Justice Department targeting scams against older people
Friday, March 8
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department said Thursday that it has criminally charged about 225 individuals over the past year in connection with fraud scams that victimize people age 60 and older.
Attorney General William Barr and other law enforcement officials announced what they said was the department’s largest-ever nationwide crackdown on elder fraud schemes. In addition to the criminal charges, the department has brought civil cases against dozens of other defendants. All told, officials said, there were more than 260 criminal and civil charges filed in the past year.
“This is a particularly despicable crime, and it’s a massive and growing problem,” Barr said at a news conference. “It’s despicable because the people involved are vulnerable and because of their stage in life, they don’t have the opportunity frequently to recover. And so these losses are devastating to them.”
Barr said authorities “have to prosecute an all-out attack on this type of crime.”
Among the defendants identified by the department are two people who prosecutors say ran a telemarketing scam out of Costa Rica and swindled victims by telling them they had won prizes in sweepstakes contests and needed to transfer large sums to collect the prizes. The two were extradited to face charges in North Carolina.
Among the would-be victims highlighted were William Webster, the former director of the FBI and CIA, and his wife, Lynda. The couple described at the press conference how they were targeted by a man from Jamaica who threatened them and sought to extort millions of dollars over the course of several years. The Websters involved the FBI, which arrested the man after he arrived in the U.S.
“I think it’s important to let (older people) know there are ways they can check out these calls, and should,” Webster said.
It was Barr’s first news conference as attorney general. He made opening remarks but, as the delivery of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report looms, left the podium without taking questions.
Omar praises House vote as condemning ‘anti-Muslim bigotry’
By LISA MASCARO and LAURIE KELLMAN
WASHINGTON (AP) — Divided in debate but mostly united in a final vote, the House passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other bigotry. Democrats are trying to push past a dispute that has overwhelmed their agenda and exposed fault lines that could shadow them through next year’s elections.
The one-sided 407-23 vote Thursday belied the emotional infighting over how to respond to freshman Rep. lIhan Omar’s recent comments suggesting House supporters of Israel have dual allegiances. For days, Democrats wrestled with whether or how to punish the Minnesota Democratic lawmaker, arguing over whether Omar, one of two Muslim women in Congress, should be singled out, what other types of bias should be decried in the text and whether the party would tolerate dissenting views on Israel.
Republicans generally joined in the favorable vote, though nearly two-dozen opposed the measure, one calling it a “sham.”
Generational as well as ideological, the argument was fueled in part by young, liberal lawmakers — and voters — who have become a face of the newly empowered Democratic majority in the House. These lawmakers are critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, rejecting the conservative leader’s approach to Palestinians and other issues.
They split sharply from Democratic leaders who seemed caught off guard by the support for Omar and unprepared for the debate. But the leaders regrouped.
“It’s not about her. It’s about these forms of hatred,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said before the vote.
The resolution approved Thursday condemns anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry against minorities “as hateful expressions of intolerance.” Omar, a Somali-American, and fellow Muslims Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Andrew Carson of Indiana issued a statement praising the “historic” vote as the first resolution to condemn “anti-Muslim bigotry.”
Some Democrats complained that Omar’s comments on Israel had ignited all this debate while years of President Donald Trump’s racially charged rhetoric had led to no similar congressional action.
The seven-page document details a history of recent attacks not only against Jews in the United States but also Muslims, as it condemns all such discrimination as contradictory to “the values and aspirations” of the people of the United States. The vote was delayed for a time on Thursday to include mention of Latinos to address concerns of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. It was inserted under a section on white supremacists who “weaponize hate for political gain” over a long list of “traditionally persecuted peoples.”
An earlier version focused more narrowly on anti-Semitism. The final resolution did not mention Omar by name.
Getting this debate right will be crucial for Democrats in 2020. U.S.-Israel policy is a prominent issue that is exposing the splits between the party’s core voters, its liberal flank and the more centrist Americans in Trump country the party hopes to reach.
“What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate. That’s wrong,” said presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent.
“Anti-Semitism is a hateful and dangerous ideology which must be vigorously opposed in the United States and around the world,” the senator said. “We must not, however, equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel.”
Other Democratic presidential contenders tried to walk a similar line.
California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris said “we need to speak out against hate.” But she said she also believes “there is a critical difference between criticism of policy or political leaders, and anti-Semitism.”
A statement from Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said, “Branding criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse and makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians.” She said threats of violence, including those made against Omar, “are never acceptable.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, they are allowed to have free speech in this country,” Gillibrand said. “But we don’t need to use anti-Semitic tropes or anti-Muslim tropes to be heard.”
