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A New Stones Age

The EPA acknowledges, finally, that climate change will have public-health implications, increasing the incidence of heart disease, allergies, asthma, tropical diseases and ... kidney stones.
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The climate change debate has inspired its share of medical metaphors, with numerous headline writers suggesting the planet has a fever. But as temperatures rise, evidence is mounting that our own health is at risk (see “Climate Change and Public Health”). At a scientific conference in February, researchers warned that the expected effects of global warming — including increasingly severe droughts, storms and heat waves — will create significant public-health challenges, including the probable spread of tropical diseases into formerly temperate locations.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has been notably reluctant to address this politically charged issue, finally broke its silence in July, issuing a surprisingly blunt report that anticipates “substantial human health impacts” as global temperatures rise. The paper predicts more powerful hurricanes and increasingly scarce supplies of fresh water, particularly in the western United States. It adds that severe summer hot spells will “very likely” lead to an increase in heat-related deaths, with the poor and the elderly likely to suffer the most.

A few weeks later, Health Canada issued a similar warning, suggesting that climate change “is expected to increase a broad range of risks to the health of Canadians.” That report lists numerous causes for concern, including the spread of infectious diseases as the insects and rodents who carry them migrate to newly hospitable habitats. In urban areas, increased heat will mean more smog, aggravating pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, allergies and asthma.

One painful prediction really hits below the belt: University of Texas researchers have issued a report predicting a steady rise in the number of Americans suffering from kidney stones. This condition is primarily due to dehydration; the number of cases is directly related to the warmth of the climate. As of 2000, 40 percent of Americans lived in the “kidney stone belt,” a zone in the Southern states where residents are considered at high risk for the ailment. The researchers estimate that zone will continue to move north, to the point where 70 percent of the population is at high risk by the end of the century.

Adopting a New Policy

It may be the rage among the celebrity class, but adopting children overseas is a problematic path to parenthood (see “International Adoptions Struggle for Hollywood Endings”). Often, children put up for adoptions live in orphanages, but that is no guarantee they are, in fact, orphans. In a number of impoverished countries, working parents who are unable to care for their kids use such facilities as low-cost boarding schools. Some consent to international adoptions, while others learn to their horror that their child has a new set of parents on the other side of the world.

In December, the U.S. joined 70 other nations in ratifying the Hague Convention on Protection of Children, a set of regulations intended to curb unethical adoption practices. But several nations where child placement is big business have yet to sign on, which effectively means adoption proceedings between those countries and the U.S. that were not initiated by April 1 have been frozen. Based on reports from two of the nations, Guatemala and Vietnam, the timeout is more than warranted.

This spring, the American embassy in Vietnam released a report alleging pervasive corruption and baby selling in that Southeast Asian nation. The Hanoi government heatedly denied the allegations and broke off talks to renew a bilateral set of adoption guidelines. There is, however, some indication officials have begun to take the problem seriously: In July, police arrested the heads of two health centers who allegedly forged birth certificates to facilitate overseas adoptions.

In Guatemala, another country with a history of adoption-related corruption, DNA tests indicated a baby about to be adopted by an American couple in July had been kidnapped from her mother 14 months earlier. Experts have long suspected that some of the nearly 5,000 Guatemalan children adopted by Americans each year were stolen and sold to so-called “baby brokers,” but this was the first kidnapped child positively identified by the nation’s new, mandatory DNA testing.

Does this mean the system is working? Not really. According to The Associated Press, the girl’s papers were all in order — including her DNA test results, which were apparently forged. The child would be in the U.S. today had not her mother, Ana Escobar, diligently pursued the case, finding a photo of her daughter in the National Adoption Council offices and convincing officials to order new DNA testing. Authorities promise to investigate everyone involved, but with big money at stake — overseas parents pay up to $30,000 to adopt a Guatemalan child — the potential for corruption remains.

The New GI Bill

With as many as 40 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans reportedly suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, there is widespread agreement regarding the importance of providing them with timely treatment. (See “The VA Brush-Off.”) But Daniel Luchins, chief of mental health research at Chicago’s Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, believes vocational training or educational benefits may be just as important to troubled vets as a psychologist’s care (see “Doctor: Vets Need More Basic Training”). His belief is backed up by a Vietnam vets study that showed PTSD rates double among those who are unemployed, have low incomes and/or lack a high school diploma.

A new bipartisan GI Bill, conceived by Democratic Sen. Jim Webb and signed by President Bush on June 30, should help. It provides a wide range of educational benefits to those who have served on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001 (including those in the National Guard and Reserve). Benefits vary according to one’s length of service, but they can be claimed for up to 15 years and can be applied to anything from technical or vocational training to a doctoral degree.

Meanwhile, four major business schools have joined forces to assist a specific subset of former members of the military. The Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities, founded at Syracuse University in 2007, expanded this summer to include Texas A&M University, Florida State University and the University of California, Los Angeles. The standardized curriculum at each school consists of three components: a self-study period in which veterans complete courses online; a nine-day “bootcamp” where participants learn the basics of business ownership; and a year of ongoing support and mentorship by faculty members. Funded by private sponsors, the program is free to participating vets, but one can only wonder what kind of chants may emerge from this “bootcamp.”

“I don’t know but I’m told it’s so/Gotta keep watch on your cash flow,” perhaps?

New Civics: Not a Small Automobile

To many young Americans, the phrase “Civics Class” conjures up images of a driver-training course with an emphasis on small Hondas. Ted Gup, a journalism professor at Case Western Reserve University, reports his students are increasingly ignorant about government and politics and suggests one solution might be putting current events back into the curriculum (see “More Information and Less Knowledge Than Ever”).

Gup’s concept has some significant support down South. In March, the Graham Center for Public Service opened at the University of Florida. Conceived and founded by Bob Graham, a former Florida governor and U.S. senator, the center’s mandate is to fight apathy among young Americans and get them involved in the political process. Officials will work with colleges, universities and school districts to enhance student knowledge of the U.S. government system and encourage engagement.

Clearly, there is no time to waste. When Graham and former Republican Congressman Lou Frey announced their plans last year, they cited some scary statistics, including the inability of more than 40 percent of Floridians to identify the three branches of government.

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