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Our World — 3 May 2008


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on "Our World" ... Sounding the warning for workplace safety ... fighting malaria with bed nets to stop mosquitoes ... and an Internet archive of one of history's great scientists ...

Van WYHE: "People can go and have a look at it and see that Darwin never said, for example, we come from monkeys. So there're loads of things that are not true, and it is possible now for people to just go to the originals and have a look."

Darwin Online, turning cooking oil into motor fuel, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

A lot of people work in places that aren't as safe as they should be, or could be.

Monday was the annual World Day for Safety and Health at Work. It's an annual observance of the U.N.'s workers' agency, the International Labor Organization.

How safe are you on your job?

Most of the world's working people face some kind of danger on the job, according to Dr. Maritza Tennessee of the Pan American Health Organization, or PAHO.

TENNESSEE: "Two-thirds of the workers are exposed to unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. Many of those workers are exposed to carcinogens in the workplace. Twenty-five percent of the whole, global burden of disease is due to environmental and occupational risk."

She's quoting findings there from the World Health Organization.

Cancer prevention specialist Devra Davis showed PAHO staffers pictures representing the chromosomes of identical twins to demonstrate how environmental factors can affect our DNA.

At age three, the twins' chromosomes look, well, nearly identical.

DAVIS: "But look at what happens to them at age fifty. The top and bottom two do not even look related to one another. And yet they are coming from one egg that splits into two. This is a clear indication that when it comes to the environment and our health, genes give us the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger."

Devra Davis heads the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh. She's also the author of the recent book called The Secret History of the War on Cancer.

The changes in our DNA come from exposure to various stimuli in our environment - it could be sunlight or a medical X-ray or cancer-causing substances that are found in workplaces around the world.

Take the people who grow flowers. Floriculture has become a big business in many countries. Colombia and Kenya are two big exporters. To maximize production, the plants are grown in greenhouses. Davis says that also increases the danger to workers.

DAVIS: "Floriculture is pesticide-intensive. It involves greenhouses with plastic sheets over them. Imagine if somebody put a plastic sheet over us right now, and pumped it full of [pesticide] sprays. That's what goes on in a plastic-covered greenhouse."

Dangerous chemicals don't just affect the workers who are directly exposed to them. Workers who don't use protective clothing can bring home toxic materials they are exposed to on the job. And it can cause genetic damage that is passed on to their children.

DAVIS: "But as to fathers' exposure, paternal exposure to pesticides increases the relative risk of brain tumors 2.3-fold. Fathers who work as painters or in woodworking also have increased risk of cancer in their children. What happens to fathers before they become fathers affects the health of their children."

Pregnant women are often banned from hazardous jobs, but toxic chemicals can do damage before a woman becomes pregnant, or before she realizes she's pregnant.

Davis specializes in cancer, but of course that's not the only on-the-job hazard.

Workers also face potential hearing loss, back pain, lung disease and injuries. In fact, injuries are the biggest cause of "loss of healthy years of life," a statistical term used by public health experts.

The International Labor Organization says 2.2 million people die annually from work-related accidents and disease, and the U.N. agency puts the direct and indirect costs of those deaths at $1.25 trillion - about four percent of the world's total economic output last year.

Powerful drugs can be lifesavers or make chronic conditions more bearable. But side effects are always a concern.

For example, a couple of weeks ago here on Our World, we talked about an anti-inflammatory medicine variously known as Vioxx or Ceoxx that was withdrawn from the market in 2004. Studies showed an increased risk of heart attack and stroke in patients using the drug.

Now, a drug commonly used to treat epilepsy has been identified as having an adverse effect on the bones of pre-menopausal women. Health reporter Véronique LaCapra reports.

LaCAPRA: Epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes recurrent seizures. According to the World Health Organization, it affects about 50 million people worldwide.

There is no cure for the condition. Medications can control seizures for most people, but the drugs have at least some negative side effects, which can include memory loss, reduced fertility, and birth defects.

Dr. Alison Pack, an assistant professor of clinical neurology at Columbia University, led a study to look at another potential health risk.

