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Our World — 5 January 2008

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... A promising test that could help diagnose one of the world's deadliest forms of cancer ... a big city tries reusing its rainwater ... and the downside of biofuels:

LAURANCE: "Believe it or not, there actually seems to be a connection between rising corn production in the U.S. for biofuels and Amazon deforestation."

Those stories, lead poisoning among immigrant children in New York, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University are working on a simple, inexpensive test to identify people who may have cancers of the head and neck — including mouth and throat cancers. Early diagnosis of these types of tumors could save lives, especially in South Asia, where they are the leading cause of cancer death.

Head and neck cancers are especially common among smokers and older people. In the United States, they're the seventh leading cause of cancer death.

CALIFANO: "Worldwide, though, it is actually more common. It's actually the sixth most common cancer, and it is actually the most common cancer in India. It is actually the single worst cancer killer in the Indian subcontinent as well. In India it's actually those who smoke tobacco and actually use betel or betel quid or paan or areca nut derivatives with tobacco."

Dr. Joseph Califano of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center is one of the scientists developing a so-called "swish and spit" test.

CALIFANO: "For patients it's really very simple. All it is involves taking a brush to brush the surfaces of the mouth and throat, and then gargle, rinse, swish and spit. And just that simple act provides an enormous amount of cells that are shed essentially constantly from the throat and the mouth."

Those cells may include cells from cancers in the throat and mouth that can be identified by genetic screening. Swishing and spitting may be simple, but figuring out what genes to look for is the challenge.

CALIFANO: "What we really need to do is find the right combination of markers that will be specific enough so that we detect enough cancers but don't catch in the net, so to speak, normal people who would undergo a needless confirmatory physical examination."

In a new research paper, Califano and his colleagues report on their progress in finding that right combination of genetic markers. The goal is to develop a test that will catch all patients with cancer, and even some pre-cancerous conditions, without producing too many false positives — erroneous results that suggest the presence of cancer even though the patients don't actually have the disease.

Joseph Califano says early detection of these mouth and throat cancers could make a big difference in survival rates.

CALIFANO: "It's actually incredibly important. In an early stage we can cure about 90 percent of these head and neck cancers. And in later stages, cure rates are as low as 30 to 40 percent. So early diagnosis really is the key towards curing head and neck cancer."

Johns Hopkins medical researcher Joseph Califano published his findings in the new issue of the journal Clinical Cancer Research.

A new study of children in New York indicates that young immigrants may be at special risk of lead poisoning. As Stasia DeMarco reports, a study by officials in New York City found that some imported products used by immigrants are apparently increasing their families' exposure to lead.

DeMARCO: Lead is a toxic metal that damages the brain, nervous system, kidneys and reproductive system. However, for many years, it was used as a pigment and preservative in paint, and added to gasoline to make engines run more efficiently. As its health hazards became indisputable, the U.S. government banned lead from house paint in 1978, and eliminated it from gasoline in 1995.

But lead is still around, especially on the walls of older buildings. Lead-based paint remains the primary cause of lead poisoning for children in the United States, with thousands of new cases every year. However, immigrant children are exposed to other sources as well, according to New York City's Health Dept.

CLARK: "Immigrant children were five times more likely than US-born children to have lead poisoning in New York City. We also found that children who had recently traveled and spent time in foreign countries were eleven times more likely to have lead poisoning than children who had not traveled."

DeMARCO: Nancy Clark is the city's assistant commissioner for environmental disease prevention. In 2002 and 2003, she led the first study to look at lead poisoning in New York City's immigrant children.

Using a multilingual telephone survey, Health Department researchers interviewed more than 400 parents from the United States and nearly two-dozen other countries. They were asked about their international travel, what products they used when they traveled and what products they purchased and brought home with them.

CLARK: "It was one of our findings that … [of] the children in our immigrant group, the children who were mostly affected happened to be from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico and Pakistan. There were several other countries but those four countries were the primary countries of origin.

DeMARCO: While the US has laws banning the use of lead in consumer products, many other countries don't and Clark says those lead-tainted items often come to New York with immigrant families.

