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Monday, January 5, 2009

Surgeons who leave operating equipment inside patients cost NHS £9m

By Jo Macfarlane

surgeon

About two people a week find surgeons have accidentally left surgical equipment inside them following operations

Patients who leave operating theatres with surgical equipment accidentally left inside them are being awarded millions of pounds in compensation.

About two people a week find surgeons have left behind foreign objects such as surgical swabs, clips and screws, according to Government figures released after a Freedom of Information request.

And with the average victim pocketing £17,900, the mistakes have cost the NHS a total of £9million over the past five years, with payouts made to more than 550 patients.

In the past year, the highest payouts were £115,000 to a person who had the tip of a needle left inside them, £75,000 to a patient who later found a surgical clip and £60,000 to someone who still had ‘packaging material’ inside them after an operation.

The total compensation bill during 2007-2008 for such incidents was £2.2million, considerably more than the £1.4million awarded in 2003-2004, even though the number of incidents has not increased.

The average payment has also risen from £15,000 just under two years ago.
In 2006-2007, the damages reached a record level of £2.6million paid to 149 patients, including £119,000 to one patient found to have had a swab left behind and £100,000 to another who had a clip left inside them.

One victim was grandmother Gladys Condlyffe, 71, from Porthill, Staffordshire, who died in 2005 after surgeons accidentally left a plastic stent – a small pipe – inside her for seven years after a routine gall bladder operation. She died 12 hours after an operation to have it removed at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire.

In 2007, two new mothers were sent home from Birmingham’s City Hospital with surgical swabs inside them after bungled emergency caesareans.

Experts suggest the level of claims is just the tip of the iceberg, as many people do not discover a mistake unless it causes a problem, often years later.

The incidents generally happen as a result of oversights by doctors under pressure in ‘stressful situations’, such as emergency operations.

Overweight patients are also more likely to be affected because their extra body mass can make it more difficult to spot tools that have been left behind.

Peter Walsh, chief executive of the patients’ charity Action Against Medical Accidents, said the figures were scandalous and disappointing.

He added: ‘These incidents are all easily avoidable. They are only the cases where compensation has been paid. You can safely assume there are many more out there where people have not brought cases for compensation.’

And Susie Squire, campaign manager at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: ‘All available funds should be put into improving frontline health services, not spent on paying out for costly and easily avoidable cock-ups.’

A list of ‘never events’ – those which are serious and largely preventable – drawn up by the National Patient Safety Agency after Lord Darzi’s review of the NHS, is currently out for consultation. It includes objects being left in the body after an operation.

Kevin Cleary, the NPSA’s medical director, said: ‘The World Health Organisation has started a Safer Surgery Saves Lives campaign that includes a checklist for surgical teams to help avoid such blunders.’

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Subconscious is often a key to sleep-time imagery

BY Heather Warlick

What did you dream about last night? Did your teeth fall out or did you fly? Maybe you died or someone you know did. Or maybe you were back in high school and realized suddenly that you were naked. These are among the most common dreams people report, said Ivy Norris, field director for the Oklahoma Schools of Metaphysics, and they all mean something.


Illustration by Ben Bigler, The Oklahoman

Many dream researchers, Norris included, think that understanding your dreams can lead to significant improvements in your waking life.

"If people know what the symbols represent, then they know what part of themselves that they’re running from or that they need to face or need to embrace,” Norris said. For example, dreams of death represent changes in your daily life, as do babies in dreams. Cars in dreams represent the physical body and can indicate health problems. And animals represent habitual behaviors that can be detrimental and need changing.

People in dreams represent aspects of the dreamer. People of the opposite sex represent subconscious aspects of the dreamer while people of the same sex represent aspects of your conscious mind with which you’re more familiar.

Dreams are a universal connection, Norris said, because almost everyone dreams and a "symbolic universal language of mind” applies to anyone at anytime. Many dreams have very specific interpretations. Here are some of the most common dreams and their interpretations or symbolism.

→Dreams of flying. Dreams of flying represent feelings of freedom that may result from an instance when you overcame a limitation or obstacle. Usually, children have more flying dreams than adults, Norris said, because children are more open to their possibilities, and adults have often accepted limitations imposed by society.

→Teeth falling out. Food in a dream is symbolic of knowledge because food nourishes the physical body and knowledge nourishes the soul. Teeth are a means to break down food or knowledge. When your teeth fall out in a dream, it could signify that you feel ill-equipped to break down the knowledge that you have available, that the way you break things down has changed. That change can be either positive or negative.

→High school dreams. Either you’re woefully unprepared for a big test or you’re naked. High school is a place of learning from the past, Norris said, and dreaming of being unprepared for a high school test can indicate a struggle to access information you need to handle in your life.

Being naked in a dream indicates open and honest expression. Clothes represent how we express ourselves and the face we show the public. If your dream nudity makes you feel embarrassed, this could mean that you need to work on being more open and honest in your daily life. If your nudity doesn’t bother you, you are more comfortable with your self expression.

→Recurring dreams and nightmares. Recurring dreams are your subconscious mind’s way of trying to get your attention. A recurring dream is a step down from a nightmare that is a louder, more insistent way your subconscious mind communicates. If you have a recurring dream, Norris recommends trying to stop in the dream and identify what the dream is trying to tell you. That could mean asking someone who is chasing you what he or she wants as in the case Norris recalls of a woman who dreamed for years that an old, haggard woman was chasing her around her home. When she finally stopped in the dream and asked the old woman what she represented, the old woman suddenly turned into a beautiful young woman and replied, "I represent your question of ‘what if?’”

