Life, shortened: Deaths by drug overdose and suicide are behind a disturbing trend in federal statistics released last week: Life expectancy in the U.S. declined in 2017, marking three consecutive years in which the figure has stayed level or declined. That’s the longest period of general decline since the late 1910s, when a flu pandemic and World War I drove the number down, reports Mike Stobbe of the Associated Press. “The idea that a developed wealthy nation like ours has declining life expectancy just doesn’t seem right,” Robert Anderson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told The New York Times. “If you look at the other wealthy countries of the world, they’re not seeing the same thing.” Josh Katz and Margot Sanger-Katz of the Times report on a record number of overdose deaths in 2017, including a 45 percent spike in deaths from the synthetic opioid Fentanyl. The suicide rate continued to rise, especially for middle-aged women and people in rural areas. Suicide rates hit a 50-year peak, Stobbe writes. (Last month, the CDC reported a 21 percent increase in suicide by firearms between 2006 and 2016.) Meanwhile, in past years improvements in heart health have helped offset increased deaths from other causes. Not so this year, Stobbe writes. The death rate from heart disease was unchanged in 2017.
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In the cockpit, man versus machine: Until the moment that Lion Air flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 189 people aboard, the pilots fought against automated systems that kept pushing the plane’s nose downward, according to a preliminary report from Indonesian investigators that raised questions about whether pilots have been properly notified of changes in the latest Boeing 737. The most recent version of the plane changed how pilots would have to respond to the problem of the nose continually dipping, called “runaway stabilizer trim,” The New York Times reported. The Lion Air pilots appeared to be doing it the old way. Some U.S. pilots have said they were not properly warned of the change in procedures. “We were completely in the dark,” Dennis Tajer, a 737 pilot and spokesman for the union for American Airlines pilots, told The Washington Post. Boeing has said that it gave instructions on how to recover a plane from such a nosedive and that it has communicated with more than 60 airlines to emphasize that procedure. Reuters reported that the company is also considering a software upgrade. Boeing’s stock price fell in November but is up overall for the year. Despite the Lion Air disaster, financial services firm Cowen named Boeing its top aerospace stock pick for 2019.
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Glut of carbon emissions from wildfires: The devastating 2018 wildfire season in California released as much carbon dioxide as is produced in a year of electricity generation for the state, according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of the Interior. In a press release, Secretary Ryan Zinke attributed the intense Camp and Woolsey fires, which killed at least 88 people and destroyed thousands of homes, to poor forest management and called for more prescribed burns and tree thinning. “We can and must do a better job of protecting both the forests and the communities on the urban-wildland interface,” he said. “Leaving forests unmanaged is no longer a safe option.” As Elisheva Mittelman notes for Yale Environment 360, scientists have pointed to the effects of climate change as a major culprit, including more intense drought–factors not acknowledged by the Trump administration.
- Also: After failed past attempts, Smithfield will try again to convert methane gas from its enormous hog-farming operations to energy, this time with the help of utility Dominion Energy, The Washington Post reports. –– President Trump has said he doesn’t believe the conclusions of his administration’s own climate report, but his nominee for chief scientist at the Department of Agriculture said he accepts the findings and pledged to try to make changes within U.S. agriculture a part of the solution. –– Matt Viser points out in the Post all the ways that Trump has helped make climate change skepticism part of the Republican platform.
Built on migrants’ plight: The largest operator of shelters for detained migrant children, a nonprofit called Southwest Key Programs, has collected $626 million in federal grants in the past year and $1.7 billion in a decade. A team of reporters at The New York Times explore how the organization’s rapid growth has hugely benefited its executives. That was especially true for founder Juan Sanchez, who was paid $1.5 million last year and created a web of for-profit entities that funnel money to the nonprofit. “I think the word is ‘profiteering,’” a former IRS administrator said. Meanwhile, staff members at several shelters have been accused of sexually or physically abusing children, and the company has failed to prove in at least one case that it was conducting proper background checks on employees.
- Also: At a government-run tent camp for migrant children in Tornillo, Texas, little information goes in or out, Reveal reports.
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How much for a name?: A slight name tweak for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would cost businesses regulated by the bureau a total of about $300 million to change the name within their various databases and filings, according to an internal analysis revealed by Sylvan Lane of The Hill. The change, to Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, would also cost the agency at least $9 million. The rebranding proposal was initiated by Director Mick Mulvaney, who strongly attacked the agency for imposing excessive burdens on financial firms before being appointed last year to lead it. In June, Mulvaney said the change would cost nothing and that it was done to make a point. “We changed the name because it’s the name in the statute,” Mulvaney said in June. “And if … your whole theme is going to be, ‘We’re going to follow the statute,’ I thought it was a good, small way, but a very visible way, to send a message.”
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“Drunken and hostile behavior”: The Union of Concerned Scientists has released a report detailing ways in which the Department of the Interior under Secretary Ryan Zinke’s leadership has refused to act on climate change and has suppressed the work of its own scientists. Zinke has faced increased scrutiny in recent months, with White House sources telling Politico that he is expected to leave his post around the end of the year, something he denies. The inspector general previously found that Zinke failed to disclose ties to a donor he visited on the taxpayer’s tab and that he had improperly used Interior funds for travel and security for him and his wife. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, last week published an editorial citing numerous other ethical allegations and calling for Zinke to resign. In yet another moment that makes one think, “Is this reality or reality TV?,” Zinke responded with this tweet about Grijalva: “It’s hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle.” Ben Lefebvre of Politico explains.
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Death on a small farm: Hewing to an old idea of the idealized small farm deserving of deference, farms with 10 or fewer employees are not subject to safety oversight from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That means that when a serious injury or death occurs on one of the many small farms in the U.S., employing more than 1.2 million people, federal inspectors don’t investigate to determine the cause, to provide guidance for avoiding future hazards or to assign blame. Eli Wolfe’s powerful reporting for FairWarning shows just how significant the consequences of that policy can be: Over six years, at least 333 people–many of them young, healthy workers–were killed on small farms.
- Also: The federal government has cited Manuel Gallardo, the owner of an Illinois roofing company, no fewer than 11 times for exposing workers to fall hazards. This time he faces proposed penalties of $190,314. –– OSHA has cited an Army Reserve division in California for failing to create a proper safety program or to file a timely report of a death, after a civilian employee was killed when pinned by an automated lifting mechanism that failed.
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A troubled hospital: A Chicago psychiatric hospital that serves children with severe mental illness will lose its federal funding this month, following allegations of sexual and physical abuse and other mistreatment of patients revealed in an investigation by ProPublica Illinois. The news organization also reported that hundreds of children in state care were kept in the psychiatric hospital long after they were cleared for discharge. A federal judge, in an unusual move, has appointed a special master to address disputes between the state and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which is suing the Illinois child welfare agency.
- Also: ProPublica and the Houston Chronicle have been reporting on quality of care issues within the lauded heart transplant program at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston. Now, the reporting team there has documented issues, including an increase in patient deaths, within the lung and liver transplant programs, too.
Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.