Category Archives: Asia

EnviroWatch: Outbreaks, pollution, climate, nukes

And a whole lot of Fukushimapoocalypse Now!, this being four years to the day since disaster struck.

First, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the latest measles numbers for the U.S.:

BLOG Measles

Al Jazeera America has some Canadian numbers:

Health officials confirm 119 measles cases in Quebec

  • Children from Lanaudiere, Quebec caught measles at Disneyland and spread the disease to other unvaccinated people

Canadian public health officials said Wednesday that there are 119 confirmed cases of the measles in Lanaudière, Quebec (PDF), a town about 50 miles north of Montreal.

The first case of measles in the region was reported to Lanaudière’s public health agency on Feb. 10, according to the Toronto Sun newspaper, but the infection spread to people who hadn’t been vaccinated for the disease.

The spread of measles to Lanaudière is the result of visits by two families to the Disneyland resorts in California, where they were exposed and brought the measles back with them to Quebec, according to the Montreal Gazette newspaper. The infected children as well as classmates and staff who came into contact with them have been ordered to stay home for two weeks, the newspaper said.

And from Outbreak News Today, good numbers in the Philippines:

Philippines reports 200 measles cases in January

After reporting more than 58,000 suspected and confirmed measles cases in 2014, including 110 fatalities, the Philippines saw only 201 suspected and confirmed cases during the first month of 2015, according to a recently published World Health Organization Measles-Rubella Bulletin.

The 33 lab-confirmed measles cases reported in January is a dramatic decrease compared to the 9,549 confirmed cases in January 2014. There were no deaths related to measles reported in January.

The measles outbreak in the Philippines last year was implicated in imported measles cases and outbreaks in a number of countries including the United States and Canada.

From Reuters, warnings of an outbreak to come:

Mutating H7N9 bird flu may pose pandemic threat, scientists warn

A wave of H7N9 bird flu in China that has spread into people may have the potential to emerge as a pandemic strain in humans, scientists said on Wednesday.

The H7N9 virus, one of several strains of bird flu known to be able to infect humans, has persisted, diversified and spread in chickens across China, the researchers said, fuelling a resurgence of infections in people and posing a wider threat.

“The expansion of genetic diversity and geographical spread indicates that, unless effective control measures are in place, H7N9 could be expected to persist and spread beyond the region,” they said in a study published in the journal Nature.

The Guardian covers a finding:

Homeopathy not effective for treating any condition, Australian report finds

  • Report by top medical research body says ‘people who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments’

Homeopaths believe that illness-causing substances can, in minute doses, treat people who are unwell.

By diluting these substances in water or alcohol, homeopaths claim the resulting mixture retains a “memory” of the original substance that triggers a healing response in the body.

These claims have been widely disproven by multiple studies, but the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has for the first time thoroughly reviewed 225 research papers on homeopathy to come up with its position statement, released on Wednesday.

“Based on the assessment of the evidence of effectiveness of homeopathy, NHMRC concludes that there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective,” the report concluded.

From Medical Daily, a diabetes breakthrough hinted:

Diabetes Treatment May Soon Involve Psychedelic Ayahuasca; Chemical Harmine Triples Beta Cell Count

The role of psychedelics like LSD and magic mushrooms in modern medicine is being uncovered more than ever these days, with their uses ranging from easing anxiety to treating post-traumatic stress disorder. But, as a new study shows, their role isn’t only limited to psychiatric conditions but chronic diseases as well. In this case, a chemical in the Amazonian psychoactive brew ayahuasca may actually promote the growth of insulin-producing beta cells in people with diabetes.

Ayahuasca, which is also the name for the Banisteriopsis caapi vine it’s made from, is commonly associated with the indigenous tribes of the Peruvian Amazon, where shamans brew it with other psychedelic plants to induce an hour’s long trip full of spiritual revelations, often viewed as a reawakening. In the U.S., the drug is classified as a schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which defines it as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” They’re considered “the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.”

The psychoactive chemical that makes ayahuasca a schedule 1 drug is dimethyltryptamine, more commonly known as DMT. Researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City believe that if they can figure out a way to bypass the effects of this chemical, they’ll be able to tap into the effects of another chemical in the ayahuasca plant called harmine. In their new study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, they found this chemical was the only one out of over 100,000 the ability to reproduce insulin-producing beta cells in diabetic mice, thus normalizing glycemic control.

From the San Jose Mercury News, the toxicology of beauty:

Santa Clara County targets ‘toxic trio’ used in nail salons

They’re known as the “toxic trio,” the worst of the bottled bad boys that can likely be found at any given nail salon, and Santa Clara County is hoping to run the gang out of town.

Supervisor Cindy Chavez led the charge to join a handful of local governments that are encouraging salon owners to switch away from products containing chemicals known to cause an array of health disorders, and with unanimous support from her colleagues, a Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Program was enacted on Tuesday.

“What’s key is that wherever people work, they should be safe,” Chavez said. “I’m looking at a group of women of childbearing age, working in shops that sometimes aren’t very well ventilated. This is good for them and good for the customer.”

In the gang of three, there’s the well-known carcinogen formaldehyde and the neurological agent toluene, which causes headaches, dizziness and nausea. Rounding them out is dibutyl phthalate — or DBP — a particular threat to pregnant women that’s been banned in Europe.

Big Agra flexes muscle, via the Associated Press:

INFLUENCE GAME: Meat industry fights new dietary proposal

The meat industry is seeing red.

Meat companies have tried to rehabilitate an image tarnished in recent years by health and environmental concerns. Now the industry is swiftly and aggressively working to discredit a proposal for new dietary guidelines that recommends people eat less red and processed meat.

The proposal last month by a government advisory committee also relegates the health benefits of lean meat to a footnote to the main recommendations.

“We’ve been put in a position over the years to almost be apologizing for our product, we’re not going to do that anymore,” said Barry Carpenter, the president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute.