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Have Americans Gone Nuts Over Nut Allergies?


Peanuts

Five years ago, at a San Francisco elementary school, a nurse stood by to ensure that children scrubbed their hands as they arrived, while all of their packed lunches were confiscated and searched for nut products. The measures were a precaution to protect a five-year-old boy in the class who had a severe nut allergy.

In 2006, a town in Connecticut felled three hickory trees more than 60 feet high after a resident learned that the trees leaning over her property produced nuts, and complained that they posed a threat to her grandson who had nut allergies. (Read TIME's Top 10 medical breakthroughs of 2008.)

Recently, a Massachusetts school district evacuated a school bus full of 10-year-olds after a stray peanut was found on the bus floor.

Do these safeguards seem a little, well, nuts? Harvard professor Dr. Nicholas Christakis thinks so. One of Christakis's children attends school in the district that ordered the bus evacuation, and the episode prompted the physician and social scientist — best known for his work on the social "contagiousness" of characteristics such as obesity and happiness — to write a commentary, published in the British Medical Journal, questioning whether these so-called precautions are snowballing into something more like a societal hysteria.

Of the roughly 3.3 million Americans who have nut allergies, about 150 die from allergy-related causes each year, notes Christakis. Compare those figures to the 100 people who are killed yearly by lightning, 45,000 who die in car crashes, and 1,300 killed in gun accidents. As a society, Christakis says, our priorities have been seriously skewed, and it's largely a result of fear. "My interest is in understanding [the reaction to nut allergies] as a spread of anxiety," he says.

Between 1997 and 2007, the number of children under 18 who suffered from food allergies jumped 17%, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Experts don't disagree that the incidence of food allergy has increased, but there isn't much consensus about why. Some researchers suggest that an overly hygienic lifestyle may hamper the body's ability to build up proper immunities; others believe the statistical rise is a combination of a real increase in allergies and an increase in the number of patients seeking diagnosis (i.e., getting allergy tests that turn up very low levels of reaction that might have otherwise gone undiscovered). "You have to distinguish between an epidemic of diagnoses and an epidemic of allergies," says Christakis.

No one would disagree that children who suffer from life-threatening allergies need to be protected, but the growing trend of demonizing nuts only fuels anxiety, Christakis says. Instilling in the general public the idea that nuts are "a clear and present danger" does little beyond heightening panic. "There are kids with severe allergies and they need to be taken seriously," he says, "but the problem with a disproportionate response is that it feeds the epidemic.

There's even some evidence to suggest that establishing nut-free zones or nut-free schools may be detrimental to children's health, and increases their risk of developing nut allergies. A study of 86,000 Jewish children living in the U.K. and in Israel, cited by Christakis in his article, revealed that those who had more exposure to peanuts earlier in life were less likely to become allergic later on. In the U.K., where peanuts are an infrequent part of the diet, nearly 2% of the children studied developed allergies; in Israel, where peanuts are a common part of diet from infancy onward, only 0.17% of children had a nut allergy.

But Dr. Robert Wood, chief of the Pediatric Allergy and Immunology department at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, cautions against putting too much stock in such epidemiological studies. "The reality is that the vast majority of kids — 95% plus — have no potential to get peanut allergies no matter what you do," he says, "and there's one-half to 1% who are going to get it no matter what you do." Although the findings of the U.K.-Israel study are intriguing, he says, they apply to a very small percentage of children, and more research needs to be done to determine the true impact of early nut exposure. (There is a study underway currently, says Wood, but the results won't be available for another three years.)

Despite the occasional cases of nut over-precaution, Wood thinks the public generally approaches the allergy risk with common sense. "There are definitely situations where we see a fear of the allergy that develops far out of proportion to the true risk, but for the vast majority of schools, things are mostly on balance and in perspective," says Wood, who treats some 2,000 allergy patients. Further, he says, it's important to recognize that the appropriate protective measure depends on the age group in question. "We recommend very different approaches between an early preschooler and a late elementary schooler," he says. "We view preschool children as being at true risk — sharing food, having messy hands. There are many reactions that occur from those kinds of exposures," he says. "I think that having peanut-free preschools is a totally reasonable, justifiable thing to do." For older children, however, in the 4th or 5th grade, he says even minor precautions like specialized seating arrangements in the cafeteria are probably unnecessary.

Still, on blogs run by moms of children with nut allergies, there is a consistent rallying cry for nut-free zones. The concern is airborne nut dust, which can be inhaled, or oily nut residues that can come into contact with children's skin. Wood, who has been allergic to nuts all his life, says these parents' worries may be exaggerated. The danger may depend on the severity of the allergy, but has much more to do with the degree of contact, he says. "Nut oils or the kinds of things that might be in a classroom — it's very rare for that exposure to cause anything more than a localized reaction," he says. "On the other hand, if you're a preschooler and your hands are in your mouth a lot, all bets are off."

