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A Weekly News Briefing

Cellphones and cancer (in rodents): For the second time this month, a large study has found that rodents chronically exposed to cellphone radiation are more likely to develop tumors in tissues surrounding nerves in the heart. The National Toxicology Program published technical reports earlier this month that found the incidence  of malignant schwannomas in the hearts of male rats increased as the dose of radiation rose. Similar results from another study, by the Ramazzini Institute in Bologna, Italy, are expected to be published within days.

Some important caveats: These studies are in rodents whose whole bodies were exposed throughout their lifetimes to levels of radiation at or above what cellphones emit, so the results can’t directly be extrapolated to people. “We note, however, that the tumors we saw in these studies are similar to tumors previously reported in some studies of frequent cellphone users,” John Bucher, a senior scientist with the National Toxicology Program, said in a press release.

The U.S. study also found an increase in glioma, a type of brain tumor, among exposed male rats. A post on Microwave News noted that past epidemiological studies of cellphone users have found higher rates of glioma, and that future research should focus on the effect radio frequency radiation has on specific cell types, starting with Schwann and glial cells, rather than looking for consistent effects on organs.

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On guns, kids and mental health: There’s much to digest following the school shooting that killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Six in 10 Americans say Congress and President Trump aren’t doing enough to prevent mass shootings, according to a new poll by the Washington Post and ABC News. More than three-quarters of Americans think more effective mental health screening and treatment could prevent such killings, the poll found. Fifty-eight percent of respondents say stricter gun controls could have prevented the Parkland shooting, though Americans remain roughly split on whether to ban assault-style rifles like the one Nikolas Cruz is accused of using.

The Trace, a nonprofit news organization that covers gun violence in the United States, explains how Cruz, who was too young to buy a pistol at a gun shop, was able to buy his assault rifle without breaking any laws. “In most states,” Brian Freskos writes, “people can legally buy assault-style weapons before they can drink a beer.”

The Trump administration hinted Monday that it would support changes to the system of background checks for gun buyers, though a bill now before Congress that has bipartisan support and the backing of the National Rifle Association would have done little to stop Cruz, who had no criminal record, from purchasing guns.

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Fair wages/shared wages: The Trump administration already was under fire from restaurant workers and labor advocates for trying to reverse an Obama-era rule that prohibited employers from pooling tips and distributing them to back-of-the-house workers who aren’t tipped directly. Then, the Department of Labor stoked that fire by burying an unfavorable analysis of the change by its own staff, Ben Penn reports for Bloomberg.

Proponents say tip pooling would improve pay for low-wage workers, such as dishwashers, who often don’t benefit from tips but who contribute to the customer experience. Opponents say it would allow managers to direct tips to their own pockets. (The backstory here involves a much-litigated decision by Wynn casinos in 2006 to distribute dealer tips to supervisors.)

Public comments on the rule change have been overwhelmingly negative, according to a report from The New Food Economy. Democratic lawmakers sent a letter this month to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta saying the change would reverse his department’s “decades-long view of tips as being the property of employees.”

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Mortgage approval? In some cities, race matters: Banks routinely deny conventional mortgage applications from African Americans and Latinos even when their finances are comparable to white applicants who are approved, an exhaustive analysis by the Center for Investigative reporting has found.

The reporting team reviewed 31 million records available through the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act and found that “modern-day redlining persisted in 61 metro areas even when controlling for applicants’ income, loan amount and neighborhood.” The report focused in part on Philadelphia, where “the greater the number of African Americans or Latinos in a neighborhood, the more likely a loan application would be denied there – even after accounting for income and other factors.”

The analysis highlighted the failure of federal regulators to monitor lending practices for racial discrimination. It also noted that the Trump administration has weakened bank standards and, in its first year in office, did not sue a single bank for racial discrimination.

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“Safekeeping” in solitary: Tennessee’s “safekeeping law,” as described in an incredible report by The Marshall Project, seems to be a horrible misnomer.  The law allows people awaiting trial in that state to be sent to solitary confinement in a state prison if a judges decides that the resources at the local county jail aren’t sufficient to house them.

“The law is intended to relieve a financial burden on local jails and get pretrial detainees necessary care or protect jail staff,” Allen Arthur writes. “Some safekeepers have allegedly attacked guards or fashioned crude weapons. But interviews and court records show people are sent to safekeeping because they are juveniles, pregnant, wrestling with severe mental illness, or simply too notorious to remain in county lockup. They have not been convicted of a crime, but all of them are sent far away from their families and defense lawyers and placed in cells usually reserved for the state’s most unruly, dangerous inmates.”

Once detainees are sent to safekeeping – 86 people last year – there’s no formal process for reviewing when they should be removed from isolation. Many linger there.

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Without a driver, self-driving cars pose “a great threat”: Autonomous vehicles now being tested in California are far from fully autonomous, according to manufacturer reports reviewed by the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog. The cars required intervention by a human driver at least every 5,596 miles – and often much more frequently – for problems that include hardware and software failures or unexpected conditions, such as a rapid change in traffic or a shorter-than-average yellow light. The nonprofit sent a letter to senators considering a bill to promote autonomous vehicles warning them that “the technology is simply not there yet.”

The Government Accountability Office issued a report last year saying it would be dangerous to rush the technology to the road without major planning and changes to safety regulations.

Read more of FairWarning’s coverage of self-driving technology and auto safety here and here.

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Fighting flu: This year’s flu vaccine is 25 percent effective against the H3N2 strain that’s causing the most illness and death, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week. That’s more effective than public health officials were anticipating based on Canadian and Australian estimates. For children 6 months to 8 years in age, the vaccine is estimated to be 59 percent effective against that strain.

Each year’s flu shot is a bit of a crapshoot. The rapid mutation of the flu virus makes developing and producing an effective vaccine challenging. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., introduced a bill last week that would commit $1 billion over five years to creating a universal vaccine with a big goal: lifetime protection against all strains of influenza.

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Lingering pollution liability for 3M: Jury selection was halted on Tuesday in a Minnesota court case alleging that 3M knowingly contaminated drinking water with a 100-square-mile plume containing chemicals known as PFCs. Court watchers suspected a settlement was coming in a case that sought $5 billion in damages and that could have global ramifications for the manufacturing giant.

The company faces at least two dozen lawsuits related to PFCs across the United States, according to Kirsti Marohn of Minnesota Public Radio.

The case has tested the state’s ability to make a major polluter pay in an age of loosening environmental regulations, Tiffany Kary writes for Bloomberg. “It also shows how liability can mushroom long after companies stop making chemicals like PFCs that don’t degrade, but accumulate in the food chain,”  she writes.

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Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.