One in Six Species Facing Extinction Under Current Climate Trajectory, Study Says

Yale Environment 360 - May 01, 2015
Future increases in global temperatures will threaten up to one in six species if current climate policies are not modified,

Nursery frogs are among the species most at risk. according to new research published in the journal Science. Global extinction rates are currently at 2.8 percent, the study notes. If global average temperature rises by only 2 degrees C — a benchmark that many scientists think is no longer attainable — the extinction rate will rise to 5.2 percent, the study found. If the planet warms by 3 degrees C, the extinction risk rises to 8.5 percent. And if the current, business-as-usual trajectory continues, climate change will threaten one in six species, or 16 percent, the study says. The risk of species loss is most acute for areas that have unique climate ranges — particularly South America, Australia, and New Zealand — yet those regions are the least studied, the author notes.
Categories: Environment, Health

Senators pushing TSCA reform bill that’s missing the law’s poster child

Pump Handle - April 30, 2015

They’ve called it a failure and a broken law. That’s how the public health community, agency officials, some lawmakers and others have characterized the nearly 40 year old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). When any of them are looking for a poster child to illustrate why TSCA’s a failure, they most often point to one toxic: asbestos.

EPA tried in 1989 to ban most uses of asbestos. But TSCA is so convoluted that the ban didn’t withstand a lawsuit which was brought by producers and users of the deadly mineral fibers. So we are stuck with a law in which one of the most well-researched, and proven cancer-causing agent—and products that contain it—-is still legal in the US.  That’s why the Government Accountability Office (here, here and elsewhere) agency officials (e.g., here) and scholars (e.g., herehere, here) use asbestos as the best example of why TSCA is a statute in dire need of reform.

The trouble is that the bill (S.697) reported this week out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee fails to address the poster child. The word “asbestos” appears nowhere in the legislation—it simply gets lumped together with hundreds of other chemicals about which EPA will decide which ones are high priority for a safety assessment.

Linda Reinstein has been following the TSCA reform efforts closely. She is the co-founder and executive director of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO). ADAO is the premiere education and advocacy organization focused on prevention and finding a cure for asbestos-related diseases. Her husband Alan, died at age 66 from pleural mesothelioma.

“As a mesothelioma widow, I’ve seen asbestos serve as the ultimate example for what went wrong with the 1976 TSCA. It would be reprehensible for Congress to pass a phony TSCA reform bill that allows the man-made asbestos disaster to continue.”

Linda is cool headed, but has every right to be angry. How in the world can lawmakers vote for TSCA reform and leave behind the poster child?

“History is a great teacher to those who listen,” she said. “Learn from us – we’ve buried our loved ones – asbestos kills. For the hundreds of thousands of asbestos victims – it would feel like Congress walked on our graves to protect profits over people.”

Senators Boxer (D-CA), Sanders (I-VT), Markey (D-MA) and Gillebrand (D-NY) offered an amendment at this week’s Committee mark-up that would have fixed the poster child problem. It would have required expedited consideration by EPA on an asbestos prohibition or limitation. The nine Democrats on the Committee voted in favor of the amendment. The eleven Republicans voted against it. Majority rules.

Public health and worker safety groups, including the Breast Cancer Fund (here), Center for Environmental Health (here), Environmental Working Group (here), and Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families (here) were quick to comment on the need for amendments to the S.697. The AFL-CIO urged members of the committee to:

“push for and support an amendment designating asbestos as a high priority and requiring EPA to move forward expeditiously and issue a rule banning asbestos within 3 years.  …Asbestos use should have been banned a long time ago. Any TSCA reform bill needs to make banning asbestos a priority and include a mandate to get it done.”

It can’t be said better than that.

 

Categories: Health

Volcanic Eruption in Chile Could Have an Effect on Climate, NASA Data Show

Yale Environment 360 - April 30, 2015
Calbuco volcano, which erupted in southern Chile last week for the first time since 1972, has been injecting climate-changing

Enlarge

Sulfur dioxide from Calbuco volcano gases directly into an upper layer of the atmosphere, NASA satellite data show. The particularly explosive eruption shot sulfur dioxide, an acrid-smelling gas that can cause respiratory problems at ground level, up into the stratosphere, where it reacts with water vapor to create sulfate aerosols that reflect sunlight and can sometimes have a slight cooling effect. So far, Calbuco has released an estimated 0.3 to 0.4 million tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) as high as 13 miles, where it will last much longer and travel much farther than if released closer to the earth's surface. The SO2 will gradually convert to sulfate aerosol particles, but it is not clear yet whether there will be a cooling effect associated with Calbuco's eruption, researchers say.
Categories: Environment, Health

Interview: How British Columbia Gained by Putting Price on Carbon

Yale Environment 360 - April 30, 2015
Earlier this month, Ontario announced it will join the carbon cap-and trade-program that Quebec and California participate in. Stewart Elgie British Columbia, in 2008, became the first jurisdiction in North America to adopt an economy-wide carbon tax. Stewart Elgie, a professor of law and economics at University of Ottawa, has analyzed the results of that tax and describes them as “remarkable.” In a Yale Environment 360 interview, Elgie says the tax has significantly reduced British Columbia’s fossil fuel use without harming its economy. Citing the lack of support for a carbon tax at the federal level in Canada as well as in the U.S., Elgie warns that “we’re moving toward a global economy that will reward low-carbon, innovative, resource-efficient production. And if we don’t prepare ourselves for that, other countries are going to eat our lunch.”
Read the interview.
Categories: Environment, Health

Names and faces featured in Worker Memorial Day reports, new database

Pump Handle - April 29, 2015

I can’t help but contrast last week’s release by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of workplace fatality data,with the reports issued this week by community groups to commemorate International Workers’ Memorial Day (WMD). BLS gave us the sterile number: 4,585. That’s the government’s official, final tally of the number of work-related fatal injuries that occurred in the US in 2013.

But groups in Tennessee, Massachusetts, and elsewhere have already assembled workplace fatality data for 2014. Better than that, they’ve affixed names and stories to the numbers. The information comes in the form of WMD reports and an open-access database of work-related fatalities occurring in the US during 2014, with names, ages, and other details about the victims whenever possible. First to the reports:

I worked, for example, with colleagues and we identified by name 62 workers from the Houston, TX area who died in 2014 from fatal work-related injuries. Our 23-page report lists their names, ages, circumstances of their deaths, and safety violations and penalties if applicable. For about half of the victims, we provide a photo of the deceased worker. In a section of the report we call “Worker Not Identified,” we note that many workplace fatality incidents are not reported in the press. Some government agencies keep secret the names of the victims. As the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NatCOSH) explains in their WMD report:

“As activists around the country seek information about workers killed in their state, region or locality, we find that important details are available in some cases but not others, with no logical explanation for the inconsistencies. Why should it be so hard for the public to know who was killed on the job and the basic facts of what happened?”

