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Our World — 16 February 2008


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... Tobacco deaths in South Asia ... "Power" clothing that's not just for executives ... and how climate change and development threaten the American Southwest ...

BARNETT: "The chances of Lake Mead and Powell going dry by 2021 is around 50 percent. There's a one-in-ten chance it could go dry by 2014. That's only six years off.

Trouble behind Hoover Dam, counterfeit malaria drugs, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Researchers say a million people in India die every year from tobacco-related illnesses.

A new study concludes that health experts have previously underestimated the risk, according to the study's lead researcher, Dr. Prabhat Jha.

JHA: "The risk is much bigger than previously thought. People thought that because people start later in life and that they're smoking smaller amounts per day, that the risk can't be as big. In fact we're finding the risk is bigger than previously estimated and as high as those recorded in the U.S. or in Europe."

Speaking to reporters in New Delhi, Dr. Jha, of the Centre for Global Health Research in Toronto, stressed the impact of smoking on mortality.

JHA: "Smoking causes 10 percent of the 10 million deaths from all fatal disease. If you take everything — injuries, car accidents, and so forth — and total them in India, there's about 10 million deaths. And one single factor, smoking, causes 10 percent. And it's a remarkable, remarkable statistic: 10 percent of all deaths."

Jha points out that, of the one million deaths a year attributed to smoking, most — about 70 percent — occur in middle age, taking people in the prime of life:

JHA: "Productive fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts; and they lose many decades of life versus the non-smokers."

The 12 authors of the paper, mostly from institutions throughout India, found that the causes of smoking-related deaths are different from the pattern seen in western countries. In North America and Europe, smokers tend to die from heart disease, cancer, and lung diseases, such as emphysema.

JHA: "In India, in urban areas, it's mostly heart attacks. In rural areas, it's mostly tuberculosis, so that is a surprise."

Smokers in India use both conventional, paper-wrapped cigarettes and a smaller smoke called bidis, which are wrapped in leaf rather than paper. The study showed that even light bidi smokers — no more than seven a day — had a 30 percent higher risk of death than non-smokers.

JHA: "Because bidis contain less tobacco, you would expect risk to be a little lower. But the key message there is that all smoking is hazardous, but cigarette smoking is particularly hazardous."

Dr. Prabhat Jha says one of the most important messages of this study is that there is something that smokers can do to improve their odds of survival.

JHA: "Stopping is highly effective, but in India only two percent of adults have quit. Now you contrast that to a place like China, which 10 years ago was exactly the same, two percent, but that's gone up to nine percent. In the United Kingdom it's about 40 percent. In the U.S. it's about 30 percent. So clearly cessation is one of the key implications here for the individual smoker."

The study of smoking and death in India was published this week in the Boston-based New England Journal of Medicine.

Another major health challenge worldwide is malaria, which annually sickens some 500 million people, killing about one million of them. For decades, we've been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the disease, as new medicines are introduced and the malaria parasite develops resistance. In the latest chapter, as we hear from reporter Rose Hoban, the public health enemy is not so much a mutating microbe as it is human greed.

HOBAN: One great hope in the treatment of malaria is a new class of drugs known as artesunates, derived from a medication Chinese herbal doctors have used for millennia. Chinese scientists altered these traditional medicines to create modern anti-malarial compounds. Infectious disease doctor Paul Newton from Oxford University says these compounds have been extremely effective.

NEWTON: "They kill the malaria parasites very quickly, much quicker than any other group of anti-malarials and with drugs such as choloroquine and fansidar, which are the drugs that have been conventionally used to treat falciparum malaria… as the parasites have become resistant to them, the incidence of malaria has gone up."

HOBAN: But Newton says several years ago, doctors in Southeast Asia began to see what they suspected were counterfeit artesunate drugs. Newton says, at first, it was easy to tell that the pills and their packaging were fake. But as time passed, it became harder to tell counterfeit artesunate medications from real ones. Surveys indicate between a third and half of the pills sold in South East Asia are fake.

