Archive for May, 2008

Latest salvo in the War on Bugs points toward Natural Beekeeping

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

It’s rather satisfying working here at Chelsea Green and seeing evidence that our books are so relevant to important issues in the world. The latest bit comes in news from Germany, care of The Guardian, and it serves double duty: Germany has banned certain pesticides that are wiping out honeybees (shades of The War on Bugs!). Not only does this point us towards the need for pesticide-free agriculture, but it hints heavily at the need for the widespread adoption of Natural Beekeeping methods.

Germany has banned a family of pesticides that are blamed for the deaths of millions of honeybees. The German Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) has suspended the registration for eight pesticide seed treatment products used in rapeseed oil and sweetcorn.

The move follows reports from German beekeepers in the Baden-Württemberg region that two thirds of their bees died earlier this month following the application of a pesticide called clothianidin.

“It’s a real bee emergency,” said Manfred Hederer, president of the German Professional Beekeepers’ Association. “50-60% of the bees have died on average and some beekeepers have lost all their hives.”

Tests on dead bees showed that 99% of those examined had a build-up of clothianidin….

Time to wake up and smell the organic coffee? (Oh it feels good to achieve a hat trick!)

Biofuel benefits, wherefore art thou?

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

I was looking for something else, and came across a couple items on biofuels in BusinessWeek that work as something of a pro vs. con debate. First, there’s this recent Op-Ed piece by Rachel Smolker.

Go Ahead, Blame Biofuels

A switch from fossil fuels to ethanol and its kin diverts resources from food production, leading to hunger and destabilization of farming

In the beginning it seemed like a good idea. Instead of burning dirty fossil fuels, we can power our cars using plant-based “biofuels.” So said proponents of such fuel alternatives as ethanol. It would be like switching from a diet of greasy hamburgers to pure, sweet green tea.

A few lonesome voices suggested there could be negative consequences.

Now we are faced with the predicted mess. The push for biofuels has forced people off their land, caused deforestation, sucked aquifers dry, and increased the use of fertilizers and agrichemicals. To top it off, a study published recently in Science showed that biofuels result in far more, rather than less, greenhouse gas emissions.

(Proponents of biofuels say that blending ethanol with gasoline is helping to bring the price of fuel down, but ethanol delivers less energy per unit volume than gasoline, so consumers have to buy more).

Increased demand for meat, which takes a lot of grain to produce, is another contributing factor. (But this trend has been under way for years and cannot account for the recent price surges.)

Estimates are that in 2008 a full one-third to one-half of the U.S. corn harvest—about 140 million tons of corn—will be turned into fuel (offsetting a mere 6% of U.S. transport fuel).

American farmers have switched from soy to corn varieties most suited for ethanol (not food). The shortfall in soy resulted in a soy price increase, which is now driving farmers in South America to switch to soy production. As a result, grazing lands are being converted to soy and cattle farmers are clearing the Amazon rainforest to create new grazing land.

there is a swelling chorus of voices claiming that the next generation of technologies will avert competition for food by using cellulose derived from nonfood plants grown on “marginal” land. Wood is considered a promising alternative. It is not.

If biofuels are manufactured from wood, the demand for wood products, already unsustainable, will skyrocket. The world’s forests cannot feed biofuel refineries as well as supply increasing demand for heat and electricity generation, pulp, paper, and other wood products. Forests, and therefore the climate, will suffer.

In the short term, it is not enough to apologize while millions are starving to death. We must pony up the funds to alleviate the food crisis immediately. The U.N. has requested an additional $500 million to $700 million in aid. (The Iraq war is costing the U.S. $350 million every day).

In the long term, we must take agriculture out of the hands of Big Business and put it back into the hands of people who need more than ever to be able to feed themselves on their own terms. ADM and Cargill reported record profits, jumping 42% and 86%, respectively, in the past quarter alone. While they once again reap the gains of bad agriculture policy, biofuels may go down as the most misguided of all: In the words of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, overreliance on biofuels is indeed “a crime against humanity.”


Rachel Smolker is a researcher and campaigner with the Global Justice Ecology Project and the Global Forest Coalition. Her interest is in climate change, forest protection, agriculture, and especially the impact of biofuels development on these issues. She holds a PhD in biology from the University of Michigan, has a background in field biology, and lives in Vermont.