So why keep whaling anyway?, via JapanToday:

Japan dumps Norwegian whale meat after finding pesticide

Whale meat imported into Japan from Norway has been dumped after tests found it contained up to twice the permitted level of harmful pesticide, the government said Wednesday.

The announcement came after Western environmentalists first exposed the issue, in the latest salvo of a battle that pits Japan against many of its usual allies, such as Australia and New Zealand.

An official at Japan’s health ministry said whale meat was subject to extensive routine tests before and after import. “We conduct strict checking because whales tend to collect contaminants in the environment such as pesticides and heavy metals,” he said.

From the McClatchy Washington Bureau, a call for help for an oceanic critter:

Massive starfish deaths prompt calls for emergency help

With millions of starfish dying all along the West Coast, Washington state Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives say it’s time for Congress to intervene and find out why.

The outbreak, first noticed in the state by rangers in Olympic National Park in June 2013, has hit 20 species of starfish, also known as sea stars.

After getting lesions on their bodies, the sea stars begin curling up and soon lose their legs, shriveling up and disintegrating into mush. Researchers fear the epidemic may be the result of a virus caused by climate change, with the disease showing its fastest progression in warmer ocean waters.

From the Ecologist, collusion coal-escing:

Coal industry setting its own air pollution standards

Coal is Europe’s biggest source of mercury and sulphur pollution, writes Kyla Mandel, killing tens of thousands of people a year. So how come more than half the members appointed by EU governments to set air pollution standards for coal plants are industry representatives?

The UK is one of several European governments allowing energy industry representatives to help draw up the European Union’s (EU) new air pollution standards, a Greenpeace investigation has found.

The EU is currently in the process of drafting new standards to limit pollution from coal-fired power stations. However, this “once-in-a-decade opportunity” has been captured by the coal industry Greenpeace claims and could result in “extremely lax” emission limits.

“Not only would most of the existing plants be allowed to pollute several times more than could be achieved by adopting the best clean technologies available”, the environmental NGO said, “but EU standards would also be significantly weaker than those imposed in other parts of the world, including China.”

From the Los Angeles Times, an admission of failure:

Agencies admit failing to protect water sources from fuel pollution

The agencies charged with overseeing oil production and protecting California’s ever-dwindling water sources from the industry’s pollution all fell down on the job, one state official told a panel of peeved lawmakers Tuesday.

During a testy two-hour oversight hearing, officials from the California Department of Conservation, the department’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources and the state Water Resources Control Board promised senators a top-down overhaul of their regulation of the disposal of oil field wastewater.

But after a handful of recent embarrassing revelations about the division’s history of lackluster regulation, lawmakers questioned how they could trust agency officials to follow through, characterizing longstanding agency practices as corrupt and inept.

After the jump, Koch brothers stonewall senators on climate skeptic funding, odds on the next Golden State megaquake jump, the grass-is-always-greener syndrome sends waterway fertilizer contamination soaring, seeking Dutch help for Olympian pollution in Rio, on to Fukushimapocalypse Now!, first with a warning from Japan’s top nuclear regulator, contaminated soil shipments to interim storage near, tons of ‘hot’ water escape into the soil awaiting an underground ice wall that might not work, yet another proposal to recover fuel that melted through the reactor, one Japanese in five leery of Fukushima-grown food, the government heads back to the reconstruction planning drawing board, questions surround the country’s other aging nuclear plants, the Angela Merkel/Shinzo Abe Fukushima response divide, meanwhile, aftershocks continue, Fukushima’s American-born reactor and plant construction, while the nation’s food supply was protected after the disaster, and Shinzo Abe’s pro-nuclear government holds applications to restart 21 plants. . . Continue reading

If to err is human, why, then, nuclear power?

From the Guardian, on the fourth anniversary of catastrophe:

Fukushima, Japan four years on: ‘Nuclear power and humans cannot co-exist’

Program notes:

On 11 March 2011, the strongest earthquake in Japan’s history caused a giant tsunami that killed more than 18,000 people along the country’s north-east coast.

EbolaWatch: Predictions, politics, and medicines

We begin with a prediction, via the New York Times:

Ebola Outbreak Could Be Ended by Summer, U.N. Says

The Ebola outbreak that has claimed nearly 10,000 lives over the past 15 months could be halted by the summer, but only if international financial support is sustained, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday.

“This crisis can be stopped completely,” Dr. Bruce Aylward, who is leading the organization’s response to the epidemic, told reporters in Geneva. “It should be possible to stop transmission by the middle of the year.”

He cautioned, however, that “there’s a need for reinvestment and reinvigoration of the program if we are to get this finished.”

More from the World Health Organization:

WHO and World Food Programme join forces to reach zero Ebola cases

WHO and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) are combining their forces in a new partnership in the Ebola-affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The arrangement combines the logistics strength of WFP with WHO’s public health expertise to help get the current Ebola outbreak down to zero cases in West Africa. The platform also establishes an alert and response infrastructure for future crises.

“This partnership increases both agencies’ abilities to reach, monitor and respond to the needs of all people touched by Ebola,” says Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. “It helps us deploy and maintain technical teams with expertise in infection prevention and control, epidemiology, and contact tracing, enabling dedicated health workers in the deep field to do their best work. The partnership is also a learning opportunity for the future, informing our capacities to launch joint operations during large scale emergencies.”

“Over the past seven months, partnerships have been crucial in fighting this devastating outbreak. WFP has worked with our partners to respond to communities’ most basic needs — making sure food is reaching everywhere that the Ebola virus has hit.

Our logistical support to WHO and the wider humanitarian community has enabled affected people to receive the urgent care and support they need,” says WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin. “We are making progress, however we must remain vigilant. The Ebola crisis will not end until we identify, reach and successfully treat every last case. Recognizing this goal, the WHO-WFP partnership – a joint technical and operational force – will continue providing the support required to achieve zero cases.”

From the Los Angeles Times, the downside to the upside:

New Ebola cases are declining: Why that’s bad news for a cure

After killing at least 9,936 people and infecting more than 24,202, the Ebola epidemic appears to be running out of steam. And for some medical researchers, this hard-won progress poses a problem.