As for nut dust in the air, Wood says it can cause severe reactions — but only under specific circumstances, with high concentrations of nut dust in a confined space. At a baseball game, for example, where the dust is quickly dispersed through the air, the risk of an allergic reaction is low. But if you sat a long time in the small waiting room of a restaurant with a dish of nuts and servers who kept passing through, with plates of nuts, your risk of an allergic reaction would be higher, he says.

But like Christakis, Wood cautions against excessive alarm. "It's an unfortunate situation," says Wood, "if a family with an inaccurate perception of the allergy leads a child to believe that a Snickers bar from 50 feet away is a lethal weapon."

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A New Cigarette Hazard: ‘Third-Hand Smoke’

By RONI CARYN RABIN

Parents who smoke often open a window or turn on a fan to clear the air for their children, but experts now have identified a related threat to children’s health that isn’t as easy to get rid of: third-hand smoke.

That’s the term being used to describe the invisible yet toxic brew of gases and particles clinging to smokers’ hair and clothing, not to mention cushions and carpeting, that lingers long after second-hand smoke has cleared from a room. The residue includes heavy metals, carcinogens and even radioactive materials that young children can get on their hands and ingest, especially if they’re crawling or playing on the floor.

Doctors from MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston coined the term “third-hand smoke” to describe these chemicals in a new study that focused on the risks they pose to infants and children. The study was published in this month’s issue of the journal Pediatrics.

“Everyone knows that second-hand smoke is bad, but they don’t know about this,” said Dr. Jonathan P. Winickoff, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

“When their kids are out of the house, they might smoke. Or they smoke in the car. Or they strap the kid in the car seat in the back and crack the window and smoke, and they think it’s okay because the second-hand smoke isn’t getting to their kids,” Dr. Winickoff continued. “We needed a term to describe these tobacco toxins that aren’t visible.”

Third-hand smoke is what one smells when a smoker gets in an elevator after going outside for a cigarette, he said, or in a hotel room where people were smoking. “Your nose isn’t lying,” he said. “The stuff is so toxic that your brain is telling you: ’Get away.’”

The study reported on attitudes toward smoking in 1,500 households across the United States. It found that the vast majority of both smokers and nonsmokers were aware that second-hand smoke is harmful to children. Some 95 percent of nonsmokers and 84 percent of smokers agreed with the statement that “inhaling smoke from a parent’s cigarette can harm the health of infants and children.”

But far fewer of those surveyed were aware of the risks of third-hand smoke. Since the term is so new, the researchers asked people if they agreed with the statement that “breathing air in a room today where people smoked yesterday can harm the health of infants and children.” Only 65 percent of nonsmokers and 43 percent of smokers agreed with that statement, which researchers interpreted as acknowledgement of the risks of third-hand smoke.

The belief that second-hand smoke harms children’s health was not independently associated with strict smoking bans in homes and cars, the researchers found. On the other hand, the belief that third-hand smoke was harmful greatly increased the likelihood the respondent also would enforce a strict smoking ban at home, Dr. Winickoff said.

“That tells us we’re onto an important new health message here,” he said. “What we heard in focus group after focus group was, ‘I turn on the fan and the smoke disappears.’ It made us realize how many people think about second-hand smoke — they’re telling us they know it’s bad but they’ve figured out a way to do it.”

The data was collected in a national random-digit-dial telephone survey done between September and November 2005. The sample was weighted by race and gender, based on census information.

Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician who heads the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said the phrase third-hand smoke is a brand-new term that has implications for behavior.

“The central message here is that simply closing the kitchen door to take a smoke is not protecting the kids from the effects of that smoke,” he said. “There are carcinogens in this third-hand smoke, and they are a cancer risk for anybody of any age who comes into contact with them.”

Among the substances in third-hand smoke are hydrogen cyanide, used in chemical weapons; butane, which is used in lighter fluid; toluene, found in paint thinners; arsenic; lead; carbon monoxide; and even polonium-210, the highly radioactive carcinogen that was used to murder former Russian spy Alexander V. Litvinenko in 2006. Eleven of the compounds are highly carcinogenic.

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Sleep cures for the whole family

Only one in three Americans gets enough sleep, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.

By Camille Noe Pagan

Your husband is on his third cup of coffee — and it's not yet 8 a.m. Your teen is so bleary-eyed and grumpy that you want to run in the other direction. And you're so tired you can barely remember your middle name.

If your family is like most, everyone is seriously sleep deprived. A study from the CDC found that only 1 out of 3 Americans gets enough sleep all month long. And 16 percent of adults get less than six hours per night, says the National Sleep Foundation. That's well short of the seven to eight hours needed to ward off obesity, high blood pressure, and other ills.

To complicate matters, each family member deals with unique sleep sappers, says Susan Zafarlotfi, PhD, director of the Institute for Sleep-Wake Disorders at Hackensack University Medical Center.

But these simple strategies will help your family sleep longer and better every night.

Kids

Sleep thief: Late-night gadget time.

Artificial light from computer and television screens tells the brain that it's not time to wind down. "Your body thinks artificial light is daylight — which prevents the release of melatonin, a sleep-inducing chemical," says Zafarlotfi. A study from Wayne State University found that talking on a cell phone before snoozing caused a 13 percent drop in deep sleep — the type that helps people recover from daily wear and tear.

