Mary Carmichael

Stories by Mary Carmichael

  • Medicine: An Earful At The Mall

    Last week doctors warned that piercing the cartilage in the upper ear can lead to infection and permanent deformity, and moms everywhere nodded in agreement. The warning came after seven Oregon kids got their upper ears pierced at a mall kiosk and developed nasty abscesses, some of which required reconstructive surgery. Doctors say it's best not to pierce the upper ear at all, since it takes longer to heal than the earlobe. But if you must have that second (or third, or fourth) hole, you can avoid infection by watching your piercer closely. In the Oregon case, a kiosk employee mistakenly sprayed the starter earrings, called studs, with disinfectant, which apparently wasn't doing its job well either--health-department investigators cultured bacteria off the bottle. Doctors advise against using disinfectant, since the studs are sterilized before shipping. They also oppose piercing guns, which--unlike needles--can rip apart the delicate upper ear. But needles have drawbacks, too, says...
  • Ask Tip Sheet

    Can elephants sneeze?-ALEX SHEFTIC, JR., DADEVILLE, ALA.The elephant with a head cold is a staple of kiddle lit, featured in at least three children's books (" 'Stand Back,' Said the Elephant, 'I'm Going to Sneeze!' "). Unfortunately, elephants don't sneeze at all. But they do sometimes blow their noses, which looks even sillier. According to Marie Galloway, elephant manager at the National Zoo, "they flatten the end of their trunk shut, twist it back and forth several times and then expel air out loudly and forcefully, sending mucus flying." So if you ever see an elephant with a twitchy trunk, you'd be wise to stand back.To submit a question, go to Newsweek.MSNBC.com and click on Tip Sheet.
  • A Worry For Ravers

    Seven years ago Johns Hopkins neurologist George Ricaurte started a major battle in the war on drugs with a single image--a monkey brain on MDMA, the active ingredient in the drug ecstasy. The brain was shot through with holes where its neurons should have been busy making serotonin. The implications seemed obvious. If ecstasy could eat away at a monkey, it could do the same to us. The National Institute on Drug Abuse promptly put Ricaurte's brain scans at the core of its anti-ecstasy efforts. At least two groups weren't so quick to embrace Ricaurte's results: the club kids who keep the rave scene going and a faction of scientists led by Charles Grob. A UCLA psychiatrist, Grob became Ricaurte's foil, publicly attacking his experimental methods, subjects, even the wording of his press releases.This week the two are at it again. Ricaurte has just published research in the journal Science indicating that one night's worth of ecstasy also kills the brain cells that produce dopamine,...
  • Facing Up To Smallpox

    The writers of "ER" have always tried to be topical, but even they couldn't have expected their art to imitate life as eerily as it did last week. The show's season premiere, which revolved around a suspected smallpox outbreak, aired three days after the Centers for Disease Control issued a blueprint for vaccinating the entire U.S. population against the deadly disease. The plan requires states to set up instant clinics and inoculate anyone who wants the vaccine--even if the nearest smallpox cases are thousands of miles away. The move indicates a growing belief that an outbreak of smallpox, which hasn't been seen in the United States for decades, would be evidence of a terrorist attack. And while an attack isn't necessarily more imminent now than it was before the report--the CDC says there's no link between the emergency plan and President George W. Bush's efforts to build support for ousting Saddam Hussein--the new guidelines underscore how seriously the agency is taking the...
  • In The News: A Shot Shortage?

    As flu season approaches and kindergartners bring home their first fall colds, parents are finding there's something more contagious than germs--fear. Unprecedented national and regional shortages of childhood vaccines have made headlines all year, and last week a GAO report suggested more are imminent. In response, schools are temporarily relaxing immunization requirements for incoming students, and more than 40 states are rationing doses. But parents shouldn't worry themselves sick yet. Most vaccines that were in short supply, including varicella (chickenpox) and MMR shots, are now back in production and should arrive at clinics soon, if they're not there already. As for the flu, "there's no shortage anticipated whatsoever," says Dr. Deborah Wexler of the Immunization Action Coalition.Only one vaccine is still scarce nationwide: PCV-7, or Prevnar, which prevents pneumococcal pneumonia and meningitis. Several recent shortages occurred because the only companies making certain...
  • Beyond The Lab In Biotech