The Ebola virus has retreated so dramatically in recent months that it may be too late to determine the effectiveness of the many experimental drugs and vaccines that have been rushed into production.

Unless the outbreak explodes again, potential cures such as ZMapp can’t be given to enough patients to accurately determine their effect. Nor is the virus infecting enough people to let researchers test the efficacy of two potential vaccines that are being given to about 18,000 health and emergency workers in Liberia.

Even proposals to treat patients by transfusing into them blood serum from Ebola survivors have become impossible to test with scientific rigor.

Agence France-Presse covers a vaccine trial:

Ebola: first vaccine trials underway in Guinea

Program notes:

Tests of an anti-Ebola vaccine are underway in Guinea on volunteers to assess its effectiveness before being put on the market.

And a new drug trial, via Science:

New Ebola drug trial starts in Sierra Leone

Researchers in Sierra Leone today started a new phase II trial of an experimental drug in Ebola patients. The first participant received an injection of the therapeutic, called TKM-Ebola, this morning at an Ebola treatment unit in Kerry Town. The trial may expand to other sites; the study team hopes to have an answer fast so that it can either move on to another drug or start a phase III study of TKM-Ebola.

Produced by Tekmira Pharmaceuticals in Burnaby, Canada, TKM-Ebola is made of synthetic, small interfering RNAs packaged into lipid nanoparticles. The RNAs target three of Ebola’s seven genes, blocking the virus’s replication. TKM-Ebola has been shown to work well in monkeys; the efficacy trial in humans is only starting now because there was not enough of the drug available earlier. Also, the RNAs have been adapted to the strain circulating at the moment.

The study does not have a placebo arm; all patients at the trial site are eligible for the drug, and researchers hope to determine whether it works by comparing them with patients treated elsewhere.

From the Guardian, another European afflicted:

UK military health worker tests positive for Ebola in Sierra Leone

  • Public Health England confirms case but will not say where the individual was working, as discussions are under way about whether to fly them to Britain

A UK military healthcare worker has tested positive for Ebola in Sierra Leone, Public Health England has confirmed. No details about the individual have been released.

Discussions are now under way as to whether to fly the healthcare worker back to the UK for treatment in the specialist unit at the Royal Free hospital in London. Two healthcare volunteers, Will Pooley and Pauline Cafferkey, were both repatriated and successfully treated at the Royal Free.

PHE will not say where the latest healthcare worker to be infected was working, but it is likely to have been in the military-run Ebola unit, which is situated in the grounds of the Kerry Town treatment centre run by Save the Children. It was at Kerry Town that Cafferkey was infected, probably during the process of taking off her face mask, which was of a different design to that worn by the rest of the volunteers.

On to Sierra Leone, first with an accountability fund, via the Sierra Leone Concord Times:

US$178,000 project to enhance citizens’ trust in Ebola response

A consortium of civil society organisations has been formed to revive citizens’ trust and confidence in the governance and management of the emergency and recovery phase of the Ebola response.

With support from Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), the organizations – Campaign for Good Governance, Center for Accountability and Rule of Law, Center for the Coordination of Youth Activities, Democracy Sierra Leone, ActionAid Sierra Leone, Institute for Governance Reform, and Budget Advocacy Network – last Friday (6 March) unveiled a project titled: ‘Enhancing Trust between Citizens and Government in Sierra Leone’s Ebola Response’, worth US$178,300.

According to ActionAid’s Governance Advisor, Beatrice Serry, the overall purpose of the project is to strengthen state-citizens relationship through promoting transparency and accountability in the allocation and use of Ebola resources.

The Christian Science Monitor covers a change in direction:

As Ebola threat abates, Sierra Leone turns attention to survivors

  • Having lost family members themselves, Ebola survivors often face discrimination when they return to their communities. They also suffer from unexpected health side-effects from the virus.

Since the start of the outbreak, Sierra Leone has had 8,353 confirmed cases of Ebola, according to the National Ebola Response Center. Of these, 3,086 individuals, or 37 percent, survived, yet now face social discrimination, neglect, and possible life-long health problems.

The government is now turning its attention towards this population and their needs, while it continues to work towards zero new Ebola cases. There is no specific plan in place, but the rollout of support groups and free access for survivors to healthcare could be key indicators of how well the country can rebound from the disease.

The initial government support comes in the form of reintegration packages, worth $200, that provide each survivor with items like food, a mattress, and condoms. It provides a first step for many who have lost everything in a nation that barely a decade ago emerged from a decades-long civil war.

From the Sierra Leone Concord Times again, pledging allegiance:

President Koroma vows to support Chinese policies

While thanking the Chinese government and people for the provision of a fixed level 3 bio-safety laboratory which he described as a great opportunity in the promotion of the health sector, President Ernest Bai Koroma has vowed to support the policies of China in Sierra Leone.

President Koroma noted that, “Our journey with China started 40 years ago and every step has seen evidence of support in development. The journey has been long but very interesting and every step shows significant milestone.”

He said the relationship between China and Sierra Leone was put to test during the outbreak of the Ebola virus disease, noting that Beijing responded promptly and adequately with the provision of financial, logistics and personnel support to fight the scourge.

On to Liberia, first with a commemoration from the Associated Press:

Liberia holds church service for Ebola victims

Liberians held a church service Wednesday for Ebola victims to mark the country’s 99th National Decoration Day, a holiday normally set aside for people to clean up and re-decorate the graves of their lost relatives.

More than 4,100 people have died in in Liberia since the outbreak began about a year ago in West Africa. The vast majority of those victims were cremated, so the gathering at a Presbyterian church in the capital, Monrovia, was held to remember those without graves.

Nearly 20 barrels of ashes from about 3,000 victims will eventually be buried on a plot bought by the government as a cemetery for Ebola victims. Some bodies of suspected victims were buried Wednesday in a new grave site on the outskirts of Monrovia.

And a concession, via the New York Times:

Liberian Leader Concedes Errors in Response to Ebola

The president of Liberia acknowledged on Wednesday that she had erred in ordering a tough security crackdown at the height of the Ebola crisis last year, describing the deadly virus as an “unknown enemy” that had frightened her.

