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#897 -- Eliminating Health Disparities, 08-Mar-2007

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Rachel's Democracy & Health News #897

"Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?"

Thursday, March 8, 2007.................Printer-friendly version
www.rachel.org -- To make a secure donation, click here.
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Featured stories in this issue...

Eliminating and Preventing Health Disparities
  Human health is a prime indicator of environmental quality, and of
  the success of any society. If the health of residents is poor, then
  look for problems in the environment. If some groups are thriving and
  others are not, those health disparities are a sure sign of trouble --
  and of injustice.
The New Rules of Food
  Opposition to industrial agriculture has put down deep roots in the
  Midwest. An Expo in Chicago March 23-24 gives us all an opportunity to
  meet some of the leading thinkers (and doers) who are taking farms,
  farming and food in important new directions.
USDA Backs Production of Rice with Human Genes
  The federal Agriculture Department is about to approve the sale of
  rice containing human proteins. Is this different from cannibalism? If
  so, how exactly? When these human/rice genes get loose in the
  evironment and contaminate traditional rice with human proteins, will
  there be a general revulsion against eating rice?
Pollutants Change 'He' Frogs into 'She' Frogs
  "Even tadpoles exposed to the weakest concentration of the hormone
  were, in one of two groups, twice as likely to become females.... The
  population of the two groups receiving the heaviest dose of estrogen
  became 95 percent female in one case, and 100 percent in the other."
The Free-trade Solution to Global Warming Isn't Working
  Policymakers have settled on 'emissions trading' as their favorite
  global-warming fix. Unfortunately, it isn't working.
The Failure of Reason
  If something constructive is to be done about peak oil and the rest
  of the predicament of industrial society, yet another round of
  reasonable plans will not do the trick. The powers that must be
  harnessed are those of myth, magic, and the irrational. What remains
  to be seen is whether these will be harnessed by a new Gandhi... or a
  new Hitler.
Activists Defeat Alaska Railroad Corporation's Pesticide Spray Plan
  Alaska Community Action Against Toxics (ACAT) won a big victory
  over the Alaska Railroad Corporation when state government denied the
  raiload a permit to spray toxic herbicides along 600 miles of tracks.

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From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #897, Mar. 8, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]

ELIMINATING AND PREVENTING HEALTH DISPARITIES

By Peter Montague

Human health is a prime indicator of environmental quality, and of the
success of any society. If the health of residents is poor, then look
for problems in the environment. If some groups are thriving and
others are not, it's a sure sign of injustice.

Such differences are called "health disparities" (or, sometimes,
"health inequities"[1]) and the U.S. has set a goal of eliminating
them.

There's a long way to go to meet that goal.

A recent study of longevity in the U.S. found that white "Middle
Americans" live five years longer, on average, than black "Middle
Americans" -- 77.9 years vs. 72.9 years. And this does not include
"high-risk urban black men," who live, on average, only 71.1 years.
The differences between "Middle American" racial groups are not
explained by health insurance coverage or by frequency of medical
appointments -- so access to medical care is not the primary driver
of these disparities.

Hispanics are about twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to have
diabetes, or to get cancer of the stomach, liver, gall bladder, or
cervix. Hispanic women develop heart disease about a decade earlier
than non-Hispanic white women.

Two times more black women die in childbirth than white women. The
nation's cancer death rate is 35 percent higher in black men and 18
percent higher in black women than in white men and women, according
to a new report from the American Cancer Society. These facts barely
scratch the surface.

How are 'health disparities' defined?

The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO)
has defined "health disparities" as "differences in populations'
health status that are avoidable and can be changed. These differences
can result from social and/or economic conditions, as well as public
policy. Examples include situations whereby hazardous waste sites are
located in poor communities, there is a lack of affordable housing,
and there is limited or no access to transportation. These and other
factors adversely affect population health."

On paper at least, the U.S. is committed to eliminating health
disparities.

** The federal Department of Health and Human Services has established
an Office of Minority Health with a "National action agenda to
eliminate health disparities for racial and ethnic minority
populations."

** The federal program, Healthy People 2010, has two goals: "(1)
Increase quality and years of healthy life; and (2) Eliminate health
disparities, including differences that occur by gender, race or
ethnicity, education or income, disability, geographic location, or
sexual orientation."

** The American Public Health Association has called for action to
eliminate health disparities.

** NACCHO -- The National Association of County and City Health
Officials -- has passed a strong resolution advocating for programs
and policies that minimize health inequities;

** NACCHO has published standards that every local health department
(LHD) should be able to meet: "These standards describe the
responsibilities that every person, regardless of where they live,
should reasonably expect their LHD to fulfill." The NACCHO standards
say, "...all LHDs (local health departments) exist for the common good
and are responsible for demonstrating strong leadership in the
promotion of physical, behavioral, environmental, social, and economic
conditions that improve health and well-being; prevent illness,
disease, injury, and premature death; and eliminate health
disparities."

** The national Society for Public Health Education in 2002 passed a
"Resolution for Eliminating Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities."

Health disparities can be eliminated by prevention

Health disparities are difficult (or impossible) to remedy once they
have been allowed to develop. However, they can be prevented.

A recent report from the Prevention Institute in Oakland, California
describes steps that communities can take to eliminate health
disparities through prevention.

The "main premise" of the report is that, "reducing disparities can
only be achieved if attention is paid to eliminating and minimizing
diseases and injuries before the need for treatment, therapy, and
disease management, and this can only be done by changing fundamental
conditions of the environment that arise from racial and economic
injustice." And: "Eliminating racial and ethnic health disparities is
imperative both as a matter of fairness and economic common sense."

