Science & Health

US Issues New Warnings on ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Drinking Water

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday released new warnings about synthetic pollutants in drinking water known as “forever chemicals,” saying the toxins can still be harmful even at levels so low they are not detectable. 

The family of toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been used for decades in household products such as nonstick cookware, stain- and water-resistant textiles and in firefighting foam and industrial products. 

Scientists have linked some PFAS to cancers, liver damage, low birth weight and other health problems. But the chemicals, which do not break down easily, are not yet regulated. 

The agency is set to issue proposed rules in coming months to regulate PFAS. Until the regulations come into effect, the advisories are meant to provide information to states, tribes and water systems to address PFAS contamination. 

The EPA also said it would roll out the first $1 billion to tackle PFAS in drinking water, from a total of $5 billion in funding in last year’s infrastructure law. The funds would provide states technical assistance, water quality testing and installation of centralized treatment systems. 

The updated drinking water health advisories for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) replace those the EPA issued in 2016. The advisory levels, based on new science that considers lifetime exposure, indicate that some health problems may still occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water that are near zero and below EPA’s ability to detect. 

“Today’s actions highlight EPA’s commitment to use the best available science to tackle PFAS pollution, protect public health, and provide critical information quickly and transparently,” said Radhika Fox, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water. 

The agency encourages entities that find PFAS in drinking water to inform residents and undertake monitoring and take actions to reduce exposure. Individuals concerned with PFAS found in their drinking water should consider installing a home filter, it said. 

The American Chemistry Council industry group, whose members include 3M and DuPont, said the EPA rushed the notices by not waiting for a review by the agency’s Science Advisory Board. The group said it was concerned that the process for developing the advisories was “fundamentally flawed.”

Science & Health

FDA Advisers Move COVID-19 Shots Closer for Kids Under 5

COVID-19 shots for U.S. infants, toddlers and preschoolers moved a step closer Wednesday. 

The Food and Drug Administration’s outside vaccine advisers gave a thumbs-up to Moderna’s two shots for the littlest kids. The panel is set to vote later Wednesday on whether to also recommend Pfizer’s three-shot series for those youngsters. 

The outside experts voted unanimously that the benefits of Moderna’s shots outweigh any risks for children under 5 — that’s roughly 18 million youngsters. 

They are the last remaining group in the U.S. to get vaccinated, and many parents have been anxious to protect their little children. If all the regulatory steps are cleared, shots should be available next week. 

“This is a long-awaited vaccine,” said panel member Dr. Jay Portnoy of Children’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. “There are so many parents who are absolutely desperate to get this vaccine, and I think we owe it to them to give them a choice to have the vaccine if they want to.” 

Dr. Peter Marks, FDA’s vaccine chief, opened the meeting with data showing a “quite troubling surge” in young children’s hospitalizations during the omicron wave, and noted that 442 children under 4 have died during the pandemic. That’s far fewer than adult deaths but should not be dismissed in considering the need for vaccinating the youngest kids, he said. 

“Each child that’s lost essentially fractures a family,” Marks said. 

FDA reviewers said both brands appear to be safe and effective for children as young as 6 months old in analyses posted ahead of the all-day meeting. Side effects, including fever and fatigue, were generally minor in both, and less common than seen in adults. 

The two vaccines use the same technology, but there are differences. In a call with reporters earlier this week, vaccine experts noted that the shots haven’t been tested against each other, so there’s no way to tell parents if one is superior. 

“That is a really important point,”‘ said Dr. Jesse Goodman of Georgetown University, a former FDA vaccine chief. “You can’t compare the vaccines directly.” 

If the FDA agrees with its advisers and authorizes the shots, there’s one more step. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will decide on a formal recommendation after its own advisers meet Saturday. If the CDC signs off, shots could be available as soon as Monday or Tuesday at doctor’s offices, hospitals and pharmacies. 

Pfizer’s vaccine is for children 6 months through 4 years. Moderna’s vaccine is for 6 months through 5 years. 

Moderna’s shots are one-quarter the dose of the company’s adult shots. Two doses appeared strong enough to prevent severe illness but only about 40% to 50% effective at preventing milder infections. Moderna has added a booster to its study and expects to eventually offer one. 

