Pill blitz:  The numbers are staggering: 76 billion pain pills distributed between 2006 and 2012 by the largest drugs companies in the U.S. Enough to supply every child and adult in the country with 36 pills each year. In the hardest hit rural communities, the pill-per-capita count reached into the hundreds. Using data the newspaper obtained by court order after the government and the drug industry fought to keep it secret, The Washington Post has published an incredible report on the massive scale of opioid distribution in the U.S. that grew as overdose deaths skyrocketed. The newspaper has made the county-by-county database public, so local journalists and academics could begin to draw connections between the flood of pills and the toll they took on their communities. One pharmacy in a small town in Virginia alone received 7.7 million pills in that period. “The epidemic was not something out of sight, behind closed doors, under a bridge,” a team of Post reporters write. “In full view, it intensified and the companies, health care professionals, law enforcement officials and government regulators were unable or unwilling to stop it.”

  • Also: Corporate blame can be spread farther than to the top drug makers and distributors often making headlines these days. The New York Times reports on a lawsuit that is highlighting the role of massive chains that operate pharmacies, like Walmart and Rite Aid, along with lesser known distributors, like Mallinckrodt, where account managers’ bonuses were tied to sales. –– For the second time in recent months, federal prosecutors have filed criminal charges against a drug distributor. First came charges against Rochester Drug Cooperative in April. Now, former executives of Miami-Luken have been charged with conspiring with doctors and pharmacists across Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. –– Leaders of the largest Native American reservation, Navajo Nation, are raising concerns about an audit that found government hospitals put patients at risk for addiction by failing to follow proper protocol when prescribing opioids, the Associated Press reports.

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Miners’ appeal: Coal miners, many of them toting oxygen tanks, will lobby Congress today to ask lawmakers to restore funding to the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund and to do more to address an epidemic of the disease, Howard Berkes and Huo Jingnan report for NPR and Frontline. The two news organizations have documented in detail how the Mine Safety and Health Administration has failed to respond as severe cases, particularly in Appalachia, have mounted and despite warnings 20 years ago that more regulation was needed to protect miners from exposure to silica dust when cutting coal seams. The miners’ trip to Washington comes just as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has published a new summary of recent research, including one study that found more than 1 in 5 career miners (those with 25 years of experience or more) had signs of pneumoconiosis. This, despite the fact that the lung disease in miners “is preventable and should at this point be a disease of the past,” the authors wrote.

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Drownings down: National rates of child drowning are about one-third what they were in the 1980s, thanks to stricter building codes that emphasize pool safety. In California, which has what Nadina Riggsbee, president of the Drowning Prevention Foundation, called the strictest code in the world, the decline has been even more dramatic, to less than one drowning a year per 100,000 children ages 14 and under, Phillip Reese of California Healthline reports. That state requires a fence that separates the pool from a home, a heavy pool safety cover or other similar safety measures. Even so, from 2015 through 2017, 2,051 children 14 and under died of drowning nationwide.

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Paying for lead: Three major paint makers have agreed to pay $305 million to the state of California to settle a long-running lawsuit over the harm done by lead paints in homes and businesses, Joshua Schneyer of Reuters reports. The money, which will fund a remediation program, is less than a third of what a court ordered Sherwin-Williams, ConAgra and NL Industries to pay in 2014. That original amount was slashed on appeal, and then the companies threatened to sue homeowners who applied for remediation funds on grounds that their lead paint problems were the result of poor home maintenance. In the settlement, the companies promised not to follow through on that threat. They also did not admit fault for the contamination. The settlement marks the end of the protracted dispute, and it could set a precedent nationally, Schneyer writes. The state sued under public nuisance law, which requires proof of community harm rather than individual harm, and analysts said the settlement may encourage other states grappling with lead contamination to do the same.

  • Also: About 10 Paris schools located near the centuries-old Notre Dame Cathedral will receive a deep cleaning this summer, following concerns about contamination from the fire that melted the cathedral’s metal roof and sent tons of lead into the air, the Associated Press reports

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Paying less: Certain employers can be certified to pay workers who have disabilities less than minimum wage by calculating worker productivity and a corresponding wage. The program is meant to make job opportunities available to workers with disabilities. Federal investigators recently found that Rock River Valley Self Help Enterprises of Illinois paid its workers, who did packaging and recycling jobs, even less than the sub-minimum allowed and then tried to hide evidence from regulators. The Department of Labor first revoked the company’s certification, and then entered into a settlement under which the company will retrain staff and provide evidence of compliance. The company also will pay nearly $574,000 to 215 current and former employees.

  • Also: Lowndes Advocacy Resource Center in Georgia must pay $157,473 in back wages to 137 workers after investigators found various violations of labor laws, including pay regulations for sub–minimum wage workers with disabilities –– Good Hands Supported Living, a rehabilitation center and home health agency in Ohio has paid $230,696 in back wages to 74 employees, after investigators found the company failed to pay overtime or to keep proper records as required. –– City Cafe Diner of Chattanooga, Tennessee, must pay $153,740 in back wages and damages to 46 people after investigators found it paid workers a flat weekly salary without regard to overtime hours. 
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‘Waste only’: Sharon Lerner of The Intercept writes a clear and compelling summary of the growing plastic crisis. The U.S. has never managed to recycle even a tenth of the plastic waste it produces, and production of that waste has grown exponentially. Nearly half of the 300 billion tons of plastic produced each year is for single-use purposes. “It will almost instantly become trash,” Lerner writes. Much of that waste is incinerated, creating toxic ash and polluted air that disproportionately affects people who are poor, in the United States and around the globe. While there’s a lot of talk these days about reducing plastic consumption, Lerner focuses on a piece of the problem that has been largely ignored: just how hard the plastic industry is working to keep manufacturing on course and to shield the scope of the problem from customers. As an example, Lerner writes that the Plastics Industry Association has spent millions of dollars fighting plastic bag bans, even as its members, including PepsiCo and Walmart, have made pledges toward sustainability. “The trick has been to publicly embrace its opponents’ concern for the environment while privately fighting attempts at regulation,” she writes. Another tactic: Put the focus elsewhere, like on encouraging people to toss more items into the recycling bin, even as the recycling market collapses.

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Radioactive: The U.S. government maintains that residents of the Marshall islands in the Pacific face little risk from radioactivity resulting from dozens of nuclear tests conducted there during the Cold War. Yet just-published research found concentrations of nuclear isotopes on four uninhabited islands to be far higher even than has been found near the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power plants. “On one isle, those levels are reported to be 1,000 times higher,” Susanne Rust of the Los Angeles Times writes.

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

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