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    High-Definition TV Doesn't Have to be Expensive

    We build a 125-inch projection system for $1,650

    I never considered myself one of those Audio/Video guys. But after my friends and I finished the final touches to my high definition (HD) projector, and we sat down to watch The Bourne Identity on my 125-inch HD screen, I realized why some men flip over home theaters.

    But what I didn't understand is why they would spend as much as $10,000 to do it. I built a knock-out home theater system for $1,650 less than the price of almost any new 40-inch HDTV. Here's how I did it:


    The final product eats up a lot of wall space.

    Before I bought anything, I spent two weeks researching sorting through the online myths, legends and generally inaccurate home theater guides that saturate the Internet.

    Before buying a projector, there are some practical obstacles to consider. The first is how much natural light is in the projector's environment.

    Even the brightest machine cannot overcome direct sunlight and most indirect sunlight. A basement or windowless room is ideal. You also need a large blank wall to project the images and a place to mount the projector so that guests and other objects don't become a part of the show.

    I'm in the fortunate position -- well, fortunate in some ways anyway -- of living in a small apartment at the end of a dark alley in an old building with high ceilings and I can't afford any nice art for my large white walls, so too much natural light is definitely not a problem. It's like the architects of my building knew 100 years ago what I would be using it for.

    A projector is not like a TV. It's an extremely high tech-piece of equipment with many more options and it's likely there's only one that fits your needs and budget, which is why research is so important.

    I spent most of my research poring over the hundreds of digital projectors available on the market and determined these are the key attributes to weigh:

    Lumen: This is the measure of perceived light power. There's no such thing as too much. The brighter the image, the more detail can be seen and the more vibrant all the images appear. High lumen is particularly important if there is any ambient light in the room. If there are windows or if you plan to operate the projector with any lights on, you'll want something with at least 2,500 lumen.

    Native resolution: Just like TVs, projectors have a maximum resolution. They range from 640x480 (standard definition [SD] TV) to 1920x1080 (true 1080 HDTV) and everything in between. Higher resolution projectors can display lower resolution images and lower resolution projectors can receive higher resolution images, but must convert them and then display them on the projector's actual native resolution. I can't tell you what resolution is best. But if the projector is for home use, you'll want at least 1280x720 (720 HDTV) so that you can enjoy your massive screen in HD. The higher resolution 1080 projectors display a crisper image, but are a relatively new technology and are not as bright and more than double the cost of their 720 counterparts.

    Native aspect ratio: Similarly, projectors have a native aspect ratio, usually 4:3 (SDTVs and most computer monitors) or 16:9 (HDTVs). Again, each can receive non-native feeds, but must convert the image by either stretching it and distorting it or by placing black bars on the sides or top and bottom of the image. For home use, 16:9 is the preferred format since HDTV broadcasts are 16:9.

    Lamp life: just like rear-projection TVs, digital projectors have a bulb that will eventually either burn out or become so weak, the feed is difficult to watch. At $250 to $400 per bulb, you'll want a projector with a long estimated lamp life. Lamp life ranges from about 2,000 hours to 4,000.

    DLP versus LCD: While LCD projectors are still in production, DLP has nearly taken over the market and for good reason. DLP's pictures are brighter, more colorful and do not blur fast-moving images. They also require next to no maintenance. DLP projectors are slightly more expensive, but this is probably the one area where you'll pay the least for the greatest gain.

    While there are other considerations such as contrast, fan noise and inputs, the five mentioned above are by far the most important.

    Since my new toy was to completely replace my TV, I needed long lamp life and brightness so I could watch it during the day or with the lights on.

    The components

    After all of my research, I settled on BenQ's SP830. At 3,500 lumen it's one of the brightest beamers on the market, it has DLP technology, up to 4,000 hours lamp life, both DVI and component inputs, a 16:9 aspect ratio and is capable of projecting 720p HDTV.

    I bought it for just under $1,500 from Amazon.com about $1,000 less than its price at a local store. It is advertised as a business projector, but like many business models, does a splendid job of everything else.

    While the projector is the single most important and most expensive portion of any home theater, you also need to factor in a screen, audio system, installation and cables.

    I basically went the cheapest route possible but it still looks brilliant.

    Screens

    For the moment I am projecting the image on a bare white wall. Because the SP830 projects at a stunning 3,500 lumen, its light reflects off almost any surface. But a weaker projector will definitely require a screen not to mention most people don't have vast, white, empty wall space.

    Many home theater projections range between 100 to 130 measured diagonally. While high-end 16:9 screens in that size can cost as much as $1,000, cheaper versions for less than $300 will dutifully work for any projector with at least 1,500 lumen.

    If you're confident that the home theater is in a permanent location, there are a few manufacturers that make screen goo that can be painted onto a wall. Some swear that screen goos reflect the best pictures.

    Regardless of how you reflect the image, always install the projector before you buy a screen. You don't want to end up with a screen that's too big or worse yet, too small.

    Audio

    Today's latest digital surround systems can add a new dimension to any home theater -- and a price tag that may double the whole project.

    For my audio, I re-used a decent subwoofer/computer speaker package that was easy to install onto the wall on either side of the projected image. I think I paid $60 for the package a few years ago. Since it's only stereo, rather than surround, it was easy and cheap to install a single stereo audio cable from my cable box in the back of the room to the speakers in the front.

    Cables

    Eric DeGrass makes final adjustments to the projector

    When I asked a friend who recently purchased an HDTV for advice on buying cables, he said, cables are the one area you don't want to go cheap on. That's what the salesman at Best Buy told him at least, and he paid $90 for a 6-foot Monster Cable.

