Thursday, February 08, 2024

Residents in Virginia spar over gravel or paved roads; some want progress, others want historic preservation

Sheep farming is a way of life for some Loudoun residents.
(Washington Post photo)
Their plan might be unorthodox and controversial, but some residents in western Loudoun County, Va., aim to save their "picturesque rural enclave" from suburban sprawl by "putting all of the roughly 250 miles of gravel roads that meander across the county on the National Register of Historic Places," report Justin Jouvenal, Bonnie Jo Mount and Jayne Orenstein of The Washington Post. "Some say protecting Loudoun's gravel roads will ensure its rustic soul and charm survive a suburban onslaught. But not everyone wants to go along for the ride."

Map by Tim Mek, WP, from
Loudoun County data
Some of Loudoun County has already been sub-urbanized by new homes, restaurants and thousands of residents who work in Washington, D.C. But in this slice of the county, some see that keeping unpaved roads will prevent a burbs takeover. "Supporters say the lanes evoke Loudoun's rural soul, history and charm," the Post reports. "Detractors see a quixotic quest to thwart the most basic steps into modernity. They complain of rattling rides to work and Starbucks that sometimes feel like sitting in the seat of a tractor."

The battle of unpaved vs. improved is so contentious that "Loudoun County Supervisor Caleb Kershner refers to it as the 'road wars.' Similar fights have played out in other localities across the country as the movement to preserve unpaved roads has gained traction in recent decades," Jouvenal, Mount and Orenstein write. "A network of roads is an atypical pick for the National Park Service's register. . . . Supporters say Loudoun's roads belong there because they span the sweep of American history."

Sheep have the right-of-way in Loudoun.
(Washington Post photo)
"The plan, spearheaded by a group called America’s Routes, is also a bid to hold on to something intangible — a kind of life that has all but disappeared in the pressure cooker of the nation’s capital," the Post reports. "But where some see character, others see a dirty track, as rutted as an old washboard, that grows less appealing with each flat tire and trip to the car wash."

The battle continues. "These competing visions erupted at a Board of Supervisors meeting in September, where residents clashed for over an hour over paving a handful of roads — including just 300 feet of one," according to the article. "The Virginia Department of Transportation launched a pilot project about six years ago that put a layer of concrete beneath the gravel to stabilize the road — a sort of middle ground between paving and not paving."

To read out about a hidden but pivotal piece of U.S. Civil War history that took place at Beaverdam Ford along Loudoun gravel roads, read the full story here.

What is milk? The heated debate between labeling animal and plant 'milk' continues with spoofs and a Muppet

'Got milk?' ad campaigns poke fun at their competitions'
claims. (California Milk Processor Board photo)
Got milk? The question is still a dairy ad slogan, but it's also a part of a contentious debate. "A flood of plant-based milk alternatives — almond, oat, coconut, rice, flax, hemp and soy — has set off an aggressive defense by dairy milk producers," reports Kristina Peterson of The Wall Street Journal. "Milk producers and their allies are lobbying to scrub 'milk' off the labels of plant-based rivals. Their position is: If it doesn't come from a lactating animal, it isn't milk."

As part of their campaign, animal milk producers have deployed an array of spoofs to point out what milk is. In one mockumentary-style video, an actress looks at a tree and asks, "Can I drink this?" Peterson writes, "As it turns out, the answer is yes, she says before taking a stomach-turning sip. The video, which collected 5.7 million views, is among several from the Milk Processor Education Program, an industry-funded group known as MilkPep."

Cookie Monster gives soy a try and declares it
'yumyumyum.' (Photo via PR Newswire)

Plant-based milk companies have their own arsenal of promoters, including one of America's most beloved snack lovers. Peterson reports, "Califia Farms recruited Cookie Monster, the blue-furred 'Sesame Street' Muppet, to try almond milk in his cereal for an ad. No surprise, the celebrity milk dunker liked it, calling himself a 'multifaceted individual.'"

