PriorityWorkforce’s Santa Ana office (Photo by Eli Wolfe).
Last October, Erick Solis, a 19-year-old temp worker at a Los Angeles food company, lost two fingers when his hand got caught in an unguarded dough-rolling machine.
Cal/OSHA, the state job safety agency, cited the company, JSL Foods Inc., for willful violations because an almost identical accident had happened before.
As it had also done previously, Cal/OSHA cited PriorityWorkforce Inc., the staffing agency that sent Solis to the food plant, for failing to provide adequate safety training.
A FairWarning review of Cal/OSHA records found that since the start of 2014, PriorityWorkforce and affiliated staffing companies have been cited for safety violations in at least 11 cases, including five times following accidents that killed one employee and injured four others. Among the violations cited in some of these cases was a lack of safety training. Some of the citations are still being contested.
Studies show that temp workers suffer higher injury rates than permanent employees, due at least in part to lack of experience and safety training. Under state and federal job safety rules, employers are required to train temps as well as permanent employees on safe work practices.
PriorityWorkforce, based in Tustin, CA, boasts 650 clients, and is among a string of staffing firms headed by Orange County businessman John Porrello that operate in California and several other states. In January, PriorityWorkforce announced the launch of a new enterprise—a nonprofit called Off the Street, Back to Work—to line up jobs for homeless people.
Despite several phone calls and a letter, FairWarning was unable to reach Porrello to discuss the foundation or his companies’ history with Cal/OSHA.
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The website for Off the Street, Back to Work features glowing testimonials and two news articles (here and here) about the group’s mission. According to the website, the organization is “committed to helping those down-and-out men and women once again become an integral part of the workforce,” by, among other things, helping them prepare for job interviews.
But other details have been hard to come by. How many homeless people the foundation has placed in temp jobs—and whether they receive safety training—is unclear. In a brief phone call, a representative who would only identify herself as Melissa, said the foundation had placed “four or five” residents of the Orange County Rescue Mission in temporary jobs and one in a permanent position at PriorityWorkforce. A Rescue Mission spokeswoman said only one resident has been hired so far.
The website describes Off the Street, Back to Work as a “non-profit 501.c foundation,” though no group with the name could be found on an Internal Revenue Service database of organizations granted nonprofit status, or in records of the state Attorney General’s registry of charitable trusts, a spokesman there said.
California law doesn’t prohibit sending temp workers to companies with histories of safety violations, according to a Cal/OSHA spokesman. The American Staffing Association, a trade group, encourages its members to vet potential clients because they can be held jointly responsible for unsafe conditions. Porrello, in an interview with a trade publication in 2006, stressed the importance of screening client job sites before sending in workers.
Peter Dooley, a safety and health consultant for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.
“If you put good people to work in safe places, you’ll be in good shape,” he said in the interview, adding that he’s walked away from potential clients.
But violations in the temp-staffing world are common, and firms typically get dinged with smaller penalties than their clients.
“I think the policy rationale behind that is to assess a greater fine to the party that was in control of the worksite… and in the vast majority of circumstances that’s the client,” said Stephen Dwyer, general counsel of the staffing association.
Case in point: In April, Cal/OSHA sought penalties of $276,435 from JSL Foods stemming from Solis’ accident, while PriorityWorkforce faces a proposed penalty of $29,250. Both companies have contested the citations and appeals are pending. JSL Foods did not return phone calls.
A Cal/OSHA press release noted that JSL workers were injured due to similar violations in 2015. Yet more accidents occurred at JSL in 2012, when a temp worker lost fingers and another suffered a crushed hand.
According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 349 temp workers were killed on the job from 2003 through 2017. A recent study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found that temp workers are less likely to get safety training and more likely to file workers’ compensation claims than permanent employees. The study also noted that the staffing industry is competitive, and that firms are wary of alienating clients by harping on safety.
According to a recent report by WorkSafe, a California labor advocacy group, staffing firms and their clients often try to pass off safety responsibilities to each other. This increases risks for temp workers, who are often unfamiliar with the hazards of a particular workplace, and less likely to complain about dangerous conditions.
“It’s the most vulnerable population with the least amount of information,” said Peter Dooley, a safety and health consultant for the nonprofit National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. “Immigrant workers, low-wage workers—the folks who have the least ability to challenge these situations.”
Dwyer of the American Staffing Association said that economic incentives drive firms to keep their labor supply safe. “A staffing firm isn’t going to be successful if it places workers in a dangerous environment,” he said.
In 2016, a temp employee working for PriorityWorkforce was killed in a forklift accident at a Downey recycling plant. Cal/OSHA proposed a $45,750 fine against the staffing firm for failing to train employees on the safe use of forklifts. PriorityWorkforce has appealed the citation. In 2014, PriorityWorkforce was cited for serious violations after a temp worker’s finger was amputated in an accident involving a dough machine.
Eric Solis, the PriorityWorkforce employee who had his fingers torn off at JSL Foods, told FairWarning through an interpreter that it was his first time cleaning the machine. According to Cal/OSHA records, the guarding on the dough machine was substandard because it didn’t keep fingers from slipping through.
Said Ayk Dikijian, the attorney for Solis in his workers’ compensation case: “This incident has forever maimed Erick and changed his life.”
Science swap: The Trump administration violated ethics rules last year by replacing scientific advisors at the Environmental Protection Agency, many of them academics, with people tied to the industries the agency oversees, often ignoring the agency staff’s own recommendations and failing to collect financial disclosure information, according to the Government Accountability Office. Lisa Friedman of The New York Times reports that the GAO determined it often wasn’t clear if ethics officials had reviewed the disclosures that were provided. The president also is working to cut the number of advisory panels at the the EPA and other agencies, a move that drew outrage from former EPA administrators. Christine Todd Whitman, who headed the agency under George W. Bush, told lawmakers last month that the changes would weaken the government’s ability to make policy based on science. “This unprecedented attack on science-based regulations designed to protect the environment and public health represents the gravest threat to the effectiveness of the EPA — and to the federal government’s overall ability to do the same — in the nation’s history,” she said.
Also: Two very different views of the science were on display when the EPA announced it will allow the pesticide sulfoxaflor to be used on a variety of crops. An agency spokeswoman said the pesticide is an important and “highly effective” tool for growers. Her own agency, Brady Dennis of The Washington Post notes, considers it “very highly toxic” to bees, which are already struggling with colony decline linked partly to pesticide use. A court challenge is expected.
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In fraud’s wake: The lawyer who advertised himself as “Mr. Social Security” and who orchestrated a scheme that federal officials said cost the government more than half a billion dollars is behind bars. Eric Conn is serving a 12-year sentence for crimes related to the fraud, to be followed by 15 years for an attempted escape that put him on the FBI’s most wanted list and ended with him being nabbed at a fast food restaurant in Honduras. Nearly every record Conn ever submitted to the Social Security Administration is now considered tainted, and thousands of his former clients have been working for years to prove that they are legitimately disabled and in need of benefits, Andrew Strickler of Law360 reports. “While the colorful aspects of the Conn debacle have gotten considerable media attention, attorneys and others involved say they have obscured some of the immense human costs of his actions and the SSA’s troubling reaction,” he writes.
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Disaster response: Christopher Flavelle of The New York Times writes about the toxic footprint of natural disasters. The path of destruction that hurricanes and wildfires cut through communities also lets loose the chemicals sitting in our homes and businesses, at industrial sites or underground, creating what one researcher called a “toxic stew” that can pose immediate and long-lasting threats to human health. This particular effect of climate change is especially worrisome, Flavelle writes, because many of these toxins stick around, in the soil or the water, or in the body, and they can accumulate “with each new storm or fire.”
