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Our World — 31 January 2009


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on Our World: the latest on climate change: new research suggests it might be irreversible ... the surprising prevalence of alcoholism ... and the costs and benefits of disease prevention.

PAWLECKI: "Five fruits and vegetables a day. Thirty minutes of activity a day, and 100 percent seat belt use. These cost very little, but they go a long way toward prevention."

Those stories, plus good news for organ donors, our Website of the Week, and more.

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



New report says climate change irreversible for 1,000 years

There's widespread agreement among climate scientists that humans have put too much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, with the result that the earth is starting to get warmer.

There are so-called global warming skeptics, who look at the data and conclude we're actually just seeing what scientists call noise - random changes that don't signal a long term trend.

But they're in a shrinking minority. Most researchers look at the data and see global temperatures going up as a result of a couple of centuries of human activity, industry, burning oil and coal and wood, deforestation, and the spread of large-scale agriculture.

That's why many activists, including increasing numbers of politicians, talk about using more efficient cars and light bulbs, planting trees, and adopting sustainable farming practices.

But this week a new study came out saying, in effect, it's too late. An international research team has concluded that, even if we stopped greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, the effects of climate change would persist for another thousand years. VOA's Amanda Scott has our report.

SCOTT: The study published Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that even if carbon dioxide emissions are reduced the effects on global temperature could remain high for generations.

The study, led by researchers at the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says that possible climate changes include global sea level rise and reduced rainfall in certain part of the world.

Scientists said those changes could decrease water supplies, increase the frequencies of fires, expand deserts, and affect agriculture.

Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, says that while scientists have known about the effects of climate change, the new study provides new details as to the specific effects.

TRENBERTH: "Scientists have known about some irreversible aspects of climate change for some time. But what this paper does is help to highlight these aspects and quantify some of them, and I agree with the authors that this aspect is one which is relatively poorly appreciated by policy makers and probably the general public, and it is a real concern."

SCOTT: The scientists say that oceans are currently slowing down global warming by absorbing heat, but they will eventually release the heat back into the air, leading to a greater warming of the planet. The study says that that warming will lead to a loss of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, contributing to an overall rise in sea levels.

TRENBERTH: "In the past five years Greenland has been melting at rates that are higher than they consider in this paper, and it's been adding about 0.5 millimeters per year to sea level rise.

SCOTT: Before the industrial revolution, the earth's air contained about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide. That number has since risen to 385 parts per million.

The study says that if CO2 levels peak between 450 and 600 parts per million the results over the coming century would include a dry season rainfall in the Mediterranean, southern Africa, and southwestern North America comparable to what was seen during the "Dust Bowl" era of the 1930s.

Patrick Michaels, a global warming skeptic with the Cato Institute, says there has been an increase in rainfall over the southwestern United States during the warming of the planet over the last 100 years. He says the study is highly speculative about the effects of climate change in the future.

MICHAELS: "The problem with this paper is that it's a speculation for 1,000 years, and we don't know what the energy structure of our society will look like 100 years from now, probably not even 50 years from now. Surely if this paper is right, it's saying that you can't do very much about warming."

SCOTT: But Trenberth disagrees and says that any action taken now will prevent the effect of climate change from being worse.

TRENBERTH: "There are a number of changes that are very likely to happen that will be in practical terms not reversible, but it doesn't mean that if we don't take actions now that it won't have effects, it mean that if we keep going on our current path without even reducing and lowering emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that the climate changes would be even bigger and worse and longer lasting."

SCOTT: Scientists say carbon dioxide emissions account for nearly half of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, other gases such as chlorofluorocarbons and methane also contribute to global warming. I'm Amanda Scott.


We should add that Kevin Trenberth, who you heard that report, is a top climate scientist, but he was not involved in the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study's lead author is Susan Solomon, of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.



Obama acts to allow tougher auto pollution rules

In two of the first acts of his new administration, President Obama this week ordered officials to develop stricter requirements for automobile fuel efficiency and paved the way for California and other states to restrict vehicle pollution. In comments at a signing ceremony at the White House on Monday, Mr. Obama linked security, environmental, and other goals, including reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil while bankrolling dictators and funding terrorism.

OBAMA: "These urgent dangers to our national and economic security are compounded by the long-term threat of climate change, which if left unchecked could result in violent conflict, terrible storms, shrinking coastlines and irreversible catastrophe. These are the facts and they are well known to the American people."

At the White House on Monday, Mr. Obama explained why California and 13 other states should be allowed to regulate auto pollution more strictly than the federal government does.

OBAMA: "The federal government must work with, not against, states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. California has shown bold and bipartisan leadership through its effort to forge 21st century standards, and over a dozen states have followed its lead. But instead of serving as a partner, Washington stood in their way.

The 13 states that want to have stronger rules against auto pollution account for almost half the cars sold in the U.S.

Although his comments were specifically aimed at pollution and energy issues in the United States, President Obama put his actions in a global context.

