Last updated Dec. 10, 2018, 9:20 p.m.

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Embattled French President Macron announces concessions to quell weeks of violent protests
French President Emmanuel Macron’s special address to the nation, his first public comments after four weeks of nationwide protests, at the Elysée Palace in Paris.

Macron announced a minimum wage raise and tax cuts to try to appease protesters.

French President Emmanuel Macron has announced dramatic new concessions including a raise in the minimum wage and tax cuts for pensioners and overtime workers in an attempt to quell weeks of violent anti-government protests.

For the past several weeks, France has been in the grip of widespread protests and riots that have led to clashes with police, leaving several people dead, hundreds more injured, and thousands of dollars’ worth of property damaged. On Sunday, after yet another round of violent protests, Paris’s top prosecutor announced that some 1,000 people were being held in police custody.

The protests began around November 17 and were initially in response to Macron’s announcement of a new gas tax. But the demonstrations have since morphed into a broader indictment of Macron’s handling of the French economy and his perceived elitist disregard for France’s working and middle classes.

France’s economy is growing, but very slowly. Most of the growth is centered in its major cities, like Paris, and those on the periphery and in rural communities haven’t seen as many gains. What’s more, Macron has been cutting spending to popular, longstanding social welfare programs and scaling back labor protections. He’s made it easier for companies to hire and fire employees and fought unions to end subsidies for certain sectors.

As New York magazine reports:

In May, thousands of high-school students joined unionists and civil servants to protest Macron’s plan to cut 120,000 civil service jobs in addition to a reduction in benefits for France’s railway workers, who are unionized, public-sector employees. Macron’s 2019 budget “includes an €18.8 billion reduction in payroll and other business taxes to encourage hiring and investment,” the Times reported in October. That’s a continuation of tax policies he premiered not long after taking office in 2017; a newly empowered Macron moved swiftly to cut taxes for corporations and for the wealthiest 10 percent of French households.

But all of that was before the protests erupted.

Now Macron is backing down — and offering “immediate and concrete measures to address the protesters’ grievances and try to restore order to the country.

Macron is desperately trying to calm the protests

The embattled French leader appeared on French television on Monday to deliver a 13-minute, prerecorded speech announcing the new policies.

“We will respond to the economic and social urgency with strong measures, by cutting taxes more rapidly, by keeping our spending under control, but not with U-turns,” Macron said.

Yet a U-turn is precisely what the new policy pledges look like. They include a 100-euro-per-month raise (roughly $113) in the country’s minimum wage, an end to taxes on overtime work starting January 1, and the cancellation of an impending tax hike on pensioners. Macron also called on businesses to give their employees year-end bonuses.

However, Macron declined to bring back the solidarity tax on wealth — a direct tax on people with assets of more than £1.1 million (roughly $1.2 million) — which his government did away with back in September. “Our country had huge problems during the many decades in which we did have a wealth tax,” he said in his speech.

But the French president did pledge to tackle tax evasion more aggressively, saying that “France needs to make sure that the rich and the big corporations pay the taxes they owe.”

It’s unclear if Macron’s latest measures will be enough to pacify the protesters, or whether they will continue to demonstrate until Macron is forced to make even more dramatic concessions.

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GOP leader who gloated about Benghazi probe wants Dems to refrain from investigating Trump

Kevin McCarthy is singing a very different tune about congressional investigations than he did during the Obama years.

Soon-to-be House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) staked out a new position on congressional investigations in an interview with Fox News on Monday. Unlike his years leading the charge on Benghazi, McCarthy now thinks that Democrats should drop their subpoena power when it comes to President Donald Trump.

“It looks like what [Democrats will] focus on is just more investigations. I think American is too great of a nation to have such a small agenda,” McCarthy said. “I think there are other problems out there that we really should be focused upon. And my belief is, let’s see where we can work together — let’s move America forward.”

“We have investigated this for a long period of time,” he added. “Both sides have come up with nothing in the process. I think we should put the American people first.”

