These days, it’s hard to stop politics from flooding your news feed. We take a moment every week to bring you important stories beyond the White House and the Capitol. Here’s what we’re reading now.
1. Sonic weapons probably didn’t cause mysterious diplomat illnesses in Cuba, doctors say
It’s been more than a year since American diplomats in Cuba first reported hearing strange sounds in their homes. A series of unusual symptoms followed — sudden hearing loss, vertigo, nausea, ear pain and trouble focusing — but neither doctors nor other experts called before Congress in the months that followed were able to figure out why.
Many officials had theorized the mysterious illnesses were caused by sonic attacks. But a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week all but ruled out that theory.
What researchers did find, through examining 21 people who reported hearing the sounds, was that their symptoms were consistent with those often seen in blunt head trauma, though they showed no sign of brain injury. Researchers wrote that they “suspect that the strange sounds the patients reported were a byproduct of whatever actually harmed them — kind of like the crack of a gunshot,” The Verge writes.
One co-author described it in a Journal of the American Medical Association podcast as a “concussion without concussion.” [The Verge]
Why it matters: Though it’s still not clear what caused these illnesses, the latest study gets us closer to an answer. What it cannot help is the diplomatic rift that’s developed between American and Cuban diplomats. In September, the State Department pulled most of its employees out of the country, and the next month, kicked 15 Cuban diplomats out of their embassy here, saying the country did not adequately protect American diplomats from whatever the mysterious attacks were.
Cuba, which is conducting its own investigation, has continued to deny any involvement in the illnesses, despite tweets from President Donald Trump and statements from other officials that have suggested otherwise.
As of last month, the PBS NewsHour reported, the State Department was not planning to send any diplomats back to Cuba, because they could “not say categorically that staffers would be safe from another attack if they returned to the country.” It’s not clear where that effort stands.
2. Facebook has been illegally collecting user data in Belgium, court rules
A court in Belgium ruled last week that Facebook has been illegally collecting user data. It demanded that the social media giant stop collecting data on Belgians or face daily fines of between $308,262 and $123.3 million.
The court mandated Facebook delete all the data it had gathered on users and nonusers by placing cookies and invisible pixels on third party websites.
Facebook denied doing anything illegal, saying the methods were the “industry standard.” [The Guardian]
Why it matters: Facebook is under political fire across Europe as governments have criticized the tech giant for its inability to combat fake news on its platform. In Belgium, Facebook has faced data collection lawsuits since 2015. All this comes a few months before the European Union enacts a measure to greater protect its citizens’ personal data online, called the General Data Protection Regulation. It takes effect in May. Lawmakers in the United States and others have also skewered Facebook for its inability to stop the flow of “fake news” on its platform during the 2016 election. Recently, the company has gotten pushback for not sharing its data on whether its efforts to prevent the spread of deliberately false stories are working.
3. Thousands of people have stopped regular donations to Oxfam amid Haiti prostitute scandal
About 7,000 people have stopped making regular donations to the British charity Oxfam, its chief executive told members of Parliament earlier this week, after a Times of London story suggested that Oxfam workers hired prostitutes while working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
Since the story broke three weeks ago, Oxfam has begun investigating 26 reports of misconduct, according to the BBC.
CEO Mark Goldring has apologized, but denied that the charity had covered up sexual misconduct while completing its internal investigation.
Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima told the committee, “I‘m ashamed. I’ve spent my life trying to stand up for women’s rights, and to fight for people living in poverty. So this is painful for me.” [The BBC]
Why it matters: The Oxfam scandal has started to tarnish the reputation of one of the world’s largest aid organizations, while also calling into question the credibility of other humanitarian groups. Oxfam has more than 10,000 staff in nearly 90 countries. Recently, Oxfam America has distributed water filters and solar-powered lights, and offered legal aid to residents in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
But last week, Oxfam was forced to withdraw from bidding for funding from the British government. The deputy head of the charity also resigned. and Oxfam is already under investigation by the watchdog group Charity Commission, and by the Haitian government, which on Thursday told the Associated Press it was suspending the organization’s operations in the country. Haiti’s president has called for the investigation of other aid groups, too.
4. World’s orangutan population decreased by half since 1999
The number of Bornean orangutans is half of what it was before the new millennium, a new report found last week.
A study published in Current Biology last week and detailed in the Washington Post estimated that more than 100,000 of the apes died between 1999 and 2015. They cited human proximity, deforestation and killings as reasons for the decline.
Conservationists, researchers and scientists canvassed 500 square miles of forest in Borneo for 16 years to make the estimate.
Because orangutans are shy and difficult to find, the team looked for the nests the primates formed in the canopy.
They estimate there are anywhere from 17,000 to 100,000 orangutans alive today. [The Washington Post]
Why it matters: Orangutans share similar genomes and physical characteristics to humans, and are some humanity’s closest relatives on earth. And the decline in their numbers is preventable. “We have relatively stable populations in national parks. We see that they can coexist with humans,” Maria Voight, one of the study’s co-authors, told the Washington Post. “If we stop the killing, they could even bound back.”
5. Your household chemical products contribute almost as much to air pollution as your car, study says
Chemicals from in-home products like soaps, paints and pesticides contribute almost as much to air pollution in cities as car emissions, a new study finds.
The report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) looked specifically at smog in the Los Angeles region. At a rate of two-to-one the researchers found that particles causing lung damage come from household chemicals more than vehicle emissions.
About 95 percent of oil is burned in vehicle engines, but the five percent used to make chemicals in household products could be doing the same harm to our lungs, the study says. [Forbes]
Why it matters: The data show that efforts to reduce pollution caused by vehicle emissions has worked, the researchers say. But the new front in reducing harmful airborne particles is in the home.