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Shift change: As Labor Secretary Alex Acosta announced his resignation, President Trump was emphatic that it was Acosta’s own decision. After all, Trump knew when he appointed Acosta that his nominee already was seen by some as having given Jeffrey Epstein a soft landing from charges of sex crimes in 2008 when Acosta was a U.S. Attorney. New charges against Epstein, detailing an alleged sex-trafficking scheme involving young girls and vulnerable women, didn’t change Trump’s mind. “I just want to let you know – this was him, not me,” Trump said of Acosta’s decision. “Because I’m with him.” But Acosta’s resignation may solve some problems for Trump. Some business leaders have viewed Acosta as too slow-moving on deregulation, including on efforts to set a salary threshold for workers to get overtime pay and to pass rules that would limit corporate liability for actions of contractors and franchisees, Rebecca Ballhaus and Eric Morath of The Wall Street Journal report. If Acosta didn’t win the favor of labor activists, he didn’t really earn their ire either. The perception was “that this was about as good of a labor secretary that they could ask for,” Ben Penn, a senior reporter with Bloomberg Law, told NPR’s All Things Considered.
Also: Deputy Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella, who will become the acting secretary, served in labor roles under the previous two administrations. He also is the subject of longstanding criticisms about a bias against workers, stemming largely from his efforts as a lobbyist to suppress worker protections in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth. Garment factories there produced “Made in the USA” clothing while paying workers as little as $3.05 an hour, as reported by Reveal in 2017.
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More pressure on J&J: Bloomberg’s Jef Feeley reports that the U.S. Department of Justice has launched a criminal investigation into whether Johnson & Johnson lied to its customers about the safety of its talcum powders even while it knew the product posed a possible risk of asbestos-related cancer, and a grand jury is examining documents related to what the company knew and when. J&J has maintained that its baby powder is safe and has always been asbestos-free. But thousands of customers have filed lawsuits saying the powder caused their ovarian cancer or asbestos-linked mesothelioma. Internal memos from the 1970s, reported by FairWarning last year, show that the company’s own officials and scientists were concerned about the risk of talc being tainted by traces of asbestos.
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‘Going quiet’: The number of states that consider transcripts of 911 calls to be confidential has doubled in the past five years to 12, making those records mostly inaccessible to journalists and, often, family members wanting to learn more about what happened to their loved ones. Lynn Arditi, in a story published by The Public’s Radio and ProPublica, looks at the effect of such laws through the death of 46-year-old Scott Phillips. He collapsed from hypertensive cardiovascular disease in a Subway sandwich shop in Rhode Island. His brother, Troy, wants to know what happened in the six minutes before emergency responders arrived, and specifically whether anyone performed CPR or otherwise helped his brother. “What is the big secret?” he asks.
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An app for that: The state of California has launched a new app designed to make it easier for agricultural workers and other people to report exposure to pesticides from their smartphone or tablet. The state now receives about 300 reports of pesticide exposures each year, half involving non-agricultural exposures, according to U.S. News & World Report. The free app is available in English and Spanish. Nayamin Martinez of the Central California Environmental Justice Network told the Santa Maria Sun that farmworkers often have difficulty describing the exact field location in which an exposure occurs. The app can capture that data using GPS.
Also: A study led by a researcher at the University of California San Diego found that teens who were exposed to pesticides in the rose-growing region of the Ecuadoran Andes had more symptoms of of depression. –– After an investigation that produced a 248-page report, Idaho officials could not determine exactly what chemical people working in a hop field in May were exposed to when an adjacent onion field was sprayed with a fungicide called Badge SC, causing them to develop flu-like symptoms. The Idaho Statesman reported that the state Department of Agriculture could not find a lab that could test for the pesticide in question.
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A political win?: No leader has been nominated for the Drug Enforcement Administration in the more than two years since President Trump took office. There’s little consensus within the government about how exactly to tackle the most dangerous drugs, with deep divisions between those who see the problem as a law enforcement issue and those who want a more comprehensive approach. And, about 70,000 people continue to die each year from drug overdoses. Still, Trump has taken credit for the first annual drop in overdose deaths in decades, saying his administration has had a “tremendous effect” on the problem. His claims have caused concern among public health experts worried that a lack of focus could worsen the epidemic in the long run, writes Lev Facher of Stat. “They’re going to make the political argument that they’re winning,” Regina LaBelle, former chief of staff for the Office of National Drug Control Policy under Obama, told Facher. “Which they can say, since deaths are down. But I get concerned that we’re going to take our eye off the ball on the broader issue of addiction.”
Also: In the largest U.S. opioid settlement to date, Reckitt Benckiser Group has agreed to pay $1.4 billion to settle claims that its former subsidiary, Indivior, marketed the drug Suboxone in ways that misled doctors, pharmacists and patients and led to unsafe use of the addictive drug and fraudulent requests for payment through government health programs. –– At the end of a closely watched seven-week bench trial in which Johnson & Johnson is accused of fueling Oklahoma’s opioid crisis through aggressive marketing and minimizing addiction risks, Attorney General Mike Hunter urged Judge Thad Balkman to make the company pay more than $17 billion. –– Research published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that the number of cases of children being placed into foster care as a result of parental drug use more than doubled between 2000 and 2017, NPR reports. –– Federal health officials are beginning to acknowledge how rules and guidelines put in place to curb illegal prescribing of opioids sometimes have harmed patients who legitimately need the drugs to control pain, USA Today reports.
Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.
While 1 in 8 Americans are considered to be “food insecure,” an estimated 40 percent of the nation’s supply of fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat goes to waste, discarded by farmers, retailers, restaurant owners and households.
Three federal agencies have agreed to work together to cut that food waste in half by 2030.
But a recent government oversight report found that the agencies – the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration – have made little headway, despite some initial actions.
The EPA and USDA announced the national goal in 2015, with the FDA joining the effort last year. That was when the three agencies signed a formal, two-year agreement to develop a strategic plan to “increase collaboration and coordination.”
Yet according to the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, the roles of the agencies remain undefined, and their 2030 goal faces widespread challenges. Among the obstacles identified by the GAO were limited data, lack of public awareness and inadequate space and storage capacity in the country to collect and distribute available food.
“According to a USDA official, the agencies do not have plans for how they will continue their interagency collaboration beyond the life of the current (two-year) agreement,” according to the GAO report, released in June.
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The issue of food waste, while not new, sparked increased interest nationally with the publication of two reports by the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council in 2012 and 2017. While researching sustainability in agriculture, the NRDC discovered that a staggering amount of food was winding up in America’s landfills.
The NRDC researchers learned that fruits, vegetables and meat are lost on farms when they’re never harvested, or during processing when trimmed to remove edible or inedible parts such as skin, pits and bones. Food also is lost in distribution when it is transported and not refrigerated properly, or when a shipment is rejected by a buyer, or a buyer can’t be found.
About 10 percent of the food supply chain is lost in retail, according to the 2012 NRDC report, because a product may not look cosmetically right, or the “sell by” date is either expired or too near its end. Households and food service operations such as restaurants waste the most food, or at least 19 percent in the supply chain.
Through data culled from the National Institutes of Health and other agencies, the NRDC estimated that 40 percent of the food supply went to waste, according to the group’s initial report. In its updated 2017 report, the group calculated that Americans leave between 125 billion and 160 billion pounds of food uneaten.
“Every time a bag of lettuce is tossed aside, much more than spoiled produce goes out the window,” the NRDC stated.
“It’s also a waste of labor, of vehicle miles, of water, of fertilizer. We’re wasting money, trashing resources, and accelerating the changing of our climate.”
NRDC researchers noted that some progress had been made since the release of their 2012 report, especially on the local level, by state governments, some farmers and corporations. But the NRDC’s 2017 report also outlined dozens of recommendations on the national level, including:
* Offering tax credits to farmers to encourage them to donate fruits and produce that can’t be sold to markets. The tax credits will pay the costs of harvesting, washing, sorting, storage, packaging and transportation.
* Standardizing food date labels to a common phrase such as “Best if used by,” then educating the public about what that means, to discourage discarding food prematurely.
* Engaging the public more about food waste, since the largest portion of food is lost in households and restaurants.
In response to the 2017 NRDC report, U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Rosa DeLauro(D-Connecticut), asked the GAO to find out how federal agencies intended to work together and measure their successes and failures.
Both representatives introduced initiatives to fund programs aimed at food waste reduction under the 2020 Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill.
In a statement released in June, Pingree praised the GAO report and said it provided a clear road map for the federal government to maintain what she noted was “significant momentum around food waste reduction in the U.S.” She called for more support from Congress.
