Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Storms, floods, tornadoes, heat waves. So, what's new?

There's nothing freaky about Britain's 'freak' weather

So, why all the fuss about the weather? The media were aghast that a tornado could rip through quiet residential streets of London last week, leaving 100 houses damaged and several people injured. “Freak” was the favourite description — after all, this is the sort of thing that happens in Oklahoma City, not London NW10. But tornados have been ripping through Britain for centuries. London was hit by an even worse one almost exactly to the day 52 years ago, which left a scene of devastation reminiscent of the Blitz and ended up in Willesden, next door to Kensal Rise. And the deadliest tornado in British history struck in October 1913, when six people were killed at Edwardsville, Glamorgan.

There is nothing freakish about tornados in this country, though they usually get the headlines only when big urban areas are hit. Only two weeks ago a village near Aberystwyth was badly hit when a tornado turned over caravans, sent chimneys crashing and left debris scattered up to 20 miles away. It was barely mentioned in the national media.

The trouble is that we seem to think British weather is a bit of a pussycat — soft and mild most of the time, with the occasional outburst when it gets temperamental. But in reality our “freak” weather is not so freakish after all. In some cases it can be truly monstrous. The floods of 1953 along the East Coast and Thames estuary killed more than 300 people, and came close to inundating London; it led to the Thames Barrier being built. The London smog of December 1952 killed an estimated 12,000 people, the worst air pollution episode in the world; the ensuing public outcry led a reluctant government to pass the Clean Air Act to rid urban areas of coal smoke.

The storm in October 1987 killed 19 people, felled 15 million trees and cost around £1.5 billion. Even more insidious were more than 2,000 deaths attributed to the effects of the blistering hot summer of August 2003. The Boscastle flash flood two years ago showed the horror of a sudden torrential downpour funnelled down narrow valleys.

Lightning strikes in some quite horrifying ways. This summer, in Kidderminster, a mother and her baby were hurled across a bedroom when their house was hit. A woman in Liverpool was electrocuted talking on a phone when lightning ripped down the cable. Lightning bolts have blown up some 20 or so houses, their electrics blasted apart and the buildings set ablaze. Lightning is reckoned to cause £24 million damage each year in the UK to electronic equipment, computers, fax machines, scanners, printers and telephones — even when the equipment is switched off but still plugged into wall sockets.

No, the British weather is a beast, not a pussycat, and demands respect. We live on the battlefront between warring air masses: bitterly cold Arctic air to the north, balmy, sub-tropical air to the south. It is the source of our current storms, downpours, winds and, of course, tornados. Britain has always been a dangerous place. It was no accident that the first Roman invasion 2,000 years ago got blown out by a storm in the Channel, as did the Spanish Armada and many other unwelcome visitors. The old town of Winchelsea on the South Coast was obliterated by a storm in 1287 — its remains lie buried under Pontins on Camber Sands. The greatest recorded natural disaster in British history was the storm of December 1703, which left a scene of apocalyptic proportions: 400 windmills burnt down when the sails spun round too fast, the lead rolled off church roofs, coastlines and rivers were strewn with the wreckage of ships, some 8,000 sailors were killed. A similar storm today is reckoned capable of causing damage reaching £15 billion and a death toll of perhaps thousands.

There was a great deal more respect for the weather when ships were driven by the winds and much of the population worked the land. Modern life is largely cossetted from the elements, but the violence of the weather is finally becoming clearer — in home buildings insurance. The insurance industry knows well that natural disasters are growing worse and more expensive as sea levels rise, storms turn more violent, torrential rains set off floods and heatwaves reach sub-tropical proportions.


Epidurals bad for breast-feeding

Women who give birth with the aid of pain-relieving epidurals find it harder to breast-feed than those who give birth naturally, a study has found. The research suggests that some of the drugs used in epidurals make their way into babies' bloodstreams, subtly affecting their brains and development for weeks afterwards - including making them less willing to breast-feed. If confirmed, such research could force a rethink over the use of the drugs.

Up to a third of British women giving birth are routinely given epidurals in which a catheter is inserted into the spine to allow the infusion of pain-killing drugs. These deaden the nerves that relay sensations of pain from the lower body and legs.

In a commentary on the research, published today, one expert suggests the impact of epidurals on breast-feeding should be officially classed as an "adverse drug reaction". Writing in International Breastfeeding Journal, Sue Jordan, senior lecturer in applied therapeutics at Swansea University, says women given the infusions should be offered extra support to stop their infants being "disadvantaged by this hidden, but far-reaching, adverse drug reaction".