NatCOSH notes the inconsistency among government agencies. BLS’s data, they write, is

“…summary data only, with specific information about the names of workers and employers typically withheld as confidential. The US Mine Safety and Health Administration, by contrast, has a long-standing policy of posting workplace fatalities on their website within days of being notified about a fatality. The report typically includes the name of the worker who died, his or her employer and a short description of the incident. The US Fire Administration…also publishes information about on-duty career and volunteer firefighter fatalities. These public postings help us remember those who have died, and also provide crucial information that can help protect others who are exposed to ongoing occupational hazards.”

NatCOSH punctuates this point on the cover of its report. It displays photos of six victims from 2014 of fatal work-related injuries, with a seventh image—an outline of a person—with a giant question mark on the body. A terrific graphic that says to me “who was the victim?”

But topping NatCOSH’s report cover is the one that features the powerful photo below.

Kylie Sue Tallent puts a face on the problem of work-related deaths. Her father, Michael Tallent was electrocuted at a construction site in Knoxville, TN. (Photo by Alyssa Hansen)

 

It is the photo that appears on the cover of the Knoxville Area’s WMD Committee’s report. The coalition of labor and faith groups prepared “Dying for a Job.” The 59-page document list the names, ages and circumstances of 172 Tennessee workers who died from work-related causes in 2013 and 2014. The authors of this report, as well as of the others, are careful to say “partial list.”  They know their lists are incomplete. These groups use whatever sources and as many sources—-from news stories, firefighter association sources, to OSHA news releases and word of mouth—to track down and identify the cases.

The Tennessee report captures the spirit and sentiment of the day set aside to remember workers killed on-the-job:

“Please take the time to pause and review this roll. Not only does it speak to the magnitude of losses suffered, it also reminds us of the tasks done by workers every day, and of the dignity and value of human labor.”

MassCOSH and the Massachusetts AFL-CIO remember by name 49 workers who lost their lives in the state in 2014. In their 27-page report “Dying for Work in Massachusetts,” the authors provide details about each victim, and also offer longer profiles on and photos of some of the deceased. These profiles tell a story about some of Massachusetts’ workplace fatalities victims, including firefighters Edward Walsh, Jr., 43, and Michael Kennedy, 33, who were killed in March 2014 while fighting a 9-alarm fire in the Back Bay area of Boston. The authors highlight particular health and safety challenges, such as hazards faced by municipal workers and an aging workforce.

Worker justice and safety advocates in south Florida issued a WMD report, noting the hefty death toll in the Sunshine State. Between June and September 2014, there were 30 fatal work-related injuries in just the southern region of Florida.

Besides honoring workplace fatality victims by name, with photos and stories, these WMD reports have other similarities:

  • They note the untold number of deaths from occupational diseases. An estimated 53,000 individuals in the US die each year from work-related illnesses. There is no government agency or coordinated system to track those deaths. As a result, most of the victims remain nameless.
  • They point to the collapse of the workers’ compensation system as a safety net for injured workers and their families. Several of the reports refer to the excellent reporting earlier this year in “The Demolition of Workers’ Comp,” by ProPublica’s Michael Grabell and NPR’s Howard Berkes.
  • They offer recommendations to prevent work-related fatalities. In the Tennessee report, for example, the authors include the text of legislation which has been introduced in their state capitol to strengthen workplace safety. One is a bill which would require special safety requirements for government construction projects, and another would increase penalties assessed to employers for serious safety violations. The NatCOSH report emphasizes the fundamental safety regulations that, if diligently followed by employers, would prevent many fatalities.

Worker Memorial Day wouldn’t be complete with the AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job (DOTJ) report. This year’s is the organization’s 24th edition. It is the best annual compendium of US worker health and safety statistics. The report includes 150 pages of data tables (e.g., OSHA’s annual budget for each year dating back to 1979; annual work-related injury, illness and fatality for the most recent 10 year period,) as well as a profile of key data from every State (e.g., number of inspections conducted, average penalties assessed.) The AFL’s DOTJ report is my go-to resource for worker safety and health data. In this year’s edition, I noticed a few new data tables (e.g., a breakdown by industry of where federal and State OSHA conducted inspections in the most recent year.) And, following the theme of the other WMD reports mentioned above, the AFL-CIO’s DOTJ report profiles about 10 specific fatality incidents and provides the victims’ names and ages.

Now onto the open-access database of work-related fatalities:

This past summer, The Pump Handle’s Kim Krisberg wrote about Bethany Boggess’ on-line global mapping project to assemble and post information on incidents of occupational deaths, illnesses and disasters. Six months later, Boggess and a small group of other volunteers developed the largest open-access data set of workplace fatality cases that occurred in the US in 2014. It was released yesterday.

Boggess, who has a masters of public health and is with the National Center for Farmworker Health, told me:

“Focusing on statistics to talk about fatalities isn’t enough. The stories, the names, and faces of deceased workers show us the human consequences of failing to address dangerous working conditions.”

The US Worker Fatality Database identifies to-date more than 1,700 workplace fatalities for 2014. This is about one-third of the total cases that will be reported by BLS next year. The database includes, where available, the name of the deceased, the employer, and the circumstances of the death, with links to news accounts and obituaries. The project also includes interactive maps —all of it available to the public to reproduce. The individuals and groups who developed the system, will manage and continue to add to it. They simply ask users to credit: “US Workers Fatality Database.”

Do names and face matter? Consider this: A vigil was held last night in Houston to remember the victims from 2014 of workplace fatalities. The vigil featured the solemn reading of the names of the 62 individuals we were able to identify. The families of Juan Guerrero, 18, and Walter Warner, 53, wore t-shirts printed with a photo of their deceased loved ones. The images on their t-shirts were the same ones that appears in our Houston-area WMD report.

Categories: Health

Study: Families struggling with financial burden of dental care costs

Pump Handle - April 29, 2015

The association between financial hardship and medical care isn’t new. Even in wealthy countries such as the U.S., medical bills contribute to a large percentage of personal bankruptcies. Now, a new global study finds that dental care can also contribute to families falling into poverty and being left with fewer financial resources for basic necessities.

