Friday, April 30, 2010

The sons of great men

(Published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 5, 2010)

THE ONLY CHILD (a son) of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, arguably the greatest American general of the 20th century, was born in Manila on Feb. 21, 1938.

Arthur MacArthur IV
his mother, Jean.
The life of Arthur MacArthur IV, however, remains a mystery to this day. His mother shielded Arthur from the public eye during his childhood, and Arthur developed a disdain for publicity in his later life. The elder MacArthur was apparently a doting father to Arthur: his love for Arthur was described as “relentless.”

In his twilight years, the elder MacArthur said he wanted his family to remember him more as a father than a soldier. “By profession I am a soldier and take pride in that fact. But I am prouder—infinitely prouder—to be a father. . . It is my hope that my son, when I am gone, will remember me not from the battle but in the home repeating with him our simple daily prayer, 'Our Father who art in heaven’.” Douglas MacArthur died in 1964.

The world, however, knows precious little about the only son of one of the greatest men of the 20th century. The world doesn’t even know if Arthur MacArthur remains alive today.

The younger MacArthur’s obscurity is intentional: he petitioned to have his family name changed. That petition was granted, so Arthur MacArthur now lives under a different name.

Many speculate about the real reason for Arthur rejecting his legacy of greatness. Some say he fled from the immense burden of living up to his father’s renown. Others say he wanted to be his own man.

Described as a “sensitive” child, the young MacArthur is thought to have become a musician, artist or writer. Some say he still lives in New York City, which is where his family lived in his younger years.

The son of a great man only has two choices: that of Arthur MacArthur’s or that of his father, Douglas, whose own father was a hero of the Civil War and recipient of the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor. Douglas MacArthur chose to outshine his great father, Arthur, and he did.

The sons of great fathers--or great parents--carry a name that can either be a terrible curse or a goad to new greatness. And they must make a choice for which they will forever be faulted.

In choosing to follow a great father’s footsteps, a son is always held up to comparison by his father’s peers. Sadly, he will always be found wanting despite great personal success, and some will say he would not have succeeded were it not for his father’s fame.

In choosing to disregard the greatness of his father, however, a son is readily branded a failure. It is the most terrible of all epithets because it means a son is forever his father’s shadow and is thus inferior.

And it is painful being introduced time and again to strangers as, “Ang anak ni _________” ("This is _______'s son), instead of by one’s first name.

The son of a great man can do no more than light his own fire within his father’s giant shadow. And by stoking those embers into a brilliant light within that comforting darkness, proclaim his existence to a cynical world.

Sons of great men.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Fight indoor air pollution

Home is both a haven and a personal heaven for many of us.

In today’s urban environment, however, the presence of harmful chemicals, noxious gases and disease-carrying vermin can inadvertently transform our “Home Sweet Home” into a “black hole” that actually traps various forms of pollution and endangers unwary families.

Our homes can sustain toxic mold spores and volatile organic compounds emitted by paint, endangering our health. It can also shut in life-threatening dioxins released by a variety of sources such as cigarette smoke and some plastics.

Just how serious is the problem of indoor air pollution that many urban Filipino families seem to take for granted?

The government estimates that urban indoor and outdoor air pollution accounts for some five percent of all reported disease cases and four percent of all reported deaths in the Philippines.

In the USA, the American Medical Association reported that one-third of the national health bill sprang from causes directly attributable to indoor air pollution. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has consistently ranked indoor air pollution among the top five environmental risks to public health.

The invisible enemy
Indoor air pollution is probably the Filipino family’s most insidious—and least known—enemy.

The causes of indoor air pollution in urban residential homes are either natural (house dust mites, for example) or “anthropogenic” or man-made (e.g. cigarette smoke). While natural causes appear more ubiquitous, it’s the man-made causes that pose the greater threat to a family’s health and well-being.

“Dust mites are the main cause of urban indoor air pollution in the Philippines—but only if no one in the house smokes,” said Dr. Wency Kiat, a toxicologist and pediatrician at the St. Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City.

Dr. Kiat is the only toxicologist at St. Luke’s and one of only 20 toxicologists in this country. As a toxicologist, his job is to study the harmful interactions among chemical, physical or biological agents and biological systems. He also studies the nature and effects of poisons and their treatment.

