Monday, March 28, 2011

The Medicine Worked Fine, Until His Jaw Came Off

Eben Byers, a 49-year-old wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist, was looking to ease the chronic pain he was having in his arm. The year was 1927, and Eben was advised by his doctor to try a powerful new drug to cure his pain: Radithor. He became hooked. It appeared to not only heal his pain, but seemingly rekindled his sexual vitality.

It was two and a half years after regular use of Radithor, when Eben began complaining of chronic headaches and weight loss. Shortly thereafter, his teeth fell out, holes formed in his skull, and his mouth literally collapsed. Covering Eben's case, an article in the Wall Street Journal ran the headline: "The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off."

Radithor, as its name implies, was radioactive; water containing Radium and Mesothorium. This 'miracle cure' was marketed by the notorious quack and confidence man William Bailey, whose very own Radium Laboratories sold half ounce bottles of "certified radioactive water." In two years of use, Eben had gone through 1,400 bottles, sometimes drinking as many as 3 bottles a day. Unfortunately for him, unlike many other quack treatments of the day, Radithor did actually contain considerable amounts of Radium, its active ingredient. Eben was slowly turning his body into a fleshy pile of radioactive waste.

Eben was not alone in partaking this poison. The radium craze broke out in the early 1900s, and was promoted as a miracle cure for everything from acne to impotence. It's value as a placebo was likely amplified by the fact that it was the only "medicine" that glowed in the dark; a special pizazz that no doubt captivated people and made it easy to believe the miraculous claims. For three decades, doctors and the public alike heralded the seemingly endless health benefits of consuming radioactive water.

Of course, we now know that radioactive materials are quite harmful to human health. That ominous glow-in-the-dark quality means a slow and painful destruction of the cells in your body, not a miracle cure.

Radithor was on the market for over a decade, making William Bailey very rich, before it was removed from the market in 1931. By then, more than half a million bottles had made their way into the hands of consumers around the world. How is it that something so utterly wrong can gain such widespread acceptance?

A century later, there are still plenty of lessons we can learn from this debacle, and Eben's tale provides a cautionary warning that is every bit as pertinent today. We may have figured out the health risks of radioactive water, yet in modern times, our science journals continue to be filled with warnings about how our tendency to leap before looking could be jeopardizing our health, as well as our planet. As a society, we're still just as prone towards quick fixes for what ails us; which usually turn out to be rash judgments that haven't been thought through. We're just as prone to being misled in the name of profit, as recent economic events should make clear. We still have a tendency for sacrificing the welfare of tomorrow for the exploits of today, with little regard for how it may come back to haunt us.

The lesson in all this is one of sensible precaution. With drug companies rushing out new "cures" as fast as they can get approval for them, and studies raising serious questions about the effectiveness of these drugs or even revealing many of them to be deadly after-the-fact, consumers need to understand that not all that glitters in the dark is gold. Especially when it comes to medicating our children, a sense of healthy skepticism is well in order.

The other lesson: just because a practice doesn't seem to seriously harm us in the moment (pollution, greenhouse gases, deforestation, etc.), that doesn't mean its harmless. Most importantly, never take at face value what the man selling radioactive waste has to tell you.

What is today's radium water? What are we doing today that future generations will consider utterly insane? Only time will tell. The important thing is that we stay vigilant in continually asking this question. Because there's little optimism to believe that we aren't capable of repeating similar mistakes.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Rear Facing Car Seats: New Guidelines for Kids Two and Under

The American Academy of Pediatrics just released updated recommendations about the use of rear facing car seats. It is now suggested that parents put children in rear facing car seats until age two (Or even longer if the child is small) as opposed to the current recommendation that they ride in such seats until age one.

The reason for this change is that rear facing car seats distribute the force of an accident more evenly across a child's body, preventing head, neck and spine injuries in frontal crashes, which comprise the bulk of all accidents. The AAP policy statement sites research which has shown that children under two are 75% less likely to be severely injured in a crash if they're in rear facing car seats.

Most convertible car seats on the market can accommodate a two year old up to 35 pounds, so you don't necessarily need to buy a new car seat. The biggest fuss may come from your toddler, who may whine about having to turn around.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

When Firefighters Go Bump in the Night

Imagine your child alone and on their own in a haunted house. Not the tame, kidsy kind with paper streamers, fake spider webs, and a tub of spaghetti that is supposed to be intestines. I mean the real, actually scary commercial kind that prop up in abandoned malls each year around Halloween. It's dark. They can barely see their hands if they hold them up in front of their face. They're disoriented. They're scared. Terrified, would be more accurate. Nerves are running wild. Then, out of nowhere, a monster emerges from the void, frightening them to wits end. Do you have that mental picture in mind? Good. Now tell me, do they: A) Cower in the corner, B) Run and hide, or C) Extend their arms and grasp for the monster?

