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Our World Transcript — 22 July 2006

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... Secondhand smoke and the health impacts on young people ... a debate over "alternative" medicine ... and the risks of nanotechnology:

REJESKI: "So along with these products, obviously some questions arise about their safety, their potential risks to consumers, the workers, to the general population. And those questions need to be answered sooner rather than later."

Those stories, a prime subject for our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The space shuttle Discovery returned to Earth on Monday, safely ending a two-week mission to do repairs on the International Space Station and to test changes to the shuttle's external fuel tank meant to reduce shedding of its foam insulation during launch. Pieces of insulation struck the shuttle Columbia during its launch in 2003. They damaged the spacecraft's heat shield and caused it to burn up during reentry, killing its seven-member crew. NASA officials said they were pleased with the performance of the modified fuel tank. And they said future shuttle missions will be focused on completing construction of the International Space Station.

Although we often refer to NASA as "the U.S. space agency," NASA's full name is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Aeronautics focuses on aviation research in areas like wing design and safety. It's a relatively small part of NASA's overall mission — and budget ... and getting smaller. Aeronautics research is currently about five percent of NASA's total spending, and is projected to decline over the next five years.

Scientists appearing before members of the House of Representatives Science Committee this week warned that the declining aeronautic share of the NASA budget puts critical research at risk.

MERRILL: "These needs and opportunities have been articulated and reiterated over the past decade by numerous public and private bodies. Together they make the case for an expansive government-supported, NASA-administered R&D [research and development] program."

Stephen Merrill, who headed a National Research Council study on NASA's aeronautics research two years ago, says his expert panel was struck by the disparity between NASA's aeronautics research needs and the budget it had to accomplish it.

NASA wants to focus its aerospace investigations more on basic research, but America's aviation industry, which has benefitted from NASA aeronautics programs, doesn't want the agency to abandon research that has such important practical applications. Michael Romanowski is with the Aerospace Industries Association, whose members include Boeing, Rockwell and Lockheed Martin.

ROMANOWSKI: "Is US industry satisfied with the direction of NASA aeronautics? The short answer is no. Mr. Chairman, our nation's federal investment in aeronautics research is at a crossroads, and the consequences to our nation are potentially serious. If NASA will not conduct this type of research, who will?"

Subcommittee chairman Congressman Ken Calvert said U.S. aerospace companies accounted for $67 billion in exports last year, and that much of it depends on NASA research.

CALVERT: "It's important to realize that NASA-developed technology can be found in virtually every airplane flying today. The return on the original investment has been tremendous."

Which is why Republican Congresswoman Jo Ann Davis of Virginia expressed concern that NASA aerospace reseach funding has been cut in half over the last 12 years.

DAVIS: "I don't think we have an aeronautics vision. And I've got serious concerns that the United States is losing their critical expertise in aeronautics research and development."

NASA officials have expressed strong support for aerospace research, and the budget is almost $900 million this year. But NASA's space programs still get the lion's share of the budget, and most of the agency's attention is focused on sending astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars.

Earthbound flying now. Bees are a familiar and vital part of the natural ecosystem, producing honey and pollinating flowering plants, including many agricultural crops.

This week, scientists are reporting that the diversity of bees and the flowering plants they pollinate has declined in parts of Europe, a possible indicator of a global problem. Other scientists worried about species extinction call for the formation of an international body to monitor such threats to biological diversity, similar to one that now tracks global warming. VOA's David McAlary reports.

McALARY: Bees and other insects are essential to the reproduction of many agricultural crops and wild plants. At the University of Leeds in Britain, researcher William Kunin explains.

KUNIN: "Pollinators are intrinsically tied to interactions with plant species, and so the pollination of crop plants and wild plants is of both ecological value and economic value. Estimates go up to about $150 billion a year in economic value that is provided by wild pollinators."

Researchers and policymakers have raised concerns for years that such insects are in decline. The 1999 Sao Paulo Declaration and the 2000 International Initiative for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Pollinators seek urgent attention to the possible worldwide decline of pollinator diversity.

Yet there has been little evidence that such declines are under way. Now, Kunin and British, German and Dutch colleagues have published evidence in the journal Science that gives the concerns validity.

They analyzed observations of bees and hoverflies recorded from 180 sites in Britain and the Netherlands before and after 1980. Kunin told Science magazine that they found local bee diversity had declined in both countries. The hoverfly trends were more variable.

KUNIN: "But in both countries and in both groups, the tendency was for local communities of insects to become simpler, to have fewer species that dominated the collections. So about 30 percent fewer species would make up half the observations, again, in both countries and in both types of pollinators."

Not surprisingly, plant species reliant on the declining pollinators have themselves declined. Kunin says it is not clear whether the plants or the pollinators declined first, or whether they both responded to some other factor, such as pesticide use, changes in land use, or climate change.

KUNIN: "A loss of pollinators in the U.K. and the Netherlands is not a global pollination crisis as some people have suggested. But I would be surprised if there aren't some similar patterns elsewhere."