“We owe it to future generations to reduce as much food waste as possible to prevent further damage to the world we are living in,” she said in her statement.
But DeLauro called for more urgency from the three federal agencies.
“These agencies should take the steps outlined in order to better coordinate their efforts and meet the ambitious 2030 goal,” she said in a statement to FairWarning. “Food loss and waste drive up the cost of food in this country, contributing even further to the problem of food insecurity. That is why the USDA, FDA and EPA need to step up to help stop food loss earlier in the supply chain and educate producers on best practices.”
NRDC senior advocate JoAnne Berkenkamp told FairWarning her organization was encouraged with the efforts being made throughout the federal government.
She also said the latest Farm Bill, signed by President Trump, includes several provisions that will help fight waste, including funding for local governments to develop food waste plans, and ways to donate food to people in need.
“Food waste is a complex issue, and one that will require concerted, cohesive efforts at the federal level,” Berkenkamp said.
Still, it can be done and is being done faster in other countries, NRDC researchers noted in their most recent report.
“Compared with our counterparts around the world, the United States is a little late to the table when it comes to tackling wasted food,” they wrote.
Bottle bill: The beverage industry trumpets its efforts at sustainability. Coca Cola, for example, has set a goal of making a full half of its packaging from recycled material by 2030. Yet, Michael Corkery of The New York Times writes, the industry repeatedly has thwarted a key tool in increasing recycling rates: the bottle bill. Recycling of glass and plastic bottles and aluminum cans is significantly higher in states that require consumers to pay a deposit for the packaging that they can get back when they bring the containers to a redemption center. In some of those states, recycling rates are twice as high as those without these laws. Only 10 states have such programs, which are seen as one tool, in a spare toolbox, for holding the beverage industry responsible for its waste. In other states, lawmakers have tried year after year to pass a bottle bill, against industry lobbyists. “I am confident that the industry’s true rationale for opposing deposit laws is that they cost them money and they don’t want the expense,” Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute, a research and advocacy group, told Corkery.
Also: A Change.org petition started by two kids in Britain calling for McDonald’s and Burger King to do away with plastic toys in Happy Meals has garnered more than 335,000 signatures, and the companies said they’re working on it, CNBC reports. ––Jasmin Malik Chua writes for Vox about the problem of plastic waste on airplanes.
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Wage cut: Nearly 350,000 workers in six states have seen their local governments increase the minimum wage–and their paychecks–only to have the state legislature strike it down, Tracy Jan of The Washington Post reports. Half of all states prohibit local governments from adopting their own minimum wage laws. The National Employment Law Project analyzed the effects of such restrictions and found that invalidated local wages increases in Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri and Wisconsin have cost workers about $1.5 billion a year. Because so many low-wage jobs in cities are held by women and minority workers, such state restrictions on wages perpetuate income inequality, Jan writes. “Preemption has been used as a tool to undermine higher wages, protect corporate profits, and cancel the voices of blacks and Latinos,” Laura Huizar, a senior attorney at the law center and an author of the report told Jan.
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Straight out of ‘1984’: President Trump, in an address from the East Room on Monday, tried to recast his administration’s record on the environment ahead of the 2020 election, saying for example that the United States is doing more on greenhouse gas emissions than the rest of the world. “Every single one of the signatories to the Paris climate accord lags behind America,” he said. He took credit, too, for the “cleanest air” and “crystal clean” water. But the reality is that his administration has worked tirelessly to roll back environmental protections, including clean air and water provisions, and has undermined international efforts to address climate change while hastening the predicted pace at which U.S. emissions could rise. “This speech is a true ‘1984’ moment,” David G. Victor, director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego, told The New York Times. Justin Worland of Time magazine writes that the president’s misleading claims on carbon emissions seem at least to be an acknowledgement that climate change is a problem that the U.S. should address, rather than a “hoax” or simply a change in the ever-changing weather.
Also: Globally, last month was the hottest June on record. Bob Berwyn of InsideClimate News reports that the effects were far-reaching and, in some instances, downright scary.
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Finding ‘forever chemicals’: We now know that groundwater contamination by a class of toxic “forever chemicals” referred to as PFAS is a serious and widespread problem, affecting the drinking water of millions, if not tens of millions of Americans. Getting a handle on the exact scale of the problem and holding polluters accountable is a challenge. That’s in part because scientists have reliable tools to test for only just over a dozen PFAS chemicals, out of about 6,000, Bloomberg reports. Alex Ebert and Maya Goldman write about the race to determine a scientific “fingerprint” for different categories of pollutants–those that come from a textile plant versus a paper plant, for example–so that pollution can be more easily tracked back to its source. There are lots of obstacles, but Goldman and Ebert say developing such signatures could be key to answering the question on a lot of peoples’ minds: “Who will pay?”
Also:Bloomberg reports that Chemours has filed a lawsuit against its former parent company, Dupont, saying the chemical giant grossly underestimated the degree of liability the spun-off company would face related to Dupont’s production of PFOA, a kind of PFAS used to make Teflon and other non-stick coatings that has been linked to cancer.
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Rain in the forecast: Why isn’t the Sunshine State full of solar panels? One reason, as reported by Ivan Penn of The New York Times: obstruction by investor-owned utility companies, who spend big on campaign contributions to state lawmakers and on lobbying. Sometimes, critics told Penn, the utilities take a more direct approach, delaying hookups of residential solar arrays by months. One homeowner said a utility representative tried to dissuade him from going solar by saying he wouldn’t get much benefit because “it rains,” and then requiring him, according to state law, to buy a $200 per month insurance policy to guard against injury to the electric grid. Solar energy accounts for 1 percent of electricity generation in Florida, compared with nearly 11 percent in Massachusetts and Vermont, Penn writes.
Also: One of the largest coal producers in the U.S. has filed for bankruptcy protection and informed employees of a shutdown of its mines in Kentucky that could last at least two weeks, the Lexington Herald Leader reports. The filing by Revelation Energy and its affiliate Blackjewel came just two weeks after another major coal producer, Cambrian Coal, submitted a Chapter 11 filing. –– Harvard University has so far resisted calls from influential alumni, students and faculty to divest its sizable endowment from investments in fossil fuels, but the pressure is mounting, writes Steven Mufson of The Washington Post.
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Deep trouble at TNC: Zack Colman of Politico interviewed dozens of current and former employees to detail trouble at The Nature Conservancy, the prominent environmental group, including patterns of gender discrimination and sexual harassment, and a rift between leadership that courts corporate support and mission-minded staff. Chief Executive Mark Tercek and President Brian McPeek have stepped down. “Even amid their relief and jubilation at the leaders’ departures, current and former employees express concern that the scandal will drive away key supporters and funders, jeopardizing the world’s most extensive network of land conservation projects,” Colman writes. “Several top donors declined to tell POLITICO whether they still support the Conservancy.”
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Price cut: With drug prices continuing to rise dramatically, President Trump last week promised a fix via executive order that would index the price of drugs bought by Medicare to the lowest price paid by any other nation. “Why should other nations like Canada — why should other nations pay much less than us?” Trump said. “They’ve taken advantage of the system for a long time, pharma.” But Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times writes that it isn’t immediately clear how such a system would work. The idea is under review by the Office of Management and Budget and would only affect a small subset of the drug market. One obstacle is that the Medicare program doesn’t do much drug purchasing itself but delegates that role to private insurers. Meanwhile, Trump tweeted on Sunday that drug prices fell last year, a claim analysts said is misleading, and promised substantial decreases to come.
Also: A federal judge has blocked implementation of a Trump administration rule that would require drugmakers to disclose the price of their drugs when advertised on television, if the drug cost more than $35 for a month’s supply or a typical course of therapy, Reuters reports. Drug makers had argued that the rule violated free speech rights.
Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.
Burning issue: Smoke from wildfires in the Western U.S. is causing widespread respiratory problems and thousands of premature deaths, and the toll is expected to grow as a warming climate brings more frequent and devastating fires, Matthew Brown of the Associated Press reports. In California alone, wildfires in the past two years destroyed more than 33,000 homes and other structures, and killed 146 people. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that as many as 2,500 people a year have died from breathing wildfire smoke, though some experts say the true figure is probably higher. “It’s really incredible how much the U.S. has managed to clean up the air from other (pollution) sources like power plants and industry and cars,” Loretta Mickley, a senior climate research fellow at Harvard University, told Brown. “Climate change is throwing a new variable into the mix and increasing smoke, and that will work against our other efforts to clear the air through regulations.”
