Another government agency in breach of employee data

Sensitive personal information has been reported stolen from an FAA computerThe Federal Aviation Administration has announced that one of its computers was illegally accessed and employee identity information was stolen.

In total, there were 48 files on the breached computer server and two of them contained personal information about more than 45,000 FAA employees and retirees.

However, the server was not connected to the operation of the air traffic control system, and there is no indication any systems have been compromised.

According to the company statement, "The FAA is moving quickly to prevent any similar incidents and has identified immediate steps as well as longer-term measures to further protect personal information."

This is not the first time government has mishandled sensitive personal information. In 2006, a Department of Veterans Affairs’ subcontractor lost a computer with insurance claim data of patients at Pittsburgh and Philadelphia VA Medical Centers.

In a related development, a recent experiment demonstrated that RFID chips recommended by the Department of Homeland Security for use in new electronic passports are easy to break and download information from.
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Groups urge Obama to support mercury regulations

Will mercury emissions be regulated?Green groups from around the world have sent a message to the new administration that it should support international efforts to regulate mercury emissions.

During a meeting at the State Department last week, representatives of a coalition of 75 environmental groups promoting mercury reduction called on President Obama to back a binding treaty on mercury at the United Nations meeting this week in Nairobi, Kenya.

"We strongly recommend an approach that embraces cooperation and leadership, rather than the obstruction and inaction we have seen from the previous administration," says Michael Bender co-coordinator for the Zero Mercury Working Group.

He adds that "we urge President Obama to seize this opportunity for leadership and support an international agreement to control this dangerous pollutant."

In a letter signed by 90 U.S. and foreign-based groups activists stress that most countries are in favor of a legally binding international agreement that would control mercury emissions.

Such emissions come mainly from coal-fired power plants as well as practices such as the use of mercury in small scale gold mining.

The signatories include Physicians for Social Responsibility, American Nurses Association, Clean Water Action, Greenpeace and Health Care Without Harm as well as World Wildlife Fund – Guianas, the Basel Action Network, Friends of the Earth Malaysia, Indonesia Toxics-Free Network, and many others.

Exposure to mercury has been linked to brain damage in fetuses and small children and neurological disorders in adults.
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Maryland may ban food dyes

Some food dyes may be banned in MarylandState senators are debating a ban on artificial food coloring which some say is linked to attention deficit disorder in children.

Of the two bills under consideration by legislators in Maryland one would require warning labels on foods that contain Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, or Yellow 6 dyes and prohibit their use after 2012, according to Center for Science in Public Interest.

The other would outlaw dyed foods in Maryland schools.

"Evidence linking Red 40, Yellow 5, and other synthetic food dyes to behavioral problems in children has been mounting for 30 years," says David Schardt, CSPI’s senior nutritionist who testified in favor of the bills at the hearings.

He added, "The FDA should have banned the dyes years ago and responsible manufacturers could have stopped using them voluntarily." However, given their failure to do so, it is now incumbent on legislators to "protect children from these chemicals."

Meanwhile, food industry representatives, including Safeway, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, and the Maryland Restaurant Association, were in Annapolis last week to lobby senators to vote against the ban and disputed the studies that link food coloring to health problems.
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Advocacy group: Stimulus bill raises concerns about privacy

How safe is your medical info?An organization which monitors health policies and advocates the freedom of choice in healthcare has issued a statement criticizing the stimulus package for allowing space for privacy breaches.

According to the Washington-based Institute for Health Freedom, the final version of the economic stimulus bill permits personal health information to be exchanged and sold for research and public-health purposes without patient consent.

"Most Americans have no idea that the so-called HIPAA privacy rule doesn’t give patients the freedom to give or withhold consent before their personal health information can be shared with others for many purposes," says Sue Blevins, president of the Institute for Health Freedom.

She adds, "Digitizing people’s health records combined with allowing researchers and public-health officials to buy their data from doctors and health plans is going to pave the way for research on millions of Americans [without their explicit consent]."

The institute, whose statement is supported by Citizens’ Council on Health Care, is also critical of the plan to convert the health records of each American into an electronic version by 2014 without allowing an opt-out.

Last Friday, Congress passed the economic stimulus package worth $787 billion which includes $19 billion in spending on health IT as well as $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health.
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Fish oil substitutes may improve environmental health

Fish oil can come from sustainable sourcesA new study has suggested that reliance on fish oil replacements may help reduce the farmed fish industry’s dependence on resources from the wild.

Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential part of farmed fish feed and 90 percent of them are currently derived from natural fisheries, but researchers from the School of Life and Environmental Science at Deakin University in Australia claim that alternative lipid sources may reduce the environmental impact of the practice.

Dr Giovanni Turchini from Deakin University explains the paradox facing the fish farming industry by saying, "There is heavy emphasis for aquaculture to meet the global shortage of fish and seafood created by unsustainable fishing practices. However, dietary fish oil … required for the production of omega-3-rich farmed fish … is at present derived solely from wild fisheries."

According to the study, about 75 percent of dietary fish oil can be substituted with vegetable oils and animal fats without impacting the quality of the farmed product.

In addition to stemming the depletion of natural fish habitats, such replacement may also remove existing barriers to the industry’s expansion.
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Multivitamin study sparks controversy

A study has created debate about the benefits of vitaminsA non-profit organization dedicated to the natural products industry has disputed the results of a study measuring the efficacy of multivitamins in cancer prevention.

The criticized study – conducted by researchers from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center – suggested that long-term multivitamin use had no impact on the risk of common cancers, cardiovascular disease and general mortality in postmenopausal women.

However, the study failed to take into account important dietary factors, according to the Natural Products Association.

"While cohort and observational studies like these can be important, they in no way constitute convincing or conclusive evidence," says Dr Daniel Fabricant, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Natural Products Association.

He complains that the authors arbitrarily assigned categories to different supplement types. He also says they did not account for nutrient intake through the diet, failing to establish a baseline against which to make comparisons.

Fabricant further criticized the authors for being apparently unaware of how supplements are regulated and how the FDA authorizes health claims.

"To suggest that taking vitamins and minerals with a demonstrated health benefit is unnecessary sends the wrong public health message," he says.

Some 180 million Americans take dietary supplements to make up for inadequate diets and maintain and improve health.
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Study: Medicare fails seniors

Medicare may not work for some seniors, according to a studyIn what may be seen as more evidence of the American healthcare system’s failures, a newly released study has shown that some senior citizens are forced to forgo prescription medications due to high costs.

The study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health found that beneficiaries enrolled in Medicare’s Part D – a prescription drug plan which covers only up to $2,250 in related expenses creating the so called ‘doughnut hole’ – were much less likely to use prescription drugs than their peers enrolled in Medicare through their employers.

"Our findings raise concerns about whether people with chronic illnesses who lack doughnut hole coverage are able to effectively manage their conditions," says the study’s lead author Dr Yuting Zhang, assistant professor of health economics at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

He adds, "Without needed prescriptions, we could potentially see an increase in hospital and physician costs."

The authors suggest a policy change that would mandate the coverage of generic drugs beyond the $2,250 limit through a modest increase in initial prescription co-pays.

President Obama campaigned on the platform of reforming the healthcare system which has left some 40 million American’s without any health care coverage. The new stimulus package also contains provisions for $19 billion in spending on health IT.
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EWG calls for action against toxic chemicals

More action needed to protect Americans from chemicalsReacting to a recent slew of news about toxic compounds causing heath problems, a nonprofit organization has appealed to the government for more stringent regulations.

In recent months scientists from Europe and the United States have linked exposure to compounds such as perifluorinated chemicals (PFCs) and agricultural pesticides to infertility in both men and women, and the Environmental Working Group is taking the government to task.

Dr Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist with EWG says that these "alarming findings" reinforce the case for stricter regulation of harmful chemicals.

"Until we reform the nation’s chemical laws, we should expect to discover more and more links between chemical exposures and serious health conditions like infertility, childhood cancer, learning disabilities and asthma," she says.

The EWG is urging Congress to overhaul U.S. policy on man-made toxins by adopting policies that would place the burden on chemical companies to prove that their products are safe before they can sell them.

In recent months, scientists from Mount Sinai School of Medicine suggested that a cluster of a rare blood cancers diagnosed in several counties in northern Pennsylvania may be linked to hazardous waste materials coming from waste-coal power plants and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites.

EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that works to protect human health and the environment.
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Legumes may protect against mammary cancer

Legumes are full of antioxidantsScientists have observed that dry beans have a potential to reduce the risk of mammary cancer.

