Science swap: The Trump administration violated ethics rules last year by replacing scientific advisors at the Environmental Protection Agency, many of them academics, with people tied to the industries the agency oversees, often ignoring the agency staff’s own recommendations and failing to collect financial disclosure information, according to the Government Accountability Office. Lisa Friedman of The New York Times reports that the GAO determined it often wasn’t clear if ethics officials had reviewed the disclosures that were provided. The president also is working to cut the number of advisory panels at the the EPA and other agencies, a move that drew outrage from former EPA administrators. Christine Todd Whitman, who headed the agency under George W. Bush, told lawmakers last month that the changes would weaken the government’s ability to make policy based on science. “This unprecedented attack on science-based regulations designed to protect the environment and public health represents the gravest threat to the effectiveness of the EPA — and to the federal government’s overall ability to do the same — in the nation’s history,” she said.
- Also: Two very different views of the science were on display when the EPA announced it will allow the pesticide sulfoxaflor to be used on a variety of crops. An agency spokeswoman said the pesticide is an important and “highly effective” tool for growers. Her own agency, Brady Dennis of The Washington Post notes, considers it “very highly toxic” to bees, which are already struggling with colony decline linked partly to pesticide use. A court challenge is expected.
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In fraud’s wake: The lawyer who advertised himself as “Mr. Social Security” and who orchestrated a scheme that federal officials said cost the government more than half a billion dollars is behind bars. Eric Conn is serving a 12-year sentence for crimes related to the fraud, to be followed by 15 years for an attempted escape that put him on the FBI’s most wanted list and ended with him being nabbed at a fast food restaurant in Honduras. Nearly every record Conn ever submitted to the Social Security Administration is now considered tainted, and thousands of his former clients have been working for years to prove that they are legitimately disabled and in need of benefits, Andrew Strickler of Law360 reports. “While the colorful aspects of the Conn debacle have gotten considerable media attention, attorneys and others involved say they have obscured some of the immense human costs of his actions and the SSA’s troubling reaction,” he writes.
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Disaster response: Christopher Flavelle of The New York Times writes about the toxic footprint of natural disasters. The path of destruction that hurricanes and wildfires cut through communities also lets loose the chemicals sitting in our homes and businesses, at industrial sites or underground, creating what one researcher called a “toxic stew” that can pose immediate and long-lasting threats to human health. This particular effect of climate change is especially worrisome, Flavelle writes, because many of these toxins stick around, in the soil or the water, or in the body, and they can accumulate “with each new storm or fire.”
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Shift change: As Labor Secretary Alex Acosta announced his resignation, President Trump was emphatic that it was Acosta’s own decision. After all, Trump knew when he appointed Acosta that his nominee already was seen by some as having given Jeffrey Epstein a soft landing from charges of sex crimes in 2008 when Acosta was a U.S. Attorney. New charges against Epstein, detailing an alleged sex-trafficking scheme involving young girls and vulnerable women, didn’t change Trump’s mind. “I just want to let you know – this was him, not me,” Trump said of Acosta’s decision. “Because I’m with him.” But Acosta’s resignation may solve some problems for Trump. Some business leaders have viewed Acosta as too slow-moving on deregulation, including on efforts to set a salary threshold for workers to get overtime pay and to pass rules that would limit corporate liability for actions of contractors and franchisees, Rebecca Ballhaus and Eric Morath of The Wall Street Journal report. If Acosta didn’t win the favor of labor activists, he didn’t really earn their ire either. The perception was “that this was about as good of a labor secretary that they could ask for,” Ben Penn, a senior reporter with Bloomberg Law, told NPR’s All Things Considered.
- Also: Deputy Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella, who will become the acting secretary, served in labor roles under the previous two administrations. He also is the subject of longstanding criticisms about a bias against workers, stemming largely from his efforts as a lobbyist to suppress worker protections in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth. Garment factories there produced “Made in the USA” clothing while paying workers as little as $3.05 an hour, as reported by Reveal in 2017.
