19 August 2011

Clearcutting Saves Forests! Fossil Fuels are Environmentally Friendly! and Other Absurd Things They Learned in School Today

Apparently sitting in a classroom today entails more perils than the threat of the deadly filmstrip we endured 40 years ago. While those newsreels and manically clicking frames of celluloid may have been dull and unimaginative (and tough to rewind), at least they didn’t carry a corporate agenda. But fast-forward 20 years and you find a new development: corporations who infiltrate classrooms with Pollyanna spins on their not-so-Pollyanna products.

Yes, your kids’ teachers face a myriad of options for whose bitch they want to be this semester, as corporations, PR firms, and industry associations deluge them with hundreds of handy free “educational” materials. These agenda-driven tracts outline the merits of anything from clearcutting forests to disposable diapers—while dismissing the hard science of such phenoms as ozone depletion and global warming. Among its many such packages, Procter & Gamble released “Decision Earth,” distributed to 75,000 U.S. schools in 1997. Without a pinch of irony—and even claiming to build critical thinking skills--this teacher’s resource stated, “Clear cutting removes all trees within a stand of a few species to create new habitat for wildlife. Procter & Gamble uses this economically and environmentally sound method because it most closely mimics nature's own processes... Clear cutting also opens the forest floor to sunshine, thus stimulating growth and providing food for animals."

You know, I’ve seen nature do a whole lot of exceptional stuff, but I’ve never seen it clearcut a forest before!

Speaking of utter stupidity with zero irony targeted, appropriately, at young children with malleable cerebella, the American Nuclear Society offers a kit cheering on nuclear power. And nuclear waste removal? Piece o’ cake! "Anything we produce results in some 'leftovers' that are either recycled or disposed of--whether we're making electricity from coal or nuclear, or making scrambled eggs!" Yep, kids, toxic nuclear waste is just like those gooey eggshells mom left on the compost heap this morning. Let’s just all line up in the kitchen and make a great big plutonium-filled omelet!

Someone oughta take these fuckers out in a field and shoot off their lying asses. Then they can head straight for that special circle in hell reserved for grown adults who promote bald-faced lies to impressionable children.

But quickly pushing ethics aside, let’s get back to encouraging our kids to become titans in facilitating the deaths of millions…also known as nuclear scientists. EnergySolutions, the largest nuclear waste company in the US, has just the ticket: A curriculum, developed by the U.S. Department of Energy in collaboration with high school teachers everywhere. Designed for the best and brightest juniors and seniors, “The Harnessed Atom” contains 10 interdisciplinary modules encompassing energy and society, nuclear physics, atomic structure, reactor design and operation, and risk analysis.

Thus, if your little Einstein grows bored with conducting simple home experiments, such as designing the now-cliché basement meth lab, he can go home and slap together a nuclear reactor in his own backyard—using a few basic cooking utensils and dad’s Leatherman Blast.
These nice EnergySolutions folks have gone all out, offering your kid’s teachers experiments, lesson plans, pre- and post-tests, lectures, and field-trip planning tools. So when young Tyler suggests a field trip to a place cool enough that Homer Simpson works there, his teacher can jump right on it.

Unfortunately, another DOE, the Mississippi Dept. of Education, has put its hand out for all such corporate freebies it can grab. You see, the state’s education budget isn’t in great shape, and the average high school teacher makes little over $20K. So having a preplanned curriculum probably looks like a much-needed time-and-effort reduction. And hey, it’s got such a positive message. Why teach reality when they will feel so much better entering the halls of denial at a young age? And conveniently enough, those damned liberals will also be put to the lie, as the EnergySolutions packet includes a trivia game citing the ecological damage introduced by bird-killing windmills and desert ecosystem-destroying solar farms. “We’re always looking for new ways to reach kids,” EnergySolutions’ executive director, Pearl Wright, states. Well, there’s one truth they’re telling. The company even offers its own personnel as “guest teachers.” So far, 400 Mississippi schools have drunk the Kool-Aid. Hoo-wee! It looks like the Mississippi delta will be slated for its very own reactor 30 years from now.