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Sound and fury: Despite pledges by the Trump administration and lawmakers to fight soaring prescription drug prices, the cost of more than 3,400 drugs rose in the first half of 2019, reports CBS News, and the average increase for those drugs was 10.5 percent–more than five times the rate of inflation. Citing an analysis by the consulting firm RxSavings Solutions, CBS said the price of about 41 drugs surged more than 100 percent, including an 879 percent increase in the cost of the antidepressant Prozac. — While drug makers will never win a popularity contest, they have taken some steps to burnish their image. That image hit rock-bottom twenty years ago as the AIDs epidemic swept Africa and drug makers said they couldn’t afford to cut the exorbitant cost of their HIV drugs. Since then, the companies have vied for recognition of their efforts to make life-saving medicines available in poor countries, reports Donald G. McNeil Jr. in The New York Times. The Access to Medicine Foundation annually ranks the world’s top drug makers on their attempts to increase access to medicines. GSK, formerly GlaxoSmithKline, has won each time. In 2018, Novartis AG and Johnson & Johnson came in second and third.
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Turning point: With the rapid retirement of coal-fired power plants, electric utilities face a crucial decision: whether to anoint natural gas as their fuel of choice, or aggressively invest in renewable energy. As Brad Plumer writes in The New York Times, gas is less polluting than coal, but experts say only a hard turn toward renewable sources offers hope of limiting massive damage from climate change. “I really think gas is at the crux of it,” said David Pomerantz, head of the pro-renewables Energy and Policy Institute. ”You’ve got some utilities looking at gas and saying, ‘No thanks, we think there’s a cleaner and cheaper path.’ But then you’ve got others going all-in on gas.”
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Total recall: Auto safety and consumer groups are backing a bill to require used car dealers to repair vehicles with outstanding safety recalls before selling or leasing them to consumers. The measure by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) and Edward J. Markey (D-Massachusetts takes aim at a legal double standard that compels automakers to make recall repairs to new cars and trucks before they are sold, but allows used car dealers to sell vehicles with open recalls. Bill supporters note that used cars and trucks make up about 75 percent of all vehicle sales. Even so, the bill is unlikely to pass anytime soon.
Also: Honda is recalling another 1.2 million Honda and Acura vehicles in the U.S. to replace potentially deadly Takata inflators in driver-side airbags, David Shepardson of Reuters reports. Honda says its total number of recalled inflators is now about 21 million in 12.9 million U.S. vehicles. Twenty three deaths worldwide and more than 290 injuries have been linked to exploding Takata inflators.
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Checkered past: The trucking firm that employed the driver who last month struck and killed seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire had a long record of violations, including mechanical and drug-related problems, the Associated Press reports. Westfield Transport, based in Massachusetts, had been cited for more than 60 violations in the past two years, according to records from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The driver, Ukranian-born Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, 23, has been charged with negligent homicide. The deadly June 21 crash triggered the resignation of the head of the Massachusetts motor vehicle registry, who had failed to strip the truck driver of his commercial license following a drunken driving arrest in Connecticut. The case morphed into a wider scandal when it was revealed that the motor vehicle agency had failed to promptly review stacks of violation notices that should have led to license suspensions. According to The New York Times, registry staff examining old records in recent days have yanked the licenses of 546 people.
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Pass the ammo: California has become the first state to require background checks for the purchase of ammunition, CaliforniaHealthline reports. Ammunition vendors must also start submitting sales records to the state Department of Justice. — Five police officers were fatally shot in the line of duty in the last two weeks of June, reports CBS News.Officers in California, Illinois, Missouri, Texas, and Wisconsin were killed between June 17 and June 23, and a 25-year-old officer in Chicago was in critical condition after being shot in the head last week. Meanwhile, a New York policeman who shot himself to death became the fourth NYPD officer to kill himself in June, writes the New York Daily News.– At least one person is shot at work in the U.S. each day, according to a new series from Marketplace on gun violence in the workplace, and what it means for employers and employees.
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Another setback for Boeing: The embattled aircraft giant is facing a new problem with its 737 Max jets, grounded after 346 people died in crashes of a Lion Air flight in Indonesia in October and an Ethiopian Airlines flight in March. The Federal Aviation Administration said that in flight simulator tests of the MCAS software that was involved in both crashes, an FAA pilot following Boeing’s emergency instructions in one instance was unable to quickly regain control of the plane. The pilot deemed it a catastrophic failure, meaning that it could result in a crash in midflight, write Natalie Kitroeff and Tiffany Hsu of The New York Times. The FAA called it ”a potential risk that Boeing must mitigate.” According to The Wall Street Journal, Boeing said it agreed with the agency’s decision and is working on a software fix .
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Take the money, please!: Twenty of the nation’s richest people, including George Soros, Abigail Disney and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, have signed an open letter calling on all 2020 presidential candidates “to support a moderate wealth tax on the fortunes of the richest 1/10 of the richest 1% of Americans–on us. The next dollar of new tax revenue should come from the most financially fortunate, not from middle-income and lower-income Americans,” the letter says. “This revenue could substantially fund the cost of smart investments in our future, like clean energy innovation to mitigate climate change, universal child care, student loan debt relief, infrastructure modernization, tax credits for low-income families, public health solutions, and other vital needs.” A Wall Street Journal editorial responded archly, “billionaire, tax thyself…If billionaires see themselves as a threat to “the stability and integrity of our republic,” they could cease being billionaires any day. If retiring student debt is vital, they could put out a call to graduates and start paying off loans. If the climate is a priority, they could fund a green Manhattan Project.”
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Safety first: Noting that July has been the deadliest month and July 4 the single worst day for deaths in off-road vehicle crashes, the Consumer Federation of America is offering advice to riders on how to reduce risks. The group said that its incomplete count has documented 472 off-roading deaths that occurred in July from 2013 through 2018–including 46 of children 16 or younger. — Urged on by some players and lawmakers, at least three Major League baseball teams say they will extend netting to protect fans from hard-hit foul balls and flying bats, and other clubs are considering the move. The Chicago White Sox and Pittsburg Pirates will extend netting all the way to the outfield foul poles, and the Washington Nationals to near the foul poles, says CBSSPORTS.com. On May 29, a two-year old girl at Houston’s Minute Maid Park suffered a skull fracture when she was struck by a foul line drive. On June 10, a woman was hospitalized after being hit in the head with a foul ball at Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field.–The Guardian is out with a guide for parents on reducing exposure to potentially harmful chemicals in everyday life. Among them: Try non-chemical pest control methods before using pesticides at home; choose glass bottles and food containers over plastic ones; and filter drinking water to capture lead.
An indoor cannabis growing operation. (FatCamera/iStock photo)
Cannabis cultivation in the United States this year will consume 1.8 million megawatt-hours of electricity, about as much as the nation’s 15,000 Starbucks stores.
And next year it’ll be even more, according to a report from analytics firm New Frontier Data estimating just how much power it takes to produce the nation’s cannabis crop.
Yet even as they’ve welcomed it into the regulatory fold, states legalizing cannabis so far have done little to limit or even track the huge amounts of energy needed to grow it indoors. Among the 11 states to permit recreational use of cannabis, only Massachusetts and now Illinois, which did so this week, have included energy-efficiency standards for indoor cultivation, a practice that requires nearly nonstop use of lights and various heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.
One other state, Oregon, requires simply that growers estimate and then report back on their energy use. Even this small step will help regulators there and in other states to better manage an industry whose electricity demand has long been kept as hidden as its product, says report co-author Derek Smith of Resource Innovation Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes resource conservation in the cannabis industry.
“This is critically important, and every state should consider that,” Smith told FairWarning. “This industry has very little data historically because growers were concerned about sharing information about how they were using energy because they were hiding from the law.”
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The report’s estimate of massive power demand includes only the legal stuff, both medical and recreational. Add in illicit production–some of it likely to become legal as more states authorize pot growing–and electricity use nearly triples.
