Economist: more borrowing a wrong way to go

Economists question the stimulus packageAs President Obama presses Congress to pass a nearly $900 billion stimulus plans, some experts question the fundamental elements of the package.

In particular, the plan for massive new borrowing to stimulate the faltering economy has raised one of the biggest objections on the right side of the economic debate

"President Barack Obama and top congressional democrats are leading the world toward a new global government debt bubble," writes J.D. Foster, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, who believes that this path will only push interest rates higher and the economy into an even deeper recession.

Instead, Foster advocates spending and tax cuts as well as a reduction in entitlements.

Adding nuance to this argument, Jeffrey A. Miron, a senior lecturer in economics at Harvard University, stresses steps such as expanding legal immigration and free trade, withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, and reducing bailouts as the surest way to boost productivity and stop the drain on resources.

In a commentary written for CNN.com, he stops short of calling for spending cuts, opting instead for "elimination of wasteful spending," including agricultural subsidies, ineffective weapons systems, or subsidies for Amtrak and the Post Office.

President Obama’s economic stimulus package contains provisions for multibillion dollar government investment in infrastructure, healthcare, IT technology, and environment.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, U.S. federal budget deficit will rise to a post-WWII record of $1.2 trillion in 2009.
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Soy consumption may reduce cancer risk

Eating more soy can have health benefitsScientists have discovered new health benefits from soyfood consumption in older women.

A group of researchers from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine believe that consumption of soy products may lower the risk of colorectal cancer in women between the ages of 40 and 70.

Specifically, they found that in the group of women they followed over an average of 6.4 years, those who consumed at least 10 grams of soy protein a day were 33 percent less likely to develop colorectal cancer than those who consumed less than that amount.

"Research this comprehensive demonstrates how important it is for baby boomer and older women to add soy to their daily diet," says Dr Lisa Kelly of the United Soybean Board. "[T]he study’s curly recommended serving is a simple and affordable nutritional step towards everyday wellness."

Soy is known for its nutritional value, containing high-quality protein, relatively little saturated fat and zero grams of trans fats. Soy protein may also lower blood cholesterol levels.

According to the National Cancer Institute, around 71,560 American women were diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2008.
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Toxic waste linked to cancer in Pennsylvania

Toxic waste is causing health problems in Pa.Environmental contaminants may be causing cancers in inhabitants of three counties in Eastern Pennsylvania.

Scientists from Mount Sinai School of Medicine have identified a cluster of a rare blood cancer, called polycythemia vera, in the Tamaqua area of Pennsylvania and have found a potential link between the disease and environmental pollution.

The researchers have confirmed that a large number of their patients live within close proximity to areas containing hazardous waste materials coming from waste-coal power plants and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites.

"The role of the environment in the origin of this blood cancer has not been previously documented," said Dr. Hoffman. "This study may prove that diagnosis of this cancer based solely on clinical criteria may be inaccurate."

He added that the frequency of this form of bone marrow cancer is likely to be specifically related to environmental factors.

This is not the first time toxic chemicals have been linked to serious health problems. In recent weeks scientists have announced research results suggesting that exposure to commonly used industrial chemicals can cause fertility problems in men and women.
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Gold and silver prices rise as investors look for safety

Gold can be a safe haven for investorsAfter a three day break, precious metals prices are on the upswing as investors ponder gloomy economic news and look for places to store value.

UBS financial strategist John Reade believes that the trend will continue this year as the financial crisis shows no signs of easing.

"We expect the precious metal will average at about $1,000 an ounce in 2009, a level we last saw in March last year. This compares with our old forecast of $700 an ounce," he told the Financial Times.

He also noted that this is happening despite a strengthening US dollar, decline in the price of crude oil, as well as falling inflation, which traditionally limit the increase in gold prices.

On Wednesday gold futures for April delivery rose $9.70 to $902.20 an ounce on the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange, while silver futures rose 17 cents to $12.48 an ounce.

