Health Highlights: March 10, 2004

Minors Hang Around Alcohol Web Sites: Study Who's to Blame If You're Too Fat? States Offer Murky Assessments of Great Lakes' Safety UCLA Employees Allegedly Sold Body Parts From Cadaver Program Senate OKs Bill to Clearly Identify Food Allergens Popular Athletic Supplement May Raise Prostate Risk

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

Minors Hang Around Alcohol Web Sites: Study

Web sites run by alcohol companies have turned into a "cyber playground" for minors who are too young to drink, a new study concludes.

Alcohol company Web sites received nearly 700,000 visits from underage people from last July through December, according to Georgetown University's Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. These sites regularly offer features like video games, music downloads, and alcohol-themed icons, according to the center's director, cited by the Associated Press.

The findings come despite past pledges from the industry not to target minors. "If a liquor store were this ineffective in policing underage visits, the community would be up in arms," center director Jim O'Hara tells the wire service.

Spokesman Frank Coleman of the Distilled Spirits Council calls the study a publicity stunt. He says industry ads and marketing materials have been reviewed and approved as targeting adults by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

-----

Who's to Blame If You're Too Fat?

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a bill limiting the ability of obese consumers to file lawsuits claiming that fast-food restaurants are responsible for their burgeoning waistlines, CNN reports.

The legislation, approved 276-139 late Wednesday, is part of a larger Republican effort to limit so-called "frivolous" lawsuits of all kinds. Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.), one of the bill's authors, says trial lawyers see the fast-food industry as the next target, mimicking big tobacco.

The federal government on Tuesday said overeating could soon replace smoking as the top preventable cause of death.

Democrats who opposed the bill countered that the courts, not legislators, should decide which lawsuits are frivolous based on their merits. They voiced concern that the entire industry would be, in effect, exempt from negligence, CNN reports.

The bill's introduction came as the industry is pressured to reduce "super-size" offerings aimed at calorie-hungry consumers. Last week, McDonald's announced it would curtail its larger-size fare.

-----

States Offer Murky Assessments of Great Lakes' Safety

State anti-pollution and enforcement regulations are so scattershot that it's difficult to assess whether the Great Lakes offer clean water and a safe place to swim, the nonprofit Environment Integrity Project concludes.

"Until the states and [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] get serious about water quality monitoring, the public will be flying blind when it comes to potentially grave risks to their health," EIP spokesman Ilan Levin says in a statement.

The group says potential hazards include ingesting toxins from fish consumption, and exposure to water-borne germs among swimmers and boaters. It alleges that the EPA simply compiles conflicting state data without imposing any standards or performing much analysis.

-----

UCLA Employees Allegedly Sold Body Parts From Cadaver Program

The University of California at Los Angeles medical school has suspended indefinitely its body-donor program following allegations that employees had illegally sold hundreds of cadavers, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The newspaper revealed the allegations last week. But until Tuesday, the school had maintained that closing the program would impair medical research. School officials reportedly changed their minds as the scandal appeared to widen.

The Times originally reported that two school employees, Henry Reid and Keith Lewis, had been placed on leave amid suspicion that they sold bodies for personal gain. Reid has since been arrested on charges of grand theft, the newspaper says. An alleged middleman, Ernest Nelson, has also been arrested, the newspaper says.

Bodies that had been scheduled to go to UCLA, which had hosted the nation's oldest cadaver donor program, are being re-routed to UC Irvine, which itself was involved in a body parts scandal in 1999, the Times reports. At the time, UC Irvine fired the director of its cadaver program amid allegations that he sold human spinal parts to a Phoenix research company for $5,000.

-----

Senate OKs Bill to Clearly Identify Food Allergens

The U.S. Senate has passed a bill requiring food manufacturers to better warn consumers of potential food allergens.

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) would set standards for clear, more reliable, and consistent labeling for ingredients that could cause serious reactions in some allergic consumers. It would cover major allergens, including milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, and soybeans, The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network says in a statement. The organization says as many as 7 million Americans suffer from food allergies.

The act -- which, if approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, would take effect in 2006 -- would also cover spices, flavorings, colorings, and other additives that could lead to anaphylactic shock and death in people with severe allergies.

FALCPA would require manufacturers to highlight affected ingredients by using the word "Contains" in the ingredient list, as in: CONTAINS MILK. Technical ingredient terms would also be clarified, as in: WHEY (MILK).

-----

Popular Athletic Supplement May Raise Prostate Risk

Athletes who take the popular over-the-counter supplement DHEA to raise testosterone levels may actually be raising levels of different hormones entirely -- an action that could cause prostate problems, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine say DHEA appears to have no effect on testosterone production, but appears to eventually raise levels of a hormone known as ADG. Other studies have found that ADG is a growth factor for the prostate, and may prompt a type of prostate enlargement known as benign prostatic hypertrophy.

Athletes can easily obtain the supplement at health food stores and nutrition centers. While the supplement is typically sold in 25-milligram and 50-mg doses, many athletes take 200 mg or more at a time, the researchers say.

Results of their study appear in the March issue of the journal Fertility and Sterility.

Consumer News