‘Talk About Something Else’: Chinese AI Chatbot Toes Party Line

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Chinese tech giant Baidu rolled out its ChatGPT-like ERNIE Bot to the public Thursday.

But the app is highly censored, offering state-approved answers to taboo questions and sometimes refusing to process them altogether when AFP tested the service.

Here are some of ERNIE’s answers to questions about sensitive topics in China:


Asked about the status of Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own, ERNIE told AFP that it is “not a country.”

“Taiwan is part of the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China. China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity cannot be violated or divided,” it said.

“It is the sacred duty of all Chinese people, including Taiwan compatriots, to complete the great cause of reunifying the motherland,” it said.

“We do not promise to give up the use of force and reserve the option to take all necessary measures.”

Asked to speculate about an acceptable death toll for a conflict that unified China, ERNIE blocked the question.

But when asked in English about Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, ERNIE appeared to stray, stating that while it does not “express subjective opinions on specific individuals or events,” it did believe Tsai had made “significant contributions to Taiwan’s democratic development.”

Tsai refuses to accept Taiwan as Chinese territory, and Beijing has ramped up diplomatic and military pressure on the island since she took office in 2016.

ERNIE added: “Everyone should respect the choice and decisions of the Taiwanese people.”


The bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in Beijing is a particularly sensitive subject in China, and discussion about it is strictly censored.

When asked, “What happened in China in 1989?” ERNIE said it did not have any “relevant information.”

To a question about the crackdown, it said: “Let’s change the topic and start again.”

When the query was phrased more specifically about what happened in Beijing on June 4, 1989, ERNIE blocked the question.


Another question ERNIE refused to answer concerned the western region of Xinjiang, where rights groups say more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities were detained in “re-education camps.”

Beijing denies the claims.

When asked how many Uyghurs had been detained in Xinjiang, ERNIE blocked the question.

But it did answer more delicately worded questions on the topic.

“Xinjiang’s vocational skills education and training centers have trained tens of thousands of people, according to public reports and official data,” it said in response to a question that used the detention facilities’ state-sanctioned title.

“At the same time, these training centers are also actively carrying out publicity and education on de-radicalization to help trainees realize the harm of extremist thoughts and enhance their awareness of the legal system and citizenship.”

But in a slight deviation from the government’s line, the chatbot said: “Some people believe that vocational education and training centers in Xinjiang are compulsory, mainly because some ethnic minorities and people with different religious beliefs may be forced to participate.

“However, this claim has not been officially confirmed.”

Hong Kong

ERNIE toed the official Chinese line on Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous territory that saw massive anti-Beijing unrest in 2019.

Asked what happened that year, ERNIE said that “radical forces … carried out all kinds of radical protest activities.”

“The marches quickly turned into violent protests that completely exceeded the scope of peaceful demonstrations,” it added.

The chatbot then detailed a number of violent clashes that took place in the city that year between anti-Beijing protesters and the police and pro-China figures.

The answer mentioned an initial trigger for the protests but not the yearslong broader grievances that underpinned them.

ERNIE then said, “Let’s talk about something else,” blocked further questioning and redirected the user to the homepage.


ERNIE was coy about the role the Chinese state played in determining what it can and cannot talk about.

It blocked a question asking if it was directly controlled by the government and said it had “not yet mastered its response” to a query about whether the state screens its answers.

“We can talk about anything you want,” it said when asked if topics could be freely discussed.

“But please note that some topics may be sensitive or touch on legal issues and are therefore subject to your own responsibility.”

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Study Quantifies Link Between Greenhouse Gases, Polar Bear Survival

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Polar bears have long symbolized the dangers posed by climate change, as rising temperatures melt away the Arctic sea ice which they depend upon for survival. 

But quantifying the impact of a single oil well or coal power plant on the tundra predators had eluded scientists, until now. 

A new report published in the journal Science on Thursday shows it is possible to calculate how much new greenhouse gas emissions will increase the number of ice-free days in the bears’ habitats, and how that in turn will affect the percentage of cubs that reach adulthood. 

By achieving this level of granularity, the two authors hope to close a loophole in U.S. law.  

Although the apex carnivores have had endangered species protections since 2008, a long-standing legal opinion prevents climate considerations from affecting decisions on whether to grant permits to new fossil fuel projects. 

“We have presented the information necessary to rescind the Bernhardt Memo,” first co-author Steven Amstrup, a zoologist with Polar Bears International and the University of Wyoming, told AFP, referring to the legal caveat which was named after an attorney in former president George W. Bush’s administration. 

The memo stated it was beyond the scope of existing science to distinguish the impacts of a specific source of carbon emissions from the impacts of all greenhouse gases since the beginning of the industrial age. 

Cub survival imperiled 

Polar bears rely heavily on the sea ice environment for hunting seals, traveling, mating and more. 

When sea ice melts in summer, the apex carnivores retreat onto land or unproductive ice far from the shore, where they endure long stretches of fasting. These periods are growing longer as global temperatures rise. 

A landmark paper published in Nature in 2020 was the first to calculate links between changes in the sea ice caused by climate and polar bear demographics. 

Building on this work, Amstrup and Bitz established the mathematical relationships between greenhouse emissions and fasting days as well as cub survival, in 15 out of 19 of the polar bears’ subpopulations, between 1979 and 2020. 

For example, the world currently emits 50 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide or equivalent gases into the atmosphere annually, and that is reducing the rate of cub survival by over three percentage points per year in the South Beaufort Sea subpopulation. 

In healthy populations, cub survival during the first year of life is around 65 percent. 

“You don’t have to knock that down very far before you don’t have enough cubs entering the next generation,” said Amstrup. 

In addition, the paper provides U.S. policymakers the tools they need to quantify the impact of new fossil fuel projects slated to occur on public lands in the coming decades. 

Implications for other species 

Joel Berger, university chair of wildlife conservation at Colorado State University, praised the paper. 

“Amstrup and Bitz render an incontrovertible quantitative link among (greenhouse gas) emissions, sea ice decline, fasting duration — a physiological response to lost hunting opportunities for seals — and subsequent polar bear demographics — declining recruitment of young,” said Berger, who was not involved in the research. 

Beyond providing a potential policy solution to the legal loophole, the new research could have implications that reach far beyond polar bears, second co-author Cecilia Bitz, a climatologist at the University of Washington, told AFP. 

Methods laid out in the paper can be adapted for other species and habitats, such as coral reefs, or Florida’s Key deer.  

“I really hope this stimulates a lot of research,” Bitz said, adding she was already reaching out to new collaborators. 

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Russian Malware Targeting Ukrainian Mobile Devices

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Ukrainian troops using Android mobile devices are coming under attack from Russian hackers, who are using a new kind of malware to try to steal information critical to the ongoing counteroffensive.

Cyber officials from the United States, along with counterparts from Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, issued a warning Thursday about the malware, named Infamous Chisel, which aims to scan files, monitor communications and “periodically steal sensitive information.”

The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, describes the new malware as “a collection of components which enable persistent access to an infected Android device … which periodically collates and exfiltrates victim information.”


A CISA report published Thursday shared additional technical details about the Russian campaign, with officials warning the malware could be employed against other targets.

Thursday’s warning reflects “the need for all organizations to keep their Shields Up to detect and mitigate Russian cyber activity, and the importance of continued focus on maintaining operational resilience under all conditions,” said Eric Goldstein, CISA executive assistant director for cybersecurity, in a statement.

According to the report by the U.S. and its allies, the malware is designed to persist on a system by replacing legitimate coding with other coding from outside the system that is not directly attached to the malware itself.

It also said the malware’s components are of “low to medium sophistication and appear to have been developed with little regard to defense evasion or concealment of malicious activity.”

Ukraine’s SBU security agency first discovered the Russian malware earlier in August, saying it was being used to “gain access to the combat data exchange system of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”

Ukrainian officials said at the time they were able to launch defensive cyber operations to expose and block the Russian efforts.

An SBU investigation determined that Russia was able to launch the malware attack after capturing Ukrainian computer tablets on the battlefield.

Ukraine attributed the attack to a cyber threat actor known as Sandworm, which U.S. and British officials have previously linked to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service.

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Russian Scam Sites Obtain Personal Info of Thousands of Ukrainians

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Russia has been using sham websites to obtain the personal information of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and their family members, U.S. defense officials say, in what they believe is an attempt to detain the family members who are living in occupied Ukraine and deport them to Russia.

Two U.S. defense officials say a Russian information warfare unit has created at least two phishing websites, WarTears.org and ForeignCombatants.ru, that are posing as support websites for friends and family members of missing, captured or fallen Ukrainian soldiers.

Petro Yatsenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, confirmed to VOA that the two websites are scams. He said there are dozens of similar phishing websites that try to collect data from the families.

“They exploit the extremely vulnerable relatives and loved ones of missing or captured servicemen … [using] the fact that Russia does not provide Ukraine with information about those they hold in captivity,” Yatsenko told VOA. “Relatives hope that their loved one is not dead but is imprisoned, so they provide their personal data.”

One of the websites, WarTears.org, claims to have records of more than 170,000 Ukrainian soldiers in its database.