This may sound like an absurd mental image to bring to mind, yet this is precisely the type of scenario many children find themselves in during a house fire. They are often alone. It's pitch black from both the darkness of the night and the thickness of the smoke. They can hardly see a foot in front of their face. They're groggy from their sleep and generally disoriented, not knowing exactly what's going on. Then suddenly, a figure emerges into the room. It is carrying an axe, looks like a space monster, and is breathing like Darth Vader. If you're an already frightened young child, what would you do with this sensory input? Unless you've been prepared ahead of time, there's a decent chance you might withdraw in fear. Because of this, during a house fire many children will hide from the one person who is there to save them.

A full-suited firefighter can look scary to a young child. Throw in the fear and anxiety that comes with being caught in a genuine house fire, and this tendency towards a fearful response can be even worse. Which is why it's important that parents and teachers do all they can to alleviate this potentially deadly fear.

There are several different ways to do this. One of the most effective methods is in person. Children need to see a firefighter dressed in full uniform amidst a safe setting, and most local fire stations are happy to oblige. They often host field trips for local schoolchildren, and sometimes will set aside certain dates for safety education. (Contact your local station to ask about safety education programs or to see if you and your children can tag along on the next school-group presentation they conduct.) These presentations will include an explanation of all the different apparatus that firefighters wear when fighting a fire. Step by step, they'll dress up a firefighter (or another caregiver that the children know) with all the gear, so that kids become comfortable with the knowledge that inside all of that protective cover is a normal person who wants to help.

A second method, and just as important for ensuring the message sinks in, is to expose your kids to firefighters through books and other resources. You can find a free printable discussion picture of a firefighter dressed in full uniform on our website at The same site also has an assortment of books and coloring sheets on firefighters and fire safety, all available for free online and in a printable format. Your local library is another great source for books and videos on fire safety.

Finally, talk with your kids. Acknowledge that firefighters can look a little scary when all dressed up. But explain that underneath that suit--which is there to protect them from the fire--is a nice person who wants to rescue you and bring you to safety where you can reunite with morn and dad. Explain that this suit represents a ticket to safety and a way to reunite with their parents. So no matter how scary it might be, they should go to them, not hide from them. Use this opportunity to discuss any other particular concerns your child might have.

If your child is the type of kid who hates it when people put on masks or costumes and is unsure about things even when they are shown the person underneath, you'll want to work extra on this topic. It may seem like a remote threat, but keep in mind that with around 600 to 900 child fire deaths each year, letting a fear of firefighters go unchecked is far more likely to kill your child than any sex-offenders living in the neighborhood.

With a little bit of time devoted to this and other fire safety issues, your child can be protected from one of the most prominent dangers out there. Plus, if done correctly, this is one of those safety topics that can be a lot of fun to learn about. After all, what kid doesn't like big shiny trucks and cool space-man looking suits? Let's just make sure they know the kind, helpful person that resides inside that suit.

For more information on child safety in a fire visit

Friday, March 11, 2011

Missing Links in the Search for Causes to Autism

In the field of child developmental disorders, autism is the current hottest topic. Partly because of the recent debate about vaccines causing autism (they don't), and partly because its become the new ADHD; with diagnosis rates rising faster than the U.S. National debt. It can also be expensive, requiring special schooling or behavioral therapy, and taking a toll on both children and their families. This combination of public exposure and rising rates of diagnosis has left researchers scrambling to find autism's causes and, hopefully, cures.

Scientists and doctors have always suspected that biological or genetic factors might play a role, and past research has managed to turn up a few clues about genetic factors. Now a new study adds more evidence to the genetic-autism argument, by pinpointing errors in the way a child's DNA is coded that may lead to the disorder.

When our genomes are copied, it isn't a perfect process. In fact, nobody's genome is ever replicated perfectly. Sometimes we end up with deletions in certain areas, other times we end up with duplicate copies of a portion of the genome, and in other cases we inherit areas where the coding may be scrambled. These random mutations can alter our genetic expression, for better or worse, if they happen to hit along a section of the genome that is important for development.

Most of the time, such random mutations are benign. In fact, a great deal of the human genome is obsolete, encoding for things that are no longer active in human development. Sort of like your garage, the human genome is full of junk that's been collected over the years but is no longer used or needed. For example, some human beings are born with remnants of a tail, because a random copying error happens to "turn on" an area of the genome that encodes for such backside appendages--which have long since been abandoned from our lineage.

