A Just Walk (run, hike, etc…)

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Birth defects: truth and consequences

I noticed an interesting article in a recent China Daily about the cause of birth defects in China, which is the first time I’ve seen anything officially reported that admits a strong link between the horrid environmental conditions and birth defects. Compare this with a March 2008 article that correlates the falling rate of premarital checks with and increasing rate of congenital deformities. A September 2007 article blames later age pregnancy and unhealthy lifestyles behind the more than 1 million babies born with a defect every year.

Birth defects constitute a huge health problem in China and this is not news to China. “Measures” and “blueprints” to address birth defects have been reported and implemented in this country, but the rate continues to rise. China reports some statistics, such as every 30 seconds a baby is born with a birth defect and that the rate of defects has risen 40% since 2001. Of the children born with a birth defect, 30-40% do not survive the neonatal period, according to the article. I’m not exactly a big fan of statistics reported by official mouthpieces in China, and even trustworthy statistics can be twisted and turned, but this is really something of concern.  I won’t editorialize about the birth/death rate or the death rate among infants with birth defects in China except to say that there are all kinds of ways to get out of a tough situation and even have it reflect positively upon the country.

Although I haven’t seen this reported, my experience tells me that the rate could be higher than reported as children with congenital deformities make up a very large proportion of children in orphanages (up to 90% according to our stats in Henan province). There is no law against aborting babies with birth defects, but popular opinion has weighed in against it at least one case. This article,  where a woman documented her decision to abort her 6 month fetus because the child had a cleft lip abortion, reports that “the majority of readers condemned her decision”. Although the numbers of abandoned babies in orphanages is astounding and tragic, it is amazing that so many survive pregnancy and birth at all.

Part of why I’m here is to help treat children with deformities, and that includes the prevention of of birth defects. Environmental toxins are well-known teratogens and exist everywhere here. I’m glad to see that officially China is linking the two. Hopefully this may lead to some public health sleuthing. Preventive health is really in infancy here (no pun intended), but I hope that more and more people catch on and begin to see the value in it.

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Beijing Air

haze over Beijing\'s \This photo of Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” athletics arena newly constructed for the Olympic games. (By Greg Baker — Associated Press)

Having run the Beijing Marathon in 2006, I can attest to the fact that the concern over Beijing’s breathability is not exaggerated. However, I do believe that China’s government will do anything and everything possible to clean up the air and the environment during the Olympics. These changes will likely be draconian, transient, and probably not be sustainable.

The following is an excerpt from an article By Jill Drew and Maureen Fan of the Washington Post Foreign Service Monday April 21, 2008; page A01.

“The Olympics have been used both within China and internationally as an urgent prod to clean up pollution. “Deliver Clean Energy Towards a Harmonious World,” declares a giant billboard in downtown Beijing.

China has spent about $20 billion over the past decade to clean up Beijing’s air, government media have reported. Du Shaozhong, deputy director of Beijing’s Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, said the government has shut down 200 heavily polluting factories since 1998. Another 19 heavy polluters will be forced to reduce emissions between now and the Aug. 8 start of the Games. Work must stop on construction sites starting July 20, Du said, and Beijing has warned motorists that sometime this summer private cars will be allowed on the road only on alternating days.

China had pledged that by 2008, measurements of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide would meet World Health Organization standards and airborne particle density would be reduced to the level of major cities in developed countries. But the IOC said last month that Beijing had so far met only WHO 2005 interim guidelines, which are significantly less restrictive.

“Official data during the Aug. 8 to Aug. 24 Olympic period indicates air quality was actually worse in 2006 and 2007 than in 2000 and 2001,” Steven Q. Andrews, an independent environmental consultant, said in an e-mail interview. His analysis of August 2007 data found that Beijing’s air registered 123 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter, more than double the WHO guideline of 50 micrograms per cubic meter for short-term exposure.

Du said there are contingency plans to take more stringent steps if needed to improve air quality during the Games. “We will do everything possible to honor the promise,” he said.”