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Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

“Superbug” Threats from Your Food

Posted by NYPIRG on October 22, 2018 at 11:26 am
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Antibiotics have been one of science’s great achievements.  Antibiotics are extremely useful in the fight against bacterial infections.  Antibiotic medications may either kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria that can lead to infections.  As a result, millions of lives have been saved.

Yet the successes of antibiotics have been increasingly undermined by their overuse.  Antibiotic-resistant strains and species, sometimes referred to as “superbugs,” are now contributing to the re-emergence of diseases that were previously well controlled by antibiotics.  For example, tuberculosis infections are on the rise due to emergent bacterial strains that are resistant to the antibiotics that have been effective in the past. Skin infections that in the past might have been controlled by a topical antibiotic now put people in the hospital.

This has led to widespread problems, and the World Health Organization has classified antibiotic resistance as a “serious threat [that] is no longer a prediction for the future, it is happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country.” In the United States, antibiotic-resistant bacteria infect more than 2 million people each year, causing more than 23,000 deaths. Experts predict that if antibiotic resistance is not addressed now, by 2050 there may be more than 10 million deaths per year worldwide, making antibiotic resistance a bigger killer than cancer.

The reason for the growth of bacterial strains that are resistant to antibiotics?  According to the federal government, of the estimated 154 million prescriptions for antibiotics written in doctors’ offices and emergency departments each year, 30 percent are unnecessary.

But the overuse of antibiotics in humans is not the only factor driving the evolution of “superbugs” that are increasingly immune to these therapies.

There has been extensive use of antibiotics in farm animals for decades.  Livestock are fed antibiotics so that they grow faster with less feed and can remain healthy in the unsanitary, disease-laden cramped conditions common on factory farms.  In fact, approximately 70 percent of medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S. are intended for use in livestock.

Since humans eat livestock, antibiotic-resistant bacteria can make their way from animals to humans.  That threat led the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to call on pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily stop the sale of antibiotics to farms for animal “growth promotion.”

Unfortunately, though most pharmaceutical companies have complied with the FDA’s guidance, this is unlikely to put a serious dent in antibiotic use in factory farms since farmers are still allowed to give the same antibiotics to livestock under the guise of disease prevention.  In addition, the FDA has also proposed changes to the rules regarding veterinary oversight that could allow veterinarians to prescribe antibiotics without having visited the facility or examined the animal in the recent past.

Given the stakes for public health, the nation shouldn’t allow even one large-scale farming operation to overuse antibiotics in this way.

As is too often the case, the federal government is failing to protect health and the environment, meaning that states need to act.  So far, the states of California and Maryland have enacted legislation to step into the void left by the feds.  What can other states do?

Since veterinarians are licensed by states and states also regulate farming, they can place restrictions on antibiotic use.  As a result, California and Maryland have passed laws banning the routine use of medically important antibiotics for disease prevention on farms that operate in those states.

Some key steps include: restricting the use of antibiotics in livestock production to cases of actual animal sickness or direct disease exposure, not dispensed to all livestock as a precaution without inspection.  In addition, states must require that the administration of antibiotics to animals on factory farms be overseen by a qualified veterinarian who has been to the farm or ranch and assessed the animals.

Of course, more needs to be done.  Off the farm, health care professionals, health systems, and patients must take actions to limit antibiotic use.

But when it comes to our food, New York should join the growing number of states looking to protect the public’s health by tightly regulating the use of antibiotics on farms.

The World Gets Another, Even More Ominous, Warning on Climate Change

Posted by NYPIRG on October 15, 2018 at 9:45 am
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As the southeastern United States was hammered by an unexpectedly strong hurricane, the world’s climate experts released a report last week examining what is happening to the planet’s climate as a result of global warming.

Climate changes that are resulting from the burning of oil, coal and gas are measurably harming the planet.  Since the beginning of the Industrial Age the world has heated up by 1.8°F on average compared to preindustrial times.  The effects are already becoming painfully clear: the fastest decline in Arctic sea ice in 1,500 years, more than eight inches of sea level rise since 1880, and more damaging extreme weather due to climate change.