Meanwhile electricity use also continues unchecked in most cannabis-legal states including California, the world’s largest cannabis market and producer of the majority of the nation’s crop. Its Bureau of Cannabis Control won’t begin asking cultivators for data on energy use until 2022, and hold them to statewide standards for renewable energy starting in 2023.
“It’s a marathon,” says Josh Drayton of the California Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group. “But the more that these issues get brought to the table, the more involvement from energy suppliers and from the industry, the more data and research that can be put out there — that’s really what’s necessary to bring change.”
Beau Whitney, vice president and senior economist at New Frontier Data (Photo courtesy of New Frontier Data).
Using data reported privately by 81 cultivators in nine states, the report’s authors calculated that among the three main methods of cannabis cultivation, indoor accounts for at least 60 percent of all electricity use.
Greenhouse cultivation, which requires less lighting but still involves heating, cooling and ventilation, consumes about 37 percent of the total. Outdoor farming represents the remainder, less than 3 percent.
The authors estimate it takes 18 times more power to grow a gram of cannabis indoors than outdoors. Yet for a variety of reasons including quality control, safety and security concerns, and nuisance issues related to odors and nighttime lighting, outdoor cannabis cultivation isn’t ideal everywhere, says Beau Whitney, a senior economist with New Frontier Data.
Massachusetts is one of those places, due in part to its climate and population density. But state regulators still encourage outdoor growing through discounted license fees for the express purpose of reducing energy demand, notes Sam Milton of Climate Resources Group, a Boston-based consulting firm that has partnered with Resource Innovation Institute.
For indoor growers, Massachusetts’ rules cap power use on lighting at 36 watts per square foot of plant canopy, or 50 watts per square foot for smaller operations.
In Illinois the new law signed this week by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, is even stricter, applying the limit of 36 watts per square foot to all indoor farms, regardless of size.
Both states effectively prohibit the use of any lighting technology that draws more power than efficient light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, Milton says. Though more expensive than standard high-pressure sodium lamps, LEDs last longer and can reduce electricity usage by 40 percent.
The two states also have energy-reporting requirements similar to Oregon’s.
The emerging industry is already confronted with a patchwork of state-level regulations governing pesticides and other potential contaminants including metals, microbes, and solvent residues. In the case of electricity use, Milton says he believes a better alternative will be for the U.S. Department of Energy to aid the industry in developing new standards and efficiency measures.
“These facilities are so energy-intensive, and they’re proliferating, and they’re largely unregulated. I see that sector as something that really needs a lot of attention,” he says. “Without the feds coming in and providing that overarching support, it’ll have to be a state-by-state basis, which is kind of clumsy.”
Driverless backup: Lawrence Ulrich of The New York Times explains how we may be tapping the brakes on the any-day-now dream of driverless cars. Driver-assistance technology is becoming more common. Major carmakers have pledged to make automated emergency braking standard on all vehicles by 2022, for example. But technical challenges and state regulations, plus the general unease of consumers, make full automation a farther reach, despite what Elon Musk may say. “We’ve tried to turn down the hype and make people understand how hard this is,” said Gill Pratt, director of the Toyota Research Institute. “A growing consensus holds that driver-free transport will begin with a trickle, not a flood,” Ulrich writes. And Christopher Mims of The Wall Street Journal explores a fascinating paradox: Those automated components are making human-driven cars safer, which could ultimately delay the rollout of driverless cars by making it harder for them to compete on safety. “These new systems marry the best machines capabilities—360-degree sensing and millisecond reflexes—with the best of the human brain, such as our ability to come up with novel solutions to unique problems,” he writes.
Also: Meanwhile in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill clearing the way for driverless vehicles to be tested on the road without a human occupant providing backup.
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Beyond (or within) the plastic bag: If you, like me, have written to your local grocery chain (more than once, in my case) to complain about the fact that they wrap every individual cucumber in plastic, this story offers validation. It also may compound the rage you feel over lemons in plastic netting. The Guardian, as part of its just-launched “United States of Plastic” series, shopped at five New York City grocery stores to take an informal survey of the plastic packaging used. What they found is absurd: Individual salmon filets wrapped in plastic then bagged in plastic in the freezer aisle at Whole Foods. Butternut squash sold individually in plastic netting at H-Mart. Husked corn and boiled eggs wrapped in plastic, and endless tubs of salad greens in plastic clamshells. “In many cases, the plastic was not recyclable,” Jessica Glenza writes. “But even if it could be, history proves it probably won’t be: only 9% of the plastic ever produced has been recycled.”
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‘As desperate as we are’: Eli Saslow in The Washington Post tells the story of Lisa and Stevie Crider – poor, living in rural Tennessee and desperately lacking in medical attention. In searing detail, he illustrates a difficult truth facing millions of people like them: “The federal government now estimates that a record 50 million rural Americans live in what it calls ‘health care shortage areas,’ where the number of hospitals, family doctors, surgeons and paramedics has declined to 20-year lows.”
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A ‘terrible smell’: Dozens of people pruning and tying grape vines were doused with an insecticide when winds blew the chemical into the vineyard from an orchard where it was being applied by a truck with a spray rig. Two of the 63 people exposed were taken to a hospital with moderate to severe symptoms, including vomiting, the Visalia Times Delta reports. All went through a showering and decontamination process with emergency responders. The pesticide, Hexythiazox, has not been linked to adverse effects in epidemiological studies but is classified as a possible human carcinogen.
Also: Woodgrain Distribution faces proposed penalties of $125,466 for failing to provide workers at its Lawrenceville, Georgia facility with eye, face and hand protection to guard against chemical exposure, and for safety issues with its powered industrial trucks, according to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration press release. –– Two contractors, GA&L Construction and The Rinaldi Group of Florida, face penalties of $87,327 after a 35-year-old man working on the redevelopment of a Miami Beach hotel was killed when he fell from the third story to the second and onto some rebar. Investigators found the companies did not provide fall protection or regularly inspect the worksite. –– OSHA has cited Ohio Gratings for 17 serious violations after investigators found that the Canton factory that makes aluminum, stainless steel, and carbon products lacked adequate ventilation, fire protection and other safety measures around a dip tank containing flammable liquid. The agency also found the company, which faces proposed penalties of $183,748, failed to make sure workers used personal protective equipment.
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Peer-reviewed and under wraps: The Trump administration has buried the work of government scientists demonstrating how the climate crisis is changing agriculture, and in some cases it has tried to block outside researchers and their universities from talking about their own work, Helena Bottemiller Evich of Politico reports. She identified dozens of studies that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has refused to publicize, despite a longstanding practice of promoting its research for the education of farmers and consumers. Among them are studies that found the allergy season already may be getting worse across the northern hemisphere and that rice loses nutritional value in a carbon-rich environment. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue declined to comment for the story. He has previously expressed skepticism about climate science–and about the work of scientists in general. Several Senate Democrats responded with criticism.
Also: The administration last week ordered each federal agency to cut at least a third of its advisory committees by the end of September. The order raised alarm among scientists and public health advocates concerned that it’s another move to distance the experts that can hold the government to account on matters such as clean air rules and limits on toxic chemical exposure, InsideClimate News reports.
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A question of influence: Public health experts have reacted in anger to news that the historically black Meharry Medical College accepted a $7.5 million grant from Juul Labs to study health issues affecting African Americans, including use of tobacco and e-cigarettes, Sheila Kaplan of The New York Times reports. Juul is the largest producer of e-cigarettes and is partly owned by Altria, the largest U.S. cigarette maker. Meharry officials say they approached Juul for support of the school’s research, and that scientist will work without direct influence from the company. But public health leaders were skeptical, given the history of cigarette companies targeting African American customers and working for decades to hide the risks of tobacco from consumers at large. “Juul doesn’t have African-Americans’ best interests in mind,” LaTroya Hester, a spokeswoman for the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, told The Times. “The truth is that Juul is a tobacco product, not much unlike its demon predecessors.”
Also: Juul bought a 28-story office tower to become its headquarters last week in San Francisco. On the same day the company announced its purchase, the board of supervisors took a preliminary vote to make San Francisco the first city to ban e-cigarette sales, distribution and manufacturing, CBS News reports. The board is expected to finalize its decision this week.
