China’s Lake Ebinur Is Shrinking Dramatically, NASA Image Shows

Yale Environment 360 - November 25, 2014
As this NASA satellite image shows, Lake Ebinur, located in northwestern China near the border of

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China's Lake Ebinur Kazakhstan, has shrunk by 50 percent since 1955 as a result of development, agriculture, and natural fluctuations in precipitation. The lake’s saline water is light blue, and the dried lake bed appears white due to salts and other minerals that have been left behind as the water evaporates. The lake’s size fluctuates from year to year due to natural variations in snowmelt and rainfall, and human activity also plays a key role, Chinese researchers say. The nearby city of Bole, with a population of 425,000, consumes significant amounts of water, and farmers irrigate their crops — especially cotton — with water that would otherwise flow into the lake, researchers say. Frequent saline dust storms contribute to desertification, damage soils, harm wetlands, and may be hastening the melting of snow and glaciers downwind, researchers say.
Categories: Environment, Health

DuPont is a “stickler” for safety, but what does that really mean?

Pump Handle - November 24, 2014

(Updates made 11/26/15 appear in [ ])

The Houston Chronicle’s Lise Olsen and Mark Collette continue their reporting of the November 15 incident at DuPont’s La Porte, TX facility that killed four workers. Wade Baker, 60, Gilbert “Gibby” Tisnado, 48, Robert Tisnado, 39, and Crystle Rae Wise 53, were asphyxiated by a release of methyl mercaptan [related to a faulty valve . A faulty valve may have been part of the problem. Alexandra Berzon at the Wall Street Journal reported the trouble may have started with a blockage in the methyl mercaptan line, and that the operation was not properly vented.]

A former employee told the reporters that DuPont is a “stickler for safety”, but what does being a safety stickler really mean? I got a hint when I saw the first news reporting about the event. A photo of DuPont officials speaking to the media outside the facility showed an electronic sign that displayed the following message:

“Please take extra precaution when driving and walking.”

Really? Be safe when driving and walking? That’s the safety message at a plant that stores hundreds of tons of highly flammable and toxic chemicals?

Messages about “being safe” is what workplace safety has boiled down to in too workplaces. Are you wearing your safety goggles? Are you holding the handrail when walking up steps? Are you wearing your seatbelt while driving the forklift?

I can’t say I’ve seen a company safety sign that says “If forced overtime is making you fatigued, you can sue us when you get injured.”  Or this one: “If you have to ask for a replacement part more than once, you should shut down the production line until you get it.”

DuPont makes millions selling its trademarked Safety Training Observation Program (STOP). It’s a behavior-based safety program that is all the rage in many industries (e.g., here, here.) The company claims the program will

“prevent injuries by increasing safety awareness and helping people talk with each other about safety.”

The workers I know fully aware of what is safe. Frankly, they aren’t too interested in putting their faith in “safety talk,” they want safety action. That translates into sufficient time, investment and personnel to do a job safely. Cutting corners on maintenance, skimping on personnel, and pushing production get to the root cause of catastrophic incidents, not whether a company is a stickler for counting days without a “lost-time accident.”

What we’re learning from the Houston Chronicle’s reporters is the smoke and mirrors of DuPont’s safety performance. They quote Congressman Gene Green (D-TX) who represents the La Porte, TX area:

“The unit where workers died had been shut down for five days before the accident and workers had reported persistent maintenance problems.”

The reporters paint the picture of a facility ill-equipped to handle an emergency—an especially scary revelation given this was a petrochemical plant. It’s a workplace at risk of a catastrophic event, but that it was also [storing produced for use] methyl isocyanate (MIC)—the compound responsible for the 1984 Bhopal disaster. [I learned that this facility does not technically “store” MIC. They produce it for use in one of their products. Something akin to “just in time production.”] The Houston Chronicle’s reporting on problems with emergency response at the scene raises questions about the effectiveness of the seven-module emergency response curriculum that DuPont sells.  Read just some of what went down at the La Porte facility on November 15 (as reported by the Chronicle’s Olsen and Collette):

  • “No DuPont official contacted a special emergency industrial response network called the Channel Industries Mutual Aide (CIMA), a nonprofit formed to deal with potentially deadly disasters. … [CIMA’s chairman] said ‘(DuPont) didn’t set up an incident command center and connect with CIMA’” [Others on the scene say this is exactly true.]
  • “DuPont apparently did not have enough emergency oxygen and masks on hand that Saturday for the workers who died trying to fix a leak or help others escape…” [Others say the problem wasn’t the number of emergency breathing apparatus, but that the responders weren’t properly trained and prepped to use them.]
  • DuPont said in a statement ‘medical personnel could not reach the employees because they were not trained in the use of protective equipment’”
  • “The firefighters didn’t know the layout of the building – a maze filled with pipes, towers, tanks and platforms.  …Their breathing apparatus couldn’t provide enough air to explore the entire facility”