Such a link could help explain why many British women fail to breast-feed, with 55% giving up within six weeks of birth. More than a third of women give up within a week, saying their babies simply refuse to breast-feed.

In the research, published in the same journal, Siranda Torvaldsen, from Sydney University, and colleagues from other institutions in Australia, studied 1,280 women who had given birth, of whom 416 had an epidural. The researchers found 93% of the women breast-fed their baby in the first week but those who received epidurals generally had more difficulty in the days immediately after birth.

By the time six months had passed, the women who had been given epidurals were twice as likely to have stopped breast-feeding, even after allowing for factors such as maternal age and education. The authors suggest the most likely cause of the problem was fentanyl, an opioid drug widely used as a component of epidurals. Such drugs pass quickly into the bloodstream and easily cross the placenta to reach the unborn baby.

Many women have a good experience with epidurals because the drugs allow them to relax. However, researchers have long known that there are also potential adverse side effects such as lowered blood pressure, a slowing of the birth process and a greater risk of having to pull the baby out with forceps. There has, however, been less research into the impact of such drugs on babies, although it is known that, because of their immature livers, the drugs can linger in the body.

Other researchers support Torvaldsen's findings. A study at Toronto University, Canada, of 177 women found they were less likely to be breast-feeding after six weeks if they had been given an epidural with fentanyl.


This report seems to have caused some uproar. Even though it was cautiously worded, the editorial by Ms Jordan ("Infant feeding and analgesia in labour: the evidence is accumulating") in International Breastfeeding Journal 2006; 1: 25 has now been taken down. See the cached table of contents here. It must have hit pretty close to the mark to get censored. Truth is the most usual victim of censorship. The abstract of the Torvaldsen study ("Intrapartum epidural analgesia and breastfeeding: a prospective cohort study") is however still available here. I reproduce the abstract of the censored editorial below:

The interesting and important paper by Torvaldsen and colleagues provides further circumstantial evidence of a positive association between intrapartum analgesia and feeding infant formula. Not all research supports this association. Before failure to breastfeed can be adjudged an adverse effect of intrapartum analgesia, the research evidence needs to be considered in detail. Examination of the existing evidence against the Bradford-Hill criteria indicates that the evidence is not yet conclusive. However, the difficulties of obtaining funding and undertaking large trials to explore putative adverse drug reactions in pregnant women may mean that we shall never have conclusive evidence of harm. Therefore, reports of large cohort studies with regression models, as in the paper published today, assume a greater importance than in other areas of investigation. Meanwhile, women and their clinicians may feel that sufficient evidence has accumulated to justify offering extra support to establish breastfeeding if women have received high doses of analgesics in labour.

Zero carbon home is little more than hot air

Britain's first and only community experiment in "zero-carbon" living raises serious questions about Gordon Brown's ambition that all new homes should be carbon-free. BedZed, an award-winning development of 99 apartments in south London, was supposed to be exactly that: zero-carbon and entirely sustainable. More than four years after opening its doors, however, the landmark eco-village is neither.

The revolutionary wood-burning technology that should have produced all the heat and power is not working and has been abandoned. A "green" water sewage system that used reed beds to mimic natural waste filter systems is also temporarily out of action because of management costs. Power is drawn from the national grid, backed up by gas boilers, and only a quarter of the 300 or so residents use organic food boxes. Each BedZed apartment - thickly insulated and hermetically sealed - also emits about half a ton of carbon dioxide each year. Modern homes built to standard building regulations produce about one ton.

Pooran Desai, who helped found the project with the charity BioRegional Development Group, admitted he is disappointed that the prototype has not quite worked. "This hasn't turned out to be a zero-carbon development, and we have learned as much about how not to do things as how to do them," he said yesterday. "It was designed to be a completely renewable energy site, powered by solar panels and a wood-chip powered heat and power plant (CHP). But while the solar panels produce about 10 per cent of our power, the CHP has not been successful, because the burning produced tar that clogged the filters. The maintenance was very expensive."

BedZed - Beddington Zero Energy Development, near Wallington, Surrey - was started in 1998. It has been thrust into the spotlight by the Chancellor's pre-Budget announcement this week that all new homes should be "zero-carbon" by 2016, and would be rewarded by escaping stamp duty. The project was pioneered by BioRegional Development Group, and funded by the Peabody Trust, one of London's largest social landlords. Designed by the architect Bill Dunster, it was to be a trailblazer for affordable, ecological living, with all but 44 apartments reserved for public sector workers, council tenants and first-time buyers.

