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At a news conference last month, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani said there was no going back on autonomous Kurdish rule in the oil center of Kirkuk (AFP/Getty Images)

Court Orders Seizure of $100 Million Oil Shipment

by Alan Greenblatt
Jul 29, 2014

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An American court has ordered U.S Marshals to seize $100 million worth of oil sitting in a tanker off the coast of Galveston, Texas. But that oil may never reach American shores.

The oil comes from Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq. In recent weeks, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been sending oil through a pipeline to Turkey and attempting to sell it overseas.

The hitch is that Iraq's central government says the oil belongs to the nation — a stance supported by the international oil market.

"We believe that Iraq's energy resources belong to the Iraqi people and certainly have long stated that it needs to go through the central government," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told Bloomberg News.

A court agreed with Iraq's claim late Monday night.

"You have to have a pretty strong appetite for litigation to buy Iraqi oil which comes from the KRG, because it is pretty clear to most parties that the marketing and export of oil from a country is a right which accrues to the national government," David Goldwyn, a former special envoy for international energy affairs at the State Department, told NPR's Jackie Northam recently.

That has interfered with Kurdish hopes of carrying out oil sales and with them gaining more economic power and international recognition.

Four tankers carrying four million barrels of Kurdish oil have set sail from the Turkish port of Ceyhan since May, but only one shipment has been offloaded. The oil waiting near Galveston was intended for a company called Talmay Trading Inc., which is registered in the British Virgin Islands.

The American company that had been hired to offload the oil from the United Kalavtra, AET Offshore Services, asked in a separate court filing for a restraining order so it could get out of the job. AET said it "would be placed at considerable risk if required to ... take possession of the cargo before those disputes and claims of ownership are resolved," according to Reuters.

As Jackie reported, Kurdish security forces, the peshmerga, now control major oil fields in northern Iraq. The territory may hold as much as 45 billion barrels of oil reserve.

But offloading and selling it is proving to be a difficult task.

"I think the KRG are in real trouble now because everything seems to have been laid on the hopes of making a breakthrough in sales and they have been thwarted at each turn," Richard Mallinson, an analyst at the London-based research firm Energy Aspects, told The Wall Street Journal. "It does feel like their shot at getting into the market is exhausted."

It's not yet clear where the United Kalvrata or the oil it's carrying will wind up.

"It wouldn't surprise me if it ends up sitting there for a little while or ends up going to another port," Jamie Webster, senior director of global oil markets for IHS, told the energy industry newsletter FuelFix.

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The U.S. Geological Survey found that neonicotinoids are leaching into streams and rivers in the Midwest, including the Missouri River, shown here in Leavenworth, Kan. (iStockphoto)

Widely-Used Insecticides Are Leaching Into Midwest Rivers

by Maanvi Singh
Jul 29, 2014

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A class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which are used on a lot of big corn and soybean fields, have been getting a pretty bad rap lately.

Researchers have implicated these chemicals, which are similar to nicotine, as a contributor to the alarming decline of bee colonies. That led the European Union to place a moratorium on their use, and environmentalists want the U.S. to do the same.

In a study published July 24, researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey found that these chemicals are also leaching into streams and rivers in the Midwest — including the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. And that may be bad news for aquatic life in the region, the scientists say.

"We did the study because the use of the neonicotinoids has been increasing dramatically, especially in the Midwest," says Kathryn Kuivila, an environmental organic chemist with the USGS.

And since these chemicals are highly water soluble, it made sense to investigate whether they were present in the region's streams and rivers, Kuivila tells The Salt.

These pesticides aren't sprayed on. Instead, they're used to coat the seeds of many agricultural crops. But they still end up in the soil and then in the water that runs off farms.

Runoff transports the chemicals from the field to streams and rivers, and since they don't break down easily in the environment they can stick around in these bodies of water for long periods of time, the USGS study notes. And while they're not especially toxic to humans, they can harm a wide variety of insects. At certain concentrations, they can hurt other animals as well.

