Hot Reads: Cell Phones, Arctic Drilling, Organic but Made in China and More

Can you hear me now?

Cell phones. Every toddler now wants one given our clear emotional dependence on them, but doesn’t it seem a little worrisome that each time we make a call, we’re holding a radiation emitting device to our head? Even more worrisome is that the last time the FCC updated its rules was 1996.  Yes, 1996.  The Macarana was being danced at all the coolest clubs, and people were logging on to AOL with blazing-fast dial-up modems. It’s been 17 years and things have changed. Most notably, the World Health Organization listed cell phone radiation as a possible carcinogen, and studies have shown that cell phone radiation can lower men’s sperm count.

Moreover, as landlines fall to the wayside, children have become more frequent users of cell phones. Whether or not this is a postive cultural development is a whole ‘nother story, but kids are especially vulnerable to the effects of radiation, and the current standards are considered too weak to protect them.

This past March, the FCC announced that it was going to reexamine the rule. It’s currently accepting comments from the public and the Environmental Working Group has set up a form that allows you to add your voice to the call for safer phones. Do it now, because this is apparently as infrequent an event as the arrival of the 17-year cicadas. While they contemplate the issue, you can also check out EWG’s tips for what you can do to limit your exposure to cell phone radiation.

Chilling out Greenpeace

The Arctic has an abundant supply of oil and natural gas, and countries with northern latitudes are staking their claims. It’s a bonanza for companies looking to cash out big, and already a number have launched exploratory missions. To monitor the free-for-all, environmental groups have dispatched their own icebreaking vessels, but not without difficulty. Recently, Greenpeace was denied access to the area by the Russian government, who cited a number of bogus concerns about their ship’s seaworthiness.

The Arctic presents a number of concerns for offshore drilling that don’t exist in other regions. The potential for an environmental disaster is heightened due to the inaccessibility of the area and challenges that the ice poses for a clean-up. This is magnified by lax Russian regulations and the fact that one of the places Russia is exploring is a national park. It’s not surprising that the Russian government doesn’t want Greenpeace looking over their shoulder, but its decision to block access is nonetheless an affront to environmental safety as well as international law.

Heavy metal, China-style

China’s industrial boom has supercharged its economy but reaped havoc on the country’s natural resources. Now, with a huge population and ravaged agricultural land, food production has become a concern. China is looking overseas for meat production, most notably in the United States, where a Chinese company bought the Virginia-based pork producer Smithfield Foods. But there’s more to the story.

A shocking one-fifth of China’s land is polluted. Elevated levels of a carcinogenic metal were found in 60 percent of rice samples in southern China. China’s agricultural system is facing a crisis, and the details, as outlined in this story in Mother Jones, are shocking.

Back here at home, environmental regulations are often described as anti-business interests, but China provides a frightening picture of what happens when fast development isn’t tempered by common sense regulations to protect health and the planet. Rena Steinzor, a long-time heroine of mine for her tireless advocacy who earlier this month delivered impassioned testimony about the human costs of delayed regulations in the Senate, also pointed out this week in an op-ed that despite claims of a regulation-crazed expansion of government, the Obama administration is timid in promulgating rules. In fact, fewer rules were issued this past year than at any point during Bush’s eight years in office. There’s a lot of work to be done, with many important rules backlogged at agencies. It’s time to get moving.

For a more personal angle on the China findings, you may want to consider these findings next time you pay more for frozen or other organic foods that are “made in China.” Even if the third party certifiers for places like Whole Foods aren’t fudging the process on the organic standards, as Whole Foods claims, the rules on organics speak to growing methods only, and are simply not set up to apply in highly contaminated places like China, where background levels of pollution are through the roof. The “organic” label does not require any testing, for example, for lead, mercury or other heavy metal contaminants. Organic and local, whenever possible, is safest.

The high costs of cheap fashion

Sometimes the prices seem too good to be true. Twelve dollars for a sweatshirt. Five dollars for a T-shirt. Many big-brand clothing companies now offer low-cost, essentially disposable, fashion. But achieving these low, low prices relies on chasing exploitation around the world, and running their businesses using underpaid workers toiling in vicious, and sometimes deadly, conditions.

