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Our World — 3 November 2007


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... Experts agree on how to prevent cancer - we'll tell you how ... water on Mars ... and a market-based approach to taming climate change ...

CARLSON: "By buying so much clean energy, we will change the market and potentially deal with climate change in a completely market-based way."

Offsetting your carbon footprint, student journalism on our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

After years spent reviewing thousands of scientific studies, an international team of experts has issued a set of guidelines to help people everywhere reduce their risk of cancer. The recommendations focus on weight loss, exercise, and a diet that limits foods known to increase your risk of cancer.

Jeffrey Prince, an official of study co-sponsor the American Institute for Cancer Research, says reducing the risk of cancer is within our control.

PRINCE: "There are changes that you can make in the way you live. There are choices that you can make about diet, physical activity and weight management which will reduce you risk of ever contracting this terrible disease."

The number one recommendation is that people should be as lean as possible without getting dangerously underweight.

To get there, the report recommends a mostly-vegetarian diet with only 500 grams of red meat a week; and limited amounts of energy-dense foods that are made with lots of fats and sugar. Also only about six grams a day or less of salt, and having no more than one drink of alcohol a day for women, two for men.

And the cancer experts recommend physical activity, with a starting goal of brisk walking 30 minutes a day.

For new mothers, the report also recommends breastfeeding. Mother's milk is the perfect food for a newborn, of course, but panel member Walter Willett of Harvard University says research indicates it can help prevent cancer, too.

WILLETT: "Our report found convincingly that mothers who breastfeed reduce their own chances of developing pre- and post-menopausal breast cancer. This benefit of breastfeeding is probably related to hormonal factors."

One of the major cancer risk factors, being overweight, has traditionally been associated with wealthy, developed countries. But Dr. Phillip James, who chairs the International Obesity Taskforce, says that is changing, and policy makers in poorer countries need to take notice.

JAMES: "The biggest challenge for governments is that as people come from the poor villages, they come into a city where the cheapest and simple foods that keep the longest are the energy-dense foods, which is precisely what we think is contributing to their problem. And in this report we show that there's a dramatic swing in the type and magnitude of the cancer risk as you go through that nutrition transition."

As early as the 1980s, experts were saying that around one-third of all cancers can be prevented. Dr. Willett says that optimism is reflected in the recommendations in this new report.

WILLETT: "Follow those steps and everyone can significantly reduce their chances of developing cancer for the rest of their life."

Incidentally, the expert panel didn't even bother to include tobacco in their 10 highlighted recommendations. The link between tobacco and cancer is so well established, they said, that they decided to focus on other areas where public education might have more results.

A coalition of international public health officials is calling drug-resistant tuberculosis a man-made epidemic caused by a lack of global response to TB. The officials say more resources are needed to fight what is an otherwise curable disease. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: The World Health Organization estimates that 1.6 million people die each year of tuberculosis.

The reason there are so many deaths, according to the former U.N. Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa Stephen Lewis, is the failure of public health officials to promptly identify and properly treat people who are infected with TB, a situation that has led to multi-drug resistant forms of tuberculosis.

LEWIS: "You begin to verge in the area of crimes against humanity you know, you begin to wonder when governments are inert and when the international community is in such obvious default, whether there doesn't come a point where these are almost criminal matters, where people are dying in such numbers that you absolutely can intervene and stop it and fail to do so."

Individuals who are infected with AIDS are particularly vulnerable to TB because of their weakened immune systems. Stephen Lewis says up to 80 percent of people with TB also have AIDS.

The global community has committed resources to treat 1.6 million people with tuberculosis by 2015. But Lewis notes there are 420,000 new cases of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis each year. And, he says, only two percent of these people are receiving adequate treatment.

Drug-resistant tuberculosis comes in two forms. Multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, or MDR-TB, occurs when the tuberculosis infection is resistant to one or both of the front-line anti-TB drugs.

The other form is called extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis, or XDR-TB, in which the TB bacterium does not respond to any of the older antibiotics and is resistant to at least one of the newer drugs.

Paul Farmer is founder of the group Partners in Health. Farmer says it is a misconception that MDR- or XDR-TB cannot be conquered.

FARMER: "The goal in treatment is to have multiple drugs, at least three or four, and sometimes even surgery. So if you have an area of the lung that is affected, and other parts of the lung that are unaffected, if you have surgical capacity removing that part of the lung can increase cure rates."

Farmer says surgery can cure drug-resistant tuberculosis in about 50 percent of patients.

Nesri Padayatchi of South Africa's Center for the AIDS Program of Research says it is difficult to get financing for TB tests, clinics, personnel and treatments when no one is paying attention.

PADAYATCHI: "TB is a very, very, very old disease. And it's really only become very sexy and fashionable because of HIV. And in fact, there should be a lot more attention paid to TB because HIV is strictly a behavioral issue and TB is [about] breathing really. It affects everybody."

The comments on TB come ahead of an international conference on tuberculosis next week in South Africa. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

A international team of scientists has found what may be a very large amount of ice just below the surface of Mars.