For decades, scientists – including those working for the oil, gas and coal industries – have warned that rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels risk harming the climate, increasing ocean acidity, the frequency of extreme weather events and posed a threat to the health of all species – including humans.  But when the world met in Paris three years ago, it seemed that keeping the temperature within 3.6°F of pre-industrial levels, although seriously damaging, would probably leave Earth a tolerable, habitable place.

The current greenhouse gas emission rate puts the planet on path to reach 5.4°F of warming by the end of the century, even if every country meets its goals under the Paris agreement.  Global greenhouse gas emissions are set to rise this year.  Yet new report, issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change a panel that convenes the world’s climate experts, says that the world has a critical 12-year window to make substantial progress in reversing climate change.

The report was depressing.  Unless drastic changes are made in the world’s economy and a resulting radical reduction in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions emitted from human activities, we will see unprecedented devastation.

The new 700-page report, the work of 133 authors, is a comprehensive review of the global evidence that drew on more than 6,000 peer-reviewed research articles.  The overarching conclusion is that temperature rise will exact a huge toll on lives, natural systems, and the economy.  Fighting to keep warming in check — which will include radically and rapidly reducing coal and oil consumption, among other things — will save lives, the food supply, and homes.

The report’s blunt and ominous conclusion:  Unless aggressive actions are taken now, as early as the year 2040, the world will be experiencing worsening food shortages and wildfires and a mass die-off of coral reefs.

To prevent that dangerous level of warming, the report said, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050.  The IPCC found that, by 2050, use of coal as an electricity source would have to drop from nearly 40 percent today to between 1 and 7 percent.  Renewable energy such as wind and solar, which make up about 20 percent of the electricity mix today, would have to increase to as much as 67 percent.

Given that the report operates on the consensus of so many scientists, its projections and conclusions are typically conservative.  It is far more likely that the “tipping point” will occur earlier than the year 2040.

Nothing like this has ever happened in recorded history.  Humans are destroying the climate in which they live, at a rate that may devastate humans and other species.  Yet there are no indications that the ideologues and partisans who control the national government are willing to do anything about it, other than advance policies to make the situation even more dire.

There is no easy way out.  We have to stop thinking that technology will save the day without serious trade-offs, that the world will somehow dodge the catastrophic consequences of global warming, that actions won’t come without having to pay for it, either now or in the not-so-distant future.

The world must act, and it must act now.  But collective action on an issue this big requires true leadership by key actors.

Americans must lead the world on this.  Our elected officials – federal, state, and local – must pledge to act, not talk about acting, but act now.

New York’s Voting Deadline Looms, But Its System Fails

Posted by NYPIRG on October 8, 2018 at 11:52 am
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This week is the deadline for new voters who wish to vote in the 2018 election in New York State to register.  That’s right, a full 25 days before the election is the deadline to register.  In many cases, busy New Yorkers may not be paying attention to the candidates until Election Day gets closer.  For those would-be New York voters, they will be shut out.

Why a 25-day deadline?  Good question.  Voting is a constitutional right, not a privilege.  Yet New York is notorious for making it difficult to vote.   And the impact is clear:  the state has a Voting Eligible Population (VEP) of nearly 13.7 million in 2016.  VEP is the most reasonable measure of participation and includes citizens over 18 who are not incarcerated for a felony or on felony parole.  However, only 12.5 million New Yorkers were listed by the New York State Board of Elections as either active or inactive voters for the same time period.  That means over one million eligible citizens were not registered to vote.  While the comparison of these two datasets is imperfect, it underscores that many New Yorkers who are eligible, are simply not registered to vote.

Simply put, New York’s voter registration and voter participation rates are anemic.  In the 2016 general election, a stunningly low percentage of registered New Yorkers – under 57 percent –voted.  A review of the U.S. Elections Project analysis, showed New York to have among the worst eligible voter turnout rates in the nation.