    Biotechnology stocks have slumped all year. Several vaunted experimental drugs--Provenge, Bexxar, ImClone's infamous Erbitux--have failed in clinical trials or FDA tests. BioWorld Financial Watch editor Randall Osborne says investors have "grave doubt about even the possibility of optimism."But biotech is really just going through some growing pains. The spate of failures, which caused the stocks' slide, doesn't mean long-term trouble for the industry. After all, with 350 new drugs in trials--more than ever before--it's inevitable that failures will occur, industry experts note. Biotech's high payoffs have always come at high risk, and the industry has hit this kind of snag before. Every time, it's rebounded.Though biotech refers to a wide variety of life-science products--from genetically modified foods to micron-size drug-delivery devices called MEMs--the industry is essentially made up of small firms searching for medicines based on large molecules like proteins and DNA, a class...
  • The 'Golden' Age

    People who meet me in bars think I'm a normal 23-year-old girl. I do all the normal 23-year-old-girl things; I wear tank tops and read Elle and own "Bridget Jones' Diary" on DVD. But I have a dirty little secret, an unexpected passion--an addiction, really--that I have admitted, sotto voce, only when pressed, until now.I LOVE "THE Golden Girls."There. I said it. I love those ladies from Miami, especially Sophia. At heart, I'm no twentysomething--I'm a wisecracking old Sicilian lady. On weeknights, when I should be out dancing, I find myself glued to the TV for that crucial hour between 11 p.m. and midnight, when Lifetime follows up its 6 and 6:30 p.m. shows with two more back-to-back reruns.This is not a show that's supposed to appeal to my age group and certainly not to the sushi-eating, city-living, DKNY-wearing segment of it. But each week, 1.8 million different viewers watch at least one broadcast in the late-night time slot, and 17 percent of us belong to the coveted 18-34...
  • Ask Tip Sheet

    Some over-the-counter medications are also available by prescription in stronger versions. Why bother--can't you just take more of the OTC strength? --Scot Wilson, Sarasota, Fla.Believe it or not, "that's OK," says Susan Winckler, an American Pharmaceutical Association official. But be cautious. First, make sure the drugs are perfectly identical, right down to how fast the tablets dissolve. Second, tell your doctor and pharmacist--they might unwittingly give you drugs that would interact with the OTC medicine. And if it takes a lot of medicine for you to feel OK, you really should see a doctor. You may have a more serious problem than you realize.
  • Ask Tip Sheet

    How can a whale survive the water pressure at 3,000 feet below sea level?-JESS KINSER, CORRALITOS, CALIF.Not all of them can--most whales don't go farther than 500 feet. But some, like sperm whales, use an unusual strategy to dive deeper: collapsing under pressure. The weight of deep water can crush a human's rib cage, puncturing lungs with the splintered bones. Whales have ribs made of flexible cartilage that doesn't break as easily as human bones. When the pressure's on, a whale's rib cage will partially collapse, compressing the air in the lungs into a smaller space to equalize the pressure of the water above.
  • It's Just A Fish Story

    If this were the weekly World News, the headline would be household products turn boys into girls. A new study says common water pollutants from detergent ingredients to "new-car smell"--not just estrogen-like compounds, the usual suspects--can turn male embryos into females and male adults into sissies too shy to chase potential mates. The shemales in question, though, are Chesapeake Bay fish. Humans aren't affected.
  • Ask Tip Sheet

    With all the news about hormone replacement, I'm worried. Isn't most birth control also hormone-based?--Tina Mattsson, Ogden, UtahYes. In fact, the Pill contains more estrogens and progestins than HRT drugs, but studies show it's safe. That's because it's aimed at younger women who aren't prone to breast cancer and cardiovascular trouble--the risks with HRT. (Older women who used to take the Pill aren't at greater risk, either, says Dr. Nananda Col: "It seems when they stop taking it, they go back to normal.") Unless you smoke or have a family history of breast cancer, pregnancy poses more health risks than hormone-based birth control. -Mary Carmichael
  • Simcity, Real Life