Pfizer’s shots are just one-tenth its adult dose. Pfizer and partner BioNTech found that two shots didn’t provide enough protection in testing, so a third was added during the omicron wave. 

Pfizer’s submitted data found no safety concerns and suggested that three shots were 80% effective in preventing symptomatic coronavirus infections. But that was based on just 10 COVID-19 cases. The calculation could change as more cases occur in the company’s ongoing studies. 

The same FDA panel on Tuesday backed Moderna’s half-sized shots for ages 6 to 11 and full-sized doses for teens. If authorized by the FDA, it would be the second option for those age groups. Currently, the Pfizer vaccine is their only choice. 

The nation’s vaccination campaign started in December 2020 with the rollout of adult vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, with health care workers and nursing home residents first in line. Teens and school-age children were added last year. 

Moderna said in April that it is also seeking regulatory approval outside the U.S. for its little kid shots. According to the World Health Organization, 12 other countries already vaccinate kids under 5, with other brands. 

In the U.S., it remains uncertain how many parents want their youngest children vaccinated. While COVID-19 is generally less dangerous for young children than older kids and adults, there have been serious cases and some deaths. Many parents trying to keep unvaccinated tots safe have put off family trips or enrolling children in day care or preschool. 

Still, by some estimates, three-quarters of all children have already been infected. Only about 29% of children ages 5 to 11 have been vaccinated since Pfizer’s shots opened to them last November — a rate far lower than public health authorities consider ideal. 

Dr. Nimmi Rajagopal, a family medicine physician at Cook County Health in Chicago, said she’s been preparing parents for months. 

“We have some that are hesitant, and some that are just raring to go,” she said. 


Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology

Cartier and Amazon Target Knock-offs in US Lawsuits

Amazon and Cartier joined forces Wednesday in U.S. court to accuse a social media influencer of working with Chinese firms to sell knock-offs of the luxury brand’s jewelry on the e-commerce giant’s site. 

The online personality used sites like Instagram to pitch Cartier jewelry such as “Love bracelets” to followers and then provided links that led to counterfeit versions on Amazon, one of two lawsuits alleged. 

The influencer appeared to be a woman in Handan, China, and the merchants involved in the “counterfeiting scheme” were traced to other Chinese cities, according to court documents. 

“By using social media to promote counterfeit products, bad actors undermine trust and mislead customers,” Amazon associate general counsel Kebharu Smith said in a statement. 

“We don’t just want to chase them away from Amazon — we want to stop them for good,” Smith added. 

The Seattle-based e-commerce giant has booted vendors targeted in the suit from its platform and teamed with Cartier to urge a federal court to make them pay damages and legal costs for hawking knock-off jewelry there from June 2020 through June 2021. 

The “sophisticated campaign” sought to avoid detection by having the social media influencer pitch jewelry as being Cartier, but the vendors made no mention of the luxury brand at their shops at Amazon, the lawsuit said. 

Buyers, however, were sent jewelry bearing Cartier trademarks, the companies alleged in court documents. 

A second lawsuit accuses an Amazon store operating under the name “YFXF” last year of selling counterfeit Cartier goods, disguising jewelry as unbranded at the website but sending buyers knock-offs bearing the company’s trademark. 

Those involved in the scheme “advertised their counterfeit products on third-party social media websites by using ‘hidden links’ to direct their followers to the counterfeit Cartier products, while disguising the products as non-branded in the listings in the Amazon Store,” the lawsuit said. 

The companies said that Instagram direct messages and shared links were used to instruct social media followers about how to buy knock-offs at Amazon. 


Science & Health

Ukrainian Orphan Finds New Home and Hope in America

Phil and Kristie Graves are a U.S.couple from Maryland and parents of three biological children and an adopted girl with special needs from Armenia. Recently, they decided to adopt a six-year-old girl with special needs from Ukraine. But that was before the Russian invasion. Anush Avetisyan has the story.
Videographer: Dmytri Shakhov  

Science & Health

Australian-Led Team Discovers Supermassive Black Hole

A massive, fast-growing black hole, more luminous than previously discovered phenomena, has been discovered by an international team led by astronomers in Australia. Scientists say the black hole consumes the equivalent of one Earth every second and shines 7,000 times brighter than all the light from our own galaxy.