The Prevention Institute has identified 13 "community factors" that
"play a pivotal role in determining health and disparities." (pg. iii)

The report then offers 10 disparity-reducing strategies that public
health practitioners, advocates and decision-makers can focus on. This
is good stuff -- grounded in the scientific and medical literature,
yet very practical. The Prevention Institute even has a "community
assessment tool" -- called Thrive -- that everyone can apply in
their own community begin to prevent health disparities.

The 13 "community factors" are organized into 3 clusters:

1. The Equitable Opportunity Cluster: the equitable distribution of
opportunity and resources

a. Availability of jobs paying living wages -- individual income alone
has been shown to account for nearly one-third of health risks among
blacks. The remainder may be explained by residential segregation,
which locks people into poor housing, neighborhoods without
recreational opportunity or access to nutritious food, and so on.

b. Education -- high school dropout rates correlate closely with poor
health. Lower education levels are associated with smoking,
overweight, and low levels of physical activity.

c. Racial justice -- racial and ethnic discrimination are harmful to
health. Economic inequity, racism, and oppression can maintain or
widen gaps in socioeconomic status, and increase stress.

2. The People-Factors Cluster

d. Social networks and trust: "strong social networks and connections
correspond with significant increases in physical and mental health,
academic achievement, and local economic development, as well as lower
rates of homicide, suicide, and alcohol and drug abuse." (pg. 9)

e. Participation and willingness to act for the social good: "Social
connections also contribute to community willingness to take action
for the common good which is associated with lower rates of violence,
improved food access, and anecdotally with such issues as school
improvement, environmental quality, improved local services, local
design and zoning decisions, and increasing economic opportunity.
Changes that benefit the community are more likely to succeed and more
likely to last when those who benefit are involved in the process;
therefore, active participation by people in the community is
important."

f. The behavioral norms within a community, "may structure and
influence health behaviors and one's motivation and ability to change
those behaviors." Norms contribute to many preventable social problems
such as substance abuse, tobacco use, levels of violence, and levels
of physical activity. For example, traditional beliefs about manhood
are associated with a variety of poor health behaviors, including
drinking, drug use, and high-risk sexual activity.

3. The Place-Factors Cluster

This refers to the physical environment in which people live, work,
play, pray and go to school. This includes:

g. What's sold and how it's promoted. The presence of a supermarket in
a neighborhood increases the consumption of fruits and vegetables by
more than 30%. The presence of many liquor stores is associated with
greater liquor consumption which in turn is linked to increased
violence. If large portions of high-fat, high-sugar junk food are
aggressively marketed, that's what people tend to eat.

h. Neighborhood look and feel, and safety. "The physical space of
communities influences patterns of life. The distances between home
and work, the look and feel of a streetscape, the presence or lack of
retail stores and parks influence whether people drive, walk, or bike
and how they spend their leisure time.All too often, residents in low-
income communities cope with inadequate sidewalks, inadequate access
to public transportation, absence of bike lanes for cyclists, absence
of walking and biking trails and absence or ill maintenance of parks,
along with inaccessible recreational facilities and crime. Safety is a
dominant concern leading parents to drive their children to school,
rather than letting them walk, and to prohibit outdoor play." (pg. 12)

i. Parks and open space. Physical activity levels -- and positive
interactions between neighbors -- are influenced by enjoyable scenery,
greenery, access to parks, convenient transportation, and the design
of streets and neighborhoods.

j. Getting around. "A well-utilized public transit system contributes
to improved environmental quality, lower motor vehicle crashes and
pedestrian injury, less stress, decreased social isolation, increased
access to economic opportunities, such as jobs, increased access to
needed services such as health and mental health services, and access
to food, since low-income households are less likely than more
affluent households to have a car."

k. Housing. Poor housing contributes to health problems in low-income
communities and communities of color and is associated with increased
risk for injury, violence, exposure to toxins, molds, viruses, and
pests, and psychological stress.

l. Air, water, and soil. "Low-income communities and communities of
color are more likely to have poor air quality and toxic brownfield
sites. Poor air quality prevents individuals from engaging in physical
activity, especially if they have asthma or other respiratory
illnesses. Contaminated empty lots, which could serve as badly needed
parks and open space, frequently require large sums of money for
sufficient clean-up.... Cancer, asthma, birth defects, developmental
disabilities, infertility, and Parkinson's disease are on the rise,
and they are linked to chemical exposures from air, water and soil,
and products and practices used in our schools, homes, neighborhoods,
and workplaces. Low-income people and people of color are typically
the most affected by environmental health concerns."

m. Arts and culture. "The presence of art and other cultural
institutions contributes to an environment that is conducive to health
and safety. Artistic outlets, such as gardens, murals, and music,
promote a healing environment. This has been demonstrated in hospitals
and other health care facilities, where the incorporation of arts into
the building's spaces has reduced patient recovery time and assisted
in relief for the disabled, infirm, or their caregivers. The visual
and creative arts enable people at all developmental stages to
appropriately express their emotions and to experience risk taking in
a safe environment. For those who have witnessed violence, art can
serve as a healing mechanism. More broadly, art can mobilize a
community while reflecting and validating its cultural values and
beliefs, including those about violence. Also, artistic expression can
encourage physical activity, as in the case of dance. A report
commissioned by the Ottawa City Hall states that culture "provides
benefits in terms of...social cohesion, community empowerment...
health and well being and economic benefit."[2]

So there you have it -- 13 community factors that strongly determine
health disparities. Next week we'll discuss 10 disparity-reducing
strategies that communities can use.

