Friday, April 12, 2024

New rule closes the 'gun show loophole' and will require more sellers to register as licensed firearms dealers

The new rule will dramatically increase firearm purchase
background checks. (PBS News Hour photo)
To deliver on gun control policy promises, the Biden administration has expanded the number of sellers who must register as federally licensed firearms dealers, reports Glenn Thrush and Erica L. Green of The New York Times. "That means those sellers must run background criminal and mental health checks on potential buyers. . . . [The change] is the broadest expansion of federal background checks and an attempt to regulate the shadow market of weapons sold online, at gun shows and through private sellers that have contributed to gun violence."

Although President Biden was blocked from implementing universal background checks for gun buyers, the administration used the bipartisan gun control law passed in 2022 to "achieve an elusive policy goal that enjoys widespread public support: closing the so-called gun show loophole," Thrush and Green write. "The new regulation, which is likely to face legal challenges, could add as many as 23,000 federal dealers to the 80,000 already regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives."

In many states, the gun show loophole allowed "unlicensed private sellers to legally sell at gun shows, out of their houses and through online platforms without having to submit to the background check system created to prevent sales to children, criminals, domestic abusers, and people with mental illnesses or drug addictions," the Times reports. "Four in 10 illegal gun cases tracked by the bureau from 2017 to 2021 involved such unregulated sales."

The new rule aims to accomplish two goals. It will "pull legitimate sellers into the regulatory sunlight and, second, to deprive brokers who knowingly traffic in criminal gun sales of a legal shield provided by the vagaries of federal firearms laws," Thrush and Green explain. Previous rules required gun sellers who made their chief income selling guns to join the federal system, but that wording has changed and now includes sellers who "predominantly derive a profit" to register. "Failing to register carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines."

Comparing U.S. broadband coverage using two different maps shows 'stark contrasts' in representation

Photo by Possessed Photography, Unsplash
Two separate broadband maps give different pictures of how the service is offered throughout the U.S. "Using the results of 'broadband audits' across the United States, has collected geographic data, information about available internet speeds, and demographic data to determine areas that are 'likely or arguably' underserved or unserved," reports Brad Randall of Broadband Communities. The results offer a "stark contrast" with the Federal Communication Commission's reported data. "establishes the ground truth of America's broadband reality," Randall writes. "Compared to the FCC's National Broadband Map, the interactive map displays the U.S. as a patchwork of served, underserved, and unserved locations."

Location comparisons show how the maps differ. In Hyde County, North Carolina, pop. 4,600, the FCC's map "reports 100% coverage of fixed broadband services, the map reports a county that is 81.7% unserved and 18.1% underserved," Randall reports. "Similarly, in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, pop. 8, 600, 90.7% of the county is listed as unserved despite the county's 100% coverage representation on the FCC's National Broadband Map for fixed broadband."

According to data, the most underserved and unserved states are as follows:

  1. Alaska (36.6%)
  2. Montana (29.1%)
  3. West Virginia (26.3%)
  4. Wyoming (22.8%)
  5. Vermont (21.3%)
  6. Idaho (20.7%)
  7. Mississippi (19.9%)
  8. New Mexico (18.6%)
  9. Wisconsin (18.4%)
  10. Louisiana (17.3%)

EPA issues drinking water standards for toxic 'forever chemicals;' for cities and towns, an unknown price awaits

Removing PFAS from drinking water is
costly. (Photo by Samara Doole, Unsplash)

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued its first drinking water standards for "forever chemicals," which are long-lasting and human-made chemicals found in many commercial and industrial products, including nonstick pans, food packaging and common pesticides.  The slowly degrading chemicals have ended up in U.S. drinking water supplies, reports Elizabeth Daigneau of Route Fifty. "The EPA says the new rule will reduce PFAS exposure for approximately 100 million people, prevent thousands of deaths and reduce tens of thousands of serious illnesses."

The harmfulness of forever chemicals was well documented even as companies continued to use them. Amanda Hoover of Wired reports, "High levels of exposure can cause fertility issues, developmental delays in children, and reduced immune responses, according to the EPA. They can also elevate the risk of several cancers, including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancer."

A striking example of how deadly exposure to these chemicals can be was 20-year-old Amara Strande, who died of cancer about a year ago. Strande "became an activist in her short life after being diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer five years earlier," Daigneau reports. "The cancer, which eventually spread to her throat and lungs, was attributed to her exposure to a group of toxic chemicals known as PFAS."

While many communities know their water is tainted by forever chemicals, addressing the problem was strangulated by cost. "City and county water districts agree that something must be done, [but] they are worried the new rule will cost them billions of dollars," Daigneau writes. "To allay these concerns, the Biden administration announced nearly $1 billion in newly available funding through the infrastructure law to help states implement PFAS testing and treatment at public water systems." Some industry estimates indicate that $1 billion in funding won't be near enough.

Read Daigneau's full article to learn more about water clean-up and cost concerns. Click here for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies fact sheet on PFAS myths and clean-up price estimates.

