June 23, 2022

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

In addition to varying state taxes, which hike gasoline prices in places like California and Oregon, the cost of getting gas to states that are a long way from refineries helps explain some of the price differences around the country.

The Washington Post created a map that shows where gasoline comes from. It helps to explain why gasoline prices in the South are so much cheaper than the western and eastern United States. Most of America’s gasoline comes from the South, so it costs less to get it to retailers there.

(The Washington Post)

You may not think about how much transportation is involved in the process of getting oil from the earth to your car, but the U.S. Department of Energy shows all of the steps involved. Each step costs a lot of money to accomplish.

(U.S. Department of Energy Information Administration)

California has much more stringent clean air standards for gasoline that require more expensive refining. While the East Coast does not refine much of the fuel used there, it has a substantial pipeline from the Gulf of Mexico that makes it less expensive to transport to the end user. There is no such pipeline to the West because it would have to go through the Rocky Mountains.

On top of it all, it is just more expensive to do business in some states. Retailers include the cost of business into the price they charge you.

What they are paying for gasoline in other countries?

I have done a good bit of traveling lately. As I speak with people from around the world, I hear about how U.S. gasoline prices, high as they are, are way below what Europeans pay and way more than what some to our south in places like Mexico and Argentina pay.

This week’s national average of $4.98 a gallon works out to be about $1.32 per liter. Now, look at the prices elsewhere. Let’s start with countries that have lower prices than the U.S.

(Global Petrol Prices)

And then let’s look at the much higher prices in other parts of the world.

(Global Petrol Prices)

These would mean Germans are paying $7.61 per gallon, Swedes are paying $8.67 and, in Hong Kong, gasoline costs $11.32 per gallon.

European countries ban green and blue pigments for tattoos

Tattoo ink suppliers are trying to reformulate their products to comply with new European Union rules banning some pigments that have been deemed health hazards.

It remains to be seen if the United States Food and Drug Administration will make similar moves, which are very unpopular with tattoo artists who say EU authorities are overreacting.

ChemTrust.org explains the concerns:

Tattoo inks are complex chemical mixtures containing several ingredients and have diverse health concerns connected to their use. Pigments in tattoo inks are not always produced specifically for tattooing and risk assessments are not carried out that take their injection and permanence under the skin into account.

The purity of these inks is also a problem, and they often contain, whether intentionally or as an impurity, substances that are hazardous to human health. Due to the permanence of tattoos, people can be exposed to these harmful substances for many many years. Evidence shows that a significant number of people have skin problems after getting a tattoo, including bleeding, crusts and itching. Reducing chronic allergic reactions and inflammations of the skin are expected to occur following the ban and the more serious effects such as cancer could also decrease.

NPR reports:

Meanwhile, in the United States, where about a third of Americans have a tattoo, tattoo ink is almost completely unregulated and there’s little known about what’s in tattoo ink.

For years, individual countries in Europe have required labeling of tattoo ink ingredients and have limited certain chemicals that are thought to cause cancer, damage DNA, or trigger allergic reactions.

Now the European Union is harmonizing tattoo ink rules across the continent. The new rules say that pigments called Blue 15:3 and Green 7 must be phased out over the next year. “That just went into action but is highly disputed,” says Ines Schreiver, who studies tattoo ink at the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment.

A survey of 300 tattooed people in New York’s Central Park found that 6% reported having a chronic reaction — such as itchiness, swelling, scaliness, or raised skin — involving a specific color such as black or red that lasted for more than four months.

A group called Coalition for Tattoo Safety is opposing efforts in Congress to regulate tattoo ink.

Where in the heck is your tax refund?

The IRS now has a backlog of 22 million paper tax filings from 2021 that it expects to clear out by the end of this month. Then it will start on the 2022 backlog. The just-released national taxpayer advocate report says:

As of April 22, 2022, the IRS had 2.3 million paper tax returns filed in 2021 that it still needed to process. Because the IRS processes returns on a first-in, first-out basis, it will not begin processing the paper returns filed in 2022 until it processes the 2021 paper returns.  In other words, any taxpayer who chose to file or who was required to file a paper return will not see his or her refund until the IRS catches up on its prior paper backlog.  As of this writing, it is anticipated that the IRS will be caught up with the 2021 paper tax filings by the end of June 2022, at which point it will begin processing the paper returns filed beginning January 24, 2022.

By the way, good luck getting through to a human on the IRS phone lines. The advocate’s report says the average waiting time is a half-hour and only one in 10 people who got through the waiting period talked with a human.

Why epidemiologists are concerned about the BA.4/5 variant of COVID-19

By now, I imagine that you are tracking all of the variants that have names that look more like a software update. But the newest variant, called BA.4/5, shows some potential to cause problems. This is a variant of the omicron virus, which is why it does not get a whole new Greek letter name but a version of an existing one.

BA.4/5 hospitalizations are rising in Europe (such as in Portugal, where seniors are being especially hard hit) and there is not enough data to know yet if it will get close to the severity of previous breakthrough variants. Austria, the United Kingdom and South Africa also are seeing new case increases. It appears that BA.4/5 is more transmissible than some other variants, but we will have to wait for more evidence to know if it is more infectious. We also do not know yet how effective new vaccine formulations will be against new variants this fall.

Poliovirus shows up in British sewer

British health officials have detected poliovirus in sewage samples. While there is no known outbreak, it is a reminder that the polio virus is still a threat to unvaccinated people. The key takeaway from this item is that parents around the world should be sure their children have gotten their polio vaccinations. The headlines about the virus’s detection are a bit overheated, but the warning is justified.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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