Scientists at Colorado State University analyzed the impact of the consumption of six different types of beans – small red, great northern, navy, black, dark red and white kidney beans – on the cancer history of laboratory animals in a standard preclinical model for breast cancer.

They found that cancer incidence in the group fed beans fell to 67 percent compared to 95 percent incidence in the control group. The average number of malignant tumors also fell from 3.2 in the control group to 1.4 tumors in the group fed beans.

The study was published in the January-February 2009 issue of the journal Crop Science.

This is yet another example of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle which includes legume consumption. Legumes such as beans, peas, lentils and peanuts are known to be high in antioxidants, which play a crucial role in the body’s defense against cancer-causing free radicals.
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Experiment raises questions about passport security

How secure is your passport?Despite government claims that electronic passports take security to a new level, a researcher has proven their protection mechanisms are easy to break.

Chris Paget has demonstrated that it is possible to remotely scan and download information from passports issued with a chip approved by the Department of Homeland Security, according to darkreading.com.

What’s more, he did so using a $250 scanner he had purchased on eBay and a simple antenna installed in his car.

"This is just simply the wrong technology," Paget told the website. "My goal is to inform people about the risks with these things and how much impact it could have on your personal privacy and security if you don’t keep [these IDs] in a protective wallet or if you carry it on your person."

These findings are bound to alarm electronic passport owners, and they provide additional evidence of the government’s lax oversight in the area of privacy protection.

Last month a USA Today report listed several federal agencies which failed to appoint civil liberties protection officers and report to Congress on the efforts to safeguards private citizens’ personal information, including passport and medical data.
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Supplements help dialysis patients

Supplements may help those with chronic kidney diseaseA new study sheds light on the role of dietary supplements in the treatment of patients with chronic kidney disease who require dialysis.

Advantages of CKD are often associated with malnutrition which manifests itself through hypoalbuminemia – abnormally low concentration of a protein called albumin in the blood.

The study, published by a group of Californian researchers in the Journal of Renal Nutrition, suggests that hypoalbuminemia is becoming more widespread among CKD patients and is strongly associated with poor prognosis.

Nutrition is key to counteracting this side effect of dialysis, and the researchers suggest that in patients for whom proper diet is not sufficient, oral nutritional supplements (ONS) can provide important benefits.

This study supports previous findings, such as those published in 2006 in the Journal of the American Association of Nephrology which found significant improvements in skeletal muscle protein balance in patients receiving ONS during dialysis.

According to the National Kidney Foundation, another often overlooked factor in managing CKD is physical exercise which has a number of beneficial effects and should be encouraged.
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Human rights groups call for access to Guantanamo

Groups question civil liberties policies of GuantanamoA coalition of human rights groups has written to President Obama to request access to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International USA, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch want full access to the detainees to review the conditions of confinement and make recommendations for revising U.S. policies.

"The Bush administration’s past policy of secrecy regarding detention conditions at Guantanamo makes it critically important for your administration to open Guantanamo to independent review as part of a new government policy of transparency," states the letter.

It goes on to say that if the new administration allows human rights experts access full access it will "set an example that will help advance human rights worldwide."

Just days after taking office last January, Obama signed an executive order to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year and to ban harsh interrogations techniques.

This is not the first attempt by human rights advocates to shed more light on some key decisions taken by the Bush administration.

In January, ACLU has petitioned the Justice Department to release the memos that provided the legal basis for the former administration’s controversial national security policies.

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Expert: alternative health should feature in healthcare reform

Experts are calling for CAM as part of healthcare reformPresident Obama came to power promising to reform the ailing healthcare system, and proponents of alternative medicine call on his administration to treat their industry on par with traditional medicine.

According to the editorial in the January issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine the reform should take into consideration treatments and therapies that rely on evidence-based methods of prevention, chiropractics, and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

Government policies should encourage a shift in health research budgets "away from the longstanding emphasis on single intervention therapeutics and toward multifactorial integrative and whole-systems approaches," writes Dr Daniel Redwood, associate professor at Cleveland Chiropractic College in Kansas City.

He adds, "There is no lack of scientific evidence for these approaches; what is lacking is a deep appreciation of their importance and the will to teach these to the patients who so desperately need them."

