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Health Highlights: June 15, 2008

Environmental Group Urges End of Shower Curtains Containing Harmful Chemical Pilot Project Tests Cell Phones in TB Fight Care of Female Veterans Lags at Some VA Hospitals: Report Psoriasis Drug Could Raise Risk of Cancer: FDA EPA's Proposed Lead Standards May Not Be Enough: Experts

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

Environmental Group Urges End of Shower Curtains Containing Harmful Chemical

For most of us, the only association we make between a plastic shower curtain and death is the memorable scene with Janet Leigh in the shower right before she meets a very bad end in the movie Psycho.

However, reports U.S. News and World Report, an environmental advocacy group is calling for the phase-out of all shower curtains and other products made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which it says can emit a number of harmful materials such as lead and phthalates (the chemicals that give plastic its flexibility) into the bathroom or elsewhere in the home.

The environmental group cited a small study indicating that the substances can be released, the magazine reports, but a previous study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had also found that plastic shower curtains containing PVC could emit toxic substances into the air.

Many major retailers have, or in the process of, eliminating plastic products made with PVC, U.S. News and World Report says. IKEA hasn't sold shower curtains with PVC for more than a decade, and stores such as Target, Macy's, J.C. Penney and Bed, Bath and Beyond are in the process of replacing PVC products with safer ones.

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Pilot Project Tests Cell Phones in TB Fight

The cell phone is joining the arsenal of technology used to keep folks healthy.

A student-led group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge has developed a way to use cell phones to let tuberculosis patients report their adherence to the drug regimen they must take. If the tests show patients are following doctor's orders to take all their medication, they get rewarded with free cell phone minutes, the Associated Press reports.

Under the MIT pilot plan, patients test their urine using a strip that reveals a numeric code if it detects TB medicines, which are usually taken for six months. They then text-message the code to their health care provider and get credit toward incentives such as free minutes.

The in-home tests also eliminate the need for health care workers to make several patient-monitoring visits a week, a routine that is often impractical in remote places, said Jose Gomez-Marquez, one of the project's leaders.

Dr. Mario Raviglione, director of a World Health Organization program to fight TB, called the MIT idea "creative." But he told the AP personal visits must continue because systems that depend on patient self-reporting have often failed in the developing world.

In 2006, the most recent year statistics are available, 9.2 million people worldwide were diagnosed with tuberculosis, and 1.7 million died, according to AP. The WHO estimates that up to 10 percent of TB deaths are patients who stop taking medication properly.

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Care of Female Veterans Lags at Some VA Hospitals: Report

U.S. female veterans aren't receiving the same quality of care as men at about one-third of Department of Veterans Affairs facilities, according to a VA review obtained by the Associated Press.

While the VA has created women's clinics at many hospitals, more clinicians need to be trained in women's care, and there's a need for more equipment focused on women's health, the document states.

The review, mandated by Congress, seems to support criticism by advocates and some members of Congress that the health care system needs to do more to help female veterans, the AP reported.

Any discrepancies in care are unacceptable and the agency is aggressively tackling the issue, said Dr. William E. Duncan, associate deputy undersecretary for health for quality and safety at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"We're striving to understand the reason for these health disparities and to eliminate differences in veterans' health care based on personal characteristics," Duncan told the AP.

Currently, women account for about five percent of the VA's population. But that percentage is expected to nearly double in the next two years as more female veterans return home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the wire service said.

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Psoriasis Drug Could Raise Risk of Cancer: FDA

While the Johnson & Johnson drug ustekinumab may be effective in treating moderate-to-severe psoriasis, it also may raise users' risk of cancer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned Friday.

On its Web site, the agency said it probably needed to evaluate additional safety data before deciding whether the skin-disease drug increased the likelihood of cancer, the Wall Street Journal reported.

"The is a question whether a larger number of subjects, followed for longer periods might better inform the long-term safety of use of ustekinumab," the agency said.

An FDA advisory committee of experts on Tuesday is scheduled to decide whether to recommend whether to approve the drug, the newspaper said. The full agency isn't bound to follow the recommendations of its expert panels, but generally does.

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EPA's Proposed Lead Standards May Not Be Adequate: Experts

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposed new standards for lead air pollution may not be adequate to protect public health, according to some experts who attended a public meeting in Baltimore.

The meeting is one of a series being held by the EPA to gather input on its proposal to reduce the current standard of 1.5 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air to between 0.10 micrograms and 0.30 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

The standard should be set below 0.10 micrograms, Frank O'Donnell, president of the nonprofit group Clean Air Watch, told the EPA panel on Thursday, The Baltimore Sun reported.

"Lead is a very toxic pollutant that steals IQ points from children," O'Donnell said.

"We're pleased the EPA is tightening the standards, but they should be set at the higher level," said Gary Ewart, director of government relations for the American Thoracic Society, the Sun reported.

The EPA will accept written comments on the proposed standards until July 21 and is expected to adopt the new standards on Sept. 15, the newspaper said.

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