Archive for September 2019

The Fight for Cleaner Drinking Water

Posted by NYPIRG on September 30, 2019 at 8:51 am
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Earlier this summer, the state Health Department issued proposed drinking water standards for certain types of contaminants that have been found in the drinking water supplies serving millions of New Yorkers.

The standards focused on three chemical threats: 1,4-dioxane, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).   PFOA and PFOS endanger public health at very low levels of exposure, resulting in developmental effects to fetuses, thyroid disorders, ulcerative colitis, high-cholesterol, preeclampsia, and kidney and testicular cancer.  Studies find that exposure to 1,4-dioxane can cause liver cancer and chronic kidney and liver effects.

According to an analysis of the most recent government data available, the drinking water of over 2.8 million New Yorkers has levels of 1,4-dioxane that are above the most stringent levels recommended for safety. This is also the case for PFOA and PFOS for over 1.4 million New Yorkers.  And that’s only for communities that have conducted testing.  One estimate is that 2.5 million New Yorkers in communities with 10,000 people or less have not yet had their water tested for PFOA and related chemicals.

The state Health Department has recommended that the drinking water supply of any New Yorker does not contain any more than 10 parts per trillion of PFOA, 10 parts per trillion of PFOS, and 1 part per billion of 1,4 –dioxane.

While those levels are small, according to leading environmental and health groups, the proposed levels are not small enough. 

The groups are calling for maximum contamination levels that are the most protective of human health and are in line with the latest science and available detection and treatment technologies; in terms of PFOA and PFOS, the groups have urged that the maximum level be no higher than 2 parts per trillion (combined) – one fifth of the proposed level advanced by the Health Department, and that the acceptable level of 1,4-dioxane be no more than 0.3 parts per billion or one-third the level in the Department’s proposal.

And the impact of unregulated contamination of drinking water supplies has real life consequences.  In Hoosick Falls, New York, Saint Gobain Performance Plastics used PFOA for years in their manufacturing process. Many in the town and village became sick with diseases linked to exposure to the chemicals.  Other communities with PFOA water contamination problems include Petersburgh and Newburgh.

If PFOA, PFOS and 1,4 dioxane had been regulated years ago, communities may not have had to face the pollution problems they are currently contending with.  Unfortunately, too often steps to protect water aren’t taken until after a water contamination crisis has already unfolded.

This is a vicious cycle that the public is counting on New York to break.  New Yorkers can’t wait for people to get sick from exposure to dangerous chemicals to take action.

New York has pledged $5 billion in water improvements, but that’s just a drop in the bucket.  Water infrastructure needs alone are huge in New York state – it’s been estimated that over the next 20 years, New York will need to invest $80 billion to make all the needed repairs, upgrades, and replacements – and that doesn’t include the costs associated with treating chemicals like PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane.  More state support will be needed.

In addition, there is much more to do than simply spending money (although that is needed).  One key step would be to expand regulation of contaminants already found in drinking water.  There are over 80,000 chemicals on the market that are unregulated, which means that even though they may not be safe for public health, they can be in our products or water anyway. PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane are only the start.  New York must test for unregulated chemicals, set drinking water standards, and ban the use of chemicals that pose health risks.

Last week, New York moved one step closer to putting these standards into effect, with the closure of the comment period for their proposed regulations.  Environmental and public health groups are calling for the governor and the Health Department to move forward with drinking water standards that align with the latest science.

The public has the basic right and expectation that the water from their taps will be safe to drink. The Health Department must rely on the best science in guiding its decisions and move quickly to tackle other hazardous chemicals that threaten drinking water supplies. 

Trump Worsens Climate Crisis, Youth Demand Action

Posted by NYPIRG on September 23, 2019 at 7:19 am
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The United Nations Climate Action Summit kicked off with two completely different visions of the planet’s future: Action by the Trump Administration to kill California’s clean car program and the worldwide Climate Strike inspired by teenage Swedish high schooler Greta Thunberg.

In his all-too-typical and frightening behavior, the President has rejected science.  His and his Administration have taken steps to eliminate the power of the state of California to set its own more stringent vehicle emission standards.  Thirteen other states, including New York, follow the California standards.  In total, roughly one-third of all cars sold in America are covered by these standards.

California’s emissions standards are stricter than the federal EPA requirements.  They’re more stringent on hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions — which become smog — from vehicles, and require that older construction vehicles be retrofitted to be less polluting.  California’s gasoline also must have less sulfur, benzene and hydrocarbons than most gasoline sold elsewhere in the U.S.