Ice has been identified previously in polar regions of the Red Planet, but this potential ice discovery is located near the Martian equator.

Lead scientist Tom Watters of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington says the team used data from a radar instrument on the European Mars Express satellite now orbiting Mars to infer the possible presence of ice just under the surface.

WATTERS: "The radar wave in certain cases will not only reflect off the surface of Mars, but if the materials have a certain property, part of the energy will be transmitted through the material, so the [radar] sounder [instrument] literally allows us, in certain places on Mars, to see through the material."

The way the radar waves are scattered and delayed by the material beneath the surface helps the scientists determine some of the properties of the material belowground.

In a paper published online in SciencExpress, Watters and his colleagues are careful to say that what they found is consistent with ice, but they don't rule out the possibility that it may be some other material with similar properties.

WATTERS: "One of the problems with the sounder is it doesn't exactly allow us to tell definitively between the two possibilities — this very low density, unconsolidated dry material and, on the other hand, this very ice-rich material."

Watters says one reason for thinking that what they have found is ice, not just loosely-packed dirt, is that the formations they studied are up to several kilometers thick, and they likely would have compressed down of their own weight unless there were bits of ice separating the bits of Martian soil.

If it is ice, there is a lot of it, and it's in a place — an equatorial rock formation named Medusae Fossae — that is more accessible to future human visitors than the ice at higher latitudes.

WATTERS: "If the Medusae Fossae deposits are ice-rich, in volume it is approximately equal to the volume of ice at the South Pole. So it would mean we have another source of water, a huge source of water, in the equatorial zone of Mars. And the equatorial zone of Mars is a lot easier to get to than the poles of Mars."

Watters says that they will continue to collect and analyze data to see if they can be more certain about their conclusions.

WATTERS: "The more data we have, the more we'll be able to refine the interpretation and narrow our possibilities. But ultimately I think the only way we will definitively know is to go there and to sample the material itself. "

Tom Watters is looking for water on Mars. Stick around for a story about water on Earth coming up soon on Our World.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

Practically every college or university in the United States has at least one student newspaper. Student papers have long exchanged articles. Now, that exchange has gone online, and those of us who aren't students get to read some of the best student journalism being published in the US and around the world.

FRENCH: "UWire is sort of like the Associated Press for college media. The other half of UWire is consumer-facing site where folks can come and really get in touch with what students are talking about."

Ben French is general manager of Uwire.com — part university wire service, part news site for the public, and part career tool for aspiring media professionals — a service that is just getting off the ground.

But for now the news is the top draw on Uwire, where I learned how the vacation schedule at the University of Iowa could affect the presidential chances of Democratic hopeful Barack Obama. And about the Syracuse University scientists who developed a form of insulin that can be taken as a pill instead of injection, at least in rats.

French says the next generation of professional journalists writes from a different perspective that you might not find in other media.

FRENCH: "Students have a certain honesty to them that is refreshing. And I do think they have a new and interesting angle. If you take music and film as an example, who's the one who's going to tell you that the new 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movie sucks. Students have their ear to the ground on certain subject matters, and they're experts on those subject matters."

UWire aggregates student journalism from 800 campus newspapers and other media outlets. Currently, there are only a handful outside North America, but French says UWire is a great vehicle for student journalists around the world.

FRENCH: "What's great about a student in Nigeria or a student in China or Japan is they've got incredible stories to tell that I think our readers would be interested in reading and also our other newspapers would be interested in running."

Ben French says he hopes for more contributions from around the world, so if you're a student journalist this might be a breakthrough opportunity. Check it out at UWire.com, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Theme from "G.E. College Bowl"

Full coverage here on VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Under the terms of the U.N. climate change agreement known as the Kyoto Protocol, a majority of the world's industrialized nations are working to shrink their carbon footprints — that is, to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions produced by the burning of fossil fuels. Now many private companies are getting consumers involved in a similar effort to offset their carbon footprints in an effort to help slow global warming. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.

SKIRBLE: When Eric and Melissa Cavanaugh got married last month, they wanted to make their wedding carbon-free.

CAVANAUGH: "We realize that as much as we try in our everyday life, with our recycling, with our use of mass transit, being at a wedding creates more of a carbon footprint than our daily lives do."

SKIRBLE: The Cavanaughs turned to a company called Carbonfund.org, one of a growing number of firms that charge a fee to offset your carbon emissions.

The company directs its funds to carbon-cutting projects like tree planting and renewable energy applications. Eric Cavanaugh says he used Carbonfund.org's online calculator to determine the carbon load their wedding would be putting on the environment, and how much they needed the company to offset.

CAVANAUGH: "We were able to put in the number of guests, the number of hotel stays, the percentage who were flying, how many people were driving, etc. etc."

SKIRBLE: The wedding offset added up to 8 tons, at the bargain price of $3.50 per ton.

CarbonFund.org is part of a $55 million industry that in 2006 offset 14.8 billion tons of CO2 emissions.