    However, many engineers will tell you that cables are the biggest scam in the whole home theater business generally perpetrated by salesmen at Circuit City, Best Buy and the rest of the big boxes. Yes, you need cables, but what you don't need to do is pay hundreds of dollars for them.

    There is almost an endless flow of research available on the Internet that reveals that cheap yet reliable cable manufacturers perform at the same level as Monster the monster that has attacked consumers' wallets at big box stores for years.

    Monoprice.com came highly regarded on many forums and for less than $80 including shipping, I ordered 50' worth of heavy gauge HDMI and component cables along with an assortment of connectors, converters and widgets.

    The only thing to watch out for with any cable, regardless of its price, is length. The research comparing cheap cables to expensive cables revealed that picture quality may decrease if the cable is longer than 25 feet. If you must do it longer, there are video boosters you can install.

    Installation

    The final step is installation.

    I used a standard universal ceiling mount and ran all the cables along the wall and ceiling through brackets. Even my rudimentary installation was too much for one person so I lured a few of my buddies and their power tools to my apartment with cheap beer. In all it cost me $75 including the mount and beer and it doesn't look half bad.

    Running cables through the walls is definitely the classier approach, but also more expensive, time-consuming and permanent. It also makes it difficult to upgrade to a future technology that may require new cables.


    Mesmerized friends Chris Soto, Natalie Leonhard and Eric Degrass

    When I began my hunt for an HDTV, I never thought it would result in the 125-inch goliath that now dominates my northern wall. But with a little more research, planning and energy, I made it happen for a few hundred less than what I would have paid for something a third the size.

    Now I just need some sort of technology that makes my friends go home and watch their own tiny screens.

    It's an extremely high tech-piece of equipment with many more options and it's likely there's only one that fits your needs and budget, which is why resear...
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    Feds Revise Child Safety Seat Ratings

    New guideliness measure ease of use, installation procedures



    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has revised the consumer ratings system for child safety seats in an effort to clear up confusion about the variety of seats available and the installation methods required.

    A new five-star government rating system will grade child safety seats on how easy they are to properly install and will help guide parents in choosing the right car seat to keep their children safe, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said.

    NHTSA data indicates that seven out of 10 child safety seats are either the wrong size for the child or are seriously misused, reducing their effectiveness in a crash, according to the agency reported.

    NHTSA estimates properly-used child restraint systems will reduce fatal injury by 71 percent for infants and 54 percent for toddlers in passenger cars. The reduction declines in light trucks to 58 percent for infants and 59 percent for toddlers.

    The new rating system is designed help consumers assess the safety seats on the ease with which they can be used by parents.

    Even the safest car seat can't protect a child if it isn't installed correctly, Secretary Peters said. These new star ratings arm parents with the best information and challenge manufacturers to make car seats that are easier for parents to use.

    The five-star rating system will award an overall star rating as well as individual star ratings in four categories: securing the child, vehicle installation features, labeling and instructions. Five stars represent the highest rating and one star signifies the lowest rating.

    These changes will make it easier for consumers to compare products and determine which child safety seat is easiest for their daily routines, said NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason.

    Transportation officials said the new ratings system does not indicate how effective a seat is in protecting a child in a crash but compares the ease of use. The new system replaces an older ratings program which used letter grade

    Feds Revise Child Safety Seat Ratings...
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    House-Swapping Trend Emerges

    "I'll buy yours if you'll buy mine"

    If you've been trying to sell your house for over a year now, you should pay attention to this story.

    Instead of relying on Realtors, free giveaways and other gimmicks to get some traffic into your house, how about swapping your house with someone who may be in the market to sell a house that you could see yourself moving into?

    It's doing business the old-fashioned way: bartering, except that new technology now puts you closer to achieving this American dream. And more than 16,000 people around the country are apparently roped in to this trend, according to industry estimates.

    As the real estate market deteriorated over the last two years with buyers developing cold feet, web-savvy entrepreneurs sensed an opportunity. Close to half a dozen websites have now cropped up to cater to this market.

    OnlineHouseTrading.com connects sellers of homes in different areas to see if they may be a fit to swap properties.

    To avoid any last-minute hiccups, the site recommends that both sides of the swap use one title company so the two transactions close at once, thus avoiding the possibility of one party holding two simultaneous mortgages. The site also recommends that people not get involved with a seller who owes more than what their house is currently worth.

    Swapping homes could potentially save large fees traditionally paid to Realtors, recommends GoSwap.org. A simple one-time fee of $19.99 could connect you to a specific seller that appears on the website's database.

    Other players in this market are DaytonaHomeTrader.com and DomuSwap.com. Not to mention the online classifieds giant, Craigslist, is also emerging as a player in this game as it sees a jump in real estate swap ads on its site.

    "Ironically, many of the houses listed on some of these sites are listed by brokers," said Mohammad Khurram, a realtor with Fairfax, Va.-based Ikon Realty. "In the heated market, Realtors were the ones that got into this game and they know how to play the game and could be the ones pushing these kinds of schemes."

    Khurram warns that this could be a ploy by Realtors to attract business in a tough market. "It may not be exactly bait-and-switch, but it sounds pretty darn close."

    Local Realtor boards around the country are said to be watching this trend closely to ensure that no illegal activities are being conducted by their members, and also to protect their members' interests, should realtors be cut out of such transactions.

    House-swapping, which sounds like an easy exit, may be fraught with perils.

    • You may not get the exact property you want and may have to settle for something less

    • You don't know who you are dealing with - on the web

    • You may have to buy optional owners title insurance, which adds extra costs at the settlement table, to protect yourself in the event of a bad or shoddy title to the property. Typically, a bank buys title insurance when you buy a property to protect it's interests in the house. But as a buyer purchasing "owners title" is usually optional. Fees for owners title usually runs in the thousands.