    As local legend has it, Eureka Township, Minn., was born in 1855 when explorers planted a flag on the banks of a nearby river, exclaiming exactly what you think. Not much has changed there since 1855, but the surrounding area, including the Twin Cities, is booming. By last year the tiny farming town was worried about river pollution and encroaching strip malls. Keeping its rural charm would require a eureka moment, indeed.Luckily, the town got one in the form of smart-growth software that maps development plans and allows residents to "stroll" through the 3-D results--a sort of SimCity for real life. The program, called CommunityViz (and not made by the SimCity folks), is a big jump for small-town citizens who previously had to make do with flat maps. In Missoula, Mont., it's helping prevent wildfire hazards. In Steamboat Springs, Colo., it's assisting low-income-housing designers. And in Eureka, a planning board hopes to let townspeople "explore" four computer-generated scenarios...
  • Behavior: It's Only Natural

    Dear NEWSWEEK: I'm dating a biologist. I want to study up and impress him, but all the textbooks are so dull. Why can't science be... sexy?--Bored With BioMy dear, what you need is "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation," 234 delightful pages of scientific wisdom dispensed by biologist Olivia Judson in the guise of Tatiana, a sort of Ann Landers in a lab coat. "I've noticed I enjoy sex more if I bite my lovers' heads off first," writes a praying mantis. The good doctor responds: "Some of my best friends are man-eaters," then proceeds to explain why that's not literally true, while assuring the insect that her snacking is as natural an aphrodisiac as candlelight and Barry White tunes.The "deviant lifestyles" detailed in Dr. Tatiana's fictional column by far eclipse anything we stodgy humans do. There are hermaphroditic sea hares who wonder why everyone else doesn't have orgies all day, an elephant whose nether regions have turned green and a spoon worm who's accidentally inhaled...
  • Ask Tip Sheet

    I want to be an organ donor, but I also hope to live a long time. Is there an age cutoff for donors? -Clare Van Sant, Spartanburg, S.C.Anyone can give organs or tissue as long as the donated parts are healthy. Older organs are often suitable for senior patients, and they can be used for medical research. Last year doctors transplanted a 92-year-old liver, and several live kidney donors have been 78 or older. Most eye banks have a cutoff of 65, but older corneas have been used before. "People should never rule themselves out," says Anne Paschke, of the United Network for Organ Sharing. "Doctors can make that decision when the time comes."
  • Genomes: Old Viruses Never Die

    Science gave us the ability to eradicate viruses years ago. Now it's also given us the ability to revive them. Last week, for the first time, scientists announced the creation of a virus--specifically, the one that causes polio--from no more than manufactured fragments of DNA, chemical "translators" and protein-rich juice from human cells. After piecing together the fragments, guided by the publicly available polio genome, and incubating the mixture for a few hours, Eckard Wimmer's lab produced thousands of viruses, ready to go forth and multiply.Wimmer's Pentagon-sponsored work was intended to prove a chilling point: any virus with a decoded genome can theoretically be built from scratch. Policy planners have always relied on the fact that bioterror agents like smallpox are all but wiped out and therefore hard to obtain. For now, they still are--the smallpox virus is too complex to be synthesized in today's labs. But as scientists learn how to make longer strings of DNA, building...
  • Ask Tip Sheet

    Is it true that gum is never fully digested? --Kevin Keen, Wausau, Wash.This is one old wives' tale that's actually true. Gum is indigestible. Still, swallowing it is totally harmless. Chewing gum has five main kinds of ingredients--sweeteners, softeners, corn syrup, flavorings and gum base. The first four are easily broken down by the body. But the gum base is indigestible. It's also what makes gum sticky in your mouth and on your shoes. Don't worry, though--it doesn't stick to the stomach walls and build up (so no, kids, no matter what your mother says, you won't explode). That gum base is a fiber; it passes through the system in a day or two.
  • Sounds Of Sleep

