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March 15, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 11

In praise of teachers

I greatly appreciated the article "North Pacific Paradise" (C&EN, Feb. 2, page 83). I am a graduate of Western Washington University (B.A. in 1981 and M.S. in 1983), and I have been an advocate for good liberal arts programs my entire professional life. Although my opinion is certainly biased, I have been able to compare the benefits of liberal arts programs to higher power research institutions during both my Ph.D. and my professional career. I believe that, on the whole, the broad foundation that is offered from liberal arts programs provides the best basis for learning and professional success, independent of the area of specialty. This belief has been reinforced many times over, both from my experience and the experiences of many colleagues.

Fortunately, I had better luck than most liberal arts graduates, since I had the privilege of attending Western and being inspired in science by the wonderful faculty that Mark Wicholas spoke of. Each member of Western's faculty, not just the chemistry department, was devoted to true learning. However, the chemistry faculty at Western deserves special recognition for their love of teaching and science--maybe in that order, an order of priority that seems to have less and less emphasis in higher education in the U.S.

It is a shame that we tend to measure success in chemistry by how many publications or patents one has achieved. I believe that the true measure of success is in how many lives and careers have been inspired to their greatest potential. In this measure, the faculty at Western and similar high-caliber liberal arts programs are the standard-bearers for science.

To the faculty at Western who will be retiring, and others like them, I say thank you. You will be missed--but your work will live on.

Roger W. Koops
Brisbane, Calif.


Mercury: A persistent problem

I find it amazing that, with all that is known about mercury, thimerosal is still given the benefit of the doubt, particularly when it has to do with injecting it (C&EN, Feb. 23, page 18). Thimerosal as topical antibacterial fluid (merthiolate) or in ointments or soaps was taken off the market years ago because it was not considered safe. Even the suggestion that mercury from thimerosal is nothing to worry about leaves any true scientist speechless.

To say it more bluntly, mercury is a poison in any form. Any organic version of it is even more poisonous. The only reason certain people still vehemently defend it is because they are afraid of lawsuits. Some of the mentioned studies are authored by<br > people who have ties to pharmaceutical companies. Thimerosal was never tested properly for safety. If you are interested in more about mercury, please visit

Birgit Calhoun
Stanford, Calif.


Mold news

In "Today's Materials Favor Mold Growth," several points pertaining to mold growth were misstated or omitted (C&EN, Feb. 16, page 60). The common building material "oriented strand board" (OSB) is indeed a composite of wood and adhesive, but it is manufactured from chipped poplar (aspen) and not from recycled materials. Poplar wood, unlike cedar, has very little resistance to fungal growth, and OSB is therefore readily attacked by wood-decaying organisms; mold does not grow on the adhesive, often a phenol-formaldehyde resin. (The adhesive is sprayed onto the wood chips; transforming rigid OSB to a flaky mush only requires destruction of the cellulose or lignin at the adhesive points of contact.)

Mold problems in buildings fall into two distinct categories: those caused by genera of "microfungi" (such as Cladosporium, Aspergillus, and Penicillium) and those caused by "macrofungi" (such as Meruliporia incrassata and Serpula lacrimans). Most microfungi are not wood-destroying organisms. Rather, they grow as mildew on the surfaces of building materials, often consuming nutrients from settled dust (or starch from parenchyma cells in bare wood), and where they thrive on moisture from the air due to excessive indoor relative humidity. This is a condition most often found close to concrete slabs and foundation or cold exterior walls and within air-conditioning systems, the worst being in proximity to the cooling coils.

Thus, a large part of mold-related illness is due not to "tight" buildings, but rather to lifestyle changes associated with carpeting on concrete, particularly in below-grade spaces, and to the growing and widespread use of air conditioning.

Macrofungi (white and brown rots) are true wood-destroying organisms and are not often found above grade indoors; but they may attack structural components of framing, particularly where chronically damp (most often close to foundations or at leaks). OSB sheathing around windows and doors is often wet as a result of rainwater penetration at joints, and the presence of insulation in building cavities reduces the heat flow and convection necessary to assist in evaporation. Phanerochaete chrysosporium, a white rot, and Schizophyllum commune attack OSB.

Larger buildings should be slightly (positively) pressurized; if depressurized as a result of the operation of the mechanical system (more stale air is exhausted than fresh air is supplied), dampness in wall cavities will result primarily from infiltration (pressure-driven flow) of moist, exterior air through the building envelope and not from soil moisture (diffusion-driven and therefore slow) through the concrete foundation.