While many dedicated board staff and poll workers work tirelessly before and on Election Day, the problems many voters faced are systemic.  An obvious example of the deliberate way in which lawmakers create obstacles is the voting deadline itself.

New York’s longstanding constitutional voting limit states that no law can be established that sets a voter registration limit within 10 days of an election.  10 days.  What do New York’s political leaders do?  They set a deadline of 25 days.  Two full weeks longer than the constitutional minimum.

And as the years go by, no meaningful changes are made despite the technological and societal changes.

The state’s antiquated system of voter registration is a relic of a bygone era.  It serves little purpose other than to help self-perpetuate the current leadership, ensuring re-election of incumbents and limiting voter participation.  In fact, other states have been modernizing their laws to make it easier to register to vote and as a result are among the states with the highest voting rates in the nation.

New York should join the states offering Same Day Registration through the passage of an amendment to the State Constitution.  As of March 2018, 17 states plus the District of Columbia offer same day registration (SDR), which allows any qualified resident of the state to go to register to vote and cast a ballot—on that very day.  Additionally, Washington has enacted same day registration, to be implemented in 2019.

Each year, just as interest in elections and candidates begins to peak, potential voters find that the deadline for registering to vote has already passed.  Here in New York, campaigns for statewide and local offices barely attract public attention before October.  By the time voters begin to focus on the election, the deadline has already passed.  If you’re not registered, please do so.  When thinking about Election Day and the importance of this fundamental civic obligation, remember New York’s need for voting reforms.

Will Water Regulations Get Improved?

Posted by NYPIRG on October 1, 2018 at 3:25 pm
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One of New York’s greatest natural resources is its abundance of water supplies.  But the state’s industrial history has resulted in serious threats to using that water for drinking.  Those threats should be checked by government regulations, but in far too many cases, they are not.

Drinking water regulation is organized around “regulated contaminants” and “unregulated contaminants.” Regulated contaminants are those for which the government has set health standards.  Regular testing allows government regulators to identify drinking water supplies that contain contaminants that pose a threat to the public.  Unregulated contaminants are substances that can pose health threats, but neither federal nor state government regulators have set safety standards.

Unregulated contaminants that are well known to pose health threats are PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-dioxane.  Due to their common use in water-resistant, stain-proof and nonstick products as well as firefighting foam, PFOA and PFOS are increasingly being detected in New York’s drinking water.  1,4-dioxane is an industrial solvent manufactured in large quantities and in widespread use.  Decades of improper use, disposal and storage have led to widespread drinking water contamination.  PFOA and PFOS endanger public health at very low levels of exposure, resulting in developmental effects to fetuses, kidney damage and cancer.  Studies find that exposure to 1,4-dioxane can cause liver cancer and chronic kidney and liver effects, which has led EPA to designate the chemical as a likely human carcinogen.

The threats from these chemicals, and others, are the reason why Governor Cuomo established the New York Drinking Water Quality Council to make recommendations that set the safety standards for certain unregulated toxic chemicals.

The Council is supposed to make its first round of recommendations this October 2nd.  In an effort to show the magnitude of the threats, researchers at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) reviewed the test data for public drinking water supplies in New York to see the extent of PFOA/PFOS and 1,4-dioxane contamination.

NYPIRG’s review of public water systems in New York found that many communities have reportable levels PFOA/PFOS or 1,4-dioxane in their drinking water. NYPIRG reviewed the most recent data available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The review showed that drinking water for over 2.8 million New Yorkers has levels of 1,4-dioxane above .3 parts per billion, and drinking water for over 1.4 million New Yorkers contained levels of PFOA/PFOS above the most stringent levels recommended.

The review of communities showed that 49 public water systems have 1,4-dioxane in their drinking water supplies that meet EPA minimum reporting limits.  There are over 31 systems in which the amounts have exceeded the limits recommended by public health and environmental groups.  Eight public water systems have PFOA or PFOS in their drinking water supplies that meet EPA minimum reporting limits.  All eight of those systems reported levels that exceed recommended limits, and four exceeded the EPA’s current health advisory threshold.