Next up is a piece by BusinessWeek senior correspondent John Carey cautioning readers not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Is Ethanol Getting a Bum Rap?

Corn-based fuel isn’t the villain critics contend, but shifting to other crops is critical

Ethanol is taking a tumble. Once hyped as a magic brew for reducing both oil addiction and global warming, alcohol made from corn kernels is now being accused both of triggering a global food crisis and doing more ecological harm than good.

There are grains of truth in this backlash, experts say. “There are bad biofuels and good biofuels,” says Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis. Corn-based ethanol ranks as mediocre. Yet it is only a minor cause of high food prices, and better biofuels are on the horizon. The transition to these superior fuels will get a boost from policies now being developed, with California leading the way.

First, a reality check on corn ethanol, which isn’t quite the villain critics make it out to be. Last year, American farmers grew a record 13.1 billion bushels of corn on 85 million acres. Of that, 22% went to make about 7 billion gallons of ethanol. That still left enough corn to supply the domestic market, increase exports to record levels, and stockpile a 10% surplus. McKinsey principal Bill Caesar estimates farmers will be able to keep increasing corn-based ethanol production to 15 billion gallons in 2015 (a level of output mandated by federal policy) without reducing the amount going for food and feed, and without increasing acres planted. The secret: continuing improvements in yields.

Higher corn costs add 2 cents to a box of corn flakes, or 11 cents to a gallon of milk from corn-fed cows. Corn prices have little to do with the increases in rice and wheat, and only a small connection to soybean price jumps. “Biofuels are a very, very small factor” in rising food costs, says David Morris, vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit group that tries to strengthen communities politically and economically around the world.

It’s also worth noting that these high crop prices save taxpayers billions of dollars in reduced subsidies to farmers—far more than is spent to subsidize ethanol.

over the long haul, “it’s not obvious that high grain prices are inherently bad,” asserts Nathanael Greene, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Years of cheap, subsidized grain in the U.S. and Europe have left farmers in the developing world unable to compete. They can’t invest in better seed, machinery, or cultivation practices

While American corn farmers produce 150 bushels per acre, farms in the developing world often get only 30. “If there is a crime against humanity, it is these low yields,” not biofuels, says Richard Hamilton, CEO of Ceres Inc., a Thousand Oaks (Calif.) startup developing biofuel crops. Those low yields will improve if farmers make more money. In the long term, “high prices will lead these countries to produce more of their own food,” says Morris, easing the supply shortages.

the billions of gallons of ethanol are moderating oil prices by “easing energy bottlenecks,” says Francisco Blanch, head of global commodity research at Merrill Lynch. Blanch figures that oil prices would be at least 15% higher than they are, if not for today’s output of ethanol. And given the dependence of the whole food supply chain on oil and gas, “food prices might be higher if we were not producing biofuels,” says venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.

Still, corn ethanol is far from perfect.

How much is baby and how much is bathwater? This stuff is tricky.

[Photo credit: M. Gifford. Thanks, M, for the Creative Commons license!]

A Chance to be in the Movies!

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

As we reported earlier, The End of America is being made into a documentary film. is offer you (yes you!) a chance to be in it! sent around the following invitation to an open filming event in NYC on Wednesday, May 28th. Please read below for details.

Would you like to be in the audience for the filming of the documentary version of Naomi Wolf’s The End of America?

Next week, New York City members have a special opportunity: instead of seeing a film, to actually be IN the film version of Naomi Wolf’s best selling book and smash lecture tour, The End of America.

The End of America is about the 10 steps a country takes when it slides toward fascism. It’s not a “lefty” tome, but rather a historical look at trends in troubled democracies that are being repeated in our country today. Ms. Wolf gives a much needed history lesson and constitutional refresher. Most importantly, she puts the recent gradual loss of civil liberties in the U.S. in a historical context. The average American might not be alarmed at AT&T selling our private information to the administration, but when this action is seen in a larger series of erosions and events, a pattern emerges with unfortunate consequences that become disturbingly clear.

The End of America has been a word of mouth phenomenon, spending an incredible 7 months on the NY Times Best seller list—and Naomi’s dynamic lecture has captured audiences all around the globe. The filmmakers (Academy Award nominated documentary film makers Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern) hope that the film version will reach even more people with this important information.

