Mercury in corn syrup? Food made with ingredient may have traces of toxic metal

A swig of soda or a bite of a candy bar might be sweet, but a new study suggests that food made with corn syrup also could be delivering tiny doses of toxic mercury.

For the first time, researchers say they have detected traces of the silvery metal in samples of high-fructose corn syrup, a widely used sweetener that has replaced sugar in many processed foods. The study was published Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health.

Eating high-mercury fish is the chief source of exposure for most people. The new study raises concerns about a previously unknown dietary source of mercury, which has been linked to learning disabilities in children and heart disease in adults.

The source of the metal appears to be caustic soda and hydrochloric acid, which manufacturers of corn syrup use to help convert corn kernels into the food additive MORE

Peanut Recall Grows as Feds Find More Problems

WASHINGTON -- Federal officials have announced a recall of all products containing peanut paste or peanut oil produced over the past two years at a Georgia plant at the center of the current salmonella outbreak.

In a briefing Wednesday, the federal food safety officials said the plant owner — Peanut Corp. of America — had agreed to the recall.

More than 500 people have gotten sick in the salmonella outbreak, which is linked to at least eight deaths.

Wednesday's recall follow reports by federal inspectors that salmonella had been found previously at least 12 times in products made at the plant. Inspectors found that the tainted peanut products were retested, then shipped to customers.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Roaches, mold, and signs of a leaking roof were among numerous problems federal inspectors uncovered at a Georgia plant that kept shipping peanut butter even after it was found to contain salmonella.

A senior lawmaker on Wednesday quickly called for a criminal investigation of the plant, which has been implicated in the national salmonella outbreak.

Salmonella had been found previously at least 12 times in products made at the plant, but production lines were never cleaned up after internal tests indicated contamination, a government report said. The tainted products initially tested positive, were retested and then shipped out.

That happened as recently as September. A month later, health officials started picking up signals of the salmonella outbreak, which now has been linked to at least eight deaths.

Peanut Corp. of America's plant in Blakely, Ga., had 10 separate problem areas, Food and Drug Administration inspectors said in a report posted on the Internet.

"Here's a company that knew it had salmonella in a product and still released it," said Michael Doyle, head of the food safety center at the University of Georgia. "What they tried to do is get around it by having it tested elsewhere. But that doesn't count. The first time counts. They were selling adulterated products."

Separately, senior congressional and state officials on Wednesday called for a federal probe of possible criminal violations at the plant.

The company's actions "can only be described as reprehensible and criminal," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who oversees FDA funding. "This behavior represents the worst of our current food safety regulatory system."

In Georgia, the state's top agriculture official joined DeLauro in asking the Justice Department to determine whether the case warrants criminal prosecution.

"They tried to hide it so they could sell it," said Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin. "Now they've caused a mammoth problem that could destroy their company _ and it could destroy the peanut industry."

There was no immediate response from Peanut Corp., which owns the processing plant at the center of the investigation. The company has previously said it fully cooperated with the salmonella investigation.

More than 500 people have gotten sick in the outbreak, which is continuing, and has been linked to at least eight deaths. More than 400 products containing peanut butter or peanut paste have been recalled. They range from Asian-style cooking sauces, to ice cream, to dog treats. However, major national brands of peanut butter are not affected.

Among the latest additions to the recall list were peanut butter cookies and cookie dough sold by fundraisers at 162 California schools. The products were made by Dough-To-Go Inc. and distributed throughout the state.

The peanut industry also condemned the company, portraying it as a rogue operator.

The FDA's findings "can only be seen as a clear and unconscionable action of one irresponsible manufacturer, which stands alone in an industry that strives to follow the most stringent food safety standards," Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council, said in a statement.

The FDA inspection report is preliminary, and the agency said the findings do not represent a final judgment on the company's compliance with food safety laws and regulations.

But the report detailed problems which food safety experts say would be of concern.

The roaches were found in a wash room next to a packaging area. And a sink used for cleaning utensils also was used to wash out mops.

Of even greater concern, inspectors found open gaps as large as a half-inch by two-and-a-half feet at air conditioner intakes on the roof of the plant. Water stains were seen on the ceiling around the intakes and near skylights. The openings were above an area in which finished products were handled. Water leaks would be a problem because salmonella thrives in moist conditions.

A leaky roof is believed to have contributed to a 2007 salmonella outbreak in Peter Pan peanut butter.