Meanwhile, here's one final thought. Health disparities go to the
heart of "environmental health." Eliminating health disparities will
take us in some new directions. As the Prevention Institute report
says (pg. 22),

"This approach to improving health outcomes necessarily requires that
the public health sector and health advocates approach health in a new
way. It requires a new way of thinking and a new way of doing
business. This is not an approach that identifies a medical condition
and asks,"How do we treat this?" Rather, it requires understanding how
the fundamental root causes of health disparities play out in the
community in a way that affects health and asking, "Who do we need to
engage and what do we need to do in order to prevent people from
getting sick and injured?"

More next week.

==============

[1] Dennis Raphael, "Health Inequities in the United States: Prospects
and Solutions," Journal of Public Health Policy Vol. 21, No. 4 (2000),
pgs. 394-427. Available here: 3.5 Mbyte PDF.

[2] Excerpted from Rachel Davis, Larry Cohen, and Leslie Mikkelsen,
Strengthening Communities: A Prevention Framework for Reducing Health
Disparities." Oakland, Calif.: Prevention Institute, 2003, pg. 18.

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From: Conscious Choice, Mar. 1, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]

THE NEW RULES OF FOOD

By Alan Mammoser

What if you knew the story behind everything you ate, such as where
the food came from, who grew it and how? Imagine the landscape from
which it came, perhaps a thriving collection of family farms. What if
you knew the people that grew the food, knew that they got a fair
price for it and that they actively worked to protect the landscape?

How differently would we eat if we got to know our food better?

Basic knowledge of where food comes from and how it is produced is
lost on many Americans today and with it a trust in the food supply
that sustains us.

With the rise of a highly industrialized society, an industrial
farming system has developed along with it. Farms have become ever
more mechanized, specialized and distant from most of the population.
The federal government has contributed to the trend through
legislation, with consecutive farm bills that favor big concentrated
commodity growers -- sometimes known as "factory farms" -- while
nearly ignoring local growers with smaller operations, sometimes
collectively called "family farmers."

Now, when you walk into your local grocery, you see shelves chock full
of all the marvels of our food system, with colorful packaging and
displays. But do you know where it comes from? Do you trust it? In
most cases, there is no information beyond the basic government
approvals and ingredient lists. But for a growing number of people,
particularly in the age of food safety scares, the lack of information
is unacceptable. Many Americans want to get to know their food, and
the story behind it, better.

A new food movement is growing out of these concerns. Concerned
citizens, farmers and others are starting to work on a new set of
rules for the food system. These rules or standards would ensure
sufficient incomes for family farmers, fair treatment of farm workers,
proper care of farm animals and conservation of the environment. While
some are working on the specific rules, others are figuring out how to
communicate about the issue and efforts to others. They're devising
ways to convey the stories behind food, so grocery shoppers know more
about a cut of meat or a bag of beans and can use this information to
make better choices.

This food and farming conversation is gathering force, appropriately,
in the Midwest. Many leading thinkers are gathering in March at the
Family Farmed Expo (familyfarmed.org), a two-day event in Chicago
that contains events for the general public. Local experts on the
subject will be on hand as well.

"When national organic food standards were adopted in the early 90s,
there was a choice," says Jim Slama of Sustain USA, a Chicago-based
non-profit that works on food and farming issues. "At that time, the
feds chose to emphasize environmental standards in the strictest
sense, to certify whether the food production system avoided
artificial fertilizers and chemicals. But they chose to ignore other
values related to producing and selling food, values that many people
care about."

Slama and his colleagues are at the forefront of a "food convergence."
Previously, food-related issues were addressed separately as
individual groups focused on organics, local production, fair trade or
family farm issues. Today, these groups are coming together to look at
food from all angles with the belief that collectively, they can have
far greater impact.

Four key topics of discussion include certifying family farms; fair
trade standards; organics and beyond; and local food and flavor.

Certifying Family Farms

Fred Kirschenmann has watched with alarm as the number of
independent family farms decline across the Midwest. The North Dakota
farmer and senior fellow at Iowa State University's Leopold Center for
Sustainable Agriculture noted that this tragic disappearance was
occurring even as demand was growing for specialty food products.

"New markets are opening," says Kirschenmann. "In many cases, markets
for organic foods, but they really take organic to another level. They
come from peoples' rising desire to buy food that protects the land
and animals, supports farm families and farm workers. These markets
demand food products that independent family farmers can, by their
very nature, best provide."

This new demand for food can be summed up in three things food must
convey: memory, story and relationship. People want food that carries
the land's qualities and nutrients to their tables -- that's its
memory. They want to know where it came from and follow it to its
source -- that's its story. And they want to enjoy a trusting
relationship through real communication with the producer.

Kirschenmann joined like-minded rural advocates and food activists to
form the Association of Family Farms (AFF). The organization's goal
is to differentiate themselves in the marketplace by forming
cooperatives and creating their own unique brands, which they will
certify with a special seal.

Like the ubiquitous "UL" (Underwriters Laboratories) label on
household goods, the AFF seal will appear on food products from meat
to wheat. It will certify food in three ways: 1) environmental
stewardship on the farm; 2) social standards, such as fair treatment
of farm workers; and 3) fair business practices including fair
compensation for family farmers.

AFF is composed of farmers from local marketing organizations and co-
ops and is gradually expanding through regional committees. In
addition to the AFF seal, Kirschenmann foresees an interactive website
that will provide detailed information about the food, and the farmers
and practices used to produce it.

