Health Highlights: June 21, 2007

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Many Parents Can't Leave Work to Care for Sick Child

Greater access to federal and employer-provided job leave can help working American parents better care for chronically ill children, says a RAND Corporation study in the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers surveyed 574 full-time parents of chronically ill children in order to examine the availability of paid and unpaid work leaves, how often parents missed work to care for ill children, and the length of time the parents were away from work. The survey was conducted between November 2003 and January 2004.

WHAT TO KNOW
    • Many Parents Can't Leave Work to Care for Sick Child
    • FDA Approves 'Computerized Medication Box'
    • EPA Misled New York City Residents on WTC Dust Contamination
    • Large Decrease in New York City's Smoking Rate
    • EPA Proposes Tougher Smog Standards
    • 1 in 8 U.S. Vets Have No Health Coverage

Less than half the parents qualified for benefits under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides eligible workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to care for ill family members without the risk of being fired.

The study also found:

  • Only 30 percent of parents reported having employer-provided leave that could be used to care for ill family members, and only 15 percent said they had access to paid leave.
  • Most of the parents reported missing some work in the past year to care for their ill children. Of those, 40 percent said they returned to work before their child's health improved. Of that group, 60 percent said they returned to work because they needed the pay.
  • Nearly half the parents said that at least once in the previous year they could not take time off work even though their children needed them. Of those, 70 percent said they would have taken time off work if they would have received at least some pay during the time off.
  • Parents were more likely to miss work to care for their children if they were aware of their eligibility for Family and Medical Leave benefits; had access to employer-provided leave; or had access to paid leave.

Among the study authors' recommendations:

  • Evaluate the potential impact of expanding eligibility for the Family and Medical Leave Act and educate more employees about these benefits.
  • Examine the likely effects on families and businesses when access to employer-provided or government-provided leave benefits is increased.

RAND is a nonprofit research organization.

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FDA Approves 'Computerized Medication Box'

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a programmable medication box that stores and dispenses prescription drugs for patients in their homes.

The Electronic Medication Management Assistant (EMMA), which is designed to be used under the supervision of a licensed health care provider, can reduce drug dosing and identification errors and help health care professionals monitor whether patients are adhering to medication regimens, said manufacturer INRange Systems of Altoona, Pa.

The company said EMMA may prove especially useful for older patients and for others, such as HIV/AIDS patients, with complex medication regimens.

EMMA includes a medication storage/delivery unit that's about the size of a bread box. Two-way communication software enables health care professionals to remotely schedule or adjust medication use. The unit emits an audible alert when it's time for a patient to take medications.

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EPA Misled New York City Residents on WTC Dust Contamination

In the years after the collapse of the World Trade Center, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency misled thousands of New York City residents about the amount of dust contamination in their apartments and condominiums, says a Government Accountability Office (GAO) preliminary report released Wednesday at a Senate subcommittee hearing.

GAO investigators found that the EPA did not accurately report the results of a residential cleanup program conducted in more than 4,000 Lower Manhattan residences in 2002 and 2003, The New York Times reported.

The EPA said that unsafe levels of asbestos were detected in only a "very small" number of air samples taken in the residences. But the agency didn't reveal that 80 percent of those air samples were collected after the residences were cleaned, the GAO report said.

As a result of the misleading information, many residents did not have a true understanding of their risk, the GAO said. Because of that, only 295 apartment building owners and residents signed up for a new residential cleanup program, which halted enrollment in March. More than 20,000 apartments had been eligible to take part in the program, The Times reported.

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Large Decrease in New York City's Smoking Rate

New York City's smoking rate was 20 percent lower in 2006 than in 2002, after the city launched a major anti-smoking campaign that included a hike in the tobacco tax, a ban on smoking in most workplaces, and hard-hitting ads about the health effects of smoking.

The 20 percent decrease represents 240,000 fewer smokers, according to a study released Thursday in this week's issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among the study's findings:

  • There was a larger decline in smoking among women (23 percent) than among men (15 percent).
  • Male smoking rates decreased from 22.5 percent to 19.9 percent.
  • Smoking rates among young adults (ages 18-24) have declined twice as much as rates among other age groups.
  • Among ethnic groups in New York, Asians had the largest declines in smoking rates (30 percent). But Asian males still have a smoking rate of 16.4 percent. Among Hispanics, smoking rates decreased from 20.2 percent to 17.1 percent).

New York City's overall smoking rate for 2006 was the lowest on record (17.5 percent) and lower than smoking rates in all but five states (California, Washington, Idaho, Utah and Connecticut).

"In spite of great progress, we have much farther to go," New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas R. Frieden said in a prepared statement. "More than 1 million New Yorkers are still smoking, and nearly 9,000 are dying from smoking-related diseases every year."

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EPA Proposes Tougher Smog Standards

New smog standards based on recent scientific evidence about ground-level ozone are being proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Ozone -- the primary component of smog -- can damage lungs. People with asthma and other lung diseases are especially at risk from ozone exposure.

The EPA proposal recommends a ground-level ozone standard within a range of 0.070 to 0.075 parts per million (ppm). Ground-level ozone is created through a reaction of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compound emissions in the presence of sunlight.

Emissions from industrial facilities and electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents are major sources of the pollutants that create ground-level ozone, according to an agency statement.

The new standard could save billions of dollars in health care costs, said the EPA, which is also proposing a standard to reduce ozone damage to crops, plants and trees.

There's a 90-day period for public comment on the proposal and the EPA will hold public hearings in Los Angeles and Philadelphia on Aug. 30 and in Chicago and Houston on Sept. 5.

Reacting to the announcement, Dr. David Ingbar, president of the American Thoracic Society, said in a statement that the newly proposed standards "fall short of providing the protection needed to keep Americans safe from ozone air pollution."

His group believes the proposed change, if adopted, would still not approach the 0.060 ppm ground-level ozone standard supported by the society. "In issuing the standard today, EPA is ignoring the advice of their own staff, the advice of EPA advisory committees, the opinion of the medical and scientific community," Ingbar said.

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1 in 8 U.S. Vets Have No Health Coverage

About 1.8 million American veterans under age 65 do not have basic health insurance or access to care at Veterans Affairs hospitals, says a study presented Wednesday to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, the Washington Post reported.

About 12.7 percent of veterans under age 65 -- about one in eight -- lacked health coverage in 2004, compared with 9.9 percent in 2000, Harvard Medical School professor Stephanie J. Woolhandler told the committee.

That means that the number of veterans without health coverage increased by 290,000 from 2000 to 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available, the Post reported.

Veterans over age 65 are eligible for Medicare.

"The data is showing that many veterans have no coverage and they're sick and need care and can't get it," Woolhandler told the committee.

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