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Rachel's Democracy and Health News

Rachel's Democracy & Health News #912 "Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?" Thursday, June 21, 2007printer-friendly version

Featured stories in this issue...

The Disappearing Birds
Here is more evidence that we are shredding the biosphere one small decision at a time, diminishing the world we will leave to our children. This occurs because of what we produce and how we produce it, both of which are the result of choices.
Flame Retardant May Be More Toxic Than Thought
New data suggest that the flame retardant known as deca can be found everyhere on the planet, accumulating in the bodies of wildlife and humans. Again, it's what we produce and how we produce it.
Depression Raises Risk of Diabetes, Study Finds
Feeling depressed can make you physically sick. This is another example of the social determinants of health -- how your social circumstances determine your health. This is why we at Rachel's News report regularly on economic realities such as joblessness, poverty, and inequalities: they are major determinants of health.
Hunger in the U.S.
At last count in 2005, 35 million low-income Americans -- about a third of them children -- lived in households that cannot consistently afford enough to eat. Since 2005, the situation has most likely become worse.
Lying Down with Hyenas
"If it were just a matter of winning an ethical, moral or environmental case against corporations, we would have already overturned corporate rule. But we haven't because we haven't offered a plausible or demonstrable alternative that appeals to the people who walk around on a sunny weekend day having a pretty good time and not worrying too much about corporations."

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From: Philadelphia Inquirer
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THE DISAPPEARING BIRDS

By Sandy Bauers, Inquirer Staff Writer

Get National Audubon Society's full report

When he was a boy in the '60s, Schuylkill Haven nature writer Scott Weidensaul considered the eastern meadowlark a sound track of summer. Ask any New Jersey farmers, and they will wistfully recall the whistles of the bobwhite.

Yesterday, the National Audubon Society quantified what birders and other outdoors people have known for years: Many of America's most common bird populations have plummeted over the last 40 years, the bobwhite, the biggest loser, by 82 percent.

The message, Weidensaul said, is that "no species is safe" from sweeping landscape changes such as development, loss of wetlands, and pollution from industry.

"If even the commonest, most widespread birds are having trouble thriving, it's a pretty clear warning that we need to take action," Weidensaul said during a teleconference with reporters.

The study's author, Greg Butcher, the Audubon Society's national bird conservation director, was quick to point out that while none of the birds was in danger of becoming extinct, the declines indicated serious problems that should -- and can -- be addressed.

Butcher drew up a top-20 list that includes the northern pintail, several sparrows, the whip-poor-will, the eastern meadowlark, and the ruffed grouse, Pennsylvania's state bird, all of which he said had declined more than 50 percent.

"These are not rare or exotic birds we're talking about," said Carol Browner, the Audubon Society's chair and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton administration. "These are birds that visit our feeders and congregate at nearby lakes and seashores, and yet they are disappearing day by day."

Nate Rice, ornithology collection manager at Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences, said he was not surprised at the analysis, based on four decades of citizen counts, a bulwark of bird science.

"I can totally believe it," Rice said. "If this isn't the biggest red flag one can raise, I don't know what is."

For years, ornithologists have been particularly concerned about migrants such as warblers that wing up from the tropics every year. "It just goes to show you it's no longer one group," Rice said. "It's becoming systemic for all birds."

For the study, the Audubon Society came up with a list of several hundred "common" birds, defining them as those with populations numbering at least 500,000 in North America, with ranges of a million square miles or more. The statistical analysis looked at decades worth of two national counts -- the Audubon Christmas bird counts and the U.S. Geological Survey's Breeding Bird Survey.

Butcher said that while the report had not been peer-reviewed, the techniques used "have been extensively peer-reviewed."

The main reason for the decline, he said, is habitat loss -- reduction in grasslands because of intensive farming, a loss of forests due to suburban sprawl, and loss of wetlands because of industrialization.

Echoing other studies, however, he said climate change exacerbated habitat loss.

Species that must shift their range north because of rising temperatures might be unable to find habitat bridges or pathways to get there, said Eric Stiles, vice president for conservation and stewardship at New Jersey Audubon, which is independent of the national group.

"Because we've sliced and diced the landscape," he said, "they're stuck on these islands. It's kind of a Berlin Wall for ecology."

In Pennsylvania, where the ruffed-grouse population has declined 22 percent, "a big part of the problem is that they're sharing the forest with a lot of very hungry white-tailed deer," Weidensaul said.

"The understory that the birds need for cover from predators and the insects they depend on just aren't there anymore," he said.