NEWTON: "The counterfeiters have become increasingly sophisticated … So they have evolved their packaging. So now it's extremely hard, without a hand lens and a UV light to tell that a packet of artesunate is fake or genuine."

HOBAN: These fake pills contain little or no active medication at all. Newton says that in one hospital in Laos, where he does work, all of the anti-malarial medications were fake.

MILDENHALL: "It's just bloody-minded murder."

HOBAN: Dallas Mildenhall is a scientist in New Zealand who has done chemical analysis on some of these counterfeit pills.

MILDENHALL: "Essentially, it means that patients are dying, and particularly the women and children. I would suspect that over the last five to ten years, the number of deaths as a result of people taking sub-therapeutic, and counterfeit artesunate would be in the thousands, if not in the millions."

HOBAN: Mildenhall is part of an international team Paul Newton assembled to examine fake artesunate medications. Scientists in the U.S. did chemical analyses and found the pills contained some illicit drugs, some carcinogenic chemicals but mostly, they were chalk and starch. Mildenhall performed sophisticated forensic analyses of the pills. He was able to determine the counterfeits were manufactured in southern China.

The head of INTERPOL, the international police agency, went to Chinese authorities with the evidence. After its investigation, the Chinese government confiscated tens of thousands of phony pills and arrested some of those responsible for trading in fake artesunate in Hunan province. Mildenhall says these are not the only people making and distributing counterfeit anti-malarials.

MILDENHALL: "And one of the problems that we foresee is the anti-malarial counterfeit drugs getting into Africa. In fact we do know that they are in Africa, but getting into Africa at the level that it currently is in Southeast Asia, then deaths per year will, well, will be in the millions."

HOBAN: Fake artesunates have been detected in Kenya, Tanzania, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad. But Mildenhall says the level of counterfeiting is so good, it's impossible to identify them without scientific analysis.

MILDENHALL: "If the hospitals can't tell the difference between the counterfeit and the real thing, then you can't expect a person in the street to be able to tell the difference, and no, you can't tell the difference."

HOBAN: He suggests that if a patient doesn't respond to treatment, doctors should suspect that the medication might be phony.

Both Mildenhall and Newton also fear that patients, doctors, and nurses — not knowing the difference between real and fake drugs — will lose confidence in all artesunate medications and stop using them.

MILDENHALL: "The only way that you can get rid of this problem, it is not to make it profitable for the people to make counterfeit anti-malarial drugs. And in fact, the anti-malarial drugs are relatively cheap. If you make them cheaper or if you make them free, then there's no profit."

HOBAN: Newton and Mildenhall's paper detailing this problem and the investigation appears in the online journal PLoS Medicine. I'm Rose Hoban.

Ever have the battery die on your mobile phone or radio? Someday, you might be able to get a recharge from a bit of wind. Not through a windmill, but from the breeze ruffling your shirt — a shirt embedded with nanometer-size power plants.

The vision comes from the laboratory of Professor Zhong Lin Wang of the Georgia Institute of Technology, better known as Georgia Tech, and announced this week in the journal Nature.

Wang and his colleagues started with fibers — threads — made of Kevlar, the same material used in bulletproof vests, and then covered them with zinc oxide nanowires.

WANG: "On [the] surface we grow these nanowires. These nanowires have [are] about 50 nanometers in diameter. So, 50 nanometers is one-thousandth of your hair width. That little tiny thing has a piezoelectric effect. That's the effect that converts mechanical energy into electric signals."

It's the same effect, in fact, that is used in some microphones to convert the mechanical energy of your voice into something that can be processed by electronic circuitry.

The nanowire-coated fibers are laid down in rows, as in a woven fabric. Any motion causes the brush-like fibers to rub against each other.

WANG: "And because the nanowire [is] on top of that, like teeth-to-teeth: when you slide it, one of the teeth bends the other teeth, that generates electricity."

