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Science & Medicine

Farm women risk asthma from pesticides

Washington -- A U.S. study suggests that farm women who have contact with some commonly known pesticides have a greater risk than others of allergic asthma.

Researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences assessed pesticide and other occupational exposures as risk factors for adult-onset asthma in more than 25,000 farm women in North Carolina and Iowa.

They found an average increase of 50 percent in the prevalence of allergic asthma in all farm women who applied or mixed pesticides.

Some rarely used compounds such as parathion were associated with almost a three-fold increase in allergic asthma. But even some commonly used pesticides, such as Malathion, were associated with a marked increase in allergic asthma prevalence, the American Thoracic Society said Friday in a release.

Hollywood squirrels get birth control

Hollywood -- Forget killing pesky pests -- Hollywood's feeding birth control kibble to its pigeons.

The program is one of a number of experiments in giving contraceptives to nuisance animal populations including deer, squirrels and pigeons, which may carry disease, damage farmland or compete with native species for food, the Los Angeles Times said.

Some 300 Hollywood pigeons are eating OvoControl P in pill-shaped kibbles in a pilot program that hopes to half the city's pigeon population by 2012, the Times said.

Trials for such birth control programs have been supported by animal-advocacy groups including the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

NASA to modify shuttle fuel sensors

Houston -- U.S. space officials said they will modify a fuel sensor system on the space shuttle Atlantis to correct false readings.

Problems with the fuel sensor system postponed planned launches on Dec. 6 and Dec. 9, NASA said Thursday in a release.

The agency said testing and analysis indicate that false readings from the engine cutoff sensor system occur in a three part feed-through connector that passes electric signals from sensors in the external fuel tank to shuttle electronics outside the tank.

Technicians will remove portions of the connector and redesign the interface by soldering the pins to sockets at the external-to-feed-through side of the connector prior to installing the replacement into the external tank.

Philippines work to save giant clams

BATANGAS CITY, Philippines -- A new effort is under way in the Philippines to stem the declining population of the world's largest clams, called taklobos.

A "clam garden" was built about 250 feet off the shore of Pico de Loro Cove in Batangas to provide new habitat for the giant clams, which can reach five feet in diameter and weigh up to 570 pounds, The Manila Times reported Thursday. The reseeding was accomplished using clams brought from Bolinao, Pangasinian, the newspaper said.

The conservation project is a joint effort of the Hamilo Coast, SM Investments Corp. and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

The clams, Tridacna gigas, have been in steady decline in recent years because of over-harvesting for food and for the pet and curio trade, the newspaper said.

Shock therapy has its supporters

New York -- New York state officials trying to distance themselves from a school using shock therapy on its students are now facing criticism from parents.

Last year New York was ready to ban the use of electric shocks as a punishment for bad behavior, despite sending students they could not handle to the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, southwest of Boston, which uses "aversive therapy" practices, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

"I understand people who don't know about it think it is cruel," said Susan Handon of New York, whose 20-year-old daughter, Crystal, has been at Rotenberg for four years. "But she is not permanently scarred and she has really learned that certain behaviors, like running up and hitting people in the face, are not acceptable."

High cost of nuclear medicine weighed

New York -- U.S. advances in the use of nuclear accelerators to fight cancer are being tempered by concerns about the high cost of such equipment with uncertain benefits.

Scientists say the particle accelerators target cancer cells more accurately than X-rays, The New York Times reported Tuesday. But some experts say the rush to newer, more expensive technology -- which can cost more than $100 million a pop -- is what is pushing the high cost of healthcare in the United States, the Times said.

"I'm fascinated and horrified by the way it's developing," said Anthony L. Zietman, a radiation oncologist at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital, which operates a proton center. "This is the dark side of American medicine."

Proponents say the accelerators will ultimately mean better treatment for cancer patients. More than 800,000 Americans undergo radiation therapy each year.

Mine risk, benefits debated in Alaska bush

Anchorage, Alaska -- Alaska residents are weighing the risks of heavy-metal pollution against the financial benefits of a proposed gold mine on a major salmon river.

The debate over the Pebble Mine has boiled down to convincing the relatively few residents of the area the mine would be either an economic boom for them or a potential environmental disaster.

The Washington Post said Tuesday while the mine operators assure residents the operation can be carried out safely, opponents say the fact that gold mining also produces the heavy metal copper is a serious risk since small amounts of copper can cripple salmon fisheries.

The newspaper said that the native population in the area is still somewhat divided over whether or not the risk to their traditional way of life is worth the economic benefits the mine would bring.

Study: Fever may ease autism for a while

Baltimore-- Anecdotes about fevers triggering "normal" behavior in autistic children now have a scientific study to back them, researchers in Baltimore report.

Dr. Andrew W. Zimmerman, a pediatric neurologist, and colleagues found fever-induced improvements, although fleeting, did occur in more than 80 percent of the 30 autistic children they studied, the Baltimore Sun reported Monday.

The scientists said they didn't know what sparked the changes or why they occurred in some children and not others. But they said the observations provide new insight into what is occurring in an autistic child's brain and how it may be treated one day.

"If we could understand what's going on with this, we might be able to understand autism better and be in a better position to treat it," said Zimmerman, director of medical research at Kennedy Krieger's Center for Autism and Related Disorders.

Study: Amino acid helps in copper binding

Evanston, Ill -- An amino acid has a huge role in the binding of copper, an essential metal for life, a study by U.S. university researchers showed.

Because copper is dangerous on its own and could damage cells, it must be "chaperoned," which is where the amino acid tryptophan comes in, said scientists from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., in the online version of Nature Chemical Biology.

Thomas O'Halloran and his team examined a copper-trafficking protein called CusF, finding that a tryptophan from the protein and its interaction with copper is critical for copper binding.

Tryptophan residues have been known to interact with positively charged ions, such as sodium or potassium, the researchers said. Their results revealed that proteins can use these to delicately help transport copper around cells.

Sunk swampland recovering post-Katrina

NEW ORLEANS -- Many of the hundreds of acres of swampland destroyed by Hurricane Katrina will take decades to recover, and some may never be the same.

In the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area south of U.S. 90, the hurricane passed through swampland, destroying vegetation and carving out a 200-acre depression that now, filled with water, has unofficially been dubbed Lake Katrina, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports.

Invasive water hyacinths, which now carpet the lake, prevent native species from returning by covering the water's surface, depriving all life below of sunlight and oxygen, the newspaper said.

At Big Branch, a 15,000-acre federal preserve, about 2,400 acres of former marshland are now under standing water.

And at the White Kitchen Preserve, where the storm carved a 60-acre lake out of swampland, officials are also fighting a losing battle with water hyacinths and other invasive species.