Researchers were looking for unusual stars when they came across a supermassive black hole. It consumes the equivalent of one Earth every second and has the mass of three billion suns.

The team led by the Australian National University believes it was obscured by the lights of the Milky Way.

The discovery was made using the SkyMapper telescope at Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran in New South Wales.

To take a more detailed look, the team went to the South African Astronomical Observatory’s 1.9-meter telescope in Cape Town.

Christopher Onken from the Australian National University is the study’s lead researcher.

He says astronomers have been searching for these types of objects without success for more than 50 years.

“What we found is what appears to be the most luminous growing black hole in the last nine billion years of the history of the universe,” said Onken. “People have been looking for these kinds of objects for almost 60-years and this one escaped its notice probably because it was just a little bit too close to the plane of the Milky Way, where there is so many stars that often it is hard to follow up all of the objects that you might find. And, so, this one had been just outside the range that had been surveyed in the past.”

Black holes are parts of space where matter has collapsed in on itself.

Their light comes from a ring of gas, dust and stars that circles the black hole, known as an accretion disk.

Astronomers hope this rare find will offer tantalizing clues about the formation of galaxies. The ancient black hole is so “astonishingly bright” that it should be visible to well-equipped amateur stargazers.

The Australian-led research is continuing. The team also discovered another 80 growing black holes.

Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology

Study: Facebook Fails to Catch East Africa Extremist Content

A new study has found that Facebook has failed to catch Islamic State group and al-Shabab extremist content in posts aimed at East Africa as the region remains under threat from violent attacks and Kenya prepares to vote in a closely contested national election. 

An Associated Press series last year, drawing on leaked documents shared by a Facebook whistleblower, showed how the platform repeatedly failed to act on sensitive content including hate speech in many places around the world. 

The new and unrelated two-year study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found Facebook posts that openly supported IS or the Somalia-based al-Shabab — even ones carrying al-Shabab branding and calling for violence in languages including Swahili, Somali and Arabic — were allowed to be widely shared. 

The report expresses particular concern with narratives linked to the extremist groups that accuse Kenyan government officials and politicians of being enemies of Muslims, who make up a significant part of the East African nation’s population. The report notes that “xenophobia toward Somali communities in Kenya has long been rife.” 

The al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab has been described as the deadliest extremist group in Africa, and it has carried out high-profile attacks in recent years in Kenya far from its base in neighboring Somalia. The new study found no evidence of Facebook posts that planned specific attacks, but its authors and Kenyan experts warn that allowing even general calls to violence is a threat to the closely contested August presidential election. 

Already, concerns about hate speech around the vote, both online and off, are growing. 

“They chip away at that trust in democratic institutions,” report researcher Moustafa Ayad told the AP of the extremist posts. 

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue found 445 public profiles, some with duplicate accounts, sharing content linked to the two extremist groups and tagging more than 17,000 other accounts. Among the narratives shared were accusations that Kenya and the United States are enemies of Islam, and among the posted content was praise by al-Shabab’s official media arm for the killing of Kenyan soldiers. 

Even when Facebook took down pages, they would quickly be reconstituted under different names, Ayad said, describing serious lapses by both artificial intelligence and human moderators. 

“Why are they not acting on rampant content put up by al-Shabab?” he asked. “You’d think that after 20 years of dealing with al-Qaida, they’d have a good understanding of the language they use, the symbolism.” 

He said the authors have discussed their findings with Facebook and some of the accounts have been taken down. He said the authors also plan to share the findings with Kenya’s government. 

Ayad said both civil society and government bodies such as Kenya’s national counterterrorism center should be aware of the problem and encourage Facebook to do more. 

Asked for comment, Facebook requested a copy of the report before its publication, which was refused. 

The company then responded with an emailed statement. 

“We’ve already removed a number of these pages and profiles and will continue to investigate once we have access to the full findings,” Facebook wrote Tuesday, not giving any name, citing security concerns. “We don’t allow terrorist groups to use Facebook, and we remove content praising or supporting these organizations when we become aware of it. We have specialized teams — which include native Arabic, Somali and Swahili speakers — dedicated to this effort.” 

Concerns about Facebook’s monitoring of content are global, say critics. 