The End of America filming will document Naomi Wolf’s lecture series in one special night in NYC. You won’t want to miss this: Ms. Wolf is a truly captivating speaker. She takes the idea of “civil liberties” out of the realm of something we are doing to scary terrorists and “enemy combatants” and actually brings the reader/viewer to feel that rights like Habeaus Corpus/due process of law are not only worth protecting, but vital to the USA as we know it.

But in order to make the film shoot a success, they need your help.

Can you join Naomi Wolf and the filmmakers for this special night?

When: Wednesday, May 28th

Times: There are TWO filming sessions—at 7PM or 8:30PM

Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, Pace University, 3 Spruce St, NY, NY, 10038,
East of Park Row, near the corner of Gold Street

SUBWAY: #1 or # 2 to Park Place; 4 or 5 or 6 to Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall; A or C to Broadway / Nassau Street; N or R to City Hall ; J or Z or M to Chambers Street.

BUS: M1, M6, M9, M10, M15, M22, M101, M102
PARKING: Outdoor Hospital parking lot, entrance on Beekman St. at William St.

To RSVP for the 7PM Show click on this link:

[email protected]

To RSVP for the 8:30PM Show click on this link:

[email protected]

Remember that the event will be filmed, and by attending you consent that your likeness may be included in the documentary film, “The End of America.” We hope to see you there.

Digg this story to help us spread the word!

And the award goes to…

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

We’ve been honored with a slew of awards recently, and here are the latest to come our way from Independent Publisher:

  • Congratulations to Dean Cycon and his Javatrekker for winning IPPY gold for travel essays!
  • Congratulations to Les Leopold and his The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor for winning IPPY gold for biography!
  • Congratulations to Naomi Wolf and her The End of America for winning IPPY’s silver “Freedom Fighter Award”!

You make us proud.

Electing Women

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

Madeleine M. Kunin was a guest recently on WAMC (a public radio station that broadcasts across parts of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont), and spoke about the themes behind her new book, Pearls, Politics & Power.

While reviewers often place their attention on Madeleine’s support for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, this interview proves there is much more to this book than meets the eye.

Madeleine, who was a three-term governor in Vermont (and the first woman governor in our home state), is asked to speak about women in politics, and how to get more women into elective office. This interview offers a great synopsis of why she is so sought after.

Click on this link to hear the interview.

Full of Crap: An Excerpt from The Carbon-Free Home

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

Every wonder why we humans insist on wasting our human waste? Well, no. Probably not. But I have. And so have Stephen and Rebekah Hren, authors of our new release The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit. The following excerpted chapter makes clear that—given the right technologies—we can put our own waste to good use as fertilizer, compost, and even as a source of electricity. That’s right: power your home with feces! The chapter below has directions and schematics that show you how to build your own biogas digester.

But there’s more to reusing waste than just dookie. The Hrens have created a great system for capturing and reusing laundry water, dish water, and shower water.

Reduce your carbon footprint, save money, and make plenty of poop jokes. Download the PDF here.

Obama: The Race against Race

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

The following is an article by Les Leopold, director of the Labor Institute and the Public Institute, and author of The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi.

Barack Obama’s jubilant supporters, both black and white, have begun chanting, “Race Doesn’t Matter! Race Doesn’t Matter!”

But does it even exist?

Obama tends to avoid the word, “race.” And for good reason. Not only does he not want to be marginalized as the “black” candidate, but he knows the word conjures up a cacophony of images and emotions.

For some it describes a distinct and separate culture; for others an ethnicity—like Jews or Hispanics. But for many, whether consciously or not, it also signifies biology—the notion that, by birth, there is something fundamentally different that distinguishes African-Americans from “white” people.

This thread of biology also runs through Webster’s definitions of race—words  like “breeding”, “stock”, “interbreeding”, “species”, and “physical traits” – all suggesting a separate category of humans. More than a few Americans still believe that because of biology we are not meant to mate and mix. For some they claim it to be a biblical truth. (Only about 5 percent of marriages in America are mixed and that number has remained stable for decades.)

