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A Weekly News Briefing

EPA on the brink of ‘regulatory capture’?: By avoiding input from career employees, promoting the views of industry leaders and proposing aggressive cuts to the agency’s budget and staff, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has dramatically changed the agency, researchers with the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative have found. The EPA appears headed toward “regulatory capture,” when its purpose is no longer to protect the public interest but to favor the industries it regulates, according to the study, published in a special supplement on climate change by the American Journal of Public Health. By interviewing current and past agency employees, the authors outline how Pruitt and President Trump have attacked public health and environmental protections more aggressively than the early Reagan administration.

As if to draw a line under the study’s conclusions, Pruitt announced a proposal last week to allow only research for which all data is made public to be considered during rulemaking by the agency. Pruitt – himself under scrutiny for breaking rules – said he was ending the era of “secret science” and added, “Americans deserve to assess the legitimacy of the science underpinning EPA decisions that may impact their lives.” Scientists said the change would be an attack on studies that underpin critical environmental protections, much of which are based on patient data and cannot be made public for privacy reasons. The Washington Post editorial board called the proposal “foolish” and said it is further evidence that Pruitt is “determined to ruin the environment.” The proposal was one in a long list of topics that came up as lawmakers questioned Pruitt during a pair of hearings last week. Meanwhile, The Verge talked to scientists about what a useful science transparency rule could look like.

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Juul e-cigs, popular among teens, draw scrutiny: The Food and Drug Administration has announced a crackdown on illegal sales of e-cigarettes to minors, particularly of the popular Juul devices, which resemble a thumb drive, come with fruit flavorings and are easy to conceal even in when used in class. The FDA has cited 40 retailers for sales to minors, the result of compliance checks conducted since early March. The agency also demanded documents from Juul – the fastest growing e-cig maker in the country, according to Bloomberg – aimed at trying to understand the company’s marketing tactics. “We don’t yet fully understand why these products are so popular among youth. But it’s imperative that we figure it out, and fast,” Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a press release. Anti-smoking advocates lauded the FDA action, but said the agency has avoided taking the most obvious step to keep the products out of kids’ hands, which is to subject e-cigarettes to FDA review, requiring that manufacturers comply with existing laws and prove they aren’t marketing to children before – not after – their products go to market. A group representing public health and medical groups is suing the federal government for delaying action on e-cigarettes.

U.S. regulators are taking aim at e-nicotine liquids packaged, like the one on the left, to look like treats that appeal to children, such as the cookies on the right. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration photo)

  • Also: Thirteen e-cigarette companies that received warning letters this week from the FDA would be hard-pressed to argue they aren’t marketing to children: They were cited for selling e-cigarette liquids packaged to resemble juice boxes and candy, sometimes with cartoon images.

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Deaths at sea: The risk of dying on the job is 23 times higher for people who work in commercial fishing than for U.S. workers as a whole, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The biggest risk comes from sinking vessels, but the next biggest hazard is going overboard. Between 2000 and 2016, 204 people died after falling overboard. In nearly half of the cases, the person who died was working alone. Alcohol and drug use were a factor in nearly 1 in 5 deaths. None of the 204 were wearing a personal floatation device.

    • Also: An Arizona farm where investigators found 69 migrant workers housed in “inhumane” conditions in converted school buses has settled its case, agreeing to provide adequate living conditions and to notify workers of their rights. – Twenty-five gas stations in southern New Jersey were required to pay $2.1 million in back wages and damages after investigators found that 87 attendants were paid less than minimum wage and not paid for overtime.

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Stemming the tide on plastic waste: Forty-two companies responsible for about 80 percent of plastic packaging on products sold in the United Kingdom have pledged to dramatically reduce single-use plastic. The coalition, which includes Britain’s largest supermarkets, Coca Cola, Nestle and Procter & Gamble, is promising to make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, Reuters says. Critics say the voluntary pact won’t do enough to reduce the huge amounts of plastic flooding the market every year. The Guardian reports that UK supermarkets are secretive about how much plastic waste they produce and have lobbied the government against increasing what they pay for disposal.

      • Also: You’re ready to offload that bin of old electronics in your basement. Here’s a helpful guide from Mashable. – Keurig Canada: The plastic pods used in the single-serve coffee maker are now recyclable. Toronto officials: No they’re not. – Researchers say they’ve created a new plastic that’s durable in use but breaks down to its original basic building blocks when exposed to the right chemicals, ScienceNews reports.

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Refinery explosion highlights an ominous threat: An explosion and fire at Husky Energy refinery in Superior, Wisconsin, injured 13 people and caused a mass evacuation. The incident could have been much worse had a tank containing about 15,000 pounds of highly toxic hydrogen fluoride been breached by the fire. About a third of the refineries in the United States use hydrogen fluoride, putting millions of people at risk of mass casualties if it were to be released, according to a 2011 report by the Center for Public Integrity. The Obama administration created a rule requiring petroleum product manufacturers to consider safer alternatives. It didn’t require that they implement them. The Trump Administration last year suspended that rule, notes Jordan Barab, a former deputy secretary of labor under Obama. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency, is investigating the Wisconsin explosion.

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Glyphosate – part of a nutritious breakfast: Internal FDA documents obtained by The Guardian indicate that glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, may be contained in many widely consumed foods. Government scientists have been testing foods for the weed killer for two years but have not yet released results. In an email written last year, an FDA chemist said that the only food he had “on hand” that didn’t have glyphosate in it was broccoli. “I have brought wheat crackers, granola cereal and corn meal from home and there’s a fair amount in all of them,” he wrote. Another chemist reported finding the herbicide in numerous samples of honey and in oatmeal. He detected “over-the-tolerance” levels of glyphosate in corn, though the agency has said those findings are not part of its official testing, Carey Gillam writes in The Guardian. Official findings could be released by early 2019. The idea that glyphosate is in food isn’t necessarily surprising, since the herbicide has been found in humans. But Gillam’s story comes just as a federal judge in California is considering what scientific evidence to allow in more than 400 cases alleging that Roundup caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that Monsanto hid the risks. Hundreds more cases are proceeding in state courts.

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9/11 exposure linked to increased cancers: New York City firefighters and other rescue workers who responded on 9/11 and worked at the site in the year that followed are at higher risk of prostate cancer, thyroid cancer, melanoma and multiple myeloma, a pair of studies published in JAMA Oncology found. The papers will help the World Trade Center Health Program, which manages the health care of the first responders, to plan for the future, writes Eleanor Cummins in Popular Science. But an editorial accompanying the papers cautions against drawing a straight line from the World Trade Center to a cancer diagnosis. Firefighters as a whole are at higher risk because of their various exposures on the job. And 9/11 first responders are intensively screened for cancers, which can lead to overdiagnosis. “When these WTC heroes are diagnosed as having a cancer, even a cancer common in the population, there is a natural tendency to assume it is due to their service at the WTC,” writes Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical and scientific officer for the American Cancer Society. “We do justice to and honor these men and women by working hard to find the truth and determine the illnesses that are associated with their service.”

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Problematic pre-washed greens: The E. coli outbreak linked primarily to lettuce grown in the Yuma, Arizona, region has sickened nearly 100 people, 46 of whom have been hospitalized, according to the latest report from federal health officials. The outbreak has reached at least 22 states. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns people not to eat romaine unless they can confirm that it was not grown in Yuma. Leafy greens account for about a fifth of all foodborne illness in the United States, according to data from the agency. Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post looks at why pre-washed bags of lettuce are a particular problem and what’s being done about it.

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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.