You’d Better Read This Before You Let Your Child Swim in Area Lakes

Lake-1During the past few months we’ve seen numerous startling social media photos and posts from Alabama parents whose children have been breaking out in sores and infections after swimming in some area lakes.

The painful, open sores are caused by staph infections, and have been popping up from children who have been swimming in Lewis Smith Lake and Lake Logan Martin. Local news reports here and here describe the potential risks and symptoms. You can also check water quality reports at the Logan Martin Lake Protection Association website.

The best way to keep your child safe, besides foregoing swimming in these lakes, is to make sure they don’t have open sores when they do take a plunge. Also, you are advised to make sure they bathe (on physician suggested a Clorox bath) immediately after getting out of the lake.

ASP Closing Shows Lack of Leadership and Compassion

It is no secret that Alabama consistently lags behind other states when it comes to assisting its citizens who are in need. Perhaps the best example of this attitude has recently arisen when it was disclosed that Alabama Psychiatric Services (APS), one of the oldest and largest mental health providers in the state will close its doors on February 13, 2015, leaving tens of thousands of patients without access to mental health care. Alabama, even before  the APS announcement, ranked 49th of 50 in the nation in access to care in a report by Mental Health America.

Remember that Alabama has already slashed its mental health budget by 35% and has announced that state-run psychiatric hospitals will be closed. APS was one of the few mental health providers that accepted Blue Cross/Blue Shield, but that insurer reportedly shifted several members to plans with higher co-pays and deductibles, and reduced membership in a plan that had allowed APS to remain viable.

Now APS announces its closing, giving its patients and employees only 9 days notice. One can only imagine the difficulty the patients will have finding new providers promptly, and at an affordable cost. And what damage will be caused to the mental and emotional health of patients by such a disruption in care?

Alabama’s political leaders’ priorities are not in order. The mantra that we should all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps cannot continue at every turn, in every instance. In Alabama, 25% of the population suffers from mental illness and we already have a shortage of psychiatrists according to the National Alliance for Mental Illness. Now these patients are running out of places to turn for care.

This crisis is just the latest in our state, caused by short-sighted leaders, preaching conservatism to a fault, causing those who are most needful of assistance and treatment to do without. I pray that those in need of mental health treatment quickly find professionals who can provide the necessary assistance. Sadly, it will undoubtedly take time for patients to locate new providers, and more time to establish trusting relationships which are so crucial in strengthening the fragile mental and emotional well being of all those affected.

What You Wear Can And Will Be Used Against You

People in the United States are embracing wearable technology: phones, bracelets, watches, shoes, even clothes. These items will gather all manner of data about you – data that if precedents continue, may be used against you in a court of law.

You’re used to some of this technology already. Your cell phone sits in your pocket or purse and gathers and stores millions upon millions of bits of data about you: Where you are, where you’ve been, what you buy, who you are talking to, who you’re texting, and what you’re saying. It also transfers much of this information to databases in the “cloud,” where it is stored by companies that want to get to know you better so they can advertise to you more effectively.

Now, companies and entrepreneurs are getting the technology even closer to you. Here are just a few of the wearable technologies you can get now or very soon:

Smart watches: The new Apple Watch joins a myriad of other wrist-worn devices (Samsung Gear 2, Pebble, Sony SmartWatch, etc.) and includes a heart rate sensor, accelerometer (it measures your speed and acceleration), and a GPS. It’s also reported to be able to track glucose levels for people with diabetes.

Smart rings: Slip them on your fingers and they will notify you about messages, allow you to pay for purchases and track your movements.

Smart glasses: Although originally envisioned as a “see the digital world superimposed on the real world” device, smart eyeglasses like Google Glass have found a more recent niche in the medical world. Once Google shakes the bugs loose, these will track your location, buying habits, friends, preferences, and a myriad of other items and display them all handily in your own personal heads-up display.

Smart clothing: Does your hoodie let you send texts? Well, if could. Smart Hoodies respond to gestures so you can send texts when grabbing your phone is just too taxing. Shoes that track your workouts and charge your other devices could be your next fashion statement. Some companies have even even developed clothes that will monitor your baby’s vital signs and alert you to a problem.

Just remember that when you embrace these gadgets, all of the data they collect about you could be fair game for attorneys looking to support or debunk your claims in court.

Photo by Becky Stern, used under license.
Photo by Becky Stern, used under license.

A recent article in Forbes described how attorneys for an injured personal trainer in Canada plan to use data from a Fitbit wristband as evidence in a trial. A Fitbit is a device you wear on your wrist that measures and records your activity levels. For instance, it can record how many steps you walk in a day, how many flights of stairs you climb, and more.