    • You may have no legal recourse if the deal goes bad, or there are defects in the house once you've move in, because a licensed Realtor was not involved in the transaction.

    House-swapping may be one strategy that may work in a market that has largely evaporated as buyers shift their momentum toward rent, or rent-with-an-option-to-own programs.

    And searching for a property online for a swap, could be a bit like online dating.

    As they say: "The odds may be good, but the good may be odd."

    As the real estate market deteriorated over the last two years with buyers developing cold feet, web-savvy entrepreneurs sensed an opportunity....
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      More Bad News about Cough Medicine

      CDC finds 7,000 children treated in ERs for side effects


      The news about cough medicine just keeps getting worse. Not only is it potentially hazardous to small children and largely ineffective for adults, it can also result in a trip to the hospital.

      Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say an estimated 7,000 children ages 11 and younger are treated in hospital emergency departments each year because of the non-prescription drugs. The study was published online today by the American Academy of Pediatrics journal, Pediatrics.

      This study found that children ages 2 to 5 accounted for 64 percent of all adverse drug events from cough and cold medications, and nearly 80 percent of the events for this age group were from unsupervised ingestions.

      Among all age groups, 93 percent of the children did not require hospital admission, however, one-fourth needed additional treatment to eliminate the medicine from their bodies.

      The CDC researchers reviewed 2004-2005 data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System Cooperative Adverse Drug Event Surveillance project to describe emergency department visits due to cough and cold medications.

      "Parents need to be vigilant about keeping these medicines out of their children's reach," said Dr. Denise Cardo, director of CDC's Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion. "They should refrain from encouraging children to take medicine by telling the children that medication is candy."

      Cardo also said that adults should avoid taking adult medications in front of young children.

      Recently, such products marketed to infants and toddlers less than 2 years old were voluntarily withdrawn from the market due to safety concerns. The safety of these products for children ages 2 to 11 is currently being reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

      The researchers say parents also should not use products intended for older children to treat young children, and, as stated in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's mandated label warning, parents should keep all cough and cold medications out of the reach of children. Parents and caregivers should throw away previously purchased products marketed to infants and toddlers age 2 and younger.

      The over-the-counter cough and cold products examined in this study include these ingredients: decongestants (for unclogging a stuffy nose), expectorants (for loosening mucus so that it can be coughed up), and antitussives (for quieting coughs).

      The medications may also have included antihistamines (for sneezing and runny nose) in combination with the ingredients above. The terms on the label could include "nasal decongestants," "cough suppressants," "expectorants" and "antihistamines."

      The news about cough medicine just keeps getting worse. Not only is it potentially hazardous to small children and largely ineffective for adults....
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      Air Purifiers Under Scrutiny Again

      Ozone-emitting devices may be a health hazard

      Sounds strange but the very device you put in your master bedroom to clear the air may in fact be creating more pollution.

      The Wall Street Journal reports in today's editions that air purifiers may produce a highly-reactive ozone gas, that while being beneficial as a filter of harmful ultra-violet rays, may also be serving as a pollutant on the ground.

      Air purifiers have been a source of controversy for years. In 2005, Consumer Reports magazine said that even the best air cleaner can be a frivolous investment and said there was little evidence that the devices will reduce the effect of indoor pollutants for those with asthma or allergies.

      "Ozone is considered a toxic gas by the EPA, and its adverse effects include lung damage, exacerbated asthma symptoms and, at high levels of exposure, an increased risk of death," said the WSJ report.

      Consumer Reports has reported previously that people with asthma or respiratory allergies are especially sensitive to indoor ozone, an irritant that can worsen asthma, deaden sense of smell, raise sensitivity to pollen and mold, and may cause permanent lung damage.

      Consumers have for years reported their concerns about the unforeseen effects of the devices.

      "I purchased a Living Air Flair in 2004, thinking that I was doing something good for my family because we lived in Valencia, CA where the air quality is often very poor. We used that machine almost daily," said Lindsey of Lincoln, Calif. "My son developed asthma about 2 months after we started using the machine."

      In 2000, a federal judge ordered Alpine Industries, Inc., a Greenville, Tennessee, manufacturer of ozone generating air treatment machines to stop claiming that their machines provide relief from any medical condition or remove a wide variety of indoor air pollutants.

      A jury had earlier determined that the defendants' claims that Alpine machines could control the ambient level of indoor ozone using a sensor installed in the machine were not supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence.

      The latest report puts another cloud over the popular retail product, which is today sold by many leading online and retail stores, such as Sharper Image and Brookstone.

      Five specific products, the Zontec Perfect Air 100, Jenesco FM-1 air purifiers, Friedrich C-90B, the Kenmore K6 85264, and the Honeywell QuietClean, were mentioned in the WSJ report.

      Representatives of the air purifier industry defended the products and called for more scientific research.

      One manufacturer was quoted as saying that he was aware of the health hazards posed by some air purifiers. He was quick to add that he warns customers that they should turn on the air purifiers in their homes when they are away -- either at work, or running errands on the weekends.

      The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, or CPSC, which has jurisdiction over residential air purifiers, hasn't set ozone limits for such devices," the Journal noted.



      Air purifiers may produce a highly-reactive ozone gas, that while being beneficial as a filter of harmful ultra-violet rays, may also be serving as a pollu...
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      Winter Weather Warning for Prius Drivers

      Traction control shuts down engine on slippery surface

      One Vermont Prius driver, suffering through a recent January snowfall, described Toyota Prius traction control as "dangerous in mountainous snow country...