Every effort to define African-American/Black/Negro (or Asian or Hispanic or Native American), as distinct biological entities has failed miserably. And there have been many efforts to measure and classify and investigate all the nooks and crannies of our physiology and psychology. The dominant Anglo culture for generations wanted to prove that those with darker pigmentation or Asiatic features were inferior and therefore should be ruled and subjugated by Western Europeans. The eugenics movement in the early 20th century constructed an elaborate hierarchy that not only classified African-Americans as a distinct race, but also “proved” that Native Americans, Jews, southern Italians, Poles, Asians, and other poorer immigrant groups comprised inferior “races.” Elaborate ladders were created that lined up these races one by one leading right up to their natural rulers—Anglo-Saxons.

The Nazi’s built upon this “science” in their effort to justify that the “Aryan” race —another concoction—was the ultimate master race, with the right to rule, and even eliminate inferior races, especially the Jewish “race”. But even the Nazis had a tough time clearly defining a Jew as a separate biological species. In the infamous 1935 Nuremberg decrees they created confusion with a set of charts that mixed family and religious practice: a “full” Jew had to have three or four Jewish grandparents or be part of a Jewish religious community. But you also were a Jew if you married a “full” Jew or were a child of one.

After the Holocaust thoroughly discredited eugenics, the notion that Jews were a distinct race passed from mainstream culture. Today, no serious journalist would dare refer to the “Jewish race.”  Then why is it used so freely in reference to African-Americans?

Obama may be avoiding the word also because he knows how it inevitably leads to question of blood. In the Jim Crow South the “one drop rule” defined who was black. Courts have referred to the “traceable amount rule” —one proven African American ancestor would do the trick.  Today, this indeed is a trick given that the most recent scientific consensus based on DNA evidence demonstrates that “all modern humans stem from a single group of Homo sapiens who emigrated from Africa 2,000 generations ago…” (Science Daily, May 5, 2007.) Biologically speaking we’re all black.

It is enough to say that Obama is African-American or black. He is black, not because of a drop of blood or the number of black ancestors or because his skin color is slighter darker that many (but not all) “whites.” He is African-American because American society has defined him as such.

Even when we say, and sincerely believe, that “all races are equal” we reinforce, for too many, the idea of biological difference, when in fact, there is none except how our culture has decided to view superficial physical characteristics.

Nature doesn’t create a black race, we do.

Being more sensitive to our haphazard use of the word “race” will not end racism: the very real discrimination against a group that the dominant society has defined as “other.” But by being more thoughtful about the word, we can help undermine the idea that that “race” as a biological category really exists.

Obama has given us a good working definition of black: He says he knows he’s black when he tries to hail a cab that out of fear passes him by. But he is many other things— husband, father, intellectual, community activist, ambitious politician, and charismatic leader.  Hopefully, by the end of his campaign, no matter the result, his multi-dimensional humanity will help us see there is only one biological race—the human race.

Video: Sacrificial Lambs

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

I just posted a video to ChelseaGreenTV that we’ve had kicking around our DVD piles here at Chelsea Green. It presents the dramatic story of what happened to the Faillace family farm when the USDA slaughtered the family’s sheep for political motives. This full story is the subject of Linda Faillace’s Mad Sheep. Watch the video below.

Making it Real: Why Fair Trade Matters

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

Dean Cycon, author of Javatrekker: Dispatches from the World of Fair Trade Coffee, asks us to take a second look at our business models, our connection to populations around the world, and yes—our coffee.

In the hyper-caffeinated world of coffee marketing, it is very difficult to tell the truth from a load of beans.Most marketing materials are prepared with the sole goal of increasing sales, rather than informing or educating consumers as to the real qualities of the product or of the lives of the people who provide it. One could easily be forgiven for believing that all coffee farmers are smiling Juan Valdez types, happily trotting down the mountain with their mules, on their way to deliver beans directly to the consumer. And why are they always immaculately dressed in white with a well-pruned mustache?

While there certainly are happy, well-fed farmers in the coffee world, they are mostly the ones who own large farms, have high degrees of education, and access to credit. The overwhelming majority of coffee farmers are poor, have little opportunity for education, and scrape by on small plots of land no bigger than the front lawns of many suburban American homes (sans the frog pond). These farmers are at the low end of a commodity chain that prices their product in accordance with the speculative calculations of financial houses and investment firms on a frothy trading floor in New York—unrelated to the actual costs of production and any sense of a reasonable profit for the farmers. At the village level, most farmers let their beans go to local middlemen (called coyotes in Latin America) who pay pennies for what we end up paying a dozen dollars for at the store.