    Marcel Ascue used to snore so loudly that his 5-year-old son Nathan made a joke of ZZZing whenever he came near. Tired of being a punch line (and just plain tired), Ascue, 44, finally went to the doctor and found he had sleep apnea. Last month he started sleeping with a mask, hooked to an air pressurizer, that covers his nose and forces a steady stream of air down his throat. The jokes haven't stopped yet--now his wife quips that she's sleeping with Darth Vader--but at least the snoring has.Ascue's story might amuse people who don't snore or have bed partners who do. But that's not many people. By 50, half of men and a quarter of women snore; 10 to 20 percent of Americans seek treatment for snoring each year. The numbers are expected to jump as baby boomers age, since snoring is a side effect of growing old, gaining weight and losing muscle tone. During the day the brain keeps the throat muscles taut and the airway open. When sleep descends, the muscles relax and vibrate as air...
  • Health: How To Make A Baby

    Kenny Weinstein wants to get a lot of women pregnant. No, not like that--Weinstein's company, O2 Unlimited, is bringing the Donna fertility tester to American women who are having trouble conceiving. Urine-based fertility tests have been on drugstore shelves for years, but devices like the Donna, which use saliva instead, are an improvement. Urine tests, often recommended by doctors, have to be used first thing in the morning. They offer a "window of opportunity" of 12 to 24 hours and don't indicate how far along the ovulation process is--meaning that by the time a couple can get together, the window may be closed.Busy career women will welcome the Donna and similar devices like the TCI Ovulation Tester, which gained FDA approval in January. (The Donna, now available at thedonna.com, is the original, sold abroad since 1993.) The new saliva tests can indicate ovulation as many as four days in advance and can be used at several different times during the day. And, as the FDA has noted...
  • Chips: Eat Just One

    Do we really have to quit potato chips and fries cold turkey? When researchers in Europe announced they'd found high levels of the suspected carcinogen acrylamide in starchy foods that are fried or baked, it looked bad for the crispy treats. But at a meeting of the World Health Organization in Geneva last week, scientists were less alarming. While a serving of french fries may have at least 300 times more acrylamide than the EPA allows in a glass of water, that amount is still 700 times lower than the dose that's cancerous to rats. And there's no evidence that it causes cancer in humans. So rather than warning us off chips and fries altogether, the WHO urged moderation. It also called for more studies and suggested a balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables. Duh!
  • Science: Free--And In English!

    No wonder so many people feel alienated by science: all the journals use $5 words. Literally. Often inscrutable, most are also high-priced. One, the Journal of Virological Methods, goes for $3,157 annually. That's intimidating to those who want their science straight from the source and don't have connections to university libraries--some of which can't even afford many subscriptions themselves. But journals are the only place a scientist's research can legitimately be reviewed and published. Why can't the people who pay for that research--the taxpayers--get free access to it?That's the question that's been bugging Michael Eisen. In early 2003 he and colleagues plan to launch the Public Library of Science, which will provide its own articles online free and aspires to become the basis for a public, searchable database of all scientific literature--a sort of Napster for nerds. The Journal of Biology, launched last week, is also free, and venerable Science has recently decided to post...
  • Hot And Bothered

    The thermometer says 80 degrees. The heat index says 90. Does either actually tell you how it feels outside? For years, scientists have said both are unreliable. The heat index, calculated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, combines temperature and humidity--and if you've ever been outside on a windy day, you know there's more to it. The folks at AccuWeather, a forecasting service, heard that complaint and designed the RealFeel Temperature index, which you can download at accuweather.com. RealFeel also considers wind speed and solar intensity. On bizarre-weather days when those factors make a difference, the RealFeel is fairly accurate. But on most days (and nights), it's within a few degrees of the heat index--and who can tell the difference between 86 and 88? It seems the best way to find out how it feels outside is still to open a window.
  • Healthy Shocks To The Head

    Art Davis gave up on sleep six months ago. By the end of each day, Parkinson's disease would paralyze his 58-year-old body, leaving him to crawl down the hall to bed and have his wife and children lift him onto the mattress. Once there, he lay awake with pain and cramps for most of the night. But two weeks ago, for the first time in ages, Davis woke up well rested and went for a four-mile walk near his home in Warren, Ohio, as he has several times since then. "It's a miracle," he says. Actually, it's a machine. Davis now has a "brain pacemaker," a generator in his chest wired to four electrodes in his brain that silence the neurons that once malfunctioned and left him prostrate.Davis's miracle is increasingly commonplace. Fifteen thousand patients worldwide with Parkinson's and another disorder called "essential tremor" have received brain pacemakers in clinical trials over the past decade, and with FDA approval secured in January, many more are sure to follow. But stories like...
  • Your Next...

