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.

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Playdough Showdown: Fake vs. Natural but Unimpressive

Mr. Belligerently Artificial vs. Mr. Give-Me-Four-More

Sigh. Sometimes the right candidate doesn’t make such a strong showing. On occasion, the better politician is all downwards-looking, weak and vague, and even seems slightly embarrassed about his own record.

Sometimes such a candidate disappointingly lets every single opportunity for a zinger go by, and spends almost an entire debate talking about the flaws in his opponents’ phantasmagorical policy proposals rather than focusing on stonewalling he’s faced from his opponents’ partisans, or on, say, math.

And sometimes the artificial — even the utterly invented and commercially suspect — triumphs, in a brilliant show of plumage, like a peacock made only of lights and sound.

Such was the depressing outcome of my playdough showdown yesterday, pitting food dyes against natural colors for home-made playdough in a twisted mom’s homage to both the Presidential match-up and the playdough-like consistency of our national political debates.

When tasked several weeks ago by Maya’s preschool to make up a batch of brilliantly colored blue playdough for a color study, my research showed that blue in natural coloring is typically achieved by boiling red cabbage. Furthermore, it seems, sometimes this particular playdough retains a strong cabbage-y odor, or, in Thrifty Mama’s words, “really stinks” and is “tacky” in texture.

I will note that there is no odor on the blue dough from my wonderful Eco-Dough, which I gather also uses red cabbage, but they likely have fancy ways of extracting dyes that I do not.

Having no desire to stanky up the preschool, I violated my principles and ordered the most assertively blue food-dye I could find, which worked like a charm. If you’re gonna’ go fake, go big. It was blue, all right, and not at all smelly.

Since the kids are unlikely to eat the dough, I really didn’t feel that it posed much of a risk. (There is a lot of evidence generally that food dyes are terrible to actually consume, though they are fed to kids like, well, candy.)

Still, when a follow-up was given to me to tackle orange playdough, I couldn’t help but wonder about the natural alternatives to the small bottle of “peach” dye that came as part of the set. So I set up a head-to-head — an oh-so-titillating contest (I don’t get out much) between the dye and the power of paprika, which was recommended on several blogs for producing orange.

It looked good at first, with the bright orange paprika promising to school the buttoned-up bottle.

I used this basic recipe both times, which works really well. There are no-cook options, but the preschool teacher mentioned that the cooked ones have much more staying power.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1/3 cup salt
  • 1 tablespoon oil (I used olive, but suspect any oil would do)
  • natural or (gasp) artificial food coloring

Directions:

Add all the ingredients to a large pot (bigger the better) and stir over medium heat until it starts to clump around the spoon.

Add dye or coloring and stir a little more. You can — and even perhaps should by all rights — take it off the stove for a minute to let your assistant take a turn.

After a minute or two, remove from heat and scrape onto a cutting board. When cool enough, knead firmly until the color and consistency are uniform. Shoo kids away until you are done playing.

###As you can see, the paprika on the left, which was the good stuff from Bulgaria courtesy of my folks, produced a very disappointing light orange-ish hue, like pumpkin flavored pasta. On the other hand, the food dye, corrected with a squirt of the yellow that came in the same box, morphed into a convincing, if not bright, orange.

Ah well. We can’t win them all. And my little contest was, well, slightly less important than that other one.

It’s possible that I should have considered a third party for the platform — perhaps carrot juice works better? I suppose if you are using this at home, slightly orange-y might be fine next to other colors dyed with more assertive beets, berries and the like. (There are great ideas on this from one of my favorite crafty green bloggers here.)

In the end, I mushed it all together and bagged it up as orange enough. Punching the dough into a pliable mass was satisfying in between muttering at the television.

Still, it’s frustrating when the one you know to be best for the country stumbles a bit, and lets the insubstantial, chemical-laden candidate win the day.

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