It's the physical bending of these microscopic, brush-like fibers that produces a tiny bit of electricity from the piezoelectric effect. Now, even with a lot of fabric, enough to fashion into a shirt, for example, or a small tent, Professor Wang says this new technology wouldn't generate enough electricity to power a large appliance like an air conditioner.

WANG: "No. (laughs) When you scale up to a [square] meter size, to like a fabric, three-dimensional fabric, we estimate we can produce about 80 milliwatts, and this 80 milliwatts has the potential to power an iPod or those kind of devices."

So, a shirt that, as it moves with you, powers your MP3 player or, perhaps more usefully, a GPS device or laptop computer.

The same idea could be scaled up so that the fabric in a tent or curtains could capture energy from blowing wind.

Or, perhaps more interestingly, it could be scaled down.

WANG: "You can power little devices like biological sensors, because if you have a biological sensor it's very difficult to have a battery on it. We want to make a self-powered, self-operated device."

This might be a way of powering some of the products that nanotechnology experts have been imagining, such as blood monitors small enough to travel through the blood stream.

Professor Zhong Lin Wang spoke with us from his office at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

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

This time, it's a website featuring an extraordinary gallery of photographs from one of the world's premier museum complexes, and focusing on the role photos play in our lives.

KAPSALIS: "The Smithsonian Photography Initiative is dedicated to bringing the Smithsonian's photography collections from its nineteen museums and nine research centers to the public."

Effie Kapsalis is senior digital producer at the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, online at photography.si.edu.

The site is a gateway to online exhibitions at the Smithsonian museums and features an innovative way of looking at photographs called Enter the Frame, where pictures are grouped by keywords selected by both Smithsonian curators and by online visitors

KAPSALIS: "So someone has selected a collection of photographs called 'dining,' and we have some explorers dining at a table in China being poured tea. And we also have a group of men seated in Iran from the late 1800s. So you really start to see how dining is interpreted across different cultures."

The Smithsonian Photography Initiative includes only a tiny fraction of the museums' collection, some 2,500 images for now, but Kapsalis says more are on the way. And coming in a few weeks is a new feature called Click! Photography Changes Everything.

KAPSALIS: "We're talking about how photography has changed our ideas about the world. And so we're inviting different people to present how they have used photography or how photography has influenced them. And then we'll use that discussion to generate our online public to contribute their own photographs to the project."

That's coming soon, but meantime there's plenty worth checking out at the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, photography.si.edu, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Paul Simon — "Kodachrome"

The pictures are better on VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Much of the southwestern United States is basically a desert. Tens of millions of people live there anyway, and more arrive every day. The region includes Los Angeles, the country's second-largest city, and the areas around Phoenix and Las Vegas, which are among America's fastest-growing metropolises.

With a large and expanding population also comes agriculture and industry, and all of that demands increasing amounts of water.

Seventy years ago, to control floods and provide water and power for the emerging West, government engineers built what was then the world's largest dam across the Colorado River. In an old documentary film the Bureau of Reclamation described the building of what is now called Hoover Dam.

BOULDER DAM FILM: "The reservoir filling behind the dam was named Lake Mead in honor of Dr. Elwood Mead. The largest artificial lake in the world, it extends upstream 115 miles [185 km] into the lower reaches of the Grand Canyon. Equipped with cylindrical gates, which function as giant valves, the four intake towers serve as inlets to the four steel penstocks, supplying water to the turbines and outlet valves."

Fast forward to the 21st century, when reduced rainfall and increasing demand have resulted in Lake Mead and neighboring Lake Powell dropping to historically low levels. Researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California calculate that the Lake Mead system is experiencing a net water loss of 1.2 million cubic kilometers a year.

BARNETT: "The chances of Lake Mead and Powell going dry by 2021 is around 50 percent. There's a one-in-ten chance it could go dry by 2014. That's only six years off. To go along with that, the power pool levels will drop by 2017 to where you won't be able to generate hydropower from those lakes. That's huge."