Rural communities try to address dangers of driving on country roads; 40% of traffic deaths occur on rural roads

High school students in Kansas participate in the
Seatbelts Are  For Everyone program. (Photo via RHIhub)
Country roads that are winding, curving and in various states of repair pose a disproportionate danger to travelers. Rural communities are using a grassroots approach to address the problem, reports Gretel Kauffman for Rural Health Information Hub. "While an estimated 20% of people in the U.S. live in rural areas, 40% of traffic deaths occur on rural roads, according to the most recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In rural areas, the fatality rate per vehicle miles traveled was 1.5 times higher than in urban areas."

Rural roads have more space and less traffic, which can lead drivers to speed unintentionally, leave their lanes, and head into oncoming traffic. Rural drivers are also less likely to observe seat belt laws. Experts say rural drivers "'should be treated as a distinct market segment for seat belt messaging and public awareness campaigns,' and that changing rural drivers' beliefs about seat belts 'may help reduce the disparity between rural and urban traffic fatality rates,'" Kauffman writes. "In the event of a crash, proper seat belt use can be the difference between life and death. . . . Roughly half of all people killed in car crashes in 2021 were unrestrained."

Community-led programs may be "more effective at encouraging seat belt use in rural areas than national or government-led campaigns, experts suggest." Kauffman reports, "One such program, the Seatbelts Are For Everyone program, formed in rural Crawford County, Kansas, in 2008. At the time, Crawford County had one of the lowest rates of seat belt use among teen drivers in the state. . . . In its first year, one of the six Crawford County high schools that piloted the program went from a 57% seat belt compliance rate to an 82% compliance rate."

Safe Start advertises free car seat
checks. (Photo via RHIhub)
A grassroots program in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, called "Safe Start," is working to encourage car seat use through its Rural Education Outreach program. "Like rural adults, rural children are also less likely to be properly restrained than their non-rural peers. One study found that child restraint misuse was more common in rural locations, with 9 out of 10 children buckled in insufficiently or not at all," Kauffman writes. "The REO team visits 24 communities twice a year, setting up shop in a public space where anybody can approach for a car seat check, a demonstration, or to have their questions answered. In some cases, the REO team has distributed new car seats to people when needed and has taken old or unsafe seats to dispose of."

It's almost cicada time; a trillion bugs are expected to emerge together for the first time since 1803

Males cicadas make the bug's signature buzzing
 sounds. (Photo by Sagar Vasnani, Unsplash)
It's almost time for millions of adult cicadas to dig their way out of the soil, shed their exoskeletons and join their incredible dual emergence. "A trillion cicadas from two different broods will begin appearing in the Midwest and Southeast regions of the United States toward the end of April," reports Aimee Ortiz of The New York Times. "It's the first time since 1803 that Brood XIX, or the Great Southern Brood, and Brood XIII, or the Northern Illinois Brood, will appear together. . . .Thomas Jefferson was president the last time the Northern Illinois Brood's 17-year cycle aligned with the Great Southern Brood's 13-year period."

What does that mean for humans? "A roughly 16-state area will be center stage for these periodical cicadas, which differ from those that appear annually in smaller numbers," Ortiz writes. "Around one trillion cicadas are expected to leave their earthy homes behind." To helped put one trillion bugs into perspective, Floyd W. Shockley, an entomologist and collections manager at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, told Ortiz, "A cicada train would reach to the moon and back 33 times."

While cicadas don't bite, sting or carry diseases, they aren't graceful flyers or landers. "Cicadas often end up on sidewalks and city streets, where they can be squished by people or cars," Ortiz reports. With millions of bugs bumbling about, it will get messy and dedicated clean-up will be needed in some areas. Shockley told Ortiz: "But rather than throwing in the trash or cleaning up with street sweepers, people should consider them basically free fertilizer for the plants in their gardens and natural areas.”

Is there a way to reduce the number of cicadas? No. "The bugs are beneficial to the environment, acting as natural tree gardeners. The holes they leave behind when they emerge from the ground help aerate the soil and allow for rainwater to get underground and nourish tree roots in hot summer months," Ortiz adds. But their buzzing and lifecycle doesn't last long, "In most cases, Dr. Shockley said, cicadas live about a month."

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Two-person crews are now required for almost all freight trains in an effort to improve railroad safety

Photo by Laurent Jollet, Unsplash
More than a year has passed since the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, where cars carrying vinyl chloride exploded and a "controlled chemical burn" was completed and then later disputed as unnecessary. Although East Palestine isn't the only town to face the devastating consequences of a rail disaster, the small town's crisis brought rail safety back into the forefront, and now the federal government has put a new rule in place.

"The Biden administration rolled out a mandate requiring nearly all freight trains nationally to operate with two-person crews," reports Daniel C. Vock of Route Fifty, "ending for now a decade-long fight by the railroad industry to stymie similar efforts in Congress and in statehouses around the country. . . .Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the new Federal Railroad Administration rules will 'address the patchwork of differing uncoordinated requirements that had been developing across the states.'"

"More than 13,000 people commented when the FRA announced its two-person crew proposal, Buttigieg said, and nearly all of them were supportive of the idea," Vock writes. "One worker told the agency that asking someone to run a train by themselves for a 12-hour shift is 'kind of like solitary confinement.'"

The rail industry has maintained that it remains the safest way to move dangerous chemicals, "something the head of the National Transportation Safety Board agreed with in recent testimony in the House -- though officials acknowledge the railroads need to continue improving safety," reports Josh Fund of The Associated Press.