Although it may seem as though building tightness and the lack of operable windows result in moisture "trapping," this is not the cause of sick buildings. Focusing on this concept distracts from finding the true solutions to these devastating and costly problems.

Jeffrey C. May
Cambridge, Mass.


Depression: Not so hopeless

I was pleased to see the article on depression, but sad that it simply followed a position that is editorially safe and omitted some medications that can be very helpful from the patient's standpoint (C&EN, Feb. 7, page 33). This apparently was done because these medications don't have, and probably never will have, Food & Drug Administration approval for use against depression.

For example, dilantin (an FDA-approved anticonvulsant) has provided relief from depression for innumerable people. But it stands no chance for FDA approval for use as an antidepressant--the reason being, understandably, that drug companies and researchers have no interest in spending millions to get an old, inexpensive drug through the approval process. Nevertheless, it would have been a public service to have mentioned it in the article and let those suffering from depression talk to their doctors about the drug, which has none of the life-threatening side effects associated with some of the currently prescribed medications.

George M. Nichols
Wilmette, Ill.

It was interesting to have C&EN run a feature story on an important condition affecting many people around the world, depression. The story mentions clinical management and a number of medications. But it ignores S-adenosylmethionine (SAM-e), which was discovered in biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health and has been explored clinically in many countries.

I was in charge of a symposium dealing with SAM-e at the New York Academy of Sciences. There are many references dealing with SAM-e, including a book (R. Brown, T. Bottiglieri, and C. Colman, "Stop Depression Now," G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1999) and a review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. As a result of the symposium, the speakers present and I concluded that SAM-e was a natural product formed in the body by a specific enzyme system discovered by G. L. Cantoni, who also showed that the effectiveness of the enzyme decreased with age; for that reason, depression is often seen in older people. SAM-e is available as an over-the-counter product in pharmacies and health food stores.

John H. Weisburger
Valhalla, N.Y.

As a pharmacist, I read your article on depression with great interest. It gave me a good update on the most recent research and products available to treat different forms of depression. However, two very important parts of the depression story were not covered: premenstrual syndrome in women and the effect of natural progesterone to alleviate not only PMS but also many other stress-related disorders in women, men, and children. I trust that you will be able to do a similar in-depth research article on these topics in the future. I have seen and experienced the benefits of natural progesterone supplementation, which surpassed the benefits of traditional drugs for depression.

Chrisita Ackermann
Ann Arbor, Mich.


Out of this world

I believe that "Setting Space Goals," by Susan Morrissey and Elizabeth Wilson, expressed the thoughts of many scientists (C&EN, Feb. 23, page 40). We are eager for new information but realize that there are smart ways to gather information or carry out experiments and there are expensive and impractical ways of gathering information or carrying out experiments. With space exploration, human participation requires huge increases in complexity and cost with very little technical increase in the information obtained.

I feel the recent proposal is more inspired by politics and emotion than it is by good science. NASA has two "camps": those that are focused on human participation and those that are focused on the machine/robot part. Each has its place, but at this time in history, the human part of space exploration should be confined to Earth orbit.

It should be pointed out that part of the money in the recent proposal will still need to be spent to keep humans in Earth orbit, since the current space shuttle system is out of date and a newer, safer, better system is required for transport to an Earth-orbiting space station. I hope the decisions on the next launch vehicle will not be motivated by the organizational pressures of one of the "camps" within NASA to maintain jobs at the current launch facilities.

The type of launch system proposed a couple of decades ago that replaces the current high-risk launch with a system that leaves the ground on the back of an airplane should be reexamined. With that approach, an airplane takes off from an airport with the shuttle on its back. The shuttle then launches above weather problems, without the risk associated with external tanks or engines. This could dramatically increase the safety and launch reliability of future missions.

David Berkebile
Landenberg, Pa.


Partners in arms

I read with interest the letter submitted by Charley Liberko (C&EN, Feb. 2, page 5). While I agree with his position, I do not believe that the American Chemical Society is uniquely suited to tackle the enormous task of dealing with problems in the drug development process. Other organizations, such as the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists; the American Pharmaceutical Association; the Chemical & Pharmaceutical Industry; the Drug, Chemical & Associated Technologies Association; and the Controlled Release Society--all with close pharmaceutical ties--would be better suited for the undertaking.

ACS involvement would be helpful. ACS could take the lead by organizing a committee with representatives from each group. By excluding members from the other groups, key individuals would be missing from the equation. As a result, ACS would be more likely to fail than to succeed in its efforts.

Joseph A. Zeleznik
Poughkeepsie, N.Y.


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