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Archive for October, 2014

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Vatican-Sistine Chapel frescoes turning white from tourists' carbon dioxide, humidity

VATICAN CITY – The Vatican revealed a closely kept secret Thursday: The Sistine Chapel’s precious frescoes were starting to turn white from the air pollution caused by so many visitors passing through each day to marvel at Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

Officials first noticed the whitening patina in 2010 and immediately launched an investigation. The damage wasn’t visible from the ground, but close inspection showed pockets of frescoes covered with a powdery patina that caked them like cracked sugar icing.

“The concern was not just esthetic but also the danger for the integrity of the paintings,” Vittoria Ciminio, head of the Vatican Museums’ conservation department, told a conference Thursday.

While the exact origin is still unknown, officials said the powder consisted of calcium carbonate and calcium bicarbonate deposits, believed to have formed from the increasing levels of carbon dioxide and humidity passing through the chapel’s porous plaster walls.

The patina was easily removed and no permanent damage occurred, said Ulderico Santamaria, who heads the museums’ restoration laboratory. But officials warned that such calcium buildup can do lasting damage if left untreated.

Vatican officials have said the Sistine Chapel’s new air conditioning and air filtration system, inaugurated this week, would prevent potential damage from the air pollution brought in by crowds nearing 6 million this year. But they never revealed that damage was already underway and that the new system was aimed at preventing further problems.

Santamaria said studies showed that the patina was superficial, and hadn’t bleached or mixed in with the actual colours, meaning the frescos themselves weren’t harmed. He said the patina wasn’t found on all frescoes, but was concentrated in some areas of the chapel, presumably where there was greater absorption of water from the humid air or condensation inside the walls.

“The state of the frescoes is good, and this whitening was reversible,” he said.

Officials acknowledged that the major cleaning of the frescoes completed in 1994 — which removed centuries of built-up candle wax, dirt and smoke — probably removed a barrier between the frescoes and the environment that allowed the whitening to take place. But they said the main culprit was the sheer number of human beings who cram into a tiny shoebox-shaped space that has limited natural air flow.

The head of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, has ruled out closing the Sistine Chapel to protect the frescoes, but has said that 6 million visitors a year is the limit.

To allow crowds to continue to admire Michelangelo’s 500-year-old “Last Judgment” behind the altar, the Vatican has installed sensors to monitor humidity, dust and carbon dioxide levels, as well as closed-circuit TV cameras to count the number of visitors so that the new cooling and ventilation system can adjust itself accordingly.

The previous air conditioning system, installed in the early 1990s, was designed when only about 2 million people visited each year.

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Red Deer is being praised for the way the city tackles homelessness.

The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness says the city’s strategy — getting people in homes before addressing their other issues — is an example the rest of the country should follow.

Red Deer’s Housing First Program has placed more than 300 people in homes since 2010, said spokesperson Barb Barber.

“If people don’t have a house, and some stability that way, it’s really hard to focus on any other aspect in your life,” she said.

The program is a chance at a fresh start for 26-year-old oil worker Jesse Dyvig after struggles with alcohol abuse left him homeless.

Continued support

Dyvig said stories like his are common in Alberta.

“Most of them have gone through the oil patch, made a ton of money and, you know, only trouble can come from a 20-something making six digits a year,” he said.

Barber attributes the program’s success to the fact that a team of support workers spends a full year working with people once they are placed in a home.

“It’s not like we rush out and we find you an apartment and we hand you the keys — here is a couch, here is a bed, here is a loaf of bread — thank you very much. Give us a call if you need us,” she said.

Dyvig said he wants to be part of that success story.

“They have the workers … that stay in touch with you so you can kind of build some stability and sort of retrain yourself to live as a normal human being,” he said.

“If they didn’t have programs like this I am not even sure I would be alive right now.”

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There is a certain irony in learning of the government’s decision to introduce income splitting, a left-over promise from the 2011 election.

After all, Stephen Harper was a man who was once against irrelevant and frivolous economic policies, especially if they pandered to a political base. He was an economist, we were told, so he knew better. Over the years, however, Harper has become the embodiment of all that he once used to despise. It drips of desperation.

Under Harper’s scheme, income splitting will allow couples with children under the age of 18 to transfer up to $50,000 from the spouse with the higher income to the other whose income is lower, thereby lowering the household’s overall tax rate.

Who benefits?