ConAgra, the manufacturer, said the plant's roof leaked during a rainstorm, and the sprinkler system went off twice because of a problem, since repaired. The moisture from those three events mixed with dormant salmonella bacteria in the plant that the company said likely came from raw peanuts and peanut dust.

Inspectors at the Blakely plant also found that Peanut Corp. did not take proper steps to prevent finished products from being contaminated by raw peanuts. Roasting is supposed to kill the bacteria, but raw peanuts can harbor salmonella.

Three-Minute Workouts May Help Prevent Diabetes

Rigorous workouts lasting as little as three minutes may help prevent diabetes by helping control blood sugar, British researchers said on Wednesday.

The findings published in the journal BioMed Central Endocrine Disorders suggest that people unable to meet government guidelines calling for moderate to vigorous exercise several hours per week can still benefit from exercise.

"This is such a brief amount of exercise you can do it without breaking a sweat," said James Timmons, an exercise biologist at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, who led the study.

"You can make just as big as an effect doing this as you can by doing hours and hours of endurance training each week."

Type 2 diabetes, which affects an estimated 246 million adults worldwide and accounts for 6 percent of all global deaths, is a condition in which the body gradually loses the ability to use insulin properly to convert food to energy.

Very strict diet and vigorous, regular and sustained exercise can reverse type 2 diabetes, but this can be difficult for many people. The condition is closely linked to inactivity.

Timmons and his team showed that just seven minutes of exercise each week helped a group of 16 men in their early twenties control their insulin.

The volunteers, who were relatively out of shape but otherwise healthy, rode an exercise bike four times daily in 30 second spurts two days a week.

After two weeks, the young men had a 23 percent improvement in how effectively their body used insulin to clear glucose, or blood sugar, from the blood stream, Timmons said.

The effect appears to last up to 10 days after the last round of exercise, he added in a telephone interview.

"The simple idea is if you are doing tense muscle contractions during sprints or exercise on a bike you really enhance insulin's ability to clear glucose out of the bloodstream," Timmons said.

The findings highlight a way for people who do not have time to work out a few hours each week as recommended to improve their health, he added.

His team did not look for other important benefits to health that come from exercise, such as lowered blood pressure or weight control, but said another study had shown similar benefits to heart function.

But Timmons said getting people to exercise even a little could translate into big savings for health systems that spend hundreds of million of dollars treating diabetes.

St. John’s Wort as Effective as Drugs

Sylvia Booth Hubbard

St. John’s wort has been used for centuries to combat depression, and is still used by European doctors. Most studies, however, supported its use only to treat mild to moderate depression. But a German review of 29 clinical trials that included almost 5,500 patients suffering from major depression found that St. John’s wort might be as effective as drugs—and with fewer side effects than prescription antidepressants.

The randomized, double-blind studies compared severely depressed patients treated with St. John’s wort to those treated with either placebo or tri-/tetracyclic antidepressants such as Remeron, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil. In one of the studies, depression improved in 57 percent of those patients taking the herb three times a day, as compared to a 45 percent improvement in patients taking the prescription antidepressant paroxetine (Paxil). Those taking the prescription drug were also more likely to report side effects such as dry mouth, diarrhea, dizziness and nausea.

St. John’s wort is an extract of the plant Hypericum perforatum L. and contains at least seven groups of active components. Scientists aren’t sure exactly which ones are effective, and since herbs aren’t regulated, potency may vary from brand to brand. The St. John’s wort products used in the studies were high-quality products. Daily dosages ranged from 500 to 1,200 milligrams.

“There is not patent protection on herbs; therefore, more or less anyone can market hypericum extracts,” said lead reviewer Klaus Linde of the Center for Complementary Medicine Research at Technical University in Munich.

Since St. John’s wort can interact with drugs including those that lower blood-pressure and cholesterol, experts suggest you talk with your doctor before taking St. John’s wort.

Cleaner Air Adds Five Months to Life Span

Cleaner air over the past two decades has added nearly five months to average life expectancy in the United States, according to a federally funded study. Researchers said it is the first study to show that reducing air pollution translates into longer lives.

Between 1978 and 2001, Americans' average life span increased almost three years to 77, and as much as 4.8 months of that can be attributed to cleaner air, researchers from Brigham Young University and Harvard School of Public Health reported in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.

Some experts not connected with the study called the gain dramatic.

"It shows that our efforts as a country to control air pollution have been well worth the expense," said Dr. Joel Kaufman, a University of Washington expert on environmental health.

Scientists have long known that the grit in polluted air, or particulates, can lodge deep in the lungs and raise the risk of lung disease, heart attacks and strokes. The grit — made of dust, soot and various chemicals — comes from factories, power plants and diesel-powered vehicles.