OBAMA: "We will make it clear to the world that America is ready to lead. To protect our climate and our collective security, we must call together a truly global coalition. I've made it clear that we will act, but so too must the world. That's how we will deny leverage to dictators and dollars to terrorists. And that's how we will ensure that nations like China and India are doing their part, just as we are now willing to do ours."

President Barack Obama at the White House on Monday.



Reassurance for would-be kidney donors worried about their health

The first human organ transplant took place a half-century ago, in 1954. It was a kidney transplant, and donor and recipient were identical twins, so rejection of the transplanted organ was not an issue. But there were ethical questions. "Do no harm" is enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath that doctors pledge, so was it right for surgeons in Boston to remove a kidney from a perfectly healthy donor?

Fast forward to 2008, when there were some 23,000 organ transplants in the United States alone - about half of them kidney transplants. About one third of the kidneys - more than 5,000 - came from living donors.

But right now - again, just in the U.S. - almost 80,000 people are waiting for a kidney.

Even though we can make do just fine with just one of our two kidneys, many potential donors are afraid they'll get sick or die sooner if they give up a kidney.

But a new study may put their minds at ease - and may also encourage more people to come forward to donate a kidney. As VOA's Jessica Berman reports, researchers found donating a kidney does not damage the donors' health or reduce their lifespan.

BERMAN: Donna Boisen of Coon Rapids, Minnesota didn't think twice when she donated one of her two kidneys to her ailing sister last year.

BOISEN: "I do know I had a lot of people say to me, 'Well gee, I just don't know if I could do that.'"

BERMAN: Researchers hope a study published this week in The New England Journal of Medicine will allay the fears of many would-be kidney donors.

In the study, the first large-scale examination of lifespan among kidney donors, investigators at the University of Minnesota followed up to 255 people who donated their kidneys between 1963 and 2007.

The study's lead author, Hassan Ibrahim, said he and his team found similar survival rates between donors and non-donors, while the risk of eventually developing kidney failure was one-third lower among the donors.

Dr. Ibrahim says this is likely because the donor screening process results in very healthy people being chosen to donate their organs.

IBRAHIM: "And I'm hoping people who do have any anxiety regarding kidney donation at least look at these results and discuss kidney donation with the health care professionals who are involved in this process so they can get more accurate information."

BERMAN: Investigators found that 85 percent of donors had excellent function in their remaining kidneys. Only 10 percent had a low amount of protein in their urine - a sign of some loss of filtering capacity.

Jane Tan of Stanford University screens potential kidney donors.

Given the high mortality rate among people with final stage kidney disease, Dr. Tan says she is cautiously optimistic that the results of the study could convince more people to donate kidneys.

TAN: "We do not know of any long term, bad complications thus far. But when it comes to donor safety, I think it's important to be careful and know what you are doing."

BERMAN: Dr. Tan evaluated the study in this week's issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.



Numerical portrait of the USA on our Website of the Week

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

Some people think numbers are boring, but numbers can paint a rich and detailed picture of a country, which is what you get at American Fact Finder at factfinder.census.gov.

BRADY: "There's an enormous, encyclopedic amount of data on American Fact Finder. We have information about age, race, sex, the relationship between members of a household; but we also collect income, ancestry, disability status, educational attainment. The list goes on and on."

Marian Brady of the U.S. Census Bureau says American Fact Finder gets between one and two million visits a month from users including students, researchers, city planners, policy makers, business people and others. Data can be downloaded for serious number crunching, but for many users the visual tools make more sense than columns of numbers.

BRADY: "We have predefined maps so you can compare very easily and very quickly where the high concentrations are of, let's say, an ancestry, or where the low concentrations are."

The census, incidentally, classifies Americans into people of 86 different ancestries, from Afghan to Yugoslavian.

The census doesn't just count people. There's information here also about family size, housing, income, manufacturing, and other economic measures.

Information is updated as new surveys are tabulated so, as Marian Brady says, users can see how population and other landmarks of American life change over time.

BRADY: "So we have for example the 1990 decennial census, the 2000, and we'll be publishing 2010, so you can definitely develop a trend analysis using that data."

Learn about the United States through the maps and numbers at factfinder.census.gov, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week, from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Dave Grusin - "America" by Leonard Bernstein

You can count on VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.



Alcoholism affects as many as 1 in 5 men, study finds

Alcohol dependence, or alcoholism, is a problem for people around the world. Those who consume alcohol to excess face multiple risks: they can undermine their earning and creative potential, cause emotional damage to themselves and their loved ones and eventually, ruin their own health. Rose Hoban reports.

HOBAN: A new review of medical literature finds that alcohol dependence is more common than many people - and many doctors - had believed. Psychiatrist Marc Schuckit has spent decades studying people with drinking problems. He combed through more than 200 recent articles about alcoholism-related health problems - including diabetes, stroke, accidents, and problems with the liver, pancreas, heart and bones - and was struck to find how common a problem alcoholism really is:

SCHUCKIT: "It is a lifetime risk for meeting criteria for alcohol dependence of at least 15 percent, and perhaps as high as 20 percent in men, and about 10 percent of women... and that's a lot of people out there who have severe alcohol problems."