Fair Trade Standards

For AFF to work, it needs solid rules and agreed-upon standards by
which to judge whether a food item deserves the seal. The group is
drawing upon the Portland-based Food Alliance, whose certification
programs support sustainable agriculture. Their standards are
comprehensive and touch on every aspect of the farm economy and call
upon farmers and ranchers for the following:

** Provide safe and fair conditions for workers

** Ensure healthy and humane care for livestock

** Avoid use of hormones or related antibiotics

** Avoid genetically modified crops or livestock

** Reduce their use of pesticides and other toxins

** Actively conserve soil and water resources

** Protect wildlife habitat

** Plan for continuous improvement

Michael Sligh of the North Carolina-based Rural Advancement
Foundation is working to adapt international fair trade standards,
such as those well-recognized for coffee, to the domestic food market.
"The standards are tools to help small farmers make a claim, to make
their products more unique and more valuable," Sligh says.

Organic and Beyond

Organic Valley is a LaFarge, Wisconsin-based cooperative that is
owned by 900 independent farmers, most with small to mid-sized family
farms. The Organic Valley label provides a powerful seal that
guarantees social justice and environmental care. Now, the company is
moving toward adopting some form of fair trade standard.

"Organic and beyond," is how the company's CEO, George Siemon,
describes it, signaling Organic Valley's desire to reach buyers who
care about a wide range of values in their food.

Erin Ford, a project coordinator at the company, notes that good
standards require good metrics. "To create useful standards, we need
to answer basic questions, such as 'what is a family farm?'" she says.
"Another is, 'what is local food?'"

Organic Valley has done much to provide answers, just through the
guidelines it has established for its members. "We've got good working
definitions, based upon our experience as a national brand working
through a regional business model," says Ford. For example, to define
a family farm, the company sets out certain thresholds, such as the
number of heads of cattle (the maximum allowed for members is 500
without special approval, although their farmer average is 65). Their
local milk is seen in a broad yet well-defined regional context, with
seven major trade areas across the country broken up into the
following regions: Pacific Northwest, California, Rocky Mountain,
Texas, Midwest, Northeast and New England. Their goal is to ship
within their regions, so the milk in the stores comes from relatively
local producers.

Local Food and Flavor

To tell the food story, to convey trust, means food must become more
local, in both a real and a figurative sense. The food buyer must come
to know the landscape, the scene of the harvest, whether it be across
the continent or in the buyer's own region. Locality plays a big role
in any new standards for food.

The creation, or restoration, of local food systems goes to the heart
of what people love most about food, namely, flavor. The international
Slow Food movement sees this instinctively, placing the concern for
good flavor into broader agendas for land conservation and the
survival of diverse plant and animal varieties. Slow Food brings the
discussion of fair trade down to where it really matters most: the
plate.

"The universal aspect of food is pleasure," says Erika Lesser of Slow
Food USA. "It's not gluttony. It's just the reality of how food
motivates people. It's like doing good by eating well."

This appeal to taste could bring huge numbers of people into the fair
trade fold, by getting them to look for good -- and good-tasting --
meals. Slow Food projects bring producers together around agreed-upon
standards for special heritage varieties, such as raw milk cheese,
Gravenstein Apples or other high value or unique foods.

There is still a lot of work ahead to make the "memories, stories and
relationships" of food accessible to most city folk who live far away
from farms and food production. The evolving conversation -- with new
farmer-oriented standards, seals and methods to communicate food
stories -- may create a growing swell that will shake our food system,
and our ways of interacting with it, to its very roots.

Alan Mammoser is a Chicago-based writer and regional planner.

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From: Washington Post (pg. A2), Mar. 2, 19AR
[Printer-friendly version]

USDA BACKS PRODUCTION OF RICE WITH HUMAN GENES

By Rick Weiss

The Agriculture Department has given a preliminary green light for the
first commercial production of a food crop engineered to contain human
genes, reigniting fears that biomedically potent substances in high-
tech plants could escape and turn up in other foods.

The plan, confirmed yesterday by the California biotechnology company
leading the effort, calls for large-scale cultivation in Kansas of
rice that produces human immune system proteins in its seeds.

The proteins are to be extracted for use as an anti-diarrhea medicine
and might be added to health foods such as yogurt and granola bars.

"We can really help children with diarrhea get better faster. That is
the idea," said Scott E. Deeter, president and chief executive of
Sacramento-based Ventria Bioscience, emphasizing that a host of
protections should keep the engineered plants and their seeds from
escaping into surrounding fields.

But critics are assailing the effort, saying gene-altered plants
inevitably migrate out of their home plots. In this case, they said,
that could result in pharmacologically active proteins showing up in
the food of unsuspecting consumers.

Although the proteins are not inherently dangerous, there would be
little control over the doses people might get exposed to, and some
might be allergic to the proteins, said Jane Rissler of the Union of
Concerned Scientists, a science policy advocacy group.

"This is not a product that everyone would want to consume," Rissler
said, adding that other companies grow such plants indoors or in vats.
"It is unwise to produce drugs in plants outdoors."

Consumer advocacy groups, including Consumers Union and the
Washington-based Center for Food Safety, have also opposed Ventria's
plans. "We definitely have big concerns," said Joseph Mendelson, the
center's legal director.

Ventria has developed three varieties of rice, each endowed with a
different human gene that makes the plants produce one of three human
proteins. Two of them -- lactoferrin and lysozyme -- are bacteria-
fighting compounds found in breast milk and saliva.

A recent company-sponsored study done in Peru concluded that children
with severe diarrhea recovered a day and a half faster if the salty
fluids they were prescribed were spiked with the proteins.