Amid the global financial meltdown that dragged down the stock market over 30 percent in 2008, gold was one of the best performing assets gaining 5.5 percent in value over the previous year.
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Vitamin D benefits adolescent girls

Teenage girls need more vitamin DIt is widely known that vitamin D is crucial in early years of life for proper bone development, but a new study sheds light on benefits that come later in life as well.

The results – to be published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism – emphasize the link between vitamin D levels and muscle power in adolescent girls.

"We know [that] vitamin D deficiency can weaken the muscular and skeletal systems, but until now, little was known about the relationship of vitamin D with muscle power and force," says Dr Kate Ward of the University of Manchester in the UK, the lead author of the study.

She adds, "Our study found that vitamin D is positively related to muscle power, force, velocity and jump height in adolescent girls."

The researchers looked at physical performance of 99 girls in the 12 to 14-year-old age bracket and found that those with higher levels of vitamin D performed significantly better.

According to the Endocrine Society, vitamin D deficiency is common in the United States and has been linked to significant health problems, including higher risk of rickets in children and osteoporosis in adults.
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Daschle’s tax problems cast shadow on Obama’s agenda of change

Daschle withdrew from considerationThe withdrawal of President Obama’s choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services raises new questions about integrity among top figures in Washington politics.

Tom Daschle, who was widely expected to spearhead the new administration’s efforts to reform the broken healthcare system, was compelled to withdraw his candidacy after it was revealed that he had failed to pay more than $128,000 in taxes.

"It’s a really rocky start," Melanie Sloan, director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told USA Today. "He said this would be the most ethical administration ever, but to people outside the Beltway it looks like it was just words."

Daschle’s withdrawal was not the only high-profile controversy in Washington yesterday. Obama’s choice for chief White House performance officer Nancy Killefer was also forced to bow out when it was announced that she failed to pay taxes on domestic help.

And last week, Timothy Geithner was sworn in as the Secretary of the Treasury despite owing Uncle Sam some $30,000.

Ethical issues aside, some commentators are likely to see this as yet another reason why the hugely complicated tax code in America should be simplified.

Steve Forbes is among the most prominent proponents of a flat-tax system.
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Study: water pollution may affect fertility

Contaminants in the water may affect fertilityScientists believe that they have uncovered more evidence supporting the theory that declining male fertility is partially linked to the level of water contamination.

The study – conducted at Brunel University, the Universities of Exeter and Reading, and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in the UK – suggests that testosterone-blocking chemicals are increasingly present in British rivers, coming mainly from agricultural pesticides.

The scientists have determined that the chemicals are causing fertility problems in fish and are theorizing that the effects may also apply to humans.

Commenting on the outcome of the study, senior author professor Charles Tyler of the University of Exeter said that the hormonal disruption in fish comes from a wider range of the so-called anti-androgens which supports the theory of human-wildlife connection in this case.

He added, "There are likely to be many reasons behind the rise in male fertility problems in humans, but these findings could reveal one, previously unknown, factor."

These research findings mirror the results published by an American-Danish research group which has uncovered a possible link between high blood levels of PFCs – chemical compounds found in some household items – to lower levels of fertility in women.
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Rendition programs set to remain in place

Obama to maintain renditionAlthough President Obama has announced the closure of the Guantanamo Bay camp, it appears that the CIA will still be able to use special techniques in handling terrorist suspects.

The executive order signed by Obama last month does not ban the so called "extraordinary rendition" programs. However, the issue appears to be less controversial than it seems, according to numerous press reports.

They quote an anonymous Obama administration official as saying that the government needs some means "to go after the bad guys."

At the same time, officials are at pains to stress that the administration has created a task force to reexamine the practice, which has drawn fire from many quarters at home and abroad, to make sure that they do not result in detainees being tortured or having their human rights infringed upon.

Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch told the Chicago Tribune, "Under limited circumstances, there is a legitimate place" for these types of practices provided that there is a system in place to prevent abuses.