The president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel peace laureate, said that in hindsight, her deployments of troops and police officers to seal off a vast neighborhood in her nation’s capital — which set off skirmishes with residents, fueled distrust of the government and led to the death of a teenager — had been counterproductive.

“It did not take long to know that did not work,” she said in an interview with the The New York Times Editorial Board. “It created more tension in the society.”

InSecurityWatch: Cops, crime, war, terror, history

We begin with cops, first with the Christian Science Monitor:

From Wisconsin to Georgia, police shooting investigations are changing

In the past three days, three unarmed black men in three cities were shot by police. In two out of three cases, the shootings will be examined by an outside investigator as jurisdictions try to instil greater accountability.

The decision by police in Dekalb County, Ga., to hand an investigation into the officer-related shooting of an unarmed, and naked, black man to the state bureau of investigation is part of a dramatic re-think, amid continuing street protests, of how to adjudicate cases where unarmed civilians die at the hands of US police officers.

Dekalb County Police Chief Cedric Alexander tied the decision to investigate the death of Air Force veteran and aspiring R&B singer Anthony Hill to a broader movement toward having independent investigators handle officer-involved shootings, especially in cases where unarmed black men are killed.

The killing of Mr. Hill became the third shooting of an unarmed black man in a span of three days across America. The shootings in Aurora, Colo., Madison, Wisc., and Chamblee, Ga., have put police on guard against another wave of public backlash like the one that swept the US last year in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

More from the New York Times:

Georgia Investigators Look Into Police Shooting of Naked, Unarmed Man

A witness to the fatal police shooting of a naked, unarmed man here said Tuesday that the man had approached the officer with his hands in the air, prompting the frightened officer to shoot at close range with a handgun.

The witness, Pedro Castillo, 43, is a maintenance man at the Heights at Chamblee, the apartment complex northeast of Atlanta where Anthony Hill, 27, was shot and killed Monday afternoon. Mr. Castillo, speaking Spanish, said that Mr. Hill, a black man, had seemed out of sorts. He was naked and on all fours in the parking lot when the police officer, who is white, arrived in his squad car, parking a good distance away. Mr. Castillo said.

When Mr. Hill saw the officer, Mr. Castillo said, he stood up and moved toward him with his hands raised, and the officer, obviously frightened, yelled for him to stop. Mr. Castillo said that he had not seen a scuffle, but that he did see the officer pull out the handgun and shoot Mr. Hill.

Ted Rall of the Los Angeles Times ponders another police shooting of an unarmed man in his city:


And from Al Jazeera America, revenge by hacking:

Cyber attack hits Madison police department after shooting of unarmed teen

  • Anonymous, the loose network of hackers, has taken credit for the attack on the Madison PD’s computer systems

Cyber attackers have compromised computer systems at the Madison Police Department in retaliation for the police shooting death of a 19-year-old unarmed black man in the Wisconsin capital city, a police spokesman said Tuesday.

The cyber attack appears to be continuing and could be hitting other city and county websites beyond the police department, said police spokesman Joel DeSpain.

The attack, which began Monday afternoon, was thought to be initiated by Anonymous, an international network of activist computer hackers, in response to the fatal shooting of Tony Robinson by a white Madison police officer on Friday.

On to Ferguson with CNN and a resignation:

Judge resigns, Ferguson cases moved after scathing DOJ report

Ferguson’s municipal judge has resigned and the city’s court cases are getting moved after the U.S. Justice Department said the court discriminated against African-Americans.

“To help restore public trust and confidence in the Ferguson municipal court division, the Supreme Court of Missouri today transferred Judge Roy L. Richter of the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, to the St. Louis County Circuit Court, where he will be assigned to hear all of Ferguson’s pending and future municipal division cases,” the Supreme Court said in a statement Monday.

“Extraordinary action is warranted in Ferguson, but the court also is examining reforms that are needed on a statewide basis,” Chief Justice Mary R. Russell said in the statement.

The announcement came the same day Municipal Court Judge Ronald Brockmeyer resigned as Ferguson’s judge.

More from the Guardian:

Ferguson judge behind aggressive fines policy resigns as city’s court system seized

  • Ronald J Brockmeyer, accused in a scathing report of aggressively using the municipal court to raise revenue for the city, has stepped down

A scathing report by the Department of Justice last week concluded that Ferguson’s police and court system was blighted by racial bias. Investigators accused Brockmeyer and his court officials of aggressively using the municipal court to raise revenue for the city. The policy is blamed by many for damaging relations between the city’s overwhelmingly white authorities and residents, two-thirds of whom are African American.

Brockmeyer, 70, was singled out by investigators as a driving force behind Ferguson’s strategy of using its municipal court to generate revenues aggressively. Investigators found that Brockmeyer had boasted of creating a range of new court fines, “many of which are widely considered abusive and may be unlawful”.

Ferguson is accused in a class-action federal lawsuit, brought by public defenders and legal non-profits, of imprisoning impoverished residents in the city jail for being unable to pay fines of a few hundred dollars for minor offences. While jailing residents, Brockmeyer owes more than $172,000 in unpaid taxes to the US government, the Guardian disclosed last week. A staff member at Brockmeyer’s law offices in St Charles County did not return a call seeking comment.

And the New York Times covers another quitter:

Ferguson City Manager Cited in Justice Department Report Resigns

The city manager of Ferguson, whom a Department of Justice report blamed for overseeing the financially driven policies that led to widespread discrimination and questionable conduct by the police and the courts here, has agreed to resign. The announcement came during a City Council meeting on Tuesday, about a week after the scathing Justice Department report was released.

The manager, John Shaw, 39, had held the post since 2007. As Ferguson’s chief executive, he was the city’s most powerful official.

Mr. Shaw, who has not spoken publicly since the report was issued, offered a staunch defense in a page-long letter to the community that city officials distributed during the Council meeting.

