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Health Headlines - April 12

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:24pm
Lawsuits Target Benzene in Soft Drinks

Lawsuits filed by parents Tuesday against two U.S. soft drink companies allege that their beverages may contain the cancer-causing chemical benzene and pose a threat to children.
The class action lawsuits, filed in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston and in Leon County Circuit Court in Tallahassee, Fla., accuse Polar Beverages Inc. and Zone Brands Inc. of not taking precautions to prevent benzene from forming in their beverages, the Associated Press reported.

The lawsuits allege that independent laboratory tests of the companies' beverages found benzene levels of 5 parts per billion, which is higher than the U.S. federal limit for drinking water. The plaintiffs want the companies barred from selling drinks that may contain benzene in Massachusetts and Florida.

Benzene can form in soft drinks that contain two ingredients -- vitamin C (ascorbic acid), and either sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate. However, the presence of those ingredients doesn't mean benzene is present in a drink. Heat or light exposure can trigger the formation of benzene, the AP reported.

"It's impossible for parents to know which soft drinks are safe and which contain cancer-causing benzene," said plaintiff Timothy Newell.

He and the other plaintiffs noted that other soft drink companies have either removed one of the ingredients that can form benzene or have added ingredients to prevent the formation of the chemical in their drinks, the AP reported.

Polar Beverages released a statement saying all of its products are safe.

Coroner Links Detective's Death to World Trade Center Cleanup

A New Jersey coroner has made the first known ruling that links a death to cleanup work at the World Trade Center site in Manhattan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The case involves the death of 34-year-old James Zadroga, a police detective who developed respiratory disease after spending 470 hours working at the site. He died on Jan. 6 of respiratory failure. The autopsy results were released Tuesday by Zadroga's family and union, the Associated Press reported.

"It is felt with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the cause of death in this case was directly related to the 9/11 incident," Dr. Gerard Burton, a pathologist at the Ocean County medical examiner's office, wrote in the Feb. 28 autopsy.

Zadroga had inflammation in his lung tissue due to "a history of exposure to toxic fumes and dust," Breton wrote. He also detected material "consistent with dust' in Zadroga's lungs; the officer also had a damaged liver and enlarged heart and spleen, the AP reported.

Last week, a report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that many survivors of the World Trade Center attacks are still suffering respiratory problems and psychological symptoms.

Bird Flu May Be Limited Threat to U.S., Expert Says

Even if the dangerous H5N1 bird flu virus does make it to the United States, it's unlikely to be as serious a threat to U.S. poultry or people as it is in developing nations, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. bird flu expert.

"The surveillance is going to be so intense that it is very unlikely that there is going to be the type of situation we see everywhere from Nigeria to Indonesia," Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health, told the Associated Press.

He noted that U.S. poultry farmers keep their birds isolated from wild birds and that most Americans have limited contact with poultry or their droppings.

"It won't be what you see in countries in which there is no regulation, in which there is no incentive to compensate farmers, in which the people, who are so poor, when they see their chickens are getting infected they immediately sell them or they don't tell anybody because they don't want them culled," Fauci told the AP.

Even so, the U.S. government must prepare for a worst-case bird flu scenario, including a human pandemic, he added.

Since 2003, bird flu has killed 109 people in nine countries, mostly in Asia, and has forced the slaughter of more than 200 million domestic fowl in Africa, Asia and Europe.

Jury Awards Punitive Damages in Vioxx Case

A New Jersey jury awarded $9 million in punitive damages on Tuesday to a man who blamed his heart attack on the once-popular painkiller Vioxx.

The jury decision found that manufacturer Merck & Co. failed to warn of the risks of its now-withdrawn arthritis drug and misrepresented the risks to physicians.

The damages are in addition to $4.5 million already awarded as compensatory damages to John McDarby, 77, of Park Ridge, who suffered a heart attack after four years on Vioxx, a painkiller taken by 20 million Americans before being pulled off the market, the Associated Press reported.

Tuesday's decision capped a five-week trial that combined two cases: that of McDarby, a retired insurance agent, and Thomas Cona, 60, of Cherry Hill, who said he took the drug for 22 months before his 2003 heart attack, but he couldn't prove it.

Cona's prescription records showed only enough for about seven months' use, and the six-woman, two-man jury rejected his claim that Vioxx was to blame and awarded him only the cost of his prescription.

This is the sixth trial involving Vioxx, and the first involving long-term use. Merck faces 9,650 other lawsuits.

FDA Proposes New Rules for Medical Gas Canisters

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is proposing new rules for the labeling, color and designs of medical gas containers in order to prevent problems that can lead to patient death and injury.

In the past decade, medical gas container mix-ups have killed at least eight patients and injured 16 others, health officials said. But nursing homes and hospitals are not required to report such cases to the FDA, so the actual number of deaths and injuries could be higher, the Associated Press reported.

The FDA proposal includes a standard color-coding system for the canisters and wraparound labels. The tanks would be fitted with outlet connections that are not easy to remove. This is meant to discourage improper hookup of the wrong types of medical gases to patient breathing equipment.

The new rules would also ban the reuse of industrial gas canisters for medical use, which can result in contamination by cleaning solvent residues, the AP reported.

Public comments on the proposed rules are being accepted by the FDA until July 10.
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