In 1970, Congress passed a revised Clean Air Act that gave the Environmental Protection Agency the power to set and enforce national standards to protect people from particulate matter, carbon monoxide and other pollutants.

The law is widely credited with improving the nation's air quality through such things as catalytic converters on cars and scrubbers at new factories.

For the study, scientists used government data to track particulate pollution levels over two decades in 51 U.S. cities. They compared these changes to life expectancies calculated from death records and census data. They adjusted the results to take into account other things that might affect life expectancy, such as smoking habits, income, education and migration.

On average, particulate matter levels fell from 21 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 14 micrograms per cubic meter in the cities studied. At the same time, Americans lived an average 2.72 years longer.

"We saw that communities that had larger reductions in air pollution on average had larger increases in life expectancies," said the study's lead author, C. Arden Pope III, a Brigham Young epidemiologist.

Pittsburgh and Buffalo, N.Y., which made the most progress cleaning up their air, saw life spans increase by about 10 months. Los Angeles, Indianapolis and St. Louis were among the cities that saw gains in life expectancy of around five months.

The study was partly funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and EPA.

"This finding provides direct confirmation of the population health benefits of mitigating air pollution," Daniel Krewski, who does pollution research at the University of Ottawa in Canada, wrote in an accompanying editorial.

In a statement, the EPA said such studies provide critical information that can help the agency set standards on particulates. EPA data show that average particulate levels nationally have fallen 11 percent since 2000.

Last year, government researchers reported that U.S. life expectancy has surpassed 78 years for the first time. They attributed the increase to falling mortality rates for nine of the 15 leading causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, accidents and diabetes.

Tiny Lights Fight Cancer

Drugs that can kill cancer cells also kill normal cells, but a new technique using tiny light emitting diodes (LEDs) promises to help drugs target just cancer cells. The new procedure involves injecting a special chemical into tumors, followed by injecting LEDs.

A Washington firm, Light Sciences Oncology, is currently in midstage trials of the new procedure. The treatment begins with the injection into the tumor of a photosensitive chemical derived from chlorophyll, which by itself is largely innocuous. However, when the chemical is exposed to red light from the LEDs, it transfers energy to an oxygen molecule and splits it, causing damage to tumors and the blood vessels that supply it. MORE....

Smoking Linked to Most Male Cancer Deaths

The association between tobacco smoke and cancer deaths — beyond lung cancer deaths — has been strengthened by a recent study from a UC Davis researcher, suggesting that increased tobacco control efforts could save more lives than previously estimated.

The epidemiological analysis, published online in BMC Cancer, linked smoking to more than 70 percent of the cancer death burden among Massachusetts men in 2003. This percentage is much higher than the previous estimate of 34 percent in 2001. MORE

Warning - Peanut Butter May Kill You!

U.S. health authorities told consumers on Saturday to avoid eating products that contain peanut butter until they can determine the scope of an outbreak of salmonella food poisoning that may have contributed to six deaths.

"We urge consumers to postpone eating any products that may contain peanut butter until additional information becomes available," Dr. Stephen Sundlof of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety said in a teleconference with reporters.

As of now, there is no indication that "major national name brand jars of peanut butter sold in retail stores are linked" to bulk supplies of peanut butter and peanut paste recalled for fear of possible contamination, the FDA said in a follow-up statement.

The company at the center of the matter, Peanut Corporation of America, or PCA, said it had been informed by health authorities that some samples of its products had tested positive for a salmonella strain that may have originated in a Blakely, Georgia, peanut processing plant.

The peanut butter and peanut paste recalled by PCA was used by many other manufacturers to make such products as cakes, crackers, candies, cookies and ice cream, the FDA said.

"In terms of food products which contain peanut butter, but have not yet been recalled, we urge consumers to postpone eating these products until information becomes available about whether that product may be affected," an e-mailed statement said. "We have been advised by manufacturers that product specific information may be available within the next few days."

The FDA is asking companies to check the records of their supply chain and determine if their ingredients came from PCA, and if so, to take "appropriate precautionary measures."

As of Friday night, 474 people had been reported infected by a salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter by public health authorities in 43 of the 50 U.S. states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Twenty-three percent of the known cases had resulted in hospitalizations and the infections may have contributed to six deaths, said Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Centers' division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases.

The very young, elderly and immuno-compromised were the most severely affected, he said in the teleconference. The reported illnesses began in September and 21 cases were reported on Friday.

