US halts Japan food imports, Tokyo water contaminated 

A Japanese tsunami survivor stands in front of messages displayed on the wall of a relief center in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture.

Japanese authorities advised against allowing infants to drink tap water in Tokyo due to raised radiation levels and the United States became the first nation to block some food imports from Japan.

The crisis at the tsunami-smashed nuclear power plant, 250 km (150 miles) north of the Japanese capital, appeared far from over with workers attempting to gain control ordered to leave the site after black smoke began rising from one of its six reactors.

The plant was crippled by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11. Some 23,000 people have been left dead or missing.

Tokyo authorities said water at a purification plant for the capital of 13 million people had 210 becquerels of radioactive iodine – more than twice the safety level for infants.

"This is without doubt, an effect of the Fukushima Daiichi plant," a Tokyo metropolitan government official said, referring to the nuclear power station.

Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, however, said the radiation level posed no immediate health risk and water could still be used.

"But for infants under age one, I would like them to refrain from using tap water to dilute baby formula," he said.

International concerns about food safety are growing, with the United States the latest to impose controls. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it was stopping imports of milk, vegetable and fruit from four prefectures in the vicinity of the crippled nuclear plant.

South Korea may be next to ban Japanese food after the world’s worst atomic crisis since Chernobyl in 1986. France this week asked the European Commission to look into harmonizing controls on radioactivity in imports from Japan.

Food made up just 0.6 percent of Japan’s total exports last year.

Authorities said above-safety radiation levels had been discovered in 11 types of vegetables from the area, in addition to milk and water.

Officials still insisted, however, that there was no major danger to humans and urged the world not to over react.

"We will explain to countries the facts and we hope they will take logical measures based on them," Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano, who has been the government’s public face during the disaster, told a news conference.

Japan has already halted shipment of some food from the area and told people there to stop eating leafy vegetables. Asian neighbors are inspecting imports for contamination, and Taiwan advised boats to stop fishing in Japanese waters.

At the Fukushima plant, engineers are battling to cool reactors to contain further contamination and avert a meltdown.

But they were ordered out on Wednesday when black smoke began rising from the No.3 reactor, the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, said. It said it did not know what was causing the smoke.

The Asian nation’s worst crisis since World War Two may have caused $300 billion damage and has sent shock waves through global financial markets.

More than a quarter of a million people are living in shelters, while rescuers and sniffer dogs comb debris and mud looking for corpses and personal mementoes.

Drama at Fukushima

Technicians working inside an evacuation zone around the plant have successfully attached power cables to all six reactors and started a pump at one to cool overheating fuel rods.

As well as having its workers on the front line in highly dangerous circumstances, TEPCO is also facing accusations of a slow disaster response and questions over why it originally stored more uranium at the plant than it was designed to hold.

Vienna-based U.N. watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), expressed concern about a lack of information from Japanese authorities. It cited missing data on temperatures of spent fuel pools at the facility’s reactors 1, 3 and 4.

"We continue to see radiation coming from the site … and the question is where exactly is that coming from?" said a senior IAEA official, James Lyons.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was concerned about radioactive fallout affecting the U.S. 55,000 troops in and around Japan, many involved in a massive relief operation for Washington’s close ally. "We’re also deeply concerned about the wellbeing of our Japanese allies," he said.

Worsened by widespread ignorance of the technicalities of radiation, public concern is rising around the world and radioactive particles have been found as far away as Iceland.

Experts said tiny traces of radioactive particles, measured by a network of monitoring stations as they spread eastwards from Japan across the Pacific, North America, the Atlantic and to Europe, were far too low to cause any harm to humans.

"It’s only a matter of days before it disperses in the entire northern hemisphere," said Andreas Stohl, a senior scientist at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research

Global Impact

The Japan crisis has dealt a blow to the nuclear power industry around the world. Italy became the latest nation to re-assess its program, announcing a one-year moratorium on site selection and building of plants.

Crisis in the world’s third-biggest economy – and its key position in global supply chains, especially for the auto and technology sectors – has added to global market jitters, also affected by conflict in Libya and unrest in the Middle East.

Asian shares fell on Wednesday, with Tokyo’s Nikkei ending 1.65 percent down as investors took profits from a two-session bounce. Japanese stocks are about 8 percent below their close on the day the big quake struck.

Toyota said it would delay the launch in Japan of two additions to the Prius line-up, a wagon and a minivan, from the originally planned end-April due to production disruptions.

The tsunami and earthquake are the world’s costliest ever natural disaster, with the government estimating damage at 15-25 trillion yen ($185 billion-$308 billion).