      Scam Artists Jump on Tax Rebate Plan

      Need Social Security number to issue check, callers tell victims


      Con artists in Missouri are exploiting consumers' hopes of receiving hundreds of dollars in tax rebates -- proposed under last week's federal economic stimulus package -- in their latest scheme.

      The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) today warned taxpayers that scam artists are contacting consumers at home and claiming to be with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The con artists tell consumers they need their Social Security and bank account numbers to send their rebate checks.

      But this is simply a ploy to steal consumers' identity, FBI officials said.

      "They're calling people on the phone and asking for their personal information, and the people are thinking they're going to get some money quicker than they normally would," Special Agent Jeff Lanza, spokesman with the FBI Bureau in Kansas City, told WDAF-TV.

      Lanza said four Kansas City consumers have received these calls and his office is worried some unsuspecting taxpayers might fall for this scam.

      "It's got credibility because it's been in the news," Lanza told reporters. "Everyone is talking about the rebate. They'll probably get more people to respond because of that."

      Lanza, however, said the IRS would never ask consumers for such personal information over the phone or through e-mail. Neither would any other governmental agency.

      And Congress has not yet approved the tax-rebate plan.

      Consumers who receive these calls should immediately hang up, FBI officials said.

      More Scam Alerts ...

      Scam Artists Jump on Tax Rebate Plan: Con artists in Missouri are exploiting consumers' hopes of receiving hundreds of dollars in tax rebates in their late...
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      Retiring Boomers Flock to Rural Areas

      Many move to quieter regions of their home state

      Many baby boomers contemplating retirement are looking for something besides a gated community in the Florida sunshine. After all, this is the generation that defied convention, and those attitudes extend to choosing a place to live once they complete their careers.

      While Florida and Arizona continue to rank at the top of the list of retirement destinations, some non-traditional retirement locales, such as North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee, are becoming favorite spots as well, according to Pulte Homes' annual baby boomer survey.

      A MetLife Mature Market study found that 25 percent of retiring boomers say they plan to stay in a different region of their current state.

      A number of rural areas are drawing retirees' attention, offering a break from the hustle and bustle of the urban areas where their jobs are located. In Virginia, a rural peninsula called the Northern Neck, surrounded by Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, has drawn an influx of retirees and boomers who have purchased second homes, with an eye toward retirement.

      Retired nursing professors Ruth Harris (left), Ada Jacox and Carol Spengler, who founded Athena Vineyards in rural Virginia.

      "This area is very rural with a slower pace and a high quality of life, yet is two hours from four major cities," said, Jason Patton, owner/broker at United Country Bay River Realty, in the tiny village of Callao, Virginia.

      In the last five years, baby boomers from Washington, Baltimore, Richmond, Norfolk and other East Coast cities have been buying up property some for weekend homes but an increasing number for full-time residences.

      While there is no way to know how many of the homes built in the last five years are full time residences and how many are vacation properties, anecdotal evidence suggests the number of fulltime residents is rising.

      "I know that I see a lot more cars on the highway now than I did a couple of years ago," said Kenny Eades, Administrator of Northumberland County, one of four counties that make up the Northern Neck. "I used to drive to work without passing another car. Now, there are a lot more."

      Still, "a lot" is a far cry from the chronic traffic congestion for which Virginia's Washington, D.C. suburbs are notorious. Locals say the closest thing to a traffic jam in the Northern Neck is a slow-moving tractor on the highway.

      Lancaster County businessman Shawn Donahue has also seen a large increase in the retiree population. In the last two years Donahue has opened several upscale stores and restaurants, and he says retirees make up a huge percentage of his customers.

      "Retirees probably make up 75 percent of our market," Donahue told ConsumerAffairs.com. "We wouldn't be in business without them."

      Patty Long, Executive Director of the Northern Neck Tourism and Economic Development Council, fields an increasing number of inquiries from people interested in moving to the area. Most, she says, are looking for the same thing.

      "I hear repeatedly that they want a small-town ambiance, safety from crime, and a simpler, hassle-free life," Long said. "The fact that property here is less expensive than in many other areas on the East Coast is an added benefit."

      And those who move to rural areas are not exactly looking to sit on the front porch all day. Most are seeking some form of community involvement, whether it's a second career or volunteer work.

      In the Victorian fishing village of Reedville, Virginia, the Reedville Fishermen's Museum attracts dozens of highly skilled and experienced professionals, who lend their talents to the museum's wide-ranging projects.

      In 2006, when museum volunteers began constructing a replica of the Capt. John Smith Barge, the museum's executive director, Chuck Backus, had a wealth of talent at his disposal that might have cost thousands of dollars in consulting fees if he had to pay for it.

      "During the construction I could look out my office window and watch a retired fishing boat captain working alongside a fourth-generation waterman, alongside a retired Navy test pilot, alongside a curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution, alongside a retired steel mill executive," Backus said.

      "It's amazing that we have such a diverse pool of retirees. These are folks who found success at the national and international level. Now they bring these unparalleled skill sets with them in service to our community."

      Of course, many of the "retirees" are not retired at all, but have embarked on new careers most far removed from their previous working lives. In 2002 three nursing professors colleagues for years retired to the Northern Neck and opened a vineyard. With no previous experience, the three women enlisted the help of an experienced winemaker and began growing grapes.

      "We wanted to do something where we could use some of the skills we had honed all our lives, and do something that would make life interesting," said Carol Spengler, one of the three partners in Athena Vineyards.