The recalled peanut butter was sold in containers ranging in size from 5 pounds (2.3 kg) to 1,700 pounds (771 kg) and the peanut paste was sold in sizes ranging from 35-pound (16-kg) containers to tanker containers. None of the peanut butter or peanut paste being recalled so far is sold through retail stores, PCA said.

Kellogg Co said late on Friday it was recalling certain products that "have the potential to be contaminated," including some Austin and Keebler branded peanut butter snacks and some Famous Amos and Keebler Soft Batch cookies.

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Vitamin D is ‘It’ Nutrient

Vitamin D is quickly becoming the "it" nutrient with health benefits for diseases, including cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease and now diabetes. A recent review article published by researchers from Loyola University Chicago Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing concluded that adequate intake of vitamin D may prevent or delay the onset of diabetes and reduce complications for those who have already been diagnosed. These findings appeared in the latest issue of Diabetes Educator.

"Vitamin D has widespread benefits for our health and certain chronic diseases in particular," said Sue Penckofer, Ph.D., R.N., study co-author and professor, Loyola University Chicago Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing. "This article further substantiates the role of this nutrient in the prevention and management of glucose intolerance and diabetes."

Many of the 23 million Americans with diabetes have low vitamin D levels. Evidence suggests that vitamin D plays an integral role in insulin sensitivity and secretion. Vitamin D deficiency results in part from poor nutrition, which is one of the most challenging issues for people with diabetes. Another culprit is reduced exposure to sunlight, which is common during cold weather months when days are shorter and more time is spent indoors.

One study examined for this review article evaluated 3,000 people with type 1 diabetes and found a decreased risk in disease for people who took vitamin D supplements. Observational studies of people with type 2 diabetes also revealed that supplementation may be important in the prevention of this disease.

"Management of vitamin D deficiency may be a simple and cost-effective method to improve blood sugar control and prevent the serious complications associated with diabetes," said Joanne Kouba, Ph.D., R.D., L.D.N., study co-author and clinical assistant professor of dietetics, Loyola University Chicago Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing.

Diet alone may not be sufficient to manage vitamin D levels. A combination of adequate dietary intake of vitamin D, exposure to sunlight, and treatment with vitamin D2 or D3 supplements can decrease the risk of diabetes and related health concerns. The preferred range in the body is 30 - 60 ng/mL of 25(OH) vitamin D.

"People at risk for diabetes should be screened for low vitamin D levels," said Mary Ann Emanuele, M.D., F.A.C.P., study co-author and professor of medicine, division of endocrinology and metabolism, Loyola University Health System. "This will allow health care professionals to identify a nutrient deficiency early on and intervene to improve the long term health of these individuals."

Vitamin D deficiency also may be associated with hyperglycemia, insulin resistance, hypertension and heart disease.

Alcohol in Mouthwash Linked to Oral Cancer

Australian researchers have linked alcohol, an ingredient found in many mouthwashes, to oral cancer and are calling for them to be pulled immediately from supermarket shelves. The review, published in the Dental Journal of Australia, says there is “sufficient evidence” that “alcohol-containing mouthwashes contribute to the increased risk of development of oral cancer.”

The alcohol is believed to allow carcinogenic substances to enter the lining of the mouth more easily. In addition, acetaldehyde, which is a toxic byproduct of alcohol that can build up in the mouth when mouthwash is swished around, is also thought to cause cancer.

Some brands, such as Listerine, contain over 25 percent alcohol.

Lead author Professor Michael McCullough believes mouthwashes that contain alcohol should be available only by prescription. McCullough, who is chair of the Australian Dental Association is urging the ADA to consider withdrawing their seal of approval for mouthwashes that contain alcohol. (The American Dental Association also gives mouthwashes containing alcohol its seal of approval.)

“We see people with oral cancer who have no other risk factors than the use of alcohol-containing mouthwash,” he told

McCullough’s review found that using alcohol-containing mouthwashes daily raised the risk of developing cancers of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx 400 to 500 percent. Those who smoked and used alcohol mouthwashes had a 900 percent increase in risk.

McCullough believes mouthwashes are more risky than alcohol or beer because they usually contain higher concentrations of alcohol than wine or beer and are kept in the mouth longer. “If you have a glass of wine, you tend to swallow it,” he said. “With mouthwash, you have a higher level of alcohol and spend longer swishing it around your mouth. The alcohol that is present in your mouth is turned into acetaldehyde.”

McCullough recommends switching to an alcohol-free mouthwash.