The tactic is not new and has been accepted by the courts. For years now, the legal community has been able to breach your privacy and get into your phone’s records or your social networks. And now, by using data-gathering gadgets you may, in fact, be unwittingly incriminating yourself. From one standpoint people will be more accountable – perhaps fraud will be harder to perpetuate. But let’s say you are the victim of a horrible accident, one where a drowsy truck driver wandered into your lane and forced your car off the road. You’re suing the trucking company. If your Apple Watch buzzed with an email notification seconds before the crash, then the lawyers defending that at-fault driver will build a case against you – that you were the distracted driver and that you share the blame in the accident.

So as the devices around you get smarter, you, too, should be on a steep learning curve and be thinking about how they expose you to legal risk. Take a lesson from current technology safeguards. There are cell phone apps to prevent texting while driving and Apple is trying to patent technology to prevent drivers from using their phones while their car is in motion. One could imagine there will be similar types of safeguards available for other wearable tech that will prevent you from being too distracted while you interact in the physical world. Another tactic you could try is to navigate the privacy settings of your new tech to try to ensure it is storing data only on your device so you can control it more easily. Or, you could simply refrain from using some of these things altogether.

Regardless, as adoption of this new technology increases in your everyday life it increases the abilities of those who want to peer into it and expose it, and that’s what should really scare you.

Accidents on the Water

Summer rings in the boating season and any one of Alabama’s 31 lakes offer great playtime on the water. It is important to keep in mind though that because it’s a favorite pastime, the waterways are likely to be more crowded than usual. People are in celebratory vacation moods and that can sometimes equate to a more carefree attitude toward safety.

Those carefree attitudes and inattention can cause terrible tragedy when it involves the driver of a boat. Add to that an inexperienced driver, alcohol, and/or speed and you’ve got a deadly combination at the helm.

Buford, GA just reported a deadly weekend boat crash on Lake Lanier. It is reported that the speed boat and pontoon collided around midnight near Habersham Marina.

A man was thrown overboard the pontoon boat and killed. Five hours later, rescue crews found a woman who had been on the pontoon as well. She has been hospitalized with critical injuries. There were two people aboard the speed boat. Both made their way to shore after their boat began to sink. The two of them were treated for minor injuries.

It was determined by the condition of both boats that speed played a role in the accident. Authorities are still investigating the crash, but there’s a possibility of criminal charges.

A summer boating can quickly turn to tragedy if care isn’t take to follow boating laws at all times. Operator Inattention is the leading cause of boating accidents in the United States, according to the US Coast Guard. Improper Lookout ranks number two. Third is Operator Inexperience. Coming in at number four is Excessive Speed, followed by Alcohol Use.

The same care should be taken on our beautiful state’s waterways as are taken on the roads. Keep an experienced designated driver and lookout person to ensure everyone’s safety.

Alabama Supreme Court ruling extends fetal wrongful death liability

A recent ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court clears the way for parents to sue doctors over the death of unborn children, even if the fetus could not survive outside the womb. The ruling reverses an earlier trial court decision that said liability could not be extended to such cases.

The case of Amy Hamilton v. Warren Scott MD involved a pregnant woman who sought medical attention in response to a viral infection. After repeated attempts to obtain treatment, she was told by doctors that the fetus was not in danger. Over a month later, she began to feel ill and returned to her doctor. An ultrasound revealed that the fetus was no longer alive. Hamilton delivered a stillborn infant after undergoing induced labor.

Hamilton filed a lawsuit. The suit argued that her doctors could be held liable under the state’s wrongful death law. The doctors argued that this was not a valid legal claim, and denied that they had acted improperly. Hamilton’s case was dismissed.

On appeal, the State Supreme Court decided in Hamilton’s favor, reversing the earlier decision. According to the opinion issued by the Court, the decision was based on an Alabama criminal statute permitting an offender to be charged for two deaths if the victim was a pregnant woman. Therefore, they said, extending wrongful death liability in tort cases would make the civil code consistent with criminal law.

The full report can be found here.

Metal-on-metal hips found to have higher-than-average failure rates: study

A new study published in The Lancet medical journal confirms fears that metal-on-metal artificial hips are more prone to failure than other types of implant. In the case of metal-on-metal hips, this can mean that metal shavings are shed by the implant due to normal wear-and-tear. These shavings can then enter the bloodstream, exposing the rest of the body to toxic compounds.

