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

Male cicadas make the bug's signature buzzing sounds. (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."

NBC News map, adapted by The Rural Blog
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."