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March 22, 2021

There may be more reason to avoid paper drinking straws than general distaste for them, a new study from the University of Florida, published last week in ScienceDirect, suggests.

The researchers found per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which in layman's terms are potentially harmful chemicals, in paper and other plant-based straws, which have become more common amid a global push to cut back on the use of plastics. In fact, the PFASs may provide the straws with their water-resistant properties.

The chemicals' presence, the authors wrote in the study's abstract, demonstrates the straws "are not fully biodegradable, contributing to the direct human ingestion of PFAS and to the cycle of PFAS between waste streams and the environment."

Mariah Blake, a journalist working on a book about PFASs, or "forever chemicals," notes they are linked to cancer and a host of other ailments. Read the study's abstract at ScienceDirect. Tim O'Donnell

May 20, 2020

A new study found that the Supreme Court's female justices were cut off more quickly than their male colleagues by Chief Justice John Roberts during oral arguments made over the phone last week because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The study's author, Prof. Leah Litman, a legal scholar from the University of Michigan, found that all three of the longest periods of question were from male justices, as were nine of the 12 longest. In contrast, three of the shortest questioning periods ended by Roberts — who was single-handedly policing time allotments due to the restructured argument model — were from female justices, as were eight of the 12 shortest, even though women only comprise 33 percent of the seats on the bench.

On an individual level, Justice Sonia Sotomayor had her questioning ended the most frequently by Roberts; her longest stretch was only the 10th longest overall.

Litman acknowledges this isn't surprising given that previous studies have suggested women justices are interrupted more frequently under normal circumstances, though she did say that Roberts' speed may also be related to where he personally was leaning on a case. Read the full study here. Tim O'Donnell

April 24, 2020

Nearly a third of Americans believe that it is either "probably" or "definitely" true that a coronavirus vaccine exists and is being withheld, according to a new study by the Democracy Fund and the UCLA Nationscape Project, in partnership with USA Today. "To see about a third of people give that some level of, 'Yeah, that might be true,' that was pretty shocking to me," said Robert Griffin, the research director at the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group. "That's a pretty dark type of thought to be floating around the public."

While there are as many as 150 different vaccines in various stages of development at this point, a COVID-19 vaccination will only be ready in 12 to 18 months "if we're really lucky," Seth Berkley, the head of the Gavi Vaccine Alliance, a global immunization partnership, told AFP on Friday. He added that "one of the challenges" of this particular pandemic is that "we don't know if we can make a vaccine … we have no proof of concept yet."

Still, the Democracy Fund/UCLA Nationscape Project study found that many such unfounded beliefs have become widespread among the American electorate, including that some 44 percent of voters think it is probable that the virus was created in a lab, while another 48 percent think the U.S is "concealing" the true number of COVID-19 deaths, a belief that is held by more than half of Democrats.

"Not all of this is necessarily conspiracy-thinking," argued Griffin. "Some of it might just might purely be misunderstanding or things that people don't know yet, a lack of education."

The survey was conducted as part of a large-scale survey of the American electorate, which will be ongoing through the 2020 election cycle. The latest results came from a sampling of 6,300 Americans between April 2 and 8, and has a margin of error of 2.2 percent. You can read more of the results here. Jeva Lange

April 21, 2020

A nationwide study that's been submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine found that hydroxychloroquine — a malaria drug often touted by President Trump has a strong candidate for COVID-19 therapy — does not benefit coronavirus patients, The Associated Press reports.

In fact, the analysis, which tracked 368 patients in U.S. veterans hospitals, shows that patients treated with the drug actually died at a higher rate than those treated with standard care. Hydroxychloroquine reportedly also didn't make a difference when it comes to who needed a breathing machine.

The study was the largest to look at the drug so far, but like its predecessors, it still isn't considered a rigorous experiment and has yet to be peer-reviewed. The National Institutes of Health and other research labs are in the process of conducting large-scale trials that will hopefully paint a clear picture of its efficacy. Still, several scientists have been "underwhelmed" with the drug's performance so far. Read more at The Associated Press. Tim O'Donnell

February 19, 2020

A new study from the University of Rochester suggests estimates about the role of human activity in climate-altering methane emissions — which are more potent than carbon emissions and responsible for a quarter of global heating — have traditionally fallen somewhere between 25 and 40 percent short.

