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Chilling News About a Warming Planet

Quickening climate change: The world’s leading body of climate scientists has issued a report saying that climate change is altering the planet more rapidly than previously thought and that world economies will have to change at an unprecedented pace to moderate those effects, Coral Davenport of The New York Times reports. The report calls for a dramatic year-to-year decrease in carbon dioxide emissions and for the burning of coal to stop almost entirely by 2050. Think this news is too much to take in? Umair Irfan of Vox does a nice job breaking it down, calling the report “a thunderous call to action, laying out what tools we have at our disposal (we have plenty) to mitigate global warming and to accelerate the turn toward cleaner energy.” Meanwhile, President Trump continues his efforts to roll back Obama-era plans to lessen American dependence on fossil fuels and reduce the use of coal-fired power plants, staking a position that The New York Times editorial board called “unbelievably reckless.”

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All truck, no driver: The U.S. Department of Transportation has updated voluntary guidelines on how companies developing robot vehicles should maintain and report on safety. This time, the agency included trucks and buses, raising the alarm of transportation safety advocates and setting the government up for a showdown with states where lawmakers have been reluctant to give the green light to driverless freight trucks, Michael Laris of The Washington Post reports. “Numerous companies are attempting to develop a self-driving truck, and it’s crucial that these 80,000-pound vehicles controlled by tens of millions of lines of computer code are adequately regulated,” Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said in a press release. The guidance “fails to address the serious safety concerns that arise when multiple driverless trucks platoon in close proximity.” The agency also said, as Aarian Marshall of Wired noted, that it will change the very definition of “driver” and “operator” to make clear that the terms do not “refer exclusively to a human.” As FairWarning has reported, a bill now before the Senate would bar states and localities from setting safety standards for driverless vehicles.

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A PFAS lawsuit for the masses: A high-profile attorney has filed a class action lawsuit against three manufacturers of the class of chemicals known as PFAS, which have been used to make nonstick coatings, flame retardants and many other products. The suit is on behalf of all Americans whose blood has been contaminated by the substances, which are thought to interfere with the immune system, undermine fertility and increase the risk of some cancers. How many people is that, exactly? The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, has estimated that more than 110 million Americans have been exposed to the chemicals in their drinking water. For the purposes of the lawsuit, an exact figure may not matter except that it’s big. The suit isn’t asking for cash penalties but for the companies–3M, DuPont and Chemours–to create an independent panel to study and confirm the health consequences of PFAS blood contamination, Sharon Lerner of The Intercept explains. Such findings could aid other cases that hold the companies liable by blocking the manufacturers from disputing the health effects of their products. The attorney bringing the case, Robert Bilott, succeeded in suing DuPont on behalf of people who had been exposed to perfluorooctanoic acid, one of the PFAS chemicals, at a West Virginia plant, resulting in DuPont paying $1 billion in penalties.

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Just how big is e-cigarette use among teens?: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently seized thousands of documents from JUUL corporate headquarters in San Francisco, many of them related to sales and marketing. The surprise inspection comes as the agency has focused critical attention on the e-cigarette giant that has dominated the teenage and young adult market. In Jan Hoffman’s coverage for The New York Times is this startling statistic: “The number of high-school students who used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days has risen roughly 75 percent since last year to about three million, according to preliminary unpublished data, confirmed by the F.D.A.”

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Some good news, finally, for bees: The plight of honeybees suffering from colony collapse disorder is a complicated one. Researchers can’t point to a single cause but rather to a constellation of factors, including a variety of viruses and exposure to herbicides. For the first time, scientists say they have found a kind of vaccine that improves outcomes for the pollinators and is “incredibly potent,” a lead author of the study published in Scientific Reports told Jackie Flynn Mogensen of Mother Jones. Bees that were fed a “mycelial broth” in the field saw a 79-fold reduction in one virus linked to colony collapse and a 45,000-fold reduction in another.

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Downgrading science: The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a sweeping rule change that many scientists say would dramatically limit the influence of reputable science on a wide array of regulations. The proposed “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule would limit the agency, when regulating air pollution or toxic chemical exposure, for example, to considering only studies for which the data is  publicly available and the results replicable by other researchers. The rule could exclude important large-scale epidemiological studies and studies that rely on private patient medical information. Ellen Knickmeyer of the Associated Press reported that the proposed rule could weaken regulations on radiation exposure, making it possible for the agency to turn to “scientific outliers who argue that a bit of radiation damage is actually good for you.” Writer and historian Audra J. Wolfe wrote in The Washington Post that people shouldn’t be fooled by the proposal’s title, saying the rule change would “strangle access to reputable studies.” It’s notable that the agency’s own Office of the Science Advisor was not consulted in development of the proposal, the Post reports. Scientists worry that that the influence of the office is being greatly weakened through an agency reorganization.

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What is a pay raise?: Amazon earned lavish praise last week when Senior Vice President Dave Clark announced a new minimum wage for the retail giant’s massive workforce of $15 per hour. But as soon as the applause quieted, many workers expressed outrage that their overall take-home pay will actually go down, Karen Weise of The New York Times reports. That’s because the company is also discontinuing programs that delivered monthly bonuses and stock grants.

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Hope in the field: In “Death By Fertilizer,” Nathanael Johnson of Grist looks at just how damaging nitrogen fertilizer is to the planet. But all is not bleak here: “A pack of startups is racing to market with a means of fixing nitrogen without polluting the Earth,” he writes. Those young companies are developing products that allow farmers to spritz nitrogen-fixing bacteria right onto seeds when planting, and they are drawing tens of millions of dollars from big-name investors, including Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.

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