Statins May Cause Rare Eye Disorders

Treatment with a cholesterol-lowering "statin" drug may very occasionally cause double-vision, eyelid-droop, or weakness of the muscles that control eye movement, investigators report..

Dr. F. W. Fraunfelder and Dr. Amanda B. Richards, from the Casey Eye Institute, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, investigated adverse events of this type documented in three large databases and report their findings in the medical journal Ophthalmology.

The team identified a total of 256 case reports of eye-muscle disorders associated with statins -- which include drugs such as Lipitor, Zocor, or Crestor, for example.

The average dose of the statins was within the range recommended for each medication. The average time from starting on the statin to the occurrence of the eye problem was 8 months.

Among the 256 case reports, 62 patients stopped taking the statin and the double-vision or eyelid-droop resolved, Fraunfelder told Reuters Health. "Sixteen case reports indicate that the statin was started again and the (problem) reoccurred," he said. "This is positive re-challenge data and very compelling evidence that a real adverse drug reaction occurred with statins."

The side effect is rare, however. It's known that statins can sometimes cause inflammation of skeletal muscles (myositis) in the body, and the current side effect "probably represents a localized myositis in the extraocular muscles," Fraunfelder noted.

SOURCE: Ophthalmology, December 2008.

Alternative Medicine is Going Mainstream

By: Sylvia Booth Hubbard

Alternative medicine is going mainstream, and top-notch hospitals are embracing various forms of alternative and complementary medicine. According to the American Hospital Association, more than one-third of U.S. hospitals offer at least one type of complementary medicine, which includes acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, nutrition, massage therapy and herbal medicine. For example, the prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center offers acupuncture for relief of nausea from surgery or chemotherapy. The growing field is even referred to by a new name—CAM—an acronym for complementary alternative medicine. MORE

Touching Helps Couples Reduce Stress

Couples may be able to enhance one another's health by being more physically affectionate with one another, new research in Psychosomatic Medicine shows.

Couples who underwent training in "warm touch enhancement" and practiced the technique at home had higher levels of oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone" and the "cuddle chemical," while their levels of alpha amylase, a stress indicator, were reduced, Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, Utah, and her colleagues found. MORE

Coffee Lowers Risk of Oral Cancers

New research indicates that drinking coffee lowers the risk of developing cancer of the oral cavity or throat, at least in the general population of Japan.

The consumption of coffee in Japan is relatively high, as is the rate of cancer of the esophagus in men. To look into any protective effect of coffee drinking, Dr. Toru Naganuma of Tohoku University, Sendai, and colleagues, analyzed data from the population-based Miyagi Cohort Study in Japan.

The study included information about diet, including coffee consumption. Among more than 38,000 study participants aged 40 to 64 years with no prior history of cancer, 157 cases of cancer of the mouth, pharynx and esophagus occurred during 13 years of follow up.

Compared with people who did not drink coffee, those who drank one or more cups per day had half the risk of developing these cancers, Naganuma's group reports in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

They note that the reduction in risk included people who are at high risk for these cancers, namely, those who were current drinkers and/or smokers at the start of the study.

"We had not expected that we could observe such a substantial inverse association with coffee consumption and the risk of these cancers," Naganuma commented to Reuters Health, "and the inverse association in high-risk groups for these cancers as well."

The researchers conclude in their article, "Although cessation of alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking is currently the best known way to help reduce the risk of developing these cancers, coffee could be a preventive factor in both low-risk and high-risk populations."

SOURCE: American Journal of Epidemiology, December 15, 2008.

Fosomax-Type Drugs Linked to Jaw Necrosis

Researchers at the University Of Southern California, School Of Dentistry release results of clinical data that links oral bisphosphonates to increased jaw necrosis. The study is among the first to acknowledge that even short-term use of common oral osteoporosis drugs may leave the jaw vulnerable to devastating necrosis, according to the report appearing in the January 1 Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA).

Osteoporosis currently affects 10 million Americans. Fosomax is the most widely prescribed oral bisphosphonate, ranking as the 21st most prescribed drug on the market since 2006, according to a 2007 report released by IMS Health.

“Oral Bisphosphonate Use and the Prevalence of Osteonecrosis of the Jaw: An Institutional Inquiry” is the first large institutional study in the U.S. to investigate the relationship between oral bisphosphonate use and jaw bone death, said principal investigator Parish Sedghizadeh, assistant professor of clinical dentistry with the USC School of Dentistry.