Deeter said production in plants is far cheaper than other methods,
which should help make the therapy affordable in the developing world,
where severe diarrhea kills 2 million children each year.

"Plants are phenomenal factories," Deeter said. "Our raw materials are
the sun, soil and water."

The company is also talking to the Food and Drug Administration about
putting the proteins into health foods. Its third variety of rice
makes serum albumin, a blood protein used in medical therapies.

Until now, plants with human genes have been restricted to small test
plots. In October, Ventria sought permission to grow its rice
commercially on as many as 3,200 acres in Geary County, Kan., starting
with 450 acres this spring.

A previous plan to grow the rice in southern Missouri was dropped when
beermaker Anheuser-Busch -- the nation's largest rice buyer, which has
expressed concern about the safety and consumer acceptance of gene-
altered rice -- threatened to stop buying rice from the state if the
deal went through.

Because no other rice is grown in Kansas and because rice can only
grow in flooded areas, the risk of escape or cross-fertilization with
other rice plants is nil there, Deeter said. The company will mill
virtually all the seeds on site -- using dedicated equipment -- to
minimize the risk of seeds getting mistakenly released or sold.

On Wednesday, the Agriculture Department published its draft
environmental assessment, which concluded that the project posed no
undue risks. The public can comment until March 30.

Also on Wednesday, the agency revealed that a type of rice seed in
Arkansas had become contaminated with a different variety of
genetically engineered rice, LL62, that was never released for
marketing. The error was discovered in the course of an ongoing
investigation into the widespread contamination of U.S. rice by yet
another gene-altered variety, LL601, which has seriously disrupted
rice exports.

Those problems, along with the previous discovery of unapproved, gene-
altered StarLink corn in food and the accidental release of crops that
had been engineered to make a vaccine for pig diarrhea, undermine the
USDA's credibility, critics said.

"USDA's record is not good," Rissler said, pointing to several recent
court judgments against the department and a December 2005 inspector
general report that savaged the department for its poor oversight of
biotechnology. "We don't think they can enforce even the inadequate
system that is in place."

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From: Agence France Presse, Feb. 27, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]

POLLUTANTS CHANGE 'HE' FROGS INTO 'SHE' FROGS

By Marlowe Hood

Frogs that started life as male tadpoles were changed in an experiment
into females by estrogen-like pollutants similar to those found in the
environment, according to a new study.

The results may shed light on at least one reason that up to a third
of frog species around the world are threatened with extinction,
suggests the study, set to appear in the journal Environmental
Toxicology and Chemistry in May.

In a laboratory at Uppsala University in Sweden, two species of frogs
were exposed to levels of estrogen similar to those detected in
natural bodies of water in Europe, the United States and Canada.

The results were startling: whereas the percentage of females in two
control groups was under 50 percent -- not unusual among frogs -- the
sex ratio in three pairs of groups maturing in water dosed with
different levels of estrogen were significantly skewed.

Even tadpoles exposed to the weakest concentration of the hormone
were, in one of two groups, twice as likely to become females.

The population of the two groups receiving the heaviest dose of
estrogen became 95 percent female in one case, and 100 percent in the
other.

"The results are quite alarming," said co-author Cecilia Berg, a
research in environmental toxicology. "We see these dramatic changes
by exposing the frogs to a single substance. In nature there could be
lots of other compounds acting together."

Earlier studies in the United States, Berg explained, linked a similar
sex-reversal of Rana pipiens male frogs -- one of the two species used
in the experiment -- in the wild to a pesticide that produced
estrogen-like compounds.

"Pesticides and other industrial chemicals have the ability to act
like estrogen in the body," Berg said. "That is what inspired us to do
the experiment," she said referring to her collaborator and lead
author of the article, Irina Pettersson, also a researcher at Uppsala.

The other species examined was the European common frog, Rana
temporaria.

Some of sex-altered males became fully functioning females, but other
had ovaries but no oviducts, making them sterile, Berg explained.

The study does not measure the potential impact of pollutant-driven
sex change for frog species, but the implications, said Berg, are
disquieting.

"Obviously if all the frogs become female it could have a detrimental
effect on the population," she said.

The only immediate remedy, she continued, would be to improve sewage
treatment in areas where frogs and other amphibians might be affected
to filter out estrogen concentrations coming from contraceptive pills
and from industrial pollutants.

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From: Newsweek International, Mar. 12, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]

GLOBAL WARMING: NO EASY FIX

By Emily Flynn Vencat

Global warming isn't the only debate that may be over. Governments and
policymakers around the world also seem to have settled on a solution.
"A responsible approach to solving this crisis," Al Gore said recently
at New York University's Law School, would be "to authorize the
trading of emissions... globally." Emissions trading, also called
carbon trading, is being expanded in the European Union and Japan. And
in many places where it's yet to take hold, like Sacramento, Sydney
and Beijing, politicians are embracing it. Nicholas Stern, former
chief economist of the World Bank and Europe's foremost political
expert on global warming, predicts that the value of carbon credits in
circulation, now about $28 billion, will climb to $40 billion by 2010.

This should be great news for the environment, but many experts have
their doubts. The notion that emissions trading is going to make a
significant dent in global warming is deeply flawed, they say. Current
emissions-trading schemes have proved to be little more than a shell
game, allowing polluters in the developed world to shift the burden of
making cuts onto factories in the developing world. Too often factory
owners use the additional profits banked from carbon credits to expand
their dirty factories. Even more worrying, emissions trading may have
set back the battle against climate change by diverting investment
from renewable-energy technology, which arguably is essential to any
long-term solution. So far, the real winners in emissions trading have
been polluting factory owners who can sell menial cuts for massive
profits, and the brokers who pocket fees each time a company buys or
sells the right to pollute. "Carbon trading is a promising strategy
for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions," says Dan Esty, director of
Yale's Center for Environmental Law and Policy, "but the current
structures have serious flaws."