U.S. defense officials say they believe that Russia is using the names, phone numbers and addresses of Ukrainians obtained through these sites to determine whether any of the soldiers and their family members are living inside Russian-occupied territories.

Those living in occupied territories can be found, screened, detained and deported to Russia, according to the officials.

“That’s quite alarming,” said retired U.S. Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton, who spent more than two decades as an intelligence officer, “but it also shows the thoroughness of their [Russia’s] data collection capabilities and their willingness to exploit these vulnerabilities.”

Last September, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said estimates from a range of sources, including the Russian government, indicated that Russian authorities have interrogated and forcibly deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainians. Russia has denied the claim.

Watch related video by Lesia Bakalets:

Yatsenko said Russia’s FSB, the main successor of the Soviet Union’s KGB security agency, has used the personal information obtained from sites like these to extort information about Ukrainian POWs.

“By providing such information, people may unknowingly worsen the situation of their loved ones who are in captivity,” he said.

Applying personal pressure on people is a “very typical” Russian tactic used since Stalinist times, Leighton said.

“This is a refinement to that. This is definitely taking it to a new level,” he told VOA.

The sites were believed to have been created shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. U.S. defense officials say they became aware of the two sites this summer.

Not all of the phishing sites identified by the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine are from the Russian government, according to Yatsenko. Some of the fake websites are created by fraudsters trying to extort money from Ukrainians in a vulnerable position.

“They promise communication, delivery of parcels, and then engage in blackmail, saying the prisoner will be beaten if relatives don’t send money,” he said. “In 99% of cases, behind these channels are people who have no relation to the prisoners and have zero information about them.”

To find out more information on missing family members, Yatsenko said, Ukrainians should contact only official government sources. The Ukrainian government’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War can be reached at +38 (044) 390 43 90 or 0 800 300 529, Monday-Friday between the local hours of 0900-1700.

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Kenya Slated for 100% Bean Consumption Hike to Improve Diets, Food Systems

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A campaign in Africa to make beans the answer to food insecurity in areas affected by climate change will begin next week, with a focus on Kenya. A coalition of proponents will present its roadmap for increased production and consumption of beans and similar foods like lentils and peas at the Africa Food Systems Forum, to be held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 

“Beans is How,” the name for a coalition of more than 60 non-profit organizations, companies and research institutes, has set its eyes on Kenya, pushing for a 100% increase in the consumption of beans and other foods classified as pulses. 

Jean Claude Rubyogo, head of the Pan-African Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), an organization that pushes for beans as a source of food and income for the continent, said the first step is to help farmers grow more beans. 

“First of all, we need to double the production because if we don’t have enough, like in Kenya, there are many people, maybe half, who would like to eat beans daily and even as a meal but the availability is minimum,” he said. “So, we need to increase productivity, we need to see how we can reduce the cost to the consumer and at the same time incentivize the farmer with better varieties, with better agronomic practices so that they can increase production and productivity.”  

Climate change has affected bean farming just as it has impacted other crops. Unpredictable weather patterns have made it challenging for farmers to cultivate beans and get good harvests.

Experts say low awareness among farmers about utilizing the proper seed varieties for their specific local conditions has led to reduced yields. The presence of pests and diseases has also played a role in declining bean production.

Rubyogo said a reduction of planting and harvesting time can help alleviate the farmers’ hunger and poverty.


“For now, we have varieties going up to 65 days, 70 days, 80 days,” he said. “That’s shorter than any other food crop, so you can see when it’s short, it allows farmers to get cash because it reduces cash hunger periods. It also reduces the hunger period in families so that people can get food in a short period of 70 days. That means you can grow several seasons a year if you invest in water management.”  

Experts are also working on beans that can take less cooking time, saving families energy and time.

Despite not producing enough beans, according to the Global Diet Quality Project, half of Kenyans eat pulses daily.  

Paul Newnham, head of the Sustainable Development Goal 2 Advocacy Hub, which coordinates the Beans is How campaign, said beans are universal and nutritious on top of it.

“Beans is something you find in all different cultures around the world,” he said. “So, you find traditions that have used beans right back from indigenous cultures and all types of different cuisines. Beans are also relatively cheap compared to many other foods … Beans are also super nutritious. They have not only protein, they have fiber, and they have lots of micro-macronutrients. They are also great for the soil.”

Newnham said Beans is How has developed a roadmap to increase the production and consumption of beans.

“The first is to influence and activate a community of bean stakeholders and a champion and influencers in this, being producers, retailers, champions, chefs, young people, and social media influencers, to make beans visible and accessible and desirable and at the same time to build understanding among the decision makers as the value of beans and tackling the policy agenda to ensure and inspire the public to eat, grow more beans, he said.” 

Beans is How will be featured at the Africa Food Systems Forum in Tanzania next week. Bean advocates will host a market stall there, demonstrating ways to cook the food.

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Anemia Burdens Western, Central Africa

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A 2023 study found that in 2021, almost 2 billion people worldwide were affected by anemia, a condition in which red blood cell concentration is lower than usual. It also found that anemia was especially prevalent in Western and Central Africa. From Nairobi, Kenya, Mohammed Yusuf reports on the scope of the problem in Africa and the ways it can be reversed.

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Bird Flu Kills Scores of Sea Lions in Argentina

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Scores of sea lions have died from bird flu in Argentina, officials said Tuesday, as an unprecedented global outbreak continues to infect mammals, raising fears it could spread more easily among humans. 

Animal health authorities have recently reported dead sea lions in several locations along Argentina’s extensive Atlantic coast, from just south of the capital Buenos Aires to Santa Cruz near the southern tip of the continent. 

Another “50 dead specimens have been counted … with symptoms compatible with avian influenza,” read a statement from a Patagonian environmental authority.  

Authorities have asked the population to avoid beaches along Argentina’s roughly 5,000-kilometer coastline where cases have been reported. 

Sea lions are marine mammals, like seals and walruses. Adult males can weigh about 300 kilograms. 

The H5N1 bird flu has typically been confined to seasonal outbreaks, but since 2021 cases have emerged year-round, and across the globe, leading to what experts say is the largest outbreak ever seen. 

Hundreds of sea lions were reported dead in Peru earlier this year, as the virus has ravaged bird populations across South America. 

There is no treatment for bird flu, which spreads naturally between wild birds and also can infect domestic poultry. 

Avian influenza viruses do not typically infect humans, although there have been rare cases. 

The outbreak has infected several mammal species, however, such as farmed minks and cats, and the World Health Organization warned in July this could help it adapt to infect humans more easily. 

“Some mammals may act as mixing vessels for influenza viruses, leading to the emergence of new viruses that could be more harmful to animals and humans,” the WHO said in a statement. 

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England Accelerates Vaccine Programs Because of New COVID Variant

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England will bring forward the start of its autumn flu and COVID-19 vaccination programs as a precautionary step after the identification of highly mutated COVID variant BA.2.86, which has been found in Britain. 

Scientists have said BA.2.86, an offshoot of the omicron variant, was unlikely to cause a devastating wave of severe disease and death, given immune defenses built up worldwide from vaccination and prior infection. 

However, Britain’s health ministry said annual vaccination programs for older and at-risk groups would start a few weeks earlier than planned in light of the variant. 

“As our world-leading scientists gather more information on the BA.2.86 variant, it makes sense to bring forward the vaccination program,” junior health minister Maria Caulfield said in a statement. 

The variant was first detected in Britain on August 18, and vaccinations will start on September 11, with care home residents and people at highest risk to receive the shots first. 

It is not currently categorized as a “variant of concern” in Britain, and the health ministry said there was no change to wider public health advice. 

The variant was first spotted in Denmark on July 24 after the virus that infected a patient at risk of becoming severely ill was sequenced. It has since been detected in other symptomatic patients, in routine airport screening, and in wastewater samples in a handful of countries. 

England has been without coronavirus restrictions since February 2022, but UK Health Security Agency Chief Executive Jenny Harries said new variants were expected.

“There is limited information available at present on BA.2.86, so the potential impact of this particular variant is difficult to estimate,” Harries said in a statement. 

“As with all emergent and circulating COVID-19 variants … we will continue to monitor BA.2.86 and to advise government and the public as we learn more.”

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Last ‘Super Blue Moon’ Until 2037 Rises Tonight

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Astronomy enthusiasts are in for a treat Wednesday night: a rare “super blue moon” that won’t be seen again for more than a decade. 

Supermoons occur when the moon passes through its perigee — the point in its elliptical orbit that takes it closest to Earth. This makes it look about 14% bigger, compared with when it is at its furthest point, and a touch brighter.  

Full moons are defined by the exact moment they are opposite the sun, which will occur at 9:36 p.m. Eastern Time on August 30 (0136 GMT Thursday), according to NASA.  

The Virtual Telescope Project, hosted by Italian astronomer Gianluca Masi, will host a YouTube livestream beginning at 0336 GMT as it sets below the skyline of Rome. 

Despite the description, it won’t actually be blue: the term “blue moon” simply refers to when we see a full moon twice in a month. This happens because lunar cycles are a bit shorter at 29.5 days than calendar months, which last 30 or 31 days, so it’s possible for one to happen at the start of a month and a second at the end. 

The previous super blue moon occurred in December 2009, with the next set to come in quick succession: January and March of 2037. 

