These days, headlines out of the White House and Capitol Hill can overwhelm our news feeds. The PBS NewsHour takes a moment every week to bring you important stories happening beyond the Beltway. Here’s what we’re reading now.
1. Puerto Rico says Hurricane Maria killed more than 1,400 people — hundreds more than originally reported
Puerto Rico has revised its estimate of the number of deaths resulting from Hurricane Maria to more than 1,400 — nearly 20 times higher than what the government initially reported.
The new estimate was released in June but was publicly acknowledged by the Puerto Rican government Wednesday in a draft report to Congress requesting $139 billion in recovery funds, according to the New York Times.
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm almost a year ago, leaving nearly all the island without power and roughly a million American citizens without access to potable water for weeks.
Amid a slow-paced recovery, Puerto Rican officials have had a hard time nailing down the number of fatalities that followed the storm. A few days after the hurricane made landfall on Sept. 20, officials announced an initial count of 16 dead people. In December, the number grew to 64, a figure the government has repeated despite several independent investigations that estimated the toll to be much higher. [The New York Times]
Why it matters: For months, Puerto Rican officials have faced criticism for vastly under-counting the number of people who died because of Hurricane Maria. Several independent analyses have challenged government figures, including a study by Harvard’s T.H Chan School of Public Health that estimated the death toll could be as high as 4,645 people. Another study released earlier this month by researchers at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Texas at San Antonio estimated the number to be 1,139.
Counting hurricane-related deaths has been difficult because most of the deaths occured in the ensuing days after the storm, as damaged infrastructure and downed power lines prevented many from accessing emergency services and medical treatment, according to the Associated Press. The government’s new number is only 400 short of the death toll from Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,833 people in 2005.
The Puerto Rican government is still waiting on official results from a study it commissioned from George Washington University. That report is expected to be released in the coming weeks.
2. In landmark trial, jury orders Monsanto to pay groundskeeper $289 million for exposure to herbicide
A San Francisco jury has awarded $289 million in damages to DeWayne Johnson, who filed a lawsuit against agribusiness company Monsanto for exposure to Roundup, its most popular herbicide. Johnson, a former groundskeeper at a California school, said exposure to Monsanto’s weed killer gave him terminal cancer.
Johnson’s case is the first of thousands of lawsuits against Monsato for its herbicide. Johnson said an ingredient in Roundup — glyphosate — caused him to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The jury agreed last week, ordering Monsanto to pay Johnson $250 million in punitive damages and $39 million in compensatory damages, including for pain and suffering.
There are more than 5,000 additional lawsuits awaiting possible trial from patients who allege a link between Roundup and cancer risks, Reuters reported. Monsanto has maintained that the Roundup ingredient glyphosate is safe to use and does not cause cancer. This was repeated as testimony by their experts in the trial.
Johnson’s case was fast-tracked in California court because state law grants expedited trials to plaintiffs whose health is failing, CNN reported. According to court documents, medical experts said it was unclear if Johnson could attend a trial past January 2018. Another testimony said as of January, approximately 80 percent of Johnson’s body was covered with lesions, but that treatment was improving his condition. The money will help ensure that Johnson lives the rest of his time “in extreme comfort,” his lawyer said.[CNN]
Why it matters: In handing down its decision, the jury was sending a message that it “wanted to punish Monsanto because members believed the company deliberately withheld from the public scientific knowledge that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, was a cancer danger,” University of Connecticut’s Richard G. Stevens wrote for The Conversation. “The size of the damages awarded indicates that the jury was not persuaded by Monsanto’s expert witnesses.”
Monsanto has signaled that it had planned to appeal the decision. After a verdict like this, the burden is now on the company to provide additional evidence that its product is safe for the upcoming trials, Stevens added.
3. Argentina rejects bill that would have legalized abortion in first 14 weeks of pregnancy
Argentina’s Senate narrowly voted down a bill Thursday to legalize abortion during first 14 weeks of pregnancy, an issue that has polarized the country.
Despite approval in the House and a promise from Argentinian President Mauricio Macri to sign it, the proposed bill was rejected on a 38-31 vote, leaving the procedure legal only in case of rape or when the mother’s life is at risk.
