Blog search results for Tag: states

Health & Wellbeing

The US is in the midst of a healthcare epidemic. Tens of thousands of people are dying each year from opioid drugs, including overdoses from prescription painkillers such as OxiContin (oxycodone) and the illicit street drug heroin, and each year the numbers rise.

The opioid epidemic is currently killing almost twice as many people as shootings or motor vehicle accidents, with overdoses quadrupling since 1999. According to Gary Franklin, medical director of the Washington State Department of Labour and Industries and a professor of health at the University of Washington, the opioid epidemic is ‘the worst man-made epidemic in modern medical history in the US’.

 Montgomery Ohio

Montgomery, Ohio, is at the centre of the epidemic, with the most opioid-related deaths per capita this year. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Incredibly, an influx of synthetic opioids is making the problem worse. Fentanyl, a licensed drug to treat severe pain, is increasingly turning up on the street as illicit fentanyl, often mixed with heroin. According to the NCHS, fentanyl and synthetic opioids are blamed for 20,145 of the 64,070 overdose deaths in 2016. Heroin contributed to 15,446 deaths, while prescription opioids caused 14,427.


Potent opioid

Fentanyl (C22H28N20), a lipophilic phenylpiperidine opioid agonist, is generally formulated as a transdermal patch, lollipop and dissolving tablet. Like the opioids derived from opium poppies, such as morphine, fentanyl binds to opioid receptors in the brain and other organs of the body, specifically the mu-receptor.

 opium poppy

Heroin and other opioids come from the opium poppy.  Image: Max Pixel

Such binding mimics the effects of endogenous opiates (endorphins), creating an analgesic effect, as well as a sense of well-being when the chemical binds to receptors in the rewards region in the brain. Drowsiness and respiratory depression are other effects, which can lead to death from an overdose.


Rise of illicit fentanyl

The opioid epidemic can be traced back to the 1990s when pharmaceutical companies began producing a new range of opioid painkillers, including oxycodone, touting them as less prone to abuse. In addition, prescribing rules were relaxed, while advocates championed the right to freedom from pain. Soon, opioids were being prescribed at alarming rates and increasing numbers of patients were becoming hooked.

 

Why is there an opioid crisis? Video: SciShow

Franklin, who was the first person to report in 2006 on the growing death rate from prescribed opioids, says: ‘OxyContin is only a few atoms different to heroin – I call it pharmaceutical heroin.’

A crackdown on prescribing was inevitable. But then, with a shortage of prescription opioids, addicts turned to illicit – and cheaper – heroin. According to Franklin, 60% of heroin users became addicted via a prescribed opioid. ‘You don’t have to take these drugs for very long before it’s very hard to get off,’ he says: ‘Just days to weeks.’ Heroin use soared and with it increased tolerance, leading users to seek out more potent highs. By 2013, there were almost 2m Americans struggling with an opioid-use disorder.


Drugs to fight drugs

 public health emergency

President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in October. Image: Pixabay 

Attention is finally being given to the epidemic. US president Donald Trump recently declared a public health emergency, although no new funds will be assigned to deal with the crisis.

There is particular interest around research into a vaccine against fentanyl. Developed by Kim Janda at The Scripps Research Institute, California, US, the vaccine, which has only been tested in rodents, can protect against six different fentanyl analogues, even at lethal doses. ‘What we see with the epidemic, is the need to find alternatives that can work in conjunction with what is used right now,’ he says.

This vaccine could treat heroin addiction. Video: Seeker

The vaccine works by taking advantage of the body’s immune system to block fentanyl from reaching the brain. Its magic ingredient is a molecule that mimics fentanyl’s core structure, meaning the vaccine trains the immune system to recognise the drug and produce antibodies in its presence. These antibodies bind to fentanyl when someone takes the drug, which stops it from reaching the brain and creating the ‘high’.