In a study published today in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers found that up to 7 percent of households surveyed in 41 low- and middle-income countries had experienced catastrophic dental care expenditures in the last month. To conduct the study, researchers analyzed data from more than 182,000 respondents ages 18 and older in 41 countries and who participated the World Health Organization’s World Health Survey. Spending on dental health care was defined as “catastrophic” if the expenditure was equal to or higher than 40 percent of the household capacity to pay for the care.

The study found that wealthier, urban and larger households as well as more economically developed countries had higher odds of experiencing catastrophic dental care expenditures, while in low- and middle-income countries, the use of dental care was more typically associated with the ability to pay than with a person’s oral health needs. Study authors Mohd Masood, Aubrey Sheiham and Eduardo Bernabe write:

Treating oral diseases is costly, even in high-income countries where 5–10% of public health spending is used for dental care. Although there is no equivalent data for low-income countries, it has been estimated that treating (tooth decay) in children would cost between $1,618 and $3,513 per 1,000 children of mixed ages from 6 to 18 years, an amount that exceeds the available resources for the provision of an essential public health care package for the children of most low-income countries. Those needing dental treatment face two important economic consequences: the high direct costs of the service (out-of-pocket expenditure) and the indirect loss of income and productivity to attend services.

Researchers found that the proportion of households experiencing catastrophic dental care expenditures in the prior four weeks ranged from 0.1 percent in Namibia and Lao to 6.8 percent in Ukraine. In a separate analysis that excluded households with no dental spending, the percentage of households whose expenditures on dental care in the prior four weeks was defined as “catastrophic” ranged from 2.8 percent in Swaziland to 35 percent in Ukraine.

In addition, households with three or more children faced lower odds of experiencing catastrophic dental care expenditures than those with no kids, while households with three or more adults faced higher odds of catastrophic dental care expenditures than single adult households. Overall, catastrophic dental care expenditures were more likely in urban areas than in rural areas. At the country-level, the odds of facing catastrophic dental care expenditures rose 1.17 times for every $1,000 increase in gross domestic product per capita.

While it seems somewhat backward that catastrophic expenditures were more likely in higher-income nations, the study authors explained that dental care in lower-income countries is primarily financed through out-of-pocket spending, while people in wealthier, more urban households are more likely to take advantage of high-cost, private dental care providers. As for the lower risk among households with children, the study noted that most developing countries offer publicly funded health services for children, which decreases the financial burden on families. The researchers added that stronger social norms around the appearance of a person’s teeth might also contribute to more dental care spending in higher-income countries.

The study authors concluded: “There is an opportunity for dental public health advocates and international dental organizations to incorporate dental care in current discussions about universal health coverage and its role in achieving equity in the use of health services.”

In a study published last month in the Journal of Dental Research, researchers estimated that untreated tooth decay, which can lead to infections, chronic pain and disease, affected more than 2.4 billion people globally in 2010, making it the most prevalent health condition in the world. In the U.S., tooth decay is the most prevalent chronic disease among children and adults, even though it’s totally preventable.

To download a full copy of the dental care expenditure study, visit PLOS ONE.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

Categories: Health

Names and faces featured in Worker Memorial Day reports, new database

Pump Handle - April 29, 2015

I can’t help but contrast last week’s release by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of workplace fatality data,with the reports issued this week by community groups to commemorate International Workers’ Memorial Day (WMD). BLS gave us the sterile number: 4,585. That’s the government’s official, final tally of the number of work-related fatal injuries that occurred in the US in 2013.

But groups in Tennessee, Massachusetts, and elsewhere have already assembled workplace fatality data for 2014. Better than that, they’ve affixed names and stories to the numbers. The information comes in the form of WMD reports and an open-access database of work-related fatalities occurring in the US during 2014, with names, ages, and other details about the victims whenever possible. First to the reports:

I worked, for example, with colleagues and we identified by name 62 workers from the Houston, TX area who died in 2014 from fatal work-related injuries. Our 23-page report lists their names, ages, circumstances of their deaths, and safety violations and penalties if applicable. For about half of the victims, we provide a photo of the deceased worker. In a section of the report we call “Worker Not Identified,” we note that many workplace fatality incidents are not reported in the press. Some government agencies keep secret the names of the victims. As the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NatCOSH) explains in their WMD report:

“As activists around the country seek information about workers killed in their state, region or locality, we find that important details are available in some cases but not others, with no logical explanation for the inconsistencies. Why should it be so hard for the public to know who was killed on the job and the basic facts of what happened?”

NatCOSH notes the inconsistency among government agencies. BLS’s data, they write, is

“…summary data only, with specific information about the names of workers and employers typically withheld as confidential. The US Mine Safety and Health Administration, by contrast, has a long-standing policy of posting workplace fatalities on their website within days of being notified about a fatality. The report typically includes the name of the worker who died, his or her employer and a short description of the incident. The US Fire Administration…also publishes information about on-duty career and volunteer firefighter fatalities. These public postings help us remember those who have died, and also provide crucial information that can help protect others who are exposed to ongoing occupational hazards.”

NatCOSH punctuates this point on the cover of its report. It displays photos of six victims from 2014 of fatal work-related injuries, with a seventh image—an outline of a person—with a giant question mark on the body. A terrific graphic that says to me “who was the victim?”

But topping NatCOSH’s report cover is the one that features the powerful photo below.

Michael Tallent’s daughter holds a photo of her father. Michael was electrocuted in a construction site accident in Knoxville on New Year’s Eve, 2012. (Photo by Alyssa Hansen)

 

It is the photo that appears on the cover of the Knoxville Area’s WMD Committee’s report. The coalition of labor and faith groups prepared “Dying for a Job.” The 59-page document list the names, ages and circumstances of 172 Tennessee workers who died from work-related causes in 2013 and 2014. The authors of this report, as well as of the others, are careful to say “partial list.”  They know their lists are incomplete. These groups use whatever sources and as many sources—-from news stories, firefighter association sources, to OSHA news releases and word of mouth—to track down and identify the cases.

The Tennessee report captures the spirit and sentiment of the day set aside to remember workers killed on-the-job:

“Please take the time to pause and review this roll. Not only does it speak to the magnitude of losses suffered, it also reminds us of the tasks done by workers every day, and of the dignity and value of human labor.”

