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VW Deception Not an Isolated Case and Not Just the Auto Industry

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Again and again we hear about corporations doing bad things so they can make more money: polluting, selling contaminated food or otherwise harming people’s health, selling products that injure people or just don’t do what they advertise, tricking and scamming people out of their money, selling banned goods or providing financial services for terrorists or drug cartels and so many other things that are not good for people or society.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were some entity that was more powerful than these corporations, whose purpose is to protect us, reign these corporations in, make and enforce rules, prosecute offenders and put a stop to this stuff?

This Week: VW

This week we are hearing about Volkswagen (VW). For years the company claimed they were selling “clean diesel” engines, but they were tricking their customers, the public and governments around the world. Their cars are really a public health threat, putting out up to 40 times the legal limit of pollutants that cause asthma and other disease.

VW built a “defeat mechanism” into as many as 11 million cars. This mechanism let the cars pass government tests, even though they were polluting like crazy when driven in the real world. The mechanism made the engine run clean during government tests, then when it detected that the tests were finished it set the engine to start polluting again.

For years these cars have been harming people and until now VW was getting away with (and making big profits from) this. They were finally caught and we will see whether executives are prosecuted or if this will be one more case of weak (or corrupted) government issuing a fine that lets a company make its shareholders pay the cost instead of holding the executives that did it accountable.

The Fix for the VW Cars

This is huge. Up to 11 million cars have these “defeat” mechanisms in them. These cars have to be fixed because their emissions can cause people to develop asthma and other respiratory diseases. But fixing this is a big problem.

According to Wired, in “VW Owners Aren’t Going to Like the Fixes for Their Diesels,” there are two choices for fixing these cars—and either choice means the car owners end up losing a lot of what they thought they had paid for.

The first is to update the software so the cars always run in the “test mode” that defeated the emissions tests. But the changes the software made to the engines to get them to operate within the legal emissions limits while being tested will cause the car to either have poor acceleration or poor gas mileage.

The second is to actually fix the problem that causes the engines to pollute. According to Wired, VW would have to add a “urea” tank and the means to inject this into the catalytic converter:

"The standard way of making a diesel run cleanly is to use selective catalytic reduction, a chemical process that breaks NOx [mono-nitrogen oxides] down into nitrogen and water. Part of that process includes adding urea to the mix. The super effective system can eliminate 70 to 90 percent of NOx emissions and is used by other diesel manufacturers like Mercedes and BMW. The downside is that it adds complication to the system and cost—$5,000 to $8,000 per car. And you need to periodically add the urea-based solution to your car to keep it working."

"So it seems the logical way to get those cars to perform like their diesel cousins is to add a urea. VW’s unlikely to embrace that option, because adding hardware to half a million cars would be far more expensive than a computer update. It wouldn’t be any fun for the TDI owner, either. Not only do you have to spend an afternoon with your local dealer, you have to make room for the tank. That could mean sacrificing cargo space or giving up the spare tire."

The cost to VW will be huge and the customers lose either way. Never mind all the people suffering asthma and lung disease resulting from the pollution these cars were emitting.

VW Not an Isolated Case

The New York Times reports, in “Volkswagen Test Rigging Follows a Long Auto Industry Pattern,” that,

"For decades, car companies found ways to rig mileage and emissions testing data. In Europe, some automakers have taped up test cars’ doors and grilles to bolster their aerodynamics. Others have used “superlubricants” to reduce friction in the car’s engine to a degree that would be impossible in real-world driving conditions."

"Automakers have even been known to make test vehicles lighter by removing the back seats.

… [In 1973 the EPA] fined Volkswagen $120,000 after finding that the company had installed devices intended specifically to shut down a vehicle’s pollution control systems. In 1974, Chrysler had to recall more than 800,000 cars because similar devices were found in the radiators of its cars."

"Beyond emissions, the industry has long been contemptuous of regulation. Henry Ford II called airbags “a lot of baloney” and executives have bristled at rules requiring higher mileage per gallon."

VW might not even be the only company that is scamming government testing labs with “defeat mechanisms" right now. From the report,

“We call it the tip of the iceberg,” said Jos Dings, the director of Transport and Environment. “We don’t think this will be limited to Volkswagen. If you look at the testing numbers for the other manufacturers, they are just as bad.”