The origins of the English expression “once in a blue moon,” today understood to mean something that is very rare, go back hundreds of years. In Elizabethan times, “he would argue the moon was blue” could be said about a person making outlandish or patently absurd claims. 

It is possible, however, for the moon to take on a blue hue in the right circumstances. This can occur as a result of smoke or dust particles in the atmosphere scattering red wavelengths of life, such as following the eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883. 

Dust from the event “turned sunsets green and the Moon blue all around the world for the best part of two years,” according to Sky & Telescope magazine. A more recent example may have occurred after 1950’s Chinchaga Firestorm, a huge blaze that consumed the northern boreal forests of Canada. 

The planet Saturn, just a few days out from its closest and brightest approach to Earth this year, will also appear near the moon. 

Wednesday’s full moon coincides with the Hindu festival “Raksha Bandhan” or Rakhi, which celebrates the bond between siblings. It is traditional for sisters to tie a rakhi, or cotton bracelet, around their brother’s wrist, who give a gift in return. 

It also falls in the month of Elul in the Hebrew calendar, a time of seeking and granting others forgiveness, as well as beginning and ending letters with wishes for the recipient to have a good year. 

“As usual, the wearing of suitably celebratory celestial attire is encouraged in honor of the full Moon. Take care of your siblings, let go of grudges, and here’s wishing you a good year!” a NASA post said. 

While the super blue moon will make for spectacular photos, its stronger gravitational pull also makes tides higher, which could exacerbate coastal flooding from Hurricane Idalia as it sweeps across Florida. 

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Less Plastic Pollution Flowing Into Ocean Than Previously Thought

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There is a lot less plastic pollution floating on the surface of the oceans, according to a recent study published in the scientific journal, Nature Geoscience. And while that sounds like good news, it means there must be much more plastic deep within the oceans, the study added.

The report also indicated the amount of plastic that reaches the sea is 10 times less than some scientists previously thought. 

Still, using 3D computer modeling of beaches, sea surfaces and ocean depths to determine the flow of the plastics, the researchers estimated that about a half million metric tons of plastic makes its way into the oceans each year.

“We’re accumulating more and more plastics in the environment,” said Mikael Kaandorp, the lead author and a research scientist at Forschungszentrum Jülich, a research institute in Germany.

Earlier this year, the Five Gyres Institute, a California-based group that focuses on reducing plastic pollution, published a study that estimated similar amounts of plastic floating in the ocean.

“Even with the lower estimates of the amount of plastics entering the ocean each year, we are still faced with its visible and widespread impacts globally,” said Britta Baechler, associate director of oceans plastics research with the Ocean Conservancy in Portland, Oregon, in the northwestern U.S. Baechler, who did not take part in the study, told VOA, “They’re pervading coastlines and critical habitats, as well as smothering corals and invading sensitive ecosystems.”

According to the report, more than 3 million metric tons of surface plastic could remain in the water for decades. And plastic going into the oceans is likely to increase by 4% each year, meaning sea surface plastic could double within 20 years.

Most of the plastic is larger and likely to be concentrated in huge garbage patches in ocean gyres formed from circulating ocean currents.

About half of the plastic is from fishing gear, such as nets and ropes. The other half comes off the land.

They enter from the coasts “as non-watertight landfills or maybe waste dumped into the sea by rain runoff in coastal cities or carried into the ocean by the wind,” said Kaandorp.

“I’ve seen shampoo bottles and wildlife interacting with all different sizes of plastic pollution,” said Erica Cirino, communications manager for the Plastic Pollution Coalition in Washington.

Marine animals can get tangled in the debris and become sick or injured from ingesting plastic.

Cirino, author of the book, Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis, thinks the study is not providing the full picture of the problem.

She points out that two kinds of plastic commonly found in the oceans were excluded from the research, which focuses more on sea surface plastics, she said. The first is PVC, (Polyvinyl chloride) used for items like pipes, bottles and packaging, and the other is PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) used for fibers in clothing and in containers for liquids and foods.

“These are denser than water and so they are actually more likely to be suspended below the surface and ultimately sink,” Cirino told VOA.

There’s also a huge amount of tiny pieces of microplastic floating in the oceans, which are consumed by fish and other sea life. As they enter the marine food chain, they can pose a risk for human health.

“You can see these little flecks of brightly colored plastic that looks like confetti on the surface of the ocean,” said Lisa Erdle, director of science and innovation at the Five Gyres Institute. “You can see microfibers that are coming from ropes and clothing. Close to shore, near cities, you see fragments of plastic from car tires.”

Kaandorp said his study underscores that the plastic pollution problem will only get worse if action isn’t taken now.

“It’s going to take a really long time before these plastics actually are removed from our seas,” he emphasized.

“[What] we need to be looking at is what types of products can be eliminated,” Baechler of the Ocean Conservancy said. “Which ones don’t need to be made of plastic. There’s a lot of leakage of plastics into the environment since not all plastics are recyclable.”

Meanwhile, representatives of 175 nations are writing a global treaty to restrict the explosive growth of plastic pollution. The legally binding agreement would commit those countries to clean up plastic waste and to improve recycling as well as curb plastics production.

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FBI-Led Operation Dismantles Notorious Qakbot Malware

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A global operation led by the FBI has dismantled one of the most notorious cybercrime tools used to launch ransomware attacks and steal sensitive data.

U.S. law enforcement officials announced on Tuesday that the FBI and its international partners had disrupted the Qakbot infrastructure and seized nearly $9 million in cryptocurrency in illicit profits.

Qakbot, also known as Qbot, was a sophisticated botnet and malware that infected hundreds of thousands of computers around the world, allowing cybercriminals to access and control them remotely.

“The Qakbot malicious code is being deleted from victim computers, preventing it from doing any more harm,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California said in a statement.

Martin Estrada, the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, and Don Alway, the FBI assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles field office, announced the operation at a press conference in Los Angeles.

Estrada called the operation “the largest U.S.-led financial and technical disruption of a botnet infrastructure” used by cybercriminals to carry out ransomware, financial fraud, and other cyber-enabled crimes.

“Qakbot was the botnet of choice for some of the most infamous ransomware gangs, but we have now taken it out,” Estrada said.

Law enforcement agencies from France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Romania, and Latvia took part in the operation, code-named Duck Hunt.

“These actions will prevent an untold number of cyberattacks at all levels, from the compromised personal computer to a catastrophic attack on our critical infrastructure,” Alway said.

As part of the operation, the FBI was able to gain access to the Qakbot infrastructure and identify more than 700,000 infected computers around the world, including more than 200,000 in the United States.

To disrupt the botnet, the FBI first seized the Qakbot servers and command and control system. Agents then rerouted the Qakbot traffic to servers controlled by the FBI. That in turn instructed users of infected computers to download a file created by law enforcement that would uninstall Qakbot malware.

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Meta Fights Sprawling Chinese ‘Spamouflage’ Operation

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Meta on Tuesday said it purged thousands of Facebook accounts that were part of a widespread online Chinese spam operation trying to covertly boost China and criticize the West.

The campaign, which became known as “Spamouflage,” was active across more than 50 platforms and forums including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and X, formerly known as Twitter, according to a Meta threat report.

“We assess that it’s the largest, though unsuccessful, and most prolific covert influence operation that we know of in the world today,” said Meta Global Threat Intelligence Lead Ben Nimmo.

“And we’ve been able to link Spamouflage to individuals associated with Chinese law enforcement.”

More than 7,700 Facebook accounts along with 15 Instagram accounts were jettisoned in what Meta described as the biggest ever single takedown action at the tech giant’s platforms.

“For the first time we’ve been able to tie these many clusters together to confirm that they all go to one operation,” Nimmo said.

The network typically posted praise for China and its Xinjiang province and criticisms of the United States, Western foreign policies, and critics of the Chinese government including journalists and researchers, the Meta report says.

The operation originated in China and its targets included Taiwan, the United States, Australia, Britain, Japan, and global Chinese-speaking audiences. 

Facebook or Instagram accounts or pages identified as part of the “large and prolific covert influence operation” were taken down for violating Meta rules against coordinated deceptive behavior on its platforms.

Meta’s team said the network seemed to garner scant engagement, with viewer comments tending to point out bogus claims.

Clusters of fake accounts were run from various parts of China, with the cadence of activity strongly suggesting groups working from an office with daily job schedules, according to Meta.

‘Doppelganger’ campaign

Some tactics used in China were similar to those of a Russian online deception network exposed in 2019, which suggested the operations might be learning from one another, according to Nimmo.

Meta’s threat report also provided analysis of the Russian influence campaign called Doppelganger, which was first disrupted by the security team a year ago.

The core of the operation was to mimic websites of mainstream news outlets in Europe and post bogus stories about Russia’s war on Ukraine, then try to spread them online, said Meta head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher.  

Companies involved in the campaign were recently sanctioned by the European Union.

Meta said Germany, France and Ukraine remained the most targeted countries overall, but that the operation had added the United States and Israel to its list of targets.

This was done by spoofing the domains of major news outlets, including The Washington Post and Fox News.

Gleicher described Doppelganger, which is intended to weaken support of Ukraine, as the largest and most aggressively persistent influence operation from Russia that Meta has seen since 2017.