There is an alternative for the small farmers of the world, a way to realize meaningful prices for their labors, a way to realize cherished dreams of education for their kids and sufficient food on the table. That’s what Fair Trade is all about, and it is the most tangible result to the work us Fair Traders do, and some of the most gratifying that I have seen during my Javatrekking.

Fair Trade guarantees a minimum price of $1.51 per pound (for certified organic coffees, which is all we buy at Dean’s Beans) when the quirky world commodity price falls below that figure. During the early years of the new millennium, the world price fell as low as 35 cents, barely half of what it took farmers to produce the beans. When the market price rises above the floor, Fair Trade always adds a nickel, thus giving farmers an incentive to stay in the system when the market gets a little more real.

Fair Trade also offers farmers pre-financing of coffee purchases. This means that when a farmer asks, a Fair Trade buyer is supposed to pay as much as 60 percent of the contract up front, instead of waiting months until the coffee ships from the coffeelands. Not all buyers provide pre-financing, regardless of the flowery language in many marketing brochures (yes, Fair Traders puff, too). But it is a growing aspect of Fair Trade business, and it provides farmers with essential money needed to harvest and process their new crop, or, frankly, to feed their families until the rest of the money comes in. When pre-financing isn’t available, farmers have to borrow from local banks or coyotes at rates anywhere from 10 to 30 percent per month.

Farmers are also required by Fair Trade to organize themselves into democratic, transparent cooperatives. These structures offer the first opportunity for most farmers to have a say in their own governance. This has an especially significant impact for women, whose voice in management is not often heard in rural, Third World communities. About half of the coops that I deal with are run by women. And all of these women juggle motherhood, baking cookies and running complex farmer organizations with astonishing efficiency and heart.

I have worked on the ground with coffee communities in a dozen countries since 1989 and can testify to the real impact Fair Trade has on the lives of the farmers and their families. In Nicaragua, the farmers of Prodecoop, four thousand strong in the mountains of Esteli, pooled their Fair Trade premiums for years. Four years ago, I walked with Prodecoop manager Merling through the abandoned processing plant that used to provide contract services at high fees to the coop.

“One day we will own this place and put it to work for the community, not against it,” she said with steely-eyed determination. Later, Prodecoop bought the plant and the farmers went to work repairing it. Now they process all of their own coffee, keeping the added value for their members, and have provided about twenty more jobs in the community. While no coop member is driving a new Prius, there are a lot of newer pick-up trucks in Esteli, and there is more food on the table.

Our Ethiopian coop, Oromia, has put the extra money toward schools and health clinics in several communities. I sat in one such school last November (and will return later this month) in Negele Gorbitu, in the Yirgacheffe region. The one-room school was jammed with more than a hundred students sitting three to a desk. The ages ranged from six to sixteen (“They are rated by what they know, not by age, and many of the older ones have never had a chance to go to school,” Tadesse, the coop manager, informed me).

I was moved to tears by these kids. They so desperately wanted an education, but the government didn’t have the resources or wouldn’t prioritize rural education enough to give these kids teachers, books, pens, and a roof to keep the rains out. At the same time, outside the window another hundred kids played or just sat around. There wasn’t enough money to make schooling available to everybody—yet.

The need for self help in healthcare was apparent, as well. Driving to the town we passed four men carrying a woman on a homemade stretcher. They were walking seven miles to the nearest health clinic, and when they got there they might find no medicine, no doctor, but maybe a trained “community health care worker.” Fair Trade premiums were also being used in Negele Gorbitu to build and staff a health clinic, but it wouldn’t be finished for several months.

In Kenawat, a small Muslim village in northern Sumatra, Indonesia, Lucia shows me the new water system and electric lines built with Fair Trade funds. This area suffered hard during the years of conflict between the Indonesian army and GAM, the rebel group fighting for greater autonomy for the region. According to Lucia, the export manager of PPKGO, our farmers group, and Salim, the agronomist for the group, Fair Trade premiums kept many of these small villages intact during the conflict and recent pricing crises. As we speak, colorfully dressed women with head scarves pass by, collecting water from the common tap, smiling broadly and moving on. One woman tells me that the clean water allows them to wash their hands before prayer, fulfilling the obligations of their faith.