From the Thomson Reuters Foundation, tackling gender-based murder:

Brazil passes femicide law to tackle rise in gender killings

Brazil, where a woman is killed every two hours, is imposing tougher punishments on those who murder women and girls, as part of a government bid to stem a rise in gender killings.

President Dilma Rousseff said the new law gave a legal definition to the crime of femicide – the killing of a woman by a man because of her gender – and set out jail sentences of 12 to 30 years for convicted offenders.

The law also includes longer jail terms for crimes committed against pregnant women, girls under 14, women over 60 and people with disabilities.

From Der Spiegel, Berlin sounds an alarm over Washington war-mongering:

Breedlove’s Bellicosity: Berlin Alarmed by Aggressive NATO Stance on Ukraine

  • US President Obama supports Chancellor Merkel’s efforts at finding a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis. But hawks in Washington seem determined to torpedo Berlin’s approach. And NATO’s top commander in Europe hasn’t been helping either.

It was quiet in eastern Ukraine last Wednesday. Indeed, it was another quiet day in an extended stretch of relative calm. The battles between the Ukrainian army and the pro-Russian separatists had largely stopped and heavy weaponry was being withdrawn. The Minsk cease-fire wasn’t holding perfectly, but it was holding.

On that same day, General Philip Breedlove, the top NATO commander in Europe, stepped before the press in Washington. Putin, the 59-year-old said, had once again “upped the ante” in eastern Ukraine — with “well over a thousand combat vehicles, Russian combat forces, some of their most sophisticated air defense, battalions of artillery” having been sent to the Donbass. “What is clear,” Breedlove said, “is that right now, it is not getting better. It is getting worse every day.”

German leaders in Berlin were stunned. They didn’t understand what Breedlove was talking about. And it wasn’t the first time. Once again, the German government, supported by intelligence gathered by the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, did not share the view of NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).

A response to other Washington war-mongering, via the Los Angeles Times:

Iran leader says GOP senators’ letter implies U.S. ‘not trustworthy’

Iran’s foreign minister on Tuesday said that a letter from 47 Republican senators warning that any agreement on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program must receive congressional approval suggests that the U.S. is “not trustworthy.”

The open letter released Monday also warned Iran’s leaders that the next U.S. president could revoke a deal reached with President Obama.

“This kind of communication is unprecedented and undiplomatic,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said, according to a state-run television website. “In fact it implies that the United States is not trustworthy.”

More from the Guardian:

Senate Democrats denounce Republican letter to Iran as call for war

  • Republicans’ attempt to ‘sabotage’ negotiations between western nations and Iran could escalate into military response, senators say

Prominent Senate Democrats have accused their Republican rivals of wanting to start a war with Iran on Tuesday, a day after conservative senators penned an open letter to Tehran.

Senators Bernie Sanders and Barbara Boxer said that the 47 signatories to the letter are trying to “sabotage” talks between western powers and Iran. Boxer described the Republicans’ letter as “bizarre, inappropriate” and a “desperate ploy to scuttle a comprehensive agreement” that she said is “in the best interests of the United States, Israel and the world”.

“It appears that for most of my Republican colleagues in the Senate, a war in Afghanistan and a war in Iraq were not enough,” said Sanders, who is an independent but caucuses with the Democratic Party, in a statement. “They now apparently want a war in Iran as well.” The Vermont senator called the letter “an outrage”.

After the jump, a Wikimedia suit targets the NSA, the curious case of the rich Spanish cop, old school terror thwarted in the Emerald Isle, neo-nazis busted in an Austrian xenophobic protest, anger follows a German mayor’s resignation under neo-nazi pressure, Sweden ends a lucrative Saudi arms trade, more French arrests of men linked to a slain terrorist, Spain claims a win over an Islamist attack cell, Iraq pushes ISIS back in Tikrit, The ten-year-old soldiers of ISIS, and an ISIS play in Libya facilitated by chaos, an ISIS announcement of more gay men executed, and a child executes an alleged spy, Chinese ISIS recruits head home to Xinjiang, the curious state of that ISIS/Boko Haram hookup, the Boko Haram campaign heats up with stronger foes and a new Nigeria raid, the CIA’s stealthy spookery to crack the iPhone, the man who makes Edward Snowden’s encryption tool, new software enables capture of Facebook login sites, cell phone records track and keep your every move, Spain’s ubiquitous downloading pirates, a rape documentary banned in India gets a gilded U.S. debut, a free speech protest meets a brutal Myanmar crackdown, China prepares a foreign NGO crackdown, Beijing decries Japanese media Nanjing Massacre revisionism, On to Tokyo and a Shinzo Abe advisor’s plea for a prime ministerial acknowledgment of Japanese WWII aggression, Japan’s military popularity hits an all-time high, and Angela Merkel tells Abe to get straight with South Korea on Comfort Women. . . Continue reading

EnviroWatch: Health, toxins, water, and nukes

We begin with veggie woes, via Medical Daily:

Salmonella Food Poisoning Most Common In Vegetables, Not Meat

We tend to be wary when it comes to the meat or dairy products in our refrigerator, but rarely err on the side of caution when it comes to our vegetables. A report issued by the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration (IFSAC), a partnership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has revealed the top sources of foodborne illnesses, and it appears we have to be more vigilant in the vegetable aisle at the supermarket.

According to the CDC, 48 million people — or one out of every six Americans — suffer from a foodborne illness each year. An additional 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. Estimating illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths caused by foodborne illnesses remains an important health practice. This is the first time all three federal agencies have combined data on food safety.

IFSAC researchers focused on the four most common and severe pathogens, including E.coli O157, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Listeria. These four pathogens result in 1.9 million cases of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. each year. Data included around 1,000 foodborne illness outbreaks that occurred between 1998 and 2012. “The pathogens were chosen because of the frequency or severity of the illnesses they cause, and because targeted interventions can have a significant impact in reducing them,” the FDA said in a statement.