To get your kids to log off:

  • Set a technology curfew. Shut off the TV and have your children stop using phones and computers at least an hour before bed, advises Zafarlotfi.
  • Use the dimmer switch. Turn down the lights in your kids' rooms a half-hour before bedtime to allow melatonin to kick in, says Zafarlotfi. Or try switching the bulbs in their rooms to 60 watts or less.
  • Do morning prep at night. Teens, whose biological clocks tend to be on a later sleep cycle, often struggle with early start times at school. Encourage your kids to shower and get clothes and homework ready in the evening, and choose fast breakfasts (like cereal) so they can sleep in as much as possible.

Wives

Sleep thief: Stress.

Anxiety and other frazzled states cause your body to release adrenaline, a brain chemical that triggers alertness, says sleep specialist Joyce Walsleben, PhD, associate professor of medicine at New York University. Adds Zafarlotfi: "Stress seems to keep more women awake than men — which explains why 90 percent of my patients are female."

To ease your mind:

  • Shower an hour before bed. The warm water is relaxing. Plus, your body temperature will dip afterward, mimicking the physiological changes that naturally occur before sleep.
  • Write away worries. During the day, scribble down your concerns and how you plan to handle them, advises Walsleben. For example, if you're panicked about bills, you might write that you'll go through them and come up with a payment schedule for those you can't tackle right away. Then, if you start to ruminate before lights-out, tell yourself firmly, I've already dealt with this. It's time to go to sleep.
  • Make exercise a habit. Getting your heart rate up for 20 minutes every day — by walking, gardening, or cleaning the house — can lower anxiety and stress levels by as much as 40 percent, according to a study of about 20,000 adults at University College in London.

Husbands

Sleep thief: Snoring.

By age 50, half of men snore, says Dr. Michael Thorpy, director of the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "The noise can actually wake him up," he says — or prevent him from getting into deeper, more restorative sleep stages.

To stop the noise:

  • Measure his neck. "A big neck increases the odds that breathing during sleep will be interrupted," says Charles Bae, MD, a neurologist and sleep specialist with the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. One reason: If his neck is bigger than 17 inches, it may indicate excess weight — which puts pressure on the airways and can lead to snoring.
  • Skip wine with dinner. If he likes to wind down with a drink, make sure his last cocktail is at least 3 hours before bed. Alcohol relaxes the throat, which makes snoring worse, says Thorpy.
  • Get help. If he has tried everything and still feels exhausted during the day or is falling asleep during work (or while driving!), have your husband checked for sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing is blocked for seconds at a time. The disorder prevents the body from getting enough oxygen during sleep and raises the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Your husband is also more likely to have high blood pressure and erectile dysfunction if he has sleep apnea.
  • Don't banish him to the couch. It's tempting, but even if he has severe snoring or apnea, try to nod off next to him. (Use earplugs or a white-noise machine to muffle the din.) A man is more likely to stick with sleep treatment if his wife shares his bed, finds a study from Rush University.
Grandparents

Sleep thief: Changing circadian rhythms.

As people get older, hormonal and brain changes cause a shift in the body's internal clock, so they might find themselves sleepy very early in the evening. "This starts a vicious cycle," says Zafarlotfi. "If your parents go to bed at 8, they may rise at 3 or 4 in the morning. Then they take long naps. So when bedtime rolls around, they're not tired enough to doze off, which deprives them of deep sleep."

To help your parents snooze on schedule, suggest that they:

  • Skip catnaps. Your parents should try to get all 8 hours of sleep at one time — or, if they must take a nap, have them set an alarm so they sleep no more than 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Stick to light fare. Recent animal studies suggest that a high-fat diet can disrupt circadian rhythms. Though further research is needed, "greasy, heavy dinners and desserts may disrupt digestion, so you toss and turn," says Bae.
  • Turn up the light. Unlike teens, seniors may benefit from bright light exposure in the evening — it keeps them from falling asleep too early, explains Bae. Look for full-spectrum bulbs, which mimic natural daylight.
Copyright© 2009 Rodale Inc.

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Why is change so hard?

Eat healthier. Exercise twice a week. Read more books. Lose weight. We make the same resolutions every year, but why is following through such a challenge?

By Johnny Diaz

If Jim Novetta could change something in his life, he'd stop smoking. He's tried several times but failed.
"After doing it so long, you look forward to your next cigarette," said the 42-year-old Everett man. The longest he's lasted without a cigarette? Three days. "My challenge is myself."

For most of us, the New Year is synonymous with change. We use today as a benchmark to usher in a list of lofty resolutions. Pay off debt. Spend less. Work out. Lose weight.

Yet most of us fail, petering out after only a few days or, at best, weeks. Even the most successful among us, those who've climbed to the pinnacle of their fields, crash and burn when it comes to personal change. Oprah Winfrey, who's built nothing less than an empire of self-help, recently admitted she'd gained back 40 pounds. President-elect Barack Obama struggles to snuff out his cigarette habit.

So why is change so challenging? Are we wired in a way that keeps us from making changes? And do we need the support of others to implement our goals, or can we go it alone?

Professionals who help people make changes in their lives suggest that the anatomy of change is determined not by one's surroundings, but one's mindset. Beginning with small goals or steps usually leads to a bigger payoff later, they say. And trying to make a change is easier with support from a cheery group of friends, family, or co-workers with shared goals. But they caution that the experience is different for everyone.