The extraordinary rendition practice, authorized by former President George W. Bush, includes provisions for detention and interrogation of terrorist suspects in third countries.

An investigation by the European Parliament, which strongly condemned the practice, found that the CIA had operated more than 1,200 flights in European airspace after 9/11.
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Chemicals used in household products linked to infertility

Commonly used products may contain harmful chemicalsResearchers have discovered a possible connection between chemical compounds commonly found in household products and lower fertility rates in women.

The compounds in question are called perifluorinated chemicals (PFCs), and scientists at UCLA who analyzed blood samples from 1,240 pregnant women found that those with higher levels of fluorine compounds had taken longer to conceive.

They also concluded that high exposure levels are common in developed countries.

"Animal studies have shown that these chemicals may have a variety of toxic effects on the liver, immune system and developmental and reproductive organs," lead researcher Chunyuan Fei said.

The researchers suspect that sperm quality may also be affected by exposure to PFCs, compounding the problem.

The study was conducted jointly between UCLA and the University of Aarhus in Denmark and is published online in the journal Human Reproduction.

PFCs have wide medical and non-medical application, and can be found in some anti-aging cosmetics as well as nail polish and dental floss.
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Obama calls FDA to task

Peanut butter is the latest food-related health scare botched by the FDAAdding his voice to the growing scandal surrounding a deadly salmonella outbreak, the president has criticized the Food and Drugs Administration for failing to do its job.

Barack Obama talked about the crisis involving tainted peanut butter during an NBC interview on Monday and was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "I think that the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to."

He also said he would order a "complete review" of the agency.

This will go some way towards meeting the demands of many consumer groups and industry associations who have been calling for its overhaul, according to the Washington Post.

"The FDA is supposed to be a watchdog for consumers, and for too long, this agency has been coming up short," Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union, told the AP.

Over the last few years, the authorities had to issue numerous food recalls including contaminated spinach, baby formula, and pet food.

The current salmonella outbreak which killed eight people and sickened more than 500 has resulted in hundreds of food items being recalled.

Officials traced the source of the outbreak to a Georgia peanut plant owned by Peanut Corp. of America.
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Group calls for release of government records

The ACLU would like secret memos to be releasedA major civil liberties organization has petitioned the Justice Department to release secret memos dating from the time of the Bush administration.

In a letter to the department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) requested the release of the memos that provided the legal basis for the former administration’s controversial national security decisions.

"Releasing the memos would allow the public to better understand the legal basis for the Bush administration’s national security policies; to better understand the role that the OLC played in developing, justifying, and advocating those policies," ACLU wrote in the latter.

The memos in which the organization is particularly interested relate to interrogation, detention, rendition, surveillance and other policies conducted under the banner of the "war on terror."

The letter goes on to say that releasing the documents would send a message to the American people and the world that the government is ready to "turn the page on an era in which the OLC served not as a source of objective legal advice but as a facilitator for the executive’s lawless conduct."

After taking office on January 20, President Obama moved to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and prohibit the use of torture, but his executive order did not explicitly ban the controversial practice known as "extraordinary rendition."
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Concerns raised over blood-thinning medication

Questions raised about PlavixA powerful anticoagulant’s record is being reviewed by the authorities after several studies questioned its effectiveness in some patients.

The Food and Drug Administration has asked Bristol Myers Squibb – the company which produces Plavix – to cooperate in conducting further studies to better understand the effects of genetic factors and other drugs, in particular the proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) commonly taken for heartburn, on the effectiveness of Plavix.

Cardiologist Dr Richard N. Fogoros writes in his Heart Disease Blog that studies have shown that patients with either of two particular risk factors who take Plavix appear to have a significantly higher risk of coronary artery thrombosis than those without the risk factors.

The factors include a genetic variant, which is fairly common in the American population, and the the use of PPIs to reduce stomach acid. The presence of either appears to reduce the effectiveness of the drug which may have fatal consequences in patients at risk of blood clots.