MassCOSH and the Massachusetts AFL-CIO remember by name 49 workers who lost their lives in the state in 2014. In their 27-page report “Dying for Work in Massachusetts,” the authors provide details about each victim, and also offer longer profiles on and photos of some of the deceased. These profiles tell a story about some of Massachusetts’ workplace fatalities victims, including firefighters Edward Walsh, Jr., 43, and Michael Kennedy, 33, who were killed in March 2014 while fighting a 9-alarm fire in the Back Bay area of Boston. The authors highlight particular health and safety challenges, such as hazards faced by municipal workers and an aging workforce.

Worker justice and safety advocates in south Florida issued a WMD report, noting the hefty death toll in the Sunshine State. Between June and September 2014, there were 30 fatal work-related injuries in just the southern region of Florida.

Besides honoring workplace fatality victims by name, with photos and stories, these WMD reports have other similarities:

  • They note the untold number of deaths from occupational diseases. An estimated 53,000 individuals in the US die each year from work-related illnesses. There is no government agency or coordinated system to track those deaths. As a result, most of the victims remain nameless.
  • They point to the collapse of the workers’ compensation system as a safety net for injured workers and their families. Several of the reports refer to the excellent reporting earlier this year in “The Demolition of Workers’ Comp,” by ProPublica’s Michael Grabell and NPR’s Howard Berkes.
  • They offer recommendations to prevent work-related fatalities. In the Tennessee report, for example, the authors include the text of legislation which has been introduced in their state capitol to strengthen workplace safety. One is a bill which would require special safety requirements for government construction projects, and another would increase penalties assessed to employers for serious safety violations. The NatCOSH report emphasizes the fundamental safety regulations that, if diligently followed by employers, would prevent many fatalities.

Worker Memorial Day wouldn’t be complete with the AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job (DOTJ) report. This year’s is the organization’s 24th edition. It is the best annual compendium of US worker health and safety statistics. The report includes 150 pages of data tables (e.g., OSHA’s annual budget for each year dating back to 1979; annual work-related injury, illness and fatality for the most recent 10 year period,) as well as a profile of key data from every State (e.g., number of inspections conducted, average penalties assessed.) The AFL’s DOTJ report is my go-to resource for worker safety and health data. In this year’s edition, I noticed a few new data tables (e.g., a breakdown by industry of where federal and State OSHA conducted inspections in the most recent year.) And, following the theme of the other WMD reports mentioned above, the AFL-CIO’s DOTJ report profiles about 10 specific fatality incidents and provides the victims’ names and ages.

Now onto the open-access database of work-related fatalities:

This past summer, The Pump Handle’s Kim Krisberg wrote about Bethany Boggess’ on-line global mapping project to assemble and post information on incidents of occupational deaths, illnesses and disasters. Six months later, Boggess and a small group of other volunteers developed the largest open-access data set of workplace fatality cases that occurred in the US in 2014. It was released yesterday.

Boggess, who has a masters of public health and is with the National Center for Farmworker Health, told me:

“Focusing on statistics to talk about fatalities isn’t enough. The stories, the names, and faces of deceased workers show us the human consequences of failing to address dangerous working conditions.”

The US Worker Fatality Database identifies to-date more than 1,700 workplace fatalities for 2014. This is about one-third of the total cases that will be reported by BLS next year. The database includes, where available, the name of the deceased, the employer, and the circumstances of the death, with links to news accounts and obituaries. The project also includesinteractive maps —all of it available to the public to reproduce. The individuals and groups who developed the system, will manage and continue to add to it. They simply ask users to credit: “US Workers Fatality Database.”

Do names and face matter? Consider this: A vigil was held last night in Houston to remember the victims from 2014 of workplace fatalities. The vigil featured the solemn reading of the names of the 62 individuals we were able to identify. The families of Juan Guerrero, 18, and Walter Warner, 53, wore t-shirts printed with a photo of their deceased loved ones. The images on their t-shirts were the same ones that appears in our Houston-area WMD report.

Categories: Health

California Governor Orders New Greenhouse Gas Emissions Target

Yale Environment 360 - April 29, 2015
California will cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent compared to 1990 levels over the next 15 years, according to an

California Governor Jerry Brown executive order issued today by Governor Jerry Brown. The state already has an ambitious climate law on the books, requiring emissions cuts of 80 percent from the 1990 benchmark by 2050. Brown says the new order sets a tough interim target that will be important for ensuring the state meets its 2050 goal. The state's 2030 and 2050 emissions goals build on a law enacted under former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that requires the state to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. California is on track to meet, and possibly exceed, that mark, officials say. Governor Brown has been positioning California as a world leader in efforts to curb climate change ahead of the United Nations climate talks in Paris at the end of this year.
Categories: Environment, Health

World Is Poised for Major Surge in Air Conditioner Use, Research Finds

Yale Environment 360 - April 28, 2015
The world is on track for dramatic increases in the use of air conditioning over the next few decades, which will place even

Air conditioners in Chinese apartment complex. more stress on power grids and energy prices than scientists had previously thought, according to research from the University of California, Berkeley. Looking at households throughout Mexico, the researchers found that, in the warm areas, air conditioning use increases steadily with income — 2.7 percent per $1,000 of annual household income. The team used those findings, along with population, climate, and household income projections, to model future growth in air conditioner use across the globe. Conservatively, they say, the model predicts near-universal saturation of air conditioning in all warm areas within just a few decades. That will place enormous stress on the energy infrastructure of some nations — India, for example, is already experiencing blackouts during surges in power use — and will drive up energy costs worldwide.
Categories: Environment, Health

Can the North Sea Wind Boom And Seabird Colonies Coexist?

Yale Environment 360 - April 28, 2015
Offshore wind farms have been proliferating in the North Sea, with more huge projects planned. But conservationists are concerned this clean energy source could threaten seabird colonies that now thrive in the sea’s shallow waters. BY FRED PEARCE
Categories: Environment, Health

Worker health and chemical safety reform: ‘What we’re looking for is to first do no harm’

Pump Handle - April 27, 2015

Today, Maine’s legislature held a hearing on the Toxic Chemicals in the Workplace Act, a proposal to require employers to identify harmful chemicals in the workplace and replace them with safer alternatives. It’s the perfect example of state action on behalf of worker safety and exactly the kind of measure that might no longer be possible under two congressional proposals aimed at overhauling the federal Toxic Substances Control Act.