The pollinator problem is a part of a broader trend in species loss noted in a 2004 report of the World Conservation Union. It says extinction threatens one-eighth of all bird species, a fourth of mammal types, a fourth of evergreen species called conifers and a third of amphibian species.

For this reason, 19 leading biologists warn that the Earth is on the verge of a major extinction crisis. Writing in the journal Nature, they say biological diversity is undervalued and call for a global coordinating body to provide an authoritative voice to inform government decision makers around the world. Their model is the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Their appeal has the support of the French government, which is funding talks on establishing such an expert panel. David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.

A new report from the respected Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington is urging the federal government to develop a more strategic research program into the health and environmental risks of nanotechnology. The report, from the Center on Emerging Nanotechnologies, also says the government should be spending more money on assessing the risks this technology might pose.

Nanotechnology involves ultra-small particles, all the way down to molecular size, and many scientists think the field has almost limitless potential in areas from medicine to manufacturing.

David Rejeski, who heads the Wilson Center nanotechnology project, says there is a lot at stake here. Rejeski notes that while it's a very new field, a survey in March found that more and more nanotech-based consumer products are coming to market.

REJESKI: "We were able to find a little over 210 products from 15 countries then. The inventory now contains over 275 products, and we believe that's a significant underestimate."

Rejeski says almost $10 billion a year is being spent on nanotechnology research, by both business and government. And new products are coming out all the time.

REJESKI: "So along with these products, obviously some questions arise about their potential risks to consumers, the workers, to the general population. And those questions need to be answered sooner rather than later. I don't think we have the luxury of waiting years before we provide answers."

Nanotechnology often uses familiar materials that have different properties at extremely small size. Many nanotech products use chemicals that are considered safe, but their safety as nano particles has not been assessed.

Critics worry that there may be unforseen risks in nano-scale products, such as the microscopic particles already being used in some cosmetics and dietary supplements. Andrew Maynard, author of the Wilson Center report, presented one example at a briefing this week in Washington.

MAYNARD: "I have a bottle here of a food supplement, nano food supplement, nano calcium and magnesium. This is a fine powder. And in fact, those that are close can see there's actually a plume of powder that comes out when I open it. (laughter) Put that back on pretty fast. So even before you start eating this, you've got to ask the questions, if I breathe that powder in, is it safe? Is it harmful? We don't know."

According to the Wilson Center analysis, there are currently no government-funded research projects specifically focused on the gastro-intestinal tract, to examine the risk of nano-scale particles in food. Maynard, who is the Science Advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, says the government's research into the risks of nanotechnology needs to be better coordinated.

MAYNARD: "We know there are products out there that people are eating. How much research is there into how harmful these are in the guts? We couldn't find anything. The evidence is that there is not a research strategy in place."

The government says it is spending almost $40 million a year studying the risks of nanotechnology. Wilson Center analysts say it's actually considerably less, but regardless - they say the government should be spending more than $100 million a year to assure the safety of this very promising new technology.

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

This week, it's a website that takes us to a seemingly-simple but sophisticated and elegant corner of the world of mathematics.

CALDWELL: "The Prime Pages are a collection of pages about prime numbers. The most important feature of the Prime Pages is the database of the largest known primes. I also have pages that discuss the mathematics behind finding the primes and who's doing the primes."

Chris Caldwell is the prime guy behind the Prime Pages at He's a math professor at the University of Tennessee at Martin, whose interest in primes hints at their fascinating story.

CALDWELL: "I got interested in primes because it's such a simple idea, but the mathematics behind it is really surprisingly complicated."

Prime numbers, as you might remember from school, can be evenly divided by only themselves and one. So five and seven are primes, but not six, which can be divided by two and three.

Modern math theory and fast computers have advanced the study of prime numbers, but it's a tradition that goes back more than 2,000 years.

CALDWELL: "The ancient Babylonians about 300 BC did have multiplication tables and tables showing division into primes. As a study, as an organized study of mathematics, prime numbers begin with Euclid, who discussed them in his geometry book, The Elements."

Prime numbers have a fascination for mathematicians, but there are some real-world uses.

CALDWELL: "For example one use of prime numbers is for cryptology. It turns out that you can multiply two big primes together and use that as the basis of a secret code."

When Prof. Caldwell talks about big prime numbers, he's talking REALLY big. The largest prime number verified to date, in the database on the Prime Pages website, is two to the 30,402,457th power minus one — a number with more than nine million digits. And there are still bigger ones yet to be found, since - as Euclid proved - there are an infinite number of prime numbers.

The Prime Pages are online at, or get the link from our site, VOA

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

Marriott anounced this week that all 400,000 of its hotel rooms in North America would be 100 percent non-smoking, effective this September.

A company statement said "demand for non-smoking rooms continues to rise with new information ... on the hazards of secondary smoke."