While it’s true that House Republicans’ investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election didn’t turn up any evidence of collusion, there are indications that was primarily due to the partisan motivations of the lawmakers who ran the investigation.

Devin Nunes, the outgoing House Intelligence Committee chair, worked hand-in-hand with the White House to politicize intelligence reports, and was even caught on tape admitting that his overriding motivation is to protect Trump.

During a Fox News interview in March, Nunes attempted to justify abruptly ending his committee’s investigation using a talking point that had been debunked eight months earlier — that the Trump Tower meeting was primarily about Russian adoptions.

McCarthy’s misleading comments are an early sign of how he plans to lead his conference through the coming onslaught of Democratic investigations. The man who once wanted to endlessly investigate Hillary Clinton doesn’t feel the same when it’s his own party in the White House.

Politically motivated investigations for me, not for thee

During a moment of accidental candor in 2015, McCarthy admitted during an interview on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show that House Republicans’ seemingly unending investigation of Clinton’s handling of the Benghazi attack was about hurting her poll numbers.

Here’s what McCarthy said:

What you’re going to see is a conservative speaker, that takes a conservative Congress, that puts a strategy to fight and win. And let me give you one example. Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?

But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known that any of that had happened had we not fought to make that happen.

While McCarthy had no problem with a transparently politicized investigation of a Democrat with presidential aspirations three years ago, he’s now urging the incoming House majority to lay off the president because investigating him would be divisive.

In private, McCarthy himself has alluded to one of the reasons an investigation of Trump is warranted. During a secretly recorded June 2016 conversation with GOP leaders, McCarthy infamously said, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: [Rep. Dana] Rohrabacher and Trump.”

House Intelligence Committee member Eric Swalwell (D-CA) indicated on Twitter he was not persuaded by the case McCarthy made urging his caucus to lay off the president.

Defending Trump by downplaying and deflecting

Ironically, the first part of McCarthy’s interview on Fox News on Monday was about former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee on Friday. House Republicans forced Comey to testify as part of a last-ditch effort to gin up a baseless conspiracy theory about how the ongoing criminal investigation of the Trump campaign is rooted in anti-Trump bias among the bureau’s senior leadership.

At another point during the interview, McCarthy tried to downplay Trump’s false statements denying that his campaign was in contact with Russians.

“If you’re in an international city, people interact with a lot of individuals,” McCarthy said — his implication being that meeting with Kremlin-connected Russians offering dirt on your political opponents while your business is secretly pursuing real estate opportunities in Moscow really isn’t that out of the norm.

Later, McCarthy dismissed federal prosecutors directly implicating Trump in crimes committed by his longtime attorney, Michael Cohen.

“What it shows is that if the president hires an attorney to solve a problem, he expects them to do it in legal manner,” McCarthy said. “If [incoming Intelligence Committee chair Adam] Schiff is taking this beyond to go forward and say there is an impeachable offense because of a campaign finance problem, there’s a lot of members of Congress who are doing to have to leave.”

In fact, no currently serving members of Congress have been accused of funneling illegal payments to women to hush up extramarital affairs.

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There’s a great anti-poverty bill in the Senate. Why haven’t we heard more about it?
A child working with money, money like the money she will receive under Bennet-Brown!

At least four potential 2020 candidates are on board.

The American Family Act of 2017 — a bill that would give all but the richest families at least $3,000 per year per child, no questions asked — is not famous. For over a year after Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) introduced it, the bill had only one co-sponsor: Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who formulated it with Bennet.

The policy, known in the many European countries where it already exists as a “child allowance,” does not have the official support of the new Democratic majority in the House, which backs a still good but more limited bill. The two frontrunners in the Democratic race for president in 2020, according to polls — former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — have not said anything about it, to the best of my knowledge.