As Congress considers a number of legislative proposals to reform the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) — a law that hasn’t been updated since its passage and is often described as woefully inadequate in protecting public health — worker health and safety advocates are speaking up and keeping careful watch. Reforming TSCA and strengthening the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to restrict and ban dangerous chemicals is important for the health of all Americans, but workers could especially benefit. The metaphor of workers as society’s “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to chemical safety may be overused, but it’s still true. Occupational health and safety history is littered with examples of chemical dangers and other hazards only being noticed after workers get sick or die. And so for workers, many of who face direct exposure to chemicals in concentrated forms and on a regular, even daily, basis, TSCA reform is particularly significant.

According to OSHA, U.S. workers experience more than 190,000 illnesses and 50,000 deaths each year related to chemical exposures, which have been tied to cancers as well as lung, kidney, skin, heart, stomach, brain, nerve and reproductive diseases.

“We want EPA to specifically pay attention to worker health,” said Kevin O’Connor, director of governmental affairs and public policy at the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), which represents about 86 percent of the country’s professional firefighters. “What we’re looking for is to first do no harm.”

Currently, two TSCA reform bills have been introduced in Congress — the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, known as S. 697, introduced by Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., and the Alan Reinstein and Trevor Schaefer Toxic Chemical Protection Act, S. 725, introduced by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Ed Markey, D-Mass. (We wrote about both bills and their differences here.) Then earlier this month, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., released a draft TSCA reform proposal. Like the Vitter-Udall bill, the Shimkus proposal would significantly restrict and pre-empt state action on chemical safety — it’s a major sticking point for worker health and safety organizations. (The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works is scheduled to mark up the Vitter-Udall bill on April 28. While some revisions have been made, advocates say it’s not nearly enough to protect people’s health — learn why in this letter from the Center for Environmental Health.)

According to the Center for Effective Government, the Shimkus bill could override hundreds of state chemical safety actions. Specifically, if EPA ruled that a chemical doesn’t present an “unreasonable risk,” the Shimkus bill would prohibit states from taking action on that chemical, even if the state had previously determined the chemical was a threat to people’s health or if the state is home to a particularly vulnerable population. If EPA did rule a chemical unsafe, states could only enact a restriction identical to the federal finding and no stricter. In addition, the Shimkus bill would pre-empt state action in a scenario in which EPA only assessed a chemical’s risk in a certain setting. For instance, if EPA studied a particular chemical in furniture, a state couldn’t take action on that same chemical as it’s used in children’s products.

The Vitter-Udall bill has similarly restrictive language when it comes to state authority. For example, that bill would ban states from regulating any chemical that EPA has designated as “high priority” and for which the agency has begun a safety review, even though that review could take seven years or longer. Vitter-Udall would also block states from co-enforcing EPA chemical safety restrictions — in other words, states and their residents would have to fully depend on EPA and its already strained budget to enforce chemical safety findings instead of allowing states to serve as partners in protecting people’s health. In contrast, the Boxer-Markey bill does not pre-empt state action on chemical safety.

In a letter on TSCA reform to leaders in the Senate, the AFL-CIO, which represents 12.5 million working Americans, writes:

Much of the progress that has been made in protecting the public and workers from exposures to toxic chemicals has resulted from state action. States have been at the forefront of identifying chemical hazards, providing warnings and restricting the use of toxic chemicals. State policies and actions have promoted the use of less hazardous substances, the most effective means to limit exposures. The states’ ability to take action in the future is critical for continued progress and protection of the public and workers.

Unfortunately, the Vitter-Udall and Shimkus bills jeopardize the ability to act locally on behalf of worker health and safety.

‘TSCA reform can keep workers from getting sick if it’s done right’

At IAFF, O’Connor told me the firefighters association opposes any federal effort to ban state action on chemical safety, pointing to occupational exposure to flame retardants as a prime example of how local action is protecting firefighter health.

A growing body of evidence finds that firefighters are being exposed to dangerous carcinogens through the burning of household products containing chemical flame retardants. For example, this study found that firefighters have much higher levels of flame retardant chemicals in their blood than the general population. In fact, IAFF recently signed a petition calling on the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban children’s products, furniture, mattresses and electronics casings that contain flame retardants within the chemical class known as organohalogens, which have been linked to cancer, learning deficits, decreased IQ in children and lowered immunity.

To protect their members against the dangerous chemicals, IAFF and its affiliates often look to local officials for help and today, states across the nation have adopted or are considering policies that restrict and regulate chemical flame retardants. For example, last year, the California Professional Firefighters — an affiliate of IAFF — advocated for and celebrated the passage of a state law requiring labels on furniture that declare whether the products contain chemical flame retardants.

O’Connor said any TSCA reform that prohibits states from acting on chemical safety would have a “chilling effect” on advocacy on behalf of firefighter health and safety. According to an IAFF database of work-related firefighter deaths, 56 percent are due to occupational cancers.

“If we put all of our eggs in the basket of the federal government, quite frankly, we’re not sure we’re protecting the best interest of our members,” he told me. “We want to make sure that a weak federal law does not pre-empt strong action on the part of states.”

At United Steelworkers (USW), the largest industrial union in North America with 850,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, workers have a huge stake in stronger chemical safety laws and the outcome of any TSCA reform. USW represents a majority of unionized chemical workers, such as those who make plastics, fertilizers, pesticides, synthetic rubbers, paints and solvents. As a co-founder of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor and environmental organizations, USW has developed a set of principles for any TSCA reform, which includes giving EPA the authority to protect those most vulnerable to chemical safety risks, such as workers. Anna Fendley, the union’s legislative representative, told me USW is not supporting the Vitter-Udall bill in its current form, citing its state pre-emption provisions as a major problem. (Fendley also highlighted original language in the Vitter-Udall bill that would have weakened EPA’s ability to ensure that imported products don’t contain restricted chemicals; however, that language, as of late April, had been removed.)

“Ultimately, we want a federal system that works and we want the states to keep their ability to regulate safety as well,” Fendley told me. “TSCA reform can keep workers from getting sick if it’s done right.”

Fendley added that modernizing EPA’s capacity to assess chemical safety and pathways of exposure could also inform new risk reduction strategies for workers, especially for industrial processes in which there are no safer chemical alternatives.

“We’ve been working on this for many years and we really hoped that this could be the year for reform, but we’re not going to support a bill that doesn’t fix the problem,” she told me. “Workers deserve to go home from work the same way they went in — not sick and not hurt.”

