A Possible Advance in Fight To Combat a Deadly Amphibian Fungus

Yale Environment 360 - July 10, 2014
Scientists have discovered that a certain kind of toad can acquire immunity to the deadly chytrid fungus, which has caused widespread mortality among amphibians worldwide. Reporting in Nature, the scientists say they have conferred immunity in oak toads to the chytrid fungus after repeatedly exposing them to the organism that causes the disease. The lead author of the study, Jason Rohr of the University of South Florida, said the discovery means it might be possible to confer immunity on entire communities of amphibians in the wild by lacing local water sources with dead versions of the fungus that could be absorbed by the amphibians. But Rohr said many questions remain, including how long immunity lasts, what concentration of released antigen would confer immunity, and whether such releases would harm other organisms. The chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, attacks the skin of amphibians, thickening it and preventing the animals from absorbing water and vital salts.
Categories: Environment, Health

Loss of Snowpack and Glaciers In Rockies Poses Water Threat

Yale Environment 360 - July 10, 2014
From the Columbia River basin in the U.S. to the Prairie Provinces of Canada, scientists and policy makers are confronting a future in which the loss of snow and ice in the Rocky Mountains could imperil water supplies for agriculture, cities and towns, and hydropower production. BY ED STRUZIK
Categories: Environment, Health

One-third of German Power Came from Renewables in First Half of 2014

Yale Environment 360 - July 09, 2014
Thanks to abundant sunshine and wind, renewable energy generated 31 percent of Germany’s electricity in the first six months of this year, according to a new report. The report, released by the Fraunhofer Insititute, said that 27 percent of the country’s electricity production came from wind and solar, and four percent from hydropower. Solar power generation grew by 28 percent in the first half of 2014 compared to the first six months of 2013, and wind power grew by 19 percent over the same period. On a couple of particularly windy and sunny days in May and June, renewable energy accounted for 50 to 75 percent of Germany’s electricity production, the report said. The Fraunhofer Institute said that as Germany continues to phase out its nuclear power plants, it remains reliant on highly polluting “brown coal” to produce electricity. A substantial portion of German coal-generated electricity is being exported, the report said.
Categories: Environment, Health

Safety whistleblowers on Warren Buffett’s railroad

Pump Handle - July 09, 2014

Testing to make sure a train’s brakes work properly shouldn’t be controversial. But some railroad employees have lost their jobs because they insisted on the safety checks. Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Tony Schick explains the situation in “Rail workers raise doubts about safety culture as oil trains roll on.

Schick profiles the experience of Curtis Rookaird, a BNSF train conductor. Rookaird was fired in 2010 after he raised safety complaints, including about the need to conduct air brake testing on a set of railcars. OSHA investigated Rookaird’s whistleblower complaint. The agency agreed that BNSF retaliated against the worker for raising safety concerns. OSHA ordered the company to reinstate Rookaird, but BNSF appealed and the case continues. Rookaird’s not alone. Schick notes:

“Cases are pending in at least three different states in which BNSF conductors allege they were fired for insisting mandatory brake tests not be skipped, contrary to orders from their managers.”

BNSF is the second largest freight railway system in North America. Berkshire Hathway’s Warren Buffett bought the firm in 2010 for $44 billion. It’s an integral part of the oil and gas boom, transporting millions of gallons of crude to refineries.

BNSF insists:

We foster a culture that makes safety our highest priority and provides continuous self-examination as to the effectiveness of our safety process and performance.

We empower our work force to take responsibility for personal safety, the safety of fellow employees and the communities we serve.

Schick writes:

“Former employees in Montana and Minnesota have also alleged under a federal whistleblower statute that they were fired after raising concerns about air brake tests. ‘Where the dispatcher is telling a crew to get the train out of there even when the air brake test hasn’t been performed, that to me is a clear example of putting profits ahead of safety,’  said George Gavalla, who oversaw safety at the FRA until 2004 and now works as a consultant and expert witness.”

