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May 6th, 2010
02:00 PM ET

Wash your regrets away?

By Elizabeth Landau
CNN.com Health Writer/Producer

"Out, damned spot!" Lady Macbeth said as she famously tried to wash away her worries about having participated in murder. We all know how that turned out (she and husband both die in Shakespeare's tragedy).

But scientists say that the act of washing hands can actually help people cleanse themselves of concerns about past decisions, at least temporarily.

It may sound crazy that the simple act we (hopefully) go through multiple times a day to rid ourselves of bacteria and dirt could have an effect on our mental state. But University of Michigan researcher Spike Lee - no relation to the director - points out that this metaphor of cleansing can be found across cultures. And a 2006 study in Science found that washing hands can help people feel better about unethical behavior.

"When people have done bad things, they have sort of sins or traces or residuals from the past," he said. "By washing away the hands, there’s a sense of abstractly also washing away the past sins.

Lee and colleagues have a new study in Science this week supporting these ideas, adding that washing hands helps people look at choices they've made more objectively, as if removing the weight of the past decision. The idea is that humans tend to experience what's called cognitive dissonance. For instance, if you decide to take a job in a different city over a job in your city, you might focus only on the positive aspects of the new city in order to justify the choice to yourself.

In the first experiment, involving 40 undergraduates, participants chose 10 CDs they would like to own from a list of 30 and rank them in order of preference, and then were told to choose the fifth or sixth. Half the participants then washed their hands, and half did not. Then, everyone involved had to re-rank the 10 CDs. Those who did not cleanse themselves tended to rate the CD they had chosen higher than they had before, indicating they were making themselves feel better about their choices.

In the second experiment, 85 undergraduates were presented with four fruit jams, and then given the choice of two. About half of the group then cleansed their hands with an antiseptic wipe, and the other half did not. Then, they were asked to rate the taste of the four jams. Participants who did not clean their hands expected the chosen jam to taste much better than the jam they had rejected earlier.

Granted, these are not revolutionary, life-changing decisions like changing cities that are being studied, nor are the sample sizes very large. But the idea is compelling, given how the metaphor of washing turns up in so many disparate cultures, and could prompt further study.

"We should also expect physical washing to remove past concerns – concerns about past decisions, or past immoral behaviors, and that’s what we were able to show," Lee said.

More research is needed to assess the longterm effects of hand-washing and other cleansing on a person's mindset, Lee said.

Update: Several readers asked about a connection to obsessive-compulsive disorder in the comments. The study authors have not studied this condition. Co-author Norbert Schwarz at the University of Michigan speculates that excessive hand-washing, which can be a symptom of OCD, is not enough to banish the unwanted, persistent thoughts that accompany repetitive behaviors in the condition. But his study in Science did not involve individuals with OCD.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


May 6th, 2010
01:02 PM ET

Drinking alcohol while pregnant can increase childhood leukemia

By Kenneth J. Hughes
CNN Medical Intern

Drinking mothers increase their unborn babies' risk of developing acute myeloid leukemia (AML) says a study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, & Prevention. Adding to the list of reasons not to drink while pregnant, the increased risk of AML in children between the ages of 0 and 4 was shown to increase in mothers that self-reported consuming one drink per week.

The study also took into account the kind of alcohol consumed. The risk remained the same regardless of the kind of alcohol. “The recommendation not to drink alcohol during pregnancy concerns all types of alcoholic beverages,” advises Dr. Paule Latino-Martel, the lead researcher for the study.

The study found women who drank alcohol during the second and third trimester showed an increased risk of AML developing in their babies. The reason why in-utero exposure to alcohol may increase the risk of AML in younger children is still unknown and requires further investigation, the study noted.

AML, typically rare in children, is a rapidly progressing cancer of the blood and bone marrow affecting the development of vital life-giving red and white blood cells and platelets. AML patients typically experience anemia, easy bleeding, higher risk of infection and the danger of leukemia cells spreading to other organ systems in the body.

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society website states that treatment of AML in children is less likely to bring about remission when under the age of one. Treatment for leukemia in children can also have long-term or late effects involving growth and development.

The American Cancer Society’s website details various potential causes for childhood AML and that no current definitive cause for AML exists.

Mothers considering a drink during pregnancy should not only consider the risk of cancer for their baby, but fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) as well. According to The Mayo Clinic, as many as 40,000 babies are born with alcohol related damage each year in the United States.

The March of Dimes provides a fact sheet for anyone looking for information on the risks drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


May 6th, 2010
12:15 PM ET

Liver cancer on the rise, CDC says

By Jennifer Bixler
CNN Medical Executive Producer

A new study out Thursday from the Centers for Disease Control finds the most common form of liver cancer is on the rise.

According to the May 5th Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, rates of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) in the United States increased from 2.7 cases per 100,000 people in 2001 to 3.2 cases per 100,000 people in 2006. The report also points out that untreated hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections are responsible for about 78 percent of global HCC cases.

Liver cancer is much more common in developing countries than in the United States. Worldwide, it is the third leading cause of cancer deaths. In the U.S., it's the eighth leading cause. So why the increase of liver cancer cases in the United States?

One reason may be the legacy of the Vietnam War. "Many veterans contracted it through exposure to blood and body fluids," says Dr Otis Brawley, Chief Medical Officer of the American Cancer Society and CNN.com Health contributor. Hepatitis and liver cancer are much more common in Southeast Asia than in other parts of the world. Brawley says it's unclear why.