The USGS found three chemicals in particular to be especially prevalent throughout the region: clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid. Clothianidin was found in three quarters of the 79 water samples that the researchers gathered in 2013 at nine different stream sites. The highest concentration they found was over 250 nanograms per litre. That's 250 parts per trillion — it doesn't sound like a whole lot, but Kuivila says it may be enough to affect wildlife.

Mike Leggett, a director of environmental policy at CropLife America, the trade group representing biotechnology companies including Bayer CropScience and Syngenta — both big manufacturers these pesticides — released a statement pointing out that the concentrations USGS found were far below the Environmental Protection Agency's benchmarks.

"The highest levels detected were at least 40 times lower than benchmarks established by EPA to be protective of aquatic life, and most detections were up to 1,000 times below that level," he writes.

Indeed, by the EPA's benchmark, clothianidin is toxic to invertebrates who are chronically exposed to the chemical only at levels higher than 1,100 nanograms per litre.

But recent research suggests that lower levels of these chemicals could also be toxic to aquatic life — including aquatic insects. And a study published in Nature found a correlation between these insecticides and declining bird populations, perhaps because the the chemicals are killing off insects that the birds eat, or because the birds are eating insecticide-coated seeds.

Researchers are also unsure of how exposure to multiple neonicotinoids may affect organisms, Kuiliva notes. And they don't know to what extent a combination of these insecticides and other pesticides is hurting wildlife, she says.

And while a tiny amount of these chemicals may not kill certain animals, it can still harm them, says Christian Krupke, an entomologist at Purdue University who wasn't involved in the study. "An insect doesn't have to be dead to not be functioning," he says.

Neonicotinoids affect insects' nervous systems. An insect exposed to a small amount of one of these chemicals may get disoriented, and may not be able find food or defend itself from predators.

"There's a lot we don't know," he says, despite the fact that neonicotinoids came out in the 1980s and 90s. "Something as basic as how much is in the water has just been found out now."

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Which greeting is the cleanest? (NPR)

Fist Bumps Pass Along Fewer Germs Than Handshakes

by Michaeleen Doucleff
Jul 29, 2014

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Which greeting is the cleanest? The quicker the touch, the less likely many microbes will make the jump.

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A few weeks ago, we took a look at nonverbal greetings around the world. In Japan, they bow. Ethiopian men touch shoulders. And some in the Democratic Republic of the Congo do a type of head knock.

But the American fist bump stood apart from the rest.

Knocking knuckles was the only greeting we could find that signaled both victory and equality; neither bumper has the upper hand, so to speak.

But of many of our readers pointed out that bumping fists may have another superior quality: it's cleaner than a traditional handshake.

Now scientists in Wales have confirmed what these astute reader's already knew. You're much less likely to pass along bacteria when you bump fists than shake hands or high-five, biologists reported Monday in the American Journal of Infection Control.

The study was small. Only five pairs of people bumped, shook and slapped palms. But the findings were clear-cut. A moderately strong handshake transferred more than five times as much Escherichia coli bacteria onto a recipients hand than a fist bump, biologist David Whitworth and his colleague at Aberystwyth University found.

And that strong, sturdy handshake your grandpa taught you was even dirtier. It transferred nearly 10 times more bacteria than a fist bump.

The high-five fell between the two other greetings. Slapping palms, on average, passed along twice as much bacteria as the fist bump.

To quantify the cleanliness of each greeting, Whitworth and his colleague had volunteers put on a sterile glove and then dip their hands into a solution packed with bacteria. After the glove dried, each volunteer shook, bumped or high-fived another person wearing a clean glove. The scientists then measured the amount of E. coli on the recipient's hand.

In general, more microbes moved to the recipient when the greetings were longer, stronger and involved more skin-to-skin contact.

The bacteria used in the study were harmless. But Whitworth thinks the findings would also apply to pathogenic bacteria and viruses.

Many nasty microbes, such as Clostridium difficile and influenza, spread in clinics and hospitals through the hands of health care workers. And several infectious disease doctors have recently called for a ban on handshakes in hospitals.

