Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Of The Gulf of Aden Anti-Piracy Campaign and Gulf War Syndrome

Even though the rumored hazardous toxic waste dumps in the Gulf of Aden are yet to receive press attention, are the anti-piracy campaigns in these waters a veritable occupational hazard?

By: Ringo Bones

Ever since the extensive press coverage of the dramatic rescue of the Maersk Alabama’s skipper Capt. Richard Phillips from the clutches of bloodthirsty Somali pirates by a US Navy SEAL team highlighted the growing danger of piracy on commercial maritime traffic on the Gulf of Aden. The world’s press had yet to highlight another serious – yet relatively underreported threat – lurking in the waters off the Somali coast. Namely the menace posed by illegally dumped hazardous toxic chemical and radioactive wastes.

United Nations envoy for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah said there is “reliable information” that European and Asian companies are illegally dumping hazardous toxic chemical wastes, including radioactive wastes, off the Somali coastline. Which could explain why a majority of the Somali pirates are former fisherman who can no longer eke-out a living from their regular fishing grounds due to the environmental destruction caused by the illegal dumping of these toxic chemical and radioactive wastes.

Even though the evidence of this illegal dumping can be traced as far back as 20 years ago, it was the tsunami of December 26, 2004 that literally dumped the evidence of such illegally dumped toxic chemical and radioactive wastes on the beaches of northern Somalia. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) reported that the tsunami had washed up rusting containers of illegally dumped toxic chemical wastes on the shores of Puntland.

UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall states that when the barrels were smashed open by the force of the waves, the containers exposed a “frightening activity” that has been going on for more than a decade. The bad news is, is that the UNEP cannot simply send a team of scientists to evaluate and report on the extent of toxic chemical and radioactive waste contamination on the shores of Puntland in Somalia because of the on-going conflict. And the team of scientists could easily be kidnapped, taken hostage then held for ransom by lawless elements running free in Somalia.

Conflict zones and areas with on-going civil war are an attractive site for cheap illegal hazardous toxic chemical waste dumps by highly organized transnational criminal gangs because of the breakdown in the rule of law. The Lebanese civil war of the 1980s has literally mounds of evidence of illegally dumped toxic wastes across the countryside brought there by transnational criminal gangs with enough money to bribe underpaid and overworked government officials to look the other way. These criminal gangs usually charge around US$2.50 per tonne to dump someone’s hazardous waste illegally without questions asked. Given that it costs on average US$1,000 per tonne to legally dispose off hazardous wastes, its no wonder why these criminal gangs are literally making a killing in disposing hazardous wastes in the world’s ungovernable conflict zones.

Given that the war risk insurance and kidnap coverage premiums issued by insurance brokers to maritime shipping firms plying in the Gulf of Aden recently rose by tenfold due to the increase in pirate activity. Shipping firms plying in the Gulf of Aden are now facing risks on two fronts. From the obvious occupational hazards and risks posed by pirates and the other less obvious – but nonetheless grave threat – the occupational health hazards and risks posed by the hazardous toxic chemical and radioactive wastes being illegally dumped in the Gulf of Aden.

Various military personnel policing these waters could face occupational health risks comparable to that faced by allied troops in Operation Desert Storm of 1991. The world’s navies policing the Gulf of Aden could suffer a 21st Century version of the Gulf War Syndrome, especially if their operations involve swimming without any protective gear in these waters. Maybe Capt. Richard Phillips and the US Navy SEAL team who rescued him needs to be examined for toxic chemical waste and radioactive waste exposure since they swam a number of times in the waters of the Gulf of Aden with nary a protective gear. Especially for radioactive cesium 137 which is the most common illegally dumped radioactive waste.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Lasik: An Eyeglass Eliminating Miracle Cure?

Ever since the medical procedure became widely available to anyone, does Lasik fulfill the promise of freeing each and every eyeglass-wearers from the tyranny of their own eyeglasses?