At first glance, many will cheer this policy. After all, who would not want an extra $2,000 a year in tax savings? But don’t applaud yet. So what’s wrong? Well … lots.

First, a few studies now have estimated that up to 85 per cent of Canadians will not benefit one penny from this new policy. It excludes all single working parents and childless couples. At a price tag of $27 billion over the next six years, one would have hoped that it would benefit more Canadians!

Second, why insist on couples having children? What is the relationship between income splitting and children? Well, absolutely nothing. It makes no sense. Zero. Zilch. Nada. So why is Harper insisting on announcing a policy that targets presumably straight couples with children? This raises bizarre questions about his motives.

The answer, of course, is rather obvious. This is just a ploy to satisfy all those right-wingers who see a man and a woman with children as the perfect image of the Canadian nucleur family. And if the woman is barefoot and pregnant, and is a stay-at-home mom, even better.

But what about hard-working, single adults? Nope, no benefits for you. Childless couples where one has lost his or her job? Move on, nothing to see. Loving gay and lesbian couples? Well, maybe if you have children, but otherwise nope. And since most gay and lesbian couples have no children, is this policy specifically designed to be discriminatory? Oh, and of course, the breadwinner must make an income sufficiently high to be able to transfer $50,000 to his spouse. So you gotta be rich too!

No economic meaning

Third, from an economic point of view, this policy makes really no sense at all: it is in fact devoid of any economic meaning. What’s the purpose of it? To put some money back into the pockets of the privileged, that’s all. Yes, they may end up spending it, but don’t count on this contributing to the economic recovery, or to reduce unemployment.

If Harper really wanted to give you a job, there are a number of far better policies he could have chosen to achieve this. At $26 billion, I can think of repairing our crumbling infrastructure, to start, or investing in education. How about health care?  No, no. Seven years after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Harper is giving money away to rich Canadians with babies. Makes sense to you?

Keep in mind that Harper is also obsessed with balancing the federal budget and is even thinking of introducing a law about it. If this program costs $26 billion over six years, then it means that Harper will introduce important and perhaps draconian cuts elsewhere. So more money for rich Canadians with babies, and more cuts for you and me.

The bottom line is that income-splitting raises important questions about the competence of this government and of Harper himself. At a time when Canada’s economic performance can best be described as lackluster, this is what Harper thinks is wise economic policy. Go figure.

I am no fan of the Harper government, but this new policy goes against every ounce of intellectual honesty. It is difficult to find economists, on either the right or the left, who think income splitting is a sound economic policy.

When Harper loses the next election, one can only hope the new government, whoever leads it, will repeal this irrelevant and frivolous policy and replace it with one that makes actual sense, and one that will benefit more Canadians and create jobs, not just line the pockets of rich Canadians with babies.

Louis-Philippe Rochon is Associate Professor, Laurentian University and co-editor, Review of Keynesian Economics

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TORONTO – The cost of health care in Canada will go up this year, but the increase is expected to be the smallest in the past 17 years, a new report suggests.

The report on health-care spending in Canada estimates that total health expenditures will rise by only 2.1 per cent, or $61 more per person compared to last year’s health costs.

Spending on drugs has flattened out. And concerns about the cost of a greying population on the health system aren’t currently driving costs up in a significant way, according to the report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

At this point, the institute says, population aging is only increasing costs by just under one per cent per year — 0.9 per cent. The trend is expected to change incrementally over the next two decades, the CIHI report says.

“While concerns regarding demographics are understandable — Canadians over the age of 65 account for less than 15 per cent of the population but consume more than 45 per cent of provinces’ and territories’ health-care dollars — the share of public-sector health dollars spent on Canadian seniors has not changed significantly over the past decade,” Brent Diverty, CIHI’s vice-president for programs, said in a press release.

The report notes that in 2012, per person spending for seniors ranged broadly, from $6,368 per person for those aged 65 to 69 to $21,054 per person per year for those aged 80 or older.

The low end of that scale isn’t far off what the report says Canada will pay per person in general in 2014, $6,045.

Canada is expected to spend just under $215 billion this year on health care, which equates to 11 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

That spending level puts Canada tied for seventh with Denmark among the countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the OECD. Canadian spending trails that of the United States, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria.

The public purse picks up about 70 per cent of the cost of health care in Canada. The remaining 30 per cent comes from out-of-pocket payments by individuals and private health insurance. That 70-30 cost breakdown has been relatively constant over the past 20 years, the report says.