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‘Overly speculative’: A White House directive gives federal agencies broad latitude to ignore the long-term climate impacts of a project under review, unless “a sufficiently close causal relationship exists” between the project and an increase in carbon emissions, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post reports. The chairman of the White House council that issued the guidance said it would speed infrastructure projects, making their review “more efficient, timely and effective.” Critics said it may not survive a court challenge and will minimize accounting for climate impacts that will affect Americans.
Also: The Trump administration finalized its replacement for the Clean Power Act, called the Affordable Clean Energy rule. The plan puts more power in states’ hands for setting carbon emission targets and gives coal-fired power plants a list of EPA-approved options for extending their life, ABC News reports. –– Brad Plumer of The New York Times reports that red and blue states are taking dramatically different approaches to greenhouse gas emissions, creating what one public policy professor called “a tale of two climate nations.” –– Much of Europe is experiencing a potentially historic heat wave, and researchers say that the Earth’s heat wave epidemic is clearly linked to human-induced warming, The Washington Post reports.
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Personal data on the loose: Vermont has tried to return to its residents some power over how their personal data is collected and sold among big data brokers. Doing so has proven difficult, Douglas MacMillan of The Washington Post reports. The state passed a law last year requiring all companies that buy and sell data on Vermont residents to register with the state and provide information about how they do business. “Dozens of firms registered,” MacMillan writes, “but few offered clear answers about what they do with data and whether users may remove themselves from databases.” He offers some tips for keeping your data to yourself.
New twist in opioid lawsuits: Lawyers representing hundreds of local governments presented a federal judge in Ohio with a proposal that would allow every town, city or county in the country to receive a payment from the companies that have made and sold prescription opioids. The settlement proposal is a unique approach to resolving an avalanche of lawsuits, writes Jan Hoffman of The New York Times: The plaintiffs would have the chance to vote on whether to accept a settlement offer. If they do, they would receive money to help address a massive public health crisis, and the companies would resolve the bulk of their liability at once, without fear of future lawsuits from local governments. State claims and those made by certain groups, including tribes, unions, and babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome have not been included, however. Nearly 1,970 local governments have filed suit so far. Thousands more would automatically be included in the settlement unless they specifically opt out, Hoffman writes. The proposal includes an interactive map that would be used to determine each local government’s share, based on grim math of drug distribution, overdoses and deaths.
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Silent and deadly: When Sherry H. Penney and James D. Livingston – she an accomplished academic leader and historian and he a physicist and writer – died in their Florida home last month, they became the 16th and 17th people to die by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning after they unwittingly left their Toyota vehicle running in their attached garage. “They died of indifference,” according to a blog post by Safety Research & Strategies. That research and advocacy group has been urging federal regulators since 2010 to push the makers of keyless ignition cars to take a simple step to reduce the risk of such deaths. Toyota’s vehicles account for nearly half of those documented. Some carmakers, including Ford and GM, introduced a relatively simple and inexpensive software fix years ago that automatically shuts the car off. Last week, Toyota said it would do the same. Sean Kane, president of the safety research group, told Consumer Reports that the company should be praised for making the software change, but it comes 13 years after the first carbon monoxide death linked to keyless ignitions. Congress is considering a bill that would require all such vehicles to come with an automatic shut-off feature.
Also: Why don’t safer cars lead to less expensive car insurance? Camila Domonoske of NPR explains.
Also: Pressured by the Pope, the world’s biggest oil producers promised to support “economically meaningful carbon pricing regimes,” a tax or other mechanisms, the Associated Press reports. –– A U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that domestic military bases are unprepared for the damage and costs expected from the climate crisis.
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Retirement security foreclosed: Nick Penzenstadler and Jeff Kelly Lowenstein of USA Today took a deep dive into national foreclosure data to highlight a problem that consumer advocates said they’ve seen coming for years: Companies selling reverse mortgages aggressively targeted urban, predominantly African-American neighborhoods and underplayed the risks. Now, those mortgages are failing at an alarming rate, leaving elderly homeowners with little recourse or, in the case of their death, leaving their families without the family home or inherited assets. “USA TODAY found that reverse mortgages end in foreclosure six times more often in predominantly black neighborhoods than in neighborhoods that are 80 percent white,” they write. That was true even when looking only at lower income neighborhoods.
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Police activity: Reporters with the Center for Investigative Reporting analyzed the activity of private hate groups on Facebook, awash in racist, homophobic and misogynistic commentary, and found that nearly 400 current or retired law enforcement officials across the U.S. were members. More than 50 departments said they launched investigations when presented with the findings, and at least one person has been fired, Will Carless and Michael Corey report. Meanwhile, the Plain View Project, a research group, has extensively analyzed the public Facebook activity of thousands of officers from eight jurisdictions for evidence of endorsements of violence, bigotry, racism or ideas that could “could undermine public trust and confidence in police.” Leaders from several cities told The Washington Post they are investigating.
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An EPA in decline: Seven former administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose leadership spanned five decades during Republican and Democratic administrations, wrote to House lawmakers in April offering their assistance in oversight of the agency. Last week, several of them told the House Energy and Commerce Committee they were concerned the shrinking agency was no longer able to do its job, The Washington Post reports. “There is no doubt in my mind that under the current administration, the EPA is retreating from its historic mission to protect our environment and the health of the public from environmental hazards,” said Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican who was administrator during George W. Bush’s presidency.
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Nature is good for you: That may seem like common sense. But scientists are beginning to measure its effects so physicians and policymakers can put their findings to use in public health solutions. Aaron Reuben writes in Outside magazine about two recent studies with fairly dramatic results. A large study using national data from Denmark found that children raised in the least green neighborhoods were 55 percent more likely to develop a mental illness than children raised in the most green neighborhoods, even when the data was adjusted for factors such as socioeconomic status or family history of mental illness. And in a first-of-its-kind study, researchers transformed some vacant lots in Philadelphia into green pocket parks and left others as they were or simply cleaned them up. People living near the parks reported significant improvement in self-reported mental health, Reuben writes. His story was part of a series looking at how doctors and health care institutions are beginning to see nature as a treatment tool. A separate study published last week in Scientific Reports found that two hours is what it takes. People who reported spending 120 minutes or more outdoors each week reported better overall health and well-being, writes Knvul Sheikh for The New York Times.
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A fall death, a big fine: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration hit the owner of a Maine roofing company with a proposed fine of $1.8 million for failing to make sure that employees at work sites in Portland and Old Orchard Beach wore fall protection gear. The agency has cited Shawn Purvis for fall hazard violations repeatedly since 2006, according to a press release. In December, 30-year-old Alan Loignon was killed when he fell from a third-story roof. Matt Byrne of The Portland Press Herald reports that the fine is the largest issued in New England in recent years. An attorney for Purvis said he plans to appeal. Purvis previously told Byrne that he had refused to pay about $44,000 in OSHA fines, arguing that he could provide safety gear to the people who worked on his jobs, but he couldn’t make them wear it. Purvis also faces manslaughter charges and a civil suit filed by Loignon’s family. FairWarning has reported on how fall deaths are preventable yet the numbers continue to grow.
Also: MW Logistics Services has been cited for serious violations after a fire at its natural gas processing plant in Houston, Pennsylvania, killed one worker and injured three others. The company contracted to clean the lines and vessels at the plant, Energy Transportation, also was cited. The two companies faced combined penalties of $98,508. –– Southern Tire Mart of Mississippi faces proposed penalties of $341,195 after an employee suffered fatal injuries while trying to replace a monster truck tire rim at the company’s retreading facility in Fort Worth, Texas.
Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.
Harold Nisker can be seen on a 1980s home video, golf club in hand, at a course back-dropped by the Rocky Mountains in Banff, Alberta. “I think the greens are very bad. And I can’t putt,” he says to the camera. “Other than that I’m having a great time.”
Maybe partly an artifact of faded film, and maybe partly due to differences in turf management, the Banff greens and fairways do appear dimmer than the crayon green seen on the April broadcast of the Masters Tournament, held annually at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. The Banff turf also appears less vibrant than images of a course Nisker played back home in Toronto.
