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The 10 American Cities With the Dirtiest Air

| Thu Apr. 30, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Nearly 44 percent of Americans live in areas with dangerous levels of ozone or particle pollution, according to the American Lung Association's annual "State of the Air" report, published yesterday.

The good news is that's actually an improvement over last year's report, which showed that 47 percent of the population lived in these highly polluted places. Overall, the air has been getting cleaner since Congress enacted stricter regulations in the 1970s, and the American Lung Association report, which looked at data from 2011 through 2013, showed a continuing drop in the air emissions that create the six most widespread pollutants.

This year, short-term particle pollution was especially bad in the West, in part due to the drought and heat.

But don't pat yourself on the back just yet. Many cities experienced a record number of days with high levels of particle pollution, a mixture of solid and liquid droplets in the air that have been linked to serious health problems. Short-term particle pollution was especially bad in the West, in part due to the drought and heat, which may have increased the dust, grass fires and wildfires. Six cities—San Francisco; Phoenix; Visalia, California; Reno, Nevada.; Yakima, Washington; and Fairbanks, Alaska—recorded their highest weighted average number of unhealthy particle pollution days since the American Lung Association started covering this metric in 2004.

Los Angeles held its rank as the metropolitan area with the worst ozone pollution, even as it saw its best three-year period since the first report 16 years ago: the city experienced a one-third reduction in its average number of unhealthy ozone days since the late 1990s.

Meanwhile, states on the east coast showed the most headway in cleaning up their air, with major drops in year-round particle pollution. The American Lung Association attributed the improvement to a push for cleaner diesel fleets and cleaner fuels in power plants.

"The progress is exactly what we want to see, but to see some areas having some of their worst episodes was unusual," said Janice Nolen, an air pollution expert with the association, referring to the record-breaking days of short-term particle pollution.

Data is missing for some of the dirtiest cities in the Midwest, including Chicago and St. Louis, due in part to problems at data labs in Illinois and Tennessee. Similar problems in Georgia also prevented researchers from assessing changes in Atlanta, another city notorious for air pollution.

Outdoor air pollution has been linked to about 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide, by causing or exacerbating lung cancer, chronic obstructive lung disease, acute lower respiratory infections, ischaemic heart disease, and strokes. And unfortunately, it seems people of color and with low incomes are often exposed to the dirtiest air.

Using data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the American Lung Association ranked cities around the country in terms of their year-round particle pollution, or the annual average level of fine particles in the air. These fine particles can come from many sources, including power plants, wildfires, and vehicle emissions, and breathing them in over such long periods of time have been linked to lung damage, increased hospitalizations for asthma attacks, increased risk for lower birth weight and infant mortality, and increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

Here are the 10 cities with the lowest levels of year-round particle pollution:

1. Prescott, Arizona

2. Farmington, New Mexico

3. Casper, Wyoming

3. Cheyenne, Wyoming

5. Flagstaff, Arizona

6. Duluth, Minnesota-Wisconsin

6. Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, Florida

6. Salinas, California

10. Anchorage, Alaska

10. Bismarck, North Dakota

10. Rapid City-Spearfish, South Dakota

And the cities with the most year-round particle pollution:

1. Fresno-Madera, California

2. Bakersfield, California

3. Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, California*

4. Modesto-Merced, California

5. Los Angeles-Long Beach, California

6. El Centro, California

7. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California

8. Cincinnati; Wilmington, Kentucky; Maysville, Indiana

9. Pittsburgh; New Castle, Ohio; Weirton, West Virginia

10. Cleveland-Akron-Canton, Ohio

To see city rankings for short-term particle pollution and ozone pollution, check out the report

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the state in which Visalia, Porterville, and Hanford are located.

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The Internet Is A Place Where People Cry About Bullshit

| Wed Apr. 29, 2015 7:34 PM EDT

On Tuesday night, the Houston Rockets played their intrastate rivals the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Late in the game, the official Houston Rockets Twitter account sent out the following:

Screenshot via Deadspin

The internet being the stupid place that it is, a thousand crybabies immediately began to cry. Oh pray for the emoji horse! How dare the stupid Twitter account joke about horse slaughter! Wah wah wah!