But I think it is quite possibly the most important legislative policy idea of the 2020 election. On the merits, the Bennet-Brown proposal is a tremendously good bill. It would cut child poverty in the United States by 45 percent, according to estimates last year from Columbia University poverty researchers Christopher Wimer and Sophie Collyer. The share of kids living in deep poverty — less than half the poverty line — would fall by more than half. And millions more parents in middle-class families would have much-needed support to pay for living expenses, afford child care, save for their kids’ futures, and more.

The bill also, I think, solves a number of important political problems for Democrats. It’s a simple, easy-to-sell proposal: “Trump said he’d help you. Instead, he gave tax cuts to the rich. We, by contrast, will mail you thousands of dollars every year, forever.” And a child allowance can be an integral part of a Green New Deal, by offsetting the increased cost of fossil fuel energy that’s an inevitable part of any real plan to fight climate change.

I think it’s realistic to hope and expect that every major 2020 Democratic candidate will support Bennet-Brown, or a child allowance of similar ambition and scale. Indeed, two likely presidential candidates, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), have signed onto the bill just in the last month. Any other candidates looking for a trademark anti-poverty policy could do the same.

How Bennet-Brown works

The Bennet-Brown bill would substantially expand the child tax credit (CTC), which currently offers up to $2,000 a year for families with significant earnings but little or nothing for many poor people. The bill would pay:

  • $3,000 per year, or $250 per month, per child ages 6 to 18
  • $3,600 per year, or $300 per month, per child ages 0 to 5

Currently, only $1,400 per child of the child tax credit is refundable, and thus available to the poorest Americans who don’t owe income taxes. Even then, you have to earn nearly $12,000 to get the full refundable credit; poorer people get less, because the credit is limited to 15 percent of your earned income over $2,500. It’s a messy, complicated system that leaves out the very poorest.

Bennet-Brown wouldn’t do that. Everyone, even people with no cash earnings, would get the full $3,000 or $3,600 per year per child. The poorest would no longer be left out.

The benefits would be distributed monthly, in advance, so that families can pace out their spending and smooth their incomes. Because the CTC, like the earned income tax credit, is currently paid out through tax refunds, it sometimes leads to a perverse situation in which families use it to pay down debt they never would’ve incurred if they’d gotten the money earlier.

The credits would phase out for high-income individuals, just like the child tax credit today does, with phaseout beginning at $75,000 a year in income for single parents and $110,000 for married couples. For a married couple with two young kids, to give one example, the credits would totally phase out if the couple makes $150,000 a year or more. For families with more kids, that figure is higher.

While other Democrats have proposed major expansions to the child credit, with Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) being the most public champion of a refundable credit for young kids, this is by far the most ambitious child allowance plan any major US politician has put forward in recent memory.

The cost would be significant. A group of leading poverty experts have offered a very similar proposal and estimated its cost at $108 billion per year on top of existing child tax benefits. That plan doesn’t phase out for high earners, so Bennet-Brown likely costs less. And in any case, $108 billion per year is a totally manageable sum in the context of the federal budget. Medicare-for-all, which most 2020 Democratic contenders already support, would add some $2.5 trillion in annual expenses to the federal budget. Next to that, a child allowance is extremely cheap, and it would almost certainly do more to fight poverty.

My point isn’t to pit the ideas against each other. But if we can afford Medicare-for-all — and likely candidates from Bernie Sanders to Kamala Harris to Elizabeth Warren to Cory Booker think we can — then we can certainly afford to cut child poverty in half.

Child allowances are common abroad, and they work

A child allowance or similar policy exists in almost every EU country, as well as in Canada and Australia. In many countries, the payments are truly universal; you get the money no matter how much you earn. In others, like Canada, the payments phase out for top earners but almost everyone else benefits. France has an unusual scheme where only families with two or more children get benefits, as an incentive to have more kids.

But the core principle is the same in every system: Low- and middle-income families are entitled to substantial cash benefits to help them raise their children.

child benefit comparison Javier Zarracina/Vox
Data from the CSB Minimum Income Protection Indicators database.