This past April, a stunning and tragic 1,129 people died when a factory collapsed in Bangladesh. Following the tragedy, a number of companies signed on to a legally binding agreement that would increase factory safety. Other companies, like Organic by John Patrick, have carved a niche for themselves by selling ethically produced clothes. This recent piece from The Nation details the problems of a system addicted to cheap labor, and the hope that the future will tell a different story.

Optioned

The “opt-out generation” is a term once used to describe successful, career-oriented women who, after childbirth, choose to stay home and raise their kids. The New York Times ran a feature about it ten years ago, and the term then caught on. Fast forward ten years, after a punishing recession has put the salad days behind for much of the middle and working class, and an “option” doesn’t look so optional any more. A look-back this month shows, instead, that the “opt-outs” of 2003, despite ample education and qualifications, struggle to find suitable jobs now their kids are older and they’re want to go back to work.

“Opting out” is presented as a cultural shift, maybe a voluntary throwback to a domestic ideal of eras past. But as is discussed in this accurate but angry, starkly framed op-ed, for many women, opting-out is a necessity rather than an option. The financial burden of having a child begins with your first prenatal trip to the doctor and grows from there. Many women are tens of thousands of dollars in debt before they bring their newborn home from the hospital. Child care costs are rising and are simply unaffordable for many families, the relevant tax breaks are a tragic joke on working families, and many women (and some men) have little real choice but to put their careers on hold to raise their kids.

As a great piece in The Atlantic pointed out in June, the struggle is no longer (if it ever was) just a problem for women:

The Pew Research Center released a study called “Modern Parenthood” in March…. When it comes to work-life conflict, the study found, about half of all working parents say it is difficult to balance career and family responsibilities, with “no significant gap in attitudes between mothers and fathers.”

Yet both women and men temporarily side-lined to raise a family have a lot to give to make our economy go. We simply cannot and should not stand by while they are written off. As I have argued before, we also need far better supports for families, so that fewer parents face these stark and punishing choices.

Getting the lead out

Lead-based paint was banned over three decades ago, but as much as we’d like to think that the problem is over and done with, the regulatory failings of the past still haunt us today. Nicks and scratches can expose old coats of paint on your wall, and unless you use a wet rag when you dust, any lead-tainted particles that are floating around your home will remain there. Lead was also used in water pipes, and some homes still pump water through these toxin-laden tubes.

The effects of lead are especially damaging to children under six, so its critical for parents to ensure that their young ones aren’t unwittingly facing exposure. Take a look at this very clear and helpful list of tips put together by the folks at Healthy Child Healthy World. It’ll help you minimize the chances that lead is endangering your kids. Tests for lead exposure are also a good idea, and the CDC recommends it for all children aged one or two, as well as at-risk children until they turn seven.

Have a great weekend! Coming soon: how to make Dragonbreath Pickles. I bet you can hardly wait.

Other Hot Reads you may like:

How it Ought to Be, One Dollar at a Time

I was at the park last week, chatting with a friend about how hard it is to figure out what toxic stuff is in our food. An acquaintance of ours within earshot leaned in and said, a little pointedly, “you know, even if you got rid of all the chemicals, you still won’t live forever.”

The jibe stuck with me, because it points back to what the New York Times profile of my alleged hazmat parenting also got completely wrong. While it may be the case that a protective impulse — like getting that cancer-causing couch out of my living room — is a strong motivator, it’s certainly not the only one.

After all, I don’t really want to live forever, and there’s so much potentially harmful stuff in our environment that I harbor no illusion that even my best efforts can address it.

It’s not actually about my health, or even my daughter’s, most of the time. Instead — and I’m certainly not alone in feeling this way — it’s a matter of using my purchasing decisions as another way to express my values: as a way of voting with my dollars for the world I want, and of working hard, and sometimes too hard, to find the companies that are allies in this vision.