But completely forbidding this classic greeting altogether at clinics may go too far, says Mary Lou Manning, of the Thomas Jefferson University School of Nursing in Philadelphia.

"We always have to take our cues from a patient," says Manning, who is the president-elect of the Association for Professionals in Infections Control. "If a patient extends his hand, I don't think I would refuse it. I would just wash my hands before and after."

And Manning definitely won't switch to bumping. "Fist bumping just seems more of an informal kind of greeting — a way to greet friends, not patients," she says. "I haven't been a fist bumper, and I don't intend to become one."

But she is a big fan of Whitworth's study. "I think it's fabulous," she says. "It's getting us all talking about the role of germ transmission from hands. I think awareness can potentially lead to behavior change and disease prevention."

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According to the Urban Institute report, the typical adult in trouble with bill collectors has a median debt of $1,350. (iStockphoto)

Chances Are Pretty Good That's A Bill Collector Calling

Jul 29, 2014

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Which greeting is the cleanest? The quicker the touch, the less likely many microbes will make the jump.

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In about one-third of U.S. households, the sound of a phone or doorbell ringing may trigger a desire to duck.

That's because roughly 77 million adults with a credit file have at least one debt in the collection process, according to a study released by the Urban Institute, a research group. A credit file includes all of the raw data that a credit bureau can use to rank a borrower's creditworthiness.

Some of those debts can be quite small — perhaps just a $25 overdue water bill. But some are substantial, and all can hurt a family's long-term economic prospects, the study found.

"In addition to creating difficulties today, delinquent debt can lower credit scores and result in serious future consequences. Credit scores are used to determine eligibility for jobs, access to rental housing and mortgages, insurance premiums, and access to (and the price of) credit in general," the study concluded.

The typical adult in trouble with bill collectors has a median debt of $1,350 in the collection process.

We aren't talking about home loans here. This report looks at nonmortgage debt, such as credit-card balances, stacked-up medical bills or past-due utility bills. These are debts that are more than 180 days past due and have been placed in collections. The study didn't count personal debts, such as loans from family members, or pawnshop loans.

Nevada, a state hit hard by foreclosures, has the worst problem with overdue bills. There, just under half of the residents with credit files have debt in collections, according to the study. The Urban Institute based its report on a random sampling of 7 million people with 2013 credit bureau data from TransUnion, a major consumer credit reporting agency.

While Nevada is a standout, problems with debt are concentrated mostly in the South, the study found. Of the 12 states besides Nevada with high levels of debt in collection, 11 are Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia. The 12th state is New Mexico.

The states with the fewest troubled debtors are Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

About 22 million Americans have no credit file, which typically means they are too poor to have any credit at all. In other words, the study underreports the financial troubles of the truly poor and is more a reflection of the stresses on middle-class families in the U.S.

The report talks about the problems with "snowballing" debt. A lot of these overdue bills start out as relatively minor problems, such as past-due gym memberships or cellphone contracts. But once those old bills get turned over to the collection industry, troubles mount for the debtors, whose credit scores worsen.

Here's an odd twist to the debt story in the post-recession era: Most people are actually cleaning up their credit-card debt. The American Bankers Association said earlier this month that as a share of Americans' income, credit-card debt has slipped to the lowest level in more than a decade.

Today, about 2.44 percent of credit-card accounts are overdue by 30 days or more, compared with the 15-year average of 3.82 percent, according to the ABA Consumer Credit Delinquency Bulletin.

In other words, most people these days are more focused on paying off their bills. "More and more consumers are using their credit cards as a payment vehicle, paying off or paying down their balances each month," the ABA's chief economist, James Chessen, said in a statement.

Here's another peculiar point: The recession really hasn't done much to change the percentage of Americans dealing with debt collection. A decade ago, a study done by Federal Reserve economists concluded that just more than one-third of individuals with credit records had a debt in the collection process.

For the people who have fallen behind on nonmortgage debts, being in the hole hurts because it undermines their long-term prospects.