The upper end of that range would equate to about 6 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product.

The official death toll has risen to 9,199, but with 13,786 people still reported missing, it is certain to rise.

There are reports dozens of survivors, mostly elderly, have died in hospitals and evacuation centers due to a lack of proper treatment, or simply because of the cold.

Desperate municipalities are digging mass graves, unthinkable in a nation where the dead are usually cremated and their ashes placed in stone family tombs near Buddhist temples.

"This is a special measure, but there is nothing much else we can do," said Kazuhiko Endo, an official in Kamaishi town, where a mass burial is planned on Friday for 150 unidentified people.

"More than a week has passed since we placed them in morgues and we don’t know if they can be identified."

Oral sex linked to cancer risk 

A young couple are seen enjoying warm weather in a park.

US scientists have said there is strong evidence linking oral sex to cancer, and urged more study of how human papillomaviruses may be to blame for a rise in oral cancer among white men.

In the United States, oral cancer due to HPV infection is now more common than oral cancer from tobacco use, which remains the leading cause of such cancers in the rest of the world.

Researchers have found a 225-percent increase in oral cancer cases in the United States from 1974 to 2007, mainly among white men, said Maura Gillison of Ohio State University.

"When you compare people who have an oral infection or not… the single greatest factor is the number of partners on whom the person has performed oral sex," said Gillison, who has been researching HPV and cancer for 15 years.

"When the number of partners increases, the risk increases," she told reporters at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington.

Previous studies have suggested that people who have performed oral sex on six or more partners over a lifetime face an eight-fold higher risk of acquiring HPV-related head or neck cancer than those with fewer than six partners, she said.

But even though the link between HPV and cervical cancer has been well known for many years, and vaccines now exist to provide some protection, much study remains to be done to confirm observational links and establish causes, Gillison said.

"The cervical cancer field is 20 years ahead," she said.

"We can’t demonstrate definitively that certain behaviors are associated with risk of acquiring an infection," she said.

"The rise in oral cancer in the US is predominantly among young white males and we do not know the answer as to why."

Researcher Diane Harper of the University of Missouri said such studies will take time, but the oral cancer field may move more quickly by using technology already developed for detecting HPV in cervical cancer patients.

"One of the scientific technologies that have evolved over time is the way that we detect HPV," said Harper.

"I think that the head and neck cancer area will benefit from that because we have gone through all kinds of different laboratory techniques to make sure we are actually finding what we think is HPV and getting type-specific information to go with that."

There as many as 150 different types of human papillomaviruses, and about 40 of those can be sexually transmitted, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Some may cause genital warts, while other more high-risk varieties can cause oral, anal, vaginal and penile cancers.

Sexually transmitted HPV infections are common and often asymptomatic, and untreated cases in women are the main cause of cervical cancer.

Half of all sexually active Americans will get HPV at some point in their lives, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated.

Two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, were approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2006 for HPV types that cause cervical cancer and genital warts.

However, only 40 percent of US girls have received one dose and just 17 percent have received all three doses in the regimen, said researchers.

A study published earlier this month in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the HPV vaccine could prevent 90 percent of genital warts in men, and the vaccine has also been approved against anal cancer in men and women.

Harper said she was not recommending the general population get the HPV vaccine because research has not yet established its effectiveness past five to eight years for cervical cancer.

"We know from all of the very good modeling studies that have been done throughout the world that if the vaccine does not last for a minimum of 15 years, cervical cancer will not be prevented, it will only be postponed," she said.

For now, Harper and fellow presenter Bonnie Halpern-Felsher of the University of California San Francisco recommended that patients discuss HPV with their doctors.

"If you talk to health care providers and certainly parents and other educators, they are not talking to teens about oral sex, period," said Halpern-Felsher, who has studied teenagers’ attitudes and sexual behaviors.

"Teens really have no idea that oral sex is related to any outcome like STIs (sexually transmitted infections), HPV, chlamydia, and so on."

US will respond to Chinese military advances: Gates 

In this Friday Jan. 7, 2011, photo, a prototype of the Chinese J-20 stealth plane is seen during a runway test in Chengdu, southwest China.

The United States will enhance its own capabilities in response to China’s growing military muscle, Defense chief Robert Gates said on Saturday, as he to flew to Beijing for talks with China’s political and military leaders.

As its economy booms, China has significantly increased investment in its military, and its faster-than-expected advances in its ballistic missile, combat aircraft and other strategic programs have raised eyebrows in the United States.

Gates acknowledge that some of China’s advances, if confirmed, could eventually undermine traditional US military capabilities in the Pacific region.