Newswise covers a lingering toxic legacy:

Exposure to Endocrine Disruptors during Pregnancy Affects the Brain Two Generations Later

Prenatal exposure to low doses of the environmental contaminants polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, change the developing brain in an area involved in metabolism, and some effects are apparent even two generations later, a new study finds. Performed in rats, the research was presented Friday at the Endocrine Society’s 97th annual meeting in San Diego.

Hereditary effects included increased body weight, but only in descendants of females—and not males—exposed to PCBs in the womb, said study co-author Andrea Gore, PhD, professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

“These endocrine-disrupting chemicals affect the developing brain differently in males and females,” Gore said.

From EcoWatch, what the frack?!?!:

Analysis of California’s Fracking Wastewater Reveals a Slew of Toxic Chemicals Linked to Cancer and Other Illnesses

California is currently the only state that requires chemical testing of fracking wastewater and public disclosure of the findings. That’s good. What’s not so good is what the testing and disclosure reveal.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has completed an analysis of data released by the state during the first year of new reporting requirements. It found that the high levels of the carcinogen benzene in California’s fracking wastewater isn’t the only thing Californians have to worry about from the state’s extensive oil and gas fracking operations and the injection of chemical-laced wastewater back into the ground once drilling is completed.

The study, Toxic Stew: What’s in Fracking Wasterwater, revealed the presence of hundreds of chemicals, including many linked to cancer, nervous system damage and reproductive disorders. Among the chemicals found in up to 50 percent of the samples were chromium-6, lead and arsenic, all linked to cancer and/or reproductive damage. The samples also contained thousands of times more radioactive radium than the goals set by the state, along with high levels of nitrate and chloride ions. And an another analysis last month by the Center for Biological Diversity found that 98 percent of the fracking wastewater samples tested exceeded federal and state water safety levels for benzene.

“We have long suspected that California’s fracking wastewater was full of harmful chemicals, and the first publicly available data not only confirms our suspicions but reveals just how toxic this wastewater is,” said EWG senior scientist Tasha Stoiber, the report’s co-author.

From the Houston Chronicle, cellular cellulite:

Your cell phone could be making you fat — but probably not in the way you think

Researchers at the University of Houston have found a possible link between use of electronic devices and obesity. But it’s not that our beloved devices keep us glued to their screens, thereby avoiding exercise.

Instead, the fault may lie with flame retardants that keep cellphones and computer tablets from overheating, according to findings by the University of Houston’s Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling.

Research on two common flame retardants, conducted on sibling zebra fish, found that the fish exposed to the compounds became heavier and longer, compared with their untreated brothers and sisters in the control group, the university said.

The Los Angeles Times covers a legislator’s plea:

State Senate leader urges regulators to close Exide plant in Vernon

California’s senate leader is demanding that state regulators immediately close and begin cleaning up an embattled Vernon battery recycling plant that has spewed lead and arsenic into surrounding neighborhoods over decades of operation.

In a letter sent Friday, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) urged the state Department of Toxic Substances Control “in the strongest terms” to deny a full permit to Exide Technologies.

The state has allowed the plant — which has been idle since March 2014 because it could not comply with air quality rules — to operate for more than three decades under “interim status.” The toxic substances department is now deciding whether to issue Exide a full permit. A new state law requires the department to either grant the company a permit or shut the facility down by the end of the year. Officials expect a decision within a few months.

From Newswise, more psychedelic benefits demonstrated:

Psychedelic Drug Use Could Reduce Psychological Distress, Suicidal Thinking

U.S. adults with a history of using some nonaddictive psychedelic drugs had reduced likelihood of psychological distress and suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts, according to data from a nationwide survey

While these psychedelic drugs are illegal, a Johns Hopkins researcher and study author recommends reconsidering their status, as they may be useful in treating depression

Some people have serious adverse reactions to these drugs, which may not stand out in the survey data because they are less numerous than positive outcomes

A history of psychedelic drug use is associated with less psychological distress and fewer suicidal thoughts, planning and attempts, according to new research from Johns Hopkins and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

In a national survey of over 190,000 U.S. adults, lifetime use of certain psychedelic drugs was associated with a 19 percent reduced likelihood of psychological distress within the past month, a 14 percent reduced likelihood of suicidal thinking within the past year, a 29 percent reduced likelihood of suicide planning within the past year and a 36 percent reduced likelihood of attempting suicide within the past year. These results were published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

The findings suggest that some nonaddictive psychedelic drugs, while illegal, may hold promise for depression, and that these psychedelics’ highly restricted legal status should be reconsidered to facilitate scientific studies, says study author Matthew W. Johnson, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins.

From the University of California, a sweet deal — or not:

‘Sugar Papers’ reveal industry role in 1970s dental program

A newly discovered cache of industry documents reveals that the sugar industry worked closely with the National Institutes of Health in the 1960s and ‘70s to develop a federal research program focused on approaches other than sugar reduction to prevent tooth decay in American children.

An analysis of those papers by researchers at UC San Francisco appears March 10, 2015 in the open-source scientific journal, PLoS Medicine.

The archive of 319 industry documents, which were uncovered in a public collection at the University of Illinois, revealed that a sugar industry trade organization representing 30 international members had accepted the fact that sugar caused tooth decay as early as 1950, and adopted a strategy aimed at identifying alternative approaches to reducing tooth decay.

Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health had come to the conclusion in 1969 that focusing on reducing consumption of sucrose, “while theoretically possible,” was not practical as a public health measure.

Thus aligned, the sugar industry trade organization and the NIH worked in parallel and ultimately together on developing alternative research approaches, with a substantial portion of the trade organization’s own research priorities — 78 percent — directly incorporated into the 1971 National Caries Program’s first request for research proposals from scientists.

After the jump, a bureaucratic stumbling block to drought crisis handling, woes ahead for the Great Barrier Reef, Brazil’s Amazonian rainforest logging surges ahead, polluted Olympic waters in Brazil, on to Fukushimapocalypse Now!, first with an anniversary, lessons still unlearned, Fukushima’s lessons for the United States, and yet another major leak reported. . . Continue reading

EbolaWatch: Numbers, Britain, responses, mines

We begin with the latest case counts, via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

BLOG Ebola

Next, from the World Health Organization, Old Blighty nears a clearance:

United Kingdom is declared free of Ebola virus disease

WHO commends the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on its diligence in containing the transmission of Ebola virus disease (EVD). According to WHO guidelines, the United Kingdom is now free of Ebola virus disease.

