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Our World — 10 January 2009


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on "Our World" ... A huge area of the Pacific now protected ... a public health approach to a widespread parasite ... and a new tobacco danger: third-hand smoke ...

WINICKOFF: "If the parent smells the smoke, then it's important for the parents to realize that it's really there, it's important that they remove the child from that space."

Stepping out for a smoke isn't safe enough, plus we get our feet wet with an aquaculture story, and more.

I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."


U.S. establishes vast Pacific nature reserve

President George W. Bush on Tuesday designated a half-million square kilometers in the Pacific Ocean as national marine monuments.

The newly-protected areas surround U.S. island territories. The declaration is aimed at preventing commercial fishing, waste dumping and resource extraction.

Among the newly-protected regions is the area around the Marianas Trench - remarkable for some extreme conditions.

BUSH: "It supports life in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. A fascinating array of species survive amid hydrogen-emitting volcanoes, hydrothermal vents that produce highly acidic and boiling water, and the only known location of liquid sulfur this side of Jupiter."

The action was generally welcomed by environmental groups. That represents a turnaround for activists, who have been broadly critical of the Bush administration over the past eight years on numerous issues, including failing to act on climate change and White House support for oil and gas drilling in environmentally sensitive areas.



Caesarean section timing can put baby at risk

Caesarean section is one of the world's most common surgeries. Also known as a C-section, the procedure permits a doctor to deliver a baby through an incision in a pregnant mother's womb. It's sometimes used when the mother or the baby is endangered. But some health experts say it's increasingly used for convenience. As we hear from health reporter Rose Hoban, a new study of women having repeat caesareans indicates that the baby can be at risk if the C-section is done at the wrong time.

HOBAN: After one cesarean, or C-section, women face a slightly increased risk for ruptured uterus in delivering future babies vaginally. So, when available, women frequently choose to deliver subsequent babies via C-section.

Now new research from the University of North Carolina finds that the timing of these repeat C-sections can be critical for the health of babies. Dr. John M. Thorp helped gather and analyze data from several dozen hospitals around the U.S. where women had repeat caesarian sections.

THORP: "The rate of Caesarean sections is about 30 percent [in the United States], about one out of three [deliveries], and about one out of three of those, or 10 percent over all, are repeat cesarean sections for which the timing is elective. Meaning that the surgeon and the patient choose the times."

HOBAN: And Thorp says that timing is critical. He and his colleagues found babies do best when they're delivered by C-section close to a woman's due date, between the 39th and 40th weeks of pregnancy.

THORP: If the delivery occurred a week prior to that critical window, babies were two times more likely to have feeding or breathing problems, if they were done two weeks before that critical window, of 39-40 weeks, then they were at fourfold that risk.

HOBAN: Thorp and his colleagues found that babies that stayed in utero for longer than 40 weeks also had breathing and feeding problems. A significant number of those infants also developed infections.

THORP: There is probably some sort of signaling that babies do in utero to their mother's body to stimulate labor. And when we circumvent that signal, then the likelihood of problems go up.

HOBAN: Thorp says his research doesn't answer the question of whether or not it's a good idea to do elective cesarean sections. But for women who do choose the procedure, he says these findings show the importance of timing the procedure to reduce problems for the baby.

Thorp's research is published in the New England Journal of Medicine. I'm Rose Hoban.



'Third-hand' tobacco smoke poses danger for children

If you're pregnant or have young children at home, your doctor might remind you not to smoke.

Tobacco smoke is bad for you, whether you're the one who's smoking, or it's someone nearby.

Lately, scientists have found that tobacco is a threat even after the smoking has stopped. Third-hand smoke, they call it. It's the tobacco residue that clings to carpeting, furniture and clothing. For reasons we'll hear in a moment, it presents a special threat to young children.

Third-hand smoke is the subject of a research paper in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics. The lead author is Jonathan Winickoff, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and a practicing pediatrician.