“They clearly have the potential to put some of our capabilities at risk and we have to pay attention to them. We have to respond appropriately with our own programs,” Gates told reporters.

“My hope is that through the strategic dialogue that I’m talking about, that maybe the need for some of these capabilities is reduced.”

Gates cited a five-year budget outline that he unveiled on Thursday as an example of how the US military would maintain its edge. It included funding for a new generation of long-range nuclear bombers, new electronic jammers and radar, and new satellite launch technology.

But critics in Congress seized upon the budget outline’s $78 billion in overall defense spending cuts as a sign that key US military capabilities would be under-funded.

US officials have taken note of disclosures in recent weeks of advances in China’s capabilities, including in its anti-ship ballistic missile program, which could challenge US aircraft carriers in the Pacific.

“I’ve been concerned about the development of the anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles ever since I took this job,” Gates said. He added China appeared “fairly far along” with its anti-ship ballistic missile but he said he did not know if it was operational yet.

China may also be ready to launch its first aircraft carrier in 2011, faster than some estimates, and new photos indicate it has a prototype of a stealth fighter jet.

Still, Gates appeared to play down the Chinese program. Asked about its prototype, he said: “I think there is some question about just how stealthy” it is.

No dramatic breakthroughs

The stated goal of Gates’ Jan 9-12 trip to China is to improve relations with China’s military.

US and Chinese military ties were suspended through most of 2010, as Beijing protested President Barack Obama’s proposed arms sale to Taiwan. His trip to China is the most visible demonstration that relations have normalized.

Gates said he did not expect any dramatic breakthrough in relations with China’s military during the visit, saying an improvement in ties was more likely to be gradual.

“I think this is evolutionary, particularly the military to military side,” Gates said.

“So rather than something dramatic, some kind of dramatic breakthrough, I think just getting some things started would be a positive outcome,” he added, after having spoken at length about ways the US and China could improve dialogue.

Analysts warn that as China’s military expands its reach, the risks of potentially dangerous misunderstandings between the US and Chinese militaries will increase.

That bolsters US arguments about the need for sustained US-China contacts that can endure friction over issues like Taiwan, as opposed to on-again, off-again contacts that have characterized the relationship for years.

Gates’ visit comes a week before Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington, creating diplomatic momentum that US officials hope will allow Gates to make headway on sticky security issues.

“I think the Chinese’ clear desire that I come first, come to China before President Hu goes to Washington, was an indication of their interest in strengthening this part of the relationship,” Gates said.

He also praised China’s efforts to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula. As North Korea’s main diplomatic and economic backer, China has been under pressure to rein in Pyongyang after the north was accused of sinking a South Korean warship and shelling a South Korean island last year.

“We recognize that China played a constructive role in lessening tensions on the peninsula in the latter part of last year,” he said.

FDA cannot block e-cigarette imports: court 

Actress Katherine Heigl shows off her e-cigarette on ‘The Late Show with David Letterman.’

The Food and Drug Administration can only regulate “e-cigarettes” as tobacco products and not as drugs, and thus cannot block their import, a US appeals court ruled on Tuesday.

The ruling by three judges of the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit infuriated tobacco activist groups and will allow e-cigarette maker Sottera Inc. to start importing its NJOY products.

“Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered products that allow users to inhale nicotine vapor without fire, smoke, ash, or carbon monoxide,” the court said in its ruling.

“The liquid nicotine in each e-cigarette is derived from natural tobacco plants.”

Congress gave the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products — but not to ban them — in 2009.

The ruling affirms a lower court decision from January. “The FDA’s refusal to admit NJOY’s products into the United States obviously destroyed the firm’s ability in the United States to cover its costs for purchase or production of e-cigarettes,” the appeals court said.

Sottera Inc. which markets NJOY products as an alternative to cigarettes, welcomed the ruling.

“The ultimate impact of this court decision will be to lift the current import restrictions on NJOY electronic cigarettes and provide a regulatory framework for NJOY to make progress on its mission to be the most responsible electronic cigarette manufacturer on the market,” the company said in a statement.

Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said it would take time for the FDA to assert its jurisdiction over e-cigarettes as tobacco products.

“This decision will allow any manufacturer to put any level of nicotine in any product and sell it to anybody, including children, with no government regulation or oversight at the present time,” Myers said in a statement.

“We urge the government to appeal this ruling.”

In September, the FDA sent warnings to five makers of electronic cigarettes, saying they were marketing them illegally as stop-smoking aids, and said it intended to regulate the products as drugs.