The internet is a place where people cry about bullshit. If outrage is a currency—and it is—then the online market is drowning in counterfeits. People like to feign outrage because it allows them to demonstrate their humanity and show the world that they feel things strongly and people like to sleep with people who feel things strongly. Outrage allows people to define themselves in opposition to something, which is much easier than defining yourself on your own.

The Rockets went on to win the game (and thus the series) but not before the tweet was deleted. Today we learned that simply taking the tweet down and apologizing wasn't enough. The Rockets fired the dude who tweeted it, their social media manager Chad Shanks!

This is such bullshit. Emoji violence lost this dude his job. EMOJI VIOLENCE. Like, who was really outraged by this? Were you? Of course you weren't. You are smart and normal and very attractive and people like you. But let's pretend you were outraged by it. Here is my question: What outraged you about it? Did you not know that horses get shot when they are lame? Of course you knew it. Everyone knows that! Here's what I know about horses:

  • They are beautiful.
  • We don't eat them.
  • For thousands of years they were second only to our legs when it came to helping humans get around.
  • Now they're sort of ridden recreationally.
  • Also we race them.
  • They have shoes.
  • They get shot when they are lame.

Is merely mentioning the reality that horses are shot when they are lame outrageous? If you are outraged by the fact that horses are shot when they are lame, be outraged about the fact that horses are shot when they are lame, not someone remarking on the fact that horses are shot when they are lame.

In conclusion:

The Houston Rockets are cowards.

The Los Angeles Lakers are the best team in sports.

Tales From City of Hope #9: Day +6 Update

| Wed Apr. 29, 2015 7:11 PM EDT

My white blood count has plummeted to 0.2, my immune system is all but destroyed, and I feel terrible.

In other words, everything is going perfectly. My white blood count will probably drop a bit more tomorrow and then plateau for a day or two. Around Saturday or so new cells will start engrafting and my counts will start to rise fairly quickly. That's the road to recovery, and so far there have been no hiccups at all.

Until then, endless fatigue is my fate. But it will improve soon enough, I hope. In the meantime, the video clip on the right pretty much captures my current mood.

Obamacare Requires Birth Control Coverage. But Some Insurers Are Ignoring the Law.

| Wed Apr. 29, 2015 5:30 PM EDT

Ladies, if you've gone to the doctor in recent years expecting your contraception or ultrasounds to be free, only to be slammed with a co-pay or other charge from your insurer, it's likely your insurer is violating the Affordable Care Act.

Thanks to Obamacare, insurance companies are now required to provide women with a host of coverage options, from free access to all FDA-approved birth control methods to preventative care to maternity care. But just because it's a legal requirement doesn't mean it's happening. According a new report released Tuesday by the National Women's Law Center, insurance plans are not providing all the benefits women won under Obamacare.

NWLC found many plans that were not actually providing cost-free access to the full range of birth control options required under the ACA. Of the more than 100 insurance providers surveyed, NWLC discovered thirty-three insurers in 13 states are not complying with birth control coverage requirement.

The compliance issues went well beyond birth control. The report, which surveyed plans for sale on state and federally-run insurance marketplaces in 15 states over two years, found violations "related to maternity care, birth control, breast-feeding support and supplies, genetic testing, well-woman visits, prescription drug coverage, care related to gender transition for transgender individuals, chronic pain treatment, and certain pre-existing conditions," according to NWLC. Due to the sheer number of violations the group found, it predicts the problem is "systemic nationwide."

The report calls on state and federal regulators to more closely monitor the plans being sold in the individual marketplaces. The report also proposes that insurance plans be made open to public comment so that advocates can review the plans and point out any violations before regulators certify the plans.