This is not the first time anti-coagulants face scrutiny. Late last year, scientists established a link between the use of wafarin and increased incidence of intracranial bleeding, in particular if combined with some common over-the-counter medications.
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Study explains why garlic is healthy

Garlic has many health benefitsCanadian researchers have uncovered new facts which give scientific explanation to what our grandmothers were already convinced of: garlic is good for you.

A team from Queen’s University in Ontario has explained how allicin – a powerful antioxidant which gives garlic is its unique aroma – actually works. What they found is that it is not allicin itself, but a product of its decomposition called sulfenic acid that reacts with and traps harmful chemicals known as free radicals.

"While garlic has been used as an herbal medicine for centuries and there are many garlic supplements on the market, until now there has been no convincing explanation as to why it is beneficial," says Queen’s chemistry professor Derek Pratt whose team conducted the research.

He adds, "I think we have taken the first step in uncovering a fundamental chemical mechanism which may explain garlic’s medicinal benefits."

Interestingly enough, related vegetables such as onions and shallots are also rich in allicin, but they do not have similarly beneficial effects. The researchers suspect that this is due to a slower rate of allicin decomposition which results in lower levels of sulfenic acid.

Garlic has been used for centuries as a trusted herbal medicine, and is commonly believed to fight high cholesterol and prevent cancer.

The study was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Innovation.
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Health advisory: omega-6 fatty acids help the heart

Omega-6 can be found in nutsA new study highlights the benefits of natural foods, while another finds link between processed meat and serious health risks.

Omega-6 fatty acids – which can be found in nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils – have a beneficial impact on the heart and should be a part of a healthy diet, according to a recent advisory from the American Heart Association.

According to the association, numerous studies have indicated that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fatty acids, of which omega-6 is one type, lowers the risk of heart disease by 24 percent.

That is because "[w]hen saturated fat in the diet is replaced by omega-6, the blood cholesterol levels go down," explains Dr. William Harris, director of the Metabolism and Nutrition Research Center at the University of South Dakota.

This seems to underscore the value of eating natural foods – such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats – as opposed to processed products. Reuters news agency has reported on a new study by researchers at Harvard which links the consumption of processed meats such as hot dogs to a greater risk of leukemia in children.

The human body does not have the capacity to produce omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, but they play a crucial role in heart and brain function and in normal growth and development, concludes the AHA advisory.

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Growing risk of deadly drug interactions among the elderly

Older people are at risk of suffering from drug interactionsDangers of an overmedicated society have been highlighted by a study which has found that middle-aged and elderly patients face an unprecedented risk of dangerous drug interactions.

Researchers from The University of Chicago found that among patients between 57 and 85 years of age, one in 25 people is at risk of harmful drug-drug interactions, while 91 percent take at least one prescription drug.

"In our study, men and women were equally likely to report a history of cardiovascular disease," said co-author Dr. Dima M. Qato of the University of Chicago.

The study, which was published in the December issue of the Journal of American Medical Association, drew attention to the fact that the elderly population is growing – so if measures are not taken to remedy the problem it is likely to get worse.

Around 50 percent of the drug-drug interactions identified involved potential bleeding problems. Most commonly, wafarin, a prescription anti-coagulant, was found to cause bleeding if combined with aspirin, which also interferes with clotting.

Other potentially deadly interactions included elevated potassium levels and muscle breakdown.

According to expert Dr. Clark Gillespie, although the FDA’s resources and funding have fallen behind, the fact that not all possible drug interactions are explored during clinical trials is due mainly to what he terms "a pressing medical and business environment."
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Government secrets available at a thrift store

A New Zealand man gained access to sensitive U.S. dataAfter a recent scathing report on federal agencies’ failure to comply with civil rights regulations, another story brings home the need for better oversight of sensitive data by the U.S. government.