Like the Vitter-Udall bill, the Shimkus proposal does not adequately define what it means for a chemical to be safe, said Charlotte Brody, vice president for occupational and public health initiatives at the BlueGreen Alliance. She told me: “The biggest thing that TSCA reform could do for workers is to ask and answer the question: Is it safe? And the Shimkus bill doesn’t yet give EPA the questions to answer that would protect the health of workers or anybody else.”

Under current TSCA rules, EPA must find that a chemical presents an “unreasonable risk” to people’s health or the environment, and that assessment must also consider the benefits of the chemical in question, the availability of alternatives and the costs of restricting the chemical. The Shimkus bill would no longer require EPA to consider costs and other non-risk factors when assessing risk and would prohibit the agency from finding no unreasonable risk even if the chemical in question only presents a risk to certain groups, such as workers. But, the Shimkus draft still retains the “unreasonable risk” standard and it’s ambiguous as to how that standard would be interpreted or how cost would shape EPA’s authority to act on a finding of harm. For example, in testifying on the Shimkus draft, Andy Igrejas, director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, said:

While this may seem like a fine point, it is fundamental. Stakeholders broadly agree on a risk-based system for TSCA reform. In such a system, cost considerations should be reserved for the question of how to mitigate the risk, not whether to mitigate it. As it stands, we believe the draft would allow a major risk — such as a chemical that causes cancer or birth defects — to remain unmitigated if it was deemed too expensive to do so. That is a very different outcome than mitigating the risk in a cost-effective way.

“(The Shimkus language) leaves EPA open to yet another decade of arguing what the regulations should be,” Brody told me. “What you want in (TSCA reform) is a crisp definition. Unless there’s a crisp definition, it’s not a bill you can support — it’s open to manipulation, it’s open to years of lawsuits and it’s not better than the broken law we have now.”

Today, Brody is in Maine for a public hearing on a state bill, the Toxic Chemicals in the Workplace Act. If signed into law, the bill would, among other measures, direct the state Department of Labor to develop criteria for identifying toxic chemicals and require certain employers to develop and implement alternative chemical work plans. The bill isn’t only an example of how states are stepping up to protect workers — it’s also an example of the kind of localized action and support that workers stand to lose as federal TSCA reform moves forward.

“The default is that people believe that everything on a store shelf has been reviewed for safety by some government agency,” Brody said. “They think the government makes sure there aren’t dangerous products on the shelf. And it’s great that that’s the government people want — we want that too. But that’s not what we have, so we have to organize until it’s true.”

Click here to read the AFL-CIO’s full letter on TSCA reform. For more on TSCA reform, visit the Center for Environmental Health.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

Categories: Health

Oceans Are the World's Seventh Largest Economy, New Report Says

Yale Environment 360 - April 27, 2015
The world's oceans are worth an estimated $24 trillion and produce $2.5 trillion annually in goods and services, according to

Coral reefs are threatened by ocean acidification. a report by WWF, Boston Consulting Group, and the Global Change Institute. If the global ocean ecosystem were a single nation, it would represent the world's seventh largest economy, the report says, providing goods such as fish catches and aquaculture and services such as coastal storm protection, shipping, and tourism. The oceans' assets are dwindling, though, due to threats such as ocean acidification, over-exploitation of fish stocks, and degradation of coral reefs, which could disappear completely by 2050, according to research cited in the report. The trends could be reversed, the report says, if global governments take strong action to curb climate change and if coastal countries make swift efforts to protect nearby marine ecosystems.
Categories: Environment, Health

The Post and Courier wins Pulitzer for series on “a state where the deck is stacked against women trapped in the cycle of abuse”

Pump Handle - April 27, 2015

The 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for Public Service went to South Carolina’s Post and Courier for the chillingly effective series “Till Death Do Us Part,” about the state’s inadequate response to domestic violence. Doug Pardue, Glenn Smith, Jennifer Berry Hawes, and Natalie Caula Hauff conducted an in-depth investigation and followed the stories of women killed by men in South Carolina. They concluded, “Awash in guns, saddled with ineffective laws and lacking enough shelters for the battered, South Carolina is a state where the deck is stacked against women trapped in the cycle of abuse.”

In 2013 South Carolina had the highest rate of women killed by men, and for the past 15 years it has had a rate among the top 10. The authors highlight two main problems that put South Carolina women at a higher risk of violent death than women elsewhere: A legal system that punishes perpetrators lightly, and insufficient funding for infrastructure that would support women who experience violence. Pardue and colleagues write of the legal penalties:

When asked, most state legislators profess deep concern over domestic violence. Yet they maintain a legal system in which a man can earn five years in prison for abusing his dog but a maximum of just 30 days in jail for beating his wife or girlfriend on a first offense.

Many states have harsher penalties. Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee, for example, set the maximum jail stay for the same crime at six months. In Georgia and Alabama it is a year.

This extra time behind bars not only serves as a deterrent but also can save lives, according to counselors, prosecutors and academics. Studies have shown that the risk of being killed by an angry lover declines three months after separation and drops sharply after a year’s time.

More than a third of those charged in South Carolina domestic killings over the past decade had at least one prior arrest for criminal domestic violence or assault. More than 70 percent of those people had multiple prior arrests on those charges, with one man alone charged with a dozen domestic assaults. The majority spent just days in jail as a result of those crimes.

Guns were the weapon of choice in nearly seven out of every 10 domestic killings of women over the past decade, but South Carolina lawmakers have blocked efforts to keep firearms out of the hands of abusers. Unlike South Carolina, more than two-thirds of all states bar batterers facing restraining orders from having firearms, and about half of those allow or require police to seize guns when they respond to domestic violence complaints.

The writers blame the state’s culture for this leniency towards men who abuse their partners, noting that men dominate elected offices and rarely challenge “the belief that a man’s home is his castle and what goes on there, stays there.” (Part Three of the series delves into the culture of this Bible Belt state, where many consider divorce a sin.) Perhaps relatedly, dedicating more tax dollars to programs for survivors of intimate partner violence is a tough sell:

Against this backdrop, it has often been difficult to get traction for spending more tax dollars for domestic violence programs and bolstering protections for the abused. The only consistent state money spent on such programs comes from a sliver of proceeds from marriage license fees — a figure that has hovered for years around $800,000 for the entire state. That’s just a tad more than lawmakers earmarked this year for improvements to a fish farm in Colleton County. It equates to roughly $22 for each domestic violence victim.

“Even as we have gone up in the number of murders and attempted murders over the years, that support has never changed,” said Rebecca Williams-Agee, director of prevention and education for the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. “It’s all wrapped up in the politics of this state and the stereotypes of domestic violence victims. Why does she stay? Why doesn’t she pull herself up by her own bootstraps?”