In the mountains that drop toward the Amazon in central Peru, twenty-two women stand in line to apply for loans from the newly established women’s credit fund at Pangoa Cooperative in Satipo. The first woman uses the loan to pay for university fees of her son—the first coop member to attend the university in Lima. Another woman buys materials for an enclosure to raise and sell cuy, a giant hamster-like creature that is eaten with relish (literally) in these mountains. The loans are the first credit these women have ever received, and the loan papers are quickly filled with descriptions of the latrines, water supply lines, chickens, fencing, store shelving, and other projects these dynamos unleashed wish to pursue. Esperanza, the manager of Pangoa, looks on and smiles. “These women’s lives are being changed, Dean, right here and right now.”

These are the real faces of Fair Trade in the coffeelands.

But let me be real. Only twenty percent of the coffee from Fair Trade-certified cooperatives gets sold as Fair Trade. The rest gets sold under conventional pricing, which even at the current higher level does not give a farmer much to feed his family, and certainly doesn’t give the community enough to build a school, a well or a health clinic. This is not the farmer’s fault. It is the same coffee grown in the same manner.

The problem is that most people in the coffee industry are not willing to recognize Tadesse, Salim, Esperanza, and the other farmers as true partners in our businesses—they are simply cheap wage slaves to whom we can give pennies while selling their coffee for inflated prices. It is not an economic issue—even at our higher-than-Fair-Trade-prices paid to farmers we make a very good living. It is not a quality issue—non-Fair Trade roasters are buying the same beans as we are from Oromia, PPKGO, and Pangoa, just not paying the price. Quality actually improves under Fair Trade because there is simply more money for technical training, new processing equipment (Oromia is currently installing eco-friendly washing stations from Colombia in several coops) and the farmers have an incentive to care for their crop better if it will bring higher returns. It is not an availability issue—eighty percent of the Oromia crop is out there waiting. It is first and foremost an ethical issue, plain and simple.

So take a look deep into your coffee cup. Behind the aroma, the acidity, and the body lay the real lives of farmers and their families. The choices we make at the supermarket and the café have immediate and profound impacts on almost thirty million people around the globe, on their ability to drink clean water, to educate their kids, and to dream of better lives. Fair Trade works. Help make it happen.

By Dean Cycon

Toxic Q&A: An Interview with Mark Schapiro

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

You’ve seen him on the PBS program NOW, and heard him on NPR’s Fresh Air program. Now, an interview from Chelsea Green with Mark Schapiro, author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power.

As part of our Earth Week coverage, we are offering readers a variety of information from some of our new, and old, authors regarding the environment in which we live.


Q: How did you become interested in the topics in Exposed? What inspired you to write this book?

A: As a journalist, I’ve spent much of my career working and living in Europe and following the evolution of the European Union (EU) into what it is today—the world’s largest economy. This shift in economic influence has gone largely unnoticed by most Americans.

I wanted to explore what that shift has meant in the realm of the environment: What happens when U.S. multinational companies, accustomed to operating according to U.S. rules, suddenly face tougher standards coming from what is now the world’s single largest market? This book investigates the U.S. response—and reveals how in many ways consumers in this country are being left exposed to environmental hazards to which their European peers are protected. In the early 1980s I coauthored a book, Circle of Poison, which exposed how the U.S. was exporting banned pesticides to developing countries. Twenty-five years later, the U.S. was becoming the recipient of many chemicals banned in Europe.

I was also interested in reporting on the environmental and economic impact of the U.S. retreat from environmental protection, and on the environmental dimension to the overall shrinking of U.S. global influence and concurrent rise of the European Union. The United States is exposing itself not only to environmental hazards, but to dramatic economic consequences to come as other major economic players, including China, increasingly follow Europe’s lead in establishing environmental criteria for the products in the global economy.

Q: What is the single greatest toxin Americans should be concerned about and in what product, or products, is it commonly found?

A: There is no “single greatest toxin.” However, there are many substances in common products—cosmetics, toys, electronics and many others—that scientists have shown are potent carcinogens, mutagens, and neurological toxins. These are included in many consumer products—including electronic devices, cosmetics, automobiles and children’s toys. One example cited in the book is phthalates. One phthalate in particular, DEHP, is used to make toys more pliable for young children.

Q: How are phthalates treated in the European Union, and have they been banned, or reduced from use, in products there?

A: In Europe, phthalates, DEHP specifically, are banned for use in toys likely to be used by children three years of age or less. In the United States, there is no such ban, and DEHP, as well as other phthalates, continue to be found by independent monitors in toys sold in the United States.