WINICKOFF: "Third-hand smoke is the tobacco smoke contamination that remains after the cigarette is extinguished. What happens is, the smoker goes outside to smoke their cigarette. Then they come back inside. They're still contaminated with smoke. They offgas the smoke toxins from their clothes. They also exhale residual particulates into their home space so that there is still contamination inside the home that is detectable. So essentially, this is the smell that you smell when you go into a room and the cigarette is already out."

Q: Well, it's a smell, but what actually are we smelling? What is in this stuff?

WINICKOFF: "There's over 250 poisonous gases, chemicals and metals. Some of the most toxic compounds known to humankind. And we're talking about hydrogen cyanide, which is used in chemical weapons; carbon monoxide, car exhaust; ammonia, those are household cleaners; arsenic; lead; chromium, which is used to make steel; and, believe it or not, polonium 210, which is a highly radioactive and deadly compound."

Q: You're writing this in the journal Pediatrics, so I'm assuming that there's a special factor here where children are concerned. Are children more sensitive to some of these compounds?

WINICKOFF: "Yeah. Children have a higher metabolic rate than adults. They breathe faster. And they have less body mass. So for the same exposure, they'll get more of it into them, and they are more susceptible. Their susceptibility really stems from the fact that their tissues are developing. And their brains, especially, are developing."

Q: If I can ask a personal question, how did you get interested in this topic?

WINICKOFF: "Well, about 10 years ago, I was a resident at Boston Children's Hospital. And I noticed that patient after patient with asthma was coming in, and I smelled the tobacco smoke on their parents. And I wanted to try to help the parents quit smoking. And I recognized that we really wanted to treat the parents because they were exposing their children to something that was making them sick."

Q: Well, that turns out to be a good segue, I guess, into the survey that is actually the topic of your paper in Pediatrics. Let's start with your goal: what were you hoping to find?

WINICKOFF: "Well, we thought we would see that second-hand smoke attitudes and beliefs would be correlated with strict household rules prohibiting smoking. But that's not what we found. So we looked to other questions in our survey, including this one that we called 'third-hand smoke.' That question was defined as follows: breathing air in a room today where people smoked yesterday can harm the health of infants and children. We found that if you believed that statement, if you agreed with it, then you are much more likely to have a strict home smoking ban. So at least in the United States, what we think is, we need this new health message. We need to think about toxic exposure more broadly."

Q: "Well, how do you get the message out? What sort of approach would be effective, do you think, in educating the population - particularly the population of parents - about this threat that they might not know exists?

WINICKOFF: "Well, I think for non-smokers, it's important for them to exercise common sense. If the parent smells the smoke, then it's important for the parents to realize that it's really there. So where a parent smells that exposure, it's important that they remove the child from that space. For smokers, I think the message is really clear also: if you really want to protect non-smokers and children from toxic exposure, then the best thing to do is continue on your process of quitting smoking."

Jonathan Winickoff of Harvard Medical School. His study ... about how parents who know about the dangers of third-hand smoke are more likely to ban smoking at home ... appears this month in the journal Pediatrics.



Fighting schistosomiasis requires hygiene measures, not just drugs

Chinese researchers have developed a strategy that reduces the transmission of the parasitic illness schistosomiasis. It's a chronic disease that affects an estimated 200 million people, mostly in rural parts of Asia and Africa. Although there are effective drugs to treat schistosomiasis, VOA's Jessica Berman reports on a new study of ways to prevent infection in the first place.

BERMAN: Chinese researchers are reporting in The New England Journal of Medicine that they have developed a strategy to reduce infections of the hard to control parasitic disease schistosomiasis.

Experts say schistosomiasis can be a life-long illness that causes severe malnutrition and anemia. The infection occurs when human skin comes in contact with water contaminated with certain types of snails that carry schistosoma parasites.

The parasites live for a time in the snails, then release into the water, where they can penetrate human skin, invading the blood vessels and organs. When infected humans urinate or defecate into the water, eggs of the parasites go back into the environment, creating a vicious cycle.

