Friday, 15 April 2011

Motherhood's silent scourge, Globe and Mail, 14.4.11

While governments ignor them 2.6 million babies and 400,000 women die annually. Since “the problem exists largely where there is rampant poverty, no education and poor housing”, there is a solution.

Poverty must be reduced. In the face of the human and economical costs of these deaths – to say nothing about environmental, emotional and spiritual costs – every political party should have plans to reduce poverty. Not pie in the sky plans – evidence based plans.

Some Poverty reduction steps:

1. Tough on Crime = Getting rid of crime.

While I feel like drawing and quartering a rapist or pulling a child killer apart slowly on the “rack”, I have to good sense to realize that these methods have been tried and do not decrease the occurrence of those crimes.

What does work?

While there will be sociopaths for whom there can be no trust and psychopaths who can never be safely medicated, the vast majority of rapists and killers perform their crime spontaneously, heedlessly and often under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The vast majority have mental health problems, have been abused themselves, and come from poor backgrounds. Studies of Canadian inmates indicates that almost half should be in a treatment facility, not a jail. Recidivism is more likely to occur amongst the unemployed and uneducated prisoners.

Sweden has been experimenting with entirely different jail incarceration - prisoners are sent to a facility which is a cross between a college, a spa and an army boot camp. Result? A recidivism rate of less than 15%!

Treatment instead of incarceration doesn't mean the the prisoner is in the community. The whole point of being a prisoner means that movement and activities are restricted.

Action: Decreasing recidivism – which means decreasing crime – should be the goal of the criminal justice system. Build more rehabilitation and educational programs for criminals.

2. Education:

Early childhood development programs, adult literacy programs, grade X equivalency, and college preparation courses are either underfunded or not funded at all. Most European countries fund post-secondary education. Canada increases tuition fees.

Does education make a difference to poverty? Of course it does.

Action: Increase investment in education at all levels.

3. Housing.

Government, municipal or reserve-funded houses always have slipshod construction, paper-thick interior walls and thin-skinned exterior walls. They are always drafty. Is “always” too strong a word? As an itinerant physician in Northern communities in Saskatchewan, and across the sub-Arctic, and having friends who live in subsidized housing, “always” is what I've seen.

It would marginally increase the cost and greatly increase the energy efficiency if skilled workers and experienced building contractors constructed quality housing which, in turn, would decrease the incidence of discomfort and disease. Decreasing disease and disability decreases health care costs. Decreasing disease and disability also increases the ability to attend school and get an education.

Action: Build better houses. Create a national housing plan.

4. Tax.

While we do need an entirely different economic system because this one is failing – has done so once and is back on the same trajectory – an intelligent step could be taken right now. The passing of a bill by the Canadian government to institute a “Tobin Tax”, a tax on the cash accrued by “flipping” currency, occurred on March 24, 1999 but was never enacted. This is a form of institutional gambling for which we all pay. Since the vast majority of Canadian citizens stand to benefit from this tax, there should be no problem ratifying the bill.

Action: Enact the Tobin tax. Increase the government's coffers!

5. Military.

The Canadian military is the most costly of all government programs, delivers the least benefit to the tax-payers and spends its money badly.

Most Canadians want a cadre of well-trained young people with good equipment who can respond international and national emergencies. Most Canadians also want peace-keepers and even the hawks are uncomfortable with the current schizophrenic military mandate. We have ample evidence that violent conflict resolution does not bring peace or stability. Besides loss of life, it is environmentally unsound and wastes an inordinate amount of petroleum producing a gargantuan carbon footprint.

What would a peace-keeping military look like?

The airforce would have pilots and planes and helicopters that can search, rescue and operate under extremely inclement conditions. It should have large transport planes for troops, equipment, housing and hospitals and highly maneuvrable transport helicopters capable also of carrying large numbers of people.

The navy would also have reinforced and stable ships for personel and equipment. It would have ice-breakers and should have aircraft carriers for search and rescue and surveillance planes and helicopters. It would have research submarines.

The army should be capable of digging a major city out from a blizzard, locating people during an ice storm and searching for children and others lost in wildernesses. Its personnel would be well-equipped with skills and discipline in mediation and nonviolent action. They should be physically fit, mentally stable, mobile, and probably young.

For all the armed services, a personnel plan should be developed so that replacement officers have trained for a peace keeping militia. A wide open communications network would end secrecy and promote timely informative dialogue among personel. Any new government-provided housing would be energy efficient. Health care for personnel and their families should be paramount. They should receive appropriate exit interviews, special access to educational opportunities after a specified length of service, and continued access to counseling and family services. Did I mention pension plan?

Action: Immediately start meeting the needs of the veterans and their families. Tackle the change from attack mode to life-saving mode one item at a time through spending choices. Increase the role of such trainers as those who teach in the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kingston and the many others who work in non-violent conflict action.

Will this Action Plan provide enough money for the programs that are needed to change rising poverty levels to decreasing poverty levels? By reversing the slide into poverty, the federal budget would reap the benefit of reduced crime rates, more jobs and more people to pay taxes. An ascending cycle of prosperity!