Part of the appeal of emissions trading is that it is a market
mechanism that's easy to implement. By turning the right to release
greenhouse gases into a commodity that can be traded like gold or
sugar, governments need only set caps on the amount of pollution
they'll allow and let the invisible hand of capitalism do the rest.
But emissions trading is proving to be a grossly inefficient way of
cutting emissions in the developing world. For instance, under the
Kyoto Protocol, the U.N.-brokered agreement that set limits for carbon
and other emissions, companies in nations with Kyoto targets can avoid
making expensive cuts to their own emissions by paying companies in
countries like China to make cuts instead. This approach has been a
boon to developing-world factory owners and international brokers, but
the impact on the environment is more ambiguous. Since developing
countries don't have any caps on emissions, companies can take the
handsome payments they receive from carbon cuts and use the money to
build new fossil-fuel and coal factories. India's Gujarat
Fluorochemical, for instance, made €27 million in the last three
months of 2006 -- triple its total company earnings compared with the
same period in 2005 -- thanks to carbon credits. That boost in profits
will no doubt help fund its new plant for making Teflon and caustic
soda, both polluting substances.

One reason emissions trading is so politically popular is that it's
vulnerable to lobbying. The European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme,
which accounted for two thirds of the global carbon trading that went
on last year, or $20 billion, is a case in point. On paper, the scheme
is a zero-sum game: the European Commission issued a limited amount of
carbon credits. These caps are supposed to bring emissions down across
the EU to a level 8 percent below those of 1990 by 2012. But most
European governments, under pressure from lobbyists, were too generous
in handing out targets to specific industries. As a result, many
companies weren't forced to make any cuts, or buy any credits. Indeed,
in May 2006, when inspectors began checking the books, they found a
surplus of carbon credits which, as soon it became public, triggered a
market collapse.

The scale of the inefficiency of emissions trading was revealed in a
study published in the scientific journal Nature last month. The
nearly $6 billion already spent on projects to curb emissions of
HFC-23, a potent greenhouse gas, had the same impact on the
environment as would $132 million worth of equipment upgrades. Last
year companies in Kyoto countries paid about $3 billion to some of the
worst carbon polluters in the developing world. What impact did this
money have? Shri Bajrang, an iron factory in a gritty stretch of flat
scrubland near Raipur on the main route between Mumbai and Kolkata, is
a typical case. In the nearby village of Bendri, the morning sun is
barely discernible through the acrid haze, the trees are black with
soot and women wash clothes in polluted ponds. Respiratory illnesses
such as tuberculosis, which now afflicts about 15 percent of the
locals at the village, are on the rise. Last year, to generate carbon
credits it could sell to European firms, the factory's owners fitted
the plant with waste-heat-recovery boilers and turbine generators,
which will reduce the amount of pollution it releases by 107,000 tons
a year for the next decade -- which Shri Bajrang puts at 12 percent of
its total emissions. "Put bluntly, the [United Nations'] carbon-
credit scheme is a failure," says Larry Lohmann of London-based
environmental and social-justice think tank Corner House.

Emissions trading has also failed to stimulate investment in new green
technologies. While trading funnels billions of dollars of
international environmental investment money into companies like Shri
Bajrang, renewable-energy projects aren't receiving funding because
they're more costly. Indeed, only 2 percent of the United Nations'
trading projects involve renewable energy like hydro dams and wind
farms, and communities that preserve forests and follow other
ecofriendly practices are ignored. "The only solution is to stop the
industry," says Ram Naran Nishad, a farmer in Bendri whose tomato
yields have decreased by 70 percent since the factory's arrival.

Many experts think a carbon tax would be the better alternative. It's
more straightforward and jargon-free, and would prevent much of the
"gaming of the system" that's plaguing carbon trading. The problem, of
course, is that new taxes are unpopular with voters. "A carbon tax
would be far superior," says Yale's Esty, "but trading is a good
second-best solution."

Legislators around the world are trying to fix the current trading
schemes. Europe has set stricter carbon quotas for next year, U.S.
politicians are talking about auctioning carbon credits instead of
giving them away, and U.N. officials want to beef up renewable-energy
projects. Emissions trading will succeed to the extent that world
leaders can muster the political will to make the caps strict, and
make them stick.

Copyright 2007 Newsweek, Inc.

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From: The Archdruid Report, Mar. 1, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]

THE FAILURE OF REASON

By John Michael Greer

Around once a month, since I first started this blog, I get plans in
the mail for saving the world. I don't mean this last phrase
derisively; the plans come from people who are deeply concerned about
the consequences of peak oil, global warming, and other manifestations
of the predicament of industrial society, and set out to find a
solution. Many of them are extremely well crafted and, if put into
place, would accomplish much. Every one of them, even the loopiest,
would likely have better results than the industrial world's current
policy of sleepwalking toward the abyss.

The most recent example arrived a couple of days ago, courtesy of Tom
Wayburn, a Texas engineer and a reader of this blog; you'll find his
plan online at www.dematerialism.net and
dematerialism.blogspot.com. He's far from alone in his efforts. M.
King Hubbert himself proposed a scheme of social and economic
reorganization to deal with peak oil back in the 1970s; you can find
it at www.energybulletin.net/3800.html. These two are only a drop in
the oil bucket, of course. Go looking for peak oil solutions online or
in bookstores and you can find them by the dozen.

