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Health Highlights: Jan. 30, 2002

Germany OKs Embryo Stem Cell ImportsWhen Irish Eyes Stop Smiling . . . Flammability Chemical Showing Up in Breast Milk IQ Eases Vets' Post Traumatic Stress Ashcroft's Skin Lesions Benign, Say Docs Former Consumer Safety Head Slams Recall Regulations

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of The HealthDay Service:

Germany OKs Embryo Stem Cell Imports

Embryo stem cell research is now officially sanctioned in Germany.

The German parliament today approved limited imports of human embryo cells for research, the Associated Press reports. The proposal allows for controlled imports of stem cells that have already been harvested from embryos, which means no new embryos would be destroyed.

The debate in Germany has in many ways mirrored last year's debate over stem cell research in the United States, and while the German measure passed by a comfortable margin, 340-265, the issue was an emotional one.

Scientists had argued that a decision to block imports completely would have serious consequences for German medical research. On the other hand, church leaders had strongly advocated a ban, expressing concern that allowing imports could open the door to human cloning.


When Irish Eyes Stop Smiling . . .

Will Irish pubs go the way of so many places in the United States and become smoke-free?

The Associated Press says Irish Health Minister Michael Martin told lawmakers in the parliament's health committee today that he would amend the Public Health (Tobacco) Bill to include pubs, which just a a decade ago had enough smoke to resemble a non-stop bachelor party.

Here's how the wire service reported the controversy: "Martin announced the plan to include pubs after opposition politicians in parliament accused him . . . of seeking to allow pub owners -- who in many cases are activists for the governing Fianna Fail party -- room to wriggle free of his smoking-ban plans.

"Gay Mitchell, health spokesman for the main opposition Fine Gael party, said the existing bill does not mention pubs. 'This allows the minister to say to the smoking industry and to the publicans, "Don't worry lads, I'm not actually going to do this," ' Mitchell said.

"Martin said pubs would not evade the legislation."


Flammability Chemical Showing Up in Breast Milk

A chemical used to prevent flammability in foam furniture padding is turning up in alarming levels in the breast milk of nursing mothers, reports the New York Times.

Early studies of the chemical, called polybrominated diphenyl (PBDE), compare the dangers to those of the banned chemicals DDT and PCBs. One form of the chemical is already in the process of being banned in Europe.

Makers of PBDE say the chemical, which is used in furniture padding, television casings and other plastics, helps to reduce the risk of death or injury from fire by as much as 45 percent.

But the chemical is known to stay in the environment indefinitely, and a 1998 Swedish study showed that levels of PBDE in breast milk had increased 40-fold since 1972.

Scientists say the chemical makes its way into humans by first being discarded in the environment and then consumed by insects, who transmit the chemical up the food chain to humans.


IQ Eases Vets' Post Traumatic Stress

Intellect appears to be some sort of buffer against the severity of post traumatic stress, says novel new research involving Vietnam war veterans.

HealthDay reports the research also confirms that Vietnam vets with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often have problems with attention and learning.

But the findings in no way minimize the well-documented role of combat stress in PTSD, says lead researcher Jennifer Vasterling. She and her colleagues at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in New Orleans, whose study appears in the current issue of the journal Neuropsychology, found that the most important gauge for determining the severity of PTSD was the extent of combat experience.

"We don't want anyone to go away thinking, 'If only I were smarter, I wouldn't have gotten PTSD,'" Vasterling says.

"Like a number of other studies, we found that the biggest predictor of whether people got PTSD was how extensive their combat exposure was. And contributing a little bit on top of that was estimated pre-military IQ," she adds. "What it suggests is that IQ might buffer the stress-symptom relationship a little bit."


Ashcroft's Skin Lesions Benign, Say Docs

The Justice Department has confirmed that the bandage appearing on Attorney General John Ashcroft's ear this week is due to the removal of one of several benign skin lesions, the Associated Press reports.

The 61-year-old Ashcroft reportedly had lesions that are common in older adults removed from his ear and shoulder.

Capt. David Ferguson, a physician at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., reported that the lesions were biopsied by dermatologists and that they were "similar to those he's seen in the past."

No melanomas were found and an annual physical exam given last week indicated that the attorney general's health was found to be "excellent."


Former CPSC Head Slams Recall Regulations

The former head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission is criticizing the commission, saying ineffective recall laws leave many vulnerable even after a product is pulled from the market.

Ann Brown says a loophole in consumer protection laws allows manufacturers to simply notify the public of product recalls through advertising and the media, rather than notifying consumers individually, as is possible with automotive defects.

Potentially deadly products can consequently remain in homes and be passed on to others who are unaware of risks, reports the Associated Press.

Brown said that as head of the CPSC, she pressed for, but failed to get, laws requiring companies to obtain consumer contact information to be used in the event of a recall.

Now head of her own non-profit consumer protection agency, Brown is continuing to press for Congressional action on the issue, and legislation was introduced yesterday that would require the CPSC to force companies to obtain registration information on buyers of children's products and small appliances.

Consumer News