Another member of the new crop of outspoken young House freshmen, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, said the final product, as well as the way presidential candidates are now talking about the issue, showed “there’s been some really great progress we’ve made.”
But Omar’s rhetoric is taking Democrats to a place that leaves many uneasy. The new lawmaker sparked a weeklong debate in Congress as fellow Democrats said her comments have no place in the party. She suggested Israel’s supporters were pushing lawmakers to take a pledge of “allegiance” to a foreign country, reviving a trope of dual loyalties. It wasn’t her first dip into such rhetoric.
The new congresswoman has been critical of the Jewish state in the past and apologized for those previous comments. But Omar has not apologized for this latest comment.
Pelosi said she did not believe that Omar understood the “weight of her words” or that they would be perceived by some as anti-Semitic.
Asked whether the resolution was intended to “police” lawmakers’ words, Pelosi replied: “We are not policing the speech of our members. We are condemning anti-Semitism,” Islamophobia and white supremacy.
Some of the House’s leading Jewish Democrats wanted to bring a resolution on the floor simply condemning anti-Semitism.
But other Democrats wanted to broaden the resolution to include a rejection of all forms of racism and bigotry. Others questioned whether a resolution was necessary at all and viewed it as unfairly singling out Omar at a time when Trump and others have made disparaging racial comments.
There remained frustration that the party that touts its diversity conducted such a messy and public debate about how to declare its opposition to bigotry.
“This shouldn’t be so hard,” Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., said on the House floor.
Among the Republican dissenters, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a member of the GOP leadership, called the resolution “a sham put forward by Democrats to avoid condemning one of their own and denouncing vile anti-Semitism.”
In part, Democratic leaders were trying to fend off a challenge from Republicans on the issue.
They worry they could run into trouble on another bill, their signature ethics and voting reform package, if Republicans try to tack their own anti-Semitism bill on as an amendment. By voting Thursday, the House Democratic vote counters believed they could inoculate their lawmakers against such a move.
Associated Press writers Padmananda Rama, Mary Clare Jalonick, Elana Schor, Juana Summers and Doug Glass contributed to this report.
Follow Mascaro and Kellman on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/LisaMascaro and http://www.twitter.com/APLaurieKellman
Research Check: do we need to worry about glyphosate in our beer and wine?
March 7, 2019
Author: Ian Musgrave, Senior lecturer in Pharmacology, University of Adelaide
Reviewer: Ben Desbrow, Associate Professor, Griffith University
Disclosure statement: Ian Musgrave has previously received funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council to study adverse reactions to herbal medicines and has previously been funded by the Australian Research Council to study potential natural product treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. He has collaborated with SA water on studies of cyanobacterial toxins and their implication for drinking water quality. He does not consult or work for any Agricultural crop company. He did give an invited talk on glyphosate at the 5th South Australia Weeds Conference, for which he received a rather nice muffin and a free cup of coffee. Ben Desbrow does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: University of Adelaide provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.
Glyphosate is back in the news again. The common weed killer, which has previously attracted controversy for its possible link to cancer, has been found in beer and wine.
Researchers in the US tested 15 different types of beer and five different types of wine, finding traces of the pesticide in 19 out of the 20 beverages.
So how much should we be worried? Hint: not at all. The amount detected was well below a level which could cause harm. And there are insufficient details in the methods section to feel confident about the results.
Read more: Stop worrying and trust the evidence: it’s very unlikely Roundup causes cancer
How was this study conducted?
One of the first things I do when evaluating a piece of research is to check the methods – so how the researchers went about collecting the data. What I found didn’t fill me with confidence.
The authors say they set up their experiment based on a technique called a mass spectroscopy method. This methodology has been used to measure the quantities of glyphosate in milk (but not alcoholic drinks). Mass spectroscopy is a very sensitive and specific method, and the authors quote the concentrations that can be reliably detected in milk with this approach.
But the method they actually used is called enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). Importantly, you can’t use the concentrations that can be reliably detected with the mass spectroscopy to describe ELISA sensitivity. They’re not compatible.
Glyphosate is the pesticide which makes up many weed killers.
ELISA is sensitive, but typically not as sensitive as mass spectroscopy, which uses an entirely different physical method to measure glyphosate.