Over the years, plant-based milk has chipped away at animal-based dairy profits, but both face stiff market competition. "Sales of plant-based milk, measured by dollars, have grown 48% since 2018 but edged down in the past year," Peterson explains. "The two rivals also face a tsunami of bottled-, canned- and boxed-water competitors — all vying to fill a limited niche."

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration proposed that "plant-based beverages could still be called milk but should carry labels that explain the nutritional differences with cow's milk," Peterson reports. Neither side was happy with the FDA's compromise. Almond growers growled that their customers weren't confused about the differences between the two products. The Almond Alliance, a trade group, told the FDA that "historians have traced almond milk to medieval times, dispelling any notion it originated in an artisanal coffee joint."

Animal dairy producers have asked lawmakers to intervene by "prohibiting any food made of nuts, seeds, plants or algae from using such dairy terms as milk or cheese," Peterson writes. Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, a state where dairy dominates the agricultural sector, is a sponsor of the bill. Simpson told the Journal, "I'm not trying to restrict what you can drink. Just label it what it is. I got no problem with almond 'drink.'"

After at least 3 fentanyl deaths in 7 months, weekly in small Kentucky county alerts its readers to dangers, details

Most of this week's front page; click it to enlarge.
Photo illustration is based on a DEA image. 
After three fentanyl overdoses since June in Crittenden County, Kentucky, the first recorded in the county of 9,000 people, and another death in which fentanyl could have been a contributing factor, the local editor-publisher thought it was time to alert his readers to the danger.

"Considered by some as the grim reaper of recreational drugs, fentanyl has hit Crittenden County like a reaper’s scythe over last the few months," Chris Evans of The Crittenden Press began his story, which reported the deaths without the victims' names, noted that the county normally has about three overdoses of any drug in a year, then gave a rationale for the story and made it an implicit example to follow: "Observers say small communities like Marion should raise awareness or prepare to see more deaths in their neighborhoods."

Evans quotes local and state officials and writes, "Fentanyl is approximately 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. Illegal manufacturers often lack understanding, ability and precision to make fentanyl. It’s not a forgiving drug. One minuscule mistake is irreversibly deadly."

Dr. Christopher Kiefer of the state medical examiner’s office told him, “High-school-age kids might be swapping pills. That’s not uncommon. They might think they’re getting a mild painkiller pressed in a lab. They might think it’s Oxycodone or Lortab, but it ends up being fentanyl. You don’t have to be using a needle to die of an overdose. . . . It is a dangerous time right now because people don’t know what they’re getting,”

Crittenden County (Wikipedia map)
Evans adds, "The doctor further explains that fentanyl made and distributed on the black market can be dressed or disguised as just about anything. Someone may think they’re getting a pill from a friend’s mom’s medicine cabinet when it’s something far more sinister and deadly." He quotes Marion Police Chief Bobby West as saying that families and friends of drug users can be the best preventers of overdoses, and “Conversations need to be had about this drug and how it can kill you.”

Evans concludes, "The stark reality of this drug is that it can creep undected into any corner of society and become an instant killer. Now, it’s in Marion." His package also includes sidebars about synthetic opioids (fentanyl is one) and a quick-look box giving street names for the drug, how it is used, what it does and what an overdose can look like: "Stupor, changes in pupil size, clammy skin, cyanosis, coma, and respiratory failure."

Evans has made this week's issue available online, here.

Hoarding disorders are more easily hidden in rural communities and getting treatment is more challenging

A hoarding disorder can be less visible in rural places.
(Photo via RHIHub)
Some people have a lot of stuff, but too many piles of too many things may be evidence of a hoarding disorder. For rural residents, who skew older and have more available storage space, hoarding can mean "unseen" health and safety risks," reports Gretel Kauffman for Rural Health Information Hub. "About 2% percent of the general population experiences hoarding disorder. Among older adults over 55, the prevalence rate jumps up to more than 6%, making people increasingly vulnerable to the disorder as they age."