The question of devising alternatives is a global one. Most of the world’s toys, for example, are produced in China where manufacturers have shown that they can produce toys for Europe without phthalates, while continuing to produce toys for the United States with them.

Q: Is there a specific category of consumer products we should be most concerned about? What can we do about it?

A: An increasing number of scientists are concerned about rising rates of infertility, breast cancer, and neurological dysfunction which they ascribe to the proliferation of chemicals found in everyday products. Consumers can attempt to buy products that do not contain such substances.

Q: Your book speaks to not just the environmental impacts, but also how some products are more dangerous to certain classes, or races, of people. What do you think explains this?

A: The Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute cautions that some substances in cosmetics mimic the female hormone estrogen, and that such additives in hair-care products may be contributing to otherwise inexplicable incidences of breast cancer among African American women under the age of forty. There is also increasing evidence that skin lighteners may be carcinogenic—a particular danger to African Americans, Asians, and others who utilize these substances. Workers in salons have also been found to have higher rates of bladder cancer—which many scientists ascribe to the high rates of chemical substances to which they’re exposed in the normal course of work.

In general, some of the large electronics and cosmetics companies which operate in Europe and America are adjusting their formulations to comply with Europe’s far stricter controls over chemical hazards. However, a significant portion of the U.S. market consists of discounted, no-name manufactured goods that are more accessible to lower-income consumers and which frequently contain chemicals that are banned in Europe.

Q: What are some favorite alternative/“green” products that are being developed by manufacturers for the EU market, but not for the American market?

A: Every product sold in Europe that once contained substances now banned has its more benign alternative. That includes toys, electrical goods, and cosmetics. The same goods available in Europe are available in the United States, but they are frequently formulated differently. A parent, for example, can be certain that toys being used by their male children do not contain DEHP, whereas a parent in the United States has no such assurance.

Q: What can those concerned about these toxins do? They seem to be everywhere! Are there lessons we can take from NGOs, citizen groups, and governments in the EU?

A: They are not “everywhere.” Compare your average American home with that of someone of comparable socio-economic status in Europe: the EU’s laws ensure that the products in the latter contain far fewer toxins than those in the average American home. The difference is that laws on one side of the Atlantic are far more careful as to the hazards contained in those products than they are in the United States. And despite warnings in the U.S. that such laws could have dire economic consequences, Exposed shows that there has been no economic catastrophe for the industries affected by such bans in Europe.

Q: How do you respond to manufacturers’ claims that the fact the United States is a litigious society is the only real oversight they need? How do you respond to statements such as: “If there was solid scientific evidence that these products were harmful, the toy industry would be the first to remove them” from Joan Lawrence, the vice president for Standards and Regulatory Affairs of the Toy Industry Association?

A: These are two separate questions.

First, it is true that the United States is a far more “litigious” society than Europe. The United States generally has a far more vigorous civil liability system than the Europeans, offering greater access to the courts and with damages that are far higher when it comes to liability from dangerous products. The existence of this system—known as “tort law”—is often used by industry to support its position that stronger regulation of chemical hazards is not necessary because the U.S. legal system offers a check against dangerous products. This presumption offers the prospect of justice after the damage has been done, while the European approach attempts to prevent such abuses before they happen.

Exposed also reveals that often the same companies that make this argument—suggesting there is no need to meet the tough approach in Europe with an equally tough approach in the United States—are some of the biggest financial supporters of the “tort reform” campaign in the United States to weaken those legal checks on product liability.

Second, the question at the heart of the U.S. and EU approach to chemicals is: How do you define “solid evidence?” Regarding phthalates in toys, the EU looked at the same data as have U.S. regulators, but came to an entirely different conclusion about phthalate’s dangers. Much of that evidence came from U.S. researchers. The big toy companies with operations in the United States and Europe, and which also happen to be members of Joan Lawrence’s trade association, have removed phthalates. Though they fought the ban at first, all companies with sales in Europe have now accommodated to removing phthalates from their toys and found far more benign alternatives.

As Exposed reports, there has been negligible economic impact on the European toy industry from this change.

Q: Can you boil down into a simple statement the difference in attitude between the EU and the U.S. government regarding these toxins and potential health risks?