      The influx of retirees has brought a new demand for services and amenities. Two modern hospitals serve the area and private physician practices continue to grow. Several Richmond-based doctors keep weekly appointments at offices in Kilmarnock, the Northern Neck's largest town. A new cancer center recently opened in Westmoreland County.

      There are very few franchise restaurants, and many residents say that's one of the area's charms it doesn't look like "fast food America." And while there are no Starbucks, the region boasts three independently owned coffee shops that have become focal points in their respective communities.

      To help boomers get better acquainted with the area, the tourism council said it is sponsoring a "pre-retirement tour" May 16-17, inviting prospective retirees to the area to sample the Chesapeake Bay culture and small town atmosphere. Attendees will be given packets of information about the area and directed to a number of festivals, farmers markets and other weekend activities that provide a flavor of the region.

      While there are retirement homes and assisted living communities in the Northern Neck, the region doesn't have any more than you'd find in a typical rural area. Most retirees choose to live in their own homes, many on the water. It's one of the area's strong attractions and Long thinks it will continue to lure the next generation of retirees.

      "Baby boomers have always done things differently, and that's probably going to extended to retirement," she said. "They seem to want the small town life they remember, and we certainly have plenty of that."

      While Florida and Arizona continue to rank at the top of the list of retirement destinations, some non-traditional retirement locales are becoming favorite...
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      High Mercury Levels Found In Sushi

      Study finds high levels in tuna and swordfish sushi

      Millions of consumers who have developed a taste for sushi are getting something else with their meals higher than normal levels of mercury. That's the warning contained in a new report by the conservation group Oceana.

      The group reports recent independent laboratory testing of 94 samples of fish and sushi bought in 26 U.S. cities revealed that the mercury content of fresh tuna and swordfish approaches or exceeds levels that may pose risks to human health, particularly for children and women thinking of having kids.

      The fish tested were purchased at grocery stores and sushi restaurants, and included tuna - both steaks and sushi - swordfish, tilapia and sushi mackerel. The new report also evaluates seafood counter personnel knowledge about the Food and Drug Administration's FDA mercury advisory.

      Some of the test results were surprising and suggest that the FDA and seafood retailers could do more to inform consumers.

      Among the results:

      • The average mercury concentration for tuna steaks bought in grocery stores was 0.68 parts per million (ppm), which is nearly double the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's estimate of 0.38 parts per million for fresh or frozen tuna.

      • Mercury content in sushi tuna was even higher, with an average value of 0.86 ppm. Fully one-third of sushi tuna samples contained mercury exceeding the FDA "action level."

      • When grocery store seafood counter attendants were asked about the FDA's advice about mercury for women thinking of having children, 87 percent gave either incorrect or incomplete information or simply said they did not know.

      • As an alternative to high mercury swordfish and fresh tuna, sushi mackerel and tilapia tested low in mercury.

      In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency and FDA formally advised women of childbearing age and young children that they could eat up to 12 ounces of low mercury seafood per week, but to avoid swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel and shark.

      The agencies also advised that those women and children limit consumption of canned albacore tuna and tuna steaks to six ounces per week or less. Yet the tuna warning is often overlooked or ignored, even though tuna is the most consumed fish and thus the primary source of mercury exposure.

      "We were shocked that mercury levels in tuna were as high as those in many of the fish on FDA's 'do not eat' list," said Oceana senior campaign director, Jacqueline Savitz, who led this project. "If seafood is on the Lent menu, wild salmon or tilapia might be a safer choice so women and kids can get the nutritional benefits of fish without the risks.

      "Unfortunately, most shoppers will not get that message until grocery chains like Costco, Giant Eagle and others get with the program and start posting signs for their customers," Savitz said.

      Simple solutions

      To help consumers make informed seafood choices, Oceana launched its Campaign to Stop Seafood Contamination in 2005, and asked all the major grocery chains nationwide to post the EPA and FDA mercury advice at the point of sale.

      Since then, five major companies, including roughly 3,000 grocery stores, representing about 14 percent of the nation's grocery market, have voluntarily agreed to post this information, according to the group.

      Companies that are actively helping consumers protect their health include Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Safeway, Trader Joe's and some Albertsons stores. Oceana said it is urging the other national grocery chains, including Costco, Giant Food, Publix, A&P and Giant Eagle, to join them.

      Oceana said it recommends that:

      • All grocery stores that sell fish and sushi should post the FDA advice on signs at the point of sale.

      • The FDA should require warning signs to be posted where fish covered by U.S. government advisories are sold, including at grocery store seafood counters.

      • The FDA should consider including fresh tuna (including steaks and sushi) on its "Do Not Eat" list.

      • The FDA should increase the frequency of its testing of commonly consumed fish, especially fresh tuna of all species commonly consumed.

      "The FDA needs to do a much better job of informing Americans about the risk of mercury exposure from fish consumption," said Michael Bender, executive director of the Mercury Policy Project. "These latest tests confirm that the consumer is playing Russian roulette when they are kept in the dark about the mercury levels in tuna and swordfish."



      High Mercury Levels Found In Sushi...
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      EdebitPay Agrees to $2.2 Million Settlement

      Unauthorized debit, deceptive marketing at issue


      A company that marketed Visa- and MasterCard-branded prepaid debit cards to subprime consumers has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it made unauthorized debits from consumers bank accounts and engaged in deceptive marketing practices.

      The settlement requires EdebitPay, LLC, EDP Reporting, LLC, EDP Technologies Corporation, Secure Deposit Card, Inc., Dale Paul Cleveland, and William Richard Wilson, all located in Los Angeles, to pay $2,258,258 for consumer redress, plus the proceeds from the sale of an automobile.