Final result: Less mothers dying in childbirth, less babies dying as newborns and a lower incidence of stillbirths. A happier world.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Galileo and Nuclear Power: fact and fiction

In 1610, Galileo Galilei joined Copernicus in describing the sun as centre of the solar system. By 1616, he was called to the Inquisition and was forced to recant. Fortunately for us, his denial did not change the facts.

Today the same situation exists between the nuclear industry and the facts of its radioactive legacy.

The nuclear industry insists that low levels of radiation are not harmful to human health. Physicians know better. And so does most of the public. Background natural radiation is dangerous – eg. radon in basements and cosmic rays from the sun.

The US National Research Council came to the conclusion in 2008, after five previous reports, that “current scientific evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that there is a linear, no-threshold dose-response relationship between exposure to ionizing radiation and the development of cancer in humans.(1)” In lay terms, this means that there is no dose that is completely safe, just different levels of risk.

There has been more than enough evidence linking radiation and effects on health.

In 1954, the US dropped a bomb on the Bikini Atoll irradiating some of the Marshall Islanders and more than 7000 square miles of Pacific ocean. The United States funded a Nuclear Claims Tribunal which recognizes thirty-six conditions for which citizens can be compensated. Most of the conditions are cancer but mental retardation is included(2).

In 1985, the UK government established the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) to respond to anecdotal reports of higher rates of childhood leukemia near the nuclear installation at Sellafield. The authors note a “serious excess of childhood cancer might be related to radioactive emissions from the nuclear facilities” but concluded that the emissions measured at the facilities were too small to explain this finding(3).

In 2008, the Germans concluded a study that provided compelling evidence of an unequivocal positive relationship between a child’s risk of leukemia, and residential proximity to a nuclear power plant. The authors state that these findings are compelling, that the elevated risk does indeed exist and that it is related to the nuclear facilities. Then they concluded that “the reason for the elevated risk is unexplained, as the levels of radioactive emissions from these facilities are considered too low to explain the increase in childhood leukemia”(4).

It should be noted that in neither the COMARE study nor the German study did the researchers claim that there was no connection between the power plants and the effect upon health.

Closer to home, the Port Hope Synopsis report by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission includes a study(5) which makes the following statements: “there was an excess of childhood cancer deaths”, "lung cancer mortality was of interest because of the increased incidence observed amongst women" and "increased mortality from circulatory disease, including ischaemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease and disease of arteries". None of the increases were statistically significant. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission states that there was no ill effects of the radioactivity in Port Hope. Researchers would conclude that “more research is needed”.

Where are the voices of physicians? In December 1998, International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War adopted a Swiss proposal in opposition to nuclear power(6). Their affiliates, Physicians for Global Survival (Canada), and Physicians for Social Responsibility (US) eventually followed. In 1982, reconfirmed in 2004, the Canadian Medical Association's position is that: “there is at present no conclusive evidence of a measurable increase, in the long or short term, of adverse effects due specifically to radiation in populations thus exposed”.

Just as the Church defended its long held belief that the sun circled the earth against scientific evidence, so the nuclear industry defends the myth that it is clean green and safe for human consumption. It's time for the CMA to reconsider. Or keep defending fiction.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Radiation exposure: comparing apples and oranges

No danger to health.....

The latest group to join the chorus reassuring the public that the amount of radiation reaching North America from Fukushima are aviation organizations. They claim that inincreased amount of radiation is no greater than the amount that a person would receive when flying across the continent! This is like comparing apples to oranges!

The average Canadian is regularly exposed to 1.7 to 3.0 mSv of radiation per year and mostly doesn't get cancer. However, some people do get cancer from "normal" exposure to radiation. Roughly 20% of lung cancer is caused by entirely natural exposure to radioactive radon and an estimated 20% of leukemias are from "normal" background radiation. Certainly almost everyone knows that increasing exposure to cosmic rays from the sun also increases the incidence of skin cancers. Still, the number of people who get cancer is low compared to the hundreds of thousands who don't.

Through studies done on airline pilots, there is evidence that the greater the number of air miles traveled, the greater the chances of developing cancer!

The difference, which is egregious, is that the traveler or the sunbather makes a choice to expose him- or herself to greater risks; his exposure doesn't affect his neighbour who doesn't travel or sunbathe. In the case of radioactivity released from a nuclear power plant accidentally or intentionally (as Pickering does regularly), the population has both no knowledge of the risk and no choice in the matter of exposure.

The other difference is that exposure to cosmic rays is limited to the actual time that the traveler is in the air. The effects may linger but the radiation does not. The radioactive particle of iodine, cesium or any of the 48 other potential emissions absorbed through eating or breathing is not limited to the moment of exposure. The particle is the "gift that keeps on giving" releasing radioactivity until all its atoms have decayed to their stable non-radioactive end product.

Certainly aviation organizations know the difference between apples and oranges! It is ingenious if not a little dishonest.