The Mendocino Complex Fire has been deemed the largest wildfire in California state history.

After Slowing of Data Speeds During Wildfire Battle, a Heightened Fervor for Net Neutrality

Legislators in California are pushing for the return of net neutrality, after federal regulations prohibiting the blocking or slowing down of internet traffic to particular websites or online services were repealed last year.

Two bills now before the Senate and the Assembly received a wave of support last week after reports that Verizon Wireless slowed down data speeds for firefighters in Santa Clara County in July, in the middle of their battle against the largest wildfire in modern California history.

The incident was detailed as part of a federal lawsuit filed by California and other states to reverse the repeal of net neutrality nationwide. According to court documents, the California Office of Emergency Services, which was providing real-time tracking and coordination for local government resources deployed to the fire, noticed its data connection had been throttled.

When the office contacted Verizon to emphasize it had received approval from the company to maintain speeds for devices used in the protection of public safety, representatives stated that the agency had gone over its limit and suggested it pay more.

While Verizon provided a statement to Ars Technica last week admitting that it should have removed speed restrictions given the emergency situation, it countered claims that the issue had anything to do with net neutrality — instead calling it a “customer support mistake.” Santa Clara County dismissed that explanation, stating that the incident “shows that the [internet service providers] will act in their economic interests, even at the expense of public safety.”

In response, more than 1,000 first responders from around the county signed a letter demanding a federal reversal. And 13 Democrats in Congress have asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Verizon’s actions were “unfair or deceptive.”

Also in the news:

• “It’s Orwellian.” That was the response of one promoter of meat alternatives to a law created in Missouri that bars companies from “misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” While supporters of the law say its geared mainly towards the marketing of so-called “clean meat,” which is cultured from animal cells in a lab, manufacturers of traditional veggie burgers and other plant-based foods say they’re struggling to determine what sorts of descriptors are safe to use for their products. Accusing the state of suppressing competition, Oregon-based company Tofurkey, along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund and two other organizations, is suing the state to stop the law from being enforced. Although the market for meat substitutes pales in comparison to the billion dollar processed meat industry, demand for alternatives to animal products is growing, meaning tensions over labeling everything from mayo to eggs to milk are likely to continue. (New York Times)

• Testing the efficacy of a new drug in the real world is tough. Fewer than 5 percent of Americans participate in clinical trials, for example — and some 30 percent of those who do participate eventually drop out before a study is completed. Indeed, nearly one-fifth of all clinical trials are prematurely shut down due to participation shortfalls. That now has drug makers turning to so-called “virtual” clinical trials, in which trial subjects can participate in studies remotely, and from the comfort of their own homes. An array of apps, monitors, and other gadgets are being developed and deployed to support this sort of research — though it remains far from clear whether such trials, which remain only in their embryonic stage, will prove reliable enough to supplant traditional clinical trial protocols. Still, the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees new drug approval, is watching the developments with interest. “The FDA is open to innovative trial designs,” agency spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman told Undark, “that create efficiencies, serve the needs of patients while protecting their interests and safety, and create data that will be fit for use for regulatory decisions.” (Undark)

• According to a large study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, air pollution isn’t only taking a devastating toll on our physical health; it may also be linked to cognitive decline. From 2010 to 2014, researchers conducted both math and verbal tests on more than 25,000 people across China. The cumulative exposure to pollution, they found, had a significant impact on cognitive performance, particularly among older men and, because they tend to work outside more often and are exposed to higher levels of pollution, individuals with less education. “If the air pollution improves from China’s level to the American EPA standard level,” notes study co-author Xi Chen, “that means that would improve everyone’s education by around one year.” While the researchers tried to minimize the impact of other variables — they excluded, for example, people who worked in mining, smelting, and other “polluted occupations” — establishing the causal link remains a challenge, as individual exposure simply depends on many factors. There’s no doubt, however, that air pollution is deadly problem. In May, the World Health Organization estimated that it was responsible for 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2016, with more than a million of them in China. (NPRThe New York Times)

• It took the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) more than six years to inform residents of Haysville, a suburb of Wichita, that their drinking water was contaminated with dry cleaning chemicals. The state claims that it notified private well owners of the contamination as soon as they found it had reached their wells, in July 2017. But the chemical, perchloroethylene (PCE), also known as tetrachloroethylene, had been discovered in groundwater at levels exceeding the EPA safe drinking limits in a Haysville Kwik Shop site during an investigation in 2011. In addition to short-term effects, PCE can build up in the body and cause neurological damage, along with dysfunction to the liver, kidneys, and reproductive system. The state admits that it assumed the groundwater flow was traveling away from residential neighborhoods, until 2017 when it realized the groundwater in fact follows a creek running past a former dry cleaner, into the wells of several homeowners. By July, some 200 homes had been connected to the city’s water supply. But more contaminated sites continue to be found. A bizarre Kansas state law currently prohibits the KDHE from actively searching for sites of dry cleaning contamination and directs the agency to “make every reasonable effort” to ensure sites stay off the federal Superfund list. (The Wichita Eagle)

• A senior official at the Pentagon has joined the growing chorus of opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed “secret science” rule, which would place new restrictions on the science the EPA can use to justify environmental regulations. Introduced last April by former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule, as it’s officially known, would require the agency to use only studies with publicly available data in its policymaking. But advocacy groups and EPA science advisors argue that the rule sets an unrealistic bar, and that it could be used to thwart legitimate scientific evidence favoring stronger regulations. Now Patricia Underwood, a senior official in the Department of Defense, one of the nation’s largest funders of scientific research, has added a weighty voice of dissent. “It is improbable that EPA will be able to obtain underlying data from all authors” of scientific publications, Underwood wrote in a formal comment, one of more than a half-million the EPA received during the proposal’s review period. “This should not impede the use of otherwise high-quality studies.” It will be up to acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler to decide whether to adopt or scrap the proposal. (E&E News)

• And finally: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this week that three notable kinds of sexually-transmitted diseases — syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia — are increasing sharply in the United States. Last year’s total for the three of 2.3 million cases was more than 200,000 above the previous year’s report — representing the continuation of a dismaying trend. For example, from 2013-2017, cases of gonorrhea increased by 67 percent and the incidence of syphilis rose 76 percent. Public health officials attribute the increase to a range of factors, including improved detection, new evidence of unprotected sex by men who have sex with other men, and cuts to public health funding and the resulting reduction in treatment. (Vox)