The Chronicle reporters note that the November 15 incident is the worst loss of life at the sprawling petrochemical complex—30 miles southeast of Houston—since the 2005 BP refinery explosion that killed 15 workers. Like this incident, the BP disaster was subject of an investigation by the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB). Sadly, I’m certain that the CSB’s findings about the BP incident will sound way too familiar to the families and co-workers of Wade Baker, Gilbert and Robert Tisnado, and Crystle Rae Wise. They included:

  • Cost-cutting, failure to invest and production pressures;
  • Reliance on the low personal injury rate…as a safety indicator;
  • A “check the box” mentality was prevalent…where personnel completed paperwork and checked off on safety policy and procedure requirements even when those requirements had not been met;
  • Lacked a reporting and learning culture. Personnel were not encouraged to report safety problems and some feared retaliation for doing so. The lessons from incidents and near-misses were generally not captured or acted upon;
  • Safety campaigns, goals, and rewards focused on improving personal safety metrics and worker behaviors rather than on process safety and management safety systems;
  • Outdated and ineffective procedures did not address recurring operational problems during start-up, leading operators to believe that procedures could be altered or did not have to be followed during the start-up process;
  • The operator training program was inadequate. The central training department staff had been reduced…simulators were unavailable for operators to practice handling abnormal situations, including infrequent and high hazard operations such as startups and unit upsets; and
  • …operators were likely fatigued from working long shifts for consecutive days.

I’ve no doubt there will be dozens of engineers examining valves, pressure gadget and other machinery and parts to identify the “root cause” of the incident that stole the lives of those four workers. But the “root cause” is never the gadget or gizmo. The root cause gets to the heart of the matter and asks “why” the situation occurred in the first place. The answer to that question will not be an “unsafe behavior” by the workers, but decisions made far up the chain of command.

 

Categories: Health

Record Number of Rhinos Poached In South Africa This Year, Government Says

Yale Environment 360 - November 24, 2014
South African officials have announced that 1,020 rhinos have been killed so far in 2014 — a total that

White rhino in South Africa surpasses last year’s record slaughter of 1,004 of the endangered animals. Poaching has been on the rise in South Africa, home to the world’s largest population of rhinos, since 2007, when only seven rhinos were killed. The sharp increase is occurring despite steps by the government to improve enforcement and introduce new technologies and intelligence-gathering methods to curb poaching, Mongabay reports. As of 2010, South Africa was home to more than 18,000 white rhinos — over 90 percent of the global population — and nearly 2,000 black rhinos. The animals are being killed for their horns, which are in high demand in China and Vietnam for their supposed, but unproven, medicinal qualities.
Categories: Environment, Health

Can Green Bonds Bankroll A Clean Energy Revolution?

Yale Environment 360 - November 24, 2014
To slow global warming, tens of trillions of dollars will need to be spent in the coming decades on renewable energy projects. Some banks and governments are issuing green bonds to fund this transformation, but major questions remain as to whether this financing tool will play a game-changing role. BY MARC GUNTHER
Categories: Environment, Health

Occupational health and safety leaders honored, new policies adopted at American Public Health Association annual meeting

Pump Handle - November 21, 2014

Health and safety hazards encountered by custodians, palm tree workers, day laborers, nurses, and bakery workers are just some of the dozens of different occupations examined in research presented at this year’s annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA). The association’s Occupational Health and Safety Section marked its 100th anniversary and members designed the first phase of an electronic timeline to memorialize key events in the Section’s history. A special scientific session explored the OHS Section’s history, starting with its founding co-chairs George Kober, MD and Alice Hamilton, MD, through its leadership in developing more than 100 policy statements to address timely worker health and safety issues. The OHS Section’s active involvement in APHA’s policy development process continued this year with the adoption of new policies on the following four topics:

  • Breast cancer and occupational exposure — In conjunction with increasing research into the connections between breast cancer and work-related exposures, urges the U.S. surgeon general to declare an association between certain chemicals and breast cancer as well as to emphasize the importance of identifying workplace exposures that contribute to breast cancer. Calls on relevant federal agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, to direct breast cancer research funds toward the study of occupational exposure and risk. Also urges federal agencies to investigate the prevalence of breast cancer among certain groups of workers and raise awareness about safer chemical alternatives and risk reduction.
  • Diesel exhaust and human health — Updating similar APHA policy adopted in 1999, encourages relevant federal, state and local agencies to raise public awareness on the human health dangers of diesel exhaust exposure and engage local stakeholders in lowering diesel emissions as well as work-related exposures. Calls on officials to go beyond the typical means of communication and organize awareness-raising events in partnership with state and local APHA chapters, occupational safety and health groups, environmental organizations, labor unions and industry councils. Also urges advocacy in support of stronger diesel emissions regulations and the development of cleaner, renewable transportation technologies.
  • Protecting temporary workers — Citing the rapid growth of the temporary work sector, calls on Congress to reform current laws to provide labor rights to temporary workers, including the right to union representation and the ability to negotiate for equal workplace rights. Calls for expanding research on the health impacts of temporary work arrangements and urges the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to research injury rates among workers hired by temporary staffing agencies. Also urges states to adopt a number of rules regarding the temporary workforce, including requiring agreements between staffing agencies and host employers that spell out worker health and safety responsibilities.
  • Late Breaker: Strengthening Ebola response and protection — Noting gaps in readiness to protect the U.S. population during recent cases of Ebola Virus Disease and the need to prepare for future disease outbreaks, calls on federal, state and local officials to restore adequate funding for preparedness for all natural and man-made infectious disease threats. Urges policymakers to invest in worker preparedness, training and protective equipment. Calls on the White House and Congress to direct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to fast-track standards and guidelines addressing the health care sector and other industries. Also calls on OSHA to enforce whistleblower protections and civil liberties for workers who raise concerns about work-related infectious disease risks.