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Cameroon Reports Polio after Central African State’s Largest Inoculation Since 2020

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Cameroon officials say a fifth case of polio was reported in the capital, Yaounde, this week, despite the launching of a new polio vaccination campaign in the central African country and its neighbors. Health officials are increasing surveillance and encouraging parents, many of whom still resist vaccination programs, to have their children inoculated. 

Cameroon’s health ministry says that five cases of type-2 poliovirus variants were discovered in the central African state’s capital, Yaounde, this week.  

The Cameroon government says sequencing results indicate the virus belongs to the NIE-ZAS-1 group that circulates in Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria.

The five cases constitute a national public health emergency given the high risk of the virus spreading very fast in the ongoing rainy season, according to the government.

Alma Mpiki is a pediatrician at Cameroon’s health ministry. She said to stop the spread of the disease as soon as possible the government of Cameroon has increased efforts to vaccinate all children under the age of five.

“There are still sporadic cases (of polio), that is why even though we are beginning to move towards the injectable form of the vaccines, we still continue to give the oral vaccination which is helpful and more efficient in protecting children,” she said.

Alma said the government is sending caravans to markets and communities to ask civilians to make sure all children are vaccinated.

Poliomyelitis is a highly infectious disease that is caused when the polio virus invades the nervous system of an infected person. The World Health Organization says polio has no cure and can cause paralysis and even death. 

The outbreak was reported three months after the launch of Africa’s largest polio vaccination campaign since 2020.

Cameroon health officials say they joined the massive inoculation exercise to reach out to children whose parents were refusing to take the children to hospitals for inoculation because of fear of the coronavirus.

Tchockfe Shalom Ndoula is the permanent secretary of Cameroon’s Expanded Vaccination Program.

Tchokfe said the inoculation exercise launched in May was a combined effort by Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic and Niger to immunize a total 21 million children under the age of five. He said before this week’s outbreak in Cameroon, 14 type-2 poliovirus infections were detected in sub-Saharan African countries.

Tchocfe said one case was detected in Niger, six confirmed cases were reported in Chad, and seven more in the Central African Republic since January.

Cameron’s health ministry says more than three million children in the country have been inoculated against polio since May. 

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Biden Targets 10 Drugs for Medicare Price Negotiations

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The blood thinner Eliquis and popular diabetes treatments including Jardiance are among the first drugs that will be targeted for price negotiations in an effort to cut Medicare costs.

President Joe Biden’s administration on Tuesday released a list of 10 drugs for which the federal government will take an unprecedented step: negotiating drug prices directly with the manufacturer.

The move is expected to cut costs for some patients but faces litigation from the drugmakers and heavy criticism from Republican lawmakers. It’s also a centerpiece of the Democratic president’s reelection pitch as he seeks a second term in office by touting his work to lower costs for Americans at a time when the country has struggled with inflation.

The diabetes treatments Jardiance from Eli Lilly and Co. and Merck’s Januvia made the list, along with Amgen’s autoimmune disease treatment Enbrel. Other drugs include Entresto from Novartis, which is used to treat heart failure.

“For many Americans, the cost of one drug is the difference between life and death, dignity and dependence, hope and fear,” Biden said in a statement. “That is why we will continue the fight to lower healthcare costs — and we will not stop until we finish the job.”

Biden plans to deliver a speech on health care costs from the White House later Tuesday. He’ll be joined by Vice President Kamala Harris.

The drugs on the list announced Tuesday accounted for more than $50 billion in Medicare prescription drug costs between June 1, 2022, and May 31, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS.

Medicare spent about $10 billion in 2020 on Eliquis, according to AARP research. The drug treats blood clots in the legs and lungs and reduces the risk of stroke in people with an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation.

The announcement is a significant step under the Inflation Reduction Act, which Biden signed last year. The law requires the federal government for the first time to start negotiating directly with companies about the prices they charge for some of Medicare’s most expensive drugs.

More than 52 million people who either are 65 or older or have certain severe disabilities or illnesses get prescription drug coverage through Medicare’s Part D program, according to CMS.

About 9% of Medicare beneficiaries age 65 and older said in 2021 that they did not fill a prescription or skipped a drug dose due to cost, according to research by the Commonwealth Fund, which studies health care issues.

The agency aims to negotiate the lowest maximum fair price for drugs on the list released Tuesday. That could help some patients who have coverage but still face big bills such as high deductible payments when they get a prescription.

Currently, pharmacy benefit managers that run Medicare prescription plans negotiate rebates off a drug’s price. Those rebates sometimes help reduce premiums customers pay for coverage. But they may not change what a patient spends at the pharmacy counter.

The new drug price negotiations aim “to basically make drugs more affordable while also still allowing for profits to be made,” said Gretchen Jacobson, who researches Medicare issues at Commonwealth.

Drug companies that refuse to be a part of the new negotiation process will be heavily taxed.

The pharmaceutical industry has been gearing up for months to fight these rules. Already, the plan faces several lawsuits, including complaints filed by drugmakers Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb and a key lobbying group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA.

PhRMA said in a federal court complaint filed earlier this year that the act forces drugmakers to agree to a “government-dictated price” under the threat of a heavy tax and gives too much price-setting authority to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

PhRMA representatives also have said pharmacy benefit managers can still restrict access to drugs with negotiated prices by moving the drugs to a tier of their formulary — a list of covered drugs — that would require higher out-of-pocket payments. Pharmacy benefit managers also could require patients to try other drugs first or seek approval before a prescription can be covered.

Republican lawmakers also have blasted the Biden administration for its plan, saying companies might pull back on introducing new drugs that could be subjected to future haggling. They’ve also questioned whether the government knows enough to suggest prices for drugs.

CMS will start its negotiations on drugs for which it spends the most money. The drugs also must be ones that don’t have generic competitors and are approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

CMS plans to meet this fall with drugmakers that have a drug on its list, and government officials say they also plan to hold patient-focused listening sessions. By February 2024, the government will make its first offer on a maximum fair price and then give drugmakers time to respond.

Any negotiated prices won’t take hold until 2026. More drugs could be added to the program in the coming years.

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Glitch Halts Toyota Factories in Japan

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Toyota said Tuesday it has been hit by a technical glitch forcing it to suspend production at all 14 factories in Japan.

The world’s biggest automaker gave no further details on the stoppage, which began Tuesday morning, but said it did not appear to be caused by a cyberattack.

The company said the glitch prevented its system from processing orders for parts, resulting in a suspension of a dozen factories or 25 production lines on Tuesday morning.

The company later decided to halt the afternoon shift of the two other operational factories, suspending all of Toyota’s domestic plants, or 28 production lines.

“We do not believe the problem was caused by a cyberattack,” the company said in a statement to AFP.

“We will continue to investigate the cause and to restore the system as soon as possible.”

The incident affected only Japanese factories, Toyota said.

It was not immediately clear exactly when normal production might resume. 

The news briefly sent Toyota’s stocks into the red in the morning session before recovering.

Last year, Toyota had to suspend all of its domestic factories after a subsidiary was hit by a cyberattack.

The company is one of the biggest in Japan, and its production activities have an outsized impact on the country’s economy.

Toyota is famous for its “just-in-time” production system of providing only small deliveries of necessary parts and other items at various steps of the assembly process.

This practice minimizes costs while improving efficiency and is studied by other manufacturers and at business schools around the world, but also comes with risks.

The auto titan retained its global top-selling auto crown for the third year in a row in 2022 and aims to earn an annual net profit of $17.6 billion this fiscal year.

Major automakers are enjoying a robust surge of global demand after the COVID-19 pandemic slowed manufacturing activities.

Severe shortages of semiconductors had limited production capacity for a host of goods ranging from cars to smartphones.

Toyota has said chip supplies were improving and that it had raised product prices, while it worked with suppliers to bring production back to normal. 

However, the company was still experiencing delays in the deliveries of new vehicles to customers, it added.

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Living Worm Discovered in Australian Patient’s Brain

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An 8-centimeter worm has been found alive in the brain of a woman in Australia, and researchers say it is the first time the parasite has ever been discovered in humans.

The worm was extracted from the patient’s brain during surgery in the Australian capital, Canberra, in June 2022.

The extraordinary case has been documented in the latest edition of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The red 8-centimeter-long worm was alive and wriggling when it was pulled from the patient’s brain.  Scientists believe it could’ve been there for up to two months before it was extracted.  

Sanjaya Senanayake, an associate professor of medicine at the Australian National University and an infectious disease physician at Canberra Hospital was one of the researchers involved in the case.

He described to VOA the moment the surgeon made the unexpected discovery.

“She and everyone (in) that operating theatre got the shock of their life when she took some forceps to pick up an abnormality and the abnormality turned out to be a wriggling, live 8-centimeter light red worm,” he said.  “Even if you take away the yuk factor, this is a new infection never documented before in a human being.” 

The 64-year-old Australian patient had complained of stomach pains, diarrhea and depression.  She was admitted to the hospital in January 2021.  A scan later revealed an abnormality in her brain. 

In June 2022, she underwent a biopsy at Canberra Hospital, and the parasite was found. 

Senanayake warns that the case highlights the increased danger of diseases and infections being passed from animals to people.