      In addition, Dale Paul Cleveland must pay taxing authorities an additional $667,288.

      According to the FTCs complaint, the defendants marketed bank-issued prepaid debit cards under a variety of names through Web sites and pop-up and e-mail advertisements that directed consumers to sites for the individual cards (including Acclaim Visa, Impact Visa, Sterling Visa, VIP Advantage Visa, Vue Visa, Elite Plus MasterCard, Impact MasterCard, Secure Deposit MasterCard, VIP MasterCard, and Vue MasterCard).

      They also marketed unrelated short-term loans on Web sites such as www.SuperAutoSource.com and www.SuperCashSource.com.

      The complaint also contends that, among other things, the defendants debited, without authorization, a $159.95 application and processing fee from consumers bank accounts, including from consumers who did not submit an online application for the prepaid cards or who had applied for an unrelated short-term loan.

      Under the proposed settlement, the defendants are prohibited from debiting a consumers account or causing billing information to be submitted for payment without first obtaining the consumers express informed consent.

      The order also prohibits the defendants from misrepresenting any fact material to a consumers decision to apply for or purchase any product or service.

      In addition, it requires them to disclose clearly and conspicuously certain material information before a consumer applies for or purchases any product or service, such as any charge that will be assessed against the consumers bank account; any method that will be used to debit the account; that the consumers personally identifiable information will be used to debit the account; that such information will be sold or transferred to third parties for marketing purposes; the material attributes of the product or service being offered; and, if a representation is made about a refund or cancellation policy, a statement of all material terms and conditions of the policy.

      EdebitPay marketed Visa MasterCard-branded prepaid debit cards to subprime consumers has agreed to settle FTC charges that it made unauthorized debits from...
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      Feds Delay Roof Strength Rule

      Safety advocates say latest proposal is inadequate

      Safety regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are having a difficult time updating the controversial standard for vehicle roof strength.

      The present standard has been on the books since 1971 and a proposed new standard has been repeatedly delayed. Now, NHTSA has asked for yet more information from automakers, safety advocates and the public about the proposed new standards.

      The most recent version of the rule under consideration at NHTSA would require both sides of a vehicle roof to support at least two and half times the vehicle's weight. But safety advocates aren't buying it.

      "The proposal is still a static test -- one based on mathematical calculations, rather than a dynamic physical test -- and it still is at 2.5 times the weight of the vehicle," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook, who headed NHTSA from 1977 through 1981..

      The agency has pondered the regulation since the first NHTSA revision of the roof strength rule was panned by both automakers and safety advocates.

      The existing standard mandates that just one side support at least one and half of the weight of a vehicle weight. The initial revision of the roof strength rule from NHTSA required support of two and half times vehicle weight but would have continued testing on one side only.

      NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason now says that double-sided testing is a viable alternative approach.

      Safety activists have demanded a "dynamic" rollover test which would require rolling a moving vehicle to gather data.

      Automakers insist such a test will be costly and accidents involving rollovers include too many variables to design a reliable test.

      Each year, nearly 10,000 people die in rollover crashes but government data suggest that only a small percentage of vehicle occupants are killed by collapsing roofs; most are killed because they aren't wearing seat belts, safety regulators say.

      Claybrook said it's not that simple.

      "The proposal absolutely ignores ejection and containment in the vehicle during rollovers, in which 10,500 people die each year and another 17,000 are seriously injured. To justify a strong rollover protection standard, the agency should address roof crush, ejection and containment as one standard," she said.

      Congress most recently directed NHTSA to adopt a new roof standard by April 2009. NHTSA plans to issue a new rollover rule later this year.

      Feds Delay Roof Strength Rule...
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      Existing Home Sales, Prices Keep Falling

      Re-Fi's up, but potential buyers staying out of the market

      The U.S. housing market ended 2007 with another big decline in sales in December, capping one of the worst markets in a quarter century. The National Association of Realtors reports December sales dropped 2.2 percent to an annual rate of 4.89 million.

      Mortgage applications jumped as homeowners rushed to refinance, hoping to lock in lower interest rates.

      But falling home values are a major cause for concern for both Realtors and homeowners, as December saw a decline in the median price of a single family home. It was the first price decline since the 1960s.

      "Home sales remain weak despite improved affordability conditions in many parts of the country, but we could get a quick boost to the market if loan limits are raised in combination with the bold cut in the Fed funds rate," Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said.

      "Home prices are lower, mortgage interest rates continue to decline and incomes are higher, but many potential buyers are delaying a purchase."

      According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage fell to 6.10 percent in December from 6.21 percent in November; the rate was 6.14 percent in December 2006.

      Last week, Freddie Mac reported the 30-year fixed rate dropped to 5.69 percent.

      "Although interest rates on jumbo loans have fallen somewhat, they remain well above conventional mortgage rates," Yun said. "It isn't surprising that the share of single-family homes selling for more than $500,000 fell to 12.4 percent of transactions in December from 14.2 percent a year ago."

      Total housing inventory fell 7.4 percent at the end of December to 3.91 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 9.6-month supply at the current sales pace, down from a 10.1-month supply in November.

      "The fall in inventory in December is encouraging, but inventories remain elevated and buyers have a clear edge over sellers in many markets," Yun said.

      The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $208,400 in December, down 6.0 percent from a year earlier when the median was $221,600. But the Realtors said that because home sales have slowed the most in higher cost markets, there is a downward distortion to the national median as the mix of closed sales has changed over the past year.

      For all of 2007, the median price was $218,900, down 1.4 percent from a median of $221,900 in 2006.