A recent, highly publicized study that found that happiness can lift the mood of a person's extended network of friends also reported that same support base can influence change in someone's personal life.

"People are more likely to make positive changes in their lives not only when their friends do, but when their friends of friends do, and when their friends of friends of friends do," Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard University and co-author of the study, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. "The Biggest Loser," the popular NBC reality show where people compete in a group to lose weight, is one such example. They embark on the experience with rah-rah encouragement from friends, family, neighbors, or co-workers.

"People are better able to make changes in their lives - lose weight, quit smoking, become happy - when they do this with a large number of other people," he added. "Social networks have this interesting property of magnifying whatever they are seeded with, and so taking advantage of your social network ties can result in a magnification of your own efforts."

Jhonny Augustin understands that well. His resolution for 2008 was to shed 30 pounds from his 237-pound frame.

But the change didn't come easily.

"I'm a huge procrastinator," said the 24-year-old criminal psychology student at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. "I kept putting it off until tomorrow. I didn't get to do it until the summer."

That's when he saw his older brother working out. Augustin got inspired. Today, Augustin weighs 190 pounds.

"I read that it only takes 21 days to get into the motion of things. It's easier for me now to work out," he said.

Of course, change can happen only if people don't set their expectations too high or try to tackle too many changes at once; one of the biggest mistakes we make is setting unrealistic goals, said Dalia Llera, a psychologist and associate professor of counseling and psychology at Lesley University.

"You can't accomplish in a few weeks what you haven't accomplished in a few years," said Llera, of Jamaica Plain. "People set themselves up and then get discouraged because they failed in their attempts to make the changes they were hoping for. We have to take small steps."

Former Marine Charla McMillian subscribes to the baby-steps approach. People should keep their changes small and simple, she says, especially if those changes are focused on shedding pounds and getting into shape.

McMillian runs FitBoot exercise classes in Boston where she trains small groups of students in structured boot-camp drills - and she tells her clients to practice what she preaches.

"When you start off with this gigantic plan in place, it's really a set-up for failure," she said. "It becomes so abstract. 'I am going to get in shape in 2009.' But what does that mean?"

McMillian finds that people invest in new work-out equipment and gym memberships believing that will do the trick, when all it takes is something as simple as "rolling out of bed and banging out a set of 10 push-ups and 10 sit-ups."

"Once you've established a habit," she continued, "and that you've gotten up at a certain time, you've shown that you can execute something simple and you can build from there."

Having a positive attitude is one of the keys to making a successful change, according to Judy Zerafa, author of several books based on how people can improve their lives. In her "Seven Keys to Success" program, she underscores the importance of believing in yourself - and having positive habits, creative imagination, and persistence - to make change happen.

"Success in overcoming any self-defeating behavior particularly those related to health, finances, relationships and weight loss is almost guaranteed if you learn to reprogram the subconscious images in that part of the mind," Zerafa said in an e-mail.

Boston life coach Mary Kay Duffy believes that change can be extremely difficult for some people because they are "settled in a personal framework," meaning they tend to be passive when dealing with issues.

She suggests that people start a journal on what things may be troubling them. She also suggests that people prioritize and draft a timeline that allows for realistic goals.

Jenny Johnson, 26, is trying to do that now after failing to follow through on last year's resolution: to quit eating candy

"I have an enormous sweet tooth," Johnson said. "This was my way of being healthy."

But Johnson didn't last a weekend, surrendering to a box of Raisinets. Soon enough, she was back to munching on Tootsie Rolls, Sour Patch Kids, and Charleston Chews. She says she now sees where she went wrong.

"Instead of doing something that is more possible, you go to the extreme and you set yourself up for failure," said the cohost of NECN's "TV Diner." For 2009, she plans to keep her resolution relatively simple: Go to the gym twice a week.

"That will give me an opportunity to succeed and I will feel good about it," she added.

"And maybe next year, I will try quitting candy again."

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.

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Rodent of the week: Food additive tied to lung cancer

RodentA food additive that is becoming more common in a variety of products has been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer as well as a more vigorous spread of the disease.

A study, published in the January issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, was performed in laboratory mice but, according to the authors, should serve as a warning to people with a high risk of lung cancer or who have the disease to avoid the additive -- inorganic phosphates -- as much as possible.

Inorganic phosphates are found in many processed foods, such as meats, cheeses, beverages and bakery products. The substances are used to increase water content and improve food texture. In the 1990s, the average adult daily diet contained about 470 milligrams of inorganic phosphates, said the lead author of the study, Myung-Haing Cho of Seoul National University. But today's intake could be more than 1,000 milligrams a day depending on one's diet.

In the study, Cho fed mice with lung cancer a diet containing .5% to 1% of inorganic phosphate, which is comparable to the average amount in a human adult's diet. At the end of the four-week study, analysis of the lung tissue showed an increase in the size and growth of the tumors.

Inorganic phosphates stimulate certain cell signaling pathways that have been linked to the development of non-small cell lung cancer. Cho says future studies should try to determine what is a safe level of inorganic phosphates in the diet.

"The results of this study suggest that dietary regulation of inorganic phosphates has a place in lung cancer treatment," he said in a news release. "Our eventual goal is to collect sufficient information to accurately assess the risk of these phosphates."

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the world.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Advanced Cell Technology Inc.