In another report released earlier this month, the Kaiser Family Foundation reviewed 20 carriers' compliance with the ACA's birth-control mandate and also found violations. Of the 20 carriers Kaiser reviewed, only 11 provided cost-free coverage of the emergency birth control pill ella, which has a longer window of effectiveness than the standard progestin-based Plan B, particularly for women with a higher body mass index. Two of the carriers didn't cover ella at all.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Shuts Down Gay-Marriage Challengers

| Wed Apr. 29, 2015 5:02 PM EDT

As the Supreme Court started to hear oral arguments to Obergefell v. Hodges—the historic case that could determine the legality of gay marriage bans—on Tuesday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered quite the perfect response to her same-sex-marriage opponents.

Back in February, the 82-year-old justice expressed her optimism that the court will eventually rule in favor of gay marriage, citing the evolution in "people's attitudes" on the issue "has been enormous" in recent years. Although the rest of the court appeared deeply divided on Tuesday, judging by the fact that even anti-gay activists are expecting gay marriage will ultimately win, we're hoping to see Ginsburg's prediction become a reality soon.

Below are some of the same-sex-marriage arguments and her responses to each.

Argument: The court does not have legal right to change a "millennia" of tradition.

RBG's response: "Marriage today is not what it was under the common law tradition, under the civil law tradition. Marriage was a relationship of a dominant male to a subordinate female. That ended as a result of this court's decision in 1982, when Louisiana's Head and Master Rule was struck down. Would that be a choice that state should be allowed to have? To cling to marriage the way it once was?"

Argument: The institution of marriage is inherently linked to a couple's ability to procreate.

RBG's response: "Suppose a couple, 70-year-old couple, comes in and they want to get married? You don't have to ask them any questions. You know they are not going to have any children."

Argument: Gay marriage "impinges on the state" and takes benefits away from straight couples.

RBG's response: "How could that be, because all of the incentives, all of the benefits of marriage affords would still be available. So you're not taking away anything from heterosexual couples. They would have the very same incentive to marry, all the benefits that come with marriage that they do now."

Argument: Legal gay marriage has never been a possibility for most of history. Why now?

RBG's response: "[Same-sex couples] wouldn't be asking for this relief if the law of marriage was what it was a millennium ago. I mean, it wasn't possible. Same-sex unions would not have opted into the pattern of marriage, which was a relationship, a dominant and a subordinate relationship. Yes, it was marriage between a man and a woman, but the man decided where the couple would be domiciled; it was her obligation to follow him.

There was a change in the institution of marriage to make it egalitarian when it wasn't egalitarian. And same-sex unions wouldn't—wouldn't fit into what marriage was once."

Today Is The 23rd Anniversary of the Rodney King Riots. Obama Is Right, Not Much Has Changed

| Wed Apr. 29, 2015 1:20 PM EDT

Speaking from the White House on Tuesday, President Obama told reporters that the tensions between Baltimore residents and local police were "not new, and we shouldn't pretend that it's new."

He's right. Wednesday is the twenty-third anniversary of the riots that followed the acquittal of four white police officers accused of beating Rodney King.

"Why does it take a catastrophe like this in order for America to hear our cry?" one demonstrator asked an MSNBC reporter on Tuesday.

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How the Aurora Mass Shooting Cost More Than $100 Million

| Wed Apr. 29, 2015 12:18 PM EDT

"We focus on the proceedings. We focus on the death penalty. We focus on the perpetrator. But we don't focus on the people affected."

That was how Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi was among the 12 people murdered in a movie theater in July 2012, described the American public's perception as the trial of mass shooter James Holmes got underway on Monday in Aurora, Colorado. It's a fair point given the inordinate attention that such killers crave, and tend to get, from the media. Yet as Phillips also noted, "that ripple effect of how many people are affected by one act by one person, one animal, is incredibly large."

She's right—not just in terms of the trauma and suffering borne by the victims (an additional 58 wounded and 12 others injured in the chaos), their families, and their communities, but also in terms of the literal cost. The price tag for what was one of the worst mass murders in US history is in fact stunningly high: well over $100 million, according to our groundbreaking investigation into the costs of gun violence published earlier this month.