CLARK: "Those products might be pottery. It's a well-known source of lead poisoning because the glaze on the pottery may leech lead into food. Other products may be cosmetics that contain lead. Cosmetics, again, that have been imported from certain countries. They may be imported herbal medicine products that are contaminated with lead. We know that families may use these products when they're in foreign countries. They also may bring those products into the United States and sometimes they even purchase them here."

DeMARCO: Clark's department has published a list of dozens of imported herbal medicines that contain lead, as well as mercury and arsenic.

Nancy Clark says the findings have prompted the New York Health department to encourage doctors in the city to screen all immigrant children — not just infants — for lead poisoning. They have also established a multilingual hot line so that immigrant families can report their concerns about levels of lead in their homes.

The study appears in the January issue of American Journal of Public Health. I'm Stasia DeMarco

Does religious activity — attending prayer services or taking part in social activities related to a house of worship - have an impact on your mental health?

A considerable body of research indicates that yes, it does, although the data is hardly conclusive.

MASELKO: "On the one hand, you can imagine that people who belong to a religious community have access to more resources. So in terms of their social networks ... that could be protective for their mental health. There's some evidence also that people, when they begin to feel distressed and depressed and anxious, then they will resort to religiosity and spirituality as a method of coping."

That's Joanna Maselko of Temple University in Philadelphia. She's just added a new wrinkle to the subject with a paper that looks at mental health and changes in the level of religious engagement over time.

MASELKO: "Women who had stopped being religiously active, they were at increased risk of having an anxiety disorder and also some alcohol problems. ... This is in comparison to those women who had always been religiously active. So it really seemed like there is something about stopping and their letting go of their religious community that was associated with mental distress."

In her study, women who had stopped being religiously active were actually three times more likely to have anxiety disorders or engage in alcohol abuse. Note: she's talking just about women. For men, the results were reversed. Men who stopped being religiously active were less likely to suffer depression compared with men who had remained religously active.

Maselko says she doesn't have the data to explain the discrepancy, but I asked her what might account for it.

MASELKO: "Well, from my sort of more cynical interpretation I can say, well, the men are going, not because they want to, but because maybe their wives want them to go [laughs] and so it's not actually something that's a positive experience for them, whereas the men who stopped going and, say, do something else with their time, it's more what they wish to be doing. Another possibility is that for women, women are potentially more socially integrated into their religious community so that when they stop going they really lose something, whereas the men, if they're not as socially integrated, then going or not going doesn't matter as much for them."

Joanna Maselko of Temple University. Her study adds to other research on the role that religion and spirituality play in health, and she said it points out that doctors and health officials should keep that in mind as they develop policies and treat patients. Her paper was published this week in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology.

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

This week it's a tool that can help you discover other websites recommended by people who have the same interests you have.

BUHR: "StumbleUpon is basically a web toolbar which helps people discover really interesting content that's out in the Web, that's highly relevant to their interest areas. And StumbleUpon helps people discover what those pieces of content are in a very engaging and entertaining manner."

Michael Buhr is general manager of StumbleUpon, where you can download a small toolbar that installs on your web browser.

BUHR: "And literally that toolbar has, on the top left-hand corner of it, a button called the Stumble button. And all you do is press that button and we will show you really interesting websites, web content, movies, pictures, etc., that are tailored to your interest.

For example, if you're interested in astronomy, StumbleUpon will steer you to websites recommended by other users who are interested in astronomy. And you, in turn, can rate sites you visit with one simple click.

The StumbleUpon toolbar works on the popular Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers. Even without the toolbar, you can get a selection of the sites users are recommending to each other on the StumbleUpon website.

Buhr says StumbleUpon is different from search engines, which use sophisticated algorithms to steer you in the right direction. StumbleUpon adds to the mix the opinions of users like you.

BUHR: "We also rely heavily on the interests of our 4.2 million registered users, our community members, who are rating those sites up and down. So it's applying very much of a social peer-review on top of those results."

Incidentally, 40 percent of StumbleUpon's over four million users are outside North America, and you can join them at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: Blues Traveler — "Stumble And Fall"

You've stumbled onto VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Many countries are looking at biofuels as a "green" or environmentally friendly way of replacing fossil fuels to power vehicles and perhaps also heat buildings and generate electricity. Brazilians fuel their cars with ethanol made from sugar cane. Trucks in Europe run on biodiesel made from vegetable oil.