It’s also about justice. I remain outraged that companies can keep secrets about the hazards of products in our homes and what they know about their health impacts. I’ve worked with grieving parents who had lost a child or loved one due to a defective product, and you don’t forget their sadness, or the sense that a more caring approach is sorely needed.

In fact, I’ve done advocacy work for progressive causes for years. What sense would it possibly make to use that income to pay companies that do things that are counter to the world I’ve been working for? Of course, I hasten to add, anyone can feel this way about they way they spend their money, regardless of how they made it in the first place.

And there are lots of signs that people do subscribe to conscientious consumption — from the popularity of Annie Leonard’s original Story of Stuff video, to the growth of certification regimes for products from chocolate to lumber, to the burgeoning homesteading movement, to the fact that organic produce, even with its higher price-tag, is now ubiquitous.

As our recession drags on, there is also a sense that all of us with our diminished spending power would like to stop and think a little more before we buy. Obviously, this is not a new idea. As my dad wrote once, Aldo Leopold, the great environmental philosopher, coined the phrase “intelligent consumption” (pdf). I’ll note that this was, sadly, long before much was ever intelligent about it.

As we all know in our hearts, as consumers in this moment of mass-produced commercialization, we participate in so many systems — many global in nature, and many of which are hidden behind a virtual information blockade. We never meet the agricultural workers — including children — here in the U.S. or abroad that pick our food, the factory workers at places like Foxconn in China that make our gadgets or household goods, or the trafficked and enslaved adolescents that provide 40 percent of the world’s cacao beans for chocolate.

Most well-bedecked Western homes likely include hundreds of items. Yet we have no idea how they were made, where they came from, who has handled them, and whether suffering — workers’ or ours — is involved.

But once we acknowledge that we are, in some broad way, responsible for this chain of production, of course, it can be a crushing feeling. The questions multiply, and you must push through the discomfort, relinquish the squishy space you lived in before you asked any probing questions, and look at whatever you find.

Here’s my real point: staying receptive and open, when you can, to asking those hard questions is the only real step needed to engage with the growing movement about the ethics of consumption. We all feel so guilty, whenever we pause to think, that it’s critical to understand that integrating your values into whatever you buy is a process, not an end result.

Given how complicated it is, you’re unlikely to get to a place where you can ever look around your house and feel completely at peace. But that’s no reason not to start digging in. It’s perfectly fine to tackle one thing, and then another, and not everything at once, doing it as you can afford to, and as you can mentally afford to consider the change.

Actually, it’s the orientation to thinking about something that matters: the willingness to have your ears perked up and your nose open to something smelly, and to listen to your gut when a decision feels like less than what you really could do.

And here’s what else I’d really love you to know: if you let one small belief-driven change into your life, and take it seriously, other issues and concerns will also find a way in. The changes you make will grow into a habit over time, and after a little while, your choices will be transformed. The only real trick is to believe that what you do matters in the first place.

And yes, it’s true that we can’t shop our way to a better world. We still need lawmakers to make better rules. To get these rules, all of us must make full use of the still-functioning parts of our democracy. So we should pick up the phone to Congress, write letters and do the organizing it takes to enact chemical reform, improve conditions for workers, end modern slavery, and manage our resources and wildlife sensibly.

That said, most days, all of us also consume. When we do, we can look for ways to buy better stuff, or buy local, certified, organic, hand-made, fair trade, or used goods, or even to make things ourselves. We should tackle what we can, when we can. Shrug it off when we fail, and try again tomorrow.

And if this list sounds like a left-wing snob’s fantasy la-la land, well, so be it. We should be quietly confident about making an effort, rather than self-conscious or awkward. It’s not, actually, about being “holier-than-thou” so much as “this is what I want the world to be.”

It’s about taking some power back from the corporations: replacing “buyer beware” with “buyer believe.” And it’s certainly not about living forever so much as living my hopes for the world, for however long I am around and whenever I can make it work.

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What’s your process of thinking about what matters to you when you buy stuff? What changes have you made that you feel good about? And what’s next on your list?