Redwood stresses the need to acknowledge that chiropractic services provide essential health benefits, and as such they should be covered by medical insurance and reimbursed.
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Stimulus bill’s privacy issues spark debate

Worries about privacy and electronic medical recordsThe stimulus plan’s health IT provisions include new regulations regarding privacy protection, but the debate about their merits is far from over.

Most of the patient privacy advocacy groups have welcomed the provisions as a step in the right direction, although some have pointed out that the proposed legislation does not resolve the issue of patient consent in the use of records.

However, it has emerged that pharmacy chains and health insurance trade associations are unhappy with stronger privacy regulations which they believe put an undue burden on their business model.

According to Government Health IT, the magazine of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) stated that the requirement to inform patient about disclosures of their electronic health records "is likely to have the unintended consequence of discouraging — rather than encouraging — the use of electronic health records."

And the National Association of Chain Drug Stores released a statement saying stronger privacy provisions will negatively impact the industry’s ability "to operate efficiently and freely communicate with patients about legitimate and beneficial treatment options."

The Senate version of the stimulus package passed yesterday and has to be reconciled with the House version before becoming law. It contains provisions for multibillion dollar government investment in infrastructure, healthcare, IT technology, and environment.
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SEC failed to act on tips about massive fraud

The SEC did not do enough to protect investorsAs the aftermath of the Bernie Madoff scandal reverberates throughout the economy, an analyst has testified that his warnings over the years were ignored by the government’s securities watchdog agency.

Harry Markopolos appeared before the House Financial Services subcommittee last week to detail the investigative work he and his colleagues launched when they started suspecting that the brokerage firm ran by Madoff was a scam. He talked about threats he received during the time and the fact that his efforts went ignored by the Securities and Exchange Commission for almost a decade.

Incredibly, Markopolos’ investigation relied solely on open source information. "Every bit of information we obtained was in the public domain. We never had any secret insider documents or smoking gun e-mails," he said, as quoted by US News and World Report.

He added, "What troubles us is that dozens of highly knowledgeable men and women also knew that [it] was a fraud and walked away silently, saying nothing and doing nothing."

On Monday, the SEC announced that its top enforcement official, Linda Thomsen, will resign.

Bernie Madoff, former chairman of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, was arrested on December 11 and charged with running a massive Ponzi scheme that wiped out some $50 billion dollars in wealth.
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FDA failed to warn about tainted cosmetics

A group says the FDA is not doing its partIn yet another example of serious oversight, advocacy groups have revealed that the health industry watchdog is failing to act on information about cosmetics containing lead.

Although Campaign for Safe Cosmetics signaled a year ago that 61 percent of lipsticks it had tested contained lead, and despite pressure from politicians and health advocates, FDA has thus far failed to issue a public warning or conduct its own study.

"The typical turnaround time in a laboratory for lead tests is 10 days. There’s no reason for FDA to sit on its lead-in-lipstick research for over a year," says Stacy Malkan of the CSC, a national coalition of health and environmental groups.

The coalition believes that the lead problem stretches beyond lipsticks and cites a recent announcement from the Canadian government that it had found lead in children’s face paint.

Health Canada, the equivalent of FDA, has designated several compounds found in cosmetics as toxic, a step towards their elimination. However, FDA "has no such toxic designation, does not conduct routine safety testing of personal care products, and does not publicly report information in a timely manner," according to the CSC statement.

These latest revelations follow recent criticism leveled at the agency by President Obama after a salmonella outbreak linked to tainted peanut butter killed eight people and sickened hundreds.
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Calcium supplements may prevent birth defects

Birth defects may be prevented by calcium supplementsCalcium supplements help menopausal women avoid osteoporosis, but a newly published paper shows that they have significant benefits in pregnant women as well.

In particular, calcium supplements reduce the level of lead in the bloodstream, according to American and Mexican scientists who conducted a study of 670 women during 2001-2003 who were given 1,200 mg dietary calcium supplementation and subsequently evaluated for lead levels.

The researchers, who published their results in the January issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, found that lead levels in those women fell by an average of 11 percent.

The mechanism behind the process relies on the fact that when calcium is released from the bones during pregnancy to support fetal development, lead is also released. By substituting bone calcium for calcium from supplements, women can reduce the level of lead in their blood, according to the journal.