Likewise for the wood thrush, said Tim Schaeffer, executive director of the National Audubon Society's Pennsylvania chapter. Almost 10 percent of the world's wood thrushes nest here, he said.

"These are are common birds for which Pennsylvania has a worldwide responsibility for maintaining their habitat."

In New Jersey, bobwhites used to proliferate as far north as Hunterdon County but now remain in only a few spots in Cape May and Ocean Counties. "They're extremely uncommon," said New Jersey Audubon's director of conservation, Troy Ettel.

Common terns, whose numbers are down 70 percent nationally, have been booted from their nesting habitat on barrier-island beaches by houses or eaten by cats and other predators that come with the people who live there.

A lot is happening in both states to help the birds.

The Pennsylvania Audubon chapter, for instance, is working with groups like the Willistown Conservation Trust in Chester County to delay mowing their fields until after July 15, when grass-nesters such as the eastern meadowlark have fledged their young.

The Friends of the Wissahickon is promoting an Audubon backyard program emphasizing native plants that will benefit native birds.

New Jersey wildlife officials have been mapping the remaining bobwhite habitat to devise a conservation plan.

Birding organizations have long relied on common citizens for both science and action. Audubon is urging people to to replant their yards with native species, support reforms to farming and logging practices, and fight global warming through their lifestyles and support of legislation.

The new report, Weidensaul said, "is an early warning. We have the time to turn things around. We have the tools to turn things around. What we really need is the will and the determination to do it."

Listen to vocalizations of the top 20 declining bird species via ht tp://go.philly.com/earth

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.

How to Create a Backyard habitat for Birds.

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From: Oakland Tribune
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FLAME RETARDANT MAY BE MORE TOXIC THAN THOUGHT

By Douglas Fischer, Staff Writer

OAKLAND -- Previous assumptions about the health risks of one of the world's most widely used flame retardants are wrong, scientists say, with new data suggesting the compound is both more toxic and widespread in humans and wildlife than thought. The chemical, known as "Deca," is a close cousin to PCBs and the bigger brother of two flame retardants already banned in Europe and several states, including California.

A bill attempting to banish Deca from consumer products in California fell short Thursday evening in the Assembly and appeared doomed.

More than 56,000 tons of Deca were infused into consumer goods worldwide last year, chiefly TV sets. Scientists knew Deca leached out into the environment, contaminating house dust and food and, by extension, our blood and breast milk. But they thought it was largely inert, harmless and quickly passed from our bodies.

Evidence from California's Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science undermines those assumptions. What was thought to be harmless is likely not, say scientists conducting the research. Deca appears to be quickly absorbed by organisms and quickly broken down into long-lasting and far more toxic compounds.

Maine last week passed a bill banning the compound; a similar measure is already on the books in Washington state. Illinois lawmakers are also contemplating a ban.

"What's troubling is our assumptions," said Rob Hale, a professor at the Virginia Institute who led some of the research. "We long assumed these products did not leach out of plastics or get into the environment. That was etched in stone.

"Now out pops data on birds of prey... that all point to not only does Deca get out and get into organisms, it can also be broken down into (compounds) that have all these toxic effects."

The data comes from addled eggs of peregrine falcons and other raptors in California, Washington, the East Coast and China.

The two dozen or so eggs tested so far indicate those raptors - including two falcon pairs nesting in the Bay Area -- have the highest chemical loads of Deca of any living organism tested, a red flag for a species that only recently rebounded from DDT exposure in the late 1970s.

Deca is part of a family of flame retardants known as PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers. It's the only PBDE still on the market.

Siblings Penta and Octa were banned earlier in the decade in California and Europe after scientists concluded both compounds were bioaccumulative and toxic. The largest domestic manufacturer ceased making the chemicals in 2005.

Deca escaped any ban in part because scientists couldn't find evidence of similar effects. (The names come from the number of bromine atoms attached to the molecule: 10 for Deca, eight for Octa, five for Penta. The fewer rings, the smaller the molecule and the more toxic and persistent it is for living organisms.)

Industry groups note that the chemical is astoundingly effective at stopping a very real risk -- fire -- in plastics. Manufacturers say they don't need much Deca to protect products; plastics with Deca can be readily recycled, unlike those with other additives; the amounts contaminating humans remains, so far, fairly minuscule; and much less is known about alternative flame retardants.

"What's the right balance?" asked John Kyte, North American director for the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, representing Deca's manufacturers.