The full policy statements and recommended action steps will be released in early 2015.

The OHS Section also honored four individuals for their leadership to improve working conditions in the US and abroad. Linda Delp, PhD, MPH received the Alice Hamilton Award for her life-long contribution to improving the lives of working people. Dr. Delp was recognized for her ability to forge alliances between community groups and labor organizations, and a passion for worker empowerment, social justice and student mentoring.

Dan Neal received the Lorin Kerr Award for his outstanding efforts to improve the lives of workers.  Mr. Neal, a journalist by training and with the Equality State Policy Center, has been at the forefront of efforts in Wyoming to spotlight the toll of work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths. The power and influence of oil and gas interests—the boom industries in the state—create special challenges to worker safety policy improvements. In 2014, as part of Worker Memorial Week commemorations, Mr. Neal was the lead author of a state-wide report featuring stories on the impact on families when their loved ones are killed on the job.

Terry Davidek received the Tony Mazzocchi Award to recognize his grassroots activism in the fight for workers’ health and safety rights. Mr. Davidek is a member of United Steelworkers Local 1196 (Brackenridge, PA) and the health, safety and environment (HSE) coordinator for all ATI-Allegheny Ludlum Corp. facilities across the US. Mr. Davidek was instrumental in pressing the company to establish a full-time, hourly H&S coordinator which is now widespread throughout the company. Following the death of a USW member at an in-plant railroad, Davidek ensured the investigation focused on the hazards, not the far-too-prevalent blame the worker approach fatality investigations. Mike Wright, USW director of HSE, noted that Davidek’s work “continues the legacy of Tony Mazzocchi.”

Kalpona Akter received the OHS Section’s International Award for her outstanding achievement exposing the harsh and deadly working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry. At age 12, Ms. Akter began working in a garment factory. She was only 15 years old when she led her first strike to demand safe and respectful work, and was promptly fired and blackballed. Ms. Akter established in 2001 the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS). Her criticism of the industry and her government has landed her in jail. But Akter’s truth telling is confirmed time and again when garment factory fires and disasters kill workers. BCWS was on the forefront of massive protests by garment workers following the April 2013 Rana Plaza sweatshop collapse that killed 1,134 workers.

The OHS Section’s annual meeting at APHA brings together the best of public health: solid research, community-based methods, policy and politics, research-to-action, social justice and solidarity.

Categories: Health

U.S. Can Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions 80 Percent by 2050, Study Says

Yale Environment 360 - November 21, 2014
The United States can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, using existing or near-commercial technologies, according to researchers with the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project. The study analyzed scenarios with four types of decarbonized electricity: renewable energy, nuclear energy, fossil fuel with carbon capture and storage, and a mixed case. The scenarios achieved reductions of 83 percent below 2005 levels and 80 percent below 1990 levels, according to the study, which was released ahead of next month’s climate talks in Lima, Peru, and negotiations in Paris in December 2015. The energy efficiency of buildings, transportation, and industry would need to increase through the use of smart materials and energy-efficient designs, and vehicles will need to be fueled with electricity generated from wind, solar, or nuclear, as opposed to coal, the researchers said. They project the net costs would be on the order of 1 percent of gross domestic product per year. The 80-percent reduction by 2050 is a long-standing goal of the Obama administration, in line with global commitments to limit warming to less than 2 degrees C.
Categories: Environment, Health

Fatal work injury that killed Juan Carlos Reyes was preventable, OSHA cites Angel’s AAA

Pump Handle - November 20, 2014

Juan Carlos Reyes’ work-related death could have been prevented. That’s how I see the findings of federal OSHA in the agency’s citations against his employer, Angel AAA Electric, LLC. The 35-year-old was working at a construction site in Harlingen, TX for a new Marriott hotel. He suffered fatal traumatic injuries in May 2014 when he fell from scaffolding while moving supplies into a fourth floor window. I wrote about the incident shortly after it was reported by local press.

Federal inspectors out of OSHA’s Corpus Christi, TX office conducted an inspection of the worksite following Reyes’ death. The agency recently issued citations to Angel AAA Electric, LLC for one willful and five serious violations and proposed a $36,400 penalty. Those violations include failing to ensure that scaffolding was erected by a qualified person and to use a fall arrest system when using a scaffold.