After controlling for referral bias, nine of 208 healthy School of Dentistry patients who take or have taken Fosamax for any length of time were diagnosed with osteonecrosis of the jaw (ONJ). The study’s results are in contrast to drug makers’ prior assertions that bisphosphonate-related ONJ risk is only noticeable with intravenous use of the drugs, not oral usage, Sedghizadeh said. “We’ve been told that the risk with oral bisphosphonates is negligible, but four percent is not negligible,” he said.

Most doctors who have prescribed bisphosphonates have not told patients about any oral health risks associated with the use of the drugs, despite even short-term usage posing a risk due to the drug’s tenacious 10-year half life in bone tissue. Lydia Macwilliams of Los Angeles said no one told her about the risk posed by her three years of Fosamax usage until she became a patient of Sedghizadeh at the School of Dentistry. “I was surprised,” she said. “My doctor who prescribed the Fosamax didn’t tell me about any possible problems with my teeth.”

Macwilliams was especially at risk for complications because she was to have three teeth extracted. The infection is a biofilm bacterial process, meaning that the bacteria infecting the mouth and jaw tissues reside within a slimy matrix that protects the bacteria from many conventional antibiotic treatments, and bisphosphonate use may make the infection more aggressive in adhering to the jaw, Sedghizadeh said. The danger is especially pronounced with procedures that directly expose the jaw bone, such as tooth extractions and other oral surgery. After her extractions, two of the three extraction sites had difficulty healing due to infection, Macwilliams said. Luckily, with treatment as well as the rigorous oral hygiene regimen USC dentists developed especially for patients with a history of bisphosphonate usage, the remaining sites slowly but fully healed. “It took about a year to heal,” she said, “but it’s doing just fine now.”

Sedghizadeh hopes to have other researchers confirm his findings and thus encourage more doctors and dentists to talk with patients about the oral health risks associated with the widely used drugs. The results confirm the suspicions of many in the oral health field, he said. “Here at the School of Dentistry we’re getting two or three new patients a week that have bisphosphonate-related ONJ,” he said, “and I know we’re not the only ones seeing it.”

Bone Drugs Tied to Esophageal Cancer

Merck's popular osteoporosis drug Fosamax and other similar drugs may carry a risk for esophageal cancer, a Food and Drug Administration official said on Wednesday.

Diane Wysowski of the FDA's division of drug risk asessment said researchers should check into potential links between so called bisphosphonate drugs and cancer.

In a letter in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine, Wysowski said since the initial marketing of Fosamax, known generically as alendronate, in 1995, the FDA has received 23 reports in which patients developed esophageal tumors.

Typically, two years lapsed between the start of the drug and the development of esophageal cancer. Eight patients died, she reported.

In Europe and Japan, 21 cases involving Fosamax have been logged, with another six instances where Procter & Gamble's Actonel or risedronate and Didronel or etidronate, and Roche's Boniva (ibandronate) may have been involved. Six of those people died.

Esophagitis, which is an inflammation of the lining of the tube carrying food to the stomach, is already know to be a side effect of the drugs, which is why patients are instructed to remain upright for at least a half hour after taking them.

In addition, Wysowski said, doctors should avoid prescribing the drugs to people with Barrett's esophagus, which is a change in the lining that leads to the stomach. It is often found in people with acid reflux disease and itself increases the risk of cancer.

In November the FDA said that clinical trial data showed no overall risk of heart rhythm problems in patients taking bisphosphonates.

However, the FDA also said it was aware of conflicting findings in other studies and was considering whether conducting further studies to investigate the risk were feasible.

The drugs aim to treat bone-weakening osteoporosis by increasing bone mass. An estimated 10 million Americans, mostly women, have osteoporosis.

Ask An Expert: Erection but No Climax


I am a 59-year-old male. I can get and maintain an erection, but cannot climax. This is starting to affect me emotionally. What could cause this problem and what can be done about it?


Male sexuality is complex. Successive stages of desire, arousal, erection, ejaculation, orgasm and relaxation are involved. To be successful, a man's hormones, nerves, blood vessels and mind must all be in sync.

It sounds like you have no problem with the first three stages of sex. Although most men lump ejaculation and orgasm together under the term "climax," they are actually separate events, and each can be thrown off by medical or psychological difficulties.

Delayed ejaculation can result from alcohol, medications (especially some antidepressants and antihypertensives), lack of sufficient sexual stimulation, or stress and worry — including worry about sex itself. Retrograde, or "dry" ejaculation occurs when semen is propelled back into the bladder; diabetes and medical and surgical treatments for prostate disease are the leading culprits. Failure to ejaculate can be caused by any of the factors that can delay ejaculation as well as by spinal cord conditions and prostate surgery.

