Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Agencies behaving badly, pewter mugs and splashing Martians

Just take two pills and call me in the morning, presuming you are still alive in the morning—The federal Food and Drug Administration was once the gold standard by which government agencies were judged for efficiency and caution. The lives of millions of Americans depended on it. A new study by Consumer Reports, however, documents just how badly the FDA has fallen. CR has identified 12 relatively common prescription drug types linked to serious side effects—some of them potentially fatal—that were approved by the FDA without proper attention. Many are still being advertised and lack a useful warning. CR identified several reasons for the lapse in effectiveness.
  • Rush to approve—the agency had tight deadlines, insufficient data and not enough time to make good decisions. Scientists complain their bosses pressured them into prematurely approving some.
  • Lack of power—the FDA, thanks to Congress, lacks the power to compel companies to do proper studies before approval, force doctors to report adverse reactions, or dictate warning labels. It assesses drug side effects after they erupt but then can’t do much about them.
  • Hidden risks—some companies withhold information from the FDA that might limit the sales of the drugs.

For a list of the drugs, click here.

When the final storm comes in a pewter mug—Ludwig von Beethoven was an unpleasant fellow. He had no friends. He did not bathe. He had a vile temper–indeed, as he grew older he was more than a little mad. Oh, yes, and he was deaf. He could conduct his Ninth Symphony but he never actually heard the orchestra. One of the great mysteries is why he was the way he was and why he died in misery at the age of 56, depriving the world of about 10 years of, well, Beethoven. Rearchers at Argonne National Laboratory, probably have solved the mystery. Ludwig von died of lead poisoning. They took six hairs, known to be from Beethoven's head and a few pieces of his skull and put it all through the Advanced Photon Source, which shoots particles around a loop at 99.999 percent of the speed of light. The result, Beethoven had 100 times more lead atoms in him than normal. (Incidentally, he had very little mercury in him, which seems to debunk the canard that the great man died of syphilis, which would have been treated with mercury.) The lead might also explain his really bad behavior toward the end. It's not clear if the deafness came from the poisoning. Where did the lead come from? Unknown, but it was common to drink with lead or pewter mugs and Beethoven did like his drink. The skull fragments? They were passed down through the family of an Austrian physician, who apparently coped them from the dead composer. Bad.

I’d like a single-malt scotch and some Martian ice cubes, stir don’t mixIf there is one thing future human visitors to Mars won’t have to worry about, its finding something to drink. While scientists now believe the place was never a water wonderland despite all the evidence it once had surface water, they now think any water on the surface quickly froze or evaporated. But research reported at the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco seems to indicate there is lots of water still on the Red Planet, buried in the dirt and gathered around the poles. That raises the possibility that microbes have found a conducive place to live. They won’t make a Spielberg movie out of them, but it’s a start. The ice cap may be as much as a mile thick, something like the ice sheets during the terrestrial Ice Age. The water may even be pure enough to drink, which is more than can be said for water in lots of places on Earth. Much of the research, incidentally, came from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express satellite that began orbiting Mars in 2003.

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