So what can be done to turn the trend around? The challenge, says Brawley and others, is to get people at risk for hepatitis educated and vaccinated. In the United States, there's been a vaccine for hepatitis B since the 1980s (Researchers are still working on a vaccine for hepatitis C).

Since the 1990s, babies born in the U.S. have been vaccinated against hepatitis B. "This is an overwhelmingly preventable disease," says Brawley.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


May 6th, 2010
09:26 AM ET

How will the oil disaster impact our health?

As a feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

@CottonKandi (from Twitter)

"How will the oil spill affect our health?"

Answer:

This is very timely question, @CottonKandi. We are in the midst of one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. Right now the oil slick is traveling along the Gulf Coast, but scientists predict it could soon creep up the Atlantic coast. This has many people wondering about how all of this could impact their health.

In the short-term, the biggest health risks come from inhaling vapors from the oil. For some, that could cause irritation in the nose, eyes, and throat, while others may experience dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or headaches. The bellwether group – the group that gives us the first signs of a problem – includes people with breathing problems, like asthma, chronic bronchitis or emphysema. Their lungs are more sensitive to airborne toxins.

And then there is the long-term potential impact of the oil, particularly on the environment and our food. "Contaminants in oil can persist for years and accumulate in the food chain, causing elevated cancer risks or neurological risks," said Gina Solomon, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. The concern from environmental groups like NRDC stems from contaminants contained in oil – mercury, lead, arsenic, and certain hydrocarbons – which are known to cause cancer.

The state of Louisiana says it is fending off the threat to the food supply by closing down areas where contaminants could impact fish populations, and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fish says they will not allow products on the market that could compromise public safety.

The Environmental Protection Agency has set up air monitors along the Gulf Coast and thus far is not reporting unusual health risks due to the oil spill. While there are particular areas where air quality is of concern (for instance Kenner, Louisiana, and City Park, Louisiana), the Environmental Protection Agency stresses this is not unusual for this region, at this time of year. You can check the air monitoring data here.

Yet even with those promises, for as long as the oil slick lingers, so will concerns like yours, @CottonKandi. For now, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals is advising those with respiratory conditions, along with young children, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems, to avoid areas affected by the oil spill.


Filed under: Expert Q&A

May 6th, 2010
12:01 AM ET

Presidential panel: Cancer risks underestimated

By David S. Martin
CNN Medical Senior Producer

Exposure to potential cancer risks in daily life is widespread but underestimated, especially for children, a presidential panel said today.

The President’s Cancer Panel said the public remains by and large unaware of such common cancer risks as formaldehyde, benzene and radon. It’s the first time the group has focused on environmental cancer risks in its annual report to the president.

“The mere fact that the President’s Cancer Panel has this report is going to make people more aware,” said panel chair Dr. Lasalle Leffall Jr., an oncologist and professor of surgery at Howard University College of Medicine.

The panel also recommends reducing environmental cancer risks a cornerstone of cancer prevention efforts and said doctors need to do a better job considering potentially harmful chemical exposures when diagnosing patients.

The report also faults U.S. policy for allowing most of the 80,000 chemicals in use to go largely unstudied and unregulated. For example, the report says, bisphenol A (BPA) remains unregulated in consumer products such as plastic bottles, can liners and food wrap “despite the growing link between BPA and several diseases, including various cancers.”

Risks of environmental exposure are especially acute for children, who weigh less but – pound for pound - take in more food, water and air than adults. Toxic chemicals also remain active longer in children’s bodies and their developing brains are more prone to chemical exposure.

Leffall said the panel decided to publish the report on environmental cancer risks this year even in absence of proof that particular exposures cause cancer. Case in point: Cell phones. Leffall said even though science has not shown electromagnetic energy from cell phone use causes cancer, the report takes a cautious approach and recommends callers wear headsets, or text, to reduce exposure.

To lessen cancer risks, the 240-page report also recommends:

* Removing shoes before entering the home to avoid tracking in toxic chemicals such as pesticides.

* Filtering tap water.

* Using stainless steel, glass or BPA-free plastic water bottles.

* Microwaving in ceramic or glass instead of plastic containers.

* Minimizing consumption of food grown with pesticides and meat raised with antibiotics and growth hormone.

* Minimizing consumption of processed, charred or well-done meats, which contain carcinogenic heterocyclic amines and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

* Reducing radiation from X-rays and other medical sources.

The report singled out three chemicals as dangerous: formaldehyde, benzene and radon.

Almost all homes contain formaldehyde, considered a probable human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. Formaldehyde is used in plywood, particle board, foam insulation, carpet and draperies, furniture, permanent press fabrics and toiletries. Exposure is highest when these are newly installed, the report said. Also, an estimated 2 million Americans are exposed to formaldehyde at work, raising their risk of dying from Hodgkin’s lymphoma and other cancers, according to the report.

Exposure to benzene is also widespread. Exhaust from cars and other vehicles contain benzene, listed as a known human carcinogen by the EPA.

Radon, which forms naturally and can collect in homes, is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, behind smoking, resulting in an estimated 21,000 deaths annually, according to the report. The report recommends periodically checking the radon levels at home.

The President’s Cancer Panel was created in 1971. Serving with Lefall is Margaret L. Kripke of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. The panel’s third member has not been appointed.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


Filed under: Cancer • Toxic America

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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