The researchers concluded that calcium supplements are a low-risk, cost-effective means for lowering fetal lead exposure. This type of exposure is associated with low birth weight, lower intelligence scores, and neurological defects such as impaired motor and visual skills.
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Americans contemplate delaying retirement as meltdown wipes out savings

Savings are being swept awayAs the financial crisis shows no signs of easing, a new study has found that more Americans are planning to delay retirement for up to five years.

The study, released by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants shows that people are making adjustments to reflect the tough economic environment.

The financial planners survey by the CPA revealed that almost 35 percent of their clients who are approaching retirement age are postponing it now, a 3 percent increase from last year. Almost 90 percent of them planned to delay retirement for no more than five years.

AICPA vice president James Metzler added some nuance to these results saying that "70 is the new 65 … People are living longer and getting more satisfaction from working later in life."

However, "the market downturn has reduced wealth and CPA financial planners are seeing clients delay retirement plans as a result," he added.

Other findings which reveal recession-induced lifestyle changes suggest that 60 percent of the clients are postponing holidays, 52 percent are putting off car and/or home purchases, and 42 percent have cancelled home renovations. Only 11 percent have not changed their spending plans.

The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that the unemployment rate rose to 7.6 percent in February. Government sources also say that the economy contracted at an annual rate of 3.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008.
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Obama’s health records plans still raise privacy questions

Some people are wary of putting medical records on the internetPresident Obama campaigned on the platform of healthcare reform, but his plans to computerize medical records are facing opposition from some privacy advocates.

According to a 2006 survey by the Markle Foundation the majority of Americans saw electronic health records as a way to reduce medical mistakes and costs. However, 80 percent of them expressed concerns about identity fraud and the possibility of their data being used by marketers.

The debate has now returned as Obama is pressing Congress to pass his stimulus package that would provide funding for a project to computerize the medical files at hospitals and doctors’ offices across the country.

In January, the ACLU expressed support for the privacy provisions included in the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health act, part of the stimulus package bill that was passed by the House of Representatives. However, the organization expressed concerns about the possibility of weakening amendments as the bill moves through Congress.

"Without the privacy provisions proposed in the HITECH Act, Americans will fear justifiably that their most private, personally identifiable information concerning their medical histories and conditions will be available to prying eyes," concludes the ACLU statement.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, the legislation does not resolve the issue of patient consent in the use of records. Currently, patient information can be shared without consent when it comes to treatment, payment, and "healthcare operations" – a term that can include marketing.

As the debate continues, the Senate is expected to pass the stimulus package this week. It contains provisions for multibillion dollar government investment in infrastructure, healthcare, IT technology, and environment.
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Scientists: HRT use related to breast cancer

HRT has been linked to cancerA large study has found a drop in breast cancer cases after a reduction in the use of certain types of hormone replacement therapy.

HRT is sometimes prescribed to women battling symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes and psychological problems, but scientists at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center now believe that it may expose patients to a higher risk of breast cancer and heart disease.

In particular they flag up combination therapy which uses both estrogen and progestin in one pill as causing an elevated level of risk if used for more than two years, based on their analysis of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s randomized clinical trial.

"A woman who continues combined hormone therapy [for] about five years would double her personal annual risk of breast cancer," Dr Marcia Stefanick, a professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine and a co-author of the analysis, was quoted as saying by healthday.com.

The risk decreased rapidly when the women stopped taking the pills.

In 2002, the NHLBI stopped the trial of estrogen plus progestin therapy when researchers noticed a rise in breast cancer, heart disease, stroke, and pulmonary embolism cases.
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Taking fishiness out of fish oil supplements

How to make supplements less fishyWhile the benefits of fish oil are well known, many people object to the often unpleasant taste of related supplements. Thankfully, a health newsletter has some tips that may help remedy the problem.

The February issue of the Mayo Clinic Health Letter list simple ways to eliminate the fishy aftertaste of supplements, including swallowing frozen capsules or taking them before meals, neither of which will reduce their efficacy.

Alternatively, the publication advises consumers to look for supplements with coated tablets or buy pure omega-3 fatty acid products.

Scientists consider fish oil to be part of a heart-healthy diet, and it is frequently prescribed to people with cardiovascular problems and those suffering from high cholesterol. It is also believed to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Moreover, a study published in Biological Psychiatry suggests that fish oil intake is associated with lower rates of depression and suicide.

Mayo Clinic Health Letter is an 8-page monthly newsletter of accurate and practical information on today’s health and medical news.
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