“It looks like a perfect natural space. Maybe too perfect,” Harold’s son, Andrew Nisker, narrates over aerial views of that Toronto golf course in his documentary, “Ground War.” “What magic did they use to keep it that way?”
Pesticides remain widely used to keep parks, playgrounds, playing fields — and golf courses — pristine, polished and preened. That manicured aesthetic and its potential consequences are examined in the 78-minute film, which currently is screening across the United States and Canada.
Nisker notes early how his father golfed nearly every day on a chemically-treated course, later dying of a rare type of blood cancer called mantle cell lymphoma. Already a filmmaker with a couple of environmental documentaries under his belt, Nisker wanted to get to the bottom of his dad’s illness and death. He had lived such a clean, healthy life. So, how did he get so sick?
While there is no way to directly connect his pesticide exposure to his disease, one form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Nisker said he became “highly suspicious” of the possible role of pesticides after learning about the array of products used on his father’s golf course.
Research suggests that some chemicals used on golf courses may raise risks of lymphomas and other health problems. One study, published in 1996 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, specifically addressed this concern. Researchers found that death rates attributable to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and to other cancers associated with the brain, large intestine and prostate were higher in a group of golf course superintendents compared to a group with similar characteristics who were not superintendents.
“There have been study after study after study in different countries linking pesticide use and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” Richard van der Jagt, an oncologist at University of Ottawa at Ottawa Hospital, tells Nisker in the film. “I think there is enough data to say that it is very worrisome.”
Recently, pesticide risks have drawn intense media scrutiny amid a flood of litigation against Monsanto, and its parent Bayer, over alleged links between exposure to the weed killer Roundup and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While Roundup is not commonly used on golf courses, it is widely applied in public parks, around schools and on fields where children play — something that also deeply troubles Nisker, a father of three.
Harold Nisker, who died of a form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, played golf on vacation in 1988 in Banff. Courtesy Andrew Nisker home video
A former school groundskeeper who won one of those Monsanto lawsuits, Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, has been actively supporting Nisker’s film. Despite being terminally ill, Johnson joined a panel discussion after an April screening of “Ground War” in New York City.
“When I heard about your dad, yeah, let’s check this one out,'” he told Nisker.
After his father died in 2014, Nisker began to take a closer look at just what in his father’s life may have contributed to his disease. His sleuthing uncovered a 2011 annual report from his father’s former golf course, detailing the pesticides that had been applied over the course of that year. Sixteen products were listed, including 2,4-D, once a major component of Agent Orange used in Vietnam. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, named 2,4-D a possible human carcinogen and studies also have found that the weed killer may disrupt the normal functioning of hormones in the body. Also on the list was chlorpyrifos, an insecticide that can affect the nervous system and infant brain development, and that the states of California and Hawaii have announced they will ban.
Van der Jagt emphasized that exposure to a pesticide does not mean a person will get sick. Industry representatives further downplay any risks.
“Pesticides used to maintain healthy golf course turf have been thoroughly tested by EPA,” the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America told FairWarning in a statement. “This agency evaluates pesticides to ensure they will not have unreasonable adverse effects on humans, the environment and non-target species when used according to label directions.”
“The responsible use of pesticides is essential to maintaining healthy turfgrass,” the group added.
The grass is always greener
The advent of color television in the late 1960s, and the subsequent broadcasts of the Masters, created an expectation among golfers for playing conditions on par with Augusta’s seemingly unblemished greens and fairways.
“People saw green golf courses and said, ‘I want that, too,'” said Jay Feldman, executive director of the nonprofit Beyond Pesticides.
The condition even earned a name: The Augusta National Syndrome. In response, golf courses strived to achieve the unrealistic standard through heavy use of chemical pesticides and water.
Even further back, about a century ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture teamed up with the U.S. Golf Association to develop a program called Green Section for “the widespread dissemination of scientific knowledge of value, not only to golf clubs, but millions of owners of lawns and growers of grass all over America.” Then, after World War II, industries realized that many of the chemicals developed for war, such as DDT, could be marketed as fertilizers and chemicals for pest management on golf courses and beyond.
Jay Feldman speaks at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Common Ground Country Fair in September 2012. Courtesy of Beyond Pesticides.
“Clover became a weed overnight,” said Feldman. “The issue is broader than golf. The story of the American lawn is a story of how a public relations campaign changed our culture and put us on the pesticide treadmill.”
In the film, Nisker attends the Golf Industry Trade Show in San Diego, which he likens to a “chemical convention.” Dow, BASF, Syngenta and Bayer were among the represented companies. “The golf industry is pretty much underwritten by the chemical industry so they continue to use their products,” Nisker said.
Brian Wilson, who studies sports and culture at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, noted the close relationship between the golf and chemical industries. But he also suggested that the golf industry has evolved in its attitudes toward pesticides. In the beginning of his book, “The Greening of Golf,” Wilson cites a 1964 issue of a magazine for golf course superintendents that includes what he called a “scathing review” of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the 1962 book largely credited with spurring the modern environmental movement. Wilson said that, during that time, managers were “essentially mass-spraying golf courses.”
“Then, move ahead to 2001, and in the same magazine they celebrate Rachel Carson,” he said in an interview. “The industry has changed their practices. They’ve become more targeted with the way they use chemicals.”
The golf course superintendents group suggested the same. “Golf course superintendents utilize pesticides as part of a system of integrated pest management (IPM) to control pests and maintain healthy turf,” the association told FairWarning. “The latest technology in application equipment is used on golf courses which allows for precise application of pesticides.”
In a 2016 report on pest management practices, the association concluded that U.S. golf courses had increased their reliance on non-pesticide pest control since 2007. However, the group also reported that “turf managers are using non-pesticide control practices in conjunction with conventional chemistries, rather than as substitutes for them.”
The authors further note that “reliance on fungicides, herbicides and insecticides changed very little.”
Because it is located within a national park, the Banff golf course is forced to abide by more stringent environmental rules than courses elsewhere. As a result, Nisker said, the course has had an aesthetic similar to that of a Scottish course.
Scotland, the birthplace of golf, never did embrace pesticides to the same extent as North America. Groundskeepers there generally use far fewer chemicals in course maintenance compared to the United States or Canada. A few U.S. courses have begun following a similar model. At Vineyard Golf Club in Martha’s Vineyard, for example, groundskeepers have swapped synthetic chemicals for organic methods such as composted fertilizer, white vinegar and dish soap to kill weeds, and grasses selected based on natural resistance to diseases common in that area.
“We’ve been able to show people that you can actually have a golf course and not use pesticides,” Jeff Carlson, superintendent of the Vineyard Golf Club, tells Nisker in the film. “Golf did exist before pesticides.”
Filmmaker Andrew Nisker, right, poses with his father, Harold, at his wedding on Feb. 15, 2014. Harold died of cancer two months later. Courtesy of Andrew Nisker.
Nisker suggested that his home province has proven the same possibility for parks. In 2009, Ontario banned synthetic pesticides used solely to improve the appearance of lawns, vegetable and ornamental gardens, patios, driveways, cemeteries, parks and school yards. Known as “cosmetic pesticides,” these chemical products may be the same used for agricultural purposes or to thwart the spread of disease, but the ban was aimed at halting their use for aesthetics only.
An exemption from the ban was granted for golf courses. But golf courses must disclose the chemicals they use.
“We don’t need the pesticides. Our parks are doing just fine with the way they naturally grow,” Nisker said. “The kids love it. There’s no reason to be using it in other places in terms of just making lawns and gardens and playing fields look a certain aesthetic that we’re told they’re supposed to look.”
The United States generally lags behind Canada in both restricting the use of pesticides – and in transparency about the products being used. In the film, Nisker visits Montgomery County, Maryland, as a group of soccer parents helped push through a bill that would restrict cosmetic pesticide use on lawns. But industry and some residents fought back and, in 2017, a state court halted the 2015 law from taking effect.
Then, in May, a Maryland appeals court struck down that decision, allowing for the ban. “We conclude that the citizens of Montgomery County are not powerless to restrict the use of certain toxins that have long been recognized as ‘economic poisons’ and which pose risks to the public health and environment,” wrote Judge Robert Zarnoch.