“Other engineers and conductors with BNSF in the Northwest recalled similar pressure to prioritize train movement. In interviews they cited hurried or forgone brake tests, the ignoring of requirements to put cars in a particular order, and instances of riding out of the yard for miles at a time clutching the ladder on the outside of a rail car because of the extra time it would take to walk thousands of feet back to the front of the train. “

The whistleblowers on Buffett’s railroad also include workers who have been threatened or retaliated against for reporting a work-related injury. Schick notes that about 60 percent of the safety whistleblower cases involving railroad employees fall into this category. One group of workers testified that their BNSF supervisor said:

“If any member were to report an injury, the entire gang would be abolished, regardless of any other circumstances.”

BNSF says:

“We foster a culture that makes safety our highest priority.”

Schick links to dozens of depositions and other documents in his story to let us judge BNSF’s safety culture for ourselves.

 

Categories: Health

Another study finds that despite rare adverse events, childhood vaccines are safe

Pump Handle - July 08, 2014

Vaccine safety is one of those topics that has become so tragically mired in misinformation and myth that there can never be enough supporting evidence. So, here’s some more.

In a systematic review of the scientific literature on childhood immunizations that will be published in the August issue of Pediatrics, researchers found that vaccine-related adverse events are “extremely rare” and that — once again — the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine (MMR) is not associated with autism.

Overall, the study found that while the risks associated with childhood vaccines are not zero, the evidence shows that vaccines are “very safe” and their risks should be appropriately weighed against the health risks of the diseases they prevent. Researchers also reported “strong evidence” that the MMR, DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis), Td (tetanus-diphtheria), Hib (immunizes against a bacteria that causes meningitis and pneumonia) and hepatitis B vaccines are not associated with childhood leukemia. The study was conducted at the request of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to help identify gaps in vaccine safety evidence.

Researchers noted in the study’s introduction that while vaccines are considered one of the greatest public health achievements of the 21st century, “routine childhood vaccine uptake remains suboptimal” and that parental refusal of vaccines are contributing to disease outbreaks. For example, this year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting a record number of measles cases, with more than 500 confirmed cases between January and July. It’s the highest caseload since measles was officially declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. The public health agency reports that the majority of those who’ve contracted the disease are not vaccinated.

The Pediatrics study also found moderate evidence that vaccines against rotavirus, which causes diarrhea and dehydration, can increase the risk of intussusception, a serious intestinal disorder in which one part of the intestine slides into an adjacent part of the intestine. However, the issue only occurs in one to five of every 100,000 vaccinations. Rotavirus, on the other hand, results in more than 200,000 annual emergency room visits and up to 70,000 hospitalizations. The study also confirmed earlier findings that the MMR, pneumococcal and flu vaccines are associated with febrile seizures in children, though the occurrence is “very rare.”

In a related commentary also published in the August issue of Pediatrics, author Carrie Byington, with the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Utah, pondered whether better transparency on the safety of vaccines may increase parental confidence in immunizations. Unfortunately, the jury on that topic is still very much out. She noted that a “recent report evaluating the effectiveness of messages designed to reduce parental misperceptions and increase vaccination rates, including messages about vaccine safety, demonstrated that these messages were ineffective and in some groups of parents may even reduce the intention to vaccinate.These data suggest that alternative strategies to bolster parental confidence in vaccine safety are needed.”

Byington is referencing this study published earlier this year in which parents were randomly assigned one of four different messaging interventions about vaccine safety. The interventions included explaining the lack of evidence between the MMR vaccine and autism, showing pictures of children suffering from the diseases the MMR vaccine prevents, providing information on the diseases that the MMR vaccine prevents, and offering a narrative about a child who almost died of measles. Unfortunately, none of the interventions worked to increase a parent’s intent to vaccinate his or her child. In fact, offering corrective information about vaccine safety myths actually decreased intent to vaccinate among parents with the least favorable vaccine attitudes.

Byington wrote that if parents aren’t receptive to the science, perhaps studies such as the vaccine safety literature review would be most helpful in increasing vaccine safety confidence among clinicians. In the world of vaccine messaging, it’s about the messenger, not the message. In other words, physicians may be the best conduits to relay vaccine safety information to parents.

“The relationship between parents of young children and their medical providers is powerful,” Byington wrote. “Parents trust their child’s doctor over government officials, family members or celebrities as the best source of information on vaccine safety.”

