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Science Briefing

Cellphones linked to unsafe walking / Surprising diversity in deep seas / Algae threatens Klamath fish / 'Covert' coping may hurt the heart / ECMO machine helps some flu patients / MRSA infections ris

November 28, 2009

Walking, cellphones a risky mix

Using a cellphone while driving is known to be risky. So perhaps it's not surprising to discover that talking on a cellphone while walking carries its own risks.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers directed 36 subjects, some using cellphones or iPods, to walk on a treadmill in an environment that simulated a busy street. The study, published in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention, found that the cellphone talkers were much more distracted, crossed the street more slowly and didn't look around as much as the other subjects.

"Although it is unclear . . . whether this [cellphone-related] impairment can manifest in increased pedestrian-automobile accidents," the researchers wrote, "our data do suggest that there is at least a strong possibility that decision-making processes, such as those associated with identifying and acting on safe cross opportunities, are impaired."

Diverse species seen in deep seas

The permanent darkness of the ocean depths is home to a far greater range of animals, from luminous jellyfish to tube worms that live off oil seeping from the seabed, than previously thought, scientists said this week.

A total of 17,650 species of animals, including shrimps, corals, starfish and crabs, have been identified in the frigid, sunless waters down to about 3 miles.

"The diversity of life in the deep sea is much, much greater than we've believed," said Bob Carney of Louisiana State University, co-leader of a study of the ocean depths as part of a wider international Census of Marine Life.

Among the creatures were gelatinous creatures known as finned octopods, or "Dumbos," because they flap ear-like fins and resemble the cartoon flying elephant.

The Census of Marine Life is a 10-year project to be complete next October.

Algae threaten Klamath fish

Toxins from blue-green algae plaguing lakes and rivers around the West have been found in endangered fish in the Klamath Basin, adding another obstacle to restoring species that have forced farming irrigation shut-offs.

U.S. Geological Survey fish biologist Scott VanderKooi said Wednesday that the toxin had been found in the damaged livers of young shortnose and Lost River suckers in Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon.

The lake is the main irrigation reservoir for more than 1,000 farms in the upper Klamath Basin. A drought in 2001 forced irrigation cutbacks to keep enough water in the lake for the endangered fish.

Health warnings prompted by blooms of microcystin algae have been increasing across the West, with 21 this year just in Oregon.

'Covert' coping bad for the heart?

Walking away or letting things pass may be an unhealthy way to deal with unfair treatment on the job, research from Sweden shows. Men who reported using such "covert" strategies were more than twice as likely to have a heart attack or die from heart disease over the next 10 years, Dr. Constanze Leineweber of the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University and her colleagues found.

Previous investigations had linked covert coping with job conflict to heart disease risk factors, but not to heart disease itself, Leineweber and her team note in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

The study, which tracked 2,755 men in Stockholm, provided "no answer to the question of what might be a particularly healthy coping strategy," Leineweber and her team note.

Machine helps some flu patients

A technology developed for premature babies may be helping to save some of the sickest swine flu patients by rerouting their blood so their lungs can rest.

It's a risky approach using equipment that only certain specialized hospitals have. But with some children and young adults struggling to breathe even on ventilators, intensive-care doctors are starting to dust off these extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, machines, which are often considered last-ditch and were almost never used for influenza in the past.

ECMO essentially offers a temporary lung bypass. Tubes carry blood out of the body so a filter can remove carbon dioxide and reinfuse oxygen, and then dump the blood back. The technology has gained attention since Australian researchers reported that the machines helped during that country's outbreak of the H1N1 flu strain.

Infections rise outside hospitals

Cases of a drug-resistant bacterial infection known as MRSA have nearly doubled since 1999, and are increasingly being acquired outside hospitals, researchers reported Tuesday. They found that two strains of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus -- MRSA for short -- were circulating in patients and that they were different from the strains normally seen in hospitals.

Ramanan Laxminarayan of Princeton University and colleagues studied lab tests from 300 U.S. microbiology laboratories. "We found during 1999-2006 that the percentage of S. aureus infections resistant to methicillin increased more than 90%, or 10% a year, in outpatients admitted to U.S. hospitals," they wrote in Emerging Infectious Diseases. "This increase was caused almost entirely by community-acquired MRSA strains."

MRSA, entrenched in U.S. hospitals, was also known to be circulating elsewhere, but it was not clear whether patients were carrying infections out of hospitals or into them. The team found many more people being diagnosed with community-acquired strains, which were not replacing known hospital strains but adding to the overall number of MRSA cases.

-- from times staff and wire reports

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