Ian Jeffries, the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, pushed against the new regulations, saying that they had "no proven connection to rail safety," Vock reports. "The FRA's rules require two workers to staff freight trains unless a railroad gets a special exemption from the agency. When companies seek an exemption, the public and railroad workers will get a chance to weigh in before the agency decides."

Many charging stations for electric vehicles are being built at gas stations and truck stops; rural areas might not benefit

EV charging gas stations may not be a win for rural
areas. (Photo by Oxana Melis, Unsplash)
A developing trend shows that one of the best ways to encourage cleaner energy use is to piggyback it with fossil fuel convenience. Despite this shift becoming a lifeline for fossil fuel-based gas stations, it may not help rural economies. "When Americans steer their electric vehicles off the highway and into shiny new charging stations — many paid for with federal tax dollars — they're likely to find them in a curiously familiar place: the gas station," reports David Ferris of E & E News. "More than half of the charging stations being built so far from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law are rising at truck stops and gasoline stations."

While the infrastructure development may be a positive for EV vehicle owners and gas stations, program restrictions and complex application processes can limit rural participation. "Because the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program rules require proximity to the highway and sites that operate 24/7, they could lead to EV drivers not stopping and spending money in rural downtowns, which are sleepy at night and distant from turnoffs," Ferris explains. "The extensive application processes that states have put in place to win the money may also create barriers to small-business owners, including mom-and-pop gas stations and convenience stores."

When EV charging stations first entered the energy market, fueling station owners pushed against the change, but the hybrid of both is gaining traction. "After initially resisting EVs and their charging needs, fueling centers are now using their lobbying strength and financial might to win federal dollars," Ferris writes. "Service stations have the upper hand in this first wave of subsidies because they occupy the very real estate where the federal government wants to build a charging backbone: at 50-mile intervals along the interstates and no more than a mile from highway exits."

Considering the cost and complexity of gaining NEVI funds, it's not surprising that "two of the nation's biggest truck stop chains, Love's and Pilot Flying J, are slated to host 39 charging plazas," Ferris reports. "As bidders, truck stops and gas station chains won $92.1 million, out of a total of $265 million awarded by the infrastructure law to date, according to the EVAdoption data. Gas stations and trucks stops together are hosts for almost 54 percent of NEVI-funded charging stalls."

Grocery prices weigh heavily on American minds; executives say 'shoppers will adjust.' Can they afford to?

$100 doesn't stretch near as far as it used to.
(Photo by G. Tovato, Unsplash)
When it comes to minimalist designs, less might be more. But when it comes to American wallets, less is just less. "Prices for hundreds of grocery items have increased more than 50% since 2019 as food companies raised their prices. Executives have said that higher prices were needed to offset their own rising costs for ingredients, transportation and labor," report Stephanie Stamm and Jesse Newman of The Wall Street Journal. "Some U.S. lawmakers and the Biden administration have criticized food companies for using tactics such as shrinkflation, in which companies shrink their products — but not their prices." As grocery costs have risen, so has consumer ire, and some food producers are starting to make changes and offer more deals. 

Instead of anger, some consumers have opted for a more creative response to hikes. Stamm and Newman write, "Sharon Faelten, a 74-year-old retiree from Underhill, Vt., said that instead of a wallet-punishing ordeal, she tries to think of trips to the store like procurement raids depicted in apocalyptic novels, where the goal is to stock her fridge, freezer and pantry for as little money as possible.

The fact that $100 doesn't go nearly as far as it used to makes some citizens more pessimistic about the country's overall economy. "Millions of U.S. households were flush with cash during the pandemic, thanks to stimulus checks, fatter unemployment checks and the expanded Child Tax Credit," reports Aimee Picchi of CBS News. In 2024, most pandemic cash has been spent, inflation is up and affordable housing can be difficult to find. However, the Journal reports, "The price of food and household staples continues to weigh heavier on consumers’ minds than other economic concerns."

Are prices continuing to climb? Yes, but much more slowly. "Grocery prices were up 1% in February from a year earlier, Labor Department data show," the Journal reports. "They were up 10.2% in February 2023 versus a year earlier, and were up 1.2% in February 2019 from a year earlier." In all, Stamm and Newman found that what cost a family $100.03 in 2019 now costs $136.89 . . . . "Some food-company executives have said that shoppers will adjust over time to higher prices, as they have in the past."

Opinion: Look out for these three common fallacies the supplement industry uses to market products

Taking extra vitamin C doesn't prevent the flu.
(Photo by P. Gauthier, Unsplash)
Eating your fruits and veggies is an excellent way to get the nutrients a body needs, but so are dietary supplements; at least, that's what industry marketers want Americans to believe.

"According to a 2023 survey, 74% of U.S. adults take vitamins, prebiotics and the like," writes Katie Suleta in her opinion for The Conversation, a journalistic platform for academics. "It's important to consider why so many believe supplements can help them lead healthier lives. While there are many reasons, how supplements are marketed is undeniably an important one. In my years following the industry, I've found that three mistaken assumptions appear repeatedly in supplement marketing."