Hoarding disorder is a relatively new diagnosis. It was added to Psychiatry's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013. The DSM defines hoarding disorder as "persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value. . . due to a perceived need to save the items and to the distress associated with discarding them. . . . It causes clinically significant distress or impairment . . . including maintaining a safe environment for oneself or others."

Letting go of things can be emotionally charged, and as people age, they may become physically unable to move items from their homes, which can add to distress. "Left untreated, the disorder can lead to health risks, such as an increased risk of falling, fire hazards, food contamination, poor sanitary and hygienic conditions, trouble keeping track of medications, and infestations of mold, insects, or rodents. It may exacerbate other conditions such as depression and anxiety," Kauffman explains. "In rural settings, identifying and reaching people struggling to part with their possessions can be extra difficult . . . . And getting someone into treatment in the first place can be a challenge."

Because remote areas offer so many unique "homes" for saving things -- barns, smokehouses, sheds, unoccupied houses, and even corn cribs -- sometimes family and neighbors have no idea how much stuff is being hoarded. Catherine Ayers, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, calls the diagnosis "unseen." She told Kauffman, "It's not bothering other people, because there's so much space. They don't have a neighbor that is having roaches or bedbugs come over, so there's no urgency yet."

It's important for family, friends and providers to keep in mind that a hoarding disorder is harmful. Kauffman adds, "To identify and treat hoarding disorder early on, Ayers recommends that primary care providers ask all of their patients a few simple, non-stigmatizing questions, such as, 'Does the number of possessions you have in your home make it difficult to use the rooms in the way they're intended?' or 'Have friends and family members complained that you have too many items in your home?'" For people seeking treatment in more remote areas, telehealth and remote learning can be treatment options.

Opinion: We were friends for years, but our different views about Donald Trump tore us apart

Art Cullen
This opinion piece by Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times Pilot in Iowa, was first published as a guest essay by The New York Times

I miss my friends. We lost one another somewhere along the way, through the pandemic and politics of the last few years, old boys who had known one another since Little League and caught boatloads of walleyes together on Storm Lake in Iowa.

We gathered around a pool table a couple of times a week for many years to see where the fish were biting, to learn who is putting up that building on the edge of town and to exaggerate exploits of days gone by. Our political discussions were limited to Hawkeyes (University of Iowa) versus Cyclones (Iowa State) football or how city hall don’t know siccum.

There were complaints that Barack Obama wanted to take our guns. And that those idlers ought to get a job and quit complaining. And that a little guy couldn’t compete in the trades anymore when the big outfits hired undocumented labor to underbid them on local jobs.

But it was mainly jokes shouted over classic rock. If things got too heavy, our resident sage, Rooster, would commandeer the discussion and suck all the oxygen from the room with a rant about how most of the world’s problems could be solved or at least avoided if weed were legal.

Illustration by Gabriel Carr, NYT
Not even Rooster could talk over Donald Trump. A would-be tyrant holed up at a Florida golf course with a bunch of sycophants changed the conversation in our metal shed. Its walls could not ward off the bombardment of propaganda, lies and false fears fostered by a half century of justifiable frustration wrought by consolidation, decline and loss.

The pandemic kept us away. I was lonely. I visited Rooster at his little bachelor shack and watched “Wagon Train” reruns. He wasn’t feeling the best. We got back to shooting pool, though it wasn’t long before Rooster laid down his guns and died. Cancer got him fast. It should have shaken us straight, but hell sort of broke loose. Arguments started over vaccines and masks and Mr. Trump. The rodeo clown was no longer there to distract the raging bull set loose by the bombardment.

So, I quit shooting.

One of my old friends, or shall I say acquaintances, recently said on Facebook that I lacked integrity after I posted an editorial from our newspaper complaining about Mr. Trump’s contempt for the democratic process and rule of law. I’ve been a community newspaper editor for decades and no stranger to controversy, having angered the agribusiness gods and endured their reprobation, but I have to say that barb stuck. Our mothers were good friends. They would not have spoken that way about each other, at least in public.