PACK: "The objective of the study was to evaluate the differential effect of anti-epileptic drugs on bone health in pre-menopausal women."

LaCAPRA: The study included 93 women between the ages of 18 and 40, who did not have any other conditions that might weaken their bones. All the women had epilepsy and were taking one of four common anti-seizure medications.

The women were given blood tests, urine tests, and bone density scans when they first enrolled in the study, and then again, after one year.

Prior research had suggested that at least one of the medications — phenytoin — might have a negative effect on bone health.

PACK: "And indeed, what we found was significant loss at one site, the femoral neck of the hip loss of 2.6 percent in women taking phenytoin. We did not see any significant loss in any of the other women.

Let me put that number in perspective. There was a study that was done in pre-menopausal women — and these are women without epilepsy, not taking medication — at the same site, they found 0.3 percent loss.

LaCAPRA: In other words, the women taking phenytoin lost eight times more bone mass in a year than the women who were not taking any epilepsy medication.

Pack notes that like many older medications that are available in generic form, phenytoin is relatively inexpensive and is used in developing countries, where the choice of anti-seizure drugs is limited.

PACK: "The other medication that also we should be concerned about is phenobarbital. And there are older studies suggesting that it can affect bone health in the same way that phenytoin can, and that medication is very commonly used in developing countries."

LaCAPRA: Dr. Pack's current study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and GlaxoSmithKline, a company that produces one of the alternatives to phenytoin included in this study. Her research was published in the April 29 issue of Neurology.

Each year, malaria takes the lives of more than one million people in sub-Saharan Africa, many of them children. The disease is caused by a parasite spread by mosquitoes, and a simple protection, mosquito nets on beds, can dramatically reduce the rate of infection. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that health workers and members of non-governmental groups speaking in Los Angeles see progress and challenges in the fight against the disease.

O'SULLIVAN: A Canadian group called Spread the Net has launched an Internet campaign in conjunction with the United Nations children's agency, UNICEF. A promotional video uses rap music to spread the message.

VIDEO: "Every 30 seconds a child in Africa dies of malaria from a simple mosquito bite, but you can stop it."

O'SULLIVAN: The group asks for donations of 10 dollars to buy and distribute pesticide-treated bed nets.

Public health experts and representatives of NGOs outlined recent malaria initiatives at the global conference of the Milken Institute, which looks at worldwide trends in society and business. John Tedstrom, executive director of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, says malaria kills three thousand people a day but gets too little attention.

TEDSTROM: "And if this were any other tragedy, if it were not an infectious disease, we would be calling it some type of crime against humanity. And that's exactly what it is."

O'SULLIVAN: Peter Chernin is president of the media giant News Corporation and chairman of the non-profit group Malaria No More. His company has raised awareness of anti-malaria efforts through the talent show American Idol on its Fox subsidiary. Chernin says malaria is comparable to the natural and man-made disasters that have captured the world's attention: the terror attacks on New York, the Asian tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina.

CHERNIN: "That's a World Trade Center every day. It's a tsunami, which the world galvanized around, once a month. It's a Katrina every two or three days."

O'SULLIVAN: He says malaria affects Africa's economies, causing financial losses of $12 billion a year both directly and through lost productivity.

Malaria can be cured through a three-day regimen of drugs that now cost just 37 cents. Today's regimens include the compound artemisinin, derived from Chinese herbal medicine. The experts say these highly effective drugs and pesticide-treated bed-nets can slash the infection rate.

They say a number of African nations, including Rwanda, Ethiopia, Zanzibar and Kenya are making progress against the disease. Blaise Karibushi is Rwanda country director of the group Access Project, which works to improve health care delivery systems. He says the malaria rate in Rwanda was reduced dramatically through mosquito nets, preventative treatment for pregnant women and other measures. He says in 2001, three quarters of visits to health centers were for malaria, but today, the disease is responsible for fewer than one in six visits.