Standard treatment for the parasitic disease is a drug called praziquantel.

But international health professor Charles King of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, says the drug is not enough to eliminate the disease from communities because schistosomiasis is a cyclical disease.

KING: "You treat the infection today, but if it comes back next year, that person will go on and get into that vicious cycle of illness. So what they are reporting in this article is an attempt to go to a community and find out exactly what does it take to really stop transmission. And I think that is a really exciting move forward in this particular field."

In their study, the researchers report the results of several measures taken to reduce the schistosomiasis infection rate from 2005 through 2007 in two Chinese villages in Jiangxi Province.

The measures include improving sanitation by providing fresh tap water to residents, building lavatories, providing boats with tanks to store human waste, and an education campaign.

In one village, the infection rate dropped from 11.5 percent to 0.7 percent and the infection rate fell from four percent to less than one percent in the second village.

Dr. King says slowing the cycle of infection, as the Chinese researchers showed, can have long-term benefits for impoverished villages where residents are stricken with schistosomiasis.

KING: "We would expect to see a boost in health, what they call a 'virtuous cycle,' that all those improvements would feed into the community and help to improve their development. And that would actually facilitate changes that we need."

Dr. King wrote an editorial applauding the study led by the China Ministry of Health's Dr. Long-De Wang, that was published in this week's edition of The New England Journal of Medicine. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.



Donate food for free at FreeRice.com

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

This week, an unusual site where you can build vocabulary or other skills with a fun quiz, as you donate food to needy people worldwide.

BREEN: "FreeRice is a website where people can go and donate rice for free to hungry people by answering multiple choice questions. For every question that they get right, we donate 20 grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Program to hungry people all over the world."

John Breen is the founder of FreeRice.com. The concept is pretty simple: you choose a subject, such as English vocabulary, math, geography, or art. For every question you get right, 20 grains of rice are donated by sponsors, whose banner ads appear on the site.

Twenty grains of rice isn't much, but it has really added up over the 14 or so months since FreeRice.com was launched.

BREEN: "People have so far donated 56 billion grains of rice, and that's about 1,000 metric tons."

Breen says the dual purpose of FreeRice.com - donating food to the needy, plus improving your English vocabulary or other skills - appeals to people all over the world.

BREEN: "We have a lot of people throughout Asia, in Africa, South America, everywhere. Either people who speak English as a first language or are learning it as a second language or just want to improve their English use FreeRice. So it's really nice because they're feeding people at the same time, and they really like that, and they really like learning the English. So it kind of does a double purpose."

Sounds like a win-win situation: help the hungry and learn something in the process. Try it yourself at FreeRice.com, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week, from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Noble Watts - "Red Beans & Rice"

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



Aquaculture supplies half of fish eaten by humans

In spite of possible environmental problems, specialists say aquaculture can help spur the recovery of natural populations of fish and other aquatic species - and provide much-needed food and income, especially for small-scale farmers in developing countries. Véronique LaCapra reports.

LaCAPRA: Aquaculture has been practiced for thousands of years.

DIANA: "The first written textbook on aquaculture was published in China in like 400 BC."

LaCAPRA: Jim Diana, a professor of natural resources at the University of Michigan, says Asia continues to dominate the farming of fish and other aquatic species.

DIANA: "About 92 percent of the harvest occurs in Asia, something like 75 percent I think or more occurs in China itself. But there is aquaculture in the United States and virtually every continent other than Antarctica."

LaCAPRA: According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, annual production from commercial fishing has stabilized at about 95 million metric tons, while aquaculture has increased by almost nine percent each year since 1970. In 2005, fish farms produced 48 million metric tons - one-third of the total harvest.

DIANA: "And if you looked at it in terms of how much people eat, aquaculture's probably producing about 50 percent of the fish that are eaten, because a lot of capture fisheries don't go into human consumption."