We’re old enough for Social Security and to recall scooping the loop in a jacked-up Chevelle waiting for “Beaker Street” to beam over the AM airwaves from Little Rock, Ark. Or how you used to bring your shotgun to Storm Lake High School and leave it in your locker so you could bag a pheasant in a freshly picked cornfield after school. Rush Limbaugh took over AM, and the shotgun gave way to the assault rifle.

You would think we could see around our differences. We can’t. We’ve been programmed by nonstop propaganda, especially those of us in Iowa besieged by presidential campaigns and the wedge issues they drill home. Instead of trying to hash things out, I just quit trying. My bad. I got tired.

Small-town hacks learn who their friends are. We publish uncomfortable facts of public interest and opinions that often go against the grain. Businesses stop advertising because you wrote about their lawsuit. That I get. It’s a hazard of the occupation that I regret every day. You pledge to do better even when you have done nothing wrong.

The ad hominem attacks have become the norm, especially since Mr. Trump took center stage and refused to exit. We went from Iowa Nice to Iowa Nasty. We’re stuck there whether Mr. Trump leaves or hangs around. That’s my lament.

You can’t just talk about the weather anymore, or how to smoke a trout, or compliment Solo on his pickled Polish sausage. You make new friends but they don’t necessarily replace the ones you lost right here in your hometown. I text my buddy in New York nearly every day, but I can’t shoot pool with him. I still shoot pool with Solo, our retired pressman, in the bubble of our former pressroom. He kind of liked Representative Steve King at one time because he took on the Establishment. I differed. We sweated a lot together, slinging ink, even bleeding a little, for the truth at 15,000 impressions per hour. That’s worth more than Steve King.

I know where I live. Northwest Iowa is a frozen slice of Texas, one of the most conservative places in the country. I guess I am what you call woke because I don’t think immigrants are the problem; I think income — lack of it — is the problem. All this talk about bathroom bills and book bans is one giant distraction from how global corporations have stolen our franchise. I am not the enemy of the people, dude — we were in Cub Scouts together.

Rooster would have pointed that out in an outrageous way, and he would have ridiculed us all for being that stupid and blind. We would have laughed and cracked another cold one, and grabbed some more of that trout. Those were the days.

Art Cullen is the editor of The Storm Lake Times Pilot and author of “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope From a Heartland Newspaper.”

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Eagle Pass, Texas, continues to face an ongoing immigration feud between state and federal leaders

A family talks with the National Guard in Eagle Pass.
(Photo by Go Nakamura, Reuters via WP)
In Eagle Pass, Texas, the immigration battle between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and the federal government has ratcheted up area tensions as both sides seek to control the border.

In a move "invoking the state's right to defend itself against what he sees as an invasion," Abbot ordered the Texas National Guard to continue building a 2.5-mile blockage along the Rio Grande to prevent immigrants from "invading," reports Arelis R. Hernández of The Washington Post. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court has "ordered Abbott to allow Border Patrol agents to remove or cut wire to reach the river and aid migrants in distress. . . . Abbott's troops are installing even more wire. Twenty-five Republican governors recently signed a letter expressing their support for Abbott's rebellion."

The power struggle between Abbott and the Biden administration leaves Eagle Pass residents in the cross-hairs of a situation where compromise looks unlikely. The region's economic dependence on border crossing means many townspeople have their daily lives and incomes disrupted by the tensions. "Eagle Pass is the largest city in Maverick County, with nearly 30,000 residents, but it is isolated from most other U.S. border cities," Hernández writes. "Mexicans who cross legally make up nearly half of Eagle Pass's workforce; many U.S. residents also cross the river to work. . . ."

Eagle Pass high school track students can't use Shelby Park for practice because Abbott seized the park in January and the town's hotels remained packed with out-of-towners. Eagle Pass residents are shocked at the attention. Mike Garcia, a retired insurance salesman and active Chamber of Commerce member, told Hernández, "People now know where Eagle Pass is, but are we famous or infamous?"