When the local press initially reported Juan Carlos Reyes’ death, they called it an accident. An “accident” suggests the circumstances were unforeseen or could not have been avoided. OSHA’s findings tell a different story. Call it cutting corners, call it poor management, call it breaking the law. Whatever you want to call it, Juan Carlos Reyes’ work-related death could have been prevented, it was no accident.

Categories: Health

Real-Time Ocean Acidification Data Now Available for U.S. Pacific Coast

Yale Environment 360 - November 20, 2014
Researchers, coastal managers, and shellfish farmers along the U.S. Pacific coast can now get real-time ocean

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Web portal for ocean acidification data acidification data through an online tool developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The data — which includes measurements of pH, carbon dioxide concentrations, salinity, and water temperatures at various sites — should help organizations and businesses make decisions about managing coastal resources and craft adaptation strategies, NOAA researchers say. The tool will feature data from five shellfish hatchery sites along the Pacific coast along with readings from NOAA’s ocean acidification monitoring sites. Ocean acidification is driven primarily by absorption of atmospheric CO2 by ocean waters, which changes seawater chemistry in a way that makes it difficult for many marine organisms to form their shells.
Categories: Environment, Health

In Romania, Highway Boom Poses Looming Threat to Bears

Yale Environment 360 - November 20, 2014
Romania, one of Europe’s poorest nations, badly needs a modern highway system. But conservationists warn that unless the movements of wildlife are accommodated, a planned boom in road construction could threaten one of the continent’s last large brown bear populations. BY ALASTAIR BLAND
Categories: Environment, Health

Congress and science: White House threatens to veto bills that would change EPA science advisory boards and limit EPA use of science

Pump Handle - November 19, 2014

Often unwatched by all but policy-wonks yet key to determining policies put forth by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Boards. These boards consult with the EPA on the science that influences regulations, particularly on individual chemicals – science that’s used to protect the public from chemical hazards. On Tuesday the House passed a bill, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2013 or H.R. 1422, that would change how the EPA selects Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) members. The White House, in a statement from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), said that if presented with the bill, the President’s senior advisors will recommend a veto. “H.R. 1422 would negatively affect the appointment of experts and would weaken the scientific independence and integrity of the SAB,” wrote OMB.

The bill was sponsored by Representative Chris Stewart (R-UT), and passed the House on a vote of 229 to 191 – on what amounts to a party-line vote, with one Republican voting against the bill and only 4 Democrats voting in favor. All of the bill’s 21 co-sponsors are also Republican.

If passed, the new law would require that ten percent of SAB members be employed by a state, local or tribal government, regardless of any scientific expertise. It also would prohibit an SAB member from participating in “advisory activities that directly or indirectly involve review and evaluation of their own work,” but does not clearly define what indirect involvement means. “Determining the practical meaning of “indirect” involvement will be difficult and consequently problematic to implement,” writes the OMB. The bottom line on the bill is that its provisions could mean excluding scientists from the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Boards in order to meet its membership requirements. In the White House’s view, H.R. 1422, would also add additional requirements that could make it harder for the science panels to carry out their work.

Rep. Stewart told The Hill that the measure would ensure the advisory boards would held accountable. Speaking to The Hill from the other side of the aisle was New Jersey Democrat, Representative Rush Holt who said, “While it sounds good to say you are increasing transparency, in reality this simply strengthens the role of special interests’ biased interests in the process.”

House passes “Secret Science Reform Act of 2014″ – White House threatens veto

The White House has also threatened to veto  H.R. 4012, the Secret Science Reform Act of 2014 that OMB says would, “impose arbitrary, unnecessary, and expensive requirements that would seriously impede the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) ability to use science to protect public health and the environment, as required under an array of environmental laws, while increasing uncertainty for businesses and States.”

The bill passed Wednesday afternoon, November 19th, 237 to 190, also largely on party lines with one Republican voting against the bill and 8 Democrats in favor. An amendment offered by Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA), Joseph Kennedy (D-MA) and Katherine Clark (D-MA) that would have, within the bill, allowed EPA to use all peer-reviewed scientific publications failed 230 to 194.

H.R. 4012 would, as summarized in a House report, “prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible.”

Yet in OMB’s view, “H.R. 4012 could be used to prevent EPA from finalizing regulations until legal challenges about the legitimate withholding of certain scientific and technical information are resolved. The bill also could prevent EPA from making crucial decisions, including those concerning the cleanup of contaminated sites, if the data supporting those decisions cannot, for legitimate reasons, be made publicly available.”

OMB explains that if, for example, some important scientific data is subject to confidential business information provisions the bill could be used to prevent EPA from taking any action based on the protected data. “In short,” writes OMB, “the bill would undermine EPA’s ability to protect the health of Americans, would impose expensive new mandates on EPA, and could impose substantial litigation costs on the Federal government.  It also could impede EPA’s reliance on the best available science.”