    PacemakerPacemakers and defibrillators, or implants like Dick Cheney's that shock patients out of sudden changes in heartbeat, have been around since 1959--but the old devices have always kept learning new tricks. The latest generation can communicate via phone and Internet with doctors, which should delight patients who otherwise would have to go in for checkups every three months. "This empowers the patient," says Dr. Mark Schoenfeld, who helped design one that comes with what is essentially a magic wand. Here's how it works: wave the wand over your chest to pick up signals from the generator, plug the wand into the phone line and wire your doctor a full report on how your device (and your heart) is doing. The easy-to-use, FDA-approved devices should be especially helpful for defibrillator patients who sometimes get sudden shocks that could be either lifesaving or a sign of malfunction. With one wave of the wand, the doctor can be notified--and can call to reassure or diagnose the...
  • Surgery: Not Cutting It

    If you've seen "ER," you may remember Romano, the surgeon stereotype. He's sharp, he's sarcastic, he's got a leggy blonde and more money than God. Heck, he is God. Everybody wants to be this guy--just ask him.Actually, nobody does. As 15,800 med-school students graduate this month, surgery residencies are grappling with rejections as a fourth of their slots go unfilled. What's driving students away? The residency workload, which spurred a lawsuit last month, is especially brutal for surgeons. The operating room is also a bit of an old boys' club (witness Romano), and many of the women who've flooded med schools in recent years aren't interested. Add to that the increase in HMOs, giving residents more paperwork and less time with patients, and a surgeon's salary can seem like little compensation--especially since it doesn't kick in until seven years after med school. Docs faced a similar dilemma in 1987, when surgery was flush but so few students chose internal medicine that the...
  • Spinning An Image

    After your kids have seen "Spider-Man" four times, maybe they'll want real information about the bugs. Norm Platnick is a curator at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. He talked to Tip Sheet:How common are spiders?You're probably within seven feet of a spider.Are they dangerous?Most spiders won't bite you--you don't look like prey. Most bites have no effect.Why are people afraid of them?If they were bald, they probably wouldn't attract the kind of notoriety they do.Should we like spiders?We probably wouldn't be here if they weren't around. All the crops we depend on would have been devoured by insects.AMNH houses more than a million spider specimens--available for research only. Public exhibits include Montreal's Insectarium, Durham's North Carolina Museum of Life and Science and the Philadelphia Insectarium.
  • Dna Relax, Have A Drink

    You've just come home after a 15-hour day to find the kids whining and the dog whizzing on the new carpet. Breathe deeply, count to 10, do some yoga--nah, forget it, where's the vodka? If this is you, don't blame yourself. Blame your DNA. German researchers have linked stress-induced drinking to the CRH1 gene, which helps regulate hormones that calm fears and curb anxiety. Mutant mice lacking the gene drank the same amount of alcohol as their normal counterparts until scientists subjected them to forced swimming and attacks by other mice. In three weeks the mutants tripled their drinking, and the bender was still going six months later. (The control group kept its drinking under control.) Humans carry at least 20 variants of the CRH1 gene, and some of those may be faulty. A genetic test could identify those more likely to quench their anxieties with alcohol, helping rehab centers tailor treatments for patients in danger of relapse. But as with all genetic screening, there's a...
  • Risking Life To Give Life