Hospitals make up about 30 per cent of health-care spending, $63.5 billion. Drugs and doctors come next, at 16 and 15 per cent respectively, or $33.9 billion and $33.3 billion.

Drug costs, once a major driver of expenditure increases, have stabilized, growing by only 0.8 per cent in 2014, the report says.

“Drug expenditures are slowing down,” Diverty says. “With generic pricing control policies for the pharmaceutical industry, the expiration of patents on prevalent medications and fewer new drugs entering the market, we are seeing what amounts to flattened growth.”

The three territories, which often have to fly residents south for medical care, spend substantially more per person than provinces do. Nunavut will spend the most, at just over $13,160 a person, while Quebec is expected to spend the least, at $5,616.

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To stop Ebola's spread in West Africa, target funerals study

Volunteers lower a corpse, which is prepared with safe burial practices to ensure it does not pose a health risk to others and stop the chain of person-to-person transmission of Ebola, into a grave in Kailahun August 2, 2014. REUTERS/WHO/Tarik Jasarevic/Handout via Reuters 

NEW YORK (Reuters) – As the global health community ramps up its efforts to treat Ebola patients and curb its spread in West Africa, a new analysis finds that the greatest impact would come from insuring safe burials for victims, scientists reported on Thursday.

The need for safe burials has been known from the beginning of the epidemic last spring, when people who attended the funeral of a faith healer in Guinea became infected.

U.S. guidelines call for workers wearing full protective gear to wrap the remains of Ebola victims, which have an extremely high concentration of the virus, in a plastic shroud and then place them in two body bags. The body should not be washed or handled in any way, something that has been a common practice in much of West Africa.

The new findings, published in the journal Science, are based on a mathematical model being developed by Ebola researchers at Yale School of Public Health.

It takes into account data from the current outbreak and previous ones, including how long people harbor the virus before becoming ill, how long they are infectious, and what percentage are isolated at home or in a treatment center.

Similar models have already informed public policy. A U.S. projection that there could be 1.4 million cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone by late January spurred some Western countries to commit more funds and personnel to curb the worst Ebola outbreak since the disease was identified in 1976.

The Yale model calculates the spread of Ebola in the community, in hospitals and at funerals, including how many secondary cases are caused by the average case in each setting.

If transmission in the community or in hospitals could be eliminated through better isolation practices, Yale’s Alison Galvani and her colleagues found, each Ebola case would still cause 1.4 or 1.5 additional infections.

But if transmission via burial practices were eliminated, the secondary infection rate would drop below one per Ebola case, the sole way epidemics peter out.

“Reducing transmission in hospitals and the community is insufficient to stop the exponentially growing epidemic,” the scientists wrote. The most effective intervention is halting burial practices in which mourners handle bodies, which “are effectively serving as superspreader events.”

Because making all Ebola burials sanitary might not be feasible, said Yale’s Martial Ndeffo-Mbah, the Ebola response must also continue to isolate cases.

Other modelers predicted the study’s emphasis on funerals would be “quite controversial,” according to biostatistician Ira Longini of the University of Florida.

Longini and colleagues at Northeastern University created a mathematical model that shows that most Ebola transmission occurs in the community and within households, so isolating patients would have the most effect on the epidemic.

Still, “Liberia has concentrated hard on the funeral problems,” Longini said, and is now seeing fewer new cases than in recent weeks.

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Whether they’re buying products or seeing an alternative medicine practitioner, some people are emptying out their colons in hopes of improving their health.

Some are using do-it-yourself colon cleansing methods — such as laxatives, enemas or herbal remedies — while others are undergoing colonic irrigation (also known as colonic hydrotherapy, or colonics) and allowing gallons of water to be flushed through a tube into their rectum, to purportedly remove harmful toxins and eliminate old fecal material from their bodies.

Although ads for colon cleansing products and services suggest they help strengthen the immune system, enhance well-being and aid weight loss through “detoxification,” there isn’t much science to back up these claims.

“I have yet to see a well-designed study on colon cleansing in a reputable medical journal to support its health claims,” said Dr. Ranit Mishori, an associate professor of family medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

And there’s definitely the potential for harm, especially with colonic hydrotherapy, Mishori added.