LaCAPRA: But, Diana notes, there are environmental impacts associated with some kinds of aquaculture. He describes them in a review in the January issue of the journal BioScience.

Probably the most problematic is the spread of non-native or specially-bred species, when farmed fish escape from ponds or cages. Diana says the best way to avoid the spread of invasive species is to raise only fish that are native to that area.

Other potential problems include nutrient pollution from excessive feeding and waste products, and the clearing of environmentally-sensitive land to create ponds for aquaculture. Also, when the ponds are filled with salt water - for shrimp, for example - the salt can contaminate the soil.

Diana points to the use of already declining wild stocks for farming, or as food for farmed fish, as yet another downside.

Diana emphasizes that when practiced sustainably, aquaculture can benefit the environment, by reducing pressure from commercial fishing and even helping to rebuild wild populations.

LaCAPRA: Don Webster, an extension specialist at the University of Maryland, agrees. Since the late 1970s, he has worked to support aquaculture production in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States - specifically, in the Chesapeake Bay, the nation's largest estuary.

His specialty is oysters.

WEBSTER: "When I first started working here we had probably a hundred or more oyster houses that would shuck oysters, there were several thousand watermen who would harvest. Right now, our industry probably has about 150 people who are left oystering. It's not many."

LaCAPRA: Disease, poor water quality, and decades of overharvest have drastically reduced the Bay's natural oyster population.

Webster sees aquaculture as a way to bring the oysters back. Hatchery "seed" - farm-raised juvenile oysters - are being used to create oyster sanctuaries, where harvesting is prohibited.

WEBSTER: "There's another concept called managed reserves, where you have gone in, removed diseased oysters, replaced them with disease-free hatchery seed, and left them until 60 percent of them are four inches [10 centimeters] or more…"

LaCAPRA: Once the oysters have reached adult size, the reserves are opened up for harvest, supporting the commercial fishery.

Jim Diana also sees important benefits to aquaculture, particularly for people in developing countries. Unlike commercial fishing, most of which is done by large fleets of trawlers, Diana says aquaculture in developing countries is commonly practiced by many small-scale producers.

DIANA: "So it does a lot more for local employment and quality of life I think than commercial fishing does."

LaCAPRA: Aquaculture also contributes to local food security, and generates income.

Global demand for seafood is expected to increase, and Diana predicts that aquaculture will continue to be the most rapidly growing food production system. I'm Véronique LaCapra.



Century-old music reproduction technology

Finally today, music sales on compact disk have been trending down, and it's largely because fans are getting their music digitally.

Music reproduction has been constantly evolving, and technologies become obsolete all the time.

Listen for a moment to this top-10 hit that blends some of the newest and some of the oldest recording technology.

MUSIC: "Home Again Blues" (Majestic 4554, 1920)

That sparkling digital recording was actually made almost 90 years ago. Sort of.

What sounds like a piano is actually a computerized rendition of a 1920 piano roll, a 29 centimeter-wide continuous sheet of paper perforated to correspond to the notes played, and which replays those notes on a specially-equipped piano. The "player piano," as it was called, was the home entertainment center for many middle class families around the world in the late 19th and early 20th century - the big screen TV of its day.

The song, incidentally, was "Home Again Blues," a big hit for Irving Berlin and Harry Akst.

Piano rolls, like that one, have been produced since the 1880s, and this week we learned that the last remaining piano roll maker stopped production not in the 1920s, but just days ago, on New Year's Eve. A company called QRS in Buffalo, New York, had been making them for more than a century.

Hobbyists are keeping the old technology alive, however, restoring and maintaining the old pianos and, in the latest wrinkle, scanning the rolls - some of them up to 27 meters long - and converting them into computer files, so you can put them on your portable player and enjoy them wherever you go. It's a lot easier than taking your player piano to the beach.

MUSIC: "By The Beautiful Sea" (Aeolian 1448)




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. Bob Doughty 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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