"High levels of delinquent debt and its associated consequences, such as limited access to traditional credit, can harm both families and the communities in which they live," the Urban Institute study concludes.

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Proposed changes in medical training would shift money away from big teaching hospitals to clinics. (Erikona/iStockphoto)

Report Says Big Changes Are Needed In How Doctors Are Trained

by Julie Rovner
Jul 29, 2014 (Kaiser Health News)

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The way American doctors are trained needs to be overhauled, an expert panel recommended Tuesday, saying the current $15 billion system is failing to produce the medical workforce the nation needs.

"We recognize we are recommending substantial change," says health economist and former Medicare Administrator Gail Wilensky, co-chairwoman of the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine panel that produced the report. "We think it's key to justifying the continued use of public funds."

The federal government provides more than $11 billion a year in payments to support the training of doctors who have graduated medical school, mostly through the Medicare program. Most of that goes to the hospitals that sponsor interns and residents. States, through the Medicaid program, contribute nearly another $4 billion annually.

"The scale of government support for this phase of physician education is unlike that given to any other profession in the nation," said the report, which was funded by a dozen foundations with the support of a bipartisan group of members of Congress.

Even though the system has operated this way for decades, there is little data on how those funds are spent and how well they contribute to the preparation of a medical workforce needed for the 21st century, the panel found.

Despite a growing public investment in graduate medical education, there are persistent problems. They include uneven geographic distribution of physicians, too many specialists and not enough primary care providers, and a lack of cultural diversity in the physician workforce, the report found.

Not only that, the authors note, "a variety of surveys indicate that recently trained physicians in some specialties cannot perform simple procedures often required in office-based practice and lack sufficient training and experience in care coordination, team-based care and quality improvement."

The committee proposes a sweeping overhaul of the entire financing program for graduate medical education, with the goal of shifting the program "to a performance-based system," rather than one that merely funnels money to any facility with an accredited training program.

The current Medicare medical education payment system would be phased out over 10 years. At the end of the phase-out, policymakers would reassess whether Medicare should continue to subsidize doctor training at all, and if so, to what extent.

The panel calls for spending the same overall amount from Medicare over the next decade, adjusted for inflation. But it would be distributed much differently, with a declining share providing direct subsidies to teaching programs. An increasing share would go instead to a "GME transformation fund" that would finance new ways to provide and pay for training, and to fund training positions "in priority disciplines and geographic areas."

The funds would still be distributed through the Medicare program, but a new "GME Policy Council" would be created under the office of the Secretary of Health and Human Services to oversee workforce issues and commission research on how well the federal dollars are being spent. The committee recommended that states impose similar requirements for Medicaid training funds.

Major teaching hospitals in the Northeast would be most immediately affected, since they account for a disproportionate amount of Medicare medical education funding and number of doctors-in-training. The panel called for an end to the current system of payments that favor those hospitals. Instead it said that Medicare should make a flat "per resident" payment to training sponsors based on the national per-resident amount, adjusted for location.

It's time to close the open checkbook for teaching hospitals, the panel said.

"The statutes governing Medicare's GME financing were developed at a time when hospitals were the central - if not exclusive - site for physician training," the report said. But by doing that, "the Medicare payment system discourages physician training outside the hospital, in clinical settings where most health care is delivered."

Members stopped short, however, of recommending that Medicare stop funding graduate medical education altogether, at least for the near future.

The rapid evolution of the health care sector, said Wilensky, "was an important rationale for potentially using the leverage provided by government funding to try to train the health-care workforce we needed for a 21st century delivery system."

But the panel also did not recommend lifting the current cap on the number of residencies that Medicare supports. That cap was imposed in the 1997 Balanced Budget Act.

"Increasing the number of physicians per se is not likely to solve important workforce issues," Wilensky said, "particularly with regard to specialty distribution or geography."

All of the changes proposed in the report would have to be made by Congress, because government support for graduate medical education is written into Medicare and other laws. The politics, however, are unclear because the changes would produce winners and losers among programs training interns and residents.

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