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News Briefs

Environmentalists’ Study Shows Tell-Tale Radiation Levels

LOS ANGELES TIMES -- TOKYO

Telltale signs of neutron radiation found in a gold bracelet, coins, leaves and household salt leave little doubt that people in the neighborhood of Japan’s worst nuclear accident were exposed to a potentially damaging bombardment, environmentalists and scholars said Thursday.

“Of course the people who were within 500 (yards of the plant) were irradiated,” said Hiroaki Koide of Kyoto University’s Reactor Research Institute. “The only question is the degree.”

The Japanese government has said that at least 49 people, 33 of them plant workers, were exposed to radiation last Thursday during a surprise nuclear fission reaction at a uranium fuel processing plant in Tokaimura, about 80 miles northeast of Tokyo.

However, the environmental group Greenpeace, after collecting its own samples of soil, leaves and household salt and sending it to a chemistry lab at Rikkyo University for analysis, announced that it believes several hundred people may have been exposed during the 20-hour crisis.

The group said it found the radioactive isotope sodium-24 in salt collected from private homes 175 yards from the plant and in soil collected 500 yards away. Though the isotopes have a half-life of just 15 hours and quickly fade away, they are the result of passing neutrons that travel through buildings, cars and human bodies, potentially causing DNA damage and increasing the risk of cancer in the long term.

Thousands of Fen-Phen Claims Produce $4.83 Billion Settlement

LOS ANGELES TIMES

The maker of key ingredients in the diet drug cocktail known as Fen-Phen has agreed to pay $4.83 billion to settle thousands of claims from patients who may have sustained heart damage from taking the once-popular weight loss regimen.

American Home Products, maker of fenfluramine, the potent portion of the mixture, and dexfenfluramine, a chemical cousin sometimes used instead, said Thursday it had signed a letter of intent with lawyers representing 8,000 patients to pay for medical monitoring, health care and some compensatory damages to those who took the drugs before fenfluramine was pulled off the market in 1997.

“It has achieved what we lawyers seldom see, and that is a full measure of justice for these people,” said attorney Michael Fishbein, one of the lead plaintiffs attorneys on the deal.

The settlement, which still must be approved by a federal judge in Philadelphia, would be open to all 6 million people who took either of the AHP drugs, marketed under the names Pondimin and Redux. Those with the most serious heart disease could receive as much as $1.5 million under the terms of the deal.

But actual payments to some patients with minimal heart damage could be as low as $6,000, and not all conditions believed to be caused by fen-phen are included. For example, many doctors believe that the pills also caused a form of heart failure called primary pulmonary hypertension, but that is not part of the deal.

National Health Institute Director Moves to Memorial Sloan-Kettering

NEWSDAY

Saying his “connection to New York is deep,” Dr. Harold Varmus on Thursday announced he is resigning as director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., where he oversaw a $15.6 billion budget and 24 separate research institutes, to become president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.

The resignation, which will take effect Dec. 31, ends a six-year government career in which “he raised the standards, the expectations and the spirit here,” according to Dr. Richard Klausner, the director of the National Cancer Institute.

Born and reared on Long Island, N.Y., the 59-year-old graduate of Columbia University’s medical school described Sloan-Kettering as “a place where I can feel a sense of leadership,” within the cancer research community. He replaces Dr. Paul Marks, who announced last year that he was retiring, after serving as president since 1980.

During a news conference Thursday, the 1989 Nobel laureate said he was not leaving because of any dissatisfaction with the NIH, but rather because he felt personally it was a time for change in his life.

“It’s actually a good time at the NIH,” he said. “Our lab is flourishing. I have a good relationship with the president, vice president and Mrs. Clinton. And the genome project (in which scientists are aiming to identify all genes within the human body) is coming to completion.”

Domino’s Pizza’s $2 Million Fumble

THE WASHINGTON POST -- WASHINGTON

Domino’s may know the cost of cheese, dough, tomato sauce and pepperoni. What it didn’t count on was the high price of Redskins touchdowns. In fact, one might call it Domino’s Pizza’s $2 million fumble.

Before the football season, the Washington area’s 143 Domino’s outlets decided to try to boost business on their slowest day of the week -- Monday -- by offering customers $1 off every pizza, no matter the size, for every touchdown the Redskins scored the day before.

The 22 Domino’s franchise holders in the Washington area knew the numbers from last year -- the woebegone Redskins scored 40 touchdowns in a forgettable 6-10 season, which figures out to 2 1/2 touchdowns a game.

Or, put another way, that’s an average of $2.50 off, say, a large pizza with sausage and mushrooms.

So, as Dave Wood, a Redskins season-ticket holder and owner of 16 Domino’s outlets in Northern Virginia, said, “we were figuring in a big game they might get four touchdowns. Some games maybe they’d get zero, one or two.”