Eric Carlson heads CarbonFund.org, which, unlike some of its competitors, is run as a non-profit. He says the business attracts consumers who want to make more than simple lifestyle changes.

CARLSON: "Beyond just turning out the lights, buying an efficient car and carpooling where you can, you still have a huge carbon footprint. And we wanted to help people get to zero today, and in doing so, help lead investment in renewable energy and clean technology."

That's why Volkswagen of America and CarbonFund.org joined forces. VW's latest promotion offsets first-year emissions for each new VW sold in the U.S. from September through December. As part of the deal, VW agreed to put cash into reforestation.

Global warming solved? Not so fast. Eric Carlson with CarbonFund.org says offsets are a good first step, but he also advises consumers to do their homework.

CARLSON: "The key question is, are these offsets real? Many people say that this is an unregulated market. Well, there are world-class organizations that are certifying and verifying carbon offsets every single day."

CarbonFund.org follows the standards and practices of the Chicago Climate Exchange, whose 350 corporate partners have agreed to reduce, trade, and offset greenhouse gas emissions.

Carlson concedes that voluntary offsets can only go so far. He says the effort must be tied to government-regulated caps on industrial carbon emissions. But he says that until those caps are in place, consumer-based offsets can make a difference, especially as the market for these activities grows.

CARLSON: "And in doing so, by buying so much clean energy and supporting so much clean technology, we will change the market and potentially deal with climate change in a completely market-based way." I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Water: it's one substance all living things must have in order to survive and thrive. But fresh water is a finite resource that, for many, is scarce or polluted. Water is now the focus of a major new museum exhibition at New York, where VOA's Adam Phillips got a preview.

PHILLIPS: American Museum of Natural History President Ellen Futter steps through the curtain of rippling fog-like vapor that serves as the dramatic entrance to the "Water: H20=Life" exhibit.

FUTTER: "The fact that 1.1 billion people across the globe lack access to safe drinking water makes this show vital and timely. We look at water from a comprehensive point of view. We look at it environmentally, culturally, we look at it from a scientific point of view, and we look at it from a standpoint of living and solutions and policymakers and how we're all engaged in this together. That it's a finite resource and it's terribly crucial and urgent."

PHILLIPS: The water exhibition begins at a huge Earth-like sphere that's lit by projected graphics showing water distribution around the planet and other scientific facts, accompanied by narration.

SCIENCE SPHERE: "...The squares that you now see covering the sphere represent all the water in and on the earth...."

STIASSNY: "… But when you actually look at how much of that water is fresh water, which is of course the water that our species relies upon so heavily, it's a tiny, tiny amount."

PHILLIPS: That's Melanie Stiassny, curator of fish science and water ecosystems at the museum.

STIASSNY: "You can look at the statistics or you can put it simply and say you have a bathtub, and if the water in that bathtub is all the water in our planet, about a teaspoonful of that water is what is actually available for our species to sustainably use, but it's also in that teaspoon that lives all the rich, rich wealth of life we find in our fresh water on our planet."

PHILLIPS: One portion of the exhibit shows a few of the ingenious ways animals and plants have adapted to the water in their environments. The Nubian Desert beetle, for example, gets all its water by climbing to the top of a dune at dawn, and arranging its body in a way that traps droplets of fog. Eleanor Sterling is director the Museum's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation:

STERLING: "We also feature the kangaroo rat which is an organism found in the southwestern United States that doesn't drink water. It has specializations in its body to extract water from the food that it eats and those kinds of adaptations to very dry environments are unbelievable."

PHILLIPS: Such adaptations take thousands of generations to evolve. But human-induced global climate change can alter an environment in mere decades, rendering many natural adaptations ineffective. Polar bears, for example, have evolved magnificent ways to live in a world of frozen water. They have also adapted to seasonal changes in the condition of the ice. Sterling says that when global warming causes the bears' ancient habitat to melt, the species' very survival is threatened.

STERLING: "So we're trying to raise awareness about that impact. And the projections are that that impact will increase."

PHILLIPS: Pollution is another major theme at the "Water: H2O=Life" show, especially the contamination of the vast, natural underground reservoirs called "aquifers."

Tuan Chiong Chew, director of the Singapore Science Centre, which collaborated on the exhibit, says aquifer and groundwater pollution is a growing trend in the rapidly urbanizing developing world.

CHIONG: "It is tremendous advantage to being able to share knowledge in this area: how we can prevent groundwater from being contaminated, how we can conserve, even recycle groundwater, and how we can strategically locate industries so that the damage to the water supply and also the environment is kept to a minimum."

PHILLIPS: Of course, individual governments will adopt different methods to protect and conserve their fresh water resources. Curators at the American Museum of Natural History hope their new "Water: H20=Life" exhibit will demonstrate the urgent need for people everywhere to conserve this limited, life-giving resource. For Our World I'm Adam Phillips reporting from New York.

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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 and Faith Lapidus edited 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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