A New Zealand man who bought an old MP3 player at an Oklahoma thrift store for $9 discovered that it contained 60 files with confidential military information including the names and personal details of American soldiers, according to New Zealand television reports.

"When you can identify American personnel, when you have their names, their home address, their cell phone numbers, you put people in a dangerous position," Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington was quoted as saying by CNN.

Pentagon officials contacted by the network admitted that they were aware of the situation, but declined to provide further comments.

This is hardly the first instance of government’s negligence in handling 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.

The story broke just days after 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.
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Gold prices volatile as economic reports show home values plunging

Gold is volatile in the current economyCommodity prices seesawed this week as a slew of economic reports depressed the markets and the U.S. government launched another initiative to promote economic recovery.

Gold prices hit $915 on Monday, the highest level in three months, before retreating later in the week as stocks rallied in the expectation of the House passing a new stimulus package.

The stormy week follows several major economic reports which suggest that the recession is deepening. Data from the S&P/Case-Shiller report for the 20 largest metropolitan areas show that in November U.S. house values fell by a precipitous 18.2 percent from a year earlier.

Meanwhile, job losses continued across the country, and the Conference Board reported a fall in its consumer confidence index to 37.7. In 1985, the index stood at 100.

Brian Bethune, chief U.S. financial economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts, told Reuters that "the adverse feedback loop from extremely tight credit conditions to reduced asset prices and … reductions in demand for labor services continued to spin at an alarming velocity in January."

Falling house prices not only destroy wealth, but they make banks even more reluctant to extend credit creating a vicious cycle of ever-reducing purchasing power.

The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed an $819 million stimulus package intended to restart the U.S. economy.
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BPA exposure higher than expected, linked to health problems

A chemical in plastic may enter the body through a variety of meansA new study draws attention to previously unknown health risks associated with a common plastics chemical.

Scientists from the University of Rochester Medical Center, writing in the journal Environmental Heath Perspectives, found that the half-life of bisphenol A (BPA) is longer than expected, and they suspect that exposure to the chemical may therefore take place via non-alimentary routes as well.

This challenges previously held beliefs that food is the main source of BPA, and that it is completely excreted from the body.

The researchers, led by Dr. Richard W. Stahlhut of the University of Rochester’s Environmental Health Sciences Center, theorize that additional BPA exposure may come from dust or tap water and that, moreover, it may accumulate in the fat tissue inside the body.

However, they caution that more research is needed to determine if that is indeed the case.

Last September, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported risks associated with exposure to BPA which include brain damage in fetuses and higher risk for heart disease and diabetes in adults.

BPA is a component of many plastics that are commonly used to manufacture a range of consumer products including baby bottles and food containers, but also water pipes.
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Merger to create a giant pharmaceutical company

Pfizer and Wyeth are set to mergeTwo major drug companies have announced plans to merge to create the world’s fourth largest enterprise.

Pfizer and Wyeth – the first and ninth biggest pharmaceutical companies by revenue, respectively- are to consolidate in a deal that could create the world’s fourth largest company after Exxon, Wal-Mart, and Procter&Gamble, the New York Times reports.

Experts stress that the deal may have as much to do with new research opportunities as with cost-cutting. "Pfizer and Wyeth combine sales forces and other operations, they will have a sleeker cost structure," Erik Gordon, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan told the NYT.

Still, the deal could transform Pfizer from a purely pharmaceutical company into a diversified healthcare giant on account of Wyeth’s huge portfolio of biotech drugs, vaccines, and consumer health products from Advil to Robitussin, according to the Associated Press.

Pfizer, with the largest revenue of any drug company worldwide, derives most of its sales from the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor. Statins such as Lipitor have been linked to a number of side effects, the most common of which are muscle problems.
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Studies: corn syrup, other foods contaminated with mercury

Some products with HFCS contains mercuryResearchers have discovered that U.S.-produced corn syrup contains high levels of a dangerous chemical element.