      Refinancing drives mortgage applications

      People flocking to refinance their existing mortgages pushed mortgage applications up 8.3 percent last week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Associations Weekly Mortgage Applications.

      The MBAs Market Composite Index, a measure of mortgage loan application volume, was 981.5 compared with 906.4 one week earlier, and was up 63.7 percent compared with the same week one year earlier.

      "Refinance applications are up 92% since the beginning of November and purchase applications are up 7%. With tighter credit conditions we do not know how many of these applications will become loans, but it is clear that borrowers are responding to the 40-80 basis point drop in rates we have seen since November 2 across products," said Jay Brinkmann, Vice President of Research and Economics at the Mortgage Bankers Association.

      The Refinance Index increased 16.9 percent to 4178.2 from 3575.5 the previous week and the seasonally adjusted Purchase Index decreased 4.6 percent to 439.9 from 461.2 one week earlier.

      The Conventional Purchase Index decreased 5.5 percent while the Government Purchase Index (largely FHA) increased 1.0 percent. On an unadjusted basis, the Purchase Index increased 1.1 percent to 369.7 from 365.7 the previous week.

      The refinance share of mortgage activity increased to 66.0 percent of total applications from 62.7 percent the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 9.3 from 9.2 percent of total applications from the previous week.

      The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages decreased to 5.49 percent from 5.62 percent, with points increasing to 1.07 from 0.94 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value (LTV) ratio loans.

      The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages decreased to 4.96 percent from 5.07 percent, with points increasing to 1.22 from 1.09 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans.

      The average contract interest rate for one-year ARMs decreased to 5.51 percent from 5.77 percent, with points increasing to 1.01 from 1.00 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans.

      Existing Home Sales, Prices Keep Falling...
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      Study finds health benefits may be oversold

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      U.S. Diet Dishes Up Diabetes

      Burgers, fries, soft drinks lead to metabolic syndrome


      Otherwise-healthy adults who eat two or more servings of meat a day -- the equivalent of two burger patties -- increase their risk of developing metabolic syndrome by 25 percent compared with those who eat meat twice a week, according to research published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

      Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of cardiovascular disease and diabetes risk factors including elevated waist circumference, high blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL or good) cholesterol and high fasting glucose levels.

      The presence of three or more of the factors increases a persons risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

      But its not just meat that adds inches to the waist, increases blood pressure and lowers HDL -- its fried foods as well, said Lyn M. Steffen, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., co-author of the study and an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota.

      Dairy products, by contrast, appeared to offer some protection against metabolic syndrome.

      Fried foods are typically synonymous with commonly eaten fast foods, so I think it is safe to say that these findings support a link between fast-food consumption and an increase in metabolic risk factors, said Steffen.

      The findings come from an analysis of dietary intake by 9,514 people in the Atherosclerosis Risk In Communities (ARIC) study, funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

      Real food, real people

      Unlike other researchers who have investigated relationships between nutrients and cardiovascular risk, we specifically studied food intake. When making recommendations about dietary intake it is easier to do so using the framework of real foods eaten by real people, Steffen said.

      Researchers assessed food intake using a 66-item food frequency questionnaire. From those responses, they categorized people by their dietary preferences into a Western-pattern diet or a prudent-pattern diet.

      In general, the Western-pattern diet was heavy on refined grains, processed meat, fried foods, red meat, eggs and soda, and light on fish, fruit, vegetables and whole grain products.

      Prudent diet eating patterns, by contrast, favored cruciferous vegetables , things like cabbage, radish and broccoli, carotenoid vegetables -- carrots, pumpkins, red pepper, cabbage, broccoli and spinach -- fruit, fish and seafood, poultry and whole grains, along with low-fat dairy.

      Researchers also assessed associations with individual food items: fried foods, sweetened beverages, diet soft drinks, nuts and coffee.

      Nine years

      After nine years of follow-up, nearly 40 percent of the participants had three or more of the risk factors for metabolic syndrome.

      At baseline, participants were 45 to 64 years old -- ages at which many people gain weight.

      Steffen said weight gain over the years of follow-up might explain some of the cases of metabolic syndrome. But after adjusting for demographic factors, smoking, physical activity and energy intake, consumption of a Western dietary pattern was adversely associated with metabolic syndrome, she said.

      One surprising finding was while it didnt increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, there was no evidence of a beneficial effect of consuming a prudent diet either. I had expected to find a beneficial effect because we have seen that in other studies, Steffen added.

      Dairy products beneficial

      When researchers analyzed the results by specific foods, they found that meat, fried foods and diet soda pop all were significantly associated with increased risk of metabolic syndrome, but consumption of dairy products was beneficial.

      The study did not address the mechanisms involved in the increased risk of metabolic syndrome seen with certain foods, but Steffen speculated that it may be a fatty acid mechanism since saturated fats are a common link and certainly overweight and obesity are contributing to the development of metabolic syndrome.

      She also said more research on the relationship between diet soda and its association to metabolic syndrome is needed.

      The fact that 60.5 percent of the ARIC population had metabolic syndrome at the start of the study or developed it during nine years of follow-up is troubling, researchers said.

      Steffen said the studys results are clear: Too much meat, fried foods and diet soda, do not add up to a healthy life.

      Guidelines

      American Heart Association dietary guidelines for healthy Americans age 2 and older include:

      • Limit saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium in the diet.

      • Minimize the intake of food and beverages with added sugars.

      • Eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and whole-grain foods.

      • Select fat-free and low-fat dairy.

      • Eat fish at least twice per week.

      • Emphasize physical activity and weight control.

      • Avoid use of and exposure to tobacco products.

      • Achieve and maintain healthy cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose levels.