It sounds good, but really, how green are these biofuels?

A study commissioned by the government of Switzerland concluded that biofuels may be less damaging to the environment when they are used, but that can be offset by damage caused during production of the crops that go into the fuel.

The journal Science this week published an analysis of the issue by two scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, where I reached co-author William Laurance.

LAURANCE: "There's a huge amount of variation in the environmental impacts of different biofuels. And it's not just in the greenhouse gas emissions. I mean, they vary a lot. But it's also in the other kinds of environmental impacts that the biofuels are having. For example, if fertilizers are involved then a number of biofuels, when they're produced, cause the production of a lot of nitrous oxide, which is an important greenhouse gas. And it also affects the ozone layer. There [are] other kinds of environmental effects. For example, a lot of the biofuels, particularly some of the ones that are being produced in the tropics — although, if you just look at the biofuels production in the agricultural process, they seem to be having a positive effect, but in some cases they're knocking down large areas of tropical rainforests, burning these forests, which are producing huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. So if you include that effect, the biofuels become much more negative than one would otherwise think. So it's really important to look broadly at the biofuels, and that can be something of a challenge."

Q: Well, I think it's probably a challenge for consumers, in particular, who may want to do the right thing, but they're looking, really, at only one small part of the equation.

LAURANCE: "That's right. That's one of the nice things about this new study that's come out, because they've managed to try to combine all the different kinds of environmental impacts into a set of simple numbers that everybody can understand. And so this is really the importance of this new Swiss study. And the nice thing is that you really get a good visual picture from this of the different kinds of biofuels. So, for example, one of the things that we're seeing is that the corn-based biofuels that's very important in the U.S. now probably is not having very good environmental benefits. When you look at the impacts on greenhouse gas emissions, it's probably having only a very marginal benefit. When you look at some of the other effects such as, for example, this nitrous oxide pollution that occurs as a result of the fertilizers that are being used, when you look at the impacts on the oceans as a consequence of the nitrogen and phosphorous that are washing off of the corn fields and into the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico causing this dead zone within the Gulf of Mexico by killing a lot of the fish.

"And when you look at the broader economic impacts, because as corn is being devoted more and more to biofuel production, less is going into food, and so food prices are rising. And then there's all kinds of other indirect effects that are happening. For example, one of the really striking things that we've realized recently is that the increasing corn production in the United States is actually contributing to higher global soy prices. And the reason that that's happening is because a lot of soy farmers are shifting in the U.S. because of the very generous agricultural subsidies for corn, they're shifting to growing corn. Well, that's having secondary effects. One of the things that's happening is that Brazil, which is the number two soy producer (behind the U.S.) is rapidly increasing its soy production, and that's having a big impact on the Amazon. The number of fires in the soy producing states in the Amazon has increased dramatically. So, believe it or not, there actually seems to be a connection between rising corn production in the U.S. for biofuels and Amazon deforestation."

Q: If it is so complex, and it took the Swiss study 600 pages to sort it out, it sounds like reducing it to a single number would be virtually impossible to compare the different kinds of biofuels against each other and against fossil fuels.

LAURANCE: "The nice thing about this Swiss study is they used two completely different methods, and in both cases they got pretty similar answers, which gives us a little more confidence in what they're finding."

Q: So how did we get to this point? I know you're a scientist and not a policy expert, but it seems like science is really taking a back seat in the public discussion here.

LAURANCE: "Well, that often happens. And I think that, in fact, is definitely the case. For example, if we're talking about corn production in the U.S., I think there's probably a couple of factors that are contributing to the fact that this [ethanol production from corn] is being emphasized so much. First of all, corn is the United States' most prolific crop, it's the one that we produce the most, and so there's a lot of production capacity. The second thing is that the corn lobby is a very powerful political lobby and there [are] major political organizations that are trying to push corn as a biofuel. Now, there [are] justifiable reasons for doing some of this stuff. I mean nobody can argue against, for example, the United States needing to reduce its reliance on foreign oil. And the question is, are we making smart decisions about which biofuel crops we're promoting. And right now I think that that's really an important issue that people need to think about, and particularly with respect to corn biofuel.