For a quick explanation of the data behind the large sums our country pays for this problem, watch the following 90-second video, with more details on the Aurora tally continuing just below:

The economic impact of Aurora: For starters, long before the attorneys gave opening statements this week, legal proceedings for Holmes had already topped $5.5 million back in February, including expenses related to the unusually large pool of 9,000 prospective jurors called for the case. Add to that the total costs for each of the 12 victims killed: At an average of about $6 million each, that's another $72 million. For the 58 who survived gunshots and were hospitalized, with an average total cost for each working out to about $583,000, add another $33 million. (Costs for some of the gunshot survivors may have varied widely, of course.) And these figures don't even begin to account for what the city of Aurora, the state of Colorado, and the federal government have since spent on security and prevention related to the attack.

Indeed, a mass shooting like the one in Aurora doesn't just have an outsize psychological impact but also a financial one. And these days, fiscal conservatives may want to note, we're paying that price more often.

Bees Love Nicotine, Even Though It's Killing Them

| Wed Apr. 29, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

If a ubiquitous class of pesticides called neonicotinoids harms bees and other pollinators—as many scientists think they do—why don't those buzzing insects just avoid pollen and nectar that contains them?

That's the question posed by a new study published in Nature by a team of UK researchers. Champions of these chemicals, the authors note, often argue that bees can simply choose not to forage on neonic-laced plants—an entomological twist, I guess, on the personal-responsibility creed often employed by the food industry to defer blame for the harmful effects of junk food.

Far from avoiding neonics, foraging honeybees and bumblebees tend to prefer food laced with it.

What the research team found is remarkable: Far from avoiding neonics, foraging honeybees and bumblebees tend to prefer food laced with it—even though it causes them harm. To test how pollinators react to traces of neonics, the team created controlled environments over 24 hours for both bumblebees and honeybees and gave them two food choices: a straight sugar solution or a sugar solution laced with neonics at levels found in farm-field nectar.

According to the researchers, bees make food choices based on "gustatory neurons in hair-like sensilla" in their mouths. Potential food that's toxic and/or non-nourishing normally triggers spikes in "bitter"-sensing neurons, alerting the bee to stop eating and move on top something else. The neonic-laced sugar water didn't generate that reaction for either the bumblebees or honey bees, and so they consumed it freely—and tended to take in more of it than the neonic-free solution.

Why the preference? Here's how Geraldine Wright, the study's lead author and a professor at the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University, put it in the press release accompanying the study (ScienceDaily): "Neonicotinoids target the same mechanisms in the bee brain that are affected by nicotine in the human brain." In other words, while neonics don't register as toxins, the do give bees the same buzz (so to speak) that people get from a cigarette. Thus the poisons "may act like a drug to make foods containing these substances more rewarding," Wright added. (Neonics are synthetic versions of of nicotine, and thus chemically similar.

And just as human smokers court all manner of health trouble, the neonic-loving creatures of the study ate less than control groups that didn't have access to the fun stuff. Cutting calories may sound great for a 21st century American, but it's not good for beehives relying on well-fed foragers.

Just as human smokers court all manner of health trouble, the neonic-loving creatures of the study ate less than control groups that didn't have access to the fun stuff.

Because bees evidently seek out neonics, the authors argue, strategies to limit their exposure by planting pesticide-free nectar and pollen sources along roadsides and whatnot—a key element of President Obama's "Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators"—might not by enough. "Instead," they write, "long-term changes to policy that include reducing their use may be the only certain means of halting pollinator population decline."

Another recent Nature study, this one by Swedish researchers, provides yet more reason for concern. The team tracked how wild bee populations and honeybee hives fared in 16 fields planted with rapeseed (canola)—half of which had been sewn with neonic-treated seeds, half of which hadn't. The result: Populations of two kinds of wild bees—bumblebees and the solitary bees—dropped in the treated fields compared to the control ones. They found greatly diminished reproductive success in solitary bees in the treated fields. And bumblebee hives in treated fields showed slower growth and produced fewer queens than their control counterparts—both signs of diminished health.