Scripps researcher Tim Barnett, with his colleague David Pierce, have written a paper projecting the effects of climate change and an increasing demand for water over the coming years. In essence it's a simple issue: less water is going in as more water is being drawn down for irrigation, power generation and other uses.

BARNETT: "We made some estimates of what the evaporation was from the lakes and also what the change in water delivery was based on us, how we've changed the climate, even in the last 10 or 20 years. You put all those together and it's really very simple. You just add up the numbers and say, am I taking more water from the river, yes or no. And that's basically the size of it. So simple."

In less than a decade, the researchers say, there's a 50-50 chance that there won't be enough water in Lake Mead to run the turbines that produce power for tens of millions of people from Las Vegas to Hollywood.

BOULDER DAM FILM: "Equipped with 17 generating units, this, the world's largest power plant, is capable of generating 1.835 million horsepower of electrical energy when operated at its rated capacity. The transmission lines radiate in a network from the dam, with the major lines serving the Los Angeles metropolitan area."

Researchers Barnett and Pierce say they used conservative estimates in their projections, for example, that there was no impact of climate change before 2007. They warn that unless what they call "reasoned solutions" are found to the coming crisis, the American Southwest could face "major societal and economic disruption" in the years ahead.

Their paper is being published in Water Resources Research, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., one of the world's largest and most important libraries, has been preparing for the digital age long before most of us heard of the Internet, since the 1960s in fact. Now there are tens of millions of digitized articles, papers, books, images and other materials available on the Library's web site for users around the world. VOA's Rob Sivak has more in our report, which was written by Mohamed Elshinnawi.

SIVAK: With today's powerful high-speed computer technologies, it takes only about 15 minutes to create a digital archive equal to the 134 million physical items the Library of Congress has acquired over the two centuries since its founding. But it takes resources and money to convert the Library's existing holdings to digital format and preserve that digital content on the Web. Chris Murphy heads the Library of Congress's Near East Division:

MURPHY: "The library began digitization efforts about 15 years ago and its first big project was called "American Memory" in which documents about American history were digitized, and it was our first effort and it was really a demonstration project, to demonstrate how the digital world could help scholars, and even schools."

SIVAK: Murphy says the Library's digitization program has so far produced about 14 million digitized documents and images and made them available to the entire world on the Internet. Murphy notes that there are legal limitations to this effort, in particular when it comes to digitizing books, music movies and film:

MURPHY: "Generally we do not digitize books unless they are in the public domain, meaning there is no copyright difficulty or impediment caused by copyright. We have also digitized music and film and for those, because they are often still under copyright — we have to receive permission from the copyright holders to digitize them."

SIVAK: Despite these restrictions, the digitization of the Library of Congress is transforming its impressive physical collection into a global electronic information storehouse. One of the people helping to expand its accessibility is Mary Jane Deeb, chief of the Library's African and Middle East Division.

DEEB: "It has expanded tremendously and it has included not only the people who can actually show up at the library to use its resources, bur also those who are living in China, in India, in the Arab World, in Russia, they can all have access to the materials which are on the Web."

SIVAK: Deeb says that while the Library's mission of acquiring, preserving, and sharing knowledge has not changed in the digital age, the means for delivering that information is changing rapidly. Deeb explains that a collaborative project involving the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, is helping to digitize and move online not just the Library of Congress collections but the collections of libraries throughout the world.

DEEB: "The Librarian of Congress has initiated with UNESCO a big global project, the World Digital Library. And the World Digital Library is really a virtual library in which countries from around the world will eventually be able to digitize their collections and put them up on the web, virtually, to create this library. That library will be searchable in seven different languages of the United Nations, plus Portuguese. In other words, searching capability will be made available in those languages so people in every corner of the world will be able to search digitized materials."

SIVAK: The World Digital Library is still in a prototype testing phase, but it's scheduled to become available to the public as a full-fledged Web site by early 2009. For Our World, I'm Rob Sivak.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to comment on our program, or if you have a science question that we might answer on the air, email us at ourworld@voanews.com. 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 this week. 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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