For the foreseeable future, the feud will continue and locals will struggle to have their voices heard. Hernández explains, "The state's border with Mexico is an international boundary under the jurisdiction of federal authorities, but Abbott and his allies contend they have the right to intervene because the Biden administration hasn't done enough to stanch the record number of migrants trying to enter Texas illegally in recent months. . . . Locals here hold views on immigration that are as complicated as the stories of how their families became fronterizos, or borderlanders. . . . Residents said federal and state elected leaders routinely leave them out of the conversation."

A year after the East Palestine derailment, some residents have not returned home, and others report health problems

The site of the East Palestine train derailment.
(Photo by Cara Owsley, The Enquirer via USA Today)
More than a year has passed since the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, left the unsuspecting community of 5,000 living in the aftermath of a hazardous chemical explosion and its mitigating "controlled chemical burn." Many residents believe their lives are forever changed because of toxic exposure during and after the disaster.

Five days after the accident, Ohio officials announced that it was safe for residents to return home. "But five families who spoke to The Cincinnati Enquirer . . . just before the one-year anniversary say they're still dealing with health problems," reports Elizabeth B. Kim of The USA Today Network. Despite the lack of scientific studies tying the derailment's toxic spill to long-term health problems, "relocated families are still experiencing symptoms and foot many of their medical bills without help from the railroad or the government. They don't consider their East Palestine homes to be safe, and they're worried that moving back will worsen their symptoms."

Financial help from Norfolk Southern ends on Feb. 9 for families who relocated to other areas. "Some of the symptoms families say they face are chronic, and others are acute, appearing suddenly after a short period of time spent in one's home," Kim writes. "Christa Graves, 49, has had migraines before, but they increased in frequency from weekly to daily starting last February. . . . While Norfolk Southern offered to relocate people living within a mile of the derailment site, Graves lives 1.2 miles away. The railroad denied her request for relocation assistance, and her family has been unable to move out ever since."

Despite residents' reported health problems, the town's air and water have repeatedly passed quality testing. Anne Vogel, director of the Ohio EPA, said, "The agency is not planning to offer more residential air testing following those initial results," Kim reports. Ohio EPA "has also continued weekly sampling of the municipal water system since February 2023 and reported that no contaminants from the derailment have been detected."

Beyond ongoing health issues and expenses, families who have been unable to go home "described the crushing blow of losing their homes, sometimes passed down for generations," Kim reports. "Candy Kiehl still feels a strong connection to her East Palestine house despite feeling unconvinced that it's free of contamination." Kiehl told her: "That was my grandparents' house. That's where my mom passed away. That's where my dad passed away. But is it safe? I don't know."

A new way of evaluating food as healthy or unhealthy could improve diets but also cut profits for major companies

Gummy worms are ultra-processed.
(Photo by Karsten Winegeart, Unsplash)
What does ultra-processed food sound like? It sounds like the polyglycerol polyricinoleate in Hershey's chocolate or the tripotassium phosphate in Cheerios, or more broadly, the protein isolates or emulsifiers that "aren't normally found in a domestic kitchen," reports Carol Ryan of The Wall Street Journal. "Growing scrutiny of the peculiar ingredients in popular snack foods might be bad news for their makers."

Evaluating foods based on their ingredients vs. salt, sugar and fat content to determine if they are "ultra-processed" comes from "a way of classifying foods, called Nova, that emerged in Brazil over a decade ago," Ryan explains. "It is also a new way to think about diet. Nova groups foods based on how intensively processed they are. Some scientists think that industrial processing of food itself might be harmful and encourage overeating."

Nova's evidence is controversial, but "it is being taken seriously, including at policy level. The U.S. government will give Americans fresh diet advice in 2025 as part of a review that happens once every five years," Ryan reports. "For the first time, federal researchers and health experts will examine the relationship between ultra-processed foods and the risk of obesity. A scientific report is expected this year."

