Watching the World
● “The death toll caused by the world’s natural disasters—floods, droughts, earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions—is on the rise,” reports The New York Times. A study sponsored by the Swedish Red Cross revealed that natural disasters increased 50 percent in the 1970’s, as compared with the previous decade, while estimated deaths due to the disasters rose fivefold—to 114,000 each year. Injudicious land use that reduces “the land’s resilience in the face of climatic extremes” and poverty, which forces “more and more people to live in disaster-prone areas,” are said to be responsible. Both are intensified by the rapid population growth.
“During the average year of the 1970’s,” says the Times, “disasters caused disruptions, often costly and wrenching, in the lives of an estimated 44 million people.” Experts say that preventive measures could lessen the impact of the disasters, but that they are not given adequate priority. Floods and droughts made 1983 “a banner year for disasters,” according to one official.
● “On average about 10 percent of all munitions used in any given war fail to explode,” writes Arthur Westing of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in the Swedish journal Ambio. “These ‘remnants of war’ constitute a threat to life and limb long after the conflict has ended.” Mentioned as examples are some 13,000 unexploded World War II munitions recovered by French bomb-disposal units in 1978, and an estimated 23 million artillery shells and 2 million bombs left by the United States in Indochina. Postwar casualties include civilian ships and children playing in fields. Westing is asking weapons designers “to work on more dependable fuses and the equivalent of biodegradable bombs—ones that disarm themselves over time,” says Science News.
● The Great Wall, long regarded as a symbol of the Chinese nation and a national heritage, has fallen into disrepair. An aerial survey of the Great Wall north of Peking found only a sixth of it intact, with two thirds in virtual ruins. Now efforts are being made to restore it. “Farmers outside Peking are being asked to return any pieces of the Great Wall that they carried off to build houses and pigpens,” reports The New York Times. As an inducement, authorities have offered to supply the farmers with substitute building materials. Efforts to restore the wall are first being concentrated on Badaling, a section 50 miles (80 km) north of Peking. It is hoped that enough funds will be raised to extend restoration to other parts of the over 1,500-mile (2,400-km) landmark. The Great Wall, which is visited by tourists today, is said on reliable authority to have been built by the Ming dynasty in the 16th century.
Trading in Blood
● Blood is an “industrial raw material” like coal, ore or oil, says the German scientific journal Bild der Wissenschaft. Who is the world’s top buyer of blood plasma? The Federal Republic of Germany, which has the highest per capita consumption of medical compounds produced from blood, says the magazine. But international trade with plasma has its dangers. Plasma from commercial sources is often a germ carrier—especially of the hepatitis-A virus. Concern has also been voiced about “the social background of American donors.”
● For decades, tourists have stared in awe at the vivid paintings in the huge, underground rock-cut tombs of the Pharaohs near Luxor in Egypt. “The graves’ wall paintings,” says an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, “have lasted thirty-odd centuries in surprisingly good condition. Now they may disappear in just a few more years—experts give them between ten and thirty years.” Why? Because the tombs, preserved by the dry climate of the Egyptian desert, are being threatened by increased humidity due to the breath and perspiration of the thousands of tourists, and heavy tour buses have caused cracks in their walls. Quoting the paper, World Press Review writes: “Luxor has no industry; almost all its 120,000 people live from tourism. Their number far outweighs that of those trying to save the tombs. But who will come in twenty years if the paintings are gone?”
● “Human placenta now appears in ‘protein-rich’ face creams, body lotions and shampoos,” says Parade Magazine. “It is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, skin irritations, even eye and gynecological problems,” and it is used in some medicines, ointments and vaccines. Formerly the placenta, or afterbirth, weighing about a pound, was routinely discarded by hospitals. Now it is often sold to a processing lab, at a price of 50 to 75 cents (U.S.) each, for extraction of its enzymes (protein) or hormones. “Placenta now has about 135 uses in medical science,” says Parade.
● “For vast numbers of chemicals used in commercial products and processes, food, cosmetics, pesticides and drugs, there are little or no toxicity data available,” reports The New York Times. “Even less information is available on the extent of human exposure to them.” These findings, the result of a three-year study by over 30 experts, showed that there was insufficient data to make even partial health assessments for more than 60 percent of the chemicals or ingredients used. Many apparently had never been tested. “This report does not prove there is a health hazard,” said toxicologist John Doull, who headed the committee’s study of toxicity data. “But I find the results scary. There’s a potential for some real major health problems out there, something totally unexpected and hidden. . . . The lack of data is very worrisome.”