Failure rates were especially high with larger-headed implants, and in women. All told, it appears that there is, on average, a 6.2% chance that patients receiving metal-on-metal implants will require additional surgery within five years. That percentage is three times as high as in the case of traditional implants.

Metal-on-metal hips were designed to outlast conventional artificial hips, in which a metal or ceramic head is connected to a plastic socket. However, this is clearly not the case. In fact, one such metal-on-metal implant was recalled by its manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson.

The authors of the study, as well as other critics of metal-on-metal implants, argue that some of these defective products should never have been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (or its overseas equivalents). A streamlined, updated regulatory system could have prevented numerous health problems that have arisen as a result of these metal-on-metal implants.

The full Reuters report can be found here.

U.S. Dept. of Transportation report criticizes FAA

New questions have surfaced regarding the adequacy of the Federal Aviation Administration’s pilot training and performance policies. NBC Bay Area has publicized a December 2011 report from the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation, in which the FAA is criticized for its failure to properly monitor air safety.

NBC’s report contends that the situation may be more troubling than the public realizes. After combing through 30 years’ worth of reports covering from near mid-air collisions, or NMACs, to ground incidents, investigative reporters discovered that, since 2000, there have been over 1,000 incidents in the Bay Area alone.

Ken Edwards, a commercial pilot, recounted one such incident. Several years ago, Edwards was flying over South Florida into the setting sun, causing severe visibility problems. “It was the glare,” he told NBC. “We simply couldn’t see anything outside, but we were being told very loudly by this computer-generated voice that we were about to collide with another air craft.” Edwards was referring to the Traffic Collision Avoidance System build into commercial cockpits. “It was scary,” he continued. “There’s a few seconds where if you blink, you miss it. It happens that quickly.”

FAA manager-turned-whistleblower Gabe Bruno blames the institutional culture within the administration, which he described as “one of ‘let’s keep things quiet, don’t rock the boat, we don’t want to have any problems on our watch.” He explained to NBC that, as a result, near-miss incidents are typically under-reported by the FAA. “There are more of these situations that take place than the public has an awareness of,” he said.

The report gave further examples of the FAA’s regulatory missteps. There are, evidently, no policies or procedures in place to prevent two pilots in remedial training from being paired together on the same commercial flight. New pilots can be paired with other inexperienced or immature peers, potentially leading to a dangerous, even life-threatening situation: “[I]f you’re cutting corners when you first become a pilot because the people you’re flying with are cutting corners, chances are you’re going to do the same thing.”

Due in part to the Inspector General’s report, the issue is expected to be addressed by Congress in the near future.

The FAA responded to these concerns by suggesting that the information cited by the Inspector General and in the media painted an incomplete, misleading picture of what, according to the FAA, is a very safe civil and commercial aviation system. The FAA claims that their data-gathering and analytical techniques, enhanced by a shift in industry culture, have culminated in a proactive approach to safety. By instituting such changes as a “non-punitive error reporting system” in air traffic control facilities, the FAA says it has encouraged pilots, traffic controllers, flight attendants, and dispatchers to come forward with important information.

NBC’s full reports can be found here and here.

It should be said that airline safety has improved markedly over the years. When an accident does occur, the industry is generally responsive to the recommendations and directives of the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, and similar agencies overseas. Perhaps the most recent example was the concern over cracks found in components inside the wing of Airbus’s A380. In that case, Airbus, airlines, and European regulatory agencies presented a more or less united front in investigating the problem.

However, the air travel industry is not yet free from certain unsafe practices. For example, concerns remain over the question of the affect of fatigue on the performance of pilots and air traffic controllers, and what needs to be done to address it.

Listeria outbreak traced to contaminated melons kills 34

A listeria outbreak in Colorado linked to contaminated cantaloupes has claimed another victim. Mike Hauser, a 68-year-old retired podiatrist, fell ill in November. He suffered from seizures and lapsed into a coma from which it was not certain that he would recover; however, he eventually regained sufficient strength to leave the hospital. But an apparent recurrence forced him to return, where he died on Tuesday.

An investigation conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced the source of the listeria outbreak to washing and packing equipment at Jensen Farms, located in southeastern Colorado. The FDA report blamed lax or wholly absent safety practices. Specifically, insufficient antibacterial solution in water used to wash produce, and also noted pools of dirty water accumulating around a potato-sorting machine.

In a separate report, Congress criticized the food industry’s practice of hiring third-party auditors to oversee safety practices. One such auditor gave Jensen Farms a high grade shortly before the contaminated cantaloupes were distributed to grocery stores.