In 2011, Mishori published a paper in The Journal of Family Practice, warning physicians about the possible side effects of colon cleansing, after she observed these dangers in two patients at her hospital and reviewed other case reports in the scientific literature.

Mishori thinks cleanses are popular because they are marketed well — with the idea that the regimens can get the bad stuff out of the body, and leave the good stuff behind. Psychologically, a cleanse may also expel some of the issues a person is struggling to overcome, such as weighing too much or feeling unwell, she said. [9 Healthy Habits You Can Do in 1 Minute (Or Less)

Mishori does not oppose the use of complementary medicine (Mishori teaches mind-body medicine as well as meditation classes), but she said she’s troubled by claims about colon cleansing that are not substantiated by science.

Live Science asked Mishori for her take on the seven health claims often made about colon cleansing practices.

Claim: Cleansing pulls toxins out of the blood.

“The body has two major organs whose job it is to neutralize toxins,” Mishori said. One is the liver, and the other is the kidneys.

When the liver and kidneys are functioning well, the body is well equipped with its own mechanisms to filter out toxins, Mishori said. Detoxification is handled by the liver and the kidneys, and the waste products are eliminated through pee and poop. People also release some waste products through the skin, by sweating, and some through the lungs, by exhaling.

The body is built to make all of this happen naturally, so there’s little that people need to do to enhance how these organs work, she said.

Claim: Cleansing washes away the stool that accumulates and attaches to the lining of the colon, causing a toxic waste buildup.

Cleansing enthusiasts suggest that old stool can stick to the colon walls and harden, causing the release of toxins that can lead to a wide array of health problems, from bloating and fatigue to depression and achy joints.

“These claims make no physiological sense at all,” Mishori said. The cells that form the lining of the colon are shed every 72 hours, she noted. This cell turnover means stool doesn’t stick to intestinal walls, and so-called toxins don’t build up in the colon and get released into the bloodstream, as cleansing proponents contend.

Claim: Colon cleansing strengthens the immune system by removing toxic waste.

“Other than staying healthy or reducing stress, it’s not exactly clear how people can enhance their immunity,” Mishori said.

Therefore, she’s not sure how cleansing the colon could enhance the production of the intricate components of the immune system, which includes white blood cells, proteins such as antibodies, and tissues and organs.

Some cleansing products promote the fact that they include vitamins, minerals, herbal extracts or probiotics, and claim that these components support the immune system. However, there’s little evidence that these formulations are actually effective in boosting immunity, Mishori said.

Claim: Colon cleansing flushes the system of impurities.

By the time food gets into the colon, most of the nutrients have been absorbed into the body, through the small intestine. What’s left in the colon is mostly waste products, water, and some vitamins and minerals, Mishori said.

The body is very smart, and it has created a mechanism for waste products to be eliminated that doesn’t need to be enhanced, Mishori said. “That’s why we have pee and poop.”

Marketers of colon cleansing products or services don’t specify exactly which toxins a cleanse supposedly removes from the body. If those toxins were named, then studies could determine if their levels actually change after the colon is emptied out. [5 Experts Answer: Is There Such Thing as a Healthy Juice Cleanse?]

In addition, Mishori said, some cleanses may kill the good bacteria found in the colon along with the bad, which is counterproductive and might even weaken immunity.

Claim: Colon cleansing makes you shed weight effortlessly.

Cleansing regimens might induce diarrhea or cause a person to pee more, Mishori said. But the pounds lost by these methods are water weight and stool, which means the weight loss won’t last, she said.

This loss of water and stool can also mean dehydration and a loss of important electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, she noted.

Claim: Colon cleansing makes your skin glow.

Colon cleansing enthusiasts suggest that, after a cleanse, skin will look smooth and glowing because the colon will now be functioning more effectively, which means the body will remove “toxins” through the colon rather than through the skin. But Mishori said there’s no evidence to support these theories.

Claim: The body sheds excess, creating energy as it restores clarity and radiance.

Supporters of cleansing suggest that the release of toxins from the body frees up energy that would have been used on digestion and eliminating waste, and diverts that energy to other areas of the body to promote health and healing. But there is no data to back up these ideas.

After doing a colon cleanse, people often use words such as “lighter,” “clearer thinking” and “more energetic” to describe its effects.

When asked why cleansing may rejuvenate people, Mishori said, “Don’t discount the placebo effect,” along with the fact that they’ve likely stopped some of their unhealthy habits for a few days.

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