Meanwhile, big food companies are monitoring the debate, which could cut into revenues. "Ultra-processed snacks and meals are highly profitable. Major packaged food companies, including Kraft Heinz, General Mills and Nestlé, made an average operating margin of 17% over the past five years, according to FactSet data," Ryan writes. "Products that fall under Nova's UPF category make up roughly 57% of the average American and British diet and an even greater proportion for children."

Some ingredients in processed foods are there to give food a longer shelf life, prevent waste or lower costs. According to a Barclays analysis, "products containing the most common preservative, emulsifier and sweetener additives were 5% cheaper than their category average," Ryan reports. "Even foods that target health-conscious consumers — such as oat milk and plant-based meat — can be intensely processed, as manufacturers try to mimic the taste, texture and smell of animal products."

Quick hits: Elmo helps adults; schools sue social media; rural hearing loss; chatbot and climate deniers talk

Elmo told NBC Today reporters, "I'm really glad I asked."
(NBC News photo)
Feeling weary? You're not alone. "Thousands of people unloaded their life problems on Elmo last week after the red Muppet posed a casual question on X: 'How is everybody doing?' Not well, it seems," reports Angela Yang of NBC News. "The question opened the floodgates to a deluge of internet users eager to vent to the children's show character that had somehow signed himself up to be the internet's newest therapist." Sesame Street used Elmo's touching text to provide emotional health education for adults.

Last week, social media leaders took a grilling by a U.S. Senate committee for their role in helping sexual predators solicit and abuse children. But Congress isn't the only entity looking for social media accountability. "More than 200 school districts have now sued the major social media companies over the youth mental health crisis," reports Arianna Prothero for Education Weekly. "What started as a single lawsuit filed by the Seattle public schools one year ago has morphed into an all-out offensive against the social media platforms. . . . It is still the early stages of this legal saga, but experts say it could prove to be highly consequential for K-12 education — win, lose, or settle."

The world is learning to love cheese. (Canva photo)
Whether it's salty bites of chewy Mimolette or the stretchy delight of melted Gouda, cheese is among the few things many global citizens can agree on. "People can't get enough cheese, regardless of what continent they live on," reports Fran Howard of Dairy Herd. "Cheese has long been a staple in many countries' cuisine, and in those cultures where cheese has more recently been introduced, demand continues to rise." Sarina Sharp, an analyst with the Daily Dairy Report, told Howard: "Global cheese demand just keeps climbing."

Hearing loss is often more common in rural men.
(Photo by Jed Owens, Unsplash)
Along with stiff muscles and diminishing eyesight, aging often includes hearing loss, but rural men are more likely to experience it than others. "A new estimate shows hearing loss affects approximately 37.9 million Americans and is more common in rural areas than urban ones and in men than women," reports Devi Shastri of The Associated Press. "While the study could not explain the reason for the geographic divide, experts who treat hearing loss say there are two factors to consider: how loud noises are and how often people hear them."

Teacher by day and farmer by night, Marcia Ruff helped build her family's Circleville, Ohio, farm from the ground up. She teaches kindergarten during the week but spends most evenings and weekends working on the farm with her husband, Mark, and three children, reports Cheyenne Kramer of Farm Journal. Ruff told Kramer, "This is really the dream life I had envisioned. As a teacher, you educate children and prepare them for the world, but as a farmer, you feed the world." Kramer reports, "Ruff was the 2023 'Women in Ag' award winner. Read more about the Ruffs here.

Freepik photo
Some interesting things happen when humans discuss social issues with an AI chatbot. "In a study recently published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers at the University of Wisconsin asked people to strike up a climate conversation with a GPT-3," reports Kate Yoder of Grist. "The study analyzed the bot’s interactions with more than 3,000 people, mostly in the United States, from across the political spectrum. Roughly a quarter of them came into the study with doubts about established climate science, and they tended to come away from their chatbot conversations a little more supportive of the scientific consensus."