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Courtroom Battles Loom Over Climate Change

The Ocean State v. Big Oil: Rhode Island, which has  more than 400 miles of coastline, has become the first state in the country to sue oil companies for the cost of protecting itself from rising seas. More than a dozen cities and counties in four other states have filed similar lawsuits that aim to hold major oil companies responsible for the effects of climate change, Nicholas Kusnetz of InsideClimate News reports. “Big oil knew for decades that greenhouse gas pollution from their operations and their products were having a significant and detrimental impact on the earth’s climate,” Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin said while announcing the court filing from atop a seawall in Narragansett. “Instead of working to reduce that harm, these companies chose to conceal the dangers, undermine public support for greenhouse gas regulation and engage in massive campaigns to promote the ever increasing use of their products and ever increasing revenues in their pockets.” The suit names 14 oil companies. One of them, Shell, said in a press release that such lawsuits undermine the cooperation needed to address the issue.

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California doctor punished for vaccine exemption: After a measles outbreak at Disneyland in 2014 and 2015, California passed a law making it more difficult for families to opt out of childhood vaccinations. It required that they have a doctor’s note citing a medical reason for exemption, making California one of three states to do so. Many more children were vaccinated as a result, writes Soumya Karlamangla of the Los Angeles Times, though some doctors remained sympathetic to families concerned about vaccine safety. In a case that’s likely to shape the vaccine debate in California for years to come, the state medical board has placed one such doctor on probation for 35 months for exempting a 2-year-old from childhood vaccines without first taking a basic medical history. And not just any doctor. Dr. Bob Sears is a national voice questioning vaccine safety and advocating an alternative immunization schedule. He wrote a book on the topic. His supporters expressed relief that this punishment wasn’t more severe, while public health advocates said it was enough to send a message to doctors to take the law seriously.

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A crackdown on pill mills: In a continuing effort to eliminate health care fraud, the U.S. Department of Justice announced charges against hundreds of people, including 172 defendants accused of wrongfully distributing opioids and other narcotics. Among them were 76 doctors. In one case, an anesthesiologist is accused of distributing 5.2 million tablets of hydrocodone, methadone, morphine, and oxycodone in about 3½ years at his Tampa pain clinic, according to a press release. In another case, a Texas pharmacy chain owner and two other people are accused of filling fraudulent prescriptions for more than 1 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills that were sold to drug couriers, Reuters reports.

  • Also: On a positive note, opioid makers spent less in 2016 to market their drugs to doctors than in past years, a ProPublica analysis found. – Federal drug officials are investigating a Walgreens in Chico, California, that received shipments of hydrocodone that exceeded the national average of drug buyers by more than seven times in 2016, according to a court filing.

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Off-roading this summer? Be careful: July is the deadliest month for riders of off-highway vehicles, such as ATVs and ROVs, according to five years of data compiled by the Consumer Federation of America. July 4th is the deadliest day of the year, the group found. It documented 3,023 deaths from 2013 through 2017, and 417 of those happened in the month of July. As FairWarning has reported, most of the deaths occur on roads, where the vehicles aren’t designed to travel. The Consumer Federation of America has pushed back against widespread efforts to legalize use of the vehicles on public roads. Already this week, incidents with the vehicles have killed riders in Indiana and in New Jersey.

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‘Billionaires extracting wealth from working people’: A massive private equity fund – minimum investment $20 million – offers loans to desperate people with an interest rate as high as 36 percent, fees attached, insurance of little value, and a fast-track to court if they fall behind, plus fine-print that says they’re on the hook for the lender’s attorney fees. Why? “It’s basically a way of monetizing poor people,” a former employee told Peter Whoriskey of The Washington Post, who exhaustively examines the business practices of Mariner Finance.

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On the hook for hog waste: A federal jury said Smithfield Foods should pay $25 million to two neighbors for damages suffered from the smell of open waste pits and truck traffic when the world’s largest pork producer expanded near their homes in North Carolina, Emery Dalesio of the Associated Press reports. That decision was a surprise, as the case – one of dozens pending against the company in that state – was expected to be more favorable to Smithfield. Don’t feel too sorry for Smithfield, a subsidiary of a Chinese company. The fine is likely to be cut dramatically under a state law that limits punitive damages. And the decision came down the same week that North Carolina lawmakers passed a law that will make it more difficult in the future to sue Smithfield, the farmers it contracts with or other large agricultural businesses.

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The health risks of being black in America: Olga Khazan of The Atlantic spent nearly a year in Baltimore trying to understand why people who live in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods there and in other major cities have a life expectancy as much as 20 years shorter than those who live in wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods. The people she met had high rates of obesity, diabetes and substance abuse, along with a history of trauma. But their individual stories were part of a much bigger one, about “how African Americans became stuck in profoundly unhealthy neighborhoods, and of how the legacy of racism can literally take years off their lives,” Khazan writes. “Far from being a relic of the past, America’s racist and segregationist history continues to harm black people in the most intimate of ways—seeping into their lungs, their blood, even their DNA.”

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A newsroom threat becomes real: The man accused of killing five people and injuring two others at The Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, sent chilling letters to the newspaper’s lawyer and to a judge who had heard his case alleging that the newspaper had defamed him when it covered his harassment of a former classmate. In one, he said he planned to kill everyone present in the newsroom. “Welcome,” he wrote to the judge, “to your unexpected legacy.” The shooting has increased focus on the challenges faced by local journalists as their papers get thinner. It also raised questions about why Maryland’s strict gun laws weren’t enough to stop alleged shooter Jarrod Ramos, who was the subject of multiple restraining orders and who made his intentions clear years ago. The Capital Gazette met with police in 2013 to discuss Ramos’ threats against the paper, which included phrases such as “murderous rampage,” “journalist hell” and “open season,” Scott Dance of The Baltimore Sun reports. Ramos himself wrote in a 2014 court filing that he had “sworn a legal oath” to kill columnist Eric Hartley, who had written about his case. “None of that prevented a licensed firearms dealer from selling Ramos a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun in 2017,” Dance writes.

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More needed to protect miners: Stronger dust control measures put in place in recent years may not be enough to slow rates of black lung disease among coal miners, which in Central Appalachia have increased dramatically. Howard Berkes of NPR reports on a review of federal efforts published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, that found the regulations “may not guarantee that exposures will be controlled adequately or that future disease rates will decline.” The review calls for a “fundamental shift” in efforts to protect miners, including more real-time monitoring of their exposure to toxic silica dust.

  • Also: Ariel Ramchandani writes in The Atlantic about pesticide exposure and other hazards facing the youngest workers in American tobacco fields: kids.

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