Published in Nature, the study says past monitoring efforts looked too far back in time to get an accurate read on whether the emissions came from natural, geological sources or from human activity, namely oil and gas companies. To get a better sense of the actual figures from the pre-industrial era 300 years ago, the Rochester team analyzed air from that period trapped in glaciers in Greenland. They determined previous findings had significantly overestimated the share of naturally released fossil methane, which would mean humanity's role has been downplayed.

Dave Ray, the executive director of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, told The Guardian fossil fuel extraction, including fracking, "was a major part of global methane emissions, but this impressive study suggests it is a far bigger culprit in human-induced climate change than we had ever thought." Read more at The Guardian. Tim O'Donnell

December 10, 2019

It turns out an Obama-era budgeting issue may have gone a long way toward proving the link between expanded health insurance and fewer deaths, The New York Times reports.

On the surface, it seems obvious that having health insurance would decrease the likelihood of death, but some economists are skeptical since uninsured people aren't completely excluded from health insurance. So an accidental study that took place in the final days of the Obama administration showing that the mortality rates did decline with increased coverage has other experts excited.

In 2016, as part of the Affordable Health Care Act, the Internal Revenue Service sent 3.9 million Americans a letter telling them they had recently paid a fine for not carrying health insurance and suggested ways to enroll. The letter was supposed to go out to all 4.5 million people who didn't enroll, but the budget turned out to be too small, leaving 600,000 people in the dark. That wound up allowing the Treasury Department to conduct a study, which showed that for every 1,648 people who received the letter, one fewer death occurred than among those who hadn't, per the Times.

The economists' research found that the letter led to a 12 percent decline in mortality, which is far from insignificant, although it's still unclear just how large the effects may be. Either way, Sarah Miller, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who researches the topic, said the study provides "a really high standard of evidence that you can't just dismiss." Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

September 4, 2019

Food insecurity estimates declined to pre-2008 recession levels in 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found in a study. The number of American households without dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living declined to 11.1 percent, a drop from 11.8 percent in 2017.

The number is also down over three percentage points from its peak of 14.9 percent in 2011. The number of households struggling with what the USDA describes as "very low food security," which is considered a more severe range of food insecurity, decreased only slightly from 4.5 percent in 2017 to 4.3 percent last year.

Meanwhile, the number of food insecure households with at least one child remains higher than the overall total, but that number has declined, as well. In fact, the 13.9 percent mark — while still high — is the lowest point on record.

The number of food insecure households with at least one senior, however, did not decrease at the same rate.

Rates of food insecurity varied by state and demographics, as well. New Hampshire registered the lowest rate at 7.8 percent, while New Mexico was highest at 16.8. Black- and Hispanic-headed households had rates of food insecurity higher than the national average. Read more here. Tim O'Donnell

September 24, 2018

To the extent that police focus on revenue collection through fee and fine enforcement and civil asset forfeiture — a practice often dubbed "policing for profit," particularly when the funds are built into departmental or city budget plans — they solve fewer crimes, study results published Monday at The Washington Post show.

A trio of researchers compared Census Bureau data on municipal revenue collection with information from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program. After examining two years of data for 6,000 cities, they found police in cities that rely on fines for revenue crack significantly fewer cases.

The numbers are dramatic. In a hypothetical average city, if 1 percent of municipal revenue comes from fees, fines, and forfeitures, this model predicts the police department would solve 58 percent of violent crimes and 32 percent of property crimes. But if 3 percent of the revenue is collected this way, only 41 percent of violent crimes and 16 percent of property crimes would be solved.

Thus, the Post report summarizes, "cities where police are collecting revenue, communities are at once overpoliced — because they are charged with more fines and fees — and underpoliced — because serious crimes in their areas are less likely to be solved."

A 2013 study of towns in Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, and Mississippi found some municipal governments get more revenue from fines than from taxes. In a particularly egregious case, Henderson, Louisiana, obtained about $3.73 from fees, fines, and forfeitures for every $1 it collected in taxes. Other cities and towns across the country are increasingly relying on this sort of revenue collection to increase budgets without a formal tax hike. Bonnie Kristian

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