First off, there is the "appeal to nature fallacy." Marketers treat vitamins and supplements as "nature made" and, therefore, will make or keep you healthy. Suleta explains, "If I say 'vitamin C, what do you immediately think of? Probably oranges or citrus in general and flu prevention. But if I say 'the flu shot,' what immediately comes to mind? Probably doctor's offices, a little bit of pain and pharmaceutical companies. One of these is clinically proven to prevent flu infections and lessen the severity of illness. The other has been marketed as though it does those same things, but there's no clinical evidence to support this."

The second assumption supplement companies use is the idea that more equals better. "If a little vitamin C is good for us, then a lot of it must be great," Suleta writes. "The truth is that our bodies tightly regulate levels of the vitamins and minerals we consume. If you don't have a deficiency, consuming more of a particular vitamin or mineral through a supplement won't necessarily lead to health benefits."

The third concept nutritional supplement companies use to boost sales is the action bias. Suleta explains, "Taking action makes people feel like they have more control of a situation, which is especially powerful when it comes to health. 'Even if I don't need the extra vitamin C,' they might think, 'I'll take it just to be sure. What's the harm?'. . . It is possible to have too much of a good thing. Too much vitamin C can lead to diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps and more. . . . Too much vitamin D can lead to conditions including nausea, vomiting and kidney stones."

Suleta recommends taking a guarded approach to what supplements promise and speak to your medical provider before starting on any new nutritional regimen.

Flora & Fauna: A new flower in town; traveling worms; ants go for global domination; what's in a single drop of water?

Firefly Petunia flowers emit light.
(Light Bio photo via Lancaster Farming)
With spring and summer come abundant flowers and plants, but in the botanical world, there's a new flower in town -- a bloom that will delight and surprise. "It's called the Firefly Petunia, the first commercially available bioluminescent plant," reports Therese Ciesinski of Lancaster Farming. "The scientists at Light Bio, Inc., a biotechnology firm in Sun Valley, Idaho, created it by genetically modifying herbaceous plants using genes from bioluminescent mushrooms. . . .These flowers don't reflect the light. The leaves and flowers of this plant have been bred to emit the light."

As a parody of the 1970s sci-fi craze, The Muppet Show put its own space crew, "Swinetrek," into orbit in its famous comedy sketch, "Pigs in Space!" While no pigs have been sent into space yet, aeronautic companies are testing ways to put an equally unusual animal into orbit -- earthworms. "With several national space agencies hoping to establish permanent bases on the moon, humans may find themselves sharing the lunar surface with some unexpected fellow explorers: worms," reports Adam Kovac of Ambrook Research. "Many species of worms can break organic waste into vital nutrients. . . . The critters have proven in the past to be resilient to the stresses of space travel."
Symplocarpus foetidus or skunk cabbage
can melt snow. (Wikipedia photo)

As spring emerges early this year, nature's wonders bloom in glory and subtle delight. For wary nature lovers, the Earth's warming trend can remind them of how vulnerable life is. From thawing frogs to self-heating and somewhat stinking skunk cabbages, writer Daryln Brewer Hoffstot of The New York Times looks at spring and wonders how much of nature is in danger of disappearing.

Humans aren't the only species seeking global domination. Ants are right there with us. "Global ant societies are not simply echoes of human struggles for power. They are something new in the world, existing at a scale we can measure but struggle to grasp: there are roughly 200,000 times more ants on our planet than the 100bn stars in the Milky Way," reports John Whitfield of The Guardian. "Ants form what the ecologist Mark Moffett calls 'anonymous societies,' in which individuals from the same species or group can be expected to accept and cooperate with each other even when they have never met."

Phaeodarians are a type of single-celled protist—not animal, plant, or fungus, which can be found
in deep sea water. (World Register of Marine Species photo)

The phrase "a drop in the ocean" may refer to something unimportant, but in fairness, it is inaccurate. A lot is going on in a single seawater drip: "Drops of seawater teem with life. Scientists estimate that some may contain as many as a million organisms, most too small to see with the naked eye," reports Annie Roth of National Geographic. "But put a drop under a microscope, and you will likely find free-swimming fish larvae, crawling copepods, and peculiar protists."

Ilene is a F3 Valais Blacknose ewe.
(Photo by Dan Sullivan, Lancaster Farming)
"Question: What's cute and cuddly, mows your lawn and costs $20,000? Answer: An F5 domestic purebred Valais Blacknose sheep," reports Dan Sullivan of Lancaster Farming. With their fluffy curling hair and expressive faces, the Valais Blacknose Sheep might deserve to be at the top of your lovability list. Betsy Myers of Valais at Grateful Acres farm in Berk County, Pennsylvania, told Sullivan: "There are only about 19,000 purebred Valais Blacknose sheep in the world. The domestic breed originates from the Valais region of Switzerland." Sullivan adds, "Myers, who works full time as a USDA plant health safeguarding specialist, did not get into sheep breeding for the cash. . . . It was more the cute factor."

Friday, April 05, 2024

Opioid settlement payments to state and local governments can now be tracked with this online tool

KFF Health News tool, from BrownGreer data
Beginning in 2022, state and local governments started receiving opioid settlement funds from companies that made, sold or distributed prescription opioids. Tracking the flow of opioid money into communities can now be done using a new online database from KFF Health News, report Aneri Pattani, Lydia Zuraw and Holly K. Hacker. "Determining how much money has arrived is the first step in assessing whether the settlements will make a dent in the nation’s addiction crisis."