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New treatment for blood poisoning could prove instant hangover cure

By Alastair Jamieson

The team claims to have created a molecule that can attach itself to unwanted substances in the bloodstream such as an overdose of drugs or an anaesthetic no longer required following surgery.

The molecule, Bridion, created by a team from Schering Plough in Lanarkshire, has been used in trials with patients who had been given a paralysing drug as an anaesthetic in major surgery.

Existing treatments for poisonings and insect bites are complex while some drug overdoses, such as paracetamol, are very difficult to reverse.

The new receptor molecule forms a ring around the unwanted chemical, rendering it ineffective within three minutes, the time it takes the blood to circulate round the body. Both the molecule and the chemical can then be excreted naturally.

Possible future uses of the mechanism could include removing alcohol from the bloodstream quickly from those who have drunk too much or as a fast-acting treatment for overdoses, targeting drugs such as paracetamol which can cause liver damage as it circulates in the bloodstream. It could also be used as an antidote for poisons and toxins, such as snakebites and spider and insect bites, which can cause death and major illness.

Dr David Hill, head of pharmacology at Schering Plough said: "We have proven the concept that you can have these artificial receptors that bind specific agents. You can imagine creating very specific molecules to interact with things.

"We have looked for things like whether it can reverse paracetamol poisoning. Although Bridion itself can't, because this molecule is very specific for the muscle relaxants, there are chemists looking at this host-guest interaction and it's not inconceivable that chemistry could be directed to make very specific agents."

Bridion works specifically on the commonly used muscle relaxants, Rocuronium and Vecuronium, used to keep patients extremely still during major surgery such as hip operations. They render the patient paralysed so surgeons can perform delicate procedures.

Dr Hill added: "The side-effects (of Bridion] are virtually nil, you just have this fantastic reversal of the paralysis. The potential now is that the anaesthetist has much greater control over the degree of muscle paralysis. When something like this comes along they are quite excited."

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Russians claim their drinking prowess is a 'myth'

Russians claim their drinking prowess is a 'myth'
Russian men drinking vodka Photo: Getty

"Today, Russia doesn't look better or worse than the rest of the world," Evgeny Bryun, Moscow's chief physician, said this week.

Despite statistics that prove otherwise, Bryun said the image of the average Russian man as a vodka-swilling beer lover was simply a myth.

Russians only seriously began drinking after the end of the Second World War – and the party just lasted too long, he said.

"Soldiers got used to drinking at the front, they celebrated the victory, and this celebration lasted for a very long time," Bryun said.

Bryun's flippant comments stand in stark contrast to a state report released last year that documented a sharp rise in Russians' alcohol consumption.

The average Russian now drinks 15 litres of alcohol per year – up from 5.4 litres in 1990, the report by Russia's chief physician, Gennady Onishchenko, found.

In contrast, Brits drink an average of 11.2 litres per year and Americans take in 8.4 litres.

Alcohol causes one in eight deaths in Russia, and contributes heavily to the country's startlingly high mortality rates for men. The average Russian man only lives to the age of 61, while women, whose drinking is on the upswing according to the report, live til 74 on average.

That study found that 1.5 percent of Russia's population can be considered alcoholics, but Bryun himself said the number was likely higher.

Two per cent of the Moscow population could be considered alcoholics, he said, while 10 per cent indulged in drink every day, but hadn't been diagnosed with having a problem.

Drinking often gets worse over Russia's New Year holiday, which lasts a whopping ten days and sees the country shuts down completely. Stock markets are closed, no newspapers are published. Yet most liquor shops remain open, where a bottle of vodka can be found for as little as £1.

Russia's leadership has launched many attempts to cut down on drinking, but always with limited success. As president, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sharply raised tariffs on imported alcohol and decried the effects of drinking while promoting a healthy lifestyle. But cheap domestic brands are plentiful, and those who can't afford £1 vodka or beer for 50p often turn to homemade spirits, or even cleaning liquids and shoe polish, to quench their thirst, leading to hundreds of deaths per year.

The situation usually gets worse in winter, with the blistering cold and lack of daylight.

One of President Dmitry Medvedev's moves in the New Year was the official creation of a new federal agency to regulate the alcohol market and forge a national anti-alcoholism policy.

Some politicians have begun warning that drinking could rise sharply as Russia lives through its worst economic crisis in a decade.

"The problems in the economy will be serious, they've already begun, and people have started to drink. And the scariest thing is that they're not drinking quality alcohol, but (alcohol-based) essences," said Larisa Ponomareva, a deputy in Russia's upper house of parliament.

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Abstinence-only sex education has totally failed the nation's teens

Programs mandated to teach only "the social, psychological and health gains (of) abstaining from sexual activity" have been awarded failing grades for truth and effectiveness. The programs that work best combine honest information about sexuality, including contraception.

Syndicated Columnist

BOSTON — I hate to bring this up right now when the ink is barely dry on your New Year's resolution. But if history is any guide, you are likely to fall off the assorted wagons to which you are currently lashed.

I don't say this to disparage your willpower. Hang onto that celery stick for dear life. And even if you stop doing those stomach crunches and start sneaking out for a smoke, at least you can comfort yourself with fond memories of your moment of resolution.

Compare that to the statistic in the newest research about teens who pledge abstinence. The majority not only break the pledge, they forget they ever made it.