On 28 December 2014, a health-care worker returned to Glasgow in the United Kingdom after volunteering at an Ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone. The health-care worker, who had displayed no symptoms of EVD during the journey, developed a fever and myalgia on 29 December and was placed in strict isolation at the specialist Brownlee Unit for Infectious Diseases on the Gartnavel Hospital campus.

On the afternoon of 29 December 2014, laboratory testing using reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) confirmed that the health-care worker had EVD. WHO was notified of the case. The patient was transferred for treatment in isolation at the Royal Free hospital in London on 30 December 2014 and remained there until fully recovered.

All passengers who travelled on the same flights as the health-care worker from Freetown, Sierra Leone, to Casablanca, Morocco, and then to London Heathrow and Glasgow were contacted and monitored for any symptoms of EVD for 21 days. By 18 January, they all had completed the 21-day follow-up period without developing EVD.

From SciDev.Net, insurance:

View on Private Sector: Insurance for the next Ebola

As a result of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim has proposed an insurance policy to cover regional and worldwide disease outbreaks. According to the BBC, he said this could work like fire insurance: “The more you are prepared for a fire, like having several smoke detectors, the lower the premium you pay.” The implication is that the insurance market could be a force that drives countries to build up their health infrastructure.

Another organisation separately considering epidemic insurance is African Risk Capacity (ARC), a special agency of the African Union that helps member states plan for and respond to extreme weather. In 2013, the organisation established ARC Insurance Company, a firm that offers insurance against drought, and soon floods and cyclones, to 25 AU member states. Five countries have taken up the offer, with seven more planning to join them in May. The firm is a mutual, so any profits are reinvested in providing its service.

In January, the AU asked ARC to look into also insuring against epidemics such as Ebola. ARC programme director Joanna Syroka tells me she thinks it will be possible to offer such insurance schemes to one or two member states by 2017.

And from the Associated Press, a reassessment:

WHO creates independent panel to assess its Ebola response

The World Health Organization says it has created a panel of independent experts to assess its response to the biggest-ever Ebola outbreak in history.

In a statement Tuesday, the U.N. health agency said the panel was commissioned after a resolution passed by its executive board. The panel will be chaired by Barbara Stocking, a former chief executive of Oxfam GB. A preliminary report is due in May.

WHO’s handling of the Ebola outbreak that has killed over 9,900 people in West Africa has been heavily criticized. WHO admitted in an internal draft report that it fumbled early attempts to curb the outbreak, blaming incompetent staff and a lack of real-time information. Others also criticized WHO for not declaring an international health emergency until nearly 1,000 people had died.

On to Sierra Leone and a call for diversity from the Guardian:

Ebola crisis could force Sierra Leone to diversify away from mining

  • Crisis in mining industry could bring economic benefits and opportunities for other sectors and place greater emphasis on corporate social responsibility

As Sierra Leone looks to rebuild after the Ebola epidemic, it may be forced to diversify from a mining-heavy economic base. Falling iron ore prices and the effects of Ebola on the industry signal the need for change, according to the chairman of the Chamber of Mines, who said the diversification could be beneficial.

John Bonoh Sisay said mining companies will also have to change the way they interact with local people, placing a greater emphasis on supporting healthcare systems as part of corporate social responsibility.

“In the long term, it’s not a bad thing to mature the economy in that way. There are other opportunities especially in agriculture, which, from a stability point of view, really does create a lot of jobs very quickly [and the] skills base is minimal,” said Sisay, who is also chief executive officer of Sierra Rutile, a mineral sands producer with a rutile mine in the south-west.

Prices for iron ore have dropped as demand in China has slumped, and amid a global glut, causing a shakeup in Sierra Leone’s mining industry, which has also been battered by costs associated with the outbreak of Ebola.

And from StarAfrica, a handoff:

China hands over Ebola lab to S/Leone govt

Chinese has officially handed over a newly constructed EVD BSL 3 laboratory to the government of Sierra Leone. The lab was installed and tested in January and the Sierra Leone government said in a statement on Tuesday that the project took six months to complete.

The head of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control team, Professor Dong, took the Sierra Leonean leader on an inspection tour of the facility before the official handing over ceremony which took place at the China-Sierra Leone Friendship Biological Safety Lab at Jui, a few km outside the capital, Freetown.

Chinese Ambassador to Sierra Leone, Zhao Yanbo, disclosed at the ceremony plans to send Sierra Leoneans working with the China CDC team to Beijing to improve on their capacity in handling viral haemorrhagic fevers.

InSecurityWatch: Divisions, warfare, militarism

We begin with a real source of InSecurity, via the Independent:

Britain’s divided decade: the rich are 64% richer than before the recession, while the poor are 57% poorer

The gap between richest and poorest has dramatically widened in the past decade as wealthy households paid off their debts and piled up savings following the financial crisis, a report warns today.

By contrast, the worst-off families are far less financially secure than before the recession triggered by the near- collapse of several major banks. They have an average of less than a week’s pay set aside and are more often in the red.

Younger workers have fallen behind older people while homeowners – particularly those who have paid off their mortgages – have become increasingly affluent compared with their neighbours who are paying rent.

From the New York Times, more real InSecurity:

U.N. Finds ‘Alarmingly High’ Levels of Violence Against Women

The evidence is ubiquitous. The gang rape of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi sets off an unusual burst of national outrage in India. In South Sudan, women are assaulted by both sides in the civil war. In Iraq, jihadists enslave women for sex. And American colleges face mounting scrutiny about campus rape.

Despite the many gains women have made in education, health and even political power in the course of a generation, violence against women and girls worldwide “persists at alarmingly high levels,” according to a United Nations analysis that the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is scheduled to present to the General Assembly on Monday.

