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Deadly Air Pollution Threat as Wildfires Grow in Frequency and Scale

Burning issue:  Smoke from wildfires in the Western U.S. is causing widespread respiratory problems and thousands of premature deaths, and the toll is expected to grow as a warming climate brings more frequent and devastating fires, Matthew Brown of the Associated Press reports.  In California alone, wildfires in the past two years destroyed more than 33,000 homes and other structures, and killed 146 people. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that as many as 2,500 people a year have died from breathing wildfire smoke, though some experts say the true figure is probably higher. “It’s really incredible how much the U.S. has managed to clean up the air from other (pollution) sources like power plants and industry and cars,” Loretta Mickley, a senior climate research fellow at Harvard University, told Brown. “Climate change is throwing a new variable into the mix and increasing smoke, and that will work against our other efforts to clear the air through regulations.”

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Sound and fury: Despite pledges by  the Trump administration and lawmakers to fight soaring prescription drug prices, the cost of more than 3,400 drugs rose in the first half of 2019, reports CBS News, and the average increase for those drugs was 10.5 percent–more than five times the rate of inflation. Citing an analysis by the consulting firm RxSavings Solutions,  CBS said the price of about 41 drugs surged more than 100 percent, including an 879 percent increase in the cost of the antidepressant Prozac.  — While drug makers will never win a popularity contest, they have taken some steps to burnish their image. That image hit rock-bottom twenty years ago as the AIDs epidemic swept Africa and drug makers said they couldn’t afford to cut the exorbitant cost of their HIV drugs. Since then, the companies have vied for recognition of their efforts to make life-saving medicines available in poor countries, reports Donald G. McNeil Jr. in The New York Times. The Access to Medicine Foundation annually ranks the world’s top drug makers on their attempts to increase access to medicines.  GSK, formerly GlaxoSmithKline, has won each time. In 2018, Novartis AG and Johnson & Johnson came in second and third.

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Turning point:  With the rapid retirement of coal-fired power plants, electric utilities face a crucial decision: whether to anoint natural gas as their fuel of choice, or aggressively invest in renewable  energy. As Brad Plumer writes in The New York Times, gas is less polluting than coal, but experts say only a hard turn toward renewable sources offers hope of limiting massive damage from climate change.  “I really think gas is at the crux of it,” said David Pomerantz, head of the pro-renewables Energy and Policy Institute. ”You’ve got some utilities looking at gas and saying, ‘No thanks, we think there’s a cleaner and cheaper path.’ But then you’ve got others going all-in on gas.”

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Total recall:  Auto safety and consumer groups are backing a bill to require used car dealers to repair vehicles with outstanding safety recalls before selling or leasing them to consumers. The measure by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) and Edward J. Markey (D-Massachusetts takes aim at a legal double standard that compels automakers to make recall repairs to new cars and trucks before they are sold, but allows used car dealers to sell vehicles with open recalls. Bill supporters note that used cars and trucks make up about 75 percent of all vehicle sales. Even so, the bill is unlikely to pass anytime soon.

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Checkered past: The trucking firm that employed the driver who last month struck and killed seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire had a long record of violations, including mechanical and drug-related problems, the Associated Press reports. Westfield Transport, based in Massachusetts, had been cited for more than 60 violations in the past two years, according to records from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The driver, Ukranian-born Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, 23, has been charged with negligent homicide. The deadly June 21 crash triggered the resignation of the head of the Massachusetts motor vehicle registry, who had failed to strip the truck driver of his commercial license following a drunken driving arrest in Connecticut.  The case morphed into a wider scandal when it was revealed that the motor vehicle agency had failed to promptly review stacks of violation notices that should have led to license suspensions. According to The New York Times, registry staff examining old records in recent days have yanked the licenses of 546 people.

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Pass the ammo:  California has become the first state to require background checks for the purchase of ammunition, CaliforniaHealthline reports. Ammunition vendors must also start submitting sales records to the state Department of Justice. —  Five police officers were fatally shot in the line of duty in the last two weeks of June, reports CBS News. Officers in California, Illinois, Missouri, Texas, and Wisconsin were killed between June 17 and June 23, and a 25-year-old officer in Chicago was in critical condition after being shot in the head last week. Meanwhile, a New York policeman who shot himself to death became the fourth NYPD officer to kill himself in June, writes the New York Daily News.– At least one person is shot at work in the U.S. each day, according to a new series from Marketplace on gun violence in the workplace, and what it means for employers and employees.

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Another setback for Boeing:  The embattled aircraft giant is facing a new problem with its 737 Max jets, grounded after 346 people died in crashes of a Lion Air flight in Indonesia in October and an Ethiopian Airlines flight in March. The Federal Aviation Administration said that in flight simulator tests of the MCAS software that was involved in both crashes, an FAA pilot following Boeing’s emergency instructions in one instance was unable to quickly regain control of the plane. The pilot deemed it a catastrophic failure, meaning that it could result in a crash in midflight, write Natalie Kitroeff and Tiffany Hsu of The New York Times. The FAA called it ”a potential risk that Boeing must mitigate.” According to The Wall Street Journal, Boeing said it agreed with the agency’s decision and is working on a software fix .

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Take the money, please!:   Twenty of the nation’s richest people, including George Soros, Abigail Disney and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, have signed an open letter calling on all 2020 presidential candidates “to support a moderate wealth tax on the fortunes of the richest 1/10 of the richest 1%  of Americans–on us. The next dollar of new tax revenue should come from the most financially fortunate, not from middle-income and lower-income Americans,” the letter says. “This revenue could substantially fund the cost of smart investments in our future, like clean energy innovation to mitigate climate change, universal child care, student loan debt relief, infrastructure modernization, tax credits for low-income families, public health solutions, and other vital needs.” A  Wall Street Journal editorial responded archly, “billionaire, tax thyself…If billionaires see themselves as a threat to “the stability and integrity of our republic,” they could cease being billionaires any day. If retiring student debt is vital, they could put out a call to graduates and start paying off loans. If the climate is a priority, they could fund a green Manhattan Project.”

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Safety first: Noting that July has been the deadliest month and July 4 the single worst day for deaths in off-road vehicle crashes, the Consumer Federation of America is offering advice  to riders on how to reduce risks. The group said that its incomplete count has documented 472 off-roading deaths that occurred in July from 2013 through 2018–including 46 of children 16 or younger. — Urged on by some players and lawmakers, at least three Major League baseball teams say they will extend netting to protect fans from hard-hit foul balls and flying bats, and other clubs are considering the move. The Chicago White Sox and Pittsburg Pirates will extend netting all the way to the outfield foul poles, and the Washington Nationals to near the foul poles, says CBSSPORTS.com. On May 29, a two-year old girl at Houston’s Minute Maid Park suffered a skull fracture when she was struck by a foul line drive. On June 10, a woman was hospitalized after being hit in the head with a foul ball at Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field.–The Guardian is out with a guide for parents on reducing exposure to potentially harmful chemicals in everyday life. Among them: Try non-chemical pest control methods before using pesticides at home; choose glass bottles and food containers over plastic ones; and filter drinking water to capture lead.