 

Sustainability & Environment

 Clean Water Act

The US’ environment agency and Clean Water Act is in trouble. Image: Public Domain Pictures

Budget proposals will slash the US Environmental Protection Agency’s funding by almost a third, and its workforce by 20%, quite apart from a major refocusing of its agenda. The new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt – whose time as attorney general in Oklahoma was notable for its opposition to environmental measures and the filing of multiple lawsuits against EPA – has certainly hit the ground running.

In contrast to Trump, Pruitt is actually getting stuff done, often going over the heads of his own staff. Planned regulations such as the chemical accident safety rule and a rule covering methane leaks from oil and gas wells have been delayed. Others have been reversed, including a ban on the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyrifos, flying in the face of scientific advice from his own agency.

 Clean Water Act

Trump faced harsh criticism from several nations after pulling out of the Paris Agreement. Image: Gage Skidmore@Flickr

Other moves come in response to executive orders from the president. Trump’s earlier criticism of Obama’s use of executive orders hasn’t stopped him from throwing them around like confetti – in his first 100 days, he signed almost as many as Obama averaged in a year.

For example, at the end of February, he signed one requiring a review of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, which defines what constitutes navigable waters. This might sound obscure, but it led to the EPA announcing at the end of June that it will rescind the 2015 Clean Water Rule.

‘WOTUS provided clarity on what bodies of water are subject to protections under the Clean Water Act,’ said Massachusetts congressman Mike Capuano. Essentially, the 2015 definition extended its scope to bring small waterways such as wetlands and streams under federal environmental rules, and not just big rivers and lakes.

‘The federal government won’t have the authority to regulate pollution in certain waterways because they don’t qualify under the EPA’s new definition,’ Capuano continued. ‘This will surely impact drinking water in many communities all across the country, since 117m Americans currently get their drinking water from small streams.’

EPA even published a press release that featured multiple quotes from Republican governors, senators and representatives across the country supporting the move. Quotes from those like Capuano – who believe it is a step backwards in water safety – were notable by their absence.

 Seven US scientific societies wrote to Trump condemning his actions

Seven US scientific societies wrote to Trump condemning his actions. Image: Max Pixel

So is mention of any scientific rationale. A letter from US scientists, drafted by conservation group American Rivers, states that the Clean Water Rule was developed using the best available, peer-reviewed science to clarify which bodies of water are, and are not, protected under the act. Importantly, it says that tributaries, intermittent streams and waters adjacent to them such as wetlands, are protected because of their physical, chemical and biological connections to navigable waterways. ‘We are disappointed that the current Administration has proposed dismantling the Rule with minimal consultation and without scientific justification,’ it says.

Much has been made of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, but that’s not the only signal that the air in the US is set to get dirtier. An executive order on energy independence signed by Trump at the end of March 2017 led to an instant response from EPA that it would review the Clean Power Plan. The order asked the various agencies to submit plans to revise or rescind regulatory barriers that impede progress towards energy independence, as well as wiping out several of Obama’s executive orders and policies in the field of climate change.

 climate change

Experts are worried that US air and water will become dirtier. The country is already the second biggest contributor to climate change in the world. Image: Pixabay

Top of the list for a potential resurgence: dirty energy. EPA has been directed to review, revise and rescind regulations that ‘may place unnecessary, costly burdens on coal-fired electric utilities, coal miners, and oil and gas producers’.

‘Our EPA puts America first,’ claimed Pruitt. ‘President Trump has a clear vision to create jobs, and his vision is completely compatible with a clean and healthy environment. By taking these actions today, the EPA is returning the agency to its core mission of protecting public health, while also being pro-energy independence.’

Many others beg to differ, including New Jersey senator Cory Booker. ‘It’s simply shameful that President Trump continues to put the interests of corporate polluters ahead of the health and safety of New Jersey families,’ he said. ‘The Administration’s repeated denial of clear science and proposed gutting of the EPA jeopardises the welfare of all Americans. 

‘Under no circumstance should we allow the fundamental right of each and every American to live in a safe and healthy environment be undermined by such destructive and irresponsible policies.’