The Hausers have retained a Seattle-based lawyer specializing in food-borne illnesses. Their lawsuit is one of several filed against Jensen and grocers who sold the cantaloupes. The outbreak is believed to be the deadliest since the 1920s, having claimed 34 people to date.

The Denver Post’s report can be found here.

Malware threat grows on mobile platforms

As the smartphone market continues to grow, it’s little wonder that the threat of malware targeting mobile operating systems has grown alongside it. According to ABI Research, the Android platform captured 47% of the smartphone market in Q4 2011, representing perhaps the single largest competitor for Apple’s iPhone.

One of the reasons Android has enjoyed so much success is that it’s comparatively easy to develop Android apps. Experts believe that Android’s open nature has contributed to innovation, as well as the proliferation of free content. However, there is a downside, as the same attribute can be exploited by creators of malicious software.

There is some disagreement on the real extent of the threat. However, there is little doubt that the threat is genuine. According to software company Trend Micro, the number of malicious apps targeting the Android OS spiked toward the end of 2011. A product manager with Trend Micro believes that the number of malicious Android apps could reach 120,000 by the end of this year.

Several types of malware exist. These include:

  • Data stealers, which collect information from the user’s phone and and send it to a remote URL
  • Premium service abusers, which subscribe users to paid premium services without his or her knowledge
  • Malicious downloaders, which download other malicious programs, and
  • Rooters, perhaps the most alarming variety of malware. Rooters completely hijack the phone and all its functions.

Another Trend Micro report offers a few fundamental security tips, such as protecting your phone with a password or other phone-locking feature and disabling the Wi-Fi autoconnect feature. Users are also advised only to download apps from trusted sources—the Android Market has begun to implement its own security measures—and to consider purchasing a security app.

The full Computerworld report, in addition to some free Android security apps, can be found here.

Microsoft accuses Google of exploiting Internet Explorer

On the heels of the discovery that Google has circumvented the default privacy protections on Apple’s Safari browser comes a statement from Microsoft accusing Google of doing the same to their Internet Explorer (IE) browsers. In a blog post on MSDN.com, Microsoft’s Dean Hachamovitch, Corporate Vice President for the company’s IE line, states: “When the IE team heard that Google had bypassed user privacy settings on Safari, we asked ourselves a simple question: is Google circumventing the privacy preferences of Internet Explorer users too? We’ve discovered the answer is yes: Google is employing similar methods to get around the default privacy protections in IE and track IE users with cookies.”

Specifically, Hachamovitch writes, “We’ve found that Google bypasses the P3P Privacy Protection feature in IE. The result is similar to the recent reports of Google’s circumvention of privacy protections in Apple’s Safari Web browser, even though the actual bypass mechanism Google uses is different.”

The last part is crucial. P3P is a privacy protocol Microsoft adopted in 2002. That’s ten years ago—an eternity in the computing world. In theory, it requires websites to provide IE with a policy statement promising not to use cookies to collect personal information without the user’s knowledge. In practice, P3P has been afflicted by serious flaws in its design and implementation, such that a long list of websites—including Facebook and Amazon—have routinely subverted its restrictions, according to Carnegie Mellon University’s Lorrie Faith Cranor. Cranor, a privacy researcher, observed that companies “have discovered that they can lie in their [P3P policies] and nobody bothers to do anything about it.”

Google, for its part, has stated that many in the industry, including Microsoft, recognize “that it is impractical to comply with Microsoft’s request while providing modern web functionality.” Compliance with P3P, they say, would make it difficult or impossible to implement features such as Facebook’s “Like” button, or to log in to Google’s suite of email and personalization services.

The irony is that Microsoft itself seems to have once provided invalid P3P policy statements to the public. The sites where these could be found have since been taken down, but according to InfoWorld’s Woody Leonhard, the instructions were quite specific. “Who knows,” Leonhard writes. “Maybe Google and Facebook and Amazon just followed Microsoft’s old instructions to circumvent third party cookie blocking.”

For more information, see Ars Technica’s full report here.

On the one hand, it seems as though Google’s IE “exploit” is relatively benign, and taking them to task for it would require us, in the name of consistency, to pursue Facebook, Amazon, and countless other websites in similar fashion.

On the other, the Safari work-around seems a little more insidious—the mechanism is different, and Google’s cookies were used not to provide users with “modern web functionality,” but to provide advertisers with information about users.

As the Internet becomes ever more deeply ingrained in our lives, difficult questions must be asked about privacy: questions about the consumer’s rights and expectations, questions about what kinds of information companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple should, or should not, be permitted to collect about individuals. It seems those questions will remain open for some time.