In a blog post published on The Hill’s public health page, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) called H.R. 4012, “an insidious attack on the EPA’s ability to use the best science to protect the health of Americans and the environment.” The bill’s “true intent,” writes Rep. Johnson, “is to delay EPA action because that is what industrial polluters want. H.R. 4012 is not only bad for public health, but it is also bad for the taxpayer. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the bill as reported would cost American taxpayers as much as $1 billion dollars over four years.”

H.R. 4012 was sponsored by Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ). All 53 of its co-sponsors are Republicans.

A third bill, that – like H.R. 4012 and 1422 – may portend what we’ll be seeing more of in the 114th Congress when it comes to science is H.R. 4795. This is the Promoting New Manufacturing Act, sponsored by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), who, speaking to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, called the measure “a bi-partisan jobs bill.” The bill, which has entirely Republican co-sponsors, passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee 30 to 19. The White House OMB said in a statement that the bill “would impose arbitrary and unnecessary requirements that could weaken the public health and environmental protections of the Clean Air Act (CAA) and would increase uncertainty for businesses and States.” The OMB is recommending a veto on this bill as well. According to the Times-Picayune, H.R. 4975 is slated for a vote on Thursday November 19th.

 

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green ChemistryHigh Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific AmericanYale e360Environmental Health PerspectivesMother JonesEnsia, Time, Civil Eats, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

Categories: Health

Global Shipping Traffic Has Grown by 300 Percent Since 1992, Study Says

Yale Environment 360 - November 19, 2014
Maritime traffic has increased four-fold over the past 20 years, causing more water, air, and noise pollution in

Maritime shipping traffic has increased rapidly. the world's oceans and seas, according to a new study quantifying global shipping traffic. Traffic went up in every ocean during the 20 years of the study, except off the coast of Somalia, where piracy has almost completely halted commercial shipping since 2006. In the Indian Ocean, where the world’s busiest shipping lanes are located, ship traffic grew by more than 300 percent over the 20-year period, according to the report published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Burgeoning ship traffic has increased the amount air pollution, particularly above the Sri Lanka-Sumatra-China shipping lane, where researchers recorded a 50-percent increase in nitrogen dioxide, a common air pollutant, over the 20-year period. Shipping is also a major source of noise pollution, which can be harmful to marine mammals, the authors note.
Categories: Environment, Health

Occupational Health News Roundup

Pump Handle - November 18, 2014

They take care of our most precious resource and yet most of them have to rely on public assistance just to make ends meet.

Katie Johnston at the Boston Globe wrote about a new report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, which “found that difficulties child-care workers face in making ends meet create high levels of stress that can affect their performance. Recent research has found that adverse interactions with caregivers early on can alter a child’s genetic chemistry, impairing memory, the immune system and mental health.” On average, child care workers make just $10.33 an hour, which is an increase of less than 15 cents over the national average in 1997. The highest child care wage was in Massachusetts, where workers averaged $12.47 an hour. Johnston writes:

Kitt Cox, who has a bachelor’s degree, spent most of his professional life working in child care but had to hold second or third jobs in restaurants and warehouses to supplement his income at private day-care centers and preschools on the North Shore.

“We jokingly say, on tough days, we should be saying, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ ” said Cox, 59, of Gloucester. And yet, “Kids are so much more important than burgers.”

Child-care providers are expected to plan science, literacy, and math-related activities that have been shown to aid development, said Valora Washington, president of the CAYL Institute in Jamaica Plain, a professional development group for early-childhood educators.

“Our expectations are accelerating much faster than the compensation and the recognition of those accelerated expectations,” Washington said.

Johnston reports that in a survey of 600 child care workers who earn less than $12.50 an hour, more than half were worried about being able to adequately feed their families. And nearly half of child care worker families rely on public assistance. To read the full story, visit The Boston Globe.

In other news:

ABC News: A year since Johns Hopkins Hospital promised to investigate the misdiagnoses of black lung among coal mine workers, the internal review remains unfinished, writes reporter Matthew Mosk. The article notes that Johns Hopkins doctor Paul Wheeler “never concluded, even once, that a miner had severe black lung.” One of those miners misdiagnosed by Wheeler was Steve Day, who recently passed and whose autopsy showed he had an advanced case of black lung disease. Mosk writes: “The hospital declined to make anyone involved in the internal review available for an interview, and declined to say whether qualified academics were conducting the independent look back.”

Associated Press: Reporter Kristin Bender writes that upwards of 18,000 California nurses went on strike this month to protest a decline in patient care standards within Kaiser Permanente facilities as well as inadequate health and safety standards related to the care of Ebola patients. As of earlier this month, the nurses were in the middle of contract negotiations. About the strike, a union rep said: “This isn’t about money. This is about something far deeper.”