The state has created a number of categories for motor vehicle emissions.  Even if you don’t live in California, if you have a relatively new car, you’ve likely seen stickers somewhere on the vehicle that reference the California standards: Cars with stickers that say they are low emissions (LEV) or partial zero emission, or a zero emissions (usually a plug-in electrics).

The Obama Administration had adopted regulations that mirror California’s; the Trump Administration killed those and is now trying to eliminate the power of the states to set stronger environmental standards.

In a state like New York, transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions – the gases that are fueling global warming.  Unless those emissions are reduced – as California has taken steps to do – the climate crisis will get worse. 

And the climate changes that result from global warming pose an existential threat.

As usual, the Trump Administration simply doesn’t care about the science or the suffering of billions of people that will result from its deadly decisions. 

However, the states are fighting back and last week New York State Attorney General Letitia James signed on to a lawsuit spearheaded by California to block the Trump Administration’s proposal to revoke the ruling that allows for tougher emissions standards. 

At the same time, millions of protesters worldwide – led by school children on strike from classes – rallied to demand action on stopping the unfolding climate catastrophe.

And unfolding is the correct word.  Hurricanes are stronger, sea levels are rising, glaciers are receding, surface water is evaporating, all as the planet has been heating up.  Experts have said that unless the world keeps global warming to a rise of no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2030, it may be impossible to curb runaway climate changes that could devastate the planet.

The planet is already two-thirds of the way there; the average worldwide climate temperature has risen nearly two degrees Fahrenheit, leaving little room for additional fossil fuel emissions.

That was the message of the children and their supporters; unless sweeping actions are taken right away, their futures could be hellish.  Yet due to the negligence of the Trump Administration and others, renewable energy investments globally have dropped 14% this year compared with 2018 and carbon emissions are rising at their fastest rate since 2011, thanks to increased energy consumption led by China, India and the United States.

Here in New York, the Governor and the Legislature have agreed to a plan of action, but the plan has yet to be implemented. 

Goals are far better than denials – or actions that make the situation worse.  Our nation’s leaders need to heed the children’s clarion wake up call, and the rest of us need to fight hard to get them to act with urgency.  The crisis isn’t looming, it’s here now.  And if we don’t act, those children will face a world destroyed by our folly.

The Battle to Stop E-cigs Moves to the Front Page

Posted by NYPIRG on September 16, 2019 at 8:16 am
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The electronic cigarette industry has done much to make up for the decline in tobacco consumption in America by getting the public to buy into its arguments that e-cigarettes are a “safer” alternative to smoking tobacco.

Of course, the electronic cigarette industry has never proven their products’ safety, they just assert the benefits.  Now, after aggressively marketing their products – particularly their flavored products – the health damages are becoming more apparent.

Earlier this month the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the number of electronic cigarette use – or vaping – related illnesses had increased to at least 380 cases in 33 states and cautioned people about using e-cigarettes.  In addition, the CDC reported five deaths from vaping-related respiratory illness.

And the flavored vaping has had a tremendous impact on the number of minors using these products.  Five million minors, mostly in their high school years, reported that they had used e-cigarettes. About one-quarter of the nation’s high school students reported vaping within the last 30 days in this year’s annual survey, up from 20 percent last year.

This rapid increase in usage, as well as the growing number of reported illnesses and deaths, has pushed public officials to begin to act. 

At the federal level, the federal Food and Drug Administration sent a warning to the largest electronic cigarette maker – Juul – that accused it of violating federal regulations by its promoting of its vaping products as a healthier alternative than traditional tobacco cigarettes.  Next, the President has said that his Administration is considering a ban on all flavored vaping products. 

Over this past weekend Governor Cuomo announced that the state’s Public Health and Health Planning Council would take up regulations that would ban the sale of candy and fruit flavored vaping devices and pods.

One major difference between the Trump Administration’s and the Cuomo plans is that the federal regulations would include a ban on the sale of mint and menthol flavors, New York’s plan would not.

The governor’s rationale to defend his decision to allow menthol flavors to continue to be sold was his assertion that those menthol products could help people stop smoking traditional cigarettes.  The governor’s surprising assertion is not backed up by the Food and Drug Administration which has not approved e-cigarettes as smoking cessation devices. In fact, a recent study found that most people who intended to use e-cigarettes to kick the nicotine habit ended up continuing to smoke both traditional and e-cigarettes.