"Deca does not pose a threat to human health and the environment. Can I say that definitively? No I can't. But no one can for any compound.

"The bottom line is we don't want to produce -- and we don't want to have on the market -- a product that's not safe," he said.

The egg data, in conjunction with other ongoing research, suggests otherwise.

The values range from about 0.5 parts per million to 3.5 parts per million and are 10 to 15 times higher than what scientists find in Swedish raptors. One egg from China tested at 12 parts per million, astonishing scientists.

The levels are nearly 100 times beyond body burdens found in aquatic species such as harbor seals and terns. It is also 100 times what is commonly found in humans, although data is scant on the latter point and some evidence suggests children are more contaminated than their parents.

Such a concentration seems small: A drop or three of Deca into a swimming pool. But the molecules are many. Any drop of water from that pool would contain 31 trillion molecules of Deca.

Kim Hooper, a research supervisor in DTSC's Environmental Chemistry lab, believes researchers misread the chemical because they focused initially on aquatic species and thus never noticed a problem. Peregrines in urban areas eat pigeons and sparrows -- scavengers of human society. It appears now -- and for reasons little understood - that Deca accumulates in such a terrestrial food web but doesn't in the more well-studied aquatic food web.

"We haven't thought these things were getting in biota in any amounts," said Kim Hooper, who is supervising the research at DTSC. "Now that it is in biota, you say, 'What are the terrestrial wildlife we've looked at?'

"Well, the answer is essentially none."

Raptor researchers say they doubt Deca endangers the birds the way DDT or PCBs did a generation ago. Thirty years ago, California had only two peregrine nests statewide. Today there are between 200 and 300.

There's also a lot of evidence that Deca quickly breaks down in the body and the environment to smaller, more toxic compounds -- such as Octa, said Heather Stapleton, an assistant professor at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.

The science on this is largely settled, she said.

But not to industry, which maintains the chemical is largely inert. And that uncertainty has left lawmakers paralyzed.

Maine was one of the first states to buck the trend and ban Deca, with a bill clearing the Legislature last week. The state of Washington was earlier, with the governor in April inking into law a bill that would ban Deca once safe and suitable alternatives are found.

But in California, a bill by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber,

D-San Jose, to ban Deca outright in California could only muster 30 of the 41 votes necessary to clear the Assembly Thursday.

A different bill banning a wide class of brominated and chlorinated flame retardants from mattresses, bedding and domestic furniture did clear the Assembly late Wednesday. But while Deca is subject to that ban, manufacturers say they don't use Deca in household furniture or bedding.

"We're taking on the manufacturers of all consumer products," Lieber said last week. "This is a big struggle.

"But we have to push this as hard as we can. There's no doubt in my mind that this is the biggest public health threat we're facing."

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From: The New York Times (pg. F7)
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DEPRESSION RAISES RISK OF DIABETES, STUDY FINDS

By Nicholas Bakalar

Depression is associated with an increased risk for diabetes in older adults, even in people who have no other risk factors for the disease, a new study reports.

Researchers studied 4,681 men and women over 65, following them over a 10-year period, after excluding anyone who already had diabetes at the start of the project. They used a well-validated questionnaire to measure symptoms of depression each year, and tested all participants at two- to four-year intervals for blood sugar. They also calculated body mass index and noted alcohol intake, smoking status and antidepressant use.

After controlling for these factors, they found that even a single report of high depressive symptoms was associated with an increase in the incidence of diabetes. Increases in symptoms over time and persistently high symptoms of depression were also associated with the disease. Over all, people with the highest scores on the depression questionnaire were roughly 50 percent more likely to develop diabetes than those with the lowest scores. Adjusting for race, sex, smoking status, alcohol intake and body mass index made no difference in the result.

Mercedes R. Carnethon, the lead author and an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University, said there was no evidence one way or the other on whether treating depression could reduce the risk for diabetes. "People in our study who were on antidepressants didn't have an elevated risk for diabetes," she said. "But we don't know if that's because of the antidepressants" or for some other reason. The study appeared April 23 in The Archives of Internal Medicine.

Dr. Jonathan W. Stewart, a research psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute who was not involved in the work, said that the conclusions "fit with what else we think we know," but he was troubled by one aspect of the work.

"I worry that some of the items on the questionnaire could be attributed to diabetes rather than to depression," suggesting that there is some overlap between the symptoms of the two disorders, he said. "This doesn't make the study wrong or inaccurate, but it's a serious limitation which they didn't mention."