This study of teens and pledges comes from Johns Hopkins researcher Janet Rosenbaum, who took a rigorous look at nearly 1,000 students. She compared teens who took a pledge of abstinence with teens of similar backgrounds and beliefs who didn't. She found absolutely no difference in their sexual behavior, or the age at which they began having sex, or the number of their partners.

In fact, the only difference was that the group that promised to remain abstinent was significantly less likely to use birth control, especially condoms, when they did have sex. The lesson many students seemed to retain from their abstinence-only program was a negative and inaccurate view of contraception.

This is not just a primer on the capacity for teenage denial or the inner workings of adolescent neurobiology. What makes this study important is simply this: "virginity pledges" are one of the ways that the government measures whether abstinence-only education is "working." They count the pledges as proof that teens will abstain. It turns out that this is like counting New Year's resolutions as proof that you lost 10 pounds.

We have been here before. And before that. And before that.

When he was running for president, George W. Bush promised, "My administration will elevate abstinence education from an afterthought to an urgent goal." Over the past eight years, a cottage industry of "abstinence-only-until-marriage" purveyors became a McMansion industry. Funding increased from $73 million a year in 2001 to $204 million in 2008. That's a grand total of $1.5 billion in federal money for an ideology in search of a methodology. And half the states refused funds to pay for sex mis-education.

By now, there's an archive of research showing that the binge was a bust. Programs mandated to teach only "the social, psychological and health gains (of) abstaining from sexual activity" and to warn of the dangers of having sex have been awarded failing grades for truth and effectiveness. As Rosenbaum says, "Abstinence-only education is required to give inaccurate information. Teens are savvy consumers of information and know what they are getting."

Our national investment in abstinence-only may not be a scam on the scale of Bernie Madoff. But this industry has had standards for truth as loose as some mortgage lenders. It manufactures a product as ill-suited to the environment as the SUV. All in all, abstinence-only education has become emblematic of the rule of ideology over science.

The sorry part is that sex education got caught in the culture wars. It has been framed, says Bill Albert of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, as a battle between "those who wanted virginity pledges and those who wanted to hand out condoms to 14-year-olds."

Meanwhile, six in 10 teens have sex before they leave high school and 730,000 teenage girls will get pregnant this year. We see them everywhere from "Juno" to Juneau — or to be more accurate, Anchorage, where Sarah Palin, advocate of abstinence-only education, just became an unplanned grandparent.

The overwhelming majority of protective parents don't want a political battle. They want teens to delay sex and to have honest information about sexuality, including contraception. The programs that work best combine those lessons.

Soon Congress and the new administration will be asked to ante up again for abstinence-only programs. As Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood says, abstinence-only education was "an experiment gone awry. We spent $1.5 billion and can't point to a single study that says this helps. If it doesn't help, why fund it?"

Teens are not the only masters of denial. But we are finally stepping back from the culture wars. We are, with luck, returning to something that used to be redundant — evidence-based science. That's a pledge worth signing ... and remembering.

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Top Ten Tech Treasures

by Frank Markus

What might have been the biggest tech headline of the year "Technology Investment Saves Auto Industry" didn't quite happen. The Senate shot down the House's $15 billion compromise plan to loan the money that Congress originally appropriated in Section 136 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 for fuel-efficiency technology development to be used as a bridge loan to see GM and Chrysler through the liquidity crisis. But there was plenty of other news being made in the tech arena. Here were my favorite stories of 2008:



1. Cellulosic Ethanol's For Real! Early in the year we reported on Coskata's plans to produce ethanol by superheating any carbon-rich feedstock (corn stalks, wood chips, plastic bottles, tires, etc.) to turn it into carbon-monoxide and hydrogen, then feeding this "syngas" to special microbes that breathe it in and sweat out pure ethanol at an estimated production cost of under $1/gallon. Plans were announced for a demonstration plant to be located at the Westinghouse Plasma Center near Pittsburg, opening in early 2009, followed by a full-scale operation in 2011, but economic woes have appear to have pushed back the timing of the demo plant.
Technologue: Booze Clues

Mascoma logo

2. Cellulosic Ethanol's REALLY for Real! Then we reported on Mascoma's totally different Consolidated Bioprocessing (CBP) method of breaking down the lignin in various non-food plant materials and fermenting it into ethanol using designer microbes that mimic what happens in a cow's digestive system in breaking down. Production cost is estimated at $1-1.50/gallon, demonstration plants are in the works in Rome, NY and Kinross, MI, with full-scale production targeted at 2011.
GM Partners with Mascoma on Cellulosic Ethanol

3. Cellulose is For Real! The third piece of the puzzle -- economically viable plant materials to feed these ethanol facilities -- came from Ceres. The first bio-engineered high-yield switchgrass and sorghum varietals tailored to suit different climates and ethanol production methods went on sale in December. They boast high-yield density, require little fertilizer and less water than most crops, and they can grow in marginal soil. Keep your fingers crossed that the processing plants get built in time to turn these plants into fuel.
Technologue: Whiter Lightning

Pump hugging car illustration

4. If not Ethanol, Maybe Methanol? Lotus trotted out a methanol-powered Exige concept car at the Geneva show that encouraged the world to have another look at the world's simplest alcohol. With only one carbon, CH3-OH can be produced more easily than ethanol, so the scientists say. Its high-octane rating would allow engines running on pure methanol to run diesel compression ratios for better output and efficiency. Cold-starting is a problem, but hydrogen generated by using exhaust heat to crack the Hs of the methanol molecule could solve that problem and boost efficiency too. There are even some fuel cells that run directly on methanol.