“As we have seen in India, the United States, the Philippines, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, the consequences of failing to moderate content posted by extremist groups and supporters can be deadly, and can push democracy past the brink,” the watchdog The Real Facebook Oversight Board said of the new report, adding that Kenya at the moment is a “microcosm of everything that’s wrong” with Facebook owner Meta. 

“The question is, who should ask Facebook to step up and do its work?” asked Leah Kimathi, a Kenyan consultant in governance, peace and security, who suggested that government bodies, civil society and consumers all can play a role. “Facebook is a business. The least they can do is ensure that something they’re selling to us is not going to kill us.”

Science & Health

Dangerous Heat Wave Descends on Parts of Midwest and South 

A dangerous heat wave hit much of the Midwest and South on Tuesday, with temperatures hitting triple digits in Chicago and combining with the humidity to make it feel even hotter there and in other sweltering cities. 

More than 100 million people were expected to be affected by midweek, and authorities warned residents to stay hydrated, remain indoors when possible, and be aware of the health risks of high temperatures. Strong storms brought heavy rain and damaging wind to many of the affected areas on Monday, and more than 400,000 customers remained without power as of Tuesday afternoon. 

Excessive heat warnings are in effect for much of Illinois and Indiana along with parts of Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio from Tuesday through Wednesday night, according to the National Weather Service. 

Heat index values — which take into account the temperature and relative humidity and indicate how hot it feels outdoors — approached and topped 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) in some locations, including Chicago, the weather service said. 

“Full sun today will make it feel even hotter,” the weather service wrote. “There will not be much relief for those without air conditioning today through Wednesday night.” 

Much of southeastern Michigan — from just south of Flint to the state lines with Ohio and Indiana — was put under an excessive heat watch Wednesday through Thursday morning as the warm front is forecast to move east. 

A heat advisory was also issued, stretching from as far north as Wisconsin down to the Florida Panhandle on the Gulf coast. 

Health risks of heat 

In Chicago, where a ferocious storm Monday night heralded temperatures that were expected to exceed 90 degrees on Tuesday and Wednesday, the May deaths of three women when temperatures climbed above 32 C (90 F) served as a reminder of the dangers of such heat — particularly for people who live alone or are dealing with certain health issues. 

Pat Clemmons, an 81-year-old resident of the apartment complex where the women died, said everything was working well Tuesday morning as the temperatures climbed. She said that she had lived in the building for about 20 years and that she had never experienced issues before “that one horrible Saturday” in May. 

“They have every kind of air conditioner, air blower, fan jets and everything else. … I’m fine right now,” Clemmons said. “The air’s on. You know they’re going to have everything working perfectly right now ’cause all the chaos that happened.” 

By mid-afternoon, the temperature at Chicago Midway National Airport reached 100 F (38 C) for the first time since July 2012, the area’s weather service office reported. 

Officials encouraged Chicagoans to check on their neighbors and loved ones and to quickly report any problems with cooling their homes. The city opened six large cooling centers and encouraged people to cool off in libraries, park district buildings and other public locations. 

“The next two days will require that we all look out for one another and provide extra attention and resources for our vulnerable neighbors,” said Alisa Rodriguez, managing deputy commissioner for Chicago’s Department of Family Services and Support. 

The Detroit suburb of Westland opened many of its public buildings as cooling stations Tuesday, including its city hall, fire and police stations, a library and a community center. Residents can get out of the heat, charge cellphones and get bottled water there, the city said. 

South sizzles 

With a noon temperature at 35 C (95 F) and the heat index pushing 43 C (110 F) on Tuesday in Birmingham, Alabama, Cindy Hanger sat outside the food truck where she works. Her face was red and her green T-shirt was soaked with sweat. 

“I am worn out and I’m hot, and I’m ready to go home and have a cold drink,” she said. 

Hanger works outside the small rig taking and filling orders while two relatives work inside cooking. That arrangement is just fine with her on such days. 

“You think it’s hot out here? Imagine in there,” she said. 

The heat was also stressing certain power grids. 

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which serves 10 million people in Tennessee and parts of six surrounding Southern states, said that on Monday, it experienced record power demand for a single day in June. It said it provided 31,311 megawatts of energy at an average temperature of 94 F (34 C) in its region, which broke the previous June high of 31,098 megawatts that was set on June 29, 2012. 

The power provider said similar demand could continue through the end of the week as more hot and humid weather was expected