Specialists say Africans need 250 million pesticide-impregnated mosquito nets. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently appeared on a special edition of the show American Idol to promise 20 million. With additional pledges in place from the United States, other countries and international agencies, Peter Chernin says that pledges of 100 million more nets are needed.

Chernin gives credit to the British prime minister, the World Bank, philanthropists such as Bill and Melinda Gates, and the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, an international body founded in 2002. He also credits the Bush administration for its initiatives against malaria and AIDS through such programs as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR.

CHERNIN: "It is probably, I think, the great legacy of this administration. And I'm certainly not in favor of a lot of things they do, but they have been remarkable in their support of malaria [initiatives], both through PEPFAR, through support of the Global Fund, through the creation of the President's Malaria Initiative. And I think one of the key things that's important for us is that we need to make sure that the next administration, whether it's Senator Clinton, Senator Obama or Senator McCain, shows the same sort of leadership and commitment to malaria."

O'SULLIVAN: Public health expert Richard Feachem, the former director of the Global Fund, says malaria may take decades to eradicate, but existing tools can reduce the death rate quickly. He cautions that as health workers make progress against the disease, drug-resistant malaria is emerging in Asia, and some pesticides are losing their effectiveness against infected mosquitoes. He adds that medical researchers have not yet developed an effective malaria vaccine.

He says there are leaders in the fight against malaria, and that Canada, the United States and Britain are doing their part, but questions whether Italy, France, Germany and Japan are doing theirs. He says that African success stories, including Rwanda, are the results of effective leadership in both the developed and developing world. Mike O'Sullivan, VOA News, Los Angeles.

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

Charles Darwin was one of the most influential scientists ever. His landmark book, On the Origin of Species, was published 150 years ago next year. If you want to learn more about Darwin, a great place to start is our Website of the Week.

Van WYHE: "Darwin Online is the largest resource of material by and about Charles Darwin ever published online. It contains all of his books and articles and also the largest collection of his private papers ever assembled. So it's more material written by Darwin than one has ever seen before."

John van Wyhe is the director of Darwin Online at darwin-online.org.uk .

Here, you can look at the handwritten diary Darwin wrote on board the Beagle as he explored South America in the 1830s. And you can read his books and articles and find out what he really said, not what people say Darwin said.

Van WYHE: "People can go and have a look at it and see that Darwin never said, for example, we come from monkeys. So there're loads of things that are not true, and it is possible now for people to just go to the originals and have a look."

Darwin Online includes some 150,000 images of books, articles, journals, and other material by and about Darwin. And thanks to optical character recognition technology, it's all searchable.

Darwin's work sparked debate when it was first published, and the controversy continues. Van Wyhe says the material collected in Darwin Online is an essential part of today's conversation about evolution and natural selection.

Van WYHE: "If you look at Darwin Online you can find in his papers the articles and the press clippings that he collected where clergymen discussed how they saw [that] Darwin's views were completely compatible with Christianity. Now, that's, I think, very valuable for that material now to also be available for people today, to inform current debate."

John van Wyhe says Darwin Online gets visitors from all over the world, and he hopes in the future to add translations of Darwin's work to the website.

Learn about one of history's great scientists at darwin-online.org.uk , or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Tangerine Dream — "At Darwin's Motel"

We're constantly evolving here at VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

If you've ever been stuck in traffic behind a noisy, smelly diesel-powered bus or truck, the idea of diesel as an environmentally responsible fuel might seem ridiculous.

But with world oil prices hitting all-time highs, a lot of drivers are thinking about alternatives to the traditional gasoline-powered engine.

Gas-electric hybrids are one option. Ethanol is another. But this next story is about diesel engines, which now can be very fuel efficient and clean, too.

They can even run on a renewable resource — diesel made from vegetable oil. Biodiesel, it's called.

It's not a new idea. A diesel running on peanut oil was demonstrated at the Paris World's Fair — in 1900.

Auto industry analysts expect sales of diesel-powered cars in the United States to triple in the next decade. Owners of some of those vehicles may be filling the tank with fuel that comes from plants, rather than an oil well. From San Francisco, reporter Jan Sluizer has more on what some say is the fuel of the future.