With millions of New Yorkers’ drinking water supplies at risk, the Drinking Water Quality Council should take the important step of setting stringent public-health based safety standards.  PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane, which can cause several types of cancer and other diseases, have harmed communities from Long Island to Hoosick Falls.  The only way to ensure every community is safe from these dangerous chemicals – meaning every water supply is tested and response protocols are in place – is to establish health standards.

Whether that will happen, time will tell.  But what is clear is that New York’s precious natural resource – its water supplies – must be protected.  As the planet heats up from global warming, fresh water supplies will be more and more at risk.  Places like New York must do all they can to protect its drinking water.

Can the States and Cities Fill the Gaps Left by Washington?

Posted by NYPIRG on September 24, 2018 at 10:58 am
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The nation’s political leadership has chosen to ignore science, rip away health insurance, eviscerate environmental and public health protections, gut the most important consumer watchdog agency, and ram through judicial nominations based on raw political power instead of public accountability.

What can be done?

States cities and counties have jumped into the mix to do what they can to offset the most egregious of Washington’s actions.  Long considered the nation’s policy “laboratories,” local governments can offer new ideas to tackle pressing problems, while mitigating some of the most disastrous actions taken by the Trump Administration and its Congressional allies.

New York State can help by instituting its own “universal” health care policies, for example.  New York has its own health exchange and doesn’t have to heed the call of the President to strip away health insurance coverage for its residents.  In the same way, states can advance environmental policies that rely on science other than ideology and greed in setting climate control targets that respond to climate change instead of ignoring it.

Local governments can take significant actions too, since they operate close to the people and can develop policies that address real problems.  The City of New York, for example, has one of the nation’s more effective campaign finance laws – a model that creates a campaign financing paradigm based on cultivating a large number of small donors; instead of the federal and state systems which encourage reliance on a small number of very wealthy donors.

New York City – the nation’s largest city – has embarked on an overhaul of its Charter; the blueprint for how its government operates.  The Mayor and the City Council are engaged in a wide-ranging public conversation on how the Charter can address the needs of its people.  So far, there will be measures on this November’s ballot to further strengthen the City’s voluntary system of public financing of elections that will make candidates even less reliant on big donors.

The City Council has begun hearings to receive public input on how the Charter may be restructured to respond to environmental and public health threats, ensure that civil liberties are protected, people are educated, expand affordable housing, reform its criminal justice system, modernize its mass transit system, and ensure that access to health care is provided to those who need it, with a focus on achieving those ends without breaking the bank.

New York City’s approach is a far cry from the national government’s dismissive approach to science, its focus on rewarding its allies even at the expense of good governance, its apparent pandering to a hostile foreign power, and its debasing of civil discourse.

Here in New York, the rhetoric of reforms usually falls far short of the reality.  The City’s open approach stands in stark contrast to the secret, often cynical, deal-making in Albany.

Of course, actions by local governments are no substitute for actions by the federal government.  One does not have to look too far into the nation’s past to see the argument of “local control” being used as a powerful tool to discriminate against American citizens.  Moreover, actions by local governments are often used to justify national inaction.

Further, federal policies do matter, whether state and local leaders like it or not.  For example, the recent Congressional tax agreement imposes a limit on state and local tax deductions, making it more economically and politically costly for state and local governments to raise revenue.  Tariffs are threatening companies and jobs across all kinds of communities, but the Trump administration proposes to protect farmers with billions of dollars in subsidies provided by urban and suburban taxpayers.  Actions by government outside the Washington Beltway alone can’t overcome national policies.  Elections do matter.

As the nation deals with the fallout from the Trump Administration, states and localities must act.  New York City’s enlightened approach stands in stark contrast to simple, anti-Trump rhetoric.  While local governments alone can’t save us, they can be the foundation on which to restore democracy while enhancing services.