Although ejaculation is almost always accompanied by the pleasurable sensation of orgasm, orgasm may lose much of its intensity. In addition, some men can experience orgasm without erections or ejaculation. All of the problems that inhibit ejaculation can also impair or prevent orgasm; medication, alcohol and psychosocial factors are most common.

The first thing to do is to evaluate your medications — but even if you suspect a drug is to blame, don't make changes without your doctor's cooperation. You can, and should, work on alcohol if drinking is a problem. If you are generally healthy, a specific serious medical problem is unlikely, so you can try to help yourself by relaxing about ejaculation and experimenting with sexual stimulation. If problems persist, ask your doctor about seeing specialists in medical and psychological aspects of sexuality.

Harvey B. Simon, M.D. is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Health Sciences Technology Faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the founding editor of Harvard Men's Health Watch ( and the author of six consumer health books, including The Harvard Medical School Guide to Men's Health (Simon and Schuster, 2002) and The No Sweat Exercise Plan. Lose Weight, Get Healthy and Live Longer (McGraw-Hill, 2006). Dr. Simon practices at the Massachusetts General Hospital; he received the London Prize for Excellence in Teaching from Harvard and MIT.

High Vitamin C Linked to Lower Blood Pressure

A study in young adult women links high blood levels of vitamin C with lower blood pressure.

This "strongly suggests that vitamin C is specifically important in maintaining a healthy blood pressure," lead author Dr. Gladys Block, of the University of California, Berkeley, told Reuters Health.

Previous research linked high plasma levels of vitamin C with lower blood pressure among middle-age and older adults, typically those with higher than optimal blood pressure readings, Block and colleagues report in the Nutrition Journal.

The current study involved 242 black and white women, between 18 and 21 years old, with normal blood pressures, who were participants in the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study. The girls had entered the trial when they were 8 to 11 years old. Over a 10-year period, their plasma levels of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and blood pressure were monitored.

At year 10, Block and her colleagues found that blood pressure, both the systolic and diastolic (top and bottom reading), was inversely associated with ascorbic acid levels.

Specifically, women with the highest levels of ascorbic acid had a decline of about 4.66 mm Hg in systolic and 6.04 mm Hg in diastolic blood pressure compared with women with the lowest ascorbic acid levels. This difference still held true after researchers allowed for differences in body mass, race, education levels, and dietary fat and sodium intake.

Women with the lowest levels of plasma ascorbic acid likely consumed average amounts of fruits, vegetables, and fortified foods while those with the highest plasma ascorbic acid levels likely ate diets rich in fruits and vegetables or took multivitamins or vitamin C supplements, the researchers note.

Further analyses of vitamin C and blood pressure changes over the previous year, "also strongly suggested that the people with the highest blood level of vitamin C had the least increase in blood pressure," Block said.

Since these findings infer a possible association between vitamin C and blood pressure in healthy young adults, Block and colleagues call for further investigations in this population.

SOURCE: Nutrition Journal, December 17, 2008

Grape Seed Compound Kills Leukemia Cells

By: Sylvia Booth Hubbard

A natural compound extracted from grape seeds makes laboratory leukemia cells commit suicide, according to a new study by the University of Kentucky. When exposed to the extract, 76 percent of the leukemia cells were dead within 24 hours.

The extract forces leukemia cells to commit “apoptosis,” or cell suicide, which is a kind of programmed cell death that cells in the body undergo either in the normal course of growth and development or when something goes wrong with them. Leukemia and other cancers block the cell signaling pathway that allows apoptosis—this is how cancer keeps the defenses of the body at bay. Grape seed extract activates a protein called JNK that regulates the apoptotic pathway and allows damaged cells to commit suicide.

Grape seed extract has already shown beneficial activity in other laboratory cancer cell lines, including breast, skin, lung, and prostate cancers. Before the new study, however, no one had tested the effects of grape seed on hematological cancers, and neither had anyone found the exact mechanism involved.

“What everyone seeks is an agent that has an effect on cancer cells but leaves normal cells alone, and this shows that grape seed extract fits into this category,” said study author Xianglin Shi, Ph.D., who emphasized that research is still in an early stage. Hematological cancers, including leukemia, caused almost 54,000 deaths in 2006, making them the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States.

Pollution at Home Often Unrecognized

Many people may be surprised by the number of chemicals they are exposed to through everyday household products, a small study finds, suggesting, researchers say, that consumers need to learn more about sources of indoor pollution.

