Not Our Problem, U.S. Says, as Rising Seas Threaten Nuclear Waste Storage in the Marshall Islands

Ticking time bomb: In the Marshall Islands, a containment structure that holds more than 3.1 million cubic feet of radioactive waste left over from the United States’ Cold War-era nuclear tests is threatened by rising seas and other effects of climate change. As Susanne Rust writes for the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. government is denying responsibility for the structure and the lethal contaminants within. “I’m like, how can it be ours?” Hilda Heine, the president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, told the Times. “We don’t want it. We didn’t build it. The garbage inside is not ours. It’s theirs.” By denying responsibility, the U.S. government continues a legacy of misinformation and maltreatment of the Marshall Islands and its residents, according to the Times. Its review of relevant documents showed that the U.S. government lied by omission about the contents of the Runit Dome—the “Tomb” in local parlance—before the two countries signed an agreement in 1986 releasing the U.S. from liability, and didn’t acknowledge using the area to test biological weapons as well as nuclear ones. Additional historical records reviewed by the Times reveal how U.S. officials, in studying the effects of radiation on Marshall Island residents, used them as guinea pigs: “Data of this type has never been available,” an official of the U.S Atomic Energy Commission stated at a meeting in 1956. “While it is true that these people do not live the way that Westerners do, civilized people, it is nonetheless also true that they are more like us than the mice.”

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A culprit in vaping outbreak: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified vitamin E acetate as a “very strong candidate” in more than 2,000 illnesses and 40 deaths linked mainly to vaping of THC, the substance in marijuana that produces a high, Denise Grady reports for The New York Times. “For the first time, we have detected a potential toxin of concern, vitamin E acetate, from biological samples from patients,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, the agency’s principal deputy director. The sticky substance was found in the lungs of 29 different patients, including two who had died. The patients lived in 10 different states, leading officials to conclude that the outbreak involves more than one supplier. They also cautioned that other additives in vaping products could cause respiratory problems. Vitamin E oil was first identified as a possible culprit in September, but Mayo Clinic researchers contradicted those reports in early October, after they examined lung tissue samples and did not detect the oil.

  • Also: An estimated 5.3 million high school and middle schools students use e-cigarettes, up from an estimated 3.6 million last year, with Juul being by far the most popular brand, according to new research that also found that mint is the preferred flavor. In response to that news and ensuing public pressure, Juul announced that it would discontinue selling mint-flavored pods. “These results are unacceptable and that is why we must reset the vapor category in the U.S. and earn the trust of society by working cooperatively with regulators, Attorneys General, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use,” Juul CEO K.C. Crosthwaite said in a statement.— Voters in San Francisco have upheld a ban on sales of e-cigarettes, making it the first major city to prohibit all e-cigarette sales, Forbes reports. The ban is a major blow to Juul, which is based in San Francisco, and which spent $15.7 million on an opposition campaign before giving up the effort in September. The ban takes effect in January.

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Farm harm: The U.S. Department of Labor announced that it had recovered nearly half a million dollars in lost wages from 10 labor contractors and growers operating in California, mostly in Central Coast berry fields, Geoffrey Mohan writes in the Los Angeles Times. This followed a $2.2-million settlement over the summer that affected thousands of workers contracted by Salinas-based Foothill Packing to pick for companies like Taylor Farms California and Dole Fresh Vegetables. The recent, sharp increase in demand for seasonal farm workers from Mexico—in part a result of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies—has come with a corresponding increase in allegations of wage abuse. “Left and right we’re seeing these workers being brought in and California laws are being violated,” Cynthia Rice, director of litigation, advocacy and training at the nonprofit California Rural Legal Assistance, told the Times. “Federal laws are being violated, and local housing laws are being violated.” Another complication: The influx of visa workers has upset the power balance between farmer owners and local laborers, and is making it harder for workers, both locals and visa holders, to push for better conditions, even during widespread labor shortages.

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Amazon in flames: The rate of deforestation in Brazil has increased almost 40 percent over the past year, Jon Lee Anderson writes in an alarming “Letter from the Amazon” in The New Yorker. Anderson writes that “the destruction has become a kind of perverse political goal” for Brazilian president and outspoken climate-change denier Jair Bolsonaro, who has pushed for greater exploitation of Brazil’s natural resources. “Interest in the Amazon isn’t about the Indians or the fucking trees—it’s about mining,” Bolsonaro told a group of miners in October.

  • Also: Fire has ravaged Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands this month, burning an area the size of London in just 10 days, Anna Jean Kaiser reports for the AP, and leaving the bodies of caimans, iguanas and snakes in its wake. “The inferno in the world’s largest tropical wetlands is the latest environmental disaster facing Brazil,” Kaiser writes, “after a mysterious oil spill that is afflicting beaches in the northeast and August fires that raged in the Amazon region.”

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Falling short: A new analysis of the Paris Agreement concluded that three-quarters of the climate pledges are insufficient to meet global climate goals, Douglas Fischer reports for Environmental Health News. “With few exceptions, the pledges of rich, middle income and poor nations are insufficient to address climate change,” according to Sir Robert Watson, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and co-author of the new report. The study was released a day after President Trump began formally extricating the United States from the climate pact.

  • Also: While government actions appear to be too little too late, at least Wall Street is adapting, asking how businesses in geographic regions especially vulnerable to climate change will safeguard investors’ cold hard cash, David Randall reports for Reuters.

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The ghost in the study: Pharmaceutical companies spend billions on consumer-directed advertisements and even more on marketing aimed at doctors and other health care professionals, including free samples, free meals and speaking fees, but another less evident way these companies manipulate the drug marketplace is by flooding the medical literature with favorable articles with the names of independent researchers affixed to the papers, even if most or all of the work was conducted by the company and paid medical writers, Myron Levin writes for FairWarning. “Ghostwritten articles can have a significant impact on … physician prescribing practices,” according to a 2010 Senate staff report. ”When prominent physicians and scientists lend their names to an article, it raises the credibility of the findings and conclusions presented.” Yet there has been relatively little public awareness or outcry about industry manipulation of medical literature.

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The expansion not taken: A new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank,  says that the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid from 2014 to 2017 saved the lives of at least 19,200 people aged 55 to 64, Jessica Corbett writes for Common Dreams. On the flip side of that coin, states that declined the Medicaid expansion saw the premature deaths of more than 15,600 adults in the same age group.

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

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