The best publicized of them, and indeed one of the best in practical
terms, is the oil depletion protocol originally crafted by the
Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group at the University of Uppsala in
Sweden. Richard Heinberg's latest book The Oil Depletion Protocol
does a fine job of explaining the protocol and showing how it could
manage the transition to a sustainable society. It's an extremely well
thought out plan, and if implemented, would almost certainly make the
coming of the deindustrial age a good deal less ugly than it will
otherwise be. The only criticism it merits is that its chances of
actually being put into effect make a snowball in hell look like a
safe investment.

Unfortunately, the same sort of criticism can be leveled at the entire
genre of peak oil solutions, from Tom Wayburn's project to such highly
publicized plans as the oil depletion protocol or the one presented in
Lester Brown's much-discussed book Plan B.

There has never been a shortage of good ideas for dealing with peak
oil or, for that matter, any other aspect of the predicament of
industrial society. What has been lacking consistently is the
collective will to put any of those ideas into practice.

It bears noticing that between 1956, when Hubbert originally announced
the approach of peak oil, and the present moment, a remarkable paradox
has unfolded. On the one hand, the evidence for the imminence and
catastrophic potential of peak oil has grown steadily more convincing.
On the other hand, the prospect that any constructive response to peak
oil will actually be implemented has grown steadily more distant.
Despite occasional bursts of lip service, every major political party
in every major nation in the industrial world supports pro-growth
economic policies that move the world further away from a transition
to sustainability with each passing day, and the more imminent and
obvious the dangers become, the more stubbornly the world's political
and economic systems cling to exactly the policies that guarantee the
worst possible outcome in the not very long run.

Now a good part of this astonishing failure of will and vision can be
traced to familiar factors. Many peak oil authors have talked about
the way that today's political and economic systems have perpetual
growth hardwired into them, and malfunction or break down completely
when the rate of growth even starts to approach zero. Many of them,
myself among them, have also discussed the way that people's ability
to weigh benefits against risks breaks down just as spectacularly when
the benefits are immediate and the risks lie somewhere in the
indefinite future. Still, there's more to the issue than this. The
same underground realm of mythic narratives and magical symbols I've
been trying to explore in recent posts has a major role in setting the
stage for the paradox just outlined.

The crux of the matter, I suggest, is that attempts to change the
course of industrial civilization without changing the narratives and
symbols that guide it on its way are doomed to failure, and those
narratives and symbols cannot be changed effectively with the toolkit
that peak oil advocates have used up to this point. Behind this
specific technical problem lies a much vaster predicament -- the
failure of the Enlightenment project of rebuilding human civilization
on the foundations of reason.

The Enlightenment, for those of my readers who received an American
public school education -- which in matters of history, at least,
amounts to no real education at all -- was an 18th century movement of
European thought that laid most of the intellectual foundations of the
modern world. The leading lights of the movement argued that the
transformation that Galileo, Newton, and their peers accomplished in
the sciences needed to happen in the realms of social, political, and
economic life as well. To them, the traditional ideologies that framed
European society in their time amounted to one vast festering mass of
medieval superstition that belonged in the compost heap of history.
Voltaire's famous outburst against the Catholic church -- Ecrasez
l'infame! ("Chuck the wretched thing!") -- gave voice to a
generation's revulsion against a worldview that in their minds had
become all too closely bound to bigotry and autocracy.

Mind you, there was quite a bit of truth to the charge. The upper
classes of 18th century Europe had been as strongly affected by the
scientific revolution's disenchantment of the world as anyone else,
and in their hands, traditional ways of thinking that once wove a bond
of common interest among people of different classes turned into
abstractions veiling brutal injustice. Like so many social critics,
though, the thinkers of the Enlightenment combined a clear if one-
sided view of the problem with unworkably Utopian proposals for its
solution. They argued that once superstition was dethroned and public
education became universal, rational self-interest and dispassionate
scientific analysis would take charge, leading society progressively
toward ever better social conditions.

If this sounds familiar, it should.

The ideology of the Enlightenment swept all before it, forcing even
the most diehard reactionaries to phrase their dissent in the terms of
an argument the Enlightenment itself defined, and it remains the
common currency of social, economic, and political thought in the
Western world to this day. One of its consequences is exactly the
habit of producing rational plans for social improvement that spawned
the torrent of peak oil solutions we're discussing in this post. Since
Voltaire's time, the idea that building a better social mousetrap will
cause the world to beat a path to one's door has pervaded our
civilization.

The irony, of course, is that neither in Voltaire's time nor in ours
has social change actually happened that way. The triumph of the
Enlightenment itself did not happen because the social ideas
circulated by its proponents were that much better than those of their
rivals; it happened because the core mythic narrative of the
Enlightenment proved to be more emotionally powerful than its rivals.
That narrative, of course, is the myth of progress, the core element
of the worldview that has made, and now threatens to destroy, the
modern world.

This irony defines a faultline running through the middle of the
modern mind. On the one hand, our economists treat human beings as
rational actors making choices to maximize their own economic benefit.
On the other hand, the same companies that hire those economists also
pay for advertising campaigns that use the raw materials of myth and
magic to encourage people to act against their own best interests,
whether it's a matter of buying overpriced fizzy sugar water or the
much more serious matter of continuing to support the unthinking
pursuit of business as usual in the teeth of approaching disaster. The
*language* of rational self-interest and dispassionate scientific
analysis is itself part of a mythic narrative of the sort it attempts
to dismiss from serious consideration.

