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A Weekly News Briefing

What did Big Wireless know?: Using the same tactics deployed earlier by Big Tobacco and Big Oil, the wireless industry has invested “untold millions” convincing people that the cellphone in their pocket is safe — despite being told nearly two decades ago by an industry-funded epidemiologist that the potential for harm was clear, an investigation by The Nation found. Writers Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie trace the story of scientist George Carlo who, while director of  the Wireless Technology Research project, told industry leaders about the risks in letters and direct testimony, and urged them to inform consumers. “Just as tobacco executives were privately told by their own scientists (in the 1960s) that smoking was deadly,” Herstgaard and Dowie write, “and fossil-fuel executives were privately told by their own scientists (in the 1980s) that burning oil, gas, and coal would cause a ‘catastrophic’ temperature rise, so Carlo’s testimony reveals that wireless executives were privately told by their own scientists (in the 1990s) that cellphones could cause cancer and genetic damage.” But the writers say their article “does not argue that cellphones and other wireless technologies are necessarily dangerous; that is a matter for scientists to decide.” Instead, they focus on the industry’s “long campaign to make people believe that cellphones are safe.”

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Looking the other way, for now, on e-cigarettes: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year granted e-cigarette makers a four-year reprieve, allowing their products to stay on the market without scrutiny from the agency until 2022. Now, prominent public health groups have sued, saying the decision puts people at risk from potentially dangerous products, many designed to appeal to kids who, once hooked on nicotine, could switch to cigarettes. The lawsuit was filed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and others. In a press release, the organizations point to the popularity of the brand JUUL among teens. The company sells e-cigarettes that look like a USB drive, come in flavors such as mango and claim to have as much nicotine in each cartridge as a pack of cigarettes. Many of the same public health groups have had cause to praise the FDA recently, as it has taken steps toward lowering the amount of nicotine in cigarettes and regulating flavored tobacco products.

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Let’s eat in tonight: Home cooking can reduce exposure to a group of chemicals that disrupt hormone function and have been linked to reproductive issues, diabetes and cancer, Environmental Health News reports. A study took urine samples of people who ate at restaurants, cafeterias and fast food franchises and found the level of phthalates to be about 35 percent higher than in samples from people who ate at home. Rates were highest among teens, and hamburgers and sandwiches from eateries were linked to particularly high phthalate levels. The chemicals can leak from food packaging and processing equipment. Last year, a large study found that grease-resistant packaging leaks another group of problematic chemicals, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFASs, into fast food products.

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Emissions standards in jeopardy:  Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt plans to revoke a requirement that cars and light trucks sold in the United States average more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025, and he has threatened to repeal California’s authority under the federal Clean Air Act to set stricter vehicle emissions standards than the rest of the country. The decisions are a boon for automakers, The Washington Post reports, and the latest move in a showdown between the president and a state that has long pushed the country toward stronger policies on the environment, immigration and civil rights. California is the only state that the law allows to set its own emission standards, though others states can, and do, adopt California’s stricter measures. A coalition of consumer groups sent a letter to Pruitt last week arguing for strong mileage and emissions standards. Although the 2011 Obama administration plan to boost fuel economy was hailed by environmentalists as a landmark advance, FairWarning pointed out three years ago that the stated target of more than 50 miles per gallon exaggerated the likely real world results.

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What’s in the water?: Many of the country’s industrial facilities repeatedly release more pollution into rivers than they are allowed under the federal Clean Water Act, according to an assessment based on data companies reported to the Environmental Protection Agency. In the 21 months ending last September, about 40 percent of industrial sites exceeded their permitted release of pollutants, according to the report by the California think tank Frontier Group. Among those plants, about three-quarters did so more than once. Texas and Pennsylvania had the most incidents. Yet the number of state and federal inspections has declined for years, the report notes, and less than half of the violations typically result in any regulatory action. Meanwhile, the Trump administration plans to cut tens of millions of dollars from the federal budget for enforcing environmental protection laws.

  • Also: Seneca Nation tribal members are protesting a plan to put a fracking wastewater treatment operation along the banks of the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania. — Eagles have returned to the Potomac River, which is “now on the verge of being one of the nation’s great river recovery stories,” Steve Hendrix reports in the Washington Post.
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The U.S. has a gun-violence problem: An analysis by The Washington Post’s Wonkblog found that the spike in homicide rates between 2014 and 2016 is almost entirely the result of increasing gun deaths. “The spike was so drastic that in 2016, gun homicides accounted for a greater share of all homicides than at any point in the federal record, which contains more than 80 years of complete data for the United States,” Christopher Ingraham writes. What it means is hard to say, though Ingraham suggests that, with more civilian guns in circulation, more are being diverted to people who would use them for harm, “potentially altering the landscape of American crime.”

 

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Workers lose a voice: The Trump administration has told experts who advise the labor secretary on issues of worker health, safety and whistleblower protections that their help is no longer needed. Five panels created by law have been disbanded by decree or made inactive, Rebecca Moss of The New Mexican reports.

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Hundreds of restaurant workers to get their due: The owner of 17 Houlihan’s restaurants in New York and New Jersey agreed to pay $5 million in back wages and damages to 1,471 current and former workers. Management routinely denied overtime pay and deducted money from employees’ paychecks for meals while also requiring them to pay for meals. The restaurants also retained portions of employees’ tips and paid non-tipped workers less than the required minimum wage. In a statement, owner Arnold Runestad told the Asbury Park Press that the consent judgement offered a faster resolution for the case, though he believes the relationship with the staff was never compromised. “Each one of these individuals is part of our family,” he said.

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‘Levee wars’: ProPublica, Reveal and The Telegraph of Alton, Illinois, offer a fascinating look at a secretive lobbying effort to undermine the authority of the Army Corps of Engineer to regulate levees that control floodwaters in Illinois and Missouri. The Corps’ oversight is meant to prevent “levee wars” as communities build levees that protect their property only by pushing flood risks onto other communities. The investigation found that a coalition of local officials, led by a water district known for flouting federal laws, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to weaken the agency’s ability to regulate levee height and to influence the agency’s funding.

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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.