CDC estimates that vaccines will prevent more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths among children born in the last 20 years, saving billions of dollars in health care costs and trillions in societal costs.

For a full copy of the new vaccine study, visit Pediatrics.

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

UCSF develops game-changing method to translate research on toxic chemicals and prevent disease

Breast Cancer Fund - July 08, 2014
By David Tuller, Dr.PH. Everyone wants to know more than we currently do about the long-term effects of everyday exposures to toxic chemicals. Even obstetricians, who could be expected to have a handle on the science, report not knowing how...
Categories: Health

Protection of Parrotfish Could Slow Decline of Caribbean Reefs

Yale Environment 360 - July 08, 2014
The steady loss of coral reefs in the Caribbean could be partially reversed by taking a number of relatively simple steps, including stronger measures to protect the region’s parrotfish, according to a new study. In a review of trends in Caribbean coral reefs from 1970 to 2012, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network said that live coral only makes up about 17 percent of the region’s reef surfaces today. If present trends continue, the study said, coral reefs in the Caribbean will “virtually disappear within a few decades” because of foreign pathogens, algae invasions, pollution from tourism development, over-fishing, and warming waters. A key step in halting the decline is protecting parrotfish, which eat the algae that have been smothering coral reefs. The study said conservation measures, such as banning fish traps, have helped parrotfish populations rebound in some parts of the Caribbean, including Belize and the Bahamas.
Categories: Environment, Health

A Strong Rebuke for Paper Forecasting `Climate Departure’

Yale Environment 360 - July 07, 2014
Thirteen climate scientists and meteorologists have published a sharp criticism of a paper in Nature by University of Hawaii biogeographer Camilo Mora, who calculated dates when earth’s climate will move into a new state caused by human-driven global warming. Mora and his ideas were featured in an interview last week at Yale Environment 360. In a comment article in Nature, the 13 scientists say that Mora and his colleagues used faulty methodology that produced artificially early dates when specific regions would reach “climate departure.” They also said Mora underestimated the uncertainty involved in forecasting the time of emergence of a new climate regime. “This overconfidence could impair the effectiveness of climate risk management decisions,” the 13 scientists said in their comment. In his own comment in Nature, Mora defended his methods, saying, “Our findings are conservative and remain unaltered in the light of their analysis.”
Categories: Environment, Health

Worth Reading: Hobby Lobby edition

Pump Handle - July 07, 2014

A few of the recent pieces I’ve found worth bookmarking about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision:

Dahlia Lithwick and Sonja West at Slate: Quick Change Justice: While you were sleeping, Hobby Lobby just got so much worse
“To prove that the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate was not the “least restrictive alternative,” the court pointed to a workaround in the law for nonprofits: If there are religious objections to a medical treatment, third parties will provide coverage to the employees. Yet in an unsigned emergency order granted Thursday evening, the very same court said that this very same workaround it had just praised was also unconstitutional, that this workaround also burdened the religious freedom of religious employers. Overnight, the cure has become the disease. Having explicitly promised that Hobby Lobby would go no further than Hobby Lobby, the court went back on its word, then skipped town for the summer.”

Emily Badger at Wonkblog: The 49-page Supreme Court Hobby Lobby ruling mentioned women just 13 times
“The 49-page majority opinion mentions “women” or “woman” a mere 13 times (I’ve excluded footnotes and URLs here). It does not mention women’s well-being once. Ginsburg’s dissent, at 35 pages, mentions women (singular or plural) 43 times, their well-being four times.”

Ann Friedman at New York’s The Cut: What a Woman’s Choice Means to the Supreme Court and Social Conservatives
“This idea — that women can always find another way to get the coverage or care they need — underpins just about every recent restriction on women’s health. What’s another 24-hour mandatory abortion waiting period? To a woman who lives 25 miles from the nearest provider, it’s everything. What’s one more tweak to a law about the width of clinic doors? To a clinic that can’t afford to remodel, it’s everything. What’s a minor policy change that means you have to pay full price for that IUD? To a woman who makes $14 an hour, it’s everything.

