Watching the World

A Car That Runs on Waste

A farm owner in Finland now has a car that runs on the gas given off by decomposing waste. “The car is fueled by biogas, which is produced from wastes that are cleaned and pressurized in a biogas reactor located on the car owner’s farm,” reports the Finnish magazine Suomen luonto. Biogas is the cleanest-burning vehicle fuel in use today, and since it can be produced during the recycling of garbage, it is very ecologically friendly. In fact, one of the by-products of biogas production is valuable agricultural fertilizer. Cars already designed to use natural gas​—about two million worldwide—​can also run on biogas. In Sweden many city buses are powered by biogas, and some gas stations there already offer biogas in addition to other fuels. The article notes a final advantage: “Biogas is much cheaper than gasoline or diesel fuel.”

 How Ants Survive Floods

What do ants do when it rains? Though not all ant species live underground, some that do employ remarkable flood-survival techniques, says The New York Times. Certain tropical forest ants “react to as little as a single drop [of water] placed in the nest entrance by making alarm runs through the nest, which often end at alternate entrances,” explain ant specialists Dr. Edward O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler. “They use odor trails to lead nest mates into the unobstructed entrance galleries and sometimes out of the nest altogether.” In no more than 30 seconds, they are able to mobilize most of the colony. And in the southwestern United States and northern South America, reports The Times, certain fire ants “move up through the nests to ground level, form large masses that include adults, the queen and her brood, and float on the rising waters. Many survive . . . The raft eventually anchors itself on grass or bushes, and the survivors may return to the nest when the waters recede.”

Heavy Drinking Takes Its Toll

“Binge drinking among women and the young has led to a huge increase in alcohol-related deaths in Britain,” reports London’s newspaper The Independent. “Deaths due to excessive drinking have doubled in 20 years, mostly due to chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.” And victims are getting younger. “A decade ago the peak age for deaths was in the early 70s for both men and women. Latest figures for 1998-2000 show the peak age has now dropped to the late fifties,” states the report. But the effects of alcohol abuse are not limited to disease. In France “alcohol is apparently directly responsible for 10 to 20 percent of accidents at work,” reports the newspaper Le Monde. Moreover, in France each year, 2,700 people are killed and 24,000 injured in drinking-related road accidents, and alcohol is involved in about 30 percent of acts of violence. Alcohol abuse also exacts an enormous financial toll. Le Monde notes that in France in 1996, misuse of alcohol resulted in an estimated financial loss equivalent to 17.6 billion euros (19.2 billion dollars).

Stress and Illness

“Stress at work and fatigue increase the chance of acute infections such as common colds, flu-like illnesses and gastroenteritis,” according to a Dutch study of more than 8,000 employees, reported on by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. “The study revealed that employees in highly demanding jobs suffered from colds 20 percent more often than employees in less demanding positions.” Other factors found to contribute to a greater risk of infection included night work and insecurity resulting from company reorganization. “Employees working shifts have a higher chance of developing infections than daytime employees,” states the report.

Children and Singing

Singing is “an important means of emotional expression that promotes children’s personality development,” writes Leipzig University ear, nose, and throat specialist Dr. Michael Fuchs in the German health magazine Gesundheit. However, Fuchs laments that “the vocal range of children has clearly diminished over the past 20 years. The sound of their voices has also changed.” Fuchs suggests two reasons. First, “children today sing less at home. While families in former times used to spend their leisure time singing and playing music, they now sit in front of the television together, and music is enjoyed only passively.” Second, when they do sing, children tend to imitate the hoarse voices of rock and pop singers. “Children demand too much of their vocal organs when they try to imitate such stars,” writes Fuchs. Doing so can make their larynx and neck muscles tense. The added strain can also cause nodules to appear on their vocal cords, further reducing voice quality.

Fireplace Safety

“A fire in a fireplace or a woodstove can be a source of indoor and outdoor pollution, as well as a potential fire hazard,” points out the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. To help people avoid fire dangers as well as health problems often associated with fireplace pollutants, the Wellness Letter offers these recommendations:

● “Keep the chimney in working order . . . , cleaned and repaired.”

● “Consider installing a carbon monoxide detector . . . , especially if your home is tightly sealed.”

● “Build small, hot fires rather than large smoky ones.”

● “Use seasoned woods​—woods stored and dried for at least six months. Hardwoods make better, longer-lasting fires.”

● “Open a window a couple of inches to provide ventilation.”

● “Make sure your woodstove is installed correctly, at least a yard away from combustible walls and furnishings.” Use a “heat shield to protect the floor.”

● “Don’t burn treated lumber, plywood, particle board, painted or finished wood, colored paper, or plastic. These can create toxic fumes.”

● “Always use a firescreen in front of an open fire.”

Winter and Vitamin D

“Vitamin D is needed for absorption of calcium so that the mineral can take its place in bone and shore up the skeleton against fractures,” explains the Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter. “Generally speaking, 90 percent of our vitamin D is made in our skin upon exposure to sunlight. But during the winter months, the sun’s rays are not strong enough to initiate vitamin D synthesis in northern climes. Worse still, hardly anyone middle-aged or older takes in the 10 percent of our vitamin D that the diet is supposed to provide.” The U.S. National Institutes of Health therefore recommends that during the winter in the northern latitudes, people over 50 in particular should increase their intake of vitamin D by eating foods such as fatty fish and taking cod-liver oil or by taking vitamin D supplements, though not to exceed 2,000 international units, 50 micrograms, per day.

South Africa’s Juvenile Boozers

“South Africa could be producing a nation of drunks, as children are beginning to abuse alcohol from a very early age,” warns The Star newspaper of Johannesburg. Children as young as nine are said to arrive at some schools with severe hangovers, and the abuse keeps escalating. Why such a drinking problem? Police cite “advertising campaigns [that] present a lifestyle that is attractive to teenagers.” Other reasons given by the paper are the accessibility of alcohol, its social acceptance, parental permissiveness, and the freedom and money that children now have. “There’s also a lack of parental control and of respect for authority​—basically a total collapse of the social structure,” says one clinical psychologist.