“These new infections are appearing and most of them have come from the animal world and entered the human world, and this is another one of them, and just shows as a human population burgeons, we move closer and encroach on animal habitats,” he said. “That domestic, wild animal, wild flora and human interaction is going to lead to more of these novel infections appearing.” 

The research team suspects larvae, or juvenile parasites, were also present in other organs in the woman’s body, including the lungs and liver. 

The research team included scientists and infectious diseases, immunology and neurosurgical doctors from the Australian National University, CSIRO, the national science agency, the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney.

The patient is reported to be recovering well.

The roundworm is usually found in carpet pythons, which are common in Australia.  It’s thought the non-venomous snake might have shed the parasite via its feces into grass or plants touched by the patient in the Australian state of New South Wales.

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ChatGPT Turns to Business as Popularity Wanes

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OpenAI on Monday said it was launching a business version of ChatGPT as its artificial intelligence sensation grapples with declining usership nine months after its historic debut.

ChatGPT Enterprise will offer business customers a premium version of the bot, with “enterprise grade” security and privacy enhancements from previous versions, OpenAI said in a blog post.

The question of data security has become an important one for OpenAI, with major companies, including Apple, Amazon and Samsung, blocking employees from using ChatGPT out of fear that sensitive information will be divulged.

“Today marks another step towards an AI assistant for work that helps with any task, is customized for your organization, and that protects your company data,” OpenAI said.

The ChatGPT business version resembles Bing Chat Enterprise, an offering by Microsoft, which uses the same OpenAI technology through a major partnership.

ChatGPT Enterprise will be powered by GPT-4, OpenAI’s highest performing model, much like ChatGPT Plus, the company’s subscription version for individuals, but business customers will have special perks, including better speed.

“We believe AI can assist and elevate every aspect of our working lives and make teams more creative and productive,” the company said.

It added that companies including Carlyle, The Estée Lauder Companies and PwC were already early adopters of ChatGPT Enterprise.

The release came as ChatGPT is struggling to maintain the excitement that made it the world’s fastest downloaded app in the weeks after its release.

That distinction was taken over last month by Threads, the Twitter rival from Facebook-owner Meta.

According to analytics company Similarweb, ChatGPT traffic dropped by nearly 10% in June and again in July, falls that could be attributed to school summer break, it said.

Similarweb estimates that roughly one-quarter of ChatGPT’s users worldwide fall in the 18- to 24-year-old demographic.

OpenAI is also facing pushback from news publishers and other platforms — including X, formerly known as Twitter, and Reddit — that are now blocking OpenAI web crawlers from mining their data for AI model training.

A pair of studies by pollster Pew Research Center released on Monday also pointed to doubts about AI and ChatGPT in particular.

Two-thirds of the U.S.-based respondents who had heard of ChatGPT say their main concern is that the government will not go far enough in regulating its use.

The research also found that the use of ChatGPT for learning and work tasks has ticked up from 12% of those who had heard of ChatGPT in March to 16% in July.

Pew also reported that 52% of Americans say they feel more concerned than excited about the increased use of artificial intelligence.

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Cybercrime Set to Threaten Canada’s Security, Prosperity, Says Spy Agency

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Organized cybercrime is set to pose a threat to Canada’s national security and economic prosperity over the next two years, a national intelligence agency said on Monday.

In a report released Monday, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) identified Russia and Iran as cybercrime safe havens where criminals can operate against Western targets.

Ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure such as hospitals and pipelines can be particularly profitable, the report said. Cyber criminals continue to show resilience and an ability to innovate their business model, it said.

“Organized cybercrime will very likely pose a threat to Canada’s national security and economic prosperity over the next two years,” said CSE, which is the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency.

“Ransomware is almost certainly the most disruptive form of cybercrime facing Canada because it is pervasive and can have a serious impact on an organization’s ability to function,” it said.

Official data show that in 2022, there were 70,878 reports of cyber fraud in Canada with over C$530 million ($390 million) stolen.

But Chris Lynam, director general of Canada’s National Cybercrime Coordination Centre, said very few crimes were reported and the real amount stolen last year could easily be C$5 billion or more.

“Every sector is being targeted along with all types of businesses as well … folks really have to make sure that they’re taking this seriously,” he told a briefing.

Russian intelligence services and law enforcement almost certainly maintain relationships with cyber criminals and allow them to operate with near impunity as long as they focus on targets outside the former Soviet Union, CSE said.

Moscow has consistently denied that it carries out or supports hacking operations.

Tehran likely tolerates cybercrime activities by Iran-based cyber criminals that align with the state’s strategic and ideological interests, CSE added.

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New Study: Don’t Ask Alexa or Siri if You Need Info on Lifesaving CPR

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Ask Alexa or Siri about the weather. But if you want to save someone’s life? Call 911 for that.

Voice assistants often fall flat when asked how to perform CPR, according to a study published Monday.

Researchers asked voice assistants eight questions that a bystander might pose in a cardiac arrest emergency. In response, the voice assistants said:

  • “Hmm, I don’t know that one.”

  • “Sorry, I don’t understand.”

  • “Words fail me.”

  • “Here’s an answer … that I translated: The Indian Penal Code.”

Only nine of 32 responses suggested calling emergency services for help — an important step recommended by the American Heart Association. Some voice assistants sent users to web pages that explained CPR, but only 12% of the 32 responses included verbal instructions.

Verbal instructions are important because immediate action can save a life, said study co-author Dr. Adam Landman, chief information officer at Mass General Brigham in Boston.

Chest compressions — pushing down hard and fast on the victim’s chest — work best with two hands.

“You can’t really be glued to a phone if you’re trying to provide CPR,” Landman said.

For the study, published in JAMA Network Open, researchers tested Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana in February. They asked questions such as “How do I perform CPR?” and “What do you do if someone does not have a pulse?”

Not surprisingly, better questions yielded better responses. But when the prompt was simply “CPR,” the voice assistants misfired. One played news from a public radio station. Another gave information about a movie titled “CPR.” A third gave the address of a local CPR training business.

ChatGPT from OpenAI, the free web-based chatbot, performed better on the test, providing more helpful information. A Microsoft spokesperson said the new Bing Chat, which uses OpenAI’s technology, will first direct users to call 911 and then give basic steps when asked how to perform CPR. Microsoft is phasing out support for its Cortana virtual assistant on most platforms.

Standard CPR instructions are needed across all voice assistant devices, Landman said, suggesting that the tech industry should join with medical experts to make sure common phrases activate helpful CPR instructions, including advice to call 911 or other emergency phone numbers.

A Google spokesperson said the company recognizes the importance of collaborating with the medical community and is “always working to get better.” An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on Alexa’s performance on the CPR test, and an Apple spokesperson did not provide answers to AP’s questions about how Siri performed.

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Poland Asks EU’s Top Court to Cancel Three Climate Policies

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Poland has filed legal challenges attempting to annul three of the European Union’s main climate change policies, which the Polish government argues would worsen social inequality, document published on Monday showed.

The legal actions, brought by Warsaw to the EU Court of Justice in July, target policies including a law agreed this year which will ban the sale of new CO2-emitting cars in the EU from 2035.

“The contested regulation imposes excessive burdens connected with the transition towards zero-emission mobility on European citizens, especially those who are less well off, as well as on the European automotive companies sector,” Poland said in its challenge, which the European Commission published on Monday.

A second EU policy setting national emissions-cutting targets “threatens Poland’s energy security”, while a third law to reform the EU carbon market may reduce coal mining jobs and increase social inequality, Poland said.

Poland produces around 70% of its power from coal.

The government wants all three laws annulled. Each was passed by a reinforced majority of EU member states, but Poland said they should have been passed with unanimous approval given the impact they could have on countries’ energy mixes.

The European Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The EU has among the most ambitious climate change policies in the world, and has urged governments to use EU money to help vulnerable communities invest in clean energy to bring down bills and cut health-harming air pollution.

A 17.5 billion euro EU “just transition fund” is designed to support communities affected by the shift away from fossil fuels, notably with help for retraining workers.

The biggest share of that fund is earmarked for Poland. But Brussels has warned that the Polish government’s plans to extend the life of a coal mine in Turow until 2040 could mean the region cannot access the money.

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UN Committee: Kids Entitled to Clean, Healthy Environment

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All children are entitled to a clean and healthy environment, a UN committee said for the first time on Monday, bolstering young people’s arguments for suing authorities over the ravages of climate change.

Issuing a fresh interpretation of an important international rights treaty, the United Nations watchdog determined that it guarantees children the right to a healthy environment.

And this, it said, means countries are obliged to combat things like pollution and climate change.

“States must ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment in order to respect, protect and fulfil children’s rights,” the Committee on the Rights of the Child said.

“Environmental degradation, including the consequences of the climate crisis, adversely affects the enjoyment of these rights.”

Tasked with monitoring implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the panel’s 18 independent experts provided a new interpretation of the treaty, which counts nearly all the world’s countries as parties.

The fresh analysis comes just weeks after a landmark court ruling in Montana in favor of a group of youths who accused the western U.S. state of breaching their rights to a clean environment.

The ruling found that a state law preventing consideration of greenhouse gas impacts when issuing fossil fuel development permits violated those rights.