The Nation: Reporter Michelle Chen chronicles working conditions at Whole Foods, writing that workers “are taking their grievances to the regional corporate office in Emeryville, California. Their demand is simple: ‘a $5 an hour wage increase for all employees, and no retaliation for organizing their union.’” Unfortunately, it might be a tough road for Whole Foods workers, as CEO John Mackey once compared unions to herpes. Chen writes that among their grievances, Whole Foods workers often have to deal with inconsistent scheduling practices that leave them with barely any notice to make necessary accommodations, such as arranging child care.

The Hill: Reporter Tim Devaney writes that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration is calling on the nation’s retailers to prepare to protect workers from being trampled during Black Friday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year. The article quotes David Michaels, the U.S. assistant secretary of labor, as saying: “During the hectic shopping season, retail workers should not be put at risk of injury or death. OSHA urges retailers to take the time to adopt a (crowd) management plan and follow a few simple guidelines to prevent unnecessary harm to retail employees.”

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

Social Media Can Help Track Severity of Air Pollution, Researchers Say

Yale Environment 360 - November 18, 2014
Social media posts can help researchers estimate air pollution levels with significant accuracy, according to a team of computer scientists from the University of Wisconsin. The researchers analyzed posts on Weibo — a Twitter-like site that is China's most popular social media outlet — from 108 Chinese cities over 30 days, tracking how often people complained about the air and the words they used to describe air quality. The study showed that the process can provide accurate, real-time information on the air quality index, a widely used measure of common air pollutants. Large Chinese cities sometimes have physical monitoring stations to gauge pollution levels, but smaller cities generally do not because monitors are expensive to install and maintain. The researchers hope these findings will help residents of smaller towns and less affluent areas understand the severity of their local air pollution. Between 350,000 and 500,000 Chinese citizens die prematurely each year because of air pollution, a former Chinese health minister estimated in the journal The Lancet.
Categories: Environment, Health

Old-Growth Forest in China Disappearing Despite Protections, Study Finds

Yale Environment 360 - November 17, 2014
China’s anti-logging, conservation, and ecotourism policies are actually accelerating the loss of old-growth forests

Deforestation in China's Yunnan Province. in one of the country's most ecologically diverse regions, according to a study published in the journal Biological Conservation. Researchers used satellite imagery and statistical analysis to evaluate forest conservation strategies in northwestern Yunnan Province, in southern China. The results show that a logging ban increased total forest cover but accelerated old-growth logging in ancient protected areas known as sacred forests. For centuries, sacred forests have effectively protected old-growth trees from clear-cutting, despite major upheavals in the region’s history. Recent environmental protection policies, however, have shifted management of these areas away from native communities to government agencies — apparently to the forests' detriment, the study shows.
Categories: Environment, Health

Healthcare.gov opens again for enrollment, with modest but varying premium increases

Pump Handle - November 17, 2014

On Saturday, Healthcare.gov opened for enrollment in 2015 health insurance plans, and so far it’s proceeding without the horrific technical problems that greeted would-be enrollees last year. This year, as will be the case in future years, the enrollment window is just three months long. People can renew the coverage they had last year or choose a new plan. Those with incomes of between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level (in 2014, $11,670 – $46,680 for a one-person household, $23,850 – $95,400 for a household of four) are eligible for subsidies to help them afford premiums.

The Obama administration has set a goal of having 9.1 million people sign up for coverage through the federal or state exchanges, or marketplaces (including people who are re-enrolling). That’s about two million above the current number of enrollees. They encourage current enrollees to shop again for coverage, rather than just automatically keeping the coverage they have.

As Wonkblog’s Jason Millman explains, it can be especially important for those who receive federal subsidies for premium costs to go through the shopping exercise again, because the subsidies are designed to make specific benchmark plans (the second-cheapest “silver” level plan in a location) affordable. Someone whose plan was the benchmark silver plan last year might find that there are now several cheaper plans available – so, that person will either need to switch to the new benchmark plan or pay a greater share of the premium.

People who were eligible for health insurance last year but didn’t buy it are getting an additional financial push to purchase it this time around. In 2015, people who don’t have health insurance and aren’t exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate will have to pay a fee, which is the higher of two amounts: 2% of yearly household income, or $325 per person ($162.50 per child under 18, with a maximum of $975 per household). Next year, those figures will increase to 2.5% of household income and $695 per person; the fees will remain at that level but be adjusted for inflation in years after 2016.

Individuals are exempt from the mandate if the lowest-priced coverage available to them would cost more than 8% of household income; if they qualify for a hardship exemption (being homeless, being evicted, experiencing domestic violence, experiencing the death of a close family member, etc.); or if they fall into various other exemption categories, such as having income below the tax-filing limit or belonging to a federally recognized tribe.

The cost of plans – and, by extension, their affordability – varies by geography and by enrollees’ age and smoking status. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Health Insurance Marketplace Calculator will let you try out individual scenarios to see 2015 premiums and subsidy amount (select “no” to question 4 on employer-sponsored insurance to see the most info). Vox’s Sarah Kliff summarizes findings from Avalere Health on 2015 premiums across the US:

A new analysis from health research firm Avalere Health showed that, on average, premiums for bronze plans (the skimpiest products) will go up by 4 percent next year. Silver plans (which offer middle-of-the-road coverage) will have a 3 percent premium increase.

