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The Sky Is Falling

Notes from an emergency room doctor: Where once the "Chicken Littles" of our world were written off as comedic paranoids, today they hold a prominent place in the world of politics and science. Where once earthquakes, fires, and floods were the bane of humanity, now we have to worry about more cosmic catastrophes.

On July 20th, while Jupiter was being bombarded by huge fragments of a comet, the House Science Committee voted to require NASA to track any major comets or asteroids that threaten to hit the earth. The committee noted that an asteroid half a mile in diameter crossed Earth's path in 1989, coming within six hours of hitting. It was only discovered after it whizzed by us. So, while Congress is not suggesting any imminent threat of "world's colliding," they want us to be prepared.

But the risk of cometary collision is not our only threat from celestial destruction. Today, there is a real danger to public health due to ozone depletion.

Within the spectrum of heat and light that the sun shines down upon us, there is ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UV can disrupt DNA and protein. But 20 to 50 km above the earth, a thin layer of ozone in the stratosphere effectively absorbs UV and protects plants and animals from its toxic effects. Ozone is created when solar UV splits a molecule of oxygen creating two reactive atoms. If one of these atoms collides with a molecule of oxygen (O2), a molecule of ozone (O3) is formed.

In the troposphere, that layer of atmosphere closest to earth in which we live, ozone has a different effect. There ozone combines with automobile exhausts and industrial pollutants to form smog.

So ozone high above is good. And ozone lower down is bad. What environmentalists and physicians are concerned about is the fact that we're losing the good ozone and gaining the bad.

Chloroflurocarbons from spray cans and refrigerants have been especially responsible for depleting the upper atmospheric ozone. This compound has diffused into the stratosphere and chemically broken down this "good" ozone layer. In 1985, scientists discovered a hole in that ozone layer that now has expanded from Antarctica to the populated areas of the Northern Hemisphere.

More and more dangerous UV radiation is now raining down upon us. UV causes skin dryness, wrinkling, and premature aging. It causes sunburn and as later consequence, skin cancer. There are cosmetically disfiguring skin cancers like basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas and life threatening skin cancers like melanomas. The risk of these cancers increases in proportion to total exposure to UV radiation. With the depletion of the ozone layer, skin cancer is predicted to increase into the hundreds of millions of cases in the next century.

Cataracts, which account for half the blindness in the world, will also increase with more UV radiation. Our ability to fight to disease diminishes because exposure to UV alters our cellular immunity. UV radiation can also damage crops and bring on global food shortages.

This hole in the ozone layer not only allows dangerous UV radiation through where it can disrupt our DNA and proteins but also allows UV to make more ozone in our lower atmosphere which creates more smog. And more smog translates into more respiratory ailments.

The good news is that there is an international agreement that will phase out chlorofluorocarbons by the year 2000. The bad news is that it will take at least 100 years before the effects on the ozone layer disappear. By then we can worry about the comet that I'm sure is coming.

You're probably not happy to read about earthly doom, comets colliding, and holes in the atmosphere. Afterall, there's no place to hide. But just think of the intelligent conversations you can have with the "Chicken Littles" walking around with placards reading "the end is near."