Secondhand tobacco smoke doesn't just affect business travelers and vacationers, though. A new global survey published by the World Health Organization and U.S. and Canadian Health Agencies finds that young people are facing increasing health risks from secondhand smoke. Health experts meeting earlier this month at the International Cancer & Tobacco Control Conferences in Washington say the survey is a useful tool to understand the impact on children of secondhand smoke — also called passive smoke or environmental tobacco smoke. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports

SKIRBLE: The Global Youth Tobacco Survey focused on 13-15 year olds in 132 countries. Wick Warren of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the survey of school-age respondents paints a disturbing picture.

WARREN: "It shows worldwide about half the kids are exposed to smoke in public places. And that's not good news. In some places, in some regions it reaches as high as 80 percent. That's terrible news. The goal is zero percent. So until we reach the goal we have a problem."

SKIRBLE: Secondhand smoke contains a toxic soup of chemicals linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other health conditions. World Health Organization official Armando Peruga says secondhand smoke also makes life miserable for children.

PERUGA: "In children you have the bulk of respiratory diseases, asthma, ear infections are due to exposure to secondhand smoke, usually from friends and parents."

SKIRBLE: Peruga says the youth survey indicates the extent of the challenge and sets the stage for policy change. 131 nations have signed the United Nations Tobacco Control Treaty, the first ever health treaty that promotes national laws to fight tobacco use.

But the agreement means little unless implemented, says George Saade who works for WHO in Beirut. For example, he says, Lebanon adopted the treaty in 2005, but has yet to enact legislation to address the issues.

SAADE: "Eight children of ten are living in households where they are exposed to smoke. Seventy-five percent are exposed to smoke in public places in a country with no public policy banning smoking in public places."

SKIRBLE: WHO's Armando Peruga says the UN health agency plans to issue recommendations on secondhand smoke by September.

PERUGA: "One is that we are recommending that governments have laws by which all indoor work places and public places should be completely smoke free. Second, governments and civil societies should do educational campaigns to reduce the exposure at home, which is still very high."

SKIRBLE: Peruga hopes that the Global Youth Tobacco Survey findings prompt countries to adopt policies to reduce the health impact of smoking. He says lives of their young people depend on it. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

This week the journal Science hosted a debate on the future of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, better known by its acronym, NCCAM. It's the branch of the U.S. National Institutes of Medicine that looks into herbal remedies, accupuncture, and the like.

Science senior editor Barbara Jasny says that in one article, medical school professors Donald Marcus and Arthur Grollman charge NCCAM is funding studies of dubious merit.

JASNY: "They also argue that from the very beginning, NCCAM's mission has been the result of political influence and that their priorities are being shaped by a very small group with their own agenda. This has led to a situation, they say, where proper peer review just isn't possible, and there isn't any objective, independent evaluation of the programs."

The authors say they're not against studying alternative medicine. They just say the research should be reviewed independently at a time when it is competing for funding other parts of the National Institutes of Health as the agency faces a declining budget.

In a separate article, says Science editor Barbara Jasny, NCCAM director Dr. Stephen Strauss defends the scientific rigor of research funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

JASNY: "They argue strongly that NCCAM has the same high standards as the rest of NIH, and that it's peer review system operates by the same rules as apply to everybody else. They point out that NCCAM has a multi-step system in place to deal with that quality control issue."

The officials of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine say they've funded more than 1,000 research projects and are providing important information to consumers who are increasingly turning to these sorts of treatments instead of, or in addition to, conventional medical help.

Traditional healers often use plants, and in fact, so do the big drug companies. Other drugs are synthesized in the laboratory. But as we hear from health report Rose Hoban, sometimes a medicine that was used ... and abandoned ... for one purpose can be helpful in treating an entirely different disease.

HOBAN: Researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health have found an old drug with a new and important use. They compiled a catalog of several thousand medications already approved for human use. Team leader David Sullivan says they tested each drug against the parasite that causes malaria, and eventually focused in on Astemizole, an antihistamine and anti-allergy medication:

SULLIVAN: "We found that the drug and its principle human metabolite, dezmethalastemizole, were active against drug-sensitive human malaria strains, particularly plasmodium falciparum and against drug-resistant [strains] of plasmodium falciparum."

HOBAN: Known as Seldane in the United States, Astemizole has not been used for more than a decade. It was pulled from the market after some people who took the drug for long periods of time developed irregular heart rhythms, especially if they were taking some kinds of antibiotics.

SULLIVAN: "The toxicities were seen with taking the drug for months at a time, and for malaria treatment, you'd just be taking the drug for a couple of days and not be taking it 30 days in a row for a couple of months in a row for chronic allergies. So the side effects potentially could be less for just shorter drug regimens."

HOBAN: Sullivan says one advantage of his team's approach to looking for new anti-malarials is speed. Since all the drugs in their catalog have already been tested for safety in humans, they could be fast-tracked for approval against malaria.

The Johns Hopkins team hopes to start testing astemizole for human malaria treatment some time next year. I'm Rose Hoban.

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

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Rob Sivak is our editor. Eva Nenicka is our 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.