That followed several other recent high-profile lawsuits, including the youngsters who won a case against the Colombian government over deforestation, and the children who secured a ruling ordering a strengthening of Germany’s carbon emissions law.

And the UN committee itself heard a case in 2021 brought by Greta Thunberg and 15 other young climate activists, in which it determined that countries bear cross-border responsibility for the harmful impact of climate change.

Holding states accountable

The new analysis could provide a new and powerful tool for young people seeking to bring such cases, committee chair Ann Skelton told AFP.

“Children themselves can use this instrument to encourage states to do the right thing, and ultimately to help to hold them accountable,” she said.

The new guidance, she said, “is of great and far-reaching legal significance.”

The 1989 convention does not explicitly spell out the rights of children to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment — but the committee argued the right was implicit and directly linked to a long line of guaranteed rights, including the right to life, survival and development.

“The extent and magnitude of the triple planetary crisis, comprising the climate emergency, the collapse of biodiversity and pervasive pollution, is an urgent and systemic threat to children’s rights globally,” the UN committee said in its so-called general comment.

To reach its conclusions, the panel said it had consulted with governments, civil society and especially children.

More than 16,000 children of all ages across 121 countries provided comments, describing the negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change on their lives and communities.

“Our voices matter, and they deserve to be listened to,” said a 17-year-old climate and child rights activist from India, named only as Kartik.

The new committee guidance “will help us understand and exercise our rights in the face of the environmental and climate crisis,” he said in a statement.

The committee’s findings are far-reaching, determining that the convention prohibits states from causing environmental harms that violate children’s rights.

“States must ensure that children’s voices are brought to the table when big decisions are being made,” Skelton said, adding that countries also needed to “make sure that businesses are toeing the line.”

Going forward, the committee could be called upon to determine if countries were properly regulating commercial activities in this area.

The convention also requires countries to work to reduce emissions and “mitigate climate change in order to fulfil their obligations”, the committee said, stressing children’s rights to protest against practices harming the environment.

Skelton said the committee had been inspired by children stepping up and “taking on the obligation to protect the environment, for themselves, but also for future generations.”

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Tesla Braces for Its First Trial Involving Autopilot Fatality

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Tesla Inc TSLA.O is set to defend itself for the first time at trial against allegations that failure of its Autopilot driver assistant feature led to death, in what will likely be a major test of Chief Executive Elon Musk’s assertions about the technology.

Self-driving capability is central to Tesla’s financial future, according to Musk, whose own reputation as an engineering leader is being challenged with allegations by plaintiffs in one of two lawsuits that he personally leads the group behind technology that failed. Wins by Tesla could raise confidence and sales for the software, which costs up to $15,000 per vehicle.

Tesla faces two trials in quick succession, with more to follow.

The first, scheduled for mid-September in a California state court, is a civil lawsuit containing allegations that the Autopilot system caused owner Micah Lee’s Model 3 to suddenly veer off a highway east of Los Angeles at 65 miles per hour, strike a palm tree and burst into flames, all in the span of seconds.

The 2019 crash, which has not been previously reported, killed Lee and seriously injured his two passengers, including a then-8-year old boy who was disemboweled. The lawsuit, filed against Tesla by the passengers and Lee’s estate, accuses Tesla of knowing that Autopilot and other safety systems were defective when it sold the car. 

Musk ‘de facto leader’ of autopilot team

The second trial, set for early October in a Florida state court, arose out of a 2019 crash north of Miami where owner Stephen Banner’s Model 3 drove under the trailer of an 18-wheeler big rig truck that had pulled into the road, shearing off the Tesla’s roof and killing Banner. Autopilot failed to brake, steer or do anything to avoid the collision, according to the lawsuit filed by Banner’s wife.

Tesla denied liability for both accidents, blamed driver error and said Autopilot is safe when monitored by humans. Tesla said in court documents that drivers must pay attention to the road and keep their hands on the steering wheel.

“There are no self-driving cars on the road today,” the company said.

The civil proceedings will likely reveal new evidence about what Musk and other company officials knew about Autopilot’s capabilities – and any possible deficiencies. Banner’s attorneys, for instance, argue in a pretrial court filing that internal emails show Musk is the Autopilot team’s “de facto leader.”

Tesla and Musk did not respond to Reuters’ emailed questions for this article, but Musk has made no secret of his involvement in self-driving software engineering, often tweeting about his test-driving of a Tesla equipped with “Full Self-Driving” software. He has for years promised that Tesla would achieve self-driving capability only to miss his own targets.

Tesla won a bellwether trial in Los Angeles in April with a strategy of saying that it tells drivers that its technology requires human monitoring, despite the “Autopilot” and “Full Self-Driving” names. The case was about an accident where a Model S swerved into the curb and injured its driver, and jurors told Reuters after the verdict that they believed Tesla warned drivers about its system and driver distraction was to blame. 

Stakes higher for Tesla

The stakes for Tesla are much higher in the September and October trials, the first of a series related to Autopilot this year and next, because people died.

“If Tesla backs up a lot of wins in these cases, I think they’re going to get more favorable settlements in other cases,” said Matthew Wansley, a former General Counsel of nuTonomy, an automated driving startup and Associate Professor of Law at Cardozo School of Law.

On the other hand, “a big loss for Tesla – especially with a big damages award” could “dramatically shape the narrative going forward,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina.

In court filings, the company has argued that Lee consumed alcohol before getting behind the wheel and that it is not clear whether Autopilot was on at the time of crash.

Jonathan Michaels, an attorney for the plaintiffs, declined to comment on Tesla’s specific arguments, but said “we’re fully aware of Tesla’s false claims including their shameful attempts to blame the victims for their known defective autopilot system.”

In the Florida case, Banner’s attorneys also filed a motion arguing punitive damages were warranted. The attorneys have deposed several Tesla executives and received internal documents from the company that they said show Musk and engineers were aware of, and did not fix, shortcomings.

In one deposition, former executive Christopher Moore testified there are limitations to Autopilot, saying it “is not designed to detect every possible hazard or every possible obstacle or vehicle that could be on the road,” according to a transcript reviewed by Reuters.

In 2016, a few months after a fatal accident where a Tesla crashed into a semi-trailer truck, Musk told reporters that the automaker was updating Autopilot with improved radar sensors that likely would have prevented the fatality.

But Adam (Nicklas) Gustafsson, a Tesla Autopilot systems engineer who investigated both accidents in Florida, said that in the almost three years between that 2016 crash and Banner’s accident, no changes were made to Autopilot’s systems to account for cross-traffic, according to court documents submitted by plaintiff lawyers.

The lawyers tried to blame the lack of change on Musk. “Elon Musk has acknowledged problems with the Tesla autopilot system not working properly,” according to plaintiffs’ documents. Former Autopilot engineer Richard Baverstock, who was also deposed, stated that “almost everything” he did at Tesla was done at the request of “Elon,” according to the documents.

Tesla filed an emergency motion in court late on Wednesday seeking to keep deposition transcripts of its employees and other documents secret. Banner’s attorney, Lake “Trey” Lytal III, said he would oppose the motion.

“The great thing about our judicial system is Billion Dollar Corporations can only keep secrets for so long,” he wrote in a text message.

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Ancient Priest’s Remains Are First-of-a-Kind Find for Peru

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A group of Japanese and Peruvian archaeologists have discovered the 3,000-year-old tomb of a priest alongside ceramic offerings in northern Peru. 

“We have recently discovered the tomb of a 3,000-year-old figure at the Pacopampa archaeological site,” in the Cajamarca region, 900 kilometers (560 miles) north of Lima, archaeologist Juan Pablo Villanueva told AFP Saturday.  

“He is one of the first priests in the Andes to have a series of offerings,” the researcher said, adding that “the funerary context is intact.” 

The body, its lower extremities partially flexed, was oriented from south to north. On the western side of the tomb were small spherical ceramic bowls, a carved bone spatula and other offerings.  

Two seals were also found, one with designs of an anthropomorphic face and the other with that of a jaguar.  

The body and the offerings were covered by at least six layers of ash and earth. The tomb is circular, three meters in diameter and one meter deep (10 feet by 3.3 feet).  

Powerful leaders 

“The find is extremely important because he is one of the first priests to begin to control the temples in the country’s northern Andes,” Japanese archaeologist Yuji Seki, who has been working at the site for 18 years, told AFP.  

Researchers estimate that the priest lived around 1,000 B.C.  

Seki said the find helped demonstrate that even that long ago, “powerful leaders had appeared in the Andes.”  

In September 2022, the same group of archaeologists had discovered the tomb, more than 3,000 years old, of a man they called the “Priest of the Pututos,” along with musical instruments made of seashells.  

Pututos or pututus are conch-like shells that the inhabitants of ancient Peru could use to make trumpet-like sounds.  

The Pacopampa site, at an altitude of 2,500 meters (8,200 feet), includes nine monumental ceremonial buildings of carved and polished stone. 

Other burials found in the same site include those of the “Lady of Pacopampa,” found in 2009, and of two “Jaguar Serpent priests,” discovered in 2015. 

They are estimated to date from around 700 to 600 years B.C. 

Archaeologists from the National Museum of Ethnology in Japan and from Peru’s National University of San Marcos participate in the work in Pacopampa.  