The database reflects only the largest settlement so far, $26 billion to be paid by pharmaceutical distributors AmerisourceBergen (now called Cencora), Cardinal Health and McKesson, as well as opioid manufacturer Janssen (now known as Johnson & Johnson Innovative Medicine). The $26 billion will be paid over two decades, KFF News reports. "As of late February 2024, more than $4.3 billion had landed in government coffers."

This first piece does not include settlements with other drug manufacturers and retailers, such as Walmart, Walgreens and CVS. Data from these companies will be added in July, according to BrownGreer, the settlement firm that gets the money and makes the payments. It is not handling some additional settlements, such as the agreement between Kentucky and four Midwestern states with regional supermarket chain Meijer.

Other settlements, including with OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, are pending.

Cows and people are susceptible to H5N1 avian flu; scientists are still learning how the disease moves

Big cats can contract H5N1.
(Photo by M. Foskett, Unsplash)
Amid outbreaks of H5N1 avian flu in birds and other wildlife species, the disease has now infected cows and humans. "Texas health officials reported that an individual who had been in contact with cattle has contracted H5N1 avian flu, only the second case ever recorded in the U.S.," reports Helen Branswell of STAT. "The individual's only symptom is eye inflammation — infection of the conjunctiva, the tissue surrounding the eye. . . .The infected individual was treated with the influenza antiviral oseltamivir, sold as Tamiflu."

Confirmed H5N1 outbreaks in cattle have been reported in Texas, Kansas and Michigan, alongside presumed cases in New Mexico and Idaho. "The virus doesn't kill the cattle, but milk production is lowered, and the animals' feeding is reduced," Branswell explains. Previously, cows weren't considered susceptible to H5N1, which is deadly for birds and has been contracted by numerous mammals, including big cats, bears, foxes, donkeys, goats and dogs.

Earlier versions of H5N1 have proved more deadly for humans, but as the disease has evolved, it "seems to trigger human infections less frequently than earlier versions of the virus did. And when human cases caused by this strain occur, they are typically mild," Branswell reports. "But people who have studied influenza — and this virus in particular — for years do not know what to make of its movement into so many different animal species."

Richard Webby, an influenza virologist who heads the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., "called the infections in cows 'a head-scratcher,' saying he would not have figured cattle to be on the list of animals susceptible to this virus," Branswell writes. Webby added, "​​This particular version of H5 is teaching us a number of things we thought we knew weren't right."

Many high school graduates are choosing vocational training for trades that pay well and don't require 4-year degrees

Trade education is less expensive and offers good wages.
(Photo by Robert Lambert, Unsplash)
For decades, U.S. high school graduates who wanted to make a decent living went to college, but as skilled labor numbers have dwindled and higher education costs have soared, Generation Z is donning tool belts and embracing the trades, reports Te-Ping Chen of The Wall Street Journal. "Skilled trades are newly appealing to the youngest cohort of American workers. . . Rising pay and new technologies in fields from welding to machine tooling are giving trade professions a face-lift, helping them shed the image of being dirty, low-end work."

The cost of a college degree has made it less appealing to some high school graduates. "Enrollment in vocational training programs is surging as overall enrollment in community colleges and four-year institutions has fallen," Chen writes. "The number of students enrolled in vocational-focused community colleges rose 16% last year to its highest level since the National Student Clearinghouse began tracking such data in 2018."

For some potential students, work that means sitting at a computer all day isn't appealing, but learning a hands-on trade for good pay seems to offer more rewards. "'Not everyone needs a degree, and it takes the value out of a degree if everyone has it,' says George Belcher, 18, a high school senior in Texas. Belcher long assumed he'd go to college, but. . . he grew curious about life in the oil industry," Chen reports. "This fall, he'll enroll in trade school for $14,000 for a two-year degree and plans to work on an offshore oil rig. 'I love the ocean,' he says. He also likes the idea of working for weeks, then resting for weeks, a schedule typical with such roles."

Overall, many trade-oriented employers see their labor pipelines refilling. "At energy service company Lantern Energy, in Glastonbury, Conn., CEO Peter Callan says in the past year, he has seen more people applying for technician jobs who were on a college track and decided it wasn't ultimately for them," Chen adds. "The overall number of applications the company receives has roughly tripled in the past five years."

After years of negotiating, California has found a way to connect renewable energy sources with their stressed grid

When interconnected, solar energy can help bigger, more
stressed power grids. (APPA photo, Unsplash)
A new agreement in California has brought energy stakeholders together to help the state's taxed grid.

"For years, utilities have grappled with how to handle the ever-growing number of solar and battery systems trying to connect to the lower-voltage grids that deliver power to customers," reports Jeff St. John of Canary Media. "But distributed solar and battery resources can also be enormous assets: By holding back power when the grid doesn't need it and then sharing their extra power during periods of high demand, they can help alleviate grid strains and lower the cost of keeping the grid running for everyone."

The agreement between California regulators, utilities and clean-energy proponents has taken "nearly four years to hash out," St. John reports. "But in mid-March, the California Public Utilities Commission approved new interconnection rules that take into account how, with the right structures in place, solar and solar-plus-battery systems can be more help than hazard to California's overworked grid."