Micah Schwartzman, Richard Schragger, and Nelson Tebbe at Slate: The New Law of Religion: Hobby Lobby rewrites religious-freedom law in ways that ignore everything that came before
“Monday’s decision in Hobby Lobby was unprecedented. Much of the commentary has focused on the Supreme Court’s decision to extend rights of religious free exercise to for-profit corporations. Hobby Lobby is for religion what Citizens United was for free speech—the corporatization of our basic liberties. But Hobby Lobby is also unprecedented in another, equally important way. For the first time, the court has interpreted a federal statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (or RFRA), as affording more protection for religion than has ever been provided under the First Amendment. While some have read Hobby Lobby as a narrow statutory ruling, it is much more than that. The court has eviscerated decades of case law and, having done that, invites a new generation of challenges to federal laws, including those designed to protect civil rights.”

Irin Carmon for MSNBC: 5 myths about the Hobby Lobby case, debunked
“[Myth] #4: But the government can just pay.” This one comes right from the majority, which said the Obama administration had failed the test of finding the least restrictive means to accomplish its goal. Justice Samuel Alito, writing the majority opinion, suggested “the most straightforward way” of filling the gaps would be for “the government to assume the cost.” He doesn’t have to care that this is, under current political realities, laughable. Senate Democrats have said they’ll introduce a legislative fix to the gaps left by the Hobby Lobby decision, but no one seriously thinks such a bill would become law. There is an existing family-planning funding program for low-income women, Title X, and nearly all House Republicans have already voted to gut it. In the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney promised he would kill the program altogether.”

Alex Wayne for Bloomberg News: High court worsens pain of Obamacare birth-control compromise
“The U.S. Supreme Court’s suggested work-around to provide and pay for employees’ birth-control coverage at businesses whose owners have religious objections hasn’t worked in practice, say the companies administering it.”

Categories: Health

New analysis offers a small snapshot of the toxic nature of oil and gas extraction

Pump Handle - July 03, 2014

Crystalline silica, hydrofluoric acid and formaldehyde. Those are just three of the dozens of air toxic chemicals that oil companies have used thousands of times in southern California in just the past year.

The data has come to light thanks to new reporting rules adopted in 2013 by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which now requires oil and gas well operators to disclose the chemicals they use in oil and gas operations. According to a recently released analysis of the first year’s worth of reported data, oil companies used 44 different air toxic chemicals more than 5,000 times in Los Angeles and Orange counties during the past 12 months. Crystalline silica, hydrofluoric acid and formaldehyde — all of which are considered harmful to human health — were among the most frequently used. Since reporting began in June 2013, companies have reported the use of more than 45 million pounds of air toxics at almost 500 fracking, acidizing and gravel packing operations in the two California counties. (Acidizing is the process of injecting a combination of acids and chemicals underground to clean a well or dissolve rock; gravel packing is a process of placing chemical-filled gravel into the well hole to act as a filter.)

“We understand the terrible health impacts caused by the chemicals being used to extract oil in Los Angeles and Orange counties,” said Angela Johnson Meszaros, general counsel at Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, in a news release. “Given the massive volume of chemicals being used so close to where people live, work and go to school, there is significant likelihood that people will be harmed by these chemicals. We routinely see reports of leaks, accidents and injury associated with oil extraction.”

Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, along with the Center for Biological Diversity, Communities for a Better Environment and the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, conducted the chemical data analysis. Here are just a few of the unsettling findings as well as some of the health risks associated with the chemicals.

According to the analysis, oil and gas well operators used:

• more than 25 million pounds of crystalline silica, which is known to be harmful to skin, eyes, respiratory system, immune system and kidneys;

• more than 166,000 pounds of methanol, an endocrine disruptor and developmental inhibitor;

• more than 32,000 pounds of formaldehyde, which is harmful to skin, eyes, sensory organs, brain and nervous systems, and reproductive system;

• more than 69,000 pounds of 2-butoxy ethanol, which is harmful to a number of organs and systems, and is linked to liver cancer and adrenal tumors; and

• more than 5 million pounds of hydrofluoric acid, which is harmful to the reproductive and cardiovascular systems and can cause genetic mutations.