As for honeybees, the insecticide seed treatment "had no significant influence on honeybee colony strength," the authors report. That finding is consistent with previous studies suggesting that "honeybees are better at detoxifying after neonicotinoid exposure compared to bumblebees," they write. But they note that their research took place over a short time—several weeks in summer when canola plants flower—and the "lack of short-term effects does not preclude the existence of long-term effects" on honeybees. And their conclusion is hardly comforting: Neonics "pose a substantial risk to wild bees in agricultural landscapes, and the contribution of pesticides to the global decline of wild bees may have been underestimated."

Responding to similar research, the European Commission placed a moratorium on most neonic use back in 2013. But here in the United States, the chemicals remain ubiquitous. This spring, US farmers will likely plant 174 million acres of corn and soybeans—a combined swath of land about equal to the state of Texas. The majority of it will likely be with seeds that have been treated with neonics, which are then taken up by the crops and present in plant tissue, nectar, and pollen, ready to poison any creatures that munch (except humans—neonics aren't  considered toxic to us).

As the chart below chart—taken from a recent paper by Penn State entomologists Margaret Douglas and John Tooker—shows, US neonic use has exploded since treated seeds first hit the market in 1994. That may mean lots of pleasant neural sensations for bees, if the UK study has it right; but it should make any species that depends on pollination for sustenance—like us—think twice.

 

How Many Like Baltimore's Freddie Gray Have Been Killed in Police Custody?

| Wed Apr. 29, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
A protester at a Baltimore PD building on April 21

For many in Baltimore, Freddie Gray's death was shocking but came as little surprise. It was only a matter of time, some said, before Baltimore erupted the way Ferguson, Missouri, did last summer. While no one knows exactly how many Americans die in police custody each year, limited data gathered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics starts to give some sense of scale: At least 4,813 people died while in custody of local and state law enforcement between 2003 and 2009, according to the latest available report, published in 2011. Sixty-one percent of those deaths were classified as homicides.

As I reported last August in Mother Jones, the BJS collects data on what it calls "arrest-related deaths" that occur either during or shortly after police officers "engage in an arrest or restraint process." The agency reports that 41.7 percent of those who were deemed to have been killed by police while in custody were white, 31.7 percent were black, and 20.3 percent were Hispanic. (Others died from intoxication, suicide, or by accidental, natural, or unknown causes.)

But you could be forgiven for suspecting that's not the full picture: There were an estimated 98 million arrests in the United States by local, state, and federal law enforcement from 2003 to 2009, according to FBI statistics. Fifteen states, plus the District of Columbia, did not consistently report deaths in police custody during that period—and Maryland, along with Georgia and Montana, didn't submit any records at all.

In other words, as the turmoil in Baltimore continues, what the data seems to tell us at this point is just how much we still don't know.

Nigeria Says It's Rescued Nearly 300 Women and Girls From Boko Haram

| Tue Apr. 28, 2015 6:20 PM EDT

Two-hundred girls and 93 women have been rescued from a Boko Haram stronghold in the Sambisa Forest, the Nigerian Armed Forces said Tuesday. They could not immediately confirm if the girls rescued were among those captured in Chibok last year—TIME is reporting that, indeed, they are not—however, writing on Twitter, the NAF said only, "the freed persons are now being screened and profiled. We will bring you details later."

In April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped more than 250 girls from the Chibok boarding school in northern Nigeria, sparking global outrage and the social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls. Dozens of the girls have escaped since their capture—telling of horrors including rape and forced marriage—while the rest have remained in captivity.

Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group whose name in the local Housa language translates loosely to "Western education is forbidden," has terrorized northern Nigeria with bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings since 2009 and recently pledged allegiance to ISIS. According to an Amnesty International report released this month, Boko Haram has kidnapped more than 2,000 women and girls since the beginning of 2014 and has killed at least 5,500 civilians.