CPUC's new policy allows solar and battery projects to "modulate how much power they send to the grid with the help of either solar inverters whose power-control systems can reduce power output from moment to moment or batteries that can soak up excess solar power and inject it back into the grid later," St. John explains. 

Solving grid-interconnection conflicts is a nationwide challenge. 

St. John rreports, "Utilities have very good reasons to take a conservative, safety-first approach to interconnection. After all, they're responsible for keeping grids safe and reliable — and distributed energy resources represent potential disruptions to those grids that utilities can't directly control."

Quick hits: Wayne County murals showcase 'Walldogs'; a Midwestern state of mind; the eclipse capital is in Illinois

Willie Nelson singing at the first Farm Aid concert in 1985.
(Wayne Walldogs photo via Successful Farming)
Murals in Wayne County, Iowa, stand as a testament to the region's dynamic and resilient history. "Wayne County, a part of the Mormon Trail, where Brigham Young led his followers from Illinois to Utah in 1846, is also known for its excellent hunting opportunities, large Amish community, and well-appointed historical museum," reports Lisa Prater Froust of Successful Farming. "Last year, these historical events and figures were vividly brought to life in 16 murals painted during the five-day Wayne County Walldogs Festival." Not sure what 'walldog' is? Click here.

The Midwestern United States 
(Wikipedia map, from Census Bureau data)
Think you're a Midwesterner? For most residents, the answer depends on geography, but some people have other ideas. "Everyone knows places such as Ohio and Minnesota are solidly in the Midwest. But a recent poll finds that the Midwest is more a state of mind than just a place you can point to on a map," report Ben Kesling and Jennifer Levitz of The Wall Street Journal. "People from Colorado (42%), Oklahoma (66%) and even Wyoming (54%) think they live in the Midwest. . . . Some locals are baffled: 'Who ARE you people?'"

Pluto was demoted to one of dozens of dwarf
planets. (NASA photo via Nat Geo)
In 1930, a farm boy turned astronomer from Streator, Illinois, Clyde William Tombaug, discovered Pluto, which was designated our solar system's ninth planet, but then in 2006, Pluto got demoted. "Mike Brown, CalTech professor of astronomy and author of How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming, crashed the party and took away Pluto's planetary classification," reports Eric Alt of National Geographic. "Ever since the worlds of science and pop culture have debated Pluto's fate. . . . the matter seems far from settled."

Some news sources say the U.S. economy is recovering from the dark days of the pandemic, with most measures reporting a healthy rebound despite inflation's hold on grocery and housing costs. That's one picture. Talk to a local pawnbroker, and you'll hear a different report. "Accumulating pawnshop inventory means fewer buyers than sellers – a sign that for the lowest-income Americans, times remain tough," reports Lauren Villagran of USA Today. "Some Americans – people with retirement plans, savings and stock holdings – may gripe about inflation and the economy, but they're doing all right. Others are surviving pawn to pawn."

Location of Mikanda in Jackson
County, Illinois. (Wikipedia map)
The U.S. eclipse capital is the unassuming southern Illinois town of Mikanda, Illinois, pop. 500. It has been "blessed by the cosmos for the second time in under 10 years," reports Hunter Bassler of KSDK in St. Louis, Missouri. "Mikanda is the exact intersection for both the 2017 and 2024 eclipses, an astronomical wonder that rarely ever happens in such a short time span, according to NASA. . . . Village officials are preparing for bigger crowds this year."

Rainbow over Cheesebox Butte. Cheesebox Canyon is a popular Bear Ears hiking trail.
(Photo by Stephen Trimble, Writers on the Range)

Without knowing the region's history, Bear Ears National Monument evokes thoughts of strength, softness, and beauty. Dive deeper into the story of this 1.36 million-acre site in southeast Utah, and a timeline of battles, historical power dynamics and unresolved conflict emerges. "The political tussle over this stunning expanse of red rock canyons exemplifies all the cultural dissonance in the rural West," writes Stephen Trimble in his opinion for Writers on the Range. "White residents never envisioned challenges to their political power. But in 2009, the feds came down hard on generations of casual pothunting by local white families. Then, after a century of oppressing their Indigenous neighbors, lawsuits strengthened Native voting rights."

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Survey shows many Americans think grocery stores and restaurants -- but not farmers -- are overcharging them

In November 2023, The Rural Blog excerpted this question: "Is Chris Stapleton the one thing that America can agree on?" A new review of what people think of their food supply shows another topic most Americans agree on: food and staples are too expensive, and farmers aren't the primary problem.

University of Illinois and Purdue University agricultural experts examined the February Gardner Food and Agricultural Policy Survey results to "explore U.S. consumers' perceptions of firm size and pricing strategies of four important players in the food system — farmers, food manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants," Farmdoc Daily reports. The survey aims to include broader public opinions on food, from supplies to how food tastes.

As part of the survey, participants were asked  “Do you think any of the following groups in the food system are too big (i.e., have too much control or share of the market)?"

Gardner Food and Agricultural Policy Survey, February 2024

"The majority of consumers are concerned about the size of food manufacturers and grocery stores, with 67.8% and 51.6% indicating that these types of players in the food system are too big," Farmdoc reports.

Survey researchers also reviewed whether participants who felt food systems were too big fell along party lines. They did not. They noted, "We find that the majority of consumers across political parties thought food manufacturers and grocery stores were ‘too big’—highlighting that concerns about firm size have become a priority across party lines."

