What we have found is that if you count the last two years of data, the low birth weight rate among mothers is 8.3 percent. In the mothers in our population, it's 7.4 percent. We think we are contributing to lowering the low birth weight rate in the population that comes to us."

SCHLENDER: She adds that when families understand the value of healthy teeth, they tend to brush more, floss more, and even watch the snacks they eat. For Our World, I'm Shelley Schlender at the Dental Aid clinic in Louisville, Colorado.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch, email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Rob Sivak edits the program. Eva Nenicka is the technical director. 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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