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Health Highlights: Oct. 20, 2002

Organic Foods Will Use U.S. Government Labels Fish Overeaters Have Elevated Mercury Levels Kids' Reading, Memory Skills Impacted by Airport Noise: Study Diptheria Bacteria Show Promise as Brain Tumor Treatment Four Louisiana Dogs Develop West Nile, Three Die Probe Curtails N.Y. Psychiatric Patient Release Practices

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

Organic Foods Will Use U.S. Government Labels

If the organic foods on sale in the United States seem to "pop out" a little more than usual this week, there's a reason - - new labeling rules for farmers and others wishing to market their products as organic take effect immediately.

Under the new U.S. Department of Agriculture rules, products that are entirely organic will be labeled "100 percent organic," while those that are at least 95 percent organic will carry labels saying "organic."

Both types will be able to carry a green USDA "seal of approval," indicating that the food was grown by a certified farmer who does not use conventional pesticides and fertilizers, biotechnology, antibiotics or growth hormones to produce food, reports the Associated Press.

Products that are 70 percent organic or less will have labels saying "made with organic ingredients," or "contains organic ingredients," but will not be qualified to carry the green seal.

Sales of organic foods are reportedly increasing steadily, jumping from $3.5 billion in 1996 to $4 billion in 1999.

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Fish Overeaters Have Elevated Mercury Levels

A study of people who consumed more fish than is recommended by the U.S> Environmental Protection Agency found that 89 percent showed elevated mercury levels in their bodies.

The analysis involved 720 California patients who said they ate more than two servings of fish per week, including tuna, salmon, and other types of fish. The EPA recommends no more than two servings of fish per week for pregnant women and small children.

Among 116 who had their blood tested, 89 percent had mercury levels greater than the 5 parts per million recognized as safe by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences; 63 percent had blood mercury levels more than twice the recommended levels and 19 had mercury levels four times the amount considered safe, reports the Associated Press.

High mercury levels are associated with damage to the nervous system, especially in children and fetuses. As 67 of the patients reduced their fish intake, the researchers found that within 41 weeks, all but two had reduced their blood mercury levels to safe amounts.

The study, presented Oct. 19 at an environmental health conference in Vermont, is scheduled for publication Nov. 1 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

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Kids' Reading, Memory Skills Impacted by Airport Noise: Study

German children who lived near airport s had reading and long-term memory pronblems, a new study has found.

Researchers from New York's Cornell University monitored reading, memory, attention and speech perception in one group of schoolchildren, aged 8 through 12, living near the opening of a new international airport in Munich, Germany, and another group who lived near an airport that closed at the same time.

At the end of a 30-month evaluation, the researchers found that long-term memory, reading and speech perception had been harmed in the children who were newly-exposed to noise at the new airport. Even worse, the reading and memory deficits in this group were more pronounced two years after the opening of the new airport, suggesting a cumulative effect.

Meanwhile, the children living near the old airport that had shut down showed improvements in reading and long-term memory, although speech perception deficits among this group did not recover, reports the New Scientist.

The findings appear in the latest issue of the journal Psychological Science.

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Diptheria Bacteria Show Promise as Brain Tumor Treatment

A treatment consisting of the poisons that are made by the diptheria bacteria is showing promise in killing brain cancer cells associated with difficult-to-treat brain tumors.

Clinical trials are progressing in research on the treatment for use in attacking a type of brain tumor called malignant glioma, which describes about half of all adult brain tumors, reports the BBC.

Malignant gliomas are often not candidates for surgery, and these cells can prove resistant to both chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Also, it's difficult to find treatment that targets the cancer cells without damaging nearby healthy cells.

But the diptheria treatment, TransMID, is said to "trick" cancer cells into allowing it to zero in only on the malignant cells. Results from early trials showed that of 34 patients, five had what was described as "complete response" to the drug, with the tumor appearing to disappear on scans; sixteen patients had a partial response.

Survival for these patients once a tumor has returned is only about half a year on average, but 13 of the patients survived for more than one year, and one for more than four years following TransMid treatment.

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Four Louisiana Dogs Develop West Nile, Three Die

West Nile virus appears to have a fatal effect on dogs as well as birds and humans.

Four dogs in Louisiana that showed symptoms of encephalitis are believed to have developed the disease as a result of West Nile virus, say state veterinarian officials.

Three of the dogs died after showing symptoms such as seizures and flinching at a gentle touch. These symptoms are consistent with the brain inflammation associated with West Nile, reports the Associated Press.

The dogs were not old or otherwise ill. The youngest was a 5-month-old German shepherd. The oldest, a 6-year-old Dalmatian, has recovered from the illness. West Nile has also reportedly infected more than 110 species of birds, but it's been rarely seen in dogs and cats. Officials warned that veterinarians who observe central nervous system problems in dogs should consider West Nile as a possible cause.

This year's outbreak of the virus is the largest in U.S. history. It has spread coast-to-coast and has claimed the lives of 146 people. Almost 3,000 others contracted the disease in 34 states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Probe Curtails N.Y. Psychiatric Patient Release Practices

State of New York social workers have been ordered to halt a highly criticized practice of releasing non-violent patients from psychiatric hospitals to locked-up wards in nursing homes.

The New York Times reports that the orders from state psychiatric hospital officials come just as the U.S. Justice Department had launched an investigation to determine whether conditions at the nursing homes violated federal laws designed to protect the rights of the disabled and those who are institutionalized.

In its own investigation, the Times found patients who had supposedly been discharged confined to locked-up quarters. They were prevented from having contact with others and left in the care of staff who were inadequately trained in mental illness. The practice had been permitted with the approval of Gov. George E. Pataki's administration, reports the Times.

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