Gardner Food and Agricultural Policy Survey, February 2024

Consumer participants were asked which, if any, food provider was overcharging the public. Researchers wrote, "We find that over 70% of consumers think that restaurants, grocery stores, and food manufacturers are overcharging them. Far fewer (21.9%) thought that farmers were overcharging consumers."

Gardner Food and Agricultural Policy Survey, February 2024

For more details on survey questions and answers, Farmdoc Daily provides a readable pdf here.

Student absenteeism rose sharply after the pandemic and shows no signs of improving; teachers are absent more, too

Kids need more classroom time to learn.
(Photo by Kenny Eliason, Unsplash)
Even before the pandemic, getting kids off to school wasn't easy. But in post-Covid period, school attendance has sunk for many reasons, and efforts to get students and families to return to their previous routines have failed.

"Perhaps no issue has been as stubborn and pervasive as a sharp increase in student absenteeism, a problem that cuts across demographics and has continued long after schools reopened," report Sarah Mervosh and Francesca Paris of The New York Times. Across the United States, an "estimated 26 percent of public school students were considered chronically absent last school year, up from 15 percent before the pandemic. . . .Chronic absence is typically defined as missing at least 10 percent of the school year, or about 18 days, for any reason."

Across all demographic measures, fewer kids attend school regularly, but lower-income communities face the largest number of absences. The Times reports, "Around 32 percent of students in the poorest districts were chronically absent in the 2022-23 school year, up from 19 percent before the pandemic."

Once the engrained family routine of getting up, getting dressed and getting to school was broken, families found new ways to manage mornings without school, and past habits have not returned for many. Katie Rosanbalm, a psychologist and associate research professor with the Center of Child and Family Policy at Duke University, told the Times, "Our relationship with school became optional."

Despite many families' apathetic response, returning students to the classroom is vital for learning and student success. "Today, student absenteeism is a leading factor hindering the nation's recovery from pandemic learning losses, educational experts say. Students can't learn if they aren't in school," Mervosh and Paris write. Adding to the problem is an increase in teacher absences.

Many parents and educators wonder if the degree of absenteeism and different attitudes toward education are the new normal. "Bringing about meaningful change for large numbers of students remains slow, difficult work," the Times reports. 

In Montana, the cost of living and lack of affordable housing and child care contribute to growing workforce shortages

Rural Montana is a 'canary in the coal mine' for severe 
 labor shortages in needed sectors. (N. Fouriezos photo)

Across the country, the need for a younger workforce to fill a wide range of positions is reaching a critical point, but particularly for rural areas. Students and potential workers face a range of obstacles that prevent them from filing those roles, reports Nick Fouriezos of The Daily Yonder. In Montana, medical, academic and labor professionals are working to address these issues.

Lindsey Flather from Bitterroot Valley, Montana, is the kind of student Montana's new strategies aim to help. Fouriezos writes, "A working mother in her thirties, Flather decided to pursue a new career in health care. . . . And she is urgently needed. In Montana, 52 of 56 counties — including Ravalli County — are considered medically underserved, and nearly half of the state’s nurses say they plan on retiring or leaving the profession in the next five years."

Like many of her fellow students, Flather has faced long commutes for classes, a lack of child care options, and juggling to make work and school mend together. "At the same time, employers are desperate to get more people through these workforce pipelines," Fouriezos explains. "They, too, are challenged by geography, says Rebecca Conroy, the chief transformational officer at Bitterroot Health, a regional hospital in western Montana."

Yet even when needed professionals, such as medical assistants, graduate they often can't afford to live in the county where they are needed most. "The median rent in Hamilton, Bitterroot Valley's biggest town, is now $2,087, up 30% over the previous year," Fouriezos reports. "The lack of affordable housing makes it almost impossible to recruit out-of-towners, and the in-town workforce is drying up. The talent pipeline is thin, Conroy says. And the pressure is only growing."

"Employers like Conroy are the canaries in the coal mine of a growing talent shortage nationwide. So smoothing the route to jobs like medical assisting has become a key focus of Montana’s government and educational infrastructure," Fouriezos writes. "The state’s colleges recently partnered with the national nonprofit Education Design Lab to interview Conroy and local business leaders statewide about how they might create new educational opportunities, like a set of micro-credentials to allow people to build key skills in shorter courses over time."

'Toxic stress' can speed up aging and lead to other health problems; reducing stress levels can make a difference

Toxic stress can lead to unhealthy conditions.
(Photo by Luis Villasmil, Unsplash)

Not all stress is bad, but how does a person know when stress has crossed from a normal response to a health threat? And what can people do to change those feelings? Lawson R. Wulsin, a psychiatrist specializing in psychosomatic medicine, which focuses on people with physical and mental illnesses, discusses what good and toxic stress look like and what we can do about it in his commentary for The Conversation, a journalistic platform for academics.

One of the harshest truths about stress is that it speeds up aging. "A 2023 study of stress and aging over the life span — one of the first studies to confirm this piece of common wisdom — found that four measures of stress all speed up the pace of biological aging in midlife," Wulsin writes. "It also found that persistent high-stress ages people in a comparable way to the effects of smoking and low socioeconomic status, two well-established risk factors for accelerated aging."