Curiously absent from such curricula are photos of those who survived Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island. Statistics on breast cancer rates for those living within 25 miles of nuclear reactors. Anecdotal accounts from Japanese citizens who had their skin burned off or were stricken with leukemia as a result of this “perfectly safe” form of energy. Children love stories and graphics, don’t they? Maybe we can make a game out of it!

I hope some hot Mississippi day, when the livin's easy and the catfish of denial are jumpin' in the stream, some smart little kid raises her hand in class and asks the obvious question: “If nuclear energy is so safe, then why do they use it in the world’s deadliest weapons?”

“Because, honey, it clears the forest floor and opens the land to sunshine.”

For further information, see the 6/23/11 New Republic piece, “Core Curriculum”: http://www.tnr.com/article/environment-and-energy/magazine/90545/nuclear-power-energy-industry-lobby-department-education-school

15 August 2011

Perfumes and Fragrances: Not Just Flowers Anymore

In a time when asthma, allergies and chemical sensitivities affect millions of people, we need to look at what we're putting in--and on--our bodies. The not-so-sweet smell of perfumes and fragrances may well be making our symptoms worse.

"Ah, You Smell Fresh As a Petrochemical Daisy!"

Several years ago, I posed to my women’s group a simple question: Can we ask members not to wear fragrances here? A hush fell over the room, then a silence so vast you could have heard a vial of Obsession drop. The same sweet women I’d grown to respect morphed into a pack of rabid wolves. No perfume?! It was as if I’d proposed giving up coffee, sugar, and styling gel in one fell swoop.

Since then, I have spent much time puzzling over their response. Are we so addicted to our scented products that the very notion of relinquishing them strikes terror in our hearts? Or is it more that the perfume industry has done such a stellar job in marketing its wares? Even in Santa Fe, where a comparatively high level of health-consciousness exists, we’re still susceptible to those redolent magazine ads, featuring the young and glossily naked in their evidently perfume-induced attractiveness.

But what if perfumiers, like chemical producers, were forced to include in their ads the manufacturer’s safety data sheets (i.e., the very interesting ways each spritz affects your liver). Sound far-fetched? Once hard-liquor ads were TV staples, and the Marlboro man strode freely around the range without that nasty Surgeon General’s warning pasted to his Wranglers. As with smoking and drinking, this, too, is an issue with major health implications. It has gained so little exposure only because the chemical industry maintains such a powerful arsenal of lobbyists, faux medical evidence, and hypervigilant fact-suppressors that even physicians cannot become properly educated on the topic. Most major pesticides are, believe it or not, sold by pharmaceutical giants. Now, there’s a form of ambulance-chasing I’d never even considered. Thus, each year, their lobbyists routinely present in state legislatures forged “medical proof” that people cannot be chemically sensitive.

The top 20 chemicals used in most commercial colognes include acetone and ethanol (central nervous system depressants on EPA and other hazardous waste lists), methylene chloride (banned by the FDA years ago in paint and varnish remover), and ethyl acetate (a narcotic and respiratory tract irritant that induces anemia, stupor, and even liver and kidney damage). Most of these agents have been proven to cause central nervous system disorders like Alzheimer’s, ADD, dementia, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Of course the $20 billion perfume industry doesn’t advertise these facts. They’d like us to believe that the symptoms we feel in direct reaction to their products are merely “female hysteria,” a psychological malady. After all, how could a vat of toxic chemicals it took years to coax into smelling remotely like a flower be bad for anyone? The fact that people react to scents with respiratory difficulties, body pain, heart irregularities, headaches, inability to concentrate, fatigue, rashes, poor coordination, and even seizures is just a silly urban legend, like the albino alligators in the sewers.

I was not always a perfume nazi. Back in the 1990s, I was living a relatively healthy life and often slathered on a bit of the smelly stuff. Like others in my demographic, I’d been a bit taken in by the marketing tactics claiming that my desirability, sexual viability, and even femininity lie in my smelling “pretty.” However, in my late 30s, I suddenly began to experience symptoms ranging from severe dizziness to constant congestion to violent nausea to a depression so great I pondered suicide daily. Because I could barely get from the beginning to the end of a sentence, work became nearly impossible.