Despite the power problems, much about the project has been a success. The walls are about 60cm thick and filled with four times as much insulation as the industry norm, and the windows are double or triple-glazed. As a result, there is no need for central heating and residents pay less than 400 pounds a year for power and water. The apartments are naturally ventilated using a roof funnel system, which draws in fresh air and expels stale air, and each has a garden and access to an allotment [garden]. Waste for recycling is collected, the taps and showers are fitted with flow restrictors, which save 19 litres of water per minute, and the lavatories are flushed with rainwater. The futuristic design means the development is now locally popular; a three-bed sold for more than 260,000 pounds recently. But they are currently nowhere near "zero-carbon", and would not qualify for the stamp duty exemption that Gordon Brown is proposing.

In this respect, they are like every other house in Britain, because there is currently no such thing as a "zero carbon" house existing on its own energy, according to the Energy Saving Trust. Mr Dunster said the wood-chip power-generator would be replaced in spring and insisted that it would make the project completely zero-carbon. "Technology has advanced hugely in the 10 years since we first chose the CHP system, and the new machine is working very successfully elsewhere," he said. "It is not right to say that BedZed cannot be zero-carbon. It will be when the system is replaced, and it is a viable route to go down." [Sounds a lot like Marxism -- it will work one day -- if only we wait long enough]



Brain-dead Leftism has the same solution to everything

Gordon Brown never likes leaving anything to chance. His shirts are always white and once he settles on a new favourite tie, he will stick with it for months on end. The chancellor, who has had more long-term plans than Joseph Stalin, planned his final pre-budget report last Wednesday just as meticulously. The morning papers had been briefed and the broadcasters squared. Brown, worried that the news later that day from Washington of the Iraq Study Group's report would wipe his statement off the front pages, had toured the TV and radio studios at breakfast time. Irritated by the fact that Tony Blair had already eaten into his week by timing the announcement of Britain's Trident replacement last Monday, he was determined to grab what he regarded as his rightful share of coverage.

The centrepiece of his lunchtime speech to MPs was, as everyone had been forewarned, education. Just as Blair had started his premiership with a commitment to the "three Es" (education, education, education), so Brown was following suit. Education, he said, "would be our number one priority; education first now and into the future". There would be special tuition for six-year-olds falling behind in their reading; a bag of books for every five and 11-year-old; and "year-by-year improvements in investment in our schools". Most of all, in Brown's drive to make Britain "the most educated country in the world", there would, it appeared, be lots of money.

By 2010, the government would be investing more than 10 billion pounds a year in England's 21,000 school buildings, together with university and college premises, compared with just 1.5 billion in 1997. By then, he said, state school pupils could look forward to facilities as good as those enjoyed by Eton, Winchester and other independent schools; a cumulative 36 billion would be spent over four years lifting spending on buildings and equipment to private sector levels. Instead of tax cuts, he goaded David Cameron, he was putting money where it mattered, into Britain's future. As a down payment, tens of thousands would be paid direct to each school - 50,000 pounds for primaries and 200,000 at secondary level.

Brown's flurry of announcements was enough to get Labour backbenchers cheering him to the rafters, which was the idea; he now has no serious rival as prime minister. But for everybody else there was a powerful sense of deja vu. Hadn't he said all this before? The Institute for Fiscal Studies, Britain's tax and spending think tank, soon confirmed that he had. In a detailed dismantling of Brown's figures, the IFS pointed out that for all the chancellor's talk, there was very little new money. The Tories tracked some of the announcements back to 2002. The only new money, said Luke Sibieta of the IFS, was the direct payment to schools, worth 20 pounds per pupil. Brown's goal, of lifting all spending per pupil to independent sector levels, was still a long way away. Before he stood up, the gap was 2,350 a year. After he sat down it was 2,330....

But despite the smoke, mirrors and tax grabs, the chancellor had clearly set out his stall. Even though cash will be tight from now on, education will be the "number one priority". For some, that was profoundly depressing. Blair, after nearly a decade in office, has finally got the message that money is not the answer to Britain's education shortcomings, says Andrew Haldenby, director of the think tank Reform. Only by changing the system will things improve. But Brown, he believes, still thinks cash is king. "Last week Tony Blair argued that better learning comes from reform, based on stronger parental choice and better teaching," said Haldenby. "Brown has ignored reform and spoken only of extra spending. The evidence is on the prime minister's side: school spending has already risen in this decade from 26 billion to 43 billion without any impact on the trend of exam standards."