● Why is it that certain animals are often found killed on American highways? The answer, says biology professor Roger Knutson, lies in some specific behavioral characteristics of the animal and is not simply due to the fact that those animals live in the area. Striped skunks are one of the most run-over animals in Iowa, he says, because of their natural defensive tactic to stand their ground and rely on the ejection of their offensive odor. Armadillos are found dead in Texas due to their instinct to roll up into an armored ball, which, unfortunately, cannot withstand the impact of a car. Many snakes are killed because of their tendency to seek warm, flat rocks at the end of the day, and they find that highway pavement meets their needs. Toads are often found killed in the spring due to their mating urges—crossing the highways in search of mates and ponds for mating activities.
● Japanese manufacturers “produced 2.85 billion batteries in 1983,” reports The New York Times, and although from 30 to 40 percent are exported, “each Japanese uses about 15 batteries a year.” What to do with all the discarded batteries has become a major problem in Japan. “Mercury, a toxic metal used in most batteries, is starting to seep into the soil around garbage dumps,” says the Times, creating fears that “Japan is slowly being contaminated by the dry cells that power its calculators, cameras, portable stereos and watches.” In an effort to offset the problem, in many cities used batteries are being set aside and collected separately from other garbage. But the cities are now wondering what they should do with the tons of batteries already collected and stored in drums, and they have called upon the national government for a solution. Officials are urging the battery industry to develop mercury-free batteries.
British Sex Mores
● “A poll of church-going teenagers disclosed that only 28 per cent from the Church of England regarded unmarried sex as wrong,” reports the Liverpool Daily Post. “Roman Catholic youngsters were almost as liberal, with 32 per cent against sex outside marriage.” Another survey, of 6,000 single British girls aged 15 years and up, showed that 20 percent were under the age of 16 when they lost their virginity. Nearly all thought there was nothing wrong with sleeping with a boyfriend prior to marriage, and 60 percent engaged in sexual relations at least twice a week. And a third survey, of women over 18, revealed that only 28 percent thought that brides should be virgins and that the majority felt it best to be sexually experienced.
Australian Mice Plague
● Good crops, following the end of a five-year drought, have caused an explosion in the mice population in Australia. “The mice are swarming through the crop areas of New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria, and threatening to sweep north into Queensland,” reports the Auckland Star of New Zealand. “Farmers in most states have given up trying to keep the mice out of pastures and crop paddocks . . . and are concentrating, instead, on trying to keep them out of their houses, sheds, vehicles and machinery.” Even farm dogs and cats are reported to have given up. Farmers were praying for a cold, wet and rugged winter to halt the plague and save the next summer’s crops.
● “The guns of the Iraq-Iran war cannot be heard in Babylon, where armies of the Persian emperor Cyrus once trod in triumph on their way to Jerusalem,” states the International Herald Tribune. “But the conflict is felt here.” Iraq’s attempts to restore the glory of ancient Babylon have been halted by the war. Now, visitors are ushered without a word through the reconstructed gate to gaze at the littered ruins that were once proud Babylon. The tour guides as well as the attendants who tidied up the area are gone—either to war or to care for more pressing matters in Baghdad, 55 miles (90 km) to the north.
● Breakdancing may be aptly named, considering the number of injuries resulting from the current fad. Doctors warn that it can easily push the body beyond its endurance and break bones, tear ligaments or cause more serious injuries. One 25-year-old man broke his neck after attempting a difficult stunt and was left a quadriplegic. Others have broken their arms while trying to support their body weight on one hand. Chiropractors also warn that it can cause severe spinal damage. Those who are out of shape or lack flexibility due to age are particularly prone to severe injury, say the doctors.
● Dishes that are not rinsed after being washed with detergent are suspected of being a potential health hazard. As reported in The Daily Telegraph, a research team at University College Hospital, London, experimented on rats and found that “the cells lining the stomach and intestines became damaged, ulcers developed and the walls of the gut thinned out and became transparent” when dilute detergent was added to their drinking water. While not sure that the small amounts of detergent left on dishes and food utensils would have the same effect on humans, the researchers warn of the possibility—particularly in regard to babies. They fear that unrinsed bottles could result in infants’ ingesting a dose that could well damage the immature gut.