    The two middle-aged women sitting in Dr. Lewis Teperman's transplant-surgery office are sisters, but they don't look it. One, jaundiced and frail, is waiting to die of hepatitis C-induced cirrhosis. The other, flushed and fit, is waiting to save her. The healthy woman will find out this week if she is eligible to donate half her liver to her sister, thus endangering her own life. "The doctors keep asking me if I know the risks," she says, laughing and shaking her fist like an overeager actor. "Death is on the line!"By the time a patient gets on the list for a liver transplant, death is almost always on the line. As of April 3, the list was 17,641 names long; at least a third of those have end-stage hepatitis C, and within the year almost 2,000 will die waiting. Though more than half of Americans tell pollsters they have signed donor cards, the numbers of available cadaver organs don't add up. So in the past five years, doctors have resorted to a miracle that ought to be unnecessary:...
  • Searching For A Son

    The first thing fireman Mickey Kirby did when he heard about the attack on the World Trade Center was to strap on his gear. The second was think about his kids, three of whom work in Manhattan. Mickey Jr.? Also a firefighter, stationed in Chinatown, he was safe on paternity leave with his wife and new baby. Kelly? A Morgan Stanley customer-service rep on the fifth floor of WTC 5, she was, at that hour, still probably on the subway to work when a plane plowed into Tower One. And Chris? Why worry about Chris? Last Mickey Sr. had heard, the carpenters' union had him working on 23rd Street, far from the disaster site.But five days after the attack, 21-year-old Chris-who was working his way through night school at Bronx Community College to qualify for a firefighting job like his dad and brother-is still missing. On Monday, he left the 23rd Street job for a two-day stint on the 107th floor of WTC 2, the south tower. His sister Kelly, excited that he would be working so near her office,...
  • New York Rallies

    Of all the emotions that are being felt today in New York, one is universal: grief. Thousands of mourners-many driven not by connections to the disaster, but by sympathy-have flocked to public places over the course of the week, praying, holding flags and holding hands. By Friday night, a nationwide vigil was underway.The memorials started simply enough: step outside, light a candle, take a moment of silence.In neighborhoods all over Manhattan, people have congregated at parks, churches, intersections and fire stations. Hundreds of New Yorkers gathered Thursday in Union Square, where 19-year-old Jordan Schuster had taped a piece of brown paper to the sidewalk two days earlier. It was a way for people to express their grief.While a woman in jean shorts played the bagpipes, a throng of mourners lit candles and scribbled on the pieces of paper, now numbering in the hundreds. The messages ranged from confused ("Why did the plane have to crash?," scrawled in a childish hand) to...
  • Periscope

    Aaliyah Haughton was buried Friday next to her grandmother in White Plains, N.Y., but the controversy surrounding her death is far from over. NEWSWEEK has learned that the 22-year-old double-platinum-selling R&B singer was hesitant to board the tiny twin-engine Cessna 402B that was supposed to take her from the Bahamas to Miami last week. Sources close to the singer say she was fearful of small planes and had been expecting a larger aircraft. "She was very upset at that plane the moment she saw it," said a friend who was with Aaliyah at the airport. Instinct, which produced the video the singer was shooting in the Bahamas, reportedly offered to charter a private jet instead, which would not have arrived for several hours. But Aaliyah just wanted to get home. It was to be her last weekend off before resuming a tough schedule that included the MTV awards, promotion of her album and continued physical training for her roles in "Matrix 2" and "3."Whereas the pilot, Luis Morales III,...
  • Periscope

    Brian Regan was no 007. When the FBI arrested him at Washington's Dulles International Airport last week as he was about to board a flight to Frankfurt, Germany, they allegedly found a slip of paper with names and addresses of foreign spymasters in his shoe. But the retired Air Force sergeant--now charged with conspiracy to commit espionage--will likely rate a footnote in history because of the central role computers and the Internet played in his case. "This is really 21st-century espionage," says an FBI official.The United States was first alerted to Regan last August when the 38-year-old, who'd just retired from the military after 20 years with $53,000 in consumer debt, allegedly advertised secrets for sale in a letter. Regan, a trained cryptanalyst, had been working for the previous four years at the National Reconnaissance Office, the supersecret agency that runs spy satellites. "He had access to everything," said one source. The FBI alleges Regan mailed a letter to "Country A"...