5. Greenhouse-Gasses-to-Methanol. Imagine turning that CO2 everyone's always moaning about into fuel and driving a mile in someone else's carbon footprint! There are several technologies in the works: big louvered scrubbers coated with sodium hydroxide that absorb CO2 are said to be capable of offsetting coal-generated power equivalent to twice as much as the windmill could generate. Exotic catalysts are in the works that might one use solar energy to mimic the way chlorophyll breaks down CO2, which could then combined with hydrogen split from water, perhaps using sunlight and titanium catalysts. It's tech worth watching.
Technologue: Reusing CO2

Mr. Clean Illustration

6. If Not Alcohol, Maybe Ammonia? Pure NH3 boasts a 110 octane rating and burning it in a combustion engine releases pure nitrogen and water -- no CO2, 'cuz there's no carbon. Ammonia is the second most widely produced chemical, it stores and transports like propane (liquid under light pressure at room temperature) and is already distributed nationwide for use as fertilizer. A slow flame front means you need multiple spark plugs and the engine won't rev all that high, but it could be the perfect way to remove agriculture from the Global Warming debate.

7. What About Electric Power? If vehicle electrification manages to take off like Congress and the environmentalists hope, we're headed for a potential neodymium-supply shortage. This rare-earth metal is used to make permanent-magnet motors. But the Chorus Meshcon electric motor is an AC-induction type motor that manages to deliver the efficient low-end torque of a permanent magnet motor with the light weight, lower cost, and better high-speed performance of an AC induction motor, thanks to a mesh-connected winding that can change the number of magnetic poles and the alternating-current frequency. Look for it next year on the nose-gear of Delta's new Boeing 737s, and on cars in the near future.
Technologue: Flying Hybrids!

Formula 1 driver illustration

8. Race-Ready Hybrids? Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) will be permitted in Formula 1 in 2009, so most teams are reportedly working on "hybridizing" their cars. My favorite was a small flywheel that connected to the transmission's output shaft via an infinitely variable toroidal friction-drive transmission. Gear reductions along the way allow the flywheel to reach 64,500 rpm (it operates in a vacuum, using special high-speed bearings that reportedly seal tight). Storing the FIA-mandated maximum of 400 KJ of energy keeps the flywheel small and light enough to be safely contained (unlike the one in the still-born Chrysler Patriot prototype). As of press time we're unaware of any team using this system by Flybrid Systems LLP, of Silverstone, England at the start of the season, but watch for it.
Technologue: Blessing & KERS

9. VVT For Smarties. Ford has come up with a better (more elegant) way of achieving variable valve timing by capitalizing on waste energy. Most cam phasers rotate the camshaft using oil pressure delivered by the engine-oil pump, but this can be problematic at low engine speeds and at low temperatures during vehicle startup. Ford engineers noticed that the oil pressure in the chambers that rotate the cam fluctuated just before and after the nose of each cam rotated past its valve tappet, and decided to harness these little pressure spikes. Voila. Less oil pressure is needed and more cam rotation is possible as low as 1500 rpm, all of which helps boost economy and performance.
Ford Gets Phased -- Using Free Energy

Mercedes-Benz high beam assist

10. Lights, Cameras, Action. Digital CMOS cameras are becoming so cheap that we'll be seeing a lot of them on cars in the very near future, starting off with high-end luxmobiles like the next Mercedes E- and S-class sedans. Cameras keep an eye out for traffic ahead of the vehicle and tailor the lighting pattern to reach as far as possible without blinding oncoming cars; an infrared camera provides an enhanced night-view image in the dash that also identifies and highlights pedestrians; and the various cameras will also inform the lane-keeping assist and Pre-Safe systems to warn a distracted driver of impending doom.
Dark's Knight: Mercedes-Benz Showcases a Brace of New Safety Technologies

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Two-year-olds 'to be screened for speech problems'

By John Bingham

Two-year-olds 'to be screened for speech problems'
Insufficient stimulation and too little interaction with young children could have an effect on their ability to communicate properly Photo: GETTY

An ambitious nationwide screening programme for two-year-olds is reportedly being considered to tackle the problem which experts say is now more prevalent than dyslexia or autism.

The decline of the traditional family meal time, the long-hours culture in the parents' workplaces, poor childcare with little stimulation and social deprivation are also being blamed.

Barely a 10th of children in some areas can repeat even one nursery rhyme and, in extreme cases, some do not even know their own name.

The screening programme is being considered after a review into services for children with speech problems led by the Tory MP John Bercow.

Tests could be carried out by health visitors in a similar way to that in which they check eyesight, hearing and general development.

Mr Bercow concluded that children with untreated speech difficulties are at risk of ending up unemployed, experiencing mental health problems and involved in crime.

"If children are in a home in which they are getting insufficient stimulation, where there is not enough interaction, or where communication through the spoken word is not as common or extensive or imaginative as it might be, that is bound to have an impact," he told the Daily Mail.

"The reality is that for far too long, speech and language problems have been under-recognised."

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