This helps explain why European countries are so much better at fighting child poverty than the US is. While about 11.8 percent of US children live in absolute poverty (as indicated by the US poverty line), only 6.2 percent of German children do, and only 3.6 percent of Swedish children do (note, though, that the absolute poverty data from LIS isn’t updated regularly and is a bit out of date).

The numbers get even worse when you define poverty like most European countries do, as living under half the median income. By that standard, 20 percent of children in the US live in poverty, compared to only about 10.3 percent in Germany or 4.9 percent in the Netherlands. This isn’t exclusively due to child benefits, but they play a crucial role.

For instance, in 1999, Tony Blair and the Labour Party dramatically increased cash benefits for families with children in the UK. The measure was part of a broader set of proposals meant to tackle child poverty, including tax credits, means-tested programs, a national minimum wage, a workers’ tax credit, universal pre-K, expanded child care, and much longer parental leave.

The result was that absolute child poverty fell by more than half from 1999 to 2009, while relative poverty (the share of children under 60 percent of the median income) fell by 15 percent. The decrease in relative poverty was smaller because while things got dramatically better for the poor, the middle class gained, too.

While child poverty in the US declined slightly over the same period, a comparison of the two trend lines put together by Columbia professor of social work Jane Waldfogel is still startling:

Child poverty in the US and Britain Jane Waldfogel

After Blair took office in 1997, the child poverty rate in Britain began to plummet and just kept plummeting as the reforms were implemented through 2001. Then it continued to gradually decline. In the US, by contrast, child poverty fell with the late-’90s boom, and then rose in the 2000s.

The UK benefit and tax credit increases from 1997 to 2005 caused incomes for the bottom 10 percent of households to grow 20 percent, according to researchers Tom Sefton, John Hills, and Holly Sutherland.

While concerns over “welfare queens” living high on the hog and misspending benefits have often stopped the US from expanding safety net programs, there’s no evidence that child benefits would be used this way. Sam Houston State University’s Christian Raschke has found that Kindergeld, the delightfully named German child benefit program, leads families to spend more on food but not to drink more alcohol.

One study of the US’s earned income tax credit, a government benefit for working low-income families, found that receiving cash actually makes mothers more likely to get prenatal care, which in turn reduces the amount they smoke and drink. A Canadian study found that each dollar spent on child benefits reduced spending on tobacco by 6 cents and spending on alcohol by 7 cents.

What’s more, a growing body of evidence suggests that investments in early childhood development can pay off in lower crime, higher earnings, and greater educational attainment later on.

Programs that give families cash, according to UC Irvine economist Greg Duncan, result in better learning outcomes and higher earnings for their kids. One study found a $3,000 annual income increase for poor parents is associated with 19 percent higher earnings for their child once he or she grows up. That implies that a child allowance of that size could dramatically improve the lives of children decades later.

There’s plenty of other research where that came from:

Cash subsidies can even extend lives. Brown’s Anna Aizer, University of Toronto’s Shari Eli, Northwestern’s Joseph Ferrie, and UCLA’s Adriana Lleras-Muney looked at the Mothers’ Pension program, the first federal welfare program in American history, which ran from 1911 to 1935. They found that male children of mothers who were accepted for the program lived one year longer, got more schooling, and had incomes 14 percent greater than children of mothers who were rejected.

A child benefit would even have some effects that social conservatives might like. It encourages having more kids, and would likely reduce abortion rates by making it less costly to raise children. Money troubles are also a leading cause of marital strife, family instability, and divorce. Endicott College sociologist Josh McCabe has argued for a universal child benefit in pieces for National Review on exactly these grounds.

Why 2020 candidates should support a child allowance

The moral case for supporting a child allowance is clear: It helps children escape poverty in a really clear and easy-to-administer way. If you put the plan in the hands of the Social Security Administration and got rid of the phaseout for top earners, it would be even easier to administer. You’d help a lot of people.