In interviews with 25 women who'd had their homes and bodies tested for various environmental pollutants, researchers found that most were surprised and perplexed by the number of chemicals to which they'd been exposed.

The women had been part of a larger study conducted by the Silent Spring Institute in which their homes and urine samples were tested for 89 environmental contaminants -- including pesticides and chemicals found in plastics, cleaning products and cosmetics.

An average of 20 chemicals was detected for each study participant.

Much is unknown about the possible health effects of the array of chemicals in everyday household products. But certain chemicals -- like phthalates and bisphenol-A, found in plastics -- have been linked to potential risks, including hormonal effects and higher risks of certain cancers, though the evidence mainly comes from research in lab animals.

Other household chemicals are known to irritate the skin, eyes and airways, and may exacerbate asthma, for example. Many more chemicals found in cleaning products, cosmetics and other household staples remain untested.

Chemicals that accumulate in household dust or urine likely come from a range of sources, so it is not always clear how to reduce people's exposure, according to Dr. Rebecca Gasior Altman, the lead researcher on the new study.

However, there are still measures that people can take, Altman, a lecturer in community health at Tufts University in Boston, told Reuters Health.

In the original study, she noted, women were given advice based on their particular chemical exposures -- such as reducing pesticide use or using fragrance-free detergent and personal-care products.

The term "fragrance" on household-product labels can signal the presence of potentially harmful chemicals. One of the uses of phthalates, for example, is to stabilize fragrances.

For the current study, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Altman and her colleagues interviewed two dozen women who'd taken part in the Silent Spring study to see how people tend to react to information on their household chemical exposure.

They found that the women were generally surprised at the range of chemicals detectable in their homes and bodies. They were also surprised that even some banned substances, such as the pesticide DDT, were detected (as these chemicals persist in the environment).

With many unanswered questions about the health effects of household chemicals, some experts worry that giving people information about their everyday exposures will provoke unnecessary fear, Altman's team notes.

However, the researchers found that women in their study were typically not alarmed, and instead wanted "more rather than less" information on the issue.

SOURCE: Journal of Health and Social Behavior, December 2008.

Food Additive Jump-Starts Lung Cancer

By: Sylvia Booth Hubbard

Alarming new research shows that inorganic phosphates, which are commonly added to many processed foods, may accelerate the growth of lung cancer tumors and even trigger the development of tumors in people predisposed to lung cancer. Phosphates are routinely added to food products such as cheeses, meats, bakery products, and beverages in order to improve texture and increase water retention.

The research, which was conducted at Seoul National University and appears in the January issue of the American Thoracic Society’s magazine American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, was carried out with mice. Study leader Myung-Haing Cho, D.V.M., Ph.D., said, “Our study indicates that increased intake of inorganic phosphates strongly stimulates lung cancer development in mice, and suggests that dietary regulation of inorganic phosphates may be critical for lung cancer treatment as well as prevention.”

Cancer of the lung is the most lethal of all cancers, and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the form it takes more than 75 percent of the time. Previous research has shown that 9 out of 10 cases of NSCLC were linked to the activation of signaling pathways in lung tissue, and the new research shows that inorganic phosphates can stimulate the same pathways. “Lung cancer is a disease of uncontrolled cell proliferation in lung tissues,” said Dr. Cho, “and disruption of signaling pathways in those tissues can confer a normal cell with malignant properties.”

Lung cancer-model mice used in the study received a four-week diet of either 0.5 or 1.0 percent phosphate, which is an amount that simulates modern human diets. When the effects of the two levels of dietary phosphates were analyzed, the diet higher in phosphates, according to Dr. Cho, “caused an increase in the size of the tumors and stimulated growth of the tumors.”

Dr. Cho said that while the 0.5 amount of phosphate was defined as close to the equivalent “normal” amount in the average human diet today, the real-world equivalent may be closer to the 1.0 amount or may even exceed it. “In the 1990s, phosphorous-containing food additives contributed an estimated 470 mg per day to the average daily adult diet,” Cho said. “However, phosphates are currently being added much more frequently to a large number of processed foods, including meats, cheeses, beverages, and bakery products. As a result, depending on individual food choices, phosphorous intake could be increased by as much as 1000 mg per day.”

Future studies will seek to determine “safe” levels of inorganic phosphates. Future research will also address possible involvement of phosphates in the development of lung cancer in smokers, since up to this time no one has known why some smokers develop lung cancer while others never do.