The crux of the problem, as suggested in an earlier post in this blog,
is that human thought is mythic by its very nature. We think with
myths, as inevitably as we see with eyes and eat with mouths. Thus any
attempt to bring about significant social change must start from the
mythic level, with an emotionally powerful and symbolically meaningful
narrative, or it will go nowhere.

The founders of the Enlightenment recognized this, and accomplished
one of the great intellectual revolutions of history by harnessing the
power of myth in the service of their project. The very nature of
their legacy, though, has made it much harder for others to recognize
the role of myth in social change.

Thus it's not accidental that the great storytellers of recent
history, the figures who catalyzed massive changes by the creative use
of myth, have mostly come from the fringes of the Western cultural
mainstream. Two examples are particularly worth citing here. Mohandas
Gandhi, who broke the grip of the British Empire on India by retelling
the myth of European colonialism so powerfully that even the colonial
powers fell under the spell of his story, drew on his own Third World
culture as well as his Western education to pose a challenge to the
reigning narratives of the West that they had no way to counter. On
the other side of the scale, but no less powerfully, Adolf Hitler came
out of the crawlspaces of Vienna's urban underclass with a corrupted
version of Central European occult traditions, and turned them into a
myth that mesmerized an entire nation and plunged the planet into the
most catastrophic war in its history. In rational terms, the story of
either man's achievements seems preposterous -- another measure of the
limits of reason, and its failure to plumb the depths of human
motivation.

If something constructive is to be done about peak oil and the rest of
the predicament of industrial society, in other words, yet another
round of reasonable plans will not do the trick. The powers that must
be harnessed are those of myth, magic, and the irrational. What
remains to be seen is whether these will be harnessed by a new
Gandhi... or a new Hitler.

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From: Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT), Mar. 1, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]

ACTIVISTS DEFEAT ALASKA RAILROAD CORPORATION'S PESTICIDE SPRAY PLAN

By Pamela K. Miller

Dear Friends,

We are celebrating a significant victory today that the Alaska
Railroad Corporation will not be granted a permit by the Alaska
Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) to spray herbicides
along its more than 600 miles of right-of-way. Over 1,500 water
bodies, including rivers, streams, and creeks are within 225 feet of
the tracks, making salmon and salmon habitat vulnerable to
contamination from herbicides.

The following is from ADEC's web site (see the full decision document
at http://www.dec.state.ak.us/eh/pest/RRPermitDecision.htm)

The [Alaska] Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) is
denying the Alaska Railroad Corporation's (ARRC) application to spray
herbicides on the railways and rail yards for vegetation management
purposes. The ARRC applied for a permit to spray three herbicides as
well as a drift retardant to approximately 500 miles of track plus
approximately 100 miles of rail yard.

Any pesticide sold, distributed, or used in Alaska must be registered
by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the ADEC. The
labels of all three proposed herbicides specifically prohibit applying
these chemicals directly to water. According to Kim Stricklan, ADEC's
Pesticide Program Manager, the ARRC did not adequately identify all
the water resources in and near the proposed spray area. Concerns
raised during the public comment period and during coordination with
other state agencies were compelling regarding the potential for the
proposed herbicides to reach waters of the state.

In its application, the ARRC proposed a 10-foot spray buffer zone
around water resources. ADEC concluded this buffer zone would pose an
unacceptable risk that the herbicides would reach waters of the state.

ADEC reviewed and evaluated nearly 100 studies in support of the
decision to deny the permit. All studies were given equal
consideration for inclusion. However, only unbiased, scientifically-
based, peer-reviewed (or validated) data were utilized in the decision
to deny the permit.

Background: The specific herbicides included in the ARRC application
are Razor Pro, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Registration
Number (Reg No.) 228-366, with active ingredient glyphosate; Solution
Water Soluble , EPA Reg No. 228-260, with active ingredient
dimethylamine salt of 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid; and Oust Extra,
EPA Reg No. 352-622, with active ingredients sulfometuron methyl and
metsulfuron methyl; as well as the drift retardant Alenza with
principle functioning agents proprietary polyvinyl polymer.

Excerpt from Alaska Community Action on Toxics' news release:

Alaska citizens living along the railbelt expressed consistent
opposition to the use of herbicides by the Alaska Railroad; the ADEC
received approximately 1,083 written comments in addition to oral
testimony, as well as resolutions and letters expressing opposition
from local governments and community councils, including: Native
Village of Eklutna (resolution and letter), Montana Creek Native
Association, Inc. (resolution), Municipality of Anchorage (letter),
City of Seward (resolution), Kenai Peninsula Borough (resolution),
Matanuska-Susitna Borough (resolution), Denali Borough (resolution),
Birchwood Community Council, and Talkeetna Community Council.

Alaska Community Action on Toxics firmly opposes the use of herbicides
and associated chemicals for vegetation management purposes by the
Alaska Railroad. "We assert that there are viable, economical
alternatives that preclude the need for chemical treatments," stated
Pamela Miller Executive Director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.
"Herbicide use poses an unacceptable threat to water quality, fish,
wildlife, habitat, and public health. The Alaska Department of
Environmental Conservation had the responsibility to deny the permit
application of the Alaska Railroad in order to meet their obligation
to protect human health and the environment."

Please contact Pamela Miller at Alaska Community Action on Toxics for
more information (907) 222-7714.

Pamela K. Miller, Director
Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT)
505 West Northern Lights Boulevard Suite 205
Anchorage, Alaska 99503
(907) 222-7714 (Phone)
(907) 222-7715 (Fax)
www.akaction.net

Mission: We believe that everyone has a right to clean air, clean
water, and toxic-free foods

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