A: There are always scientists who will dispute other’s findings. That’s the nature of science—one answer leads to another question. But the Europeans have chosen to act on an array of chemical hazards based on the same evidence that has been reviewed by U.S. regulators, who have chosen not to act. The EU operates according to the precautionary principle: they act when an accumulation of scientific evidence suggests potential harm, and attempt to prevent that harm from happening. U.S. regulators wait for final scientific “proof”—an elusive goal that creates what critics call “paralysis by analysis.”

Q: What is the greatest positive change you’ve seen in the United States in the last several years—the one that gives you the greatest hope?

A: The rising environmental consciousness in the United States is putting manufacturers on notice that there is a growing market for environmentally sustainable and less dangerous products. NGOs and environmental health scientists are beginning to look to Europe to discern alternate paths of production, suggesting numerous models in which solutions have been devised that are both environmentally and economically sustainable, and which do not present health hazards that are present in the United States.

Q: What kind of consumer awareness efforts in the United States are effective in raising awareness about the chemicals in the products we use?

A: Efforts that clearly identify which substances in which products are potentially hazardous, and who makes them. Consumers also need to understand the extent to which science is used by parties, such as industry, with a financial interest in the results.

Q: Of the main categories in your book (cosmetics/personal care, plastics/toys, food, electronics/automobiles), in which area do you feel the greatest strides are being made?

A: Major name electronics manufacturers are, in essence, adopting the rules of the European Union in reformulating their products with less hazardous chemicals. This reflects a historic development, where U.S. firms are for the first time abiding by rules for protection of citizens emanating from a foreign government. Thus, the global market is propelling changes in this arena. This, however, does not include the smaller, so-called “white box” manufacturers which occupy about twenty percent of the U.S. market, and are under no legal obligation to remove the toxins from their products. U.S. natural cosmetics companies are offering products without dangerous chemical ingredients in the United States; their European counterparts are doing so as well.

Q: Are there any areas in which the United States is taking the lead over Europe?

A: As has happened time and again in Europe, there is nothing more powerful than a legal ban on substances to focus industry initiatives on the development of less toxic chemical formulations, known loosely as “green chemistry.” In every industry where there has been such a ban in Europe, alternatives are being found. In the United States, the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts estimates that alternatives are available for at least a quarter of “problematic chemicals” now in use in the United States. Research on another forty-five percent is showing “great promise,” awaiting the financial commitment of industry to support such research.

Q: When did this geopolitical shift begin to emerge, and did any U.S. administration take note of it?

A: This geopolitical shift began occurring in the latter years of the previous century, and really took hold when the EU expanded from fifteen to twenty-five member countries in 2004; in 2007 the EU expanded again with two new member countries. That created a unified market, larger than that of the United States, which could demand that manufacturers adapt to Europe’s standards in order to gain access. There was a convergence of forces: the coalescing of Europe into a powerful economic and political bloc; the inclusion of environmental health priorities in EU policy making; and the simultaneous retreat from such policies in the United States. The EU now plays a role as global environmental leader that was once occupied by the United States.

Q: You mention that China is beginning to take Europe’s lead — what are they doing and why? What other countries are taking the EU’s lead?

A: China has established its own strict rules governing the toxic permitted in electronic devices that are closely modeled on those of the European Union; the country is also beginning to train its industrial leaders in basic European principles of risk assessment to enable them to conform to a new European regulation, known as REACH, which requires that toxicity data on thousands of chemicals now in common use be submitted to European regulators—a requirement that does not exist in the United States. Other countries like Korea are following the European approach to chemical hazards in cosmetics as well as in electronics. Overall, the global market is growing for environmentally sustainable production, and the United States, with little incentive from its government, is falling behind.

Q: Could we see a time when products could only be available here in the United States and banned in other parts of the world?

A: That is already the case. As Exposed reveals, certain chemicals now used in U.S. cosmetics, electronics and toys are banned in Europe, Japan, and Canada, and in the case of electronics, in China; furniture made from processed wood is now sold in the United States which contains levels of formaldehyde far in excess of that permitted in either Europe or Japan; certain chemicals and heavy metals used in automobiles in the U.S. are banned in Europe. Because there are no U.S. laws prohibiting the use of such substances, the American market is emerging on par with that of developing countries, while economic powerhouses like China, Korea, and others are following the EU’s lead.

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