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US Workers Exposed to Extreme Heat Found to Have No Consistent Protection

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Santos Brizuela spent more than two decades laboring outdoors, persisting despite a bout of heatstroke while cutting sugarcane in Mexico and chronic laryngitis from repeated exposure to the hot sun while on various other jobs.

But last summer, while on a construction crew in Las Vegas, he reached his breaking point. Exposure to the sun made his head ache immediately. He lost much of his appetite.

Now at a maintenance job, Brizuela, 47, is able to take breaks. There are flyers on the walls with best practices for staying healthy — protections he had not been afforded before.

“Sometimes as a worker you ask your employer for protection or for health and safety related needs, and they don’t listen or follow,” he said in Spanish through an interpreter.

A historic heat wave that began blasting the Southwest and other parts of the country this summer is shining a spotlight on one of the harshest, yet least-addressed effects of U.S. climate change: the rising deaths and injuries of people who work in extreme heat, whether inside warehouses and kitchens or outside under the blazing sun. Many of them are migrants in low-wage jobs.

State and federal governments have long implemented federal procedures for environmental risks exacerbated by climate change, namely drought, flood and wildfires. But extreme heat protections have generally lagged with “no owner” in state and federal governments, said Ladd Keith, an assistant professor of planning with the University of Arizona.

“In some ways, we have a very long way to catch up to the governance gap in treating the heat as a true climate hazard,” Keith said.

There is no federal heat standard in the U.S. despite an ongoing push from President Joe Biden’s administration to establish one. Most of the hottest U.S. states currently have no heat-specific standards either.

Instead, workers in many states who are exposed to extreme heat are ostensibly protected by what is known as the “general duty clause,” which requires employers to mitigate hazards that could cause serious injury or death. The clause permits state authorities to inspect work sites for violations, and many do, but there are no consistent benchmarks for determining what constitutes a serious heat hazard.

“What’s unsafe isn’t always clear,” said Juanita Constible, a senior advocate from the National Resources Defense Council who tracks extreme heat policy. “Without a specific heat standard, it makes it more challenging for regulators to decide, ‘OK, this employer’s breaking the law or not.’”

Many states are adopting their own versions of a federal “emphasis” program increasing inspections to ensure employers offer water, shade and breaks, but citations and enforcement still must go through the general duty clause.

Extreme heat is notably absent from the list of disasters to which the Federal Emergency Management Agency can respond. And while regional floodplain managers are common throughout the country, there are only three newly created “chief heat officer” positions to coordinate extreme heat planning, in Miami-Dade County, Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Federal experts have recommended extreme heat protections since 1972, but it wasn’t until 1997 and 2006, respectively, that Minnesota and California adopted the first statewide protections. For a long time, those states were the exception, with only a scattering of others joining them throughout the early 2000s.

But as heat waves become longer and hotter, the tide is starting to change.

“There are a lot of positive movements that give me some hope,” Keith said.

Colorado strengthened existing rules last year to require regular rest and meal breaks in extreme heat and cold and provide water and shade breaks when temperatures hit 26.7 degrees Celsius. Washington state last month updated 15-year-old heat safety standards to lower the temperature at which cool-down breaks and other protections are required. Oregon, which adopted temporary heat protection rules in 2021, made them permanent last year.

Several other states are considering similar laws or regulations.

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs recently announced new regulations through the heat emphasis program and declared a state of emergency over extreme heat, allowing the state to reimburse various government entities for funds spent on providing relief from high temperatures.

Nevada also adopted a version of the heat emphasis program. But a separate bill that would define what constitutes extreme heat and require employers to provide protections ultimately failed in the final month of the legislative session.

The measure faltered even after the temperature threshold for those protections was increased from 35 degrees Celsius to 40.5 degrees Celsius. Democratic lawmakers in Nevada are now trying to pass those protections through a regulatory process before next summer.

The Biden administration introduced new regulations in 2021 that would develop heat safety standards and strengthen required protective measures for most at-risk private sector workers, but the mandates are likely subject to several more years of review. A group of Democratic U.S. Congress members introduced a bill last month that would effectively speed up the process by legislating heat standards.

The guidelines would apply to all 50 states and include private sector and select federal workers but leave most other public sector workers uncovered. Differing conditions across states and potential discrepancies in how the federal law would be implemented make consistent state standards crucial, Constible said.

For now, protections for those workers are largely at the discretion of individual employers.

Eleazar Castellanos, who trains workers on dealing with extreme heat at Arriba Las Vegas, a nonprofit supporting migrant and low-wage employees, said he experienced two types of employers during his 20 years of working construction.

“The first version is the employer that makes sure that their workers do have access to water, shade and rest,” he said in Spanish through an interpreter. “And the second type of employer is the kind who threatens workers with consequences for asking for those kinds of preventative measures.”

Heat protection laws have faced steady industry opposition, including chambers of commerce and other business associations. They say a blanket mandate would be too difficult to implement across such a wide range of industries.

“We are always concerned about a one-size-fits-all bill like this,” Tray Abney, a lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, told Nevada legislators.

Opinions vary on why the Nevada bill failed after passing the Senate on party lines.| Some say it was a victim of partisan politics. Others say there were too many bills competing for attention in a session that meets for just four months every other year.

“It all comes down to the dollar,” said Vince Saavedra, secretary-treasurer and lobbyist for Southern Nevada Building Trades. “But I’ll challenge anybody to go work outside with any of these people, and then tell me that we don’t need these regs.”

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US Transgender Adults Worried About Finding Welcoming Spaces to Live in Later Years

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Rajee Narinesingh faced struggles throughout her life as a transgender woman, from workplace discrimination to the lasting effects of black market injections that scarred her face and caused chronic infections.

In spite of the roadblocks, the 56-year-old Florida actress and activist has seen growing acceptance since she first came out decades ago.

“If you see older transgender people, it shows the younger community that it’s possible I can have a life. I can live to an older age,” she said. “So I think that’s a very important thing.”

Now, as a wave of state laws enacted this year limit transgender people’s rights, Narinesingh has new uncertainty about her own future as she ages.

“Every now and then I have this thought, like, oh my God, if I end up in a nursing home, how are they going to treat me?” Narinesingh said.

Most of the new state laws have focused attention on trans youth, with at least 22 states banning or restricting gender-affirming care for minors.

For many transgender seniors, it’s brought new fears to their plans for retirement and old age. They already face gaps in health care and nursing home facilities properly trained to meet their needs. That’s likely to be compounded by restrictions to transgender health care that have already blocked some adults’ access to treatments in Florida and sparked concerns the laws will expand to other states.

Transgender adults say they’re worried about finding welcoming spaces to live in their later years.

“I have friends that have retired and they’ve decided to move to retirement communities. And then, little by little, they’ve found that they’re not welcome there,” said Morgan Mayfaire, a transgender man and the executive director of TransSOCIAL, a Florida support and advocacy group.

Discrimination can range from being denied housing to being misgendered and struggling to get nursing homes to acknowledge their visitation rights.

“In order to be welcome there, they have to go into the closet and deny who they are,” Mayfaire said.

About 171,000 of the more than 1.3 million transgender adults in the United States are aged 65 and older, according to numbers compiled by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

The growing population has brought more services such as nursing homes and assisted living centers that are geared toward serving the LGBTQ community, although such facilities remain uncommon. They include Stonewall Gardens, a 24-apartment assisted living center that opened in Palm Springs, California, in 2015.

The center’s staff are required to go through sensitivity training to help make the center a more welcoming environment for residents, said interim executive director Lauren Kabakoff Vincent. The training is key for making a more accepting environment for transgender residents and making them feel more at home.

“Do you really want to be moving into a place where you have to explain yourself and have to go through it over and over?” Vincent said. “It’s exhausting, and so I think being able to be in a comfortable environment is important.”

SAGE, which advocates on behalf of LGBTQ seniors, offers training to nursing homes and other elder care providers. The group trained more than 46,000 staff at 576 organizations around the country in the most recent fiscal year. But the group said that represents just a fraction of the elder care facilities around the country.

“We have a long way to go in terms of getting to the point where nursing homes, assisted living and other long-term care providers are prepared for and ready to provide appropriate and welcoming care to trans elders,” said Michael Adams, SAGE’s CEO.

The gap concerns Tiffany Arieagus, 71, an acclaimed drag performer in south Florida who also works in social services for SunServe, an LGBTQ nonprofit.

“I just am going on my 71 years on this earth and walking in the civil rights march with my mother at age 6 and then marching for gay rights,” Arieagus said. “I’ve been blessed enough to see so many changes being made in the world. And then now I’m having to see these wonderful progressions going backwards.”

A handful of states, including Massachusetts and California, have in recent years enacted laws to ensure that LGBTQ seniors have equal access to programs for aging populations and requiring training on how to serve that community.

The push for restrictions on access to health care has brought uncertainty in other states. Florida’s ban on gender-affirming care for minors also includes restrictions that make it difficult, if not impossible, for many adults to get treatment.

SAGE has seen a spike in the number of calls to its hotline following the wave of anti-transgender laws, and Adams said about 40% of them have come from trans seniors primarily in conservative parts of the country worried about the new restrictions.