Alicia Alvarez put up with abuse for years before she got the courage to leave. The Charleston mother of two said abusers create an atmosphere that robs victims of confidence.

Abusers don’t begin by hitting or killing, Alvarez said. “It begins with little criticisms, second-guessing everything you do. They get in your brain so that when they tell you, ‘You are worthless,’ you believe it.”

Part Two of the series sets a chilling timeline of women’s deaths against the timeline of legislative activity on the issue, while Part Five addresses challenges to under-resourced law-enforcement agencies and courts. Some glimmers of hope are visible in Part Four, in which women who survived violent partners share their stories, and Part Six, which describes solutions that are reducing violent deaths among women in other states. Several short videos feature the family members of women killed by their partners, as well as women who not only had the courage to survive violent and abusive relationships, but to share their stories with the public.

The final installment of the series summarizes the problems that contribute to South Carolina’s appalling rate of violence against women, alongside solutions the state could adopt. The authors write, “Some proposed fixes would cost money, but most could be accomplished with existing resources and some revisions to the state’s laws. What is really needed is leadership from top elected officials, commitment from each of the state’s counties and the participation of an engaged public.”

The journalists, editors, and other staff involved in the series deserve the highest praise for creating such a thorough and moving series on such an important issue. I hope attention from this series’ well-deserved Pulitzer Prize will help spur activity in South Carolina to prevent intimate partner violence and assist survivors.

Categories: Health

Chemicals at work taking their breath away: work-related asthma

Pump Handle - April 24, 2015

Researchers with CDC’s National Institute for Occupational (NIOSH) report that nearly 16 percent of current asthma cases in US adults are work-related. The reported findings are based on data from the Behaviorial Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) Adult Asthma Call-back Survey (ACBS) and reported this month in Morbitity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). The survey respondents, made up of adults from 22 states, answered “yes” to the question:

“Have you ever been told by a doctor or other health professional that your asthma was caused by, or your symptoms made worse by, any job you ever had?”

The proportion of every-employed adults who answered “yes” was highest in Missouri (23.1%) and Wisconsin (21.1%) and lowest in Hawaii (9%) and New Mexico (13.5%).  The authors note the likelihood that the data understates the problem, writing:

“clinicians documented occupational exposure in only 7% of adult-onset cases indicating that work-related asthma is underdiagnosed in the US; thus results are likely underestimates of the true proportion” of the disease.

This may also explain the wide difference between States in reported work-related asthma cases.

On the heels of these findings is the report on a cluster of asthma cases from workers employed at a manufacturing facility in Massachusetts. The company makes syntactic foam which is used in large floatation equipment for the offshore oil and gas industry (e.g., this New Jersey company.)

The Massachusetts Department of Health learned of the cases through a unique program which requires healthcare providers and laboratories in Massachusetts to report certain occupational injuries (e.g., amputations) and illnesses (e.g., asthma.) From 2008 through 2012, six different physicians reported to the Massachusetts Occupational Health Surveillance Program a total of nine case of work-related asthma among employees at the plant.

The MMWR article describes the cases, which began with a 53 year-old worker who was a non-smoker and had no history of respiratory disease. He worked as an electrician and traveled throughout the facility repairing and maintaining equipment. His physician initially treated him for bronchitis and his symptoms would improve when he was off-work. After suffering several years with chronic breathing problems, he quit his job to work elsewhere.

The cluster investigation is summarized in this week’s MMWR and elaborated on in a NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE). The HHE describes the toxic soup of chemical hazards he and the other workers at the plant were exposed to:

“polystyrene beads, epoxy resins (e.g., bisphenol A, epichlorohydrin, bisphenol A diglycidyl ether), amines (e.g., triethylenetetramine), reactive diluents, carbon fibers, milled fibers, glass microspheres, polyester resin adhesives, anhydrides (e.g., methyltetrahydrophthalic anhydride) and catalysts.”

The facility (which is not named in the MMWR or the HHE) had been subject to OSHA inspections in 2007 and 2009. Among other things, the company was cited for an inadequate respiratory protection program. An EPA emergency response team also visited the facility in 2009 following the report of two employees being hospitalized because of chemical exposure.

In early 2012, the NIOSH investigators interviewed workers from the plant. The investigators write:

“Many [workers] felt that skin irritation and breathing problems were common among employees; some felt health problems were to be accepted as part of the job, as good jobs were difficult to find.”

Despite being cited previously by OSHA for the same problem, the NIOSH investigators found many deficiencies in the company’s respiratory protection program. Page after page of the report told me that this workplace was ripe for causing asthma and other injuries.

About half of the 165 workers at the plant identified as Black and another 10 percent as Hispanic. Sixty-nine percent were born outside the US.

At the conclusion of NIOSH’s HHE, the agency provided about two dozen recommendations to the company to improve working conditions and cases of work-related asthma. Some of them involved equipment enhancements and substitutions of safer chemicals. Others involved a program to monitor employees’ respiratory health to identify early cases of occupational asthma and refer workers to a healthcare provider with expertise in occupational lung disease. The company is not compelled, however, to implement any of the recommendations. The HHE notes that the company took a few of those steps, but I’m not convinced they’ve done enough to stop taking away their workers’ breath.

Categories: Health

Long-Term CO2 Record by Keeling Named National Historic Chemical Landmark

Yale Environment 360 - April 24, 2015
The Keeling Curve — a long-term record of rising carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere — will be named a National Historic

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The Keeling Curve Chemical Landmark, the American Chemical Society announced yesterday. The late geochemist Charles David Keeling began collecting precise, systematic data on atmospheric CO2 concentrations at Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory in 1958. Since then, the rigorous and continuous measurements have become the most widely recognized record of humans' impact on the planet, helping to illustrate the link between rising CO2 levels from burning fossil fuels and global warming. Other works highlighted by National Historic Chemical Landmark program include the discovery of penicillin, deciphering of the genetic code, and the works of Rachel Carson, Thomas Edison, and George Washington Carver.
Categories: Environment, Health

Interview: Oklahoma’s Link Between Earthquakes and Energy Development

Yale Environment 360 - April 23, 2015
In recent years, Oklahoma has experienced a stunning increase in the number of earthquakes. Yet despite numerous