The human body and mind are built to handle daily stresses, considered "good stress." Wulsin explains, "In fact, the rhythm of these daily challenges, including feeding yourself, cleaning up messes, communicating with one another and carrying out your job, helps to regulate your stress response system and keep you fit. . . . Toxic stress, on the other hand, wears down your stress response system in ways that have lasting effects."

While U.S. physicians aren't typically trained to treat stress, maybe they should be. Wulsin writes, "Over the past 40 years in the U.S., the alarming rise in rates of diabetes, obesity, depression, PTSD, suicide and addictions points to one contributing factor that these different illnesses share: toxic stress. Toxic stress increases the risk for the onset, progression, complications or early death from these illnesses."

If toxic stress is the catalyst for so many physical and mental woes, what can individuals do to reestablish healthier stress levels? "The first step to managing stress is to recognize it and talk to your primary care clinician about it. The clinician may do an assessment involving a self-reported measure of stress," Wulsin adds. "The next step is treatment. This approach, called 'lifestyle medicine,' focuses on improving health outcomes through changing high-risk health behaviors and adopting daily habits that help the stress response system self-regulate." 

For a deeper look at causes and treatments, Wulsin's book Toxic Stress will be released in April. For readers who are more interested in a physical explanation of what and where stress systems live in the body, a good explanation of polyvagal theory is here.

New 'On the Front Porch' conversation features author who has written about the resilience of small towns

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
Tony Pipa from "Reimagine Rural" and Brent Orrell of the American Enterprise Institute will host a discussion with Elizabeth Currid-Halkett author of The Overlooked Americans: The Resilience of Our Rural Towns and What It Means for Our Country on Thursday, April 4, from 10 to 11:30 a.m., E.T. The discussion is part of the "On the Front Porch" series about research on issues involving rural America. 

Despite a common narrative that rural America is poor and detached, Currid-Halkett uses data and interview research to trace how small towns are doing as well as — or better than — cities using homeownership, income and employment benchmarks.

She also shows how rural and urban Americans share core values — even on issues such as racism and environmental sustainability — revealing that the nation is less fractured by geography than many people believe. This session is available online here.

To learn more about struggles and triumphs in rural America, Brookings' offers a podcast called Reimagine Rural. It features Pipa traveling through rural America and explores small-town challenges for residents who live in it. 

Rural counties gain population for second consecutive year

Louisiana had the highest rate of rural-population decline, 0.82%.
Driven by migration to rural areas near major cities, the population of America's rural counties grew in 2023, according to a Daily Yonder analysis of Census Bureau data. "The gain came primarily in counties that are closest to metropolitan areas and was the result of people moving to those counties from other parts of the country or internationally," Sarah Melotte reports.

"From 2022 to 2023, the number of people living in nonmetropolitan (rural) counties grew by 109,000 residents, a 0.24% increase. That’s slightly lower than the 150,000 residents that rural America gained from 2021 to 2022. These gains came after rural America lost nearly 300,000 residents in the 2010s. Meanwhile, metropolitan counties grew by 1.5 million residents from 2022 and 2023, a 0.53% increase in population."

Migration was key to rural population growth, because "rural counties recorded 610,000 deaths and 491,000 births . . . what demographers call natural decrease, which happens when the number of deaths is greater than the number of births." Almost all the rural population growth, 97 percent, occurred in counties that are adjacent to metropolitan areas. Overall, the growth in rural counties was small: 0.24%. Other types of areas gained much more, except the cores of major metros, which gained 0.14%.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Both of California's legislative leaders hail from rural backgrounds -- it's a first in more than 50 years

Coast Redwood Forest
(Wikipedia photo)
Rural people and issues often get politically sidelined, but some of that dynamic has changed in California. "It's the first time in more than 50 years that both of California's legislative leaders hail from rural districts," reports Camille Von Kaenel of Politico. "Rural interests accustomed to being on the outskirts of Sacramento policymaking are enjoying the view from the inside and are hoping to make a mark — particularly on climate and environmental policies."
North Coast California
(Wikipedia map)

Senate leader Mike McGuire from Healdsburg, pop. 11,300, represents the state's North Coast district, which is replete with redwood forests, salmon fisheries and Sonoma County wineries. Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas' district covers the Central Coast, also known as the "salad bowl" of America, where he grew up in farmworker housing. Von Kaenel notes, "The last time both leaders hailed from rural districts was in 1969, when Democrat Hugh Burns of Fresno County led the Senate and Republican Bob Monagan of San Joaquin County led the Assembly."

Central Coast California
(Wikipedia map)
For Chris Lopez, the chair of the Rural County Representatives of California, which includes 40 of California's 58 counties, "The representation alone is powerful," Von Kaenel reports. Lopez told her, "When Robert was sworn in as speaker, having a mariachi on that floor playing music spoke to my heart. It wasn't just about having a Latino, but having a Latino who grew up rural in farmworker housing."

Von Kaenel writes, "They're careful to emphasize they're representing everyone, including their urban counterparts." McGuire said in a recent statement: "No matter if you live in Eureka or Encino, the priorities are similar. While I'll always have country roots, I'm going to fight like hell to lift up every Californian, no matter if you live in the big city or a one-traffic-stop-light town."