So will smart new buildings and extra cash improve Britain's education standards? Or is it a case of throwing good money after bad? ... Will Brown be a reformer or just a spender? Will his relentless desire to keep things under tight control prevent him offering schools the freedoms they need to succeed? Anthony Seldon, Blair's biographer and master of Wellington College, an independent school in Berkshire, said: "Brown will not seek to row back on these changes. He will continue the policies including opening more academies."

Others are not so sure. "The idea that you pump in extra money and then standards improve has been tested to destruction and it doesn't work," said Haldenby. "Yet Brown seems to believe that if you lift state school spending to the level of independents you'll solve the problem of our substandard schools. It won't."



Talk about the pot calling the electric kettle Afro-American!

Scrooge hospital bosses have banned a troupe of carol singers from performing in the wards - in case they pass infections to patients. The Gospelaires male voice choir have spread festive cheer at hospital bedsides for the past 40 years with their renditions of Christmas carol favourites. But the 16-strong group of elderly men have been told they are a health hazard and will not be allowed to enter the wards of their local Torbay Hospital in Torquay, Devon. Under a new "visitor charter" drawn up by hospital chief executive Tony Parr all groups have been banned from visiting the sick during the festive season.

In a letter to the Gospelaires Tony Parr said: "Infections in hospital are of major concern to the public and to health staff. "There is clear evidence that the risk of infection, which is usually at its greatest over the winter period, can be reduced by restricting visiting times. "We have therefore standardised and in some cases reduced visitor times and introduced a visitors charter. "In light of these changes we have concluded that it is no longer possible to accept offers of Christmas visits by groups. "In reaching this decision we have been mindful of the need to balance the pleasure that such visits can bring to people in hospital with our responsibility to look after patients health."

The Torbay Gospelaires say they take care to rub their hands in antibacterial hand gel and have always followed medical precautions advised by the nurses and are stunned by the total ban. For the past 40 years the popular group, which has an average age of 65, has performed classics like Silent Night and Come All Ye Faithful in the hospital without incident and to enthusiastic applause.

Conductor Colin Reynolds, 75, said: "It is political correctness gone mad. "I find it all very sad, it is yet another example of pushing the traditional element out of Christmas. "You do wonder whether they would have been as quick to show us the door if our material had been less Christian. "All the choir men are very disappointed as this was always one of the highlights of our year and we enjoyed the visits very much. "So much so that two years ago, when one of our men was terminally ill with cancer, he came with us and we took him around in a wheelchair, he just didn't want to miss out. "The patients really love to hear us sing, and the nurses, too. We have always been very well received and have returned year after year for the past four decades. "Many people have thanked us and said that we helped them feel better at what can be a very distressing time - noon wants to be in hospital at Christmas and we just want to make a bad situation a little better.

"Last year was one of the best visits ever and after we had finished we got a call asking if we could sing just once more in Accident and Emergency, to cheer up the staff who had had a very busy night. "Surely 16 men would not present a health hazard and we would have taken all the hygiene precautions necessary. "Yet we have been told by one of the hospital chaplains that dogs are sometimes allowed into the wards because it is therapeutic for the patients - it is quite unbelievable. "Surely we would be less of a risk than a dog?"

The choir have been told by hospital management that they may perform in the public areas - such as the canteen and entrance hall - but they will not be allowed past the threshold of the wards. But Colin says the group, who have released eight LPs and CDs of gospel songs over the years, will not be taking up the offer. He said: "The point of the exercise is that we help to cheer up the people who really need it, the patients and the nurses, not the visitors hanging around getting a sandwich."

And the ban has caused outrage in Torquay where the Gospelaires have become a well-known and much-loved Christmas feature performing at numerous venues across the town. But Hospital management insist the ban is needed to prevent the spread of winter sicknesses. Spokesman for Torbay Hospital, Caroline Hill, said: "We have some very seriously ill patients here, they are acute cases and many are recovering from operations. "There are serious hygiene concerns with allowing groups of people into hospital in winter and we need to reduce the risk, can you imagine how awful it would be to have a vomiting bug on top of another illness? "As to hygiene concerns hand gel is important in the fight against incoming infection risk but does not fully protect poorly patients from norovirus the stomach bug known as winter vomiting which is very prevalent in the general community over the holiday period. "We have had overwhelming support from public and patients for restricting visiting times and numbers on the wards to lessen the risk of illnesses being brought in."


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