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Health coverage for free

Officials in Mexico City hope to lure skittish tourists with unusual bait: free health insurance. Under a new program, tourists who stay in participating hotels in the city are eligible for free coverage for emergency medical care, hospital stays, prescription drugs and ambulance services.

The initiative, called the "Tourist Assistance Card," grew out of Mexico's recent H1N1 flu crisis, which sent tourism plunging nationwide as would-be travelers steered clear. In Mexico City, which had the country's highest number of reported flu cases, a near-complete shutdown hammered hotels and restaurants, compounding damage caused by the global recession.

The insurance program is run by the city's tourism office through a private insurer, MAPFRE. Anyone staying at a Mexico City hotel is eligible for coverage, officials said, and can get help by dialing a call center, which will have attendants fluent in English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish.

A deductible will apply for some services, but officials did not provide details.

-- Deborah Bonello in Mexico City

From La Plaza: Latin American news from L.A. Times correspondents


High levels of mercury in fish

Researchers found mercury in every fish tested in a nationwide stream survey, with some of the higher concentrations showing up in mining areas of the West.

In about a quarter of the fish, levels of the toxic metal exceeded federal standards for people who eat an average amount of fish.

"This study shows just how widespread mercury pollution has become in our air, watersheds, and many of our fish in freshwater streams," U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

The study, conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, sampled 34 fish species at 291 stream sites across the country from 1998 to 2005. The most contaminated sample came from smallmouth bass in the Carson River in Dayton, Nev., a historic gold mining area.

In the study, largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass had the greatest average mercury concentrations. Brown trout, rainbow-cutthroat trout and channel catfish had the lowest.

-- Bettina Boxall

Greenspace: Environmental news from Southern California and beyond


Chain fights food labeling law

At least one restaurant chain has some reservations about New York's menu labeling law requiring large chain eateries to report nutritional information on menu boards or table menus.

Beverly Hills-based Hillstone Restaurant Group, the parent company of Houston's restaurants, won't post calorie contents and other information about its dishes at its two Manhattan locations (now also called Hillstone), saying that dishes contain different ingredients. The city, however, disagrees, and fined the company last December. The dispute goes before a judge Sept. 1.

We wonder if other restaurant chains will also challenge that law, and if similar disputes will happen here in California, where the first phase of menu labeling laws went into effect in July.

In the meantime, California restaurant chains with 20 or more restaurants should provide nutritional information to diners now if they ask. And if they can stomach it.

-- Jeannine Stein

From Booster Shots: Oddities, musings and news from the world of health boostershots


A synagogue restored in Cairo

Is historical preservation or cultural politics behind the restoration of the Maimonides synagogue in Cairo's ancient Jewish quarter?

Although most Egyptians are against efforts linking their country to Jewish or Israeli heritage, the move has been interpreted as an attempt by Culture Minister Farouk Hosni to win international recognition ahead of his controversial bid to become head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Hosni's bid to become the next UNESCO director-general was set back in 2008 when he said that he'd personally burn Hebrew books if he found any in Egyptian libraries. Since then, it is been reported that the ministry has been trying to make amends for Hosni's comments. It recently has begun allowing the translation of books written by Jewish and Israeli authors, a move that dismayed many Egyptians.

Zahi Hawass, Egypt's head of antiquities, insisted that restoration work was a response to recent claims that Egypt is not protecting Jewish monuments within its territory -- another allegation that didn't bode well for Hosni

"There have been some pictures published in newspapers and on Internet sites implying that Egypt has neglected its duties towards Jewish temples and this is not true," Hawass told reporters at the Musa ibn Maymun (Maimonides) synagogue.

"These pictures are aimed at tarnishing the image of Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, but the restoration of the temple began before Egypt announced the minister's candidacy for the UNESCO post," he added.

The Maimonides synagogue was named after Jewish philosopher and physician Musa ibn Maymun, who was buried under the site before his remains were moved to Tiberias, Israel.

Ibn Maymun was born in Spain. He fled from persecution there and arrived in Egypt, where he died in 1204.

-- Amro Hassan in Cairo

From Babylon & Beyond: Observations from Iraq, Iran, Israel, the Arab world and beyond

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