Dust mites are microscopic and almost invisible insects that exist everywhere inside our homes. They feed on minute particles of organic matter such as human dander (or dead skin flakes), the main component of house dust.

Up to 90 percent of all house dust is actually human dander. Scientists estimate the entire outer layer of our skin is shed everyday or two at a rate of seven million skin flakes per minute

Dust mites excrete enzymes to digest dander, their favorite food. They expel these enzymes in their feces, which become part of house dust. Dust mites abound in pillow cases, blankets, bed sheets, beds, furniture and carpets.

Poisonous cigarettes
In homes with cigarette smokers, however, the danger from secondhand smoke outweighs that from dust mites.

Dr. Kiat described cigarette smoke as “poisonous” since it also contains “dioxins” among its 4,000 chemicals, 40 of which are known carcinogens.  Long-term exposure to dioxins, a probable carcinogen, can lead to an increased risk of cancerous tumors.

“Cigarette smoke is one of the most dangerous sources of indoor pollutants, especially for children,” he noted. “Children are the most vulnerable to secondhand or environmental tobacco smoke.”

As for dust mites, the problem they pose for Filipino families is their omnipresence and massive numbers that reach into the millions. Dust mites, more specifically their feces, are allergens known to trigger asthma and other allergic reactions when inhaled.

House dust heavily contaminated with dust mite feces is one of the most potent allergenic substances found indoors. Some 80 percent of asthma attacks are caused by dust mites. Dust mites can also cause eczema, hay fever and other allergic ailments.

“It’s all about the bed,” said Dr. Kiat referring to the dust mites’ favorite home.

He said that while dust mites may infest pillow cases and bed sheets, it’s the mattress that’s the main source of the asthmatic attacks and allergic reactions resulting from exposure to dust mites and their droppings. Scientists estimate that a mattress can harbor up to 10 million dust mites.

Dr. Kiat recommends cleaning mattresses every three to four months to curtail the spread of dust mites. Mattresses should be also be inverted every three to four months for the same reason.

Constant cleaning always
Constant cleaning is the best defense against dust mites and other pests such as roaches, Dr. Kiat believes.

He urges families to practice the “constant cleaning method,” that is, clean often, very often.

“Constant cleaning is hard at the start, but in the long-run it’s okay,” he pointed out.

When constant cleaning, you can either use water or water mixed with small amounts of bleach instead of disinfectants. Bleach evaporates much faster than disinfectants, which remain potent (and thus poisonous) for longer periods of time.

“Water is still the safest cleaner,” said Dr. Kiat.. “Avoid using chemicals, including disinfectants, when cleaning.”

He admitted it might be difficult for families accustomed to using strong bleaches and disinfectants to rely on water.

If there is a need to use a bleach in cleaning, however, follow the manufacturer's instructions to safely dilute the bleach in water.

But for Dr. Kiat, constant cleaning with water is to be preferred.

“If you have a clean home, why do you need to disinfect?”

Dangerous LPG
One of the most dangerous yet often overlooked sources of indoor air pollution is the kitchen, Dr. Kiat noted.

He singled out homes using liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) as particularly vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning. He urges LPG users to be constantly alert when using their LPG stoves or ranges.

The worst danger comes from the incomplete combustion of LPG. This inefficiency releases more carbon monoxide into the home. Carbon monoxide is the most lethal gas found in homes today.

“If the tip of the flame is persistently yellow, the flame liberates more carbon monoxide,” Dr. Kiat explained. “The flame should be bluish in color.”

Dr. Kiat warns that carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless poison that can kill quickly in closed (air conditioned) or improperly ventilated kitchens. He recommends opening the kitchen windows when burning LPG.

Tips for a safer indoors
Dr. Kiat gave these useful tips to make your indoor air healthier—and safer:

Practice constant cleaning to contain the health threat posed by dust mites and other household pests such as roaches, ants and rats.

When feasible, prefer natural air to air conditioned air.

Get rid of stuff you don’t need. A lot of clutter means a lot more insects, especially roaches. Unwanted stuff also traps a lot of indoor dust, which is mainly human dander that dust mites feed on.

If you must use an insecticide spray to get rid of mosquitoes or roaches, spray downwards towards the floor and not upwards towards the center of the room. This will limit the toxic danger present in any insecticide. Mosquitoes and roaches hide in dark places close to, or on the floor. Also, wear plastic gloves, goggles and a protective mask when spraying.