In October e-cigarette maker Smoking Everywhere Inc settled a civil suit brought by California by agreeing not to target sales and advertising to minors or to claim that its products are safe alternatives to tobacco.

Sales of Smoking Everywhere products are banned outright to anyone under 18 years of age as part of the settlement.

No going back 

A boy begs for alms in Kabul

It took Terry Gordon all of five months to decide Afghanistan was not the place for him to be, the rich financial gains notwithstanding.

Gordon left Vietnam after five years, leaving behind an expectant Vietnamese wife to work as Manager for the Supreme Group of companies which supplies food for the 200,000 NATO troops stationed there.

With, as the New York Times recently reported, “the Obama administration …increasingly emphasizing the idea that the United States will have forces in Afghanistan until at least the end of 2014,” there seemed to be no end to another protracted conflict initiated by the United States.

As one of only about 50 white businessmen in Kabul, Gordon felt conspicuously exposed to the dangers of a violence-racked nation.

Speaking with Thanh Nien Weekly shortly after the family reunion on his return to Saigon, Gordon said he had decided to stay on in safe and secure Vietnam, having got an offer to head the IP Software and Business Development division of ATI Telecom.

“I feel guilty not going back to Kabul because I have friends there,” he said ruing the fact that he’d left without saying goodbye.

Gordon’s wife Ta Thuy Ha said she had advised him to stay away from army people and wear clothes like the locals.

“To avoid worrying too much, I did not read about the war on Afghanistan during the time my husband was there. We chatted every night and SMSed during the day. He told me everything except the trips to the South or the North of Afghanistan,” she said.

Ha is not surprised with Gordon’s decision. “After a while he knew it’s not worth staying on in Afghanistan. He told me that whenever he had to travel by car within the city he had a terrible feeling that he did not know what will happen.”

Terry Gordon, one of 50 white businessmen in Kabul, at Mazar-I-Sharing, a city in Afganistan. He has just returned to Saigon after working in Afghanistan for five months. Photos courtesy of Terry Gordon.

Gordon said that in Kabul, he could earn three times as much money as in Ho Chi Minh City, with a 12-month contract netting a six-figure income. With that kind of money, he could have bought an apartment in HCMC soon. But Afghanistan taught him there were things more important than making a quick buck.

Gordon is a former administrative officer in the Australian air force. He came to Vietnam on a holiday and later returned to work as a tour leader for Intrepid, an Australian travel agent in Vietnam.

Gordon said that his wife let him go to Kabul because she knew she had no option. “I missed the time in the army. By the way, I promised her to come back in one year,” he said.

Surviving in Kabul

“The thing that scared me the most was not the Taliban army but kidnappers. White people are prime targets for kidnapping. (And I cannot see who is Taliban and who is not.)“

According to Gordon, wealthy Afghanistan families who could afford to leave have already left. Those who stayed back are the ones who could not afford to leave.

In Afghanistan, he said everyone was out to get what one could and everybody was there for the money.

“They are lovely people but they cannot trust others. They have been constantly at war for hundreds of years,” said Gordon.

He said that to avoid attention, he never used the army car and did not hire bodyguards. He always covered himself with a big blanket just like the Afghans.

I always took along a small package with passport, passport copies, clothes, water and matches in case I had to leave quickly,” he said.

Another planet

Gordon said when he first saw the desert mountains ranges with small green valleys, he felt he was landing on Mars.

Working as an operations manager for the Supreme Group which provides food, catering, logistics, clothes and aviation services to NATO, Gordon said he worked with people from different countries.

To survive there, one has to be good at dealing with people, communication and understanding different cultures, he said.

Gordon said the only thing that made him feel good during the time in Kabul was that the company employed 1,000 local people which helped them support their families. And when his staff met him they put their hands on their hearts and said “thank you.”

Early on in his assignment, Gordon found, much to his dismay, that he had to move from one place to another, which scared him.

He lived in a container tank; in an electronic world, with bodyguards, and protected by high fences, “just like a prison.”

“I counted the days and months and the last month lasted so long. And for the last day, I was counting every hour”. He was lucky that his place was never broken into, but he knows people tried to.

Gordon showed Thanh Nien Weekly pictures of children with old faces as if they’d never had a childhood. He said there were always children offering to take care of his car. At first there were around five street children and when he came back there were around 25 kids waiting for money from him.

He thought of sending Vietnamese people to work in Afghanistan, but reconsidered later. “I would feel guilty if I encouraged people to go where they could get hurt,” he said.

Back in Vietnam, things have changed.

“Before he would get angry easily, but after his time in Kabul, he has become calmer. He has had a lot of time to reflect and now he appreciates life more,” said Ha.