"There's really no good reason, except for the fact that we're limited by current technology, but there's no good reason to be using food crops for biofuels when the next generation, the second generation of biofuels are going to be much more relying on just using cellulose or wood fiber for production. By the way, I didn't even mention things like using algae, aquaculture, and also specially engineered microbes that could potentially be used for producing biofuels as well.

"Now, I don't have a dog in this fight. I'm not part of the biofuels game in the sense that I have any particular interest in this. But I think looking at this objectively, biofuels are definitely going to be an important part of the picture, but clearly we need to move beyond this initial wave of these food biofuels and start moving into smart biofuels, which are the second generation, much more."

William Laurance is the co-author, with Jörn Scharlemann, of "How Green are Biofuels?" in this week's issue of the journal Science. We reached Dr. Laurance in Panama, where he works at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

If you have a garden you may use a rain barrel to capture water rather than letting it go to waste. Some people are going even further to save water. They're piping rainwater into their indoor plumbing. From Seattle, in Washington state, Ann Dornfeld reports on how that's working in an American city that's known for its rainfall.

DORNFELD: For years, the rain that fell upon Seattle's city hall vanished almost as soon as it hit the roof. It gushed down to the street and washed away oil and heavy metals left by passing cars. In minutes, the rain became toxic waste that flowed into the city's waterways.

These days, Seattle's new city hall doesn't let rainwater slip away. This city hall puts rainwater to work.

City Councilmember Richard Conlin demonstrates one of the building's rainwater-filled toilets. It looks perfectly normal. Conlin says that's not always the case:

CONLIN: "It actually does get discolored, particularly during the leaf season, or when the rains first start in the fall. And so for a while we had notices in the bathroom saying 'don't pay attention to the fact that this water is discolored. It's because it's recycled rainwater.' But I think people have really gotten used to it now."

DORNFELD: Rain that doesn't get absorbed into City Hall's green roof is channeled to a million-gallon tank in the basement. It goes through a series of filters, then into the pipes. It's called a rainwater catchment system.

CONLIN: "Right now we're using it for pretty much all of the non-potable functions that we have in City Hall. It's probably good enough quality to use for potable functions, but we aren't going to go there because we have great water that we get in the city and we'd have to do some treatment in order to meet legal standards."

DORNFELD: Conlin says the city installed the rainwater system as a way to practice the conservation that city leaders preach.

Bob Scheulen is a member of the choir. When he and his wife built their house several years ago, they built a hollow concrete patio that stores 7,000 gallons [26,500 liters] of rainwater.

Scheulen says despite Seattle's rainy reputation, droughts are common in the summer:

SCHEULEN: "Basically there's two choices if people want to continue to use water as the population grows: the city can either build a lot more reservoirs and drown more land or people can conserve water or be their own utility for those summer months."

Scheulen lifts a metal hatch on the patio floor and sticks his head inside.

"I bet we can see how full it is right now. Oh, it's gettin' pretty full. It's probably 60 percent full. A couple more rainstorms and it'll be probably completely full."

Mike Broili says that kind of awareness is exactly what most Americans are missing. He runs Living Systems Design, and he installed Bob Scheulen's filtration system. Broili says he learned how much water he uses when he lived in a cabin in Alaska. He hauled his own water for 15 years.

BROILI: "And when you have to carry your water, you become really sensitized to how much you're using and how you use it and where you use it."

Broili says you don't need to live in a rainy climate to run your home on rainwater.

BROILI: "There's enough water that lands on the roofs even in the Southwest to supply their needs."

Broili admits the rainwater catchment systems he builds are pricey: $1,500-15,000. But he says his clients recognize the value of water.

BROILI: "Of all of the water on the planet, and this is a water planet, Seven one-thousandths of it is actually available for human consumption. That's a tiny, tiny, tiny portion."

Broili says as the population grows, pretty soon the only affordable way to get water will be from the sky.

For the Environment Report, I'm Ann Dornfeld.

Support for the Environment Report comes from the Joyce Foundation, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, and the Great Lakes Fishery Trust. Send your comments to

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

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

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

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