By: Ringo Bones

In our contemporary vanity obsessed society, it seems like it was only a matter of time before another everyday necessity was deemed to be as useless as a Victorian-era whalebone corset by the more-money-than-common-sense fashionistas. Their latest consensus-casualty: eyeglasses. Given that the hype behind contact lenses waned faster than everyone’s interest on the Iran-Contra affair of the late 1980s. Medical science has thus been given another impetus with a far greater motivational factor than a multi-million dollar grant in order to divert everyone’s navel gazing about how not everyone of us is born with perfect 20 / 20 vision. Thus making the Lasik surgery the latest elective surgery novelty since Botox treatments.

Lasik or laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis is a type of refractive laser surgery performed by ophthalmologists for correcting the 3 most common forms of eye defects due to a misshapen cornea that necessitates the wearing of eyeglasses to enable the afflicted to see normally in 20 / 20 vision. These eye defects are myopia or near-sightedness, hyperopia or farsightedness, and astigmatism. The first patent for Lasik was granted by the US Patent Office to Dr. Gholam A. Payman, M.D. on June 20, 1989 as US Patent # 4,840,175; “METHOD FOR MODIFYING CORNEAL CURVATURE”. Lasik became the most popular elective procedure in Asia since it was made available. At the Asian Eye Institute in Manila, for instance, about 1,000 people avail of the procedure every year jut to abandon the use of their eyeglasses. And the number of people who had the procedure had been growing at a rate of 20% annually.

Even though the procedure is far from risk-free, Lasik is nevertheless somewhat ingenious in its simplicity. The procedure starts by opening the anaesthetized eye, then the surgeon marks the cornea with soluble ink as a guide in cutting and repositioning of the flap. A suction ring provides an increased pressure in the eye so that it becomes firm thus making it easier to cut cleanly. Next, a motorized blade slices the cornea. The surgeon then lifts the flap, exposing the inner surface of the cornea that will reshaped by a cool laser. Then the patient’s corneas are reshaped depending on the kind of eye defect the patient has. Those with near-sightedness are corrected by flattening the center of the cornea. Those with farsightedness are usually fixed by removing a ring of tissue around the center of the cornea, thus making the cornea steeper. While those with astigmatism, the misshapen oblong-shaped cornea is reshaped to make it more spherical.

Even though Lasik has a high-rate of success in comparison to other procedures, it is not for everyone and you could be designated a poor candidate once your ophthalmologists checks your eyes. Especially if you have severe vision problems, have glaucoma, cataracts or retinal problems, is still under 18 years of age, is currently pregnant, or your corneas aren’t thick enough for safe Lasik surgery. Also, Lasik is no panacea against age-related macular degeneration or those vision problems that come with old age.

Even though ophthalmologic surgeons are highly regulated by law – even as far back as ancient Babylon circa 1,000 BC. Where the fees of eye surgeons were rigidly fixed by law and were quite generous. At the time when the state of the art in eye surgery was the ultra-sharp obsidian scalpel – instead of today’s femto-second pulse laser for eye surgery – a successful operation on a rich freeman costs 10 shekels of silver, as much as a chariot mechanic makes in a year. The same operation on a slave was priced at 2 shekels. However, the life of the surgeon – though financially rewarding – was not without it’s own hazards. If the wealthy freeman lost the sight of his eye in the operation, the surgeon’s hand was cut off; if the slave was blinded, he or she has had to be replaced by the doctor.

However in our contemporary society, for an industry that promises clarity and transparency, many eye centers – especially those in Asia where the Lasik is relatively new - have kept their patients in the dark about the risks and realities. Governments are more than likely of no help either because there are still no restrictions on who can buy medical instruments and equipment. But most government and private hospitals insist that doctors have some form of medical accreditation before they are allowed to perform eye surgery. Though there are still no high-profile medical malpractice or wrongful death lawsuits involving Lasik, it is still seen by the “Old Guard” in the medical community as a “Wild West” in terms of costs versus benefits.

Good as the procedure really is, many patients find the post-operative consequences of Lasik a little bit hard to live with before they vanish over time. Like light sensitivity and night-vision problems. Which could spell bad news for astronomers and working military and law-enforcement snipers. Plus additional surgery has to be done as follow-ups / touch-ups when the results fall below expectations. And the jury is still out over the long-term effects on patients who had undergone Lasik surgery. If you can live with these caveats and you had recently grown to hate yourself wearing eyeglasses, then Lasik might be for you.