Moreover, the analysis reported that about 265 fracking, acidizing and gravel packing events happened within 1,500 feet of at least one hospital, preschool or residence. Children and the elderly may be particularly susceptible to air toxics. The analysis states:

These air toxics, which can be emitted before, during and after well stimulation, are endangering the health of nearby residents. In Los Angeles, the AllenCo oil facility has been cited for multiple air emission violations. The pollution has been linked to nosebleeds, headaches, breathing trouble and nausea suffered by nearby residents, leading to hundreds of complaints to (the South Coast Air Quality Management District). After AllenCo was forced to halt operations, the Los Angeles Times revealed that reports of illnesses had diminished significantly. Whether or not well stimulation is used, oil and gas operations are responsible for emitting air toxics throughout the process.

While the numbers in the analysis are worrisome on their own, they probably don’t account for all the chemicals being released. The analysis reported that operators withheld information in 5,050 instances. In claiming that some of the disclosures would jeopardize trade secrets, the companies only submitted vague descriptions to the air quality agency, such as “lubricant” or “mixture.”

“The pervasive and persistent use of these chemicals threatens to contaminate local air quality and put communities’ health and safety at risk,” the analysis concluded. “The reporting requirements have proven the need for immediate action to protect the public.”

To read the full analysis, click here. For some great coverage of this topic and the southern California data, check out this article from reporter Katie Rucke at MintPress News.

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

Human Settlements Have Boosted Plant Growth Globally, NASA Data Show

Yale Environment 360 - July 03, 2014
On a global scale, the presence of people corresponds to more plant growth, according to an analysis of three decades of global vegetation greenness data from

Agriculture has increased global vegetative cover. satellites. More than 20 percent of global vegetation change can be attributed to human activities, such as agriculture, nitrogen fertilization, and irrigation, rather than climate change, researchers report in the journal Remote Sensing. The findings suggest that global climate change models, which typically don't consider human land use, should take into account the relatively large impact human settlements can have on vegetative cover, the researchers say. From 1981 to 2010, areas with a human footprint saw plant greenness and plant productivity increase by up to 6 percent, while areas with a minimal human footprint, such as rangelands and wildlands, saw almost no change. Most increases in growth and greenness were seen near rural areas and villages, where agriculture is more intense.
Categories: Environment, Health

The North Face climber gains new perspective on climb

Breast Cancer Fund - July 02, 2014
When Marlyss Bird signed up to represent The North Face at Climb Against the Odds, she didn't really know what she was getting herself into. She's not a breast cancer survivor and nobody in her immediate family has had the...
Categories: Health

Ridiculous redactions by the Labor Dept’s mine safety agency

Pump Handle - July 02, 2014

They wanted to keep these words secret:

“two” …..  “two miner operators” …….”worn by the miners. Both”   …….“right miner”   …….“left miner”

They are the phrases the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) initially redacted from a document requested by Mine Safety and Health News (MSHNews). (You can see the before and after versions here.)  It’s not only redaction overkill, but it’s made worse coming from the Administration that “pledged to make this the most transparent Administration in history.”

The document with the redacted terms  is a citation issued in January 2014 to Armstrong Coal company for violations at its Parkway mine. The underground coal mine was the subject of a story written last month by HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson.  Jamieson reported on the experience of two whistleblowers who alerted federal inspectors that their company was cheating when it collected air samples to measure respirable coal dust. Rather than assigning miners to wear the dust pumps, the company put the devices in a part of the mine far away from coal dust.

The cheating by coal operators on respirable dust sampling is nothing new. Back in the early 1990′s Republican Labor Secretary Lynn Martin said the coal mining industry was “addicted to cheating.”  Ouch.  But it’s not so easy to catch mine operators in the act. This time MSHA inspectors did and the Parkway mine got a citation for it.

Jamieson’s story piqued the interest of the Ellen Smith, the editor of MSHNews. She had a simple request: a copy of the citation related to the cheating. Smith could share with her readers the details of the mine operator’s deception. Getting those details from MSHA was not as easy as it should have been.

In the current edition of MSHNews, Smith reports on their effort to obtain an unredacted version of the citation.

MSHNews‘ correspondent Kathy Snyder, along with Emily Grannis, an attorney with the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, went to MSHA headquarters to demand an unredacted copy of the citation.”