But those averages mask huge variation. Average silver premiums are falling by 18 percent in New Hampshire — but increasing 28 percent in Alaska.  There are two states where average premiums are going up by more than 10 percent (Alaska and Florida) and two where they’re dropping by double digits (Mississippi and New Hampshire).

And even these state figures likely mask a lot of local variation, with premium changes likely varying from city to city.

In terms of how much Obamacare actually costs, that depends on where you live and how old you are. But as a benchmark, Avalere did calculate the average silver plan premiums for a 40-year-old man. In the states that use Healthcare.gov, they range from a high of $683 in Alaska to a low of $280 in Kansas.

Premiums are only part of the cost equation, though. Lower-cost plans come with higher cost-sharing. Someone who struggles to afford the premiums on a bronze or silver plan and develops a serious illness will likely find it even more difficult to cover the co-payments and co-insurance that accompany multiple doctor visits and expensive procedures.

Those who are worst off, though, are households with income below the federal poverty level in states that have not accepted the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. The ACA as written required all states to expand Medicaid to those with incomes of up to 133% of the FPL; because that provision covered the lowest-income families, the law made subsidies for exchange-purchased insurance available only to those with incomes at or above the FPL. The Supreme Court’s decision on the ACA made the Medicaid expansion optional. Currently, 27 states and the District of Columbia are implementing Medicaid expansions, with the federal government picking up 100% of the costs through 2016 and no less than 90% of costs for this population in all future years. In the remaining 23 states, a Kaiser Family Foundation finds that nearly four million uninsured adults are in this “coverage gap,” unable to get either Medicaid coverage or subsidies to purchase a marketplace plan.

Categories: Health

Fast-Warming Gulf of MaineOffers Hint of Future for Oceans

Yale Environment 360 - November 17, 2014
The waters off the coast of New England are warming more rapidly than almost any other ocean region on earth. Scientists are now studying the resulting ecosystem changes, and their findings could provide a glimpse of the future for many of the world’s coastal communities. BY REBECCA KESSLER
Categories: Environment, Health

Study examines effects of San Francisco paid sick leave policy, finds low-wage workers especially benefited

Pump Handle - November 14, 2014

As paid sick leave policies gain momentum across the country, a new study finds that such policies do indeed improve worker morale and have little overall effect on employer profitability.

Published in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health, the study examined the effects of a 2007 paid sick leave policy in San Francisco, which became the first U.S. jurisdiction to enact a paid sick leave ordinance. (A number of states and cities have followed San Francisco’s lead — most recently Massachusetts, which passed a statewide earned paid sick leave policy by ballot measure earlier this month.) The San Francisco Paid Sick Leave Ordinance requires employers to provide paid sick leave to all workers, including part-time and temporary employees, with the leave accruing at one hour for every 30 hours worked after the first 90 days of employment. To conduct the study, researchers analyzed the 2009 Bay Area Employer Health Benefits Survey, which included interviews with hundreds of for-profit firms with more than 20 employees.

The study found that with passage of the paid sick leave ordinance, the proportion of businesses with a sick leave policy increased from 73 percent to 91 percent, with much of the gain among firms with fewer than 100 workers. By 2009, 99 percent of workplaces with more than 20 employees in San Francisco offered paid sick leave. In addition, businesses within San Francisco made the benefit available to a larger portion of employees than firms outside the city, with 76 percent of small firm employees, 91 percent of medium firm employees and 86 percent of large firm employees eligible for paid sick leave. Study authors Carrie Colla, William Dow, Arindrajit Dube and Vicky Lovell write:

The movement to ensure minimal access to paid sick leave has been likened to the campaign to enact the minimum wage: an effort to establish a floor below which no employer or worker may fall. When paid sick leave policies are targeted at vulnerable workers, such as mothers earning low wages and workers who have a lot of face-to-face contact with the public, such as restaurant employees, these campaigns present a compelling image. Congressional proposals to create emergency paid sick leave policies to reduce the spread of the H1N1 virus in fall 2009 cited the potential importance of paid sick leave in protecting public health, and public opinion polling shows very high levels of support for paid sick leave policies.

In San Francisco, low-wage workers, in particular, benefited from the paid sick leave ordinance, especially those working in the food service and accommodation sectors, the study found. Businesses in those sectors were significantly more likely to have introduced a new paid sick leave policy in response to the ordinance when compared to other sectors — for example, 35 percent of restaurants surveyed added a new sick leave policy versus 16 percent of businesses in other sectors. Still, researchers found that although businesses that employed high numbers of part-time workers, new workers and Hispanic workers were more likely to enact a new policy in response to the city ordinance, they were also less likely to offer sick leave both pre- and post-ordinance. Another interesting finding: By 2009, nonunionized firms were more likely to offer sick leave than those with unionized workforces.