The Times report lists several examples of the auto industry engaging in profit-making by endangering their customers. There was the “unexploded Pinto” problem of gas tanks blowing up. There were 271 deaths from the Ford-Firestone tire scandal. There were the Takata airbags that either don’t work or injure people. There was Chrysler selling as new cars that had been driven for 60,000 miles with the odometers disconnected. Click through, there’s plenty … But no one has been put in jail.

So what VW was caught doing is “not an isolated incident” and, in fact, VW had already been caught doing the same thing in the 1970s.

Read page 1

Not Just Auto Industry

VW is hardly the only company in the auto industry engaged in these practices and the auto industry is hardly the only industry engaging in this kind of activity.

Of course, tobacco still kills over 480,000 Americans each year and no one even talks about doing anything about it. Everyone understands this is because of the great wealth and power of the tobacco companies as well as their influence over a certain political party. More than 480,000 terrible, painful deaths each year!

The “Obamacare” health reform was written the way it was because it was understood from the start that the insurance and pharmaceutical companies had enough power to block anything they didn’t like. So we didn’t get Medicare for all or even a “public option.” These industries had already blocked the administration of President Bill Clinton from reforming the health care system, leading to more decades of deaths, untreated illness and bankruptcies.

In 2000, The Nation reported, in “The Secret History of Lead,” that the lead industry knew and kept secret for decades that they were poisoning people with lead in gasoline, paint and other products and instead of doing something about it they protected their profits by covering this up and attacking government efforts to do something.

"The leaded gas adventurers have profitably polluted the world on a grand scale and, in the process, have provided a model for the asbestos, tobacco, pesticide and nuclear power industries and other twentieth-century corporate bad actors, for evading clear evidence that their products are harmful by hiding behind the mantle of scientific uncertainty."

Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum reported on just one of the societal consequences of this decades-long crime, in “America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead.” His investigative report concluded that lead may be “the hidden villain behind violent crime, lower IQs and even the ADHD epidemic.” That whole put-millions-in-prison thing that has ruined so many lives? Oops, it might have been the lead industry’s doing. Are any lead industry executives in jail for that?

The fossil-fuel industry is notorious for polluting and for causing climate change. The industry has captured an entire political party and has them fight the development of alternative energy sources, taxes on carbon, fuel-saving public transportation initiatives, other energy-saving efforts, etc. The industry funds a climate denial cult that threatens the entire planet.

These are just a few of so many examples.

Big Government Prosecutions Can Make a Difference

Corporations save money by cutting corners. Dumping carbon into the air. Putting lead in gasoline. You name it. They price the potential fines into the product as a cost of doing business. And company shareholders pay those fines. The executives who commit the actual wrongdoing are rarely if ever held accountable themselves.

Many companies can safely assume that the government isn’t even going to catch them or do anything if they do. Government cowed by intense anti-government propaganda. We hear that “government can’t do anything as well as business can,” that “big government threatens us” and “government takes money out of the economy.” We hear about “burdensome government regulations” that “kill jobs” on a 24/7/365 basis. Government and democracy do not have an advertising budget to counter this relentless propaganda.

Government is underfunded because the propaganda elects corporate-backed anti-government politicians who convince people to allow tax cuts (on the corporations and their owners) paid for by cutting back on government. And especially cutting back on government regulation and enforcement. The result is government enforcement is backing down all the time.

Industry executives revolve through the door into government and then back into plush corporate offices where they collect rewards for protecting their industries. Our “captured” government notoriously refuses to bring corporate criminals to justice. Not one banker, for example, was prosecuted for obvious crimes leading to the 2008 financial crash.

However, last week we saw one rare instance of a prosecution of individuals for corporate crime. The people running Peanut Corporation of America, a Georgia peanut company, were prosecuted after a salmonella outbreak that sickened and hospitalized hundreds of people and killed nine of them. Company executives knew for years their product was made in unsafe ways that were causing contamination—but instead of spending what was needed to fix the problem they covered this up. So the owner was sentenced to 28 years in prison and other executives were sentenced to 20 years.

Thanks to an actual prosecution resulting in prison terms for company executives it is likely that the public will suffer fewer food-safety problems, at least for a while.

Our government supposedly exists to protect We the People from wealthy and powerful interests, including other countries. Our revolution against the wealthy British aristocracy and the King’s corporations testify to this. A government that is “of the people, by the people and for the people” should be big enough, strong enough and funded enough to reign in companies and billionaires and protect We the People from the kind of corporate misbehavior we saw from Volkswagen—long, long, long before it involves 11 million cars all spewing out serious threats to public health.

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.