Smith explains:

“Under the 1977 Mine Act’s Section 104(h) ‘all records, information, reports, findings, citations, notices, orders, or decisions required or issued pursuant to or under this Act may be published from time to time, may be released to any interested person, and shall be made available for public inspection.”

Section 109 (b)(2) of the Mine Act also addresses disclosure of records:

Any “notice, order, citation, or decision shall be available for public inspection.”

In this case, MSHA ultimately agreed to provide an unredacted version of the citation. But it had to be pushed. In other words, they admitted their error.

This should mean that in future requests for citations, phrases like “two miner operators,” “right miner,” and “left miner” are not hidden under the ink of a black marker.  It should mean that MSHA will follow the plain language of the Mine Act’s Sections 104(h) and 109 (b)(2).

But will it?

My hope is that the before and after versions of the Parkway mine citations cross the desks of Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Solicitor of Labor Patricia Smith, or at least the desk of MSHA chief Joe Main. They’ll surely see the redactions on the document as ridiculous. As the officials ultimately responsible for implementing President Obama’s policies, including his pledge to be “the most transparent Administration in history,” I hope they will take steps to fix the cause of their Department’s redaction overkill.

I doubt the Parkway mine citation example is an isolated incident. It’s just the one that appeared in print courtesy of MSHNews.

 

Categories: Health

Roughly $80 Billion Wasted on Power for Networked Devices, Report Says

Yale Environment 360 - July 02, 2014
The world’s 14 billion online electronic devices, such as modems, printers, game consoles, and cable boxes, waste around $80 billion in electricity annually because of inefficient technology, according to a new reportby

Click to Enlarge

Energy consumption of a typical game console. the International Energy Agency (IEA). In 2013, networked devices consumed around 616 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity, with most of that used in standby mode. Roughly 400 TWh — equivalent to the combined annual electricity consumption of the United Kingdom and Norway — was wasted because of inefficient technology. The problem will worsen by 2020, the agency projects, with an estimated $120 billion wasted as devices such as refrigerators, washing machines, and thermostats become networked. Much of the problem boils down to inefficient “network standby,” or maintaining a network connection while in standby mode. Most network-enabled devices draw as much power in this mode as when fully active, the report notes. Using today's best technology could cut energy consumption by 65 percent, the IEA said.
Categories: Environment, Health

Interview: Where Will the Earth Head After Its ‘Climate Departure’?

Yale Environment 360 - July 02, 2014
The term “climate departure” has an odd ring, but its meaning is relatively straightforward. It marks the point at which the earth’s climate begins to cease resembling Camilo Mora what has come before and moves into a new state where the extreme becomes the norm. Camilo Mora — a University of Hawaii biogeographer, ecologist, and specialist in marshaling big data for climate modeling — has calculated a rough idea for the time of the earth’s climate departure: 2047. That date varies depending on region, he says. But in a widely publicized paper published in the journal Nature last year, Mora and 13 colleagues explored the concept of climate departure and what it will mean for our planet. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Mora explains why tropical regions will be most profoundly affected by climate change, why controlling population growth is at the core of the challenge posed by global warming, and the frustrations he and other scientists feel as their warnings about rising temperatures are ignored.
Read more.
Categories: Environment, Health

Occupational Health News Roundup

Pump Handle - July 01, 2014

The U.S. Supreme Court released two big decisions yesterday. The first, which you’ve probably heard about, ruled that for-profit companies can deny female employees insurance coverage for birth control if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. (For more on the potential consequences of this outrageous and offensive decision, read this great piece in Slate. Also, since this is the Occupational Health News Roundup, it bears mentioning that in her dissent, Justice Ginsburg noted that the cost of an IUD is about a month’s full-time pay for a worker earning minimum wage.) But in addition to the Hobby Lobby decision, the court also ruled in Harris v. Quinn, which delivered a pretty significant blow to labor unions’ rights to collect fees from all workers who benefit from collective bargaining.

In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that a group of Illinois home health care workers — the plaintiffs in the case — can’t be forced to pay fees to a union they didn’t wish to join, even if they benefit from the outcomes of collective bargaining negotiations. Also known as fair-share fees or agency fees, the fees are used to support the expensive process of negotiating on behalf hundreds or thousands of workers for better working conditions.