Opponents of the ban have now filed a motion to stop the law from moving forward while they seek an appeal of the latest court ruling.
Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE) is among industry groups opposing the bill. Pesticides are “essential to maintaining public health and wellbeing, including protecting people from the spread of harmful illnesses like West Nile virus and Lyme disease, as well as protecting forests from emerald ash borer and Asian long horned beetle,” Karen Reardon, a spokesperson for RISE, stated in an email to FairWarning.
David Eastmond, a professor and toxicologist at the University of California, Riverside, suggested that if pesticides are used according to the product label “then it would generally be considered safe.”
Still, potential risks to children worry Eastmond. He said that children tend to be more active, to spend more time near the ground and to wear less clothing than adults — all of which can result in more contact with pesticide residues. Such exposure may raise the risk of asthma and cancer, as well as derail the normal development of a child’s body and brain. Emerging research on hormone-disrupting chemicals such as 2,4-D further suggests that even very tiny levels of exposure during critical windows of development can result in health problems later in life.
“I have faith in the system. I’m hoping that faith is well placed,” said Eastmond. “If you could get by without using these chemicals that would be preferable.”
Nisker agreed. He suggested that his health-conscious dad, who had lost some faith in the food system toward the end of his life, likely never thought twice about invisible chemicals surrounding him on the golf course.
“It’s sad my boys never got to meet their grandpa,” Nisker says in the film, as he visits his father’s grave. Yards away from that grave is the bright green fairway of the 10th tee of his father’s golf course.
Car makers’ plea: The White House is moving forward with a plan to roll back vehicle emission standards, despite a last-minute appeal from car manufacturers asking the Trump administration and California to work together to create a more moderate policy. The state had set fuel standards that were stricter than federal requirements before essentially syncing state rules with the ones put in place by the Obama administration. The Trump administration wants to eliminate California’s long-standing authority to set its own emission standards. The state is vowing to block the move and has sued , accusing the administration of ”willfully withholding” information on how it justifies the rollback. Automakers say the administration has gone too far in relaxing the Obama-era rules. They sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and to President Trump saying that a protracted legal battle would create potentially “untenable” instability in the market. But some analysts suggested the last-ditch effort by the car companies was a ploy. “This seems like a bit of theater — automakers likely never expected 11th-hour negotiations to resume anyway, but can now try to claim credit for trying,” Shannon Baker-Branstetter, a transportation policy advocate for Consumer Reports, told Anna M. Phillips of the Los Angeles Times. It was the car makers, she notes, who asked for a rollback to begin with.
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Big and beyond carbon: Michael Bloomberg has pledged $500 million to a campaign aimed at closing all 241 remaining coal-powered plants in the United States by 2030, Lisa Friedman of The New York Times reports. The Beyond Carbon campaign plans to influence state politics, bypassing Washington and countering President Trump’s promise to bring coal back, and to focus instead on electing state and local officials who favor aggressive renewable energy development, and on lobbying public utility commissions and city councils. The campaign may also put pressure on 2020 presidential candidates to detail more specific climate action plans.
Also: A study from Cornell University and the Environmental Defense Fund suggests that the federal government may be grossly underestimating how much methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is produced by the fertilizer industry, Lisette Voytko of Forbes reports. –– Steven Mufson of The Washington Post looks at how U.S. businesses are changing corporate policies to respond to climate change, or facing the consequence of failing to do so.
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Lucrative service: Some board members of the National Rifle Association have been paid for consulting services or for selling ammunition or other products to the organization, with some receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars. The payments raise questions about whether the board charged with overseeing the nonprofit’s finances was hindered by conflicts of interest, according to tax experts interviewed during an investigation by The Washington Post. News of the payments comes as the NRA is facing intense pressure over spending by CEO Wayne LaPierre and the millions paid to its former public relations agency, Ackerman McQueen. And The Trace reports that the NRA did not disclose, as required, the $180,000 or more that its foundation contributed to a charity called Youth for Tomorrow, which provides services for children with psychological and behavioral problems. LaPierre’s wife, Susan LaPierre, was that group’s board president.
Also: In the past two decades, there have been 17 mass shootings in which at least 10 people died. All were carried out with legally purchases weapons, ABC News reports. –– Alex Yablon of The Trace explains the dramatic growth in manufacturing of medium and high-caliber semiautomatic handguns, like those used by the Virginia Beach gunman. –– Massachusetts General Hospital has launched a new center to study gun violence as a public health crisis, WBUR reports.
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Such a waste: France is taking aim at a major source of waste: the $900 million worth of unsold consumer goods that get dumped each year. The country plans to ban the routine practice of tossing perfectly good products to free up warehouse space or to avoid a market flood that would lower prices, Palko Karasz of The New York Times reports. “It is waste that defies reason,” said Prime Minister Édouard Philippe.
Also: Amid warnings that recycling programs are largely underfunded and ineffective, a recent conference showed just how much the plastics industry is beginning to think about sustainability, James Bruggers of InsideClimate News reports. –– Following the lead of the European Union, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has rolled out a plan to ban many single-use plastics by 2021 and put more responsibility for managing plastic waste onto manufacturers and retailers, the BBC reports.
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Juul lab: E-cigarette giant Juul will contribute $7.5 million to a research center at Meharry Medical College that will study the effects of e-cigarettes, CBS News reports. Juul’s marketing tactics are seen as a major factor in an epidemic of young e-cigarette users. The pledge to Meharry comes just after The New York Times reported that the company has been aggressively – and often unsuccessfully – trying to recruit researchers to test the health impacts of e-cigarettes, as its 2022 deadline approaches for submitting products for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Juul has been rebranding itself in recent months as a company focused on smoking cessation. Dr. James Hildreth, president of Meharry, a historically black college, said that smoking has disproportionately harmed African American people. “Our goal is to help set a new course for education, prevention and policy surrounding the use of tobacco and e-cigarettes,” he said in a press release.
Also: The FDA has warned four marketers of e-cigarette liquids to stop paying social media “influencers” to promote their products in posts that lack mandatory warnings about the addictiveness of nicotine.
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Burn hazard: The Department of Labor has cited metal smelting giant ASARCO for failing to protect workers after three people were severely burned on the job at the company’s Hayden, Arizona, plant. The workers were injured by an arc flash produced by an explosion when a breaker was inserted into a 4,160-volt switchgear. The company failed to provide a briefing before work began on the switchgear, failed to make sure the breaker was inoperable before the work began and failed to make sure the workers wore protective gear, according to a press release. The company faces proposed penalties of $278,456.
Also: Centennial Peaks Hospital of Louisville, Colorado, faces proposed penalties of $32,392 for failing to protect workers from violence on the job. The hospital is owned by Universal Health Services, a Fortune 500 company and the largest chain of psychiatric hospitals in the United States. –– The Family Dollar Store faces proposed penalties of $302,147 after investigators found numerous repeat or serious safety violations at an Omaha, Nebraska store, including blocked exits. –– Ethylene oxide manufacturer Croda had already agreed to pay nearly $390,000 to resolve environmental charges stemming from a leak of about 2,700 pounds of the flammable, toxic gas in November, and to repay the Delaware River and Bay Authority for income lost when the leak shut down the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Now OSHA has proposed penalties against Croda of $262,548 for exposing six workers to the gas, including one who was hospitalized.
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Science under review: White House officials blocked written testimony to House lawmakers by a State Department intelligence agency about ways in which climate change could be catastrophic for human society, The Washington Post reports. The officials said the testimony of Rod Schoonover, who works in the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues, was not objective and did not “jibe” with the administration’s stance, though it cited work by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Even as evidence mounts that the climate crisis could become a national security risk for the U.S., President Trump has been steadfast in his refusal to accept those warnings. “I believe that there’s a change in weather, and I think it changes both ways,” he told Piers Morgan during a television interview on his recent visit to London.
Also: At the first meeting in a year of the EPA’s board of science advisers, Administrator Andrew Wheeler promised to “do better” in communicating with them. Some board members were unpersuaded, Marianne Lavelle of InsideClimate News reports.
Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.