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:

My Daughter Will Be Fine. How’s Yours?

Preschool

Preschool (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like an inversion of Project Runway, we were “out,” but now we’re “in.” This week, we learned that Maya could move off the wait list into a spot for the neighborhood’s co-op preschool, which only takes 12 children in her age group.

We were thrilled by this, obviously. The Co-op is close to our house and follows a Reggio-inspired curriculum, with a ton of fantastic literature, music and art.

Of course, getting in, as random as it was (a family is moving), also made us officially feel like Good Parents. We had checked the boxes, found the right school, gotten a babysitter, attended the two information sessions, submitted the application and the check. And, with perseverance and luck, we did it! At 20 months, our daughter is now on the Road to Success. (And we will have ample chance to prove our dedication to the model, as the co-op’s parental contributions are no joke.)

As ridiculous as this seems, for achievement-oriented parents, such ability to deliver the goods does feel, truthfully, like at least one important measure of how well we are doing.  It’s a lot of pressure to put on parents when really terrific resources are scarce, and makes parenting into a far more competitive sport than it should be.

When we were on the “outs,” I’ll admit to feeling a mild despair, along with the exhaustion of having to look around for a suitable alternative. We’d visited several other preschools over the past year, none to our liking. I had also been compiling a mental list of back-ups, including the local Waldorf school, and the Audubon Society’s preschool that I blogged about last week (which is lovely, but not that close to us).

The lack of really strong preschool options stunned me, actually, as we began this search. And it’s a sad statement, really, of how we have not updated our educational systems to take full account of the research, which, for more than 20 years, has pointed unequivocally to preschool (and pre-preschool) learning and environment as the foundation for educational attainment for kids.

For just a few examples, we now know that:

Contrast that with the bad news on this front that I heard on the radio in just the past few days: DC high schools fail to graduate (on-time) 60 percent (!!) of students. And Marketplace, a show I normally loathe for its pro-market bias and triviality, ran a decent series this week on projects happening around the country, some financially doomed, to engage low-income children in learning earlier in order to close educational gaps.

Along with everyone else, I’ve also followed the work in Harlem of Geoffrey Canada in creating the Harlem Children’s Zone. (I recommend the book by Paul Tough describing his efforts, “Whatever It Takes” which is a fascinating read.) Canada set up a system for students that was intended to provide the safety. security and growth of a suburban upbringing. As Tough writes, his supports are “designed to mimic the often-invisible cocoon of support and nurturance that follows middle-class and upper-middle-class kids through their childhoods.”

One of Canada’s many key innovations was his recognition that parenting classes – for parents of newborns – and access to high-quality preschool programming, would make kids far more ready to attend school, and would create the building blocks for success even among very low-income families with lower educational levels among the parents.

Canada’s pioneering work has been successful in moving children to become academic successes. And he’s been at it for almost a decade. What’s really amazing is that his set of comprehensive tools, commonsense as it is, and his focus on the critical period of infancy and early childhood, remain largely disregarded in practice elsewhere in the country.

There isn’t the money, nor is there the political commitment, to ensure that every child in America gets a learning-friendly environment at home, and that every child attends a quality preschool. In fact, the new budget fight being waged this week by Rep. Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.) would slash and burn supports for low-income families in order to pay for military spending, which is just sickening, really. According to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D.-Md), a report by the Congressional Budget Office “found some 22 million households with children would lose aid to buy food, 300,000 children would be cut from school lunch programs, and 300,000 children would lose health insurance under the House plan.” To pay for bombers, literally. It’s like a bad joke on a bumper sticker.

In short, we have a long fight ahead of us. But the costs of not doing this are astronomical, both as measured in the quality of children’s lives and in the social and economic price.

Of course, if Maya had not gotten into our preferred school, there would have been another preschool, perhaps less convenient or ideal, but still high quality. And her home environment is nurturing in every way I know to make it, based on both my reading and on how my parents raised me.  Put that with the quality of the food she eats and my persistent (albeit quirky) efforts to provide a healthy environment for her, and the advantages compound quickly.

But even as I do what it takes to ensure her health and growth, I also recognize that for every child like Maya, many more children lack basic things, like enough food to eat, or a caring and attentive adult in their lives. (Case in point: I once spent several days sweeping broken glass and wires out of a DC elementary school classroom, helping to get it ready for a teacher friend. The computers given to the school by some foundation were being used as doorstops, because there was no one that could be spared to maintain a network and lab.)

When you have a child, and must engage in the current, demanding contest for resources directly on their behalf, these sharp distinctions become far more real. And it’s far too easy to “get yours” and move on, being happy because this time, you happen to be on the list instead of off.

But if all the more resource-rich parents merely wangle a way for their family, it will never create the urgency we need for change on a much more fundamental level. Simply put, it’s clear that we will never address the underlying causes of poverty unless we take far more seriously what we must do to provide a strong foundation for very young children, from infancy through kindergarten.

We’re falling far short now, both on addressing poverty and on challenging families to do what they can to develop strong foundations in early childhood. Almost one-third of children 2 and under have television sets in their bedrooms. In their rooms! Which makes them more sedentary and emotionally stunted, studies show. And a shocking one-half of preschool-age children do not get a chance to be outside and play daily, meaning that some of that mental mapping is just … missing. Combine that with the chemicals and sugar in children’s foods and it’s easy to see where the obesity epidemic is coming from.

(And I think the official explanations on this point are facile: chemicals likely play a much larger role than anyone is admitting. The Institute of Medicine’s report this week on childhood obesity focuses on diet and exercise, but fails to explain why those factors alone could possibly be enough to cause Type 2 diabetes in children to go from ZERO in the 1970s to far too common today. Having grown up in the 70s, I remember kids eating a lot of Little Debbie snackcakes while watching Three’s Company all afternoon. If those kids didn’t have diabetes, I’ll submit that there must be something more to it.)

To my larger point on early childhood: perhaps it’s hubris, but I can tell you right now, sitting here today, I firmly believe that Maya will be fine. (Or at least as “fine” as someone can be with nutjobs like us for parents.) But that doesn’t mean I’m ok letting all the other two-year-olds who didn’t make the list, or, more likely, weren’t on any list, just watch TV, inside, eating crap, instead of playing outside and attending a really good preschool that will make them into the kind of kids who will be good pals to Maya and help me cross the street in my old age.

It’s as though the project we all started more than a hundred years ago – this task of publicly educating children – remains half-done. What we now know is that the period before kindergarten is just as critical, and may be even more critical, to a child’s success in life than the time after.

So why isn’t there more urgency on this question? There should be a school like our Co-op on every other corner – so many that there aren’t any lists to get in. And if government funds are needed to make it happen, this modest investment would likely pay for itself many times over, in more productive and valuable workers, artists, and innovators (and fewer prison cells).

Sure, most parents want the best for their children. But there’s a lot stacked against their ability to deliver nurturing and challenging opportunities. What I take away from our own relief at now, as of this week only, being on the “inside” of a good preschool for our daughter, is that what we really need is for parents – and the politicians they vote for – to want the best for every child.

How do we get there? I’m eager to hear your thoughts and ideas…