Watching the World

Passive Smoking Risks

“Just 30 minutes of exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke can damage the heart of a healthy non-smoker,” says Canada’s Globe and Mail in a report on a recent study in Japan. Using new ultrasound technology, researchers at Osaka City University were able to measure directly the adverse effects of secondhand smoke on endothelial cells that line the heart cavities and blood vessels. When healthy, these cells promote good blood circulation by helping to prevent plaque from building up on blood vessel walls and blood clots from forming. The researchers found that blood flow in the hearts of nonsmokers “was about 20 per cent better than that of smokers. But after exposure to second-hand smoke for only 30 minutes,” their blood flow fell to the smokers’ level. According to researcher Dr. Ryo Otsuka, “this provides direct evidence of a harmful effect of passive smoking on the coronary circulation in non-smokers.”

 A New Light-Pollution Atlas

“The Milky Way has vanished,” says a report in the journal Science, “not because of some cosmic upheaval, but because the bright lights of our sprawling cities obscure the stars of our galaxy from the view of most Europeans and Americans. This flood of artificial light grieves astronomers because it can interfere with their observations.” In order to help frustrated stargazers, scientists in Italy and the United States have compiled a new atlas that charts global light pollution. Unlike previous maps that simply showed the location of the “white lights dotting continents at night,” the new atlas, accessible on the Internet, “includes continental maps and a few more detailed ones, for example, showing star visibility from different parts of Europe,” says Science.

Mapping the Ocean Floor

Scientists at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia are taking the lead in adapting existing technology in order to map the ocean floor, reports Canada’s Financial Post. Incorporating multibeam sound waves, the technology enables scientists to create a three-dimensional image of the seabed. In the final stage, “remote video cameras are sent to the ocean floor and physical samples are taken.” According to the report, “the benefits of seabed mapping are potentially huge.” Stocks of bottom-dwelling species can be “safely fished and managed without disturbing other areas of the ocean floor. Telecommunications companies can also determine the safest and most effective path for laying underwater cable. Oil companies will be able to position rigs in safe and productive areas.” Such mapping may also make possible the extraction of sand and gravel, found in abundance on the seabed. This “may be cheaper and safer in some cases” than quarrying mountainsides, says the Post.

Understanding Mental Illness

“One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives,” reports the World Health Organization (WHO). Although many mental illnesses can be treated, almost two thirds of sufferers never seek professional help. “Mental illness is not a personal failure,” says Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, director general of WHO. “In fact, if there is failure, it is to be found in the way we have responded to people with mental and brain disorders.” She adds: “I hope this report will dispel long-held doubts and dogma and mark the beginning of a new public health era in the field of mental health.” According to present health trends, “depressive disorders . . . are expected to rank second by 2020, behind ischaemic heart disease but ahead of all other diseases,” says WHO. With proper treatment, however, sufferers “can live productive lives and be a vital part of their communities.”

“Incense Could Be Bad for Your Health”

“The sweet smell of incense could be bad for your health,” reports New Scientist magazine. “Burning incense, a popular meditative and medicinal aid often used by Buddhists, Hindus and Christians in their homes and places of worship, exposes people to dangerous levels of smoke laden with cancer-causing chemicals.” A team of investigators led by Ta Chang Lin of the National Cheng Kung University in Tainan, Taiwan, “collected air samples from inside and outside a temple in Tainan City and compared them to samples at a traffic intersection,” says the report. “Total levels of PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] inside the temple were 19 times higher than outside and slightly higher than at the intersection.” According to New Scientist, one of these compounds, “benzopyrene, which is thought to cause lung cancer in smokers,” was monitored at levels that were “up to 45 times higher than in homes where residents smoked tobacco.”

Modern Marble Restoration

“Scientists have discovered a revolutionary technique that allows them to grow marble from bacteria in the space of a few days,” states The Times of London. Minute calcinogenic bacteria, found naturally in soil, are colonized in the laboratory and grown in a liquid medium containing pectin. When their mineral food supply runs out, the bacteria die and produce pure calcium carbonate​—marble—​in solution. This solution, when sprayed onto sculptures and other marble surfaces that have deteriorated because of age or exposure to the elements, gives a fine film that penetrates the surface and holds the stone together. John Larson, head of sculpture conservation at the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, England, says that with high-quality marble now in short supply, the new technique has the advantage of being quick and of producing large quantities of solution very cheaply with no damaging side effects.

Theft in the Name of God

“I’ve been a securities regulator for 20 years, and I’ve seen more money stolen in the name of God than in any other way,” said Deborah Bortner, president of the North American Securities Administrators Association. “When you invest you shouldn’t let your guard down merely because someone is appealing to your religion or your faith.” According to the magazine Christian Century, “in the past three years, securities regulators in 27 states have taken action against hundreds of individuals and companies that used spiritual or religious beliefs to gain the trust of investors. . . . In a notorious case spanning [more than five years],” a Protestant foundation “raised more than $590 million from more than 13,000 investors nationwide. The foundation was shut down in 1999 by state regulators and three of its officials pleaded guilty to fraud charges.” Three other cases “accounted for a total of $1.5 billion in losses,” reports Christian Century.

Global Warming Accelerates Disasters

“After reporting a sharp increase in the late 1990s in the number of weather-induced disasters,” the Red Cross feels that “international aid will not be able to keep up with the impact of global warming,” says Britain’s Guardian Weekly. “In its annual World Disasters Report, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says that floods, storms, landslides and droughts, which numbered about 200 a year before 1996, rose steadily to 392 in 2000.” Fearing an even more spectacular rise in natural disasters, Roger Bracke, the federation’s head of disaster relief operations, stated: “There is a natural limit somewhere to what humanitarian assistance can do; we are afraid that there will be a point where we can no longer provide assistance.” According to the Guardian, “floods accounted for more than two-thirds of the [211 million] people a year affected on average by natural disasters over the past decade. Famine caused by drought affected nearly a fifth, and accounted for most deaths: about 42% of all those caused by natural disasters.”