Inflammation has been proposed as an explanation for the connection because it is associated with both diabetes and depression. But this study found that having higher or lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation, did not alter the association between the two disorders.

Instead, the authors suggest, other biological mechanisms may be at work in the autonomic nervous system, which controls heart, digestive, respiratory, glandular and other involuntary processes. Previous studies have shown that depression is associated with dysfunction in that system, which has also been detected before the development of diabetes. The stress response associated with depression may increase the risk for diabetes by decreasing insulin secretion from the pancreas, which then causes increasing glucose levels in the blood. This can result in a blood sugar level above normal, the defining characteristic of diabetes.

The authors acknowledge some weaknesses in their study. Measures of physical activity were not consistently available during follow-up, and assumptions about this may have introduced error. Also, some of their data were gathered with self-reports, which are not always reliable. In addition, while their questionnaire detected depressive symptoms, the researchers were not able to make definitive diagnoses of clinical depression.

Still, Dr. Carnethon said, depression "is a novel risk factor for diabetes, so we need to look at factors beyond physical inactivity and diet for an explanation." Depression is common in older people, she added, and 15 percent of those over 65 have diabetes.

"The most important thing to keep in mind," Dr. Carnethon said, "is that depression has a lot of effects on the body, one of which may be the development of diabetes, which can lead to a number of other diseases. So addressing depression is important not only for improving mood, but for protecting overall health."

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From: The New York Times (pg. 4-11)
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HUNGER IN THE U.S.

If you think people do not go hungry in America, you're wrong. At last count in 2005, 35 million low-income Americans -- about a third of them children -- lived in households that cannot consistently afford enough to eat. Since 2005, the situation has most likely become worse. Last year, real wages for low-income workers were still below 2001 levels. This year, job growth is slowing and prices are rising.

And each year, the federal food stamp program -- the bulwark against hunger for 26 million Americans -- does less to help. In large part, that is because a key component of the formula for computing most families' food stamps has not been adjusted for inflation since 1996. Over all, food stamps now average a meager $1.05 per person per meal.

Bolstering food stamps must be Congress's top priority in this year's farm bill, the mammoth legislation that covers the food stamp program.

Most important, lawmakers must stop the erosion in the purchasing power of food stamps, either by pegging the benefit formula to inflation or by making a big increase in the formula's standard deduction. In 2002, when the last farm bill was passed, Congress improved the benefit formula for households with four or more people. But nearly 80 percent of all food stamp households have three or fewer members. It is unacceptable that their food stamps buy less food each year.

Congress should also repeal the provision that imposes a five-year residency requirement on otherwise eligible adult legal immigrants. (Illegal immigrants are not eligible for food stamps.) The children of such immigrants -- 80 percent of whom are United States citizens -- can receive food stamps without waiting. But confusion over the rules keeps many of them out of the program. The Department of Agriculture reports that of the children of immigrant parents who are citizens and eligible for food stamps, only 52 percent got them in 2004, compared with 82 percent of eligible children over all.

Taken together, those two reforms would cost roughly $3 billion over the next five years. In the competitive frenzy of a farm bill, that is money lawmakers would be inclined to fight over. But Democrats and Republicans alike must realize that improving food stamps is a moral and economic necessity. Food stamp allotments were cut in 1996 to free up money to ease the transition from welfare to work. But since then, food stamps themselves have become a crucial support for working families. Among food stamp households with children, twice as many work as rely solely on welfare.

Inadequate aid affects not only the amount of food a family can buy, but also the types of purchases. With too few dollars to spend, junk food becomes the best value because it is calorie dense, cheap and imperishable.

Adjustments around the edges of the food stamp program will not be enough. President Bush has proposed exempting families' meager retirement savings when calculating whether they are poor enough for food stamps. He also wants to allow families to deduct their full child care costs from the benefit calculation. Both changes would be helpful and Congress should embrace them. But Congress also needs to make much bigger changes, now.

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From: TomPaine.com
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LYING DOWN WITH HYENAS

By Alec Dubro

Ralph Nader opened the Taming The Corporation conference [June 8-10] with a somewhat gloomy and rueful assessment. He and his people had held a similar conference 35 years ago, and nothing much has changed in the interim.

Much of the rest of the conference outlined, in more or less convincing detail, what most people in the U.S. already know: Corporations run the place. In fact, only 40 percent of Americans think corporations make a positive contribution to the public good. And as for public trust, as the McKinsey Quarterly told The New York Times, large global corporations are at "the bottom of the list -- beneath nongovernmental organizations, small regional companies, the United Nations, labor unions and the media."