About 35 percent of women worldwide — more than one in three — said they had experienced physical violence in their lifetime, the report finds. One in 10 girls under the age of 18 was forced to have sex, it says.

From the Guardian, Netanyahu’s acolytes:

Republicans threaten Iran nuclear deal may not survive Obama tenure

  • Letter from 47 senators says nuclear accord needs congressional backing to last
  • White House accuses Republicans of ‘rush to war’ with Iran

Forty-seven Republican senators warned on Monday that any agreement the Obama administration strikes with Iran to limit Tehran’s nuclear programme may be short-lived unless Congress approves the deal. The White House accused the Republicans of advocating a “rush to war”.

In an open letter to Iranian leaders, freshman Senator Tom Cotton and 46 other Republicans said that without congressional approval any deal between Iran and the US would be merely an agreement between President Barack Obama and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen,” they wrote, “and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”

From StarAfrica, plumbers summoned:

S/Africa probes leaking of spy docs to Al Jazeera

South Africa’s State Security Agency (SSA) has launched a full investigation into the leaking of documents detailing its operations following the recent leakage of sensitive documents to the Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV news network, APA learnt on Sunday.

“A full investigation has been launched into the purported leakage, its veracity and verification will be handled in terms of the protocols governing the management of classified information,” State Security Minister David Mahlobo said.

The probe follows the web of dealings between the South African spy agency and several foreign agencies which have been revealed through hundreds of documents leaked to Al Jazeera, which broadcast the items last week.

Among other issues the documents, dated from 2006 to 2012, included an alleged assassination plot against African Union (AU) Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Iran’s efforts to use Pretoria to work around its international sanctions imposed by Western powers and the flawed capabilities of the country’s intelligence, according to the Al Jazeera, which did not reveal who leaked the documents to it.

From Deutsche Welle, did you Hope™ for this Change™?:

US deploying 3,000 troops to the Baltics

  • The US announced it is deploying 3000 troops to the Baltics to take part in military exercises over the next three months. The Baltic states and other eastern European nations are wary of renewed Russian aggression.

The United States is sending 3,000 troops to the Baltic states to partake in joint military exercises with NATO partners in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania over the next three months, US defense officials announced Monday.

The mission, part of “Operation Atlantic Resolve” is designed to reassure NATO allies concerned over renewed Russian aggression amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

Around 750 US Army tanks, fighting vehicles and other military equipment arrived in Latvia Monday, and US ground troops are expected to begin arriving next week, US Army Col. Steve Warren told reporters.

According to a US military source speaking on condition of anonymity, the military equipment will remain in the Baltics even after the US troops return to base.

From the Guardian, suppression:

Saudi Arabia accused of blocking criticism of human rights record

  • Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallström, has said the kingdom stopped her addressing an Arab League meeting

Sweden’s foreign minister has reportedly accused Saudi Arabia of blocking her speech at an Arab League meeting to stop her highlighting human rights cases such as the imprisonment of a blogger for insulting Islam.

Speaking in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, on Monday, Margot Wallström told the TT news agency: “The explanation we have been given is that Sweden has highlighted the situation for democracy and human rights and that is why they do not want me to speak.

“It’s a shame that a country has blocked my participation.”

An Arab diplomat confirmed to Agence France-Presse that Riyadh had stopped her making the speech.

A sharp Saudi response to flogging condemnation, via the Independent:

Raif Badawi: Saudi Arabia accuses western media of attacking its sovereignty

Saudi Arabia has finally responded to the international outcry over the treatment of jailed blogger Raif Badawi, accusing the western media of launching an unjustified attack on its sovereignty under the “pretext of human rights”.

In its first official statement on the case, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it would not allow outside interference with Saudi Arabia’s judicial system and that pressure from the media and human rights groups would have no impact on his punishment.

Mr Badawi has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes – of which so far only 50 have been carried out – for using his liberal blog to criticise Saudi Arabia’s clerics. Judges in the country’s criminal court want him to undergo a retrial for apostasy, which carries the death sentence.

From the Guardian, Indian free speech suppression:

Activist arrested for showing rape documentary in Indian village

  • Ketan Dixit used borrowed equipment and bedsheets to screen India’s Daughter, which has been banned by the authorities, to 60 people

A young activist who defied the Indian government’s ban on the documentary India’s Daughter and screened the film for a village audience near the northern city of Agra has been apprehended by police.

Ketan Dixit was quoted on Monday as saying he was ready to “face any action that was initiated” after showing the documentary on Sunday on a makeshift screen made of white bedsheets in the compound of a journalist’s family home in Roopdhanu, around 30km from the Taj Mahal.

Around 60 men, women and children watched the film, which has been the subject of furious controversy since the Indian authorities’ decision to pull it from the air last week. The film, by British documentary-maker Leslee Udwin, is about the fatal gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in December 2012.

From BBC News, a German mayor resigns facing xenophobic agitation:

German Mayor Markus Nierth resigns over NPD protest fears

A village mayor in eastern Germany has resigned after threats to march on his house from far-right protesters angry about plans to house asylum seekers.

Markus Nierth, who was honorary mayor of Troeglitz in Saxony-Anhalt, south of Berlin, said he quit because local authorities refused to ban the march. He said he would not expose his family to “racist and hate-filled chants”.

Saxony-Anhalt’s Interior Ministry said it opposed “all forms of xenophobia and racism’‘.

After the jump, Netanyahu adopts a harder line as a former spy boss declares him the country’s biggest threat, on to the ISIS war, first with advances in the battle for Tikrit, and fears of retribution if ISIS withdraws, Germany mulls an Islamist military checkup, on to Africa and an advance on Boko Haram, Islamist oil field kidnapping in Libya, Pakistan extends its nuclear missile reach to all of India, on to Japan as Shinzo Abe pushes for rapid legislative realization of his remilitarization agenda, Merkel urges Abe to hold to the traditional apology for World War II actions, and Tokyo issues a testy response, and Abe wins metadata enabling legislation. . . Continue reading