Basically, agency fees mean no one gets a free ride: If a majority of a workforce votes to unionize, non-union workers still reap the rewards of union representation and should bear their fair share of the costs that go along with collective bargaining. Illinois is among a number of states that requires public-sector workers, whether they decide to join the union or not, to pay fair-share fees. The workers who brought the case are a small group of home health aides who care for Medicaid patients and are part of a larger workforce that voted to unionize. As Ian Millhiser at Think Progress wrote, the workers did indeed benefit from the union’s efforts:

By any reasonable objective measure, the union struck a very good deal for Illinois’ home health aides. Before the union negotiated a collective bargaining agreement, the aides’ wages were just $7.00 an hour. Now they are $11.65 an hour, and they are scheduled to increase to $13.00 per hour in December. Nevertheless, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRWLDF), an anti-union litigation shop, found a handful of home health aides who object to this arrangement.

In describing why unions were holding their breath while awaiting the decision, Millhiser wrote:

If the Supreme Court complies with NRWLDF’s request to halt the non-union members’ fair-share payments, there will be little incentive for most workers to reimburse the union for the costs of collective bargaining — after all, why pay for higher wages when you can get them for free? Indeed, such a decision could set off a death spiral endangering the unions themselves. If non-members can suddenly stop paying agency fees, then unions will have to raise dues on their members in order to cover these losses. But, if unions raise their dues, more members will decide to drop out rather than pay the increased fees. Which will force even higher dues. Which will cause more members to drop out. Which will force even higher dues. The loss of agency fees potentially presents an existential threat to the union in Harris and to public sector unions across the country.

The majority of the court ruled that the workers in question weren’t full-blown government employees, but partial public employees and shouldn’t be subject to the same fair-share rules as other public workers, such as teachers or police. The health workers are paid by the state, but employed by the patients. It’s an unfortunate decision, but the one silver lining, observers say, is that the court didn’t completely overturn a previous decision from 1977 upholding fair-share fees for government employees. Still, Justice Kagan wrote in the dissent that the worker classification distinction is a bit far-fetched. She wrote:

A joint employer remains an employer, and here, as I have noted, Illinois kept authority over all workforce-wide terms of employment — the very issues most likely to be the subject of collective bargaining. The State thus should also retain the prerogative — as part of its effort to “ensure efficient and effective delivery of personal care services” — to require all employees to contribute fairly to their bargaining agent.

To read more about the court’s decision, read Millhiser’s article at Think Progress; Steven Greenhouse’s article in The New York Times; or this one from Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times. For a reaction from SEIU, the union that represents home health aides in Illinois, click here. And Mother Jones has a piece by Andy Kroll on four lawsuits that may be even worse for unions than Harris v. Quinn.

In other news:

Boston Globe: Last week, Massachusetts officially raised its minimum wage from $8 per hour to $11 by 2017, which means it’ll have the highest minimum wage of any state in the nation. Hourly wages for tipped workers will also go up from $2.63 to $3.75. The Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health noted that the legislation also “strengthens safety protections for workers, increases funeral benefits for families and makes permanent the multi-agency task force charged with combating the underground economy.” Here’s a handy chart from the Washington Post on nationwide minimum wage trends.

The Nation: Reporter Zoë Carpenter writes that low-wage workers might have a new ally in David Weil, who recently took over as the director of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. Carpenter writes that “Weill is directing the bulk of his resources to targeted investigations in industries and sectors where labor exploitation is endemic.”

Houston Chronicle: Texas Republicans are pushing back against proposed legislation drafted in response to the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion, which killed 15 people. According to reporter Paul Weber, the lawmakers are complaining that the proposed regulations, such as requiring that ammonium nitrate be stored in noncombustible containers, are an economic burden for business owners.

News of recent worker deaths: Just a small handful of recent worker deaths that made the news include Jose Felix Obando, a construction worker who died after falling down a 12-foot hole in Sweetwater, Florida (Sun-Sentinel); Macario Santiago-Cruz, a Kentucky construction worker who died after falling 30 feet (Lexington Herald-Leader); and Sarmad Iskander, a Toronto construction worker who died after falling from the 28th floor of a condominium project (Toronto Star).

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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