But there’s also a political argument for the bill.

Earlier this year, Scott Walker, the now-outgoing governor of Wisconsin, announced that Wisconsin parents could receive $100 checks just by going online and filling out an application. The benefit was framed as a refund for “sales and use tax paid on purchases made for raising a dependent child in 2017.” His political opponents were furious. State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, who was running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Walker at the time, said voters were being “bribed with a $100 payment.”

The implicit idea is that just giving cash to every family is so popular, so obviously beneficial and inclined to make voters like you, that it’s borderline unfair to do it. If handing out cash to parents is that politically popular and also dramatically cuts poverty rates, we should do it! One of the most difficult aspects of making policy better for poor people is aligning the interests of politicians with those of the poor. Extremely tacky, credit-grabbing cash checks to families do exactly that.

Jack Meserve, the managing editor of the center-left journal Democracy, wrote an influential piece last year calling on progressive politicians to “keep it simple and take credit.” Don’t, as Obama did as part of his stimulus package, structure tax cuts so that the government just withholds less from paychecks and people basically never know that they were getting them. Make the payments public and noticeable so voters know who sent them, like FDR did when unveiling Social Security, or George W. Bush did when he sent out $600 rebate checks as part of his 2001 tax cuts.

2020 Democrats should plan on doing that too. Maybe junk the bill’s differing payments for young versus old kids, and maybe junk the phaseout too. If you’re a 2020 contender, like Bernie Sanders or Beto O’Rourke or Amy Klobuchar, the strategy is simple: Tell voters you will give them $300 per month, per child, in a check in the mail that has your smiling face on it. Call them BernieBucks or BetoBucks or KlobKash. You will materially help people out. And you’ll have a monthly reminder sent to the homes of all your constituents, reminding them that you, unlike Trump, actually helped them out.

There’s a great bit in the pilot episode of The Carmichael Show where Jerrod Carmichael’s dad, played by David Alan Grier, confesses that he voted for George W. Bush in 2004. His liberal black family is shocked and horrified. But his explanation is simple: Bush gave him a $1,600 check in 2001. “He sent me that stimulator check. No president ever sent me $1,600. Nobody ever sent me $1,600. You can bomb whoever you want long as you send me $1,600.”

I don’t know how common a reaction that was to the 2001 tax cut checks; I haven’t read a well-designed study on the question. But I would be shocked if Bush’s checks didn’t swing some votes. And why shouldn’t they? Part of how democracy is supposed to work is by aggregating the self-interests of everyday people, so their needs and desires are represented in government. There are few better ways to show that you understand their interests than by cutting them big checks every month.

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It’s official: Trump’s asylum crisis is driven by people coming legally

New stats make clear that the Trump administration can’t handle asylum seekers crossing “the right way.”

President Trump and senior administration officials have justified their border crackdown by saying that asylum seekers ought to come to the US legally, by presenting themselves at a port of entry, rather than crossing the border illegally and starting the process once in the US.

New numbers show that that’s exactly what happened — and the Trump administration wasn’t necessarily ready for it.

On Monday, Customs and Border Protection released statistics on how many people had claimed a fear of persecution, the first step in the asylum process, after crossing illegally and being caught by Border Patrol agents, and how many claimed fear when found to be “inadmissible” (without valid papers) trying to cross legally at a port of entry.

In context, the numbers make it clear that there are three phenomena at the border, nested inside each other.

At the broadest level, there was a 25 percent increase in people coming into the US without papers from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018 — a big one-year increase, but one largely based on how few people came into the US at the beginning of Trump’s first term.

There’s a more intense spike — 67 percent — in the number of asylum seekers coming. And most specifically and critically, there’s a 121 percent jump in asylum seekers coming legally to ports of entry.

The share of illegal border crossers who sought asylum increased just 1 percentage point, from 13 percent to 14 percent, from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018. But the share of people coming to the US at ports of entry who sought asylum nearly doubled: from 16 percent of all “inadmissible” people at ports of entry in 2017 to 31 percent of “inadmissibles” in 2018.