ELISA also has issues of cross contamination. Biological samples for glyphosate measurement, whether ELISA or mass spectroscopy, need careful sample preparation to avoid cross-reaction with any other materials in the sample such as the common amino acid glycine, which looks quite similar to glyphosate and is present in much higher quantities. But the authors didn’t give any detail about the sample preparation used.
These issues make it difficult to be confident in the results.
We’ve seen this before with claims of detection of glyphosate in breast milk, which could not be duplicated. So given the lack of detail around the methodologies used, we should be cautious about taking these figures at face value.
What did they find?
For the sake of argument, let’s accept the researchers’ values and take a look at what they mean.
The highest level of glyphosate they measured was 51.4 parts per billion in one wine (in most of the beverages they found much less). That’s equivalent to 0.0514 miligrams per litre (mg/L).
The authors cite California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard’s proposed “No Significant Risk Level” for glyphosate consumption of 0.02 mg/kg body weight/day. The limits are based on body weight, so a heavier person can be exposed to more than a person who weighs less, taking into account body volume and metabolism.
This is much lower than the EU Food Safety Authorities’ and Australia’s regulatory allowable daily intake of 0.3 mg/kg body weight/day.
But again, for argument’s sake, let’s use the Californian proposed limits and look at the wine in which the researchers measured the highest amount of glyphosate. With those limits, an average Australian male weighing 86kg would need to drink 33 litres of this wine every day to reach the risk threshold. A 60kg person would need to drink 23 litres of this wine each day.
If you’re drinking 33 litres of wine a day you have much, much bigger problems than glyphosate.
Alcohol is a class 1 carcinogen. Those levels of alcohol consumption would give you a five times greater risk of head, neck and oesophageal cancer (and an increased risk of other cancers). The risk of glyphosate causing cancer is nowhere near these levels. The irony is palpable.
This isn’t even taking into account the likelihood of dying of alcohol poisoning by drinking at this level – which will get you well before any cancer.
And that’s using the highly conservative Californian limits. Using the internationally accepted limits, an average adult male would have to drink over 1,000 litres of wine a day to reach any level of risk.
So how should we interpret the results?
The report does not contain a balanced representation of the risks of glyphosate.
They cite the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s finding of glyphosate as class 2 (probably) carcinogenic (alcohol is class 1, a known carcinogen).
But they don’t mention the European Food Safety authority finding that glyphosate posed no risk of cancer, or the WHO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues report showing no significant cancer risk to consumers under normal exposure.
They cite a paper on glyphosate supposedly increasing the rate of breast cancer cell growth, but not the papers that find no such thing.
They don’t cite the most important study of human exposure, the Agricultural Health Study which is the largest and longest study of the effect of glyphosate use. This study found no significant increase in cancer in highly exposed users.
Read more: Research Check: can even moderate drinking cause brain damage?
The “report” claiming that there is glyphosate in wine and beer provides inadequate information to judge the accuracy of the claimed detection, and does not put the findings in context of exposure and risk.
Even taking their reported levels at face value, the risk from alcohol consumption vastly outweighs any theoretical risk from glyphosate. Their discussion does not fairly consider the evidence and is weighted towards casting doubt over the safety of glyphosate.
So you may enjoy your beer and wine (in moderation), without fear of glyphosate.
Blind peer review
This is a fair and accurate assessment of the study and its findings. That said, it is prudent for the scientific community to remain attentive to changes within the food supply and issues of potential risk to public health. Considering the increasing use of glyphosate by the food industry, we need continued diligence in this area. – Ben Desbrow
Research Checks interrogate newly published studies and how they’re reported in the media. The analysis is undertaken by one or more academics not involved with the study, and reviewed by another, to make sure it’s accurate.
Blame wood-burning stoves for winter air pollution and health threats
March 7, 2019
Wood smoke may smell good, but it is not good for you.
Author: Michael D. Mehta, Professor, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Thompson Rivers University
Disclosure statement: Michael D. Mehta is affiliated with the Gabriola Island Clean Air Society and Doctors and Scientists Against Wood Smoke Pollution.
Partners: Thompson Rivers University provides funding as a member of The Conversation CA-FR. Thompson Rivers University provides funding as a member of The Conversation CA.
It may be natural, but there’s nothing safe or environmentally sound about heating your home with wood.
The World Health Organization has ranked air pollution and climate change as the top health threat for 2019. One in nine deaths around the world are due to air pollution.
In Canada, air pollution kills nine times more people than automobile accidents. My own research shows that in rural British Columbia the main source of winter air pollution is residential wood burning, and that it is mostly being ignored and rarely monitored by government.
Wood smoke may smell good, but it is not good for you.