The study – conducted by a group led by a former FDA scientist Renee Dufault and published in the journal Environmental Health – found mercury in detectable quantities in nine of the 20 samples of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that it tested.

Dufault said that although she informed the FDA of her findings, the agency failed to respond.

Taking the cue from her work, another group looked at common foods and beverages containing corn syrup and found that many of them, including barbecue sauce, yogurt and chocolate syrup, contained detectable mercury levels.

"We are calling for immediate changes by industry and the FDA to help stop this avoidable mercury contamination of the food supply," said Dr David Wallinga, a food safety researcher at the nonprofit Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, who led the study.

In a statement, the Corn Refiners Association criticized the studies as inaccurate and "of dubious significance."

According to the Washington Post, Americans consume about 12 teaspoons of HFCS a day on average, but teens and other high consumers may take up to 80 percent more.

Exposure to mercury has been linked to brain damage in children.
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World celebrates Data Privacy Day

Data Privacy Day is January 28Events to educate consumers about data protection have been held to mark Data Privacy Day on January 28.

Online privacy breaches are a growing problem, and companies from My Space to Microsoft are racing to provide users with tips on safe management of online data.

Microsoft is hosting a forum at the San Francisco Public Library today which includes a panel discussion of online privacy among industry experts, advocates and policymakers, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

A popular business technology website itpro.com has compiled a list of five most important online security tips. They include using security software and installing updates to operating systems, but also limiting the amount of personal information that users make available on social networking sites.

There is also an increasing talk about data encryption for businesses. Jamie Cowper of PGP, an enterprise security company, told the website that "an enterprise-wide approach to security must be taken which focuses on defending the data, not simply protecting the network."

He also stressed the need for better business oversight of employee practices when it comes to dealing with private data. "Data is now the currency of the internet and organizational policies must reflect that," he said.

The Data Privacy Day comes shortly after a controversial decision by the White House to exempt You Tube from federal privacy rules which was later reversed.
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Top retirement funds lose $1 trillion

Retirement funds are still losing moneyA disturbing report from a leading money management newspaper suggests that U.S. pension funds have sustained heavy losses in 2008.

The survey by Pensions & Investments revealed that the loss of close to $1 trillion in the year ended September 2008 represented the worst decline of the 1,000 largest plans that it has tracked for 30 years.

The fourth quarter of 2008 made it even worse – based on P&I estimates assets fell another $754 billion, or 11.8 percent, to a cumulative loss of $1.7 trillion for the 15 months ended Dec. 31.

According to the newspaper’s editor Nancy K. Webman, this was largely due to collapsing returns from equity markets.

Kevin P. Quirk, founding partner and principal of industry researcher Casey Quirk & Associates, observed that the results may spell an end to the corporate defined-benefit plans.

Meanwhile, Watson Wyatt Worldwide reported that retirement assets of the 11 largest foreign pension markets fell 19 percent in 2008, wiping out some $5 trillion. The only country that was spared major losses was Germany, where funds are characterized by high bond allocations.
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Consumer group decries proposed sale of medical records

Concerns about privacy and medical records raisedConsumer Watchdog has raised a number of privacy concerns regarding how electronic medical records, when introduced, will be able to be used.

The group has sent a letter to Congress commenting on reported actions by Google to weaken the ban on the sale of these records, among other issues.

Google reportedly hopes to sell patients’ medical information to advertisers on its new health database, the watchdog claims.

According to Congressional Watchdog, Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri has also added an amendment to the House version of the bill that permits pharmacists to sell Americans’ health data without people’s permission.

The group also objects to an amendment allowing firms to sell data for research purposes, which it suggests could lead to pharmaceutical companies and insurers exploiting this information.

"First and foremost, electronic medical records should be designed to benefit patients, not the corporate interests lobbying hard on Capitol Hill to get a piece of the $20 billion in taxpayer subsidies provided for this project," the letter states.

President Obama has pledged to introduce electronic medical records to improve communication within the health system. However, many questions remain about how to best protect patients’ privacy.
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