The Almanac


Cutting ties

January is the least matrimonial of months: fewer couples get married in January than in any other month, and divorce lawyers typically have their busiest month of the year. Lawyers attribute the surge in business in part to couples who, for their children's sake or for financial reasons, wait until after the holidays to implement a decision reached earlier. Others seeking counsel in January are motivated by the hope for a fresh beginning that comes with a new year, or are determined not to spend another holiday season with their spouses or in-laws. In recent years divorce settlements have placed an increasing number of ex-husbands on the receiving end of alimony payments, as women have secured better, higher-paying jobs. (In 1979 the U.S. Supreme Court declared that state laws requiring only men to pay alimony were unconstitutional.) The number of ex-husbands awarded child custody is also on the rise: families headed by single fathers are now the fastest-growing kind of family.

Expiring Patent

No. 4,244,057. Nasal Drip Absorbing Device. "In combination with an article of outer clothing, a nasal drip absorbing device ... comprising ... a disposable absorbent pad formed of multiple layers of absorbent tissue ... secured to the [user's sleeve]; whereby the user can absorb nasal drip in the pad conveniently without reaching into a pocket for other absorbent material."

Health and Safety

This month two San Francisco clinics begin trials of a "morning-after" pill regimen aimed at preventing HIV infection among those who may have been exposed to the virus within the previous 72 hours through sex or syringes. The program, sponsored by private donors and the city and county of San Francisco, is an effort to extend to the public immediate-postexposure prevention -- commonly available to health-care workers accidentally exposed to HIV. Researchers will be evaluating such things as patient compliance (the treatment involves taking various drugs at precise intervals for 28 days) and side effects. Although the study will be limited to 500 patients, the regimen, along with counseling, will be offered to all applicants who believe they may have been exposed. Some worry that such a safety net could encourage unsafe sex and needle sharing. Wariness of sexually transmitted diseases seems to be waning: a nationwide study found that gonorrhea rates among gay men rose by 74 percent from 1993 to 1996.


January 1: Starting today, according to a new Food and Drug Administration rule, most enriched grain products, from bread to pasta to grits, will be fortified with folic acid. The FDA action is aimed at ensuring adequate folic-acid consumption among women of childbearing age. The nutrient reduces the risk of neural-tube birth defects, especially spina bifida, which affect some 2,500 newborns each year. Because these defects occur within a month of conception, before many women know they are pregnant, even women whose pregnancies were planned may not get enough folic acid at the critical time. The FDA's ruling has been controversial. Some argue that fortification usurps consumer control and freedom of choice, and that folic acid is readily available in leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, dried beans, and other foods. Others contend that the risks of ingesting too much folic acid -- an overabundance of which is thought, for example, to mask the symptoms of pernicious anemia, which can lead to permanent nerve damage -- have not been sufficiently explored.

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