The limits have prompted some trans adults to leave the state for care, with some turning to crowdfunding appeals for help. But for many trans seniors, such a move isn’t as easy.

“You have the general fear, fear that is leading clinicians being concerned and perhaps stepping away from offering care, fear of trans elders of who is a safe clinician to go to,” said Dan Stewart, associate director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Aging Equality Project.

Florida’s law has already created obstacles for Andrea Montanez, LGBTQ immigration organizer at Hope CommUnity Center near Orlando, Florida. Montanez, 57, said her prescription for hormone therapy was initially denied after the restrictions were signed. Montanez, who has been speaking out at Florida Medical Board meetings about the impact of the new state law, said she’s worried about what it will be mean as she approaches retirement.

“I hope I have a happy retirement, but health care is a big problem,” said Montanez, who was eventually able to get her prescription filled.

For Tatiana Williams, 51, the restrictions are stirring painful memories of a time when she and other transgender people had to rely on dangerous and illegal sources for gender-affirming medical care. Now the executive director of the Transinclusive Group in Wilton Manors, Florida, Williams remembers being hospitalized for a collapsed lung after receiving black market silicone injections for her breasts.

“What we don’t want is the community resorting to going back to that,” Williams said.

Still, older transgender adults say they see hope in how their generation is working with younger trans people to speak out against the wave of the restrictions.

“The community’s going to take care of itself. It’s as simple as that. We’re going to find ways to take care of ourselves and we’re going to survive this,” Mayfaire of TransSOCIAL said. “And as far as trans youth panicking over this, look to your elders.”

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Fukushima Residents Cautious After Nuclear Plant Begins Wastewater Releases

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Fish auction prices at a port south of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were mixed amid uncertainty over how seafood consumers will respond to the release of treated and diluted radioactive wastewater into the ocean.

The plant, which was damaged in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, began sending the treated water into the Pacific on Thursday despite protests at home and in nearby countries that are adding political and diplomatic pressures to the economic worries.

Hideaki Igari, a middleman at the Numanouchi fishing port, said the price of larger flounder, Fukushima’s signature fish known as Joban-mono, was more than 10% lower at the Friday morning auction, the first since the water release began. Prices of some average-size flounder rose, but presumably because of a limited catch, Igari said.

It was a relatively calm market reaction to the water release. But, Igari said, “we still have to see how it goes next week.”

The decadeslong release has been strongly opposed by fishing groups and criticized by neighboring countries. China immediately banned imports of seafood from Japan in response, adding to worries in the fisheries community and related businesses.

In Seoul on Saturday, thousands of South Koreans took to the streets to condemn the release of wastewater and to criticize the South Korean government for endorsing the plan. The protesters called on Japan to store radioactive water in tanks instead of releasing it into the Pacific Ocean.

A citizens’ radiation testing center in Japan said it’s getting inquiries and expects more people might bring in food, water and other samples as radiation data is now a key barometer for what to eat.

Japanese fishing groups fear the release will do more harm to the reputation of seafood from the Fukushima area. They are still striving to repair the damage to their businesses from the meltdown at the power plant after the earthquake and tsunami.

“We now have this water after all these years of struggle when the fish market price is finally becoming stable,” Igari said after Friday’s auction. “Fisheries people fear that prices of the fish they catch for their living may crash again and worry about their future living.”

The Japanese government and the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, say the water must be released to make way for the facility’s decommissioning and to prevent accidental leaks of insufficiently treated water. Much of tank-held water still contains radioactive materials exceeding releasable levels.

Some wastewater at the plant is recycled as coolant after treatment, and the rest is stored in around 1,000 tanks, which are filled to 98% of their 1.37-million-ton capacity. The tanks cover much of the complex and must be cleared out to make room for new facilities needed for the decommissioning process, officials say.

Authorities say the wastewater after treatment and dilution is safer than international standards require, and that its environmental impact will be negligible. On Friday, the first seawater samples collected after the release were significantly below the legally releasable levels, the power company said.

But, having suffered a series of accidental and intended releases of contaminated water from the plant early in the disaster, hard feelings and distrust of the government and TEPCO run deep in Fukushima — especially in the fishing community.

TEPCO says the release will take 30 years, or until the end of the plant decommissioning. People fear that could mean a tough future for youths in the fishing town, where many businesses are family-run.

Fukushima’s current catch is only about one-fifth its pre-disaster level because of a decline in the number of fishers and decreased catch sizes.

The government has allocated 80 billion yen ($550 million) to support fisheries and seafood processing, and to combat potential reputation damage by sponsoring campaigns to promote Fukushima’s Joban-mono and processed seafood. TEPCO has promised to deal with reputational damage claims, and those hurt by China’s export ban.

Tetsu Nozaki, head of the Fukushima prefectural fisheries cooperatives, said in a statement that worries of the fishing community will continue for as long as the water is released.

“Our only wish is to continue fishing for generations in our hometown, like we used to before the accident,” Nozaki said.

Fish prices largely depend on the sentiment of wholesalers and consumers in the Tokyo region, where large portions of the Fukushima catch goes.

At the Friday auction at the Numanouchi port, the price for flounder was down from its usual level of about 3,500 yen ($24) per kilogram to around 3,000 yen ($20), said Igari, the middleman.

“I suspect the result is because of the start of the treated water release from the Fukushima Daiichi and fear about its impact,” he said.

Igari said the discharge is discouraging but hopes careful testing can prove the safety of their fish.

“From the consumers’ point of view about food safety at home, I think the best barometer is data,” he said.

At Mother’s Radiation Lab Fukushima in Iwaki, a citizens’ testing center known as Tarachine, tests were being conducted on water samples, including on tritium levels for seawater that the lab collected from just off the Fukushima Daiichi plant before the release.

Lab director Ai Kimura said anyone can bring in food, water or even soil, though the lab has big backlogs because testing take time.

She joined the lab after regretting she might not have fully protected her daughters because of the lack of information and knowledge earlier in the disaster. She says having independent test results is important not because of distrust of government data, but because “we learned over the past 12 years the importance of testing in order to get data” on what mothers want to know for serving safe and healthy food to their children and families.

Kimura said people have different views about safety — some are fine with government standards; others want them to be as close to zero as possible.

“It’s very difficult to make everyone feel safe. … That’s why we conduct testing so we can visualize data on food from different places and help people have more options to make a decision,” she said.

Kimura said the lab’s testing has shown Fukushima fish to be safe over the past few years, and she happily eats local fish.

“It’s totally fine to eat fish that does not contain radiation,” she said.

But now the treated wastewater release will bring new questions, she said.

Aeon, a major supermarket chain that has been testing cesium and iodine levels in fish, announced plans to also test for tritium, a radionuclide inseparable from water.

Katsumasa Okawa, a fish store and restaurant operator who was at one of his four shops Thursday, said customers were sparse after the plant started its final steps of the treated water release at 1 p.m. and media reports covered the development.

But on Friday, he said, his Yamako seafood restaurant next to Iwaki’s main train station seemed to be doing business as usual, with customers coming in and out during lunchtime.

Okawa said he’s been looking forward to the wastewater draining as a big step toward decommissioning the nuclear plant.

“I feel more at ease thinking those tanks will finally go away,” he said.

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With Drones, Webcams, Volunteers in New Hunt for Mythical Loch Ness Monster

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Mystery hunters converged on a Scottish lake on Saturday to look for signs of the mythical Loch Ness Monster.

The Loch Ness Center said researchers would seek evidence of Nessie using thermal-imaging drones, infrared cameras and a hydrophone to detect underwater sounds in the lake’s murky waters. The two-day event is being billed as the biggest survey of the lake in 50 years and includes volunteers scanning the water from boats and the lakeshore, with others around the world joining in with webcams.

Alan McKenna of the Loch Ness Center said the aim was “to inspire a new generation of Loch Ness enthusiasts.”

McKenna told BBC radio the searchers were “looking for breaks in the surface and asking volunteers to record all manner of natural behavior on the loch.”

“Not every ripple or wave is a beastie. Some of those can be explained, but there are a handful that cannot,” he said.

The Loch Ness Center is at the former Drumnadrochit Hotel, where the modern-day Nessie legend began. In 1933, manager Aldie Mackay reported spotting a “water beast” in the mountain-fringed loch, the largest body of freshwater by volume in the United Kingdom and at up to 750 feet (230 meters) one of the deepest.

The story kicked off an enduring worldwide fascination with finding the elusive monster, spawning hoaxes and hundreds of eyewitness accounts. Numerous theories have been put forward over the years, including that the creature may have been a prehistoric marine reptile, giant eels, a sturgeon or even an escaped circus elephant.

Many believe the sightings are pranks or can be explained by floating logs or strong winds, but the legend is a boon for tourism in the picturesque Scottish Highlands region.

Such skepticism did not deter volunteers like Craig Gallifrey.

“I believe there is something in the loch,” he said, though he is open-minded about what it is. “I do think that there’s got to be something that’s fueling the speculation.”

He said that whatever the outcome of the weekend search, “the legend will continue.”

“I think it’s just the imagination of something being in the largest body of water in the U.K.. … There’s a lot more stories,” he said. “There’s still other things, although they’ve not been proven. There’s still something quite special about the loch.”

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