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More pressure on J&J: Bloomberg’s Jef Feeley reports that the U.S. Department of Justice has launched a criminal investigation into whether Johnson & Johnson lied to its customers about the safety of its talcum powders even while it knew the product posed a possible risk of asbestos-related cancer, and a grand jury is examining documents related to what the company knew and when. J&J has maintained that its baby powder is safe and has always been asbestos-free. But thousands of customers have filed lawsuits saying the powder caused their ovarian cancer or asbestos-linked mesothelioma. Internal memos from the 1970s, reported by FairWarning last year, show that the company’s own officials and scientists were concerned about the risk of talc being tainted by traces of asbestos.
‘Going quiet’: The number of states that consider transcripts of 911 calls to be confidential has doubled in the past five years to 12, making those records mostly inaccessible to journalists and, often, family members wanting to learn more about what happened to their loved ones. Lynn Arditi, in a story published by The Public’s Radio and ProPublica, looks at the effect of such laws through the death of 46-year-old Scott Phillips. He collapsed from hypertensive cardiovascular disease in a Subway sandwich shop in Rhode Island. His brother, Troy, wants to know what happened in the six minutes before emergency responders arrived, and specifically whether anyone performed CPR or otherwise helped his brother. “What is the big secret?” he asks.
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An app for that: The state of California has launched a new app designed to make it easier for agricultural workers and other people to report exposure to pesticides from their smartphone or tablet. The state now receives about 300 reports of pesticide exposures each year, half involving non-agricultural exposures, according to U.S. News & World Report. The free app is available in English and Spanish. Nayamin Martinez of the Central California Environmental Justice Network told the Santa Maria Sun that farmworkers often have difficulty describing the exact field location in which an exposure occurs. The app can capture that data using GPS.
- Also: A study led by a researcher at the University of California San Diego found that teens who were exposed to pesticides in the rose-growing region of the Ecuadoran Andes had more symptoms of of depression. –– After an investigation that produced a 248-page report, Idaho officials could not determine exactly what chemical people working in a hop field in May were exposed to when an adjacent onion field was sprayed with a fungicide called Badge SC, causing them to develop flu-like symptoms. The Idaho Statesman reported that the state Department of Agriculture could not find a lab that could test for the pesticide in question.
A political win?: No leader has been nominated for the Drug Enforcement Administration in the more than two years since President Trump took office. There’s little consensus within the government about how exactly to tackle the most dangerous drugs, with deep divisions between those who see the problem as a law enforcement issue and those who want a more comprehensive approach. And, about 70,000 people continue to die each year from drug overdoses. Still, Trump has taken credit for the first annual drop in overdose deaths in decades, saying his administration has had a “tremendous effect” on the problem. His claims have caused concern among public health experts worried that a lack of focus could worsen the epidemic in the long run, writes Lev Facher of Stat. “They’re going to make the political argument that they’re winning,” Regina LaBelle, former chief of staff for the Office of National Drug Control Policy under Obama, told Facher. “Which they can say, since deaths are down. But I get concerned that we’re going to take our eye off the ball on the broader issue of addiction.”
- Also: In the largest U.S. opioid settlement to date, Reckitt Benckiser Group has agreed to pay $1.4 billion to settle claims that its former subsidiary, Indivior, marketed the drug Suboxone in ways that misled doctors, pharmacists and patients and led to unsafe use of the addictive drug and fraudulent requests for payment through government health programs. –– At the end of a closely watched seven-week bench trial in which Johnson & Johnson is accused of fueling Oklahoma’s opioid crisis through aggressive marketing and minimizing addiction risks, Attorney General Mike Hunter urged Judge Thad Balkman to make the company pay more than $17 billion. –– Research published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that the number of cases of children being placed into foster care as a result of parental drug use more than doubled between 2000 and 2017, NPR reports. –– Federal health officials are beginning to acknowledge how rules and guidelines put in place to curb illegal prescribing of opioids sometimes have harmed patients who legitimately need the drugs to control pain, USA Today reports.
Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.