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Archive for November 2019

Keeping the Holiday Season Safe for Children

Posted by NYPIRG on November 25, 2019 at 6:29 am
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Thanksgiving is the kick off of the holiday shopping season.  It’s a time when many adults look for gifts for children.  And while the holidays are a time for fun and giving, it is important that it gift givers keep safety in mind when shopping for kids.

A recent survey of toys found that some posed health and safety threats to children.  Among the toys surveyed were examples of choking and excessive noise hazards and toys with potentially hazardous concentrations of toxins.  The continued presence of these hazards in toys highlights the need for constant vigilance on the part of government agencies and the public to ensure that children do not end up playing with unsafe toys.

For more than 30 years, the United States Public Interest Research Group’s (USPIRG) Trouble in Toyland has called for stringent toy safety guidelines and has provided examples of toys currently on store shelves that pose potential safety hazards to young children.  

Here are some important things to keep in mind as you gift shop for children.  Beware of small parts choking hazards, if you want to test to see if a toy or a part of a toy is too small, see if it fits inside a toilet paper roll, if so, it’s not appropriate for small children.  Uninflated balloons should be kept away from kids under eight and popped balloons should not be left around.  If an action figure, toy gun or other toy produces loud sounds, it can hurt a child’s hearing.  Test the toy by holding it near your ear and if it’s too loud for you, it’s too loud for your child.  You can remove the batteries, put tape over the speaker, or decrease the volume.

Sculpture kits or puzzles may include powerful magnets that can seriously injure children if ingested.  Also, toys marketed to adults may be a hazard in the hands of children.  For example, fidget spinners may not meet the same safety standards as other toys because they are primarily designed with adults in mind, though they can still be marketed directly or indirectly to children.

Despite recent progress in making toys safer, the report highlighted the need for continued attention to shortcomings in existing standards and vigilance on the part of the shopping public.  To keep children safe from potentially hazardous toys, there is still more to do.

  • Examine toys carefully for hazards before purchase – and don’t trust that they are safe just because they are on a store shelf or available online. 
  • Report unsafe toys or toy-related injuries to the CPSC at www.saferproducts.gov.
  • Subscribe to government announcements of recalled products at www.recalls.gov.

For toys already owned:

  • Remove small batteries if there is any question over their security or accessibility and keep them out of reach of children;
  • Remove batteries from or tape over the speakers of toys you already own that are too loud; and
  • Put small parts, or toys broken into small parts, out of reach.  Regularly check that toys appropriate for your older children are not left within reach of younger children who still put things in their mouths.

While it’s important for parents and other adults to shop smart, there are steps that New York can take to protect children from dangerous products.  One example is a bill that passed both houses of the Legislature and awaits action by the governor. 

The legislation is designed to promote the removal of the most dangerous toxic chemicals—those either known or suspected of causing cancer, reproductive injuries or interfering with children’s development—from everyday children’s products and to steer industry towards safe substitution. 

The bill passed at the end of April with overwhelming bipartisan support, but the governor has not yet acted on the bill.  Advocates hope that with the holiday season looming, the governor will finally approve the legislation.

Until then adults should be on guard when it comes to purchasing toys.  In order to view the full Trouble in Toyland report go to www.nypirg.org.  Parents can find a list of unsafe toys, as well as tips for safe toy shopping this holiday season, at toysafetytips.org.  Have a happy and safe holiday season.

Antibiotics Awareness Week

Posted by NYPIRG on November 18, 2019 at 9:05 am
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Antibiotics save lives and are critical tools for treating a number of common and more serious infections, like those that can lead to sepsis. However, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 30% of the antibiotics in U.S. outpatient settings are prescribed unnecessarily. Any time antibiotics are used, they can lead to antibiotic resistance, a growing and urgent threat to the public’s health.

According to the CDC, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are most prevalent in environments associated with high antibiotic use: healthcare settings, the general community, and in livestock production.  Antibiotic resistance can spread from person to person, from animal to person, via the natural environment or contaminated food and from bacteria to bacteria.  Some bacteria have developed resistance to multiple antibiotics, making them especially difficult to treat, and thus very dangerous and sometimes deadly.  Common infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, blood poisoning, food poisoning, and gonorrhea have already become harder and sometimes impossible to treat due to multidrug-resistant bacteria.

The problem of antibiotics-resistance is not just one found in the United States, it is a worldwide problem.  And worldwide problems demand global responses.

This week the United States, in coordination with nations across the world, are focusing in educating the health care providers, policymakers, and the public on the growing threat posed by antibiotic resistant infections, also known as “superbugs.”

Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them.  Each year in the United States, more than 2.8 million infections from bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics occur and more than 35,000 people die as a direct result.  Many more die from complications from antibiotic-resistant infections.

A study commissioned by the U.K. government predicts that if action is not taken now to combat antibiotic resistance,by 2050 the annual death toll will have risen to 10 million globally.  

The situation is getting worse with the emergence of new bacterial strains resistant to several antibiotics at the same time (known as multidrug-resistant bacteria). Such bacteria may eventually become resistant to all existing antibiotics. Without antibiotics, the world could return to the “pre-antibiotic era”, when organ transplants, cancer chemotherapy, intensive care and other medical procedures would no longer be possible.  Bacterial diseases would spread and could no longer be treated, causing death.

There is hope.  Data from European agencies show that interventions can work.  Medical data shows that Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands have low rates of “superbugs,” but that there are higher rates in Southern Europe.  Countries with lower resistance rates have generally lower use of antibiotics, while countries with higher antibiotic resistance rates use more antibiotics.

One area of antibiotic misuse is relatively simple to address: use on farms.  Nearly two-thirds of antibiotics that are important for human medicine are currently sold for use in livestock, not people. These drugs are routinely given as poor compensation for inappropriate diets and the stressful, crowded and unsanitary conditions on industrial feedlots. This practice hastens the spread of antibiotic resistance in bacteria and increases the risk of drug-resistant infections in people.

When antibiotics are given to food-producing animals, they kill most of the bacteria in them. The resistant bacteria, however, survive and can contaminate animal products during slaughtering and processing. They can also contaminate fruits and vegetables via contaminated soil or water, especially when animal manure is used as fertilizer. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can contaminate food prepared on germ-filled surfaces and the environment via animal feces. According to the CDC, approximately 1 in 5 antibiotic-resistant infections are caused by germs from food and animals.

However, awareness weeks are only as good as the change they produce.  It is clear from the Scandinavian experiences that policies can significantly reduce the rise of “superbugs”: policies that focus on cleanliness in health care settings, a reliance on antibiotic use in humans only when medically necessary, and a drastic reduction in use on farm animals.  The most obvious way to reduce use among farm animals is for veterinarians to stop the use of antibiotics on healthy farm animals.

This is a worldwide problem, unless the rise of “superbugs” can be stopped, the next generation will be faced with a world without effective antibiotics, one in which illnesses like urinary tract infections will be untreatable, leaving people to suffer and perhaps die, from infections easily treatable today.

The State’s Public Financing Commission Starts to Put Its Plan Together

Posted by NYPIRG on November 11, 2019 at 8:29 am
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New York State’s campaign financing system has been notorious – sky-high contributions that allow the wealthy and powerful to legally donate over $100,000; ineffective enforcement; loopholes galore and inadequate disclosures.  The result?  Scandals.  Most recently the convictions of big donors and top-ranking state officials in an incredible scheme that rigged government contracts for big campaign donors.

The lousy system is not something new – for decades, blue ribbon commissions, federal prosecutors, and experts have roundly criticized New York’s campaign financing practices and its anemic laws.

And for decades Governors and state lawmakers have pledged to fix the system, only to complain that partisan gridlock blocked necessary reforms.

New York City’s experience, on the other hand, was different.  In the 1980s, it too experienced stunning levels of corruption.  But a politically unified city government coupled with public outrage yielded the creation of a system of public financing that shifted the emphasis away from raising money from special interests who write big checks to getting small donations that are amplified by public matching funds.  New York City’s program is now considered a model for the nation.

After the 2018 election, Democrats took firm control of the state government when they won a working majority of seats in the state senate.  Governor Cuomo had regularly advanced legislation to create a voluntary system of public financing modeled on the New York City program.  The new Democratic Senate majority had also pledged to support establishing a New York City-style system.  The Assembly had approved legislation creating a New York City-style system regularly for years since the 1980s.  Reform seemed like a done deal.

But something happened.  Democrats’ great enthusiasm for public financing evaporated during the first half of the legislative session.  Eventually, instead of directly voting to adopt a New York City-style system, the governor and the legislative leaders established a commission empowered to create a public financing system in New York State.  The legislation was approved at the end of March and this new Commission was charged with releasing its plan by December 1st of this year, giving the group only eight months to get its work completed.

But the games continued.  The leaders made no appointments to the commission until early July, thus cutting the timetable to a mere five months.  The commission had no staff, few resources and couldn’t pull off its first meeting until late August.

Now the timetable was cut to 3 months.

The commission then wasted its time publicly debating whether to curtail the involvement of minor parties in elections.  The commission is now down to a few precious weeks to get its monumental work completed.