Sustainability & Environment

In March 2017, the world’s largest coatings producer, Pennsylvania-based PPG – which three years ago announced it had budgeted $4bn for major acquisitions but still has nothing to show for it – laid siege to Amsterdam-based rival AkzoNobel. More recently, US hedge funds have drawn Basel-based Clariant into their sights.

While the motives of industrial investors and hedge funds differ, the tactics of forcing a company to make strategic changes that seemingly will generate more value suit both. Pursued for some time by private equity, and aware that other would-be suitors were hot on its trail, Akzo earlier in 2017 announced plans to hive off its speciality chemicals business into a standalone company. The same concerns were central to Clariant in its decision to merge with Huntsman. As it appears, neither tactic has deterred or deferred activist action.

 Binnenhof The Hague

Binnenhof, The Hague, Netherlands. The Dutch government assisted Akzo in avoiding the attempted takeover. Image: Wikimedia Commons

At Akzo, PPG wielded the battering ram into June, with even the lure of a €26bn deal making no impression. With moral support from the Dutch government, the European coatings market leader parried the thrust. Nevertheless, financial markets have it that the US rival, with support from activist investor Elliott Advisers – which owns 9.5% of the Dutch player’s share capital – will return to fight another day.

Elliott continues to stir the waters with legal challenges. It has lost two cases so far, but the tentative truce sought by the courts until Akzo holds an extraordinary general meeting in September appears shaky. Already, the defence effort has taken a toll on the Amsterdam company, which owns the assets sloughed off some years ago by erstwhile chemical industry heavyweight ICI.

train gif

Originally posted by juliendouvier

Swiss chemical company Clariant, whose interests vary from transport to beauty, are also under siege from US opponents.

Down the road in Switzerland, Clariant is being pummelled by White Tale, an acquisition vehicle for US hedge funds Corvex and 40 North, which have meanwhile acquired 10% of its share capital. The funds are seeing to torpedo the merger with Huntsman, contending that the combination lacks strategic rationale and undermines the Swiss group’s strategy of becoming a pure-play specialty chemicals company.

Because of the family’s interest, the New York vulture capitalists can’t get their hands completely around the Huntsman jugular, but making the leaders of the family-led business uncomfortable about the impact on its business may generate some degree of satisfaction. The US firm has already reacted to pressure by spinning off its pigments business.

 Clariant CEO Harriolf Kottmann

Clariant CEO Harriolf Kottmann. Image: PressReleaseFinder@Flickr

Also under obvious pressure, Clariant CEO Harriolf Kottmann, in presenting semi-annual financial results in July, announced that management was amenable to selling about a quarter of assets to appease the markets. This, he suggested, could include the divestment of the speciality chemicals group’s lower-margin Plastics & Coatings division.

The Swiss player’s largest business unit, spun off last year, which manufactures masterbatches and pigments for colouring plastics, accounts for 40% of group sales. With the proceeds from the asset sale, the investors reason, Clariant could pay a special dividend and make them more willing to stay the course without a merger.

The chemical industry sector is undergoing some huge changes worldwide. Video: PWC’s Strategy&

At least openly, no activist ‘invader’ has yet been spotted trying to overcome the well-fortified ramparts of Deutschland AG or been coldly brushed off by the Ecole Nationale-trained leaders of France’s chemical producers. However, if the raiders’ recent forays into the Netherlands and Switzerland eventually succeed and find imitators, the picture could change – especially as acquisition-hungry companies and the so-called vulture capital funds that took a wrecking ball to Dow and DuPont seem to have joined forces.

Meanwhile, there may be some relief on the horizon for CEOs currently struggling through sleepless nights. Even with deal fever still simmering, some M&A watchers believe takeovers or mergers worldwide may have reached their zenith. Not least, as global economic recovery gathers strength, rising interest rates will cool the enthusiasm for more expensive transactions, the argument goes.