Customs and Border Protection officials acknowledged Monday that even more people would be seeking asylum at ports of entry if officials weren’t engaging in “queue management” — also known as “metering” — a policy by which asylum seekers are often turned away at ports of entry because officials say there’s no room to process them.

The current numbers are “really a reflection of what we could intake and process in FY2018,” a Customs and Border Protection senior official told reporters Monday. “This number would be higher if not for resource constraints at ports of entry,” the reason CBP gives for why they’ve limited the number of asylum seekers who can enter the US through the most popular border crossings since this summer.

In other words, the asylum “crisis” that has so consumed the president is in large part a crisis that’s happening at ports of entry, where people are trying to come the right way.

Along the western sectors of the border, a majority of asylum seekers are coming legally

“Inadmissible” aliens include everyone processed at a port of entry without proper papers — not only asylum seekers but people who try to come in with expired visas, people who are denied entry because they’re on a watch list, and people who are caught being smuggled in vehicles crossing into the US.

But the new stats show that fewer people came to ports of entry without papers for reasons other than seeking asylum in 2018 than in 2017 (even as a lot more non-asylum seekers tried to cross into the US between ports of entry). And thousands more people came to those ports to seek asylum.

Across the border, there are still more people seeking asylum after crossing between ports of entry than at them. But that’s largely due to the fact that a ton of asylum-seeking families are coming in through the Rio Grande Valley, an area controlled by smugglers where the bridges at ports of entry are often unsafe.

In Arizona, according to Vox’s analysis of the CBP data, nearly half of all asylum seekers are coming at ports of entry. In California, it’s more than half.

And Trump administration officials agree with human rights advocates that those numbers would be even higher if the “metering” policy weren’t in effect.

Before 2016, seeking asylum legally was perfectly straightforward. An asylum seeker presented herself at an official port of entry, said she feared persecution in her home country, and was processed as an “inadmissible” alien. Eventually, she’d be given a screening interview by an asylum officer to determine whether she’d be able to submit a full application.

But a tactic that the Obama administration first adopted in 2016 as an emergency measure at a couple of ports in California has become, since this summer, a near-constant state of affairs at most of the major border crossings where migrants arrive on foot.

Thousands of people were waiting to cross at the San Ysidro port of entry, in Tijuana, even before the Central American caravan began to arrive in town in November. During a week in September, no asylum seeker was taken in at the main port in Nogales, Arizona. The American Civil Liberties Union (citing the Mexican government) estimated in October that 450 people were waiting on bridges in El Paso.

As I wrote last month, the question of who, exactly, is to blame for metering — whether the Trump administration is telling the truth when it cites a resource shortage, and whether that shortage is within its power to fix — is very much an open question.

But the new stats raise the possibility that the practice might actually be causing more people to give up and cross illegally in some areas. In El Paso, the increase from 2017 to 2018 in people seeking asylum at ports of entry was smaller than any other region — quite possibly due to the aggressive metering policies in place there. But the increase in people crossing between ports of entry and then claiming asylum was larger than any other region.

CBP officials maintain that solving the problem isn’t as simple as increasing capacity at ports of entry — that the much bigger issue is that once people are processed, they too often disappear before finishing their asylum proceedings.

But for all the accusations that asylum seekers are taking advantage of American generosity and trying to circumvent American law, we now have pretty suggestive official evidence that the current crisis is, as much as anything, a result of more people coming the right way than the administration is equipped to allow in.

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A woman died of a brain-eating amoeba infection. The suspect: her neti pot.

A 69-year-old woman died of a brain-eating amoeba infection that scientists suspect she got from using the device incorrectly.

Over the past few years, it seems like everyone and their mother has been begging — nay, imploring — you to get a neti pot, the teapot-esque vessel designed to flush out congested nasal passages. And why not? They’re small! They’re portable! They’re well-designed! They’re extremely effective snot-suckers!