      U.S. Diet Dishes Up Diabetes...
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      Cough Medicine Might Not Help Adults, Either

      Industry-backed studies more positive than others

      There's been plenty of research lately saying many non-prescription cough medicines don't help children with colds and might even cause harm. Now there's a study suggesting they don't help adults much, either.

      "I do not give my kids over-the-counter cough medicine," said Thomas Fahey, professor of general practice at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Medical School and review co-author. "I do not advise my patients to do so."

      In their review, Fahey and colleagues looked at both children- and adult-focused studies. Some reported that OTC cough medicines helped patients; others said they did not. With conflicting evidence, the various studies presented a non-cohesive picture.

      Conflicts of interest?

      Another issue concerned the researchers, who wrote, "Six out of the nine studies that were supported by the pharmaceutical industry showed positive results compared to three positive studies out of 16 trials that did not report any conflict of interest."

      On the other hand, "Most preparations appear to be safe based on those studies reporting side effects, which only described a low incidence of mainly minor adverse effects," the researchers found.

      The review of the studies appears in the latest issue of The Cochrane Library, a publication of The Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization that evaluates medical research. Systematic reviews like this one draw evidence-based conclusions about medical practice after considering both the content and quality of existing medical trials on a topic.

      The Cochrane review encompassed 25 studies, 17 of which involved 2,876 adults and eight of which involved 616 children.

      During the past decade, physicians have increasingly voiced concerns about these medicines and the potential for overdosing young children.

      In August, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned parents not to give over-the-counter cough and cold remedies to children under 2 years old without a doctor's approval. During a hearing before an FDA panel in October, federal health advisers said that children younger than six years should not take the medicines.

      Cure worse than the disease?

      Is it even necessary to cure a cough?

      People often worry about a cough if it has not gone away after a week, Fahey said. Actually, the duration of a cough is commonly two weeks in children and three weeks in adults.

      "I think there's the laymen's perception," Fahey said. The common conclusion is that "something should be done about it. It [coughing] is troublesome at night. But it is not a bad thing to be coughing. It could be helpful. It is a mechanism for shedding viruses."



      Cough Medicine Might Not Help Adults, Either...
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      Instant Tax Refund Always Carries a Price

      Nothing free about refund anticipation loans


      It's another income tax filing season, and that means consumer organizations are renewing their warnings to taxpayers to avoid "refund anticipation loans," normally targeted at low-income, cash-strapped consumers.

      What exactly is a refund anticipation loan?

      H&R Block, the nationwide financial services firm that pioneered the RAL, settled a class action lawsuit in 2006 that challenged the fees and interest rates it charged for refund anticipation loans. Now, on its Web site, it offers this disclosure to consumers:

      "A refund anticipation loan is a short-term loan secured by a taxpayer's anticipated federal income tax refund. The loan is made by a third-party lending bank and facilitated by H&R Block in its tax offices. "Taxpayers choose refund anticipation loans because they can receive money in one to two days, compared to waiting up to 15 days for a tax refund to be directly deposited into their existing bank account or three to eight weeks for a mailed IRS refund check."

      Note the time difference in when the taxpayer receives the money -- one or two days with an RAL, but "up to 15 days" by simply waiting for the refund from the IRS. So, what does it cost to save 10 or twelve days?

      "There are two bank fees associated with a RAL: a refund account fee and a finance charge," H&R Block says on its Web site.

      The amount of the fees varies, but when measured as payment for a loan of less than two weeks, the annual interest rate can be extremely high.

      Low-income taxpayers targeted

      "RALs continue to drain over a billion dollars from the pockets of American taxpayers including Earn Income Tax Credit recipients," said the Center For Responsible Lending, in a statement.

      The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a refundable credit provided through the tax system and intended to boost low-wage workers out of poverty. The EITC is the largest federal anti-poverty program providing over $38.7 billion to 22 million families in 2004.

      So, even though these wage earners paid little or nothing in the way of taxes, they are entitled under the EITC to sometimes fairly large tax refunds. Consumer groups argue that many RALs are targeted at this group.

      In 2007 H&R Block introduced an option to its RAL program that adds even more fees. Now, instead of receiving a check or having the loan amount deposited directly in a bank account, taxpayers may get their loan proceeds on plastic.

      Prepaid credit cards

      "This year, clients can receive the proceeds of their loan payment on the H&R Block Emerald Prepaid MasterCard, which is tied to an FDIC-insured bank account," said Tim Gokey, President, H&R Block Retail Tax Services, in January 2007. "Clients can direct deposit funds to the account year-round with no fee for point-of-sale purchases, have access to a worldwide ATM network, and can avoid expensive check-cashing fees."

      While the card might prove convenient for someone who does not have a bank account, it does not come without fees.

      First, the user is charged $1.85 each time the card is used at an in-network ATM. There is an additional fee if the ATM is outside the network, and you may be charged, even if you don't complete the transaction. To add insult to injury, if you are denied cash when using your card at an ATM, you are charged 50 cents.

      While Internet account balance inquiries are free, you will be charged $1 a month for a statement through the mail. Need to talk to a customer service rep? It'll cost you $2.

      Really free

      But regardless of how the loan is paid, state attorneys general and consumer groups are nearly unanimous in their advice to consumers to avoid RALs in any form.

      "Taxpayers can save themselves expensive fees by saying 'no' to RALs," said the National Consumer Law Center and Consumer Federation of America, in a joint report. "If they want quick refunds, they can get them in two weeks or less by filing their tax returns electronically and having refunds directly deposited into their own bank accounts. That's a FREE quick refund."

      Instant Tax Refund Always Carries a Price...
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