SLUIZER: Biodiesel is made from processed vegetable or plant oil, and can be used in diesel engines on its own, or blended with petroleum-based fuel. Here in Berkeley, California, the pumps at Biofuel Oasis dispense diesel made from used cooking oil. The fueling station is a cooperative, owned by five women. Margaret Farrow says they opened Oasis to offer a sustainable option to the petroleum-derived diesel offered by big oil companies.

FARROW: "It's a clean-burning fuel. It's more efficient than gasoline. It's biodegradable, non-toxic, non-flammable, and also, in terms of greenhouse gases, if you use biodiesel, there's no net increase of carbon dioxide going into the environment."

SLUIZER: Since Biofuel Oasis opened in 2003, about 2,500 customers, including Sandra Lupien, have pulled in to fill up.

LUPIEN: "An important point for me about using biodiesel is to make sure that we're using biodiesel that is made from recycled vegetable oil, oil picked up from restaurants that's just going to be thrown away anyway, instead of using oil processed from new crops."

SLUIZER: There are two types of biodiesel fuel: Fresh or virgin biodiesel is made from crops such as soybeans. Then there's the biodiesel fuel made from recycled vegetable oil, which only a few fueling stations besides the Oasis sell - currently at $1.10 per liter… about five cents less than regular diesel fuel, and ten cents more than gasoline in California.

Even though diesel is more expensive than gasoline, liter for liter it's cheaper to run a diesel car. Diesel engines are designed to be more efficient than gasoline engines, so they provide higher fuel efficiency. But it can be more of a challenge to find a place to fill up a car that runs on diesel. Not all service stations carry diesel, and pumps serving up biodiesel are rare indeed. Nationally, there are only about 1,600 biodiesel fueling stations, with most clustered in the Midwest and along the coasts.

SLUIZER: The biodiesel sold at Oasis comes from the only commercial-scale plant in northern California that manufactures the fuel from used vegetable oil.

PLOCHER: "This is our production plant."

SLUIZER: Kumar Plocher is the president and founder of Yokayo Biofuels in Ukiah, California, about a two-hour drive north of San Francisco. Yokayo began operating in 2001, and now produces about 3,700 liters of biodiesel fuel every day.

Plocher has a fleet of biodiesel-powered trucks that collects used cooking oil from about seven hundred restaurants across Northern California. Once at the processing plant, the oil goes through a series of screeners, high-speed shakers, hot tanks and washes to remove food residue and water. Treated with methanol and potassium hydroxide, also known as lye, the vegetable oil molecules break down.

PLOCHER: "This is the most dangerous aspect of our operation. People ask if biodiesel is a dangerous fuel. Once you've actually made it and purified it, it's completely non-toxic and non-hazardous."

SLUIZER: But Plocher admits there is still a great deal of negativity surrounding biodiesel fuels.

PLOCHER: "There's been a lot of questioning of whether it's a net negative for the planet and it's very easy to show that this kind of biodiesel that we're making has serious net positives. But if you're going to take someone's food garden and replant it to make energy, there's problems with that."

SLUIZER: Plocher says because some biodiesel producers are importing palm oil from the tropics to make their fuel. But that's not a perfect solution, either. Not only are there increased transportation costs, but the growing demand for palm oil has caused the destruction of rainforests in Malaysia, Indonesia and other tropical countries.

Kumar Plocher serves on the National Biodiesel Board's Sustainability Task Force, working to develop a road map for the industry. With an eye on its impact on the environment and the global food supply, he says, the search is on for sustainable, super biodiesel crops.

PLOCHER: "There are trees that actually grow well in California and across a lot of the United States called Chinese Tallow trees. Other ones we're looking into for the future are algae. We can get thousands of gallons per acre [tens of thousands of liters per hectare] with algae ponds. So there are all kinds of more sustainable choices in the future."

SLUIZER: Whatever it's made from, industry experts expect biodiesel to be an important part of the energy supply of the future. For Our World, this is Jan Sluizer in San Francisco.

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 edited the show. 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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