Well, as it turns out, neti pots don’t come without risks. At the very least, you should read the instructions very, very carefully before using one. Per NBC News, a 69-year-old woman from Seattle died after contracting Balamuthia mandrillaris, a rare, brain-eating amoebic infection — reportedly from using a neti pot.

According to a report in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, the woman, who suffered from sinus infections, used the neti pot for about a month before she started developing a strange rash on her nose. Initially, her dermatologist chalked it up to rosacea, a common skin condition. But the rash didn’t go away, and then the woman started having seizures, which brought her to the hospital.

A surgeon who examined her brain tissue later told the Seattle Times that “a section of her brain about the size of a golf ball was bloody mush. There were these amoeba all over the place just eating brain cells.” Her condition deteriorated, and she fell into a coma and died.

At first, doctors were baffled as to how the woman contracted the amoeba, which is found in fresh water and soil and can enter the body through an open wound or cut. They later discovered that the woman had used Brita-filtered tap water in her neti pot, instead of sterile water, as is recommended. While the researchers did not have the chance to test the water to confirm their hypothesis, they suspected that the infection was due to “improper nasal lavage.”

 Toronto Star via Getty Images
A woman using a neti pot.

Neti pots are often used by people with allergies and sinus infections. The practice is called nasal irrigation, and it reportedly has its roots in ancient Ayurvedic medicine. But it wasn’t until neti pots got a plug from Dr. Oz on Oprah Winfrey’s show in 2007 that nasal irrigation achieved mainstream popularity.

For the most part, studies have demonstrated that nasal irrigation is an effective means of treatment for colds, allergies, and sinus infections. (Though one 2009 study did find that long-term use is associated with a higher incidence of sinus infection, possibly because it reduces the mucosal lining of the nose, making it more vulnerable to infection.)

And because amoebal infections like Balamuthia mandrillaris are so rare, public health experts are reassuring the public that neti pots are perfectly safe for use, provided you follow the directions.

But this is not the first time that neti pots have been linked to such infections. In 2011, two people in Louisiana died of encephalitis caused by Naegleria fowleri, another amoeba found in fresh water that attacks brain tissue. It was initially suspected that the two victims had been swimming in freshwater lakes or rivers and gotten water up their noses, which is how the infection is typically contracted. (It is not possible to contract the infection from swallowing fresh water, as stomach acid usually kills the amoeba, but it can survive in the nasal passages and travel up to the brain.) But it was later found that both victims had used tap water in their neti pots, which was confirmed when the water tested positive for Naegleria fowleri.

As recently as last year, the Food and Drug Administration issued a statement warning people against using tap water in neti pots due to the risks of contracting Naegleria fowleri, recommending that neti pot users opt for “distilled, sterile, or previously boiled” water or use a heavy-duty water filter (i.e., not a Brita filter, which will do little to filter out potentially dangerous microorganisms).

It’s important to note that both Balamuthia mandrillaris and Naegleria fowleri are pretty rare: There were 34 reported cases of the latter amoebic infection in the United States between 2008 and 2017, only three of which were due to using tap water in a neti pot, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But cases of such infection are usually fatal, the case study authors write.

If you’re a neti pot devotee, it’s crucial to follow instructions for proper use. That includes ensuring that your water is sterile by boiling it for 3 to 5 minutes and letting it cool before using it. (You can also use sterile or distilled water, which you can buy in stores.) You should also clean and dry your neti pot thoroughly using boiled water before and after every use. And don’t go sharing your neti pot with others, because that’s just nasty.

And if you want to totally eliminate the risks associated with neti pot use? Just don’t use one at all. Contrary to what some wellness devotees may tell you, using a neti pot regularly doesn’t “flush” toxins out of your nose — it’s just a fairly effective way to relieve congestion.

Updated to clarify that the scientists were not able to test the water in the home of the woman who died but suspect the neti pot was the culprit.

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