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Taking a Long Look at the Risks of Fracking

Fracking fates: Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reviewed  numerous studies on the effects of fracking activity on the health of a community and the people who live close to natural gas wells. They found that there is strong evidence–despite an industry narrative to the contrary–that fracking exposure is associated with an increased risk of preterm birth and high-risk pregnancy, asthma flare-ups, fatigue and possibly low birth weight. In the review paper published in Global Public Health, authors note that, while natural gas is promoted as a less harmful “bridge” fuel to be used until more renewable sources take over, the fracking infrastructure in rapid development today throughout the U.S. and beyond is not temporary. It is too soon, given the relative newness of the technology, to determine possible effects on rates of cancer and neurological  diseases. But the epidemiological data to date “offers no reassurances.” Co-author Irena Gorski told Environmental Health News, “We have enough evidence at this point that these health impacts should be of serious concern to policymakers interested in protecting public health.”

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Injured and ignored: Reveal, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, reported last year on how Elon Musk’s electric car maker Tesla ignored workers’ injuries and operated an on-site clinic that routinely dismissed their complaints. Now reporter Will Evans details the collaboration between Tesla and Dr. Basil Besh  as they coordinated care to preserve the clinic’s contract and keep patients from filing workers’ compensation claims. Neither Besh nor Tesla responded to Evans’ inquiries.

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Sleeping safely: Days after Consumer Reports revealed that dozens of infants had died while in a Rock ‘n Play Sleeper made by Fisher-Price, parent company Mattel issued a full recall, offering refunds to millions of customers. The company on April 5 issued a warning about the product, with federal safety officials saying they had documented 10 infant deaths since 2015 involving infants who had rolled over when they were in the sleepers but not restrained. But Consumer Reports said it documented 32 deaths, including of infants who hadn’t rolled over. While some cases involved illness or extra bedding as factors, experts told CR that the sleeper is risky because it violates medical standards of putting infants to sleep on firm, flat surfaces to prevent suffocation or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a press release in which the group’s president called the popular product “deadly” and urged the company to take it off the market. The company issued the recall three days laters. It could cost Mattel up to $60 million, according to a UBS analysis reported by MarketWatch.

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Underpaid and overexposed: In five years ending last September, federal labor officials recovered nearly $2 million in back wages for more than 1,000 people working in dry cleaning and laundry businesses in the Northeast, who often had been denied the minimum wage and overtime. Now the Department of Labor says it is working with businesses in seven states and Washington, D.C. to improve compliance while labor laws, while also stepping up enforcement efforts. Worth noting: Dry cleaning employees also are routinely exposed to a host of toxic chemicals.

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Alt-plastic: Researchers at Ohio State University have developed a biodegradable plastic that they say may be a reliable alternative to petroleum-based plastic for use in food packaging. The scientists combined natural rubber and a kind of plant-based plastic known as PHBV, which had been done before but proved too brittle to use in the shipping and handling of food. But they tried two additives that made the plastic more flexible. Lead author Xiaoying Zhao told WOSU that the researchers plan to work with manufacturers to scale up production.

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‘Unwell Water’: In at least four states where officials are asking the Department of Defense to clean up pollution caused by dangerous chemicals from military bases seeping into local water supplies, the military is aggressively pushing back, even suing the state of New Mexico, saying that regulators there are asking for too much and using a drinking water standard “not supported by substantial evidence.” Federal officials have pledged to work with local officials to  clean up water contaminated with a class of chemicals known as PFAS, which are used in various stain and water-resistant consumer products and were a key component of firefighting foam used by the military. But the Pentagon has a lot at stake, write Kyle Bagenstose and Jenny Wagner at the Bucks County Courier Times. Cleanup will cost billions of dollars. And the grip of regulation is growing in many states. In Pennsylvania, regulators are conducting widespread sampling of public water systems. New Jersey regulators are implementing what will become the toughest drinking water standard in the country. In New Hampshire, lawmakers are pushing for more federal support for veterans who may have been exposed to PFAS at Pease Air Force Base, where a contaminated well served businesses and a local daycare for more than 20 years after the base was converted to an industrial park. “The Defense Department is going back on its word,” Erik Olson, a senior director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Courier Times. “This is a very worrisome trend.”

  • Also: Consumer Reports published a primer aimed at answering the questions: should you be worried about PFAS, and how much? The answers are yes, and it’s hard to say.

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An outbreak on the run: Measles cases in the United States are on track to hit a record high in the two decades since the disease was declared eradicated in 2000, Lena H. Sun of The Washington Post reports. Federal health officials documented 555 cases as of Monday, with most reported in New York City. The city had 329 cases, many of them occurring in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. Last week, the city declared a public health emergency and mandated that anyone living, working or attending school within four zip codes of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section be vaccinated or risk being fined $1,000. City officials have issued citations to some schools and daycares, and one daycare has been closed for repeated violations, Sun reported. A group of parents filed a lawsuit Monday to block the mandated vaccinations, saying there wasn’t sufficient evidence of a dangerous outbreak. But measles is up globally, too, with the number of cases increasing threefold in the first three months of 2019, compared to the same period last year, the World Health Organization said. In Africa, cases were up 700 percent. The data is preliminary but points to a trend, with rapid spread of the preventable illness among clusters of people who are not vaccinated. “Many countries are in the midst of sizable measles outbreaks, with all regions of the world experiencing sustained rises in cases,” according to the WHO press release. Sun demonstrates just how vulnerable those clusters are, with the tale of one man who traveled while infected on a fundraising mission from Brooklyn to Detroit’s ultra-Orthodox community, staying in private homes and visiting kosher markets, pizza parlors and synagogues. The virus spread to at least 39 people in two weeks.

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Interior leadership: Senators last week confirmed David Bernhardt as secretary of the Interior Department, overruling concerns among Democrats and government watchdogs about his conflicts of interest. Bernhardt is a former lobbyist for oil and agriculture interests, and said during his confirmation hearing that he would not continue to recuse himself from matters involving former clients. The Senate vote did not settle the question of whether those conflicts matter. The Interior’s inspector general office said Monday it had opened an investigation into Bernhardt’s ethics, citing complaints by lawmakers and conservation organizations, Darryl Fears of The Washington Post reports. Among the changes that Bernhardt, as deputy secretary, pushed to the benefit of former clients: Companies that cause natural disasters or environmental damage no longer face violations for killing migratory birds when those deaths are considered incidental, rather than intentional. The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act has, for a century, been a tool for holding companies accountable for such damage. Reveal reviewed internal emails that demonstrate just how much has changed.

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