Positive changes in employee morale are often touted as a benefit of paid sick leave, and the study findings underscored such messaging. Researchers found that firms that implemented a new sick leave policy were more likely to report a boost in employee morale. In addition, firms that enacted major changes in response to the ordinance also reported a decrease in presenteeism (coming to work while sick). However, firms that enacted a new sick leave policy were also more likely than firms that didn’t change their leave policy to report reductions in other employee benefits, such as less vacation time, pay raises or bonuses. Also, firms that instituted a brand new policy in response to the ordinance were more likely to report negative impacts on profitability, though the researchers noted that the “majority of firms did not report lower profits because of the mandate.” Overall, nearly 72 percent of all firms surveyed supported the paid sick leave policy.

In their conclusion, the study authors called for additional research on paid sick leave, such as its effects on employer costs, employee retention and health care spending, noting that sick leave policies could be key contributors in reducing the spread of disease.

“There are health benefits to be gained by the adoption of a paid sick leave policy: reducing spread of influenza and infectious diseases in the workplace and childcare facilities and allowing workers to visit physicians, which may reduce unnecessary hospitalization and subsequent sickness absence,” the researchers wrote.

To request a full copy of the study, visit the American Journal of Public 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

“We got the top dog”: Prosecutors indict former coal company CEO

Pump Handle - November 14, 2014

US attorney Booth Goodwin II and assistant attorney Steven Ruby announced yesterday a four-count indictment against former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. Their four year investigation came following the April 2010 disaster at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine which killed 29 workers. The miners died in a massive coal dust explosion which could have been averted by following fundamental safety precautions.

Page 1 of the indictment sums up why Blankeship habitually broke mine safety regulations:

“in order to produce more coal, avoid the cost of following safety laws, and make more money.”

The Charleston Gazette’s Kate White interviewed some of the miners’ families. The sister of Edward Dean Jones, 50, told her:

“I had given up on it. To see him indicted means the system is working.”

The son of Rex Mullins, 50, said:

“All I can say is, I’m elated.”

The daughter of Michael Elswick, 56, said:

“It’s the best news I’ve had in four years.  I thought he was going to walk away with blood on his hands.”

The father of Gary Wayne Quarles, 33, told the reporter:

“Don Blankenship was ruling this state at one time, but his time is over and I’m glad of it. We got the top dog.”

The 40-page indictment is a litany of the ways that Don Blankenship micromanaged the day-to-day operations of the Upper Big Branch mine. The document explains in detail how Blankenship knew that the mine was violating hundreds of safety regulations and that he had the ability to prevent them. He sent handwritten messages to the management executive(s) [not named] telling them to ignore safety requirements. For example:

Blankenship dismissed the need for an effective ventilation system:

“…you need to run some coal. We’ll worry about ventilation and other issues at an appropriate time. Now is not the time.”

Blankenship dismissed the need to have adequate roof bolts (which prevent the mine roof from caving in):

“Run coal. Don’t bolt for the year 2525.”

Blankenship dismissed the MSHA requirement to conduct weekly examinations  of all air courses. The indictment notes that when the management executive resisted

“Blankenship chastised him for ‘letting MSHA run his mine.’”

At the same time, Blankenship was telling shareholders and the public that his company did not condone violations of mine safety regulations. The grand jury concluded that Blankenship’s statements were: “materially false, fraudulent, fictitious, and misleading,” a violation of Securities and Exchange Commission laws.

University of Maryland law professor Rena Steinzor remarked yesterday about the news:

” US Attorney Booth Goodwin has set an example for every prosecutor in the country by indicting Don Blankenship, the venal, punitive, flamboyant, and reckless former CEO of Massey Energy. For years, Blankenship demanded updates on coal production every two hours and, the indictment reveals, browbeat senior managers to cut cost and violate crucial safety.  …The families of the 29 men who died can take some solace that this courageous prosecution, by a prosecutor from coal country, takes the strongest possible stand to protect miners from the most reprehensible kind of greed.”

 

Categories: Health

New Material Can Trap Powerful Greenhouse Gases Efficiently, Researchers Say

Yale Environment 360 - November 14, 2014
Scientists from the U.S. and Taiwan have developed a new type of lightweight, self-assembling molecule that can capture large amounts of potent greenhouse gases,

This porous material traps greenhouse gases. according to a report in Nature Communications. The molecules create a lightweight structure with many microscopic pores that can adsorb gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Those long-lived compounds, once widely used as refrigerants, were phased out because they damage the ozone layer, but they are still used in various industrial processes. The newly developed material is rich in the element fluorine, which helps it bind CFCs and various other hydro- and fluorocarbon gases very efficiently — to the tune of 75 percent by weight, the chemists say. Although they are less prevalent, the greenhouse effect of those gases can be hundreds- or thousands-fold more powerful than carbon dioxide, the researchers note. Heavier, metal-based materials with similar capabilities have been developed in previous studies, but these were sensitive to water and difficult to process and recycle.
Categories: Environment, Health
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