You would think that under the circumstances the Commission would focus on a program that has had a three-decade track record of success.  A program that already exists in New York State.  The commission could then focus on how best to scale it up to a statewide program.

But you would be wrong.

Instead, the commission seems to want to develop a system very different from New York City’s.  At its most recent meeting, the commission approved an outline of a program that would diverge from the New York City model by prohibiting public financing matches for out-of-district.  Instead, in-district contributions would be matched up to $250 according to a tier of ratios: the first $50 at 12:1, the next $100 at 9:1, and the next $100 at 8:1.  

This untried, complicated system is being cooked up with less than three weeks to go.  It almost seems like they are doing all they can to develop a program too flawed to succeed. 

This has happened before.  In 2014, the governor rushed through a campaign financing change that covered only the Comptroller’s race. The program was so flawed that the Comptroller did not choose to participate and his opponent couldn’t meet the complicated standards.

Why is the commission operating this way?  Since so much of what they do is done in secret, it’s hard to know.  But it’s safe to say that the governor and the legislative leaders are comfortable with the ways things are going.

New Yorkers, on the other hand, should not be.  New York’s corrupt campaign financing system needs drastic change.  If the unelected commission fails to make it happen, New Yorkers should look to the actions of the governor and the legislature before, during, and after the commission acts.  It is their leadership that should be under scrutiny.

Early Voting in New York Finishes Its First Run

Posted by NYPIRG on November 4, 2019 at 8:39 am
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One of the big changes in how New York runs its elections is a measure to allow “early voting.”  Early voting allows for people to cast their ballots in advance of Election Day.  And early voting has been tested across the nation.

When New York acted it became the 39th jurisdiction to do so.  Thus, the overwhelming number of states had already made the change.  It has long been clear that early voting is the type of convenience that is popular and necessary. 

From Saturday October 26th through this past Sunday, New Yorkers could vote in advance of Election Day, Tuesday, November 5th.  And while the final numbers are not yet in, it looks like over 250,000 voters showed up at nearly 250 early voting polling sites across the state and that the glitches were kept to a minimum. 

There are some issues that need to be addressed before the next votes are cast.  Under the recently passed law, local boards of elections were given discretion in how many early voting sites that would be required and where they would be located.

First, the new law stated that each county should provide at least one early voting polling place per 50,000 registered voters.  Seems simple enough.  For those counties with voting populations less than 50,000, they had to have at least one early polling place. 

However, the early voting law has one big loophole: counties with large numbers of voters are not be required to keep to the 50,000 voters per early voting polling site ratio.  The law states that in no case shall a county be required to have more than seven sites, no matter how large the population.  Thus, the largest counties have a lot of room in terms of the number of early voting locations. 

Sixteen counties had a ratio greater than one early voting location per 50,000 voters.  Some large counties provided many voting sites.  For example, Erie County had 37 early voting sites with a ratio of about 16,000 voters per location.  On the other hand, Manhattan had a ratio of one early voting place for every 100,000 voters – double what was the goal in the law.  Not illegal, but unfair to Manhattan voters as compared to Erie County. 

The law also requires local boards of elections to consider, but does not require, certain factors when deciding where to locate early polling locations.  The law states that factors like “population density, travel time to the polling place, proximity to other early voting poll sites, public transportation routes, commuter traffic patterns” be considered.  Yet, “consideration” is not a mandate.  In the county of Rensselaer, the city of Troy (population is about 50,000) had no early voting locations.

Having New York’s initial experience be during an “off-year” election makes good sense.  Fewer voters show up at the polls and the elections bureaucracy learns from the experience.

But policymakers need to learn too.  Both houses of the Legislature should hold hearings to review the early election experience.

It is clear, however, that the state needs to be more demanding.  New York should require that no county is allowed to ratios of voters to early voting poll of more than 50,000 to one.  And that every local community that relies heavily on mass transportation, or ones that have dense population centers, or rural areas in which distances are far, have reasonable access.

One additional lesson to be learned involves money.  For unknown reasons, the state government didn’t immediately let flow the $10 million earmarked to help counties, slowing down efforts to plan and cover the costs.  The counties should get the resources that they need.

Early voting is a reform that helps voters cast their ballots, a constitutional right.  New York should do all it can to make voting easier.  In the modern world, allowing voters to cast their ballots during the time before election day makes sense and must be continued.

But it must be done in a manner that makes it easier for all voters, not just those in selected areas.  Thus, new standards should be put in place that ensure areas with the most people get the most early voting sites.  And resources must be made available for those areas in which voters must travel long distances.

We live in a representative democracy.  Making the choice about who represents us should be easy and uncomplicated.  Let’s make sure that is the case.