Suspicious Deaths at VA Center Trigger FBI Probe

Investigating veterans’ deaths: The FBI is investigating a series of suspicious deaths at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia, The Washington Post reports. In at least 11 cases, elderly patients were injected with insulin late at night when staffing levels were low, which caused a deadly drop in their blood-sugar within hours. “The 14-month inquiry is the latest criminal investigation to engulf the Department of Veterans Affairs, intensifying questions about whether the country’s largest health-care system is doing enough to protect the veterans in its care,” writes Lisa Rein.

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Dangerous decor: An increasingly popular material for kitchen and bathroom countertops called “engineered stone” has been linked to deaths and serious illnesses in workers who cut, grind, polish and install the material, Nell Greenfieldboyce reports for NPR. The imitation granite is 90 percent silica, and inhaling the dust can cause silicosis, a serious and potentially deadly disease that has no treatment other than a lung transplant. Businesses can protect workers from toxic dust by installing air filters or having them cut and polish the material while it’s wet, so that the dust doesn’t become airborne. But, the Trump administration has eliminated a so-called ”special emphasis” program allowing OSHA to conduct special inspections to monitor airborne silica levels.

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Chemical burns: More than 1,000 people have been stricken by a vaping-related illness, according to a recent count by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the death toll has risen to at least 21, Denise Grady writes for The New York Times. Grady also reported that the Mayo Clinic examined lung tissue from victims and said the damage resembles chemical burns from toxic fumes. “To be honest, they look like the kind of change you would expect to see in an unfortunate worker in an industrial accident where a big barrel of toxic chemicals spills, and that person is exposed to toxic fumes and there is a chemical burn in the airways,” Dr. Brandon T. Larsen, a surgical pathologist at the Mayo Clinic, told The Times. Medical investigators still do not know the exact cause of the illnesses.

  • Also: Touting the potential benefits of e-cigarettes for people trying to quit smoking, some critics have accused health officials of overreach, asserting that those who have fallen ill or died all vaped THC supplied by an illicit market, Anna Maria Barry-Jester and Jenny Gold report for Kaiser Health News. Many are frustrated that the warnings paint all e-cigarettes and vaping products with the same brush, when vaping has helped many people stop smoking. “I do not trust the CDC. Not anymore,” Debbye Saladine-Thompson, a registered nurse and former smoker, told Kaiser Health News. “I cannot trust an agency that says the product that I and so many people have been using for 10 years and hasn’t caused one death is now causing hundreds of illnesses. No, I do not believe that.”

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Of mice and mold: A five-month investigation by FairWarning found unsanitary kitchens and food preparation to be a dangerous and widespread problem in nursing homes across the country. “Unlike restaurant patrons, who can walk away from bad meals – and trash the establishment later on Yelp – long-term care residents are basically stuck,” writes Marjie Lundstrom. Between 1998 and 2017, 230 foodborne illness outbreaks were reported in long-term care facilities, causing at least 54 deaths and 532 hospitalizations. In 2018, a whopping 33 percent of nursing homes were cited for food safety violations. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has proposed weakening regulations that protect long-term care residents because they are too “burdensome.”

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Plastic, plastic everywhere: Over the course of a three-year study, researchers found that stormwater drains alone carry approximately 7 trillion microplastics into the San Francisco Bay every year. Treated wastewater is a source of an additional 17 billion plastic particles. “It was basically everywhere we looked,” Rebecca Sutton, one of the researchers from the nonprofit San Francisco Estuary Institute, told The Guardian. Paul Rogers reported for The Mercury News that there are relatively easy things that can be done to reduce plastic pollution. For example, washing machines can be fitted with a $7 filter to catch synthetic fibers from our clothing, but manufacturers aren’t currently required to provide them. But it turns out that the single biggest source of microplastic pollution in storm runoff is car tires. The study found that almost half of the samples collected from runoff contained “black rubbery fragments,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

  • Also: The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner dug deep into the history of the plastic industry’s long fight to blame pollution on “litterbug” individuals and not the manufacturers. Half of the plastic produced annually is single-use, which, as it sounds, is meant meant to be used once and thrown away.

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Conflict of interest?: The lead author of a new study asserting that red and processed meats aren’t all that bad for us disclosed that he eats “one to two servings of red or processed meat per week.” But he failed to mention that as recently as December 2016 he was senior author of a study sponsored by the International Life Sciences Institute, an industry group that represents companies like Coca-Cola and Cargill, one of the largest beef processors in North America, The New York Times reports. That earlier study cast doubt on guidelines advising people to eat less sugar. The researcher, Bradley C. Johnston, an epidemiologist at Dalhousie University in Canada, said he only needed to report industry ties going back three years, and that he last received money from the group more than three years ago. He said his past relationship with the industry group did not impact his latest research on red meat. The chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Dr. Frank Hu, told The Times that both the sugar and the red-meat studies by Johnston used the same approach to undermine previous dietary studies. “Some people may be wondering what his next target will be,” Hu said. “But I’m concerned about the damage that has already been done to public health recommendations.”

  • Also: As Tom Philpott at Mother Jones points out, the study did not take into consideration environmental impact or animal welfare. “However, human health is about more than individual cases of heart disease or cancer,” Philpott writes. “The US style of industrial meat production is a driver of climate change. And climate change brings all manner of health risks, from broadening the range of disease vectors like mosquitoes to food shortages to increasing risk of deadly floods, fires, and heat waves. And there’s a pretty solid consensus that if we’re going to avoid the ravages associated with a 2°C rise in average temperatures over pre-industrial levels, then we’re going to have to cut way back on meat.”

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Erasing debt: After a joint ProPublica and MLK50 investigation revealed that the largest nonprofit hospital system in Memphis, Tennessee, was relentlessly pursuing poor patients for unpaid hospital bills through the court system, the hospital has reversed course, forgiving the debts of more than 6,500 patients. “Nonprofit hospitals are generally exempt from local, state and federal taxes,” Wendi C. Thomas writes. “In return, the federal government expects them to provide a significant community benefit, including charity care and financial assistance.” However, the hospital’s aggressive collection tactics in a city where nearly one in four residents lives below the poverty line seriously undermines that mission. “I was trying to remember when have I seen such a rapid switch,” Jessica Curtis, a senior adviser at Community Catalyst, a national advocacy organization, told Thomas. “I don’t know that I’ve seen that before. The scale of what they are attempting to rectify is really commendable from what we’ve seen thus far.”

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Worker wins: After managers at an Amazon delivery center in Sacramento, California, fired a worker for exceeding by one hour her unpaid time off following the death of her mother-in-law, her coworkers organized and sent a petition to the company demanding she be reinstated, and requested a meeting to discuss reinstating a second fired employee as well. Both employees have been rehired, Lauren Kaori Gurley reports for Vice. “Within 24 hours of submitting the petition, HR verbally confirmed to Sandra that she was going to be rehired with back pay after weeks of being ignored and strung along without a paycheck,” Amazonians United Sacramento wrote on Facebook. “That is the power that all Amazon workers have when we work together.”

Jessica McKenzie is an independent journalist. Find more of her work at jessicastarmckenzie.com.

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