Menthol is a particularly deadly flavor.  When used in cigarettes, menthol poses a tremendous public health threat. A 2013 FDA report on the health impact of menthol cigarettes determined that menthol cigarettes lead to increased smoking initiation among youth and young adults, greater addiction and decreased success in quitting smoking.  Further, FDA’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee’s concluded, “Removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States.”  When Ontario, Canada banned menthol cigarettes in early 2017, its initial evaluations suggested that the law resulted in increased attempts to quit and smoking cessation among adult menthol smokers.  As a result, the Canadian government subsequently banned menthol cigarettes nationwide later in 2017.

Menthol has particularly appealing qualities for novice smokers. Menthol is a chemical compound that cools and numbs the throat, reducing the harshness of cigarette smoke, making menthol cigarettes more appealing to young people who are beginning to use tobacco.

Allowing the continued use of menthol vaping products makes little sense.  The Trump Administration may, or may not, knock out menthol flavors.  The track record of the President delivering on his promises is not great, but if he does, it would supersede New York’s weaker approach.

But the decision of the Cuomo Administration is only final when the Public Health Council acts.  New Yorkers who care about curbing the deadly impact of vaping should hope that they go further than the governor’s statement and ban all flavored vaping products, including menthol.

Campaign Finance Overhaul Begins

Posted by NYPIRG on September 9, 2019 at 7:44 am
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Campaign finance reform, long-promised but never enacted, is starting to take shape in New York.  As part of this year’s budget agreement, Governor Cuomo and the legislative majorities agreed to establish a Commission to create a voluntary system of public financing of elections.  In and of itself, the creation of a commission was not new; there have been other blue-ribbon panels that have examined the issue.  What was new was that the Commission’s recommendations would have the force of law when approved by December 1st of this year.

This week, the Commission is holding the first of five public hearings on the issue.  Sounds promising.  But there are some early signs of trouble that could undermine the Commission’s work.  The Commission apparently has no resources – it doesn’t even have its own website for example – and has no staff.  The invitations to testify were sent from individual commissioners’ email addresses.

Given the paucity of resources, how should the Commission best achieve its goals?  Let’s start by examining why the system is needed in the first place.

According to a new report issued by the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), currently state legislators run for office relying on private campaign contributions.  Overwhelmingly the sources of that money are typically powerful and wealthy interests.  The report found that organized interests, businesses, and individuals contributing more than $200, represented roughly 90 percent of the money raised by the winners of state Senate and Assembly elections.  The biggest category of contributors were political action committees and limited liability companies – both of which usually have business before the government.

Such a system, one in which the bulk of the money paying for the campaigns of state candidates comes from parties with a vested interest in legislative outcomes, creates an inherent conflict of interest.  Lawmakers rely on campaign funds from interest groups and then meet with their lobbyists who are asking for favors.  Sometimes those favors result in scandals and corruption.

That’s why previous commissions examining New York State’s campaign financing system have been harshly critical.  One commission in the 1980s called New York’s campaign financing system a “disgrace” and an “embarrassment.”

Thirty years ago when then-Governor Mario Cuomo and state legislators could not agree on reforms, the 1980s commission scolded state leaders for failing to act, charging that “Instead partisan, personal and vested interests have been allowed to come before larger public interests.”  That same commission, on the other hand, congratulated New York City public officials who had worked to create a voluntary system of public financing for candidates running in City elections.

A voluntary campaign financing system, that commission believed, was an important reform that could provide the resources for candidates – but without attaching the strings that all too often come when private contributions are donated by interest groups.  Thus, a public financing system could both reduce the influence of powerful interest groups and reduce the risk of political corruption.

Three decades later, the New York City system has expanded and evolved into a model for the nation.  Indeed, in the 2018 City election, voters overwhelmingly voted to approve a referendum proposal that further strengthened the system and City voters agreed to additional tax dollars being used to fund the program.

So what should the new Commission, with a mandate to establish a voluntary system of public financing for state government, do?

Since the new Commission appears to have little or no resources and the deadline for finalizing its plan is December 1st, the first step should be to embrace the successful, three-decade old program already operating in the state of New York.

The program may need some tweaks to adapt it to state elections, but it is road tested.  By advancing that program as its starting point, the debate over the next 90 days would be focused on tweaks that may be necessary in order to scale up a citywide program – in a municipality that accounts for nearly half of the state’s population – to one that covers all state offices.

With fewer than 90 days until their plan is due, it makes little sense for the Commission to waste time contemplating the universe of possible systems or focus on unnecessary election law changes.  By putting out the New York City program as its starting point, the Commission would have the benefit of 30 years of experience and could focus on details needed to scale it up to a statewide system.

The clock is ticking.  The Commission has a lot of work to do; New Yorkers must hope that they attack their responsibilities with a smart strategy based on success.