Hundreds of thousands of activists on either side of the issue stood for hours outside Congress ahead of the vote. At the forefront of this recent push to legalize abortion was a movement called #NiUnaMenos, (Not One Woman Less) which has advocated against gender-based violence and on behalf of women’s rights.
Catholic Church leaders rebuffed the proposal with an opposition campaign #SalvemosLasDosVidas (Save the Two Lives) and held a “Mass for Life” at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Bueno Aires as lawmakers debated the bill Wednesday night. But the Washington Post reports the over-representation of certain conservative provinces in the Senate is what ultimately blocked the bill’s passage. [The Washington Post]
Why it matters: Argentina is the latest Latin American country to revisit its abortion laws. Both Uruguay and Chile have made moves to decriminalize the procedure or expand the circumstances under which it is allowed.
Though abortion is still considered punishable in most of Latin America, home to a large percentage of the world’s Catholic population, a grassroots movement in Argentina for women’s reproductive rights have started to shift the country’s Catholic and socially conservative values. In 2010, Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage. And while this bill ultimately failed in the Senate, the #NiUnaMenos feminist movement helped force a vote on an issue that has for decades been taboo in the country.
While the bill is dead, the issue may not be. President Macri’s administration has said that it would include a measure to decriminalize abortion when introducing legislation to overhaul the penal code later this month. And women’s rights activists throughout Latin America say they remain optimistic that abortion restriction will soon be eased throughout the region.
4. Bangladesh government promises harsher punishments for reckless driving
Tens of thousands of young Bangladeshi students have protested in the streets since July against unsafe roads and drivers. They began after a speeding minibus killed two teenagers July 29. Since then, the student protests have effectively shut down the streets in the capital city, Dhaka.
Last week, the government announced it will use the death penalty in some reckless driving cases.
At the same time, human rights groups are concerned a crackdown on dissenters is imminent.
UN agencies are increasingly concerned for the safety of children & young people caught up in recent protests over road safety in #Dhaka & other parts of the country.
Students & young people have a legitimate right to speak out on issues of concern to them…
Full Statement👇🏾 pic.twitter.com/Kj65cJeqP3
— UNICEF Bangladesh (@UNICEFBD) August 5, 2018
At least 140 people have been injured as police shoot rubber bullets and tear gas at the protestors. Pro-government actors have gone into the crown to beat up protesters, and have also attacked a car driving the U.S. ambassador.
“Students and young people have a legitimate right to speak out on issues of concern to them including road safety issues and to have their opinion heard without the threat of violence,” UNICEF Bangladesh said in a statement. [The Guardian]
Why it matters:The number of fatalities from road accidents varies, but a 2015 World Health Organization report on road safety found that more than 21,000 people are killed in such accidents each year in Bangladesh.
About 91 percent of road fatalities in the world occur in low-income and middle-income countries, including Bangladesh, WHO also said in its report.
Yet that number is in stark contrast from the government’s reported number on road fatalities, which hovers around 3,200, BBC reported. The BBC also points to a 2017 report that found Bangladesh’s police data around road fatalities to be “grossly” underreported, which may account for the discrepancy.
Though the chaotic and deadly street traffic was the impetus for the protests, experts told The Guardian that it’s also rooted in deep frustration with a less accountable government, and a prime minister who is accused of consolidating power ahead of elections in December.
5. Solar probe blasts into space for an unprecedented mission around the sun
On Sunday, Nasa launched the Parker Solar Probe for a historic mission around the sun.
Over seven years, the probe will fly “seven times closer to the sun than any other spacecraft has before,” collecting new data about the sun’s atmosphere and its magnetic fields.
Why it matters: “You might think getting to the sun is easy because it’s not far and you can see it,” one researcher told the PBS NewsHour last month. “But of all the solar system explorations, it’s the most challenging.”
“Every inch closer to the sun means the probe will be exposed to more excruciating heat and radiation,” Anna Kusmer wrote for the PBS NewsHour last month.
Despite the dangers, the mission, if successful, will give researchers data they’ve never had before, and allow us to answer questions like why the sun’s atmosphere is “hundreds of times hotter than the sun’s surface,” Kusmer wrote.
“A close look at the sun’s magnetic field will also shine light on the origins of solar wind–that’s the charged gas that comes off the sun and bombards Earth. Our planet’s magnetic field wards off this radiation,” she added.