These gene alterations, known as copy number variants, have also been linked to conditions such as schizophrenia or other diseases. Previous research has also revealed that those with autism may have slightly more copy number variants than normal people. The current study uncovered no more such variants in autistic people than in non-autistic people, but discovered them in key areas among some in the autistic group. The researchers analyzed the genetic makeup of 996 people with autism and 1,287 without. More than 5,000 copy number variants were found in those with autism, usually cases in which portions of DNA were missing. Many people with autism had areas where large chunks of DNA was missing.

You and I likely have just as many errors or deletions in our genome, but since they don't hit important genes that code for the development of things important to language or social interaction, we don't develop autism.

By themselves, each specific variant was fairly rare, with even the most common one occurring in no more than 1% of the people in the study. Each person analyzed seemed to have a distinct set of genetic variations, suggesting that every person may have their own genetically unique version of the disorder. Though varied in nature, the affected genes all tended to influence similar biological processes: particularly those involved with brain development and functioning.

In some cases, the deleted genes had a strong link to autism: just a single copy error was enough to push a person over the autism threshold. Others had to be inherited together along with other copy number variants in order for autism to develop. One gene with an especially strong link to autism was DDX53-PTCHD1, which is located on the X chromosome. Some women naturally carry a deletion of this gene on one of their X chromosomes. This doesn't doom their children to autism, because such women will almost always carry a healthy version of the gene on the other X chromosome, so the child inherits a healthy copy. But if a random coding error occurs, deleting this area of the healthy gene, the child is left with no healthy copies to draw from and will develop autism.

The group was also able to identify several previously unknown areas of the genome that seem to be involved in the formation of connections between brain cells. All together, 25 places were identified in the present study that may be linked to autism. The hopes are that this information might be used for earlier diagnosis, or down the road, possibly even to treat the condition through some type of gene therapy. Yet such things are still a ways off. Scientists need to better understand how all these factors work together to cause the disorder before any definitive diagnostic tests or gene therapies come about.

Lest you believe that the source of autism has now been explained, think again. Even with these newly discovered genetic markers, scientists are still only able to pinpoint genetic causes in about 10% of autism cases overall. "What causes the other 90% of the cases is still on the table," says geneticist Steve McCarroll of Harvard Medical School, in an interview with Science News.

Many problems still exist in the study of autism, not the least of which being that we still can't pinpoint precisely what autism is. What we group under the generic label of autism is in all likelihood not a single condition but a broad array of different disorders with multiple causes that tend to result in similar symptoms. This is why the diagnosis is officially labeled as "autism spectrum disorder." Each of these variants along the spectrum may be its own unique condition with its own unique cause.

It's not the miracle parents of autistic kids are hoping for, but every little advancement helps. If nothing else, this study shows the complexity of the problem, and how naive it is to try and blame autism on a quick and easy scapegoat such as vaccines.

Visit for more child safety information.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Little Known Safety Feats Your Cell Phone Can Perform

Cell phones have become a staple of modern life, and one of the often overlooked benefits is the huge impact this technology has had on community safety. From its uses in combating crime to calling in emergencies or using the camera phone to document police brutality, it has become a helpful tool that lets citizens respond to emergencies. With this in mind, here are a few safety feats you might not be aware that your cell-phone can perform:

1. Enter your phone number and zip code at to receive text message Amber alerts. Messages are free, so you're not burning through your allotment.

2. Note that deactivated phones still dial 911, so you can always reach help even on a phone that isn't in service.

3. Receive early alert text messages from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrator Administration's tsunami warning center. Sign up at

4. Check out 'Nixie,' a service that allows agencies to contact residents using e-mail, text, or whatever method the person chooses to alert them of dangers or other important information in their area. The service is free, but the company sells ads in its messages.

5. If you need help and your signal is too weak, try texting. Text messages use less of a signal, so it might work if your signal is too weak to place a call.

6. Cell phones queue 911 calls, which means that if lines are down it will a keep sending a signal and call you when the call can go through. Text messages also do this no matter who they are to, so if you can't get through, try texting.

An important note:
If you're calling 911 on a cell phone, don't assume that the call center automatically knows where you are. While they can often triangulate calls and find your approximate location, this isn't always the case, especially in rural areas. Moreover, this triangulation isn't perfect--it often only reduces the location to within 500 feet. This could be a block of several houses, not to mention the nightmare rescuers would face in trying to find you if you live in an apartment building. So always give your location first whenever calling 911 on a cell phone.