The main threat comes from the cocktail of tiny particles and droplets that are about 2.5 microns in diameter (also called PM2.5). Due to their size, they easily work their way into our lungs, bloodstream, brain and other organs, triggering asthma attacks, allergic responses, heart attacks and stroke.
Chronic exposure to PM2.5 is linked to heart disease, lung cancer in non-smokers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Type II diabetes and dementia.
Wood smoke affects everyone, but children are especially vulnerable in part because their respiratory systems are under development. Pregnant women exposed to wood smoke may have children with smaller lungs, impaired immune systems, decreased thyroid function and changes to brain structure that may contribute to difficulties with self control. Children who are hospitalized for lower respiratory tract infections are more likely to have a wood stove in the house, although other factors may also play a role.
The elderly are also at risk. A recent study of people living in B.C., in Kamloops, Prince George, Courtenay and the Comox Valley, showed that wood stove pollution significantly increased the rate of heart attacks in people over 65.
And that nice smell? It comes from benzene, a carcinogen (cancer-causing substance), and acrolein.
With the dozens of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in wood smoke, it’s inconsistent for governments to ban smoking and vaping in public places while ignoring the smoke from wood stoves and fireplaces.
Neither sustainable nor carbon neutral
Burning wood for energy releases more carbon than burning coal and it is speeding up climate warming. It also releases black carbon, a powerful short-lived pollutant, that can accelerate the melting and retreat of glaciers.
Pollution from wood fires can become trapped in a valley when warm air holds cold air close to the ground.
There are alternatives. For everyday heating, mini-split air source heat pumps are an excellent option. They are often three to four times more efficient than electric baseboard heaters and can work in colder climates. For example, the community of Skidegate in Haida Gwaii placed heat pumps in every house, reducing the use of wood for home heating.
Efficient propane stoves and heaters are an excellent complement to heat pumps and can provide top-up heating on very cold days as well as backup heating during power outages.
Most regional and municipal governments in B.C. have been reluctant to deal with these issues, and tend to focus on wood stove exchange programs as the solution. Based on my current research, the vocal response by the wood-burning industry and its customers often drowns out reasoned discussion.
The B.C. Lung Association has also been a strong advocate of wood stove exchange programs. But even the cleanest, highest level of eco-certified wood stoves generate more particulate matter per hour than 18 newer diesel passenger cars — and the wood stove may be right beside you.
Citizen science is a gamechanger
Concerned citizens have set-up an extensive and a growing network of low-cost air quality monitors made by PurpleAir. Kamloops, for example, with a topography that tends to trap air pollution from heavy industry and residential wood burning, has 30 of these wifi-enabled, real-time sensors, as do hundreds of other communities around the world.
These monitors show a distinct and troublesome pattern. The clear “signature” of wood burning shows that many rural B.C. communities often have winter air pollution levels that far exceed those seen in larger cities like Victoria and Vancouver. Some of the sensors register air quality readings that rival bad air days in China and India. Wood smoke is creating hot spots that expose people to levels of air pollution not normally recorded by provincial air quality monitors.
Wood smoke, and the cultural and social practices that allow it to be generated without much regulation and control, operates in a vacuum where preconceptions, origin stories and strong emotions impair action. We need another narrative.
Lack of government action to deal with this problem encourages people to ignore this evidence and to underestimate the risk. Burning wood deprives people of the right to breathe clean air in their own homes, and it ultimately represents an uncontrolled form of secondhand smoke exposure with broad implications.
Thanks for the great article. It makes no sense that our government in BC is actually subsidizing people to install new wood stoves and also teaching people how to burn better. This just normalizes and condones wood burning as an acceptable thing to do.
But the BC government and BC Lung are holding on to the idea that moving from a really polluting older stove to a somewhat less polluting newer stove is an acceptable option, one worth putting public money towards, when there are exponentially cleaner options available!?
The message coming from government should be about the huge harmful health impacts and the rebates should only be for much cleaner, healthier options. (Also, when someone installs a stove, there is no guarantee they will use it well so then you need to spend more public $$ on education and enforcement – something not needed with other heating appliances).
As the article notes, even someone manages to use a new stove in the best possible way (which few do), it still pollutes more than 18 diesel cars worth of fine particulates per hour! Why would our government be paying someone to put that kind of device in? Maybe it is okay for a larger acreage, but in populated neighbourhoods everyone is impacted, against their will.
p.s. I am typing this as I watch wood smoke from a chimney across the street drop down to bathe another neighbour’s house.