HOBAN: But Schuckit found there's also a surprisingly high rate of people who respond well to treatment - contrary to what many people believe.

SCHUCKIT: "You give me somebody who says 'Yeah, I have an alcohol problem, and I am willing to start working on it,' (and) they have somewhere between a 50- and 70-percent chance they will complete the program, be clean and sober for whatever the period of time that I usually follow them up, which is between one and three years. And then the one-to-three year abstinence rate is an excellent predictor of a five- and 10-year [abstinence rate]."

HOBAN: Schuckit says there are new medications that have been successful in helping people overcome dependence, and he says doctors are getting better at helping patients find behavioral therapies to help them beat alcohol as well.

Schuckit's review appears in the British medical journal, The Lancet. I'm Rose Hoban



Chronic disease takes increasing bite from health budget

Here in the United States, chronic illness accounts for about 75 percent of our enormous national health care bill. One reason is that, thanks to better treatments, people are living longer with conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes, which may require daily medication or frequent visits to the doctor.

The current issue of the journal Health Affairs is devoted to what the publication's editors call "the crisis in chronic disease." In wealthy countries in general - but particularly here in the U.S. with the world's highest health care costs - it's a matter of great concern for both patients and policymakers. But Health Affairs editor Susan Dentzler says chronic disease is an issue everywhere.

DENTZLER: "We're not alone. The World Health Organization estimates that three out of every five deaths in all countries are due to chronic illness. And four out of five in low and middle income countries [are] also from chronic disease. So as much as we may be inclined to believe otherwise, diseases like cardiovascular disease are still a larger worldwide threat than HIV or malaria or even many of the other scourges that we know devastate many countries."

You might think that chronic disease mostly affects the elderly. But in a recent survey of Americans, well over half the population between 45 and 64 said they had at least at least one chronic condition, and a third of them said they had three or more. Chronic conditions include such things as asthma and high blood pressure. Kathryn Paez found in a study that increasing numbers of people are have multiple chronic conditions.

PAEZ: "These people are going to be living with a heavy chronic condition burden for a number of years. They're going to require health care services for a prolonged period of time. They're at increased risk for disability and loss of function, also for reduced productivity and loss of earnings over their lifetime."

Many people with chronic disease can lead completely normal lives, thanks to medicine and other treatments, but it's often expensive. So much health care in recent years has focused on preventing heart disease, for example, by giving patients cholesterol-lowering statin drugs. Or using stop-smoking programs to head off emphysema and lung cancer.

But Louise Russell of Rutgers University found that in other cases, prevention is more expensive than treating disease.

RUSSELL: "Some examples of interventions that can be very expensive: statins for people who are at low or moderate risk of heart disease; annual screenings for some cancers, compared with less frequent screenings. Examples of preventive interventions that are very good value for money: many vaccines; smoking cessation. And yet these two add somewhat to medical spending at the same time that they're improving health."

Prevention might save you a world of hurt, but as Ron Goetzel of Emory University in Atlanta reports, it's unlikely to save you any money.

GOETZEL: "Certain clinical preventive services, mostly those delivered in doctor's offices, do not save money. But, then again, neither do most medical treatments. The issue relevant to this debate is not whether any given prevention or treatment service saves money, but rather how much value is gained from that service."

Goetzel says some companies have adopted well-thought-out prevention programs that help their workers as well as the bottom line.

GOETZEL: "When done right, workplace health promotion programs reduce health care costs for companies and improve workers' productivity. This presents a win-win for employees and their employer."

One example is at an international company called Pitney Bowes. Medical director Brent Pawlecki says the firm has gone completely smoke-free and management is stressing a low-cost route to employee health.

PAWLECKI: "We have a program called 'count your way to health,' and in that we stressed six different numbers - zero, one five, 25, 30 and 100. So zero is no tobacco use. One is flossing every day because there's a connection between dental health and heart health. Five fruits and vegetables a day. A body mass index of 25 or less. Thirty minutes of activity a day, and 100 percent seat belt use. These cost very little, but they go a long way toward prevention."

Pawlecki says they even have signs in the restrooms reminding people of the most effective way to wash their hands so they don't spread disease. It's a little thing ... but those little things helped keep workers healthy and saved the company $40 million over the past eight years or so.



Look up! It's the International Year of Astronomy

And finally today, 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy. It marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first use of a telescope to explore the sky.

CESARSKY: "In 2009, we would like that everybody on earth thinks at least once about the wonders of the sky, shares the human wish to reach to the stars and to comprehend them, feels a part of the universe."

Catherine Cesarsky is president of the International Astronomical Union, which is sponsoring the program along with UNESCO.

Part of the International Year of Astronomy is to get people to look at the night sky through a telescope.

Even if you can't, you can help scientists decide what the Hubble Space Telescope looks at next.

Will it be a planetary nebula, a star-forming region, or a galaxy? You can vote on one of six candidates - objects that Hubble has never looked at before.

Cast your vote at youdecide.hubblesite.org, and you might win a picture of the object you help choose. Then, tonight, go outside and look up at the stars.




MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch - maybe you've got a science question for us - 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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