And, as the conferees pointed out, the corporations earned this distrust. According to:

** James Brock, professor of economics at University of Miami Ohio, the antitrust law is a story of taxidermy. In short, it's dead.

** Kathryn Mulvey of Corporate Accountability International, corporations are succeeding in their drive to make water a commodity rather than a public right.

** Andrew Kimbrell of the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety, by marketing genetically modified seeds that withstand certain chemicals, Monsanto has been able sell 120 million more tons of herbicides around the world.

** Ralph Nader, corporations have 38,000 full-time lobbyists in Washington who effectively control the government.

While the evidence of corporate misrule appeared overwhelming, the picture of America that emerged was, at the very least, incomplete, if not misleading. Speakers disagreed whether the U.S. was approaching fascism, or already had it. They did agree that rule by private interests was ascendant, and they enforced that rule by law and arms. If you didn't actually walk out the door, you could imagine that the United States resembled Italy under Mussolini.

But one block away there's a prosperous shopping street where there was a GLBT fund-raising barbecue in front of Whole Foods, across the street, people sat in open-air cafes, and pedestrians hauled bags of organic produce to both the richer and poorer sides of 14th Street. It's not exactly the look of a dispirited population.

It's true that the U.S. may be a police state -- as anyone who protests against the WTO will find in out in short, ugly order -- but it is not, for most people, a totalitarian state. People tolerate, or actively embrace, corporate rule not primarily because they're cowed by the police, but because they aspire to the promised gifts of the program.

None of the conference speakers asked, or even mentioned: What do we get out of corporate rule? It must be a lot, and not all of it can be venal and soul-destroying. It's true that you need money to participate, but a surprising number of people have plenty of money, easily absorbing, for instance, the much-decried price rise in gasoline and heating fuel. And with money and the right skin tone, most Americans have more personal freedom than most of them can profitably use, as you can easily observe by the range of bizarre, and frequently sinful, leisure-time activities that consume them.

So, to partially answer my own question, we get from corporate culture: big homes, comfortable cars, investment counselors, Ruth's Chris Steak House, personal watercraft, beachfront condos, hundreds of TV channels, central air conditioning, cheap airplane flights, cheaper electronic gear, and pizza on demand. You and I may not cherish these things, but millions do, and are not anxious to give them up for a new, uncertain economic system to be named later.

Even many people with minimal money and little promise of advancement identify not with the opponents of corporate rule, but with its guardians. While the conference drew a few hundred people to an interesting and provocative discussion of the structure of U.S. political and economic culture, any decent motivational speaker can draw a paying audience of thousands who live from paycheck to paycheck, and who want to succeed within corporate boundaries.

These were not dreary people who spoke at the conference. Some were optimistic, and many were witty. But if any of them ever had any fun in America, they didn't mention it.

We can't compete with the corporations on the basis of material abundance, but we do have to offer more than struggle, the possibility of justice, and solar panels for all. People do sense that they don't really need all that junk and the excess space to store it, but they can't at the moment conceive of another vision for increasing their happiness.

The vision of a post-corporate America put forth at the conference was one in which security and equality reigned. But that left out what corporate state traffics in: the possibility of success. It's what the conservatives misleadingly call freedom, but it's not entirely a fraud. Lots of people want to do better, and we need their support.

The Taming the Corporation conference did a superb job of documenting and analyzing the problem. If it were just a matter of winning an ethical, moral or environmental case against corporations, we would have already overturned corporate rule. But we haven't because we haven't offered a plausible or demonstrable alternative that appeals to the people who walk around on a sunny weekend day having a pretty good time and not worrying too much about corporations.

Maybe the next series of conferences should ask progressive thinkers to dig around for the carrots, and not just brandish a stick at the corporations.

Alec Dubro is senior editor of TomPaine.com.

Copyright 2007 TomPaine.com

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  Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment &
  Health News) highlights the connections between issues that are
  often considered separately or not at all.

  The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining  
  because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who
  bear the brunt. Our purpose is to connect the dots between human
  health, the destruction of nature, the decline of community, the
  rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among
  workers and families, and the crippling legacies of patriarchy,
  intolerance, and racial injustice that allow us to be divided and
  therefore ruled by the few.  

  In a democracy, there are no more fundamental questions than, "Who
  gets to decide?" And, "How do the few control the many, and what
  might be done about it?"

  As you come across stories that might help people connect the dots,
  please Email them to us at dhn@rachel.org.
  
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