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Earthquake occurrences in Oklahoma since 2008. studies to the contrary, state officials have remained skeptical of the link between this seismic boom and oil and gas activity. That ended last month with the announcement by the Oklahoma Geological Survey that oil and gas wastewater injection wells were, indeed, the “likely” cause of “the majority” of that state’s earthquakes. Oklahoma geologist Todd Halihan, who has examined this issue, welcomed the announcement. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Halihan outlines some ways that the abnormal seismic activity in Oklahoma might be tamped down. But he also explains why he believes the problem has no quick or easy fixes.
Read the interview.
Categories: Environment, Health

Yale Plans to Charge University Departments for Carbon Emissions

Yale Environment 360 - April 22, 2015
Yale University has announced that it will enact a novel carbon-pricing mechanism in the next academic year in hopes of curbing its greenhouse gas emissions. Devised by a committee led by economist William Nordhaus — an expert on the intersection of climate change and economic policy — the program will operate in a pilot phase for three years before possibly going into full effect, the university said. According to the committee's report, departments within the university would be charged based on how much their carbon emissions deviated from average levels in the past. The report recommends a price of $40 per ton of carbon dioxide, which is based on current federal legislation and the government's estimates for the social cost of carbon. "We didn't see anything like this" when reviewing other institutions' carbon-pricing schemes, Nordhaus told E&E News, saying he believes Yale's program is the first and most comprehensive of its kind.
Categories: Environment, Health

Occupational Health News Roundup

Pump Handle - April 21, 2015

Last November, a roof section larger than a football field collapsed at the Woodgrain Millwork in Prineville, Oregon. Luckily, no one was harmed. However, mill workers, who spoke of a variety of workplace hazards, say they had alerted management to the leaky roof long before the collapse, reported Amanda Peacher for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

In 2004, Woodgrain, a global company with manufacturing facilities across the U.S., bought the 14-acre Prineville mill. Noting that each of the 23 former mill workers interviewed for the story described a “roof riddled with leaks,” Peacher writes:

Peggy Murphy managed inventory at Woodgrain. She described leaks throughout the building, and onto electrical equipment.

“It was a downpour on some of those machines. Like if you were standing in a shower,” she said.

Workers dealt with the leaks as best they could. They’d place buckets at their feet so they wouldn’t get soaked.

Brian Godat, a forklift driver, said he sliced a 50-gallon bucket in half and placed it sideways on two sawhorses to catch water at stairs, not far from the cut shop where the roof collapsed. During heavy rain, workers said, the bucket would fill every few hours.

Workers said they hung plastic sheets above cut saws to redirect the water.

According to former workers, maintenance staff instructed them to mark problematic leaks with red tape. Sam Rufener, who supervised the cut shop, remembers the red tape on several electrical panels. He said those leaks were not fixed.

Peacher described other hazards at the mill as well, such as Woodgrain’s temperature policy stating that “heat is used for manufacturing purposes only and not for comfort.” In turn, she reports, workers were forced to wear layers of bulky clothing and gloves, which made cutting lumber difficult and possibly dangerous. In reporting on OSHA’s response to the collapse, Peacher wrote:

The anonymous complaint that brought Oregon OSHA out to the mill after the collapse said, “The day before the employer was aware that the roof was unstable, and leaking water, in the building and on an electrical panel.”

The inspector’s visit was narrowly focused on the roof collapse so, state OSHA officials said, he was not responsible for investigating safety overall. But they also said that during any site visit inspectors can probe about potential safety concerns.

The inspector did not ask detailed questions about the leaks or potential hazards in an environment where water was falling onto workers, equipment and the concrete floor, according to OSHA. He did not ask how long the roof had been leaking, or if it had ever leaked onto electrical panels in the past.

Following the roof collapse, the Woodgrain company closed most of the Prineville operations and laid off hundreds of workers. Read the full investigation here.

In other news:

The New York Times: Last Wednesday, April 15, thousands of low-wage workers across the nation took to the streets to call for a minimum wage of $15 an hour and justice on the job. Reporter Noam Scheiber writes: “The protest by tens of thousands of low-wage workers, students and activists in more than 200 American cities on Wednesday is the most striking effort to date in a two-and-a-half-year-old labor-backed movement that is testing the ability of unions to succeed in an economy populated by easily replaceable service sector workers.” Joining fast food workers last week were armored guards, part-time college professors, child care providers and many more. Scheiber reports that there was initially some skepticism within the Service Employees International Union as to whether the union should spend millions organizing fast food and other low-wage workers. To that, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said: “We can no longer change our lives, and our kids’ lives, without the support of a broader movement of workers.” Visit Fight for $15 for all the coverage and check out the video below of one of last week’s protests in Pittsburgh.

ThinkProgress: Sacha Feinman reports on the aftermath of the Feb. 18 explosion at an ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, California, and which sent a “chemical ash” raining down on the surrounding community. Feinman writes about the slow government response as well as worries among residents that no one really knows what the possible health impacts might be. He also reports that the Torrance facility has a long history of accidents, such as a 1994 explosion that injured 20 workers. Regarding the February explosion, Feinman quoted Dave Campbell, the local United Steelworkers representative: “The truth of the matter is that the only reason workers weren’t killed that day is because they were out on a coffee break.”

Slate: United Food and Commercial Workers International Union has filed an official complaint with the National Labor Relations Board accusing Walmart of shutting down five stores in retaliation of workers organizing for better pay and conditions. Reporter Beth Ethier writes that Walmart claims the stores were abruptly shut down for plumbing repairs. However, the giant retailer has announced that the more than 2,000 workers who suddenly lost their jobs will have to re-apply as new applicants. Workers were literally given just a few hours notice that the stores would be closing and they would be out of work. Ethier reports that the now-closed Walmart store in Pico Rivera, California, was the site of some of the earliest OUR Walmart wage protests.

In These Times: Workers at the online media site Gawker, often known for its quick wit and unique contribution to political discourse, are hoping to form a union, reports Alex Lubben. Lubben writes that Gawker staffer Hamilton Nolan said that while Gawker is good place to work, forming a “union in good times will protect their staff in bad times.” Lubben also writes that Gawker’s efforts could set a progressive example in the world of online publishing and new media: “Gawker’s union drive is bigger than any particular workplace dispute. Nolan stressed when we spoke that they are unionizing because they believe in unionism. ‘Every workplace could use a union,’ Nolan wrote in his post announcing the union drive. ‘A union is the only real mechanism that enables employees to join together to bargain collectively, rather than as a bunch of separate powerless entities.’”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

Categories: Health
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