With the aid of several environmental physicians, I finally realized that I had been living in a house filled with mold. My entire immune system collapsed, and I became sensitized to chemicals, foods, metals, pollens, and just about everything else on the planet. In one month I dropped 30 pounds because I could tolerate only a few foods.
I became able to smell fragrances from across a yard—and they made me dramatically ill. It took me more than three years to partially recover, yet my heart still races and I start to feel dizzy when I sit next to someone wearing more than a drop of cologne.

Unfortunately, I am not alone. According to the National Academy of Sciences and the NM and CA Department of Health, 15% of the U.S. population is chemically sensitive. Twice as many people suffer from some form of chemical sensitivity (including Multiple Chemical Sensitivity) than have diabetes. Perfume affects not only MCS sufferers, but also those with asthma, migraines, allergies, and other afflictions. According to results aggregated from two studies in 2002-2003 and 2005-2006, 30.5% of the general population reported scented products on others irritating, 19% reported adverse health effects from air fresheners, and 10.9% reported irritation by scented laundry products vented outside. Considering that the number of chemicals we carry in our bodies constantly increases as new products are developing all the time, it’s a problem that’s only going to get worse. And given that our current administration wants to toss even more breaks to chemical manufacturers—while shredding environmental regulations—we’re going down fast.

Even in places known for their healthier lifestyles, such as Santa Fe, scents are still ubiquitous. I have begged the manager of my health spa to post a simple sign requesting that women refrain from using hairspray or spraying cologne, only to get glared at as if I were asking him to ban sit-ups. Restaurants seem not to notice that it’s hard to eat when we’re choking on the $6.99 Pepe le Pew special their server’s wearing. Almost every pharmacy in town sells perfume. (I guess they just can’t make enough profit selling alcohol and drugs.) And people think nothing of showing up reeking when going to a movie, theater, concert, class or other tight space. Believe it or not, we’d rather smell you in your natural state. If you’ve bathed within the last 3 or 4 days, it’s more than likely just fine.

Yet, thankfully, awareness does seem to be growing. In my town, several local doctor’s offices have clearly posted signs asking patients to avoid wearing scents. Other healthcare providers offer educational pamphlets about the dangers of perfume. One fitness center boasts fragrance-free workout areas. And a few churches request that congregants refrain from wearing scents. Personally, I’m looking forward to the day that swoon-worthy perfumes are as frowned upon in public places as cigarette smoke. I’d prefer to get my doses of acetone, ethanol, methylene chloride, and ethyl acetate elsewhere, thank you.

Stanley M. Caress, Anne C. Steinemann, Prevalence of Fragrance Sensitivity in the American Population, Journal of Environmental Health

John Bower, Healthy House Institute, Are You Chemically Sensitive?

Katherine Whited, Sociopolitical Aspects of MCS, Dr. Katherine Whited

Julia Kendall, Twenty Most Common Chemicals Found in Thirty-One Fragrance Products, The Environmental Illness Resource

07 August 2011

Hiroshima/Nagasaki Anniversary: Keeping Vigil, Keeping Vigilant

This week marks the 66th anniversary of the United States’ nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today I attended a vigil, which our town has held for the last 30 years, to inform people of what happened in Japan in 1945 and to educate them about the history of nuclear warfare. The first vigil, during the early 1980s, was sponsored by my employer, Peace House, and its committed volunteers would fast over the 4-day period. Today I walked through displays of copious facts and photos, several of which I will probably never forget, though I’m glad I viewed them.

I feel a lot of shame these days. Shame at my country for its history of killing the innocent, its militarism, its perpetual aggression, violence and international terrorism. More than 200,000 people died instantly after the US bombed Japan. Somehow, I had forgotten how high this number was. In addition, hundreds of thousands were left permanently damaged, and god knows how many generations will sustain deformities. This was an action that didn’t have to happen. Germany had already surrendered and the Japanese had been brought to the edge of giving up as well. General Eisenhower told President Truman that the action was “completely unnecessary.” Our dropping those bombs was a total act of retribution, a bunch of boys wanting to make something big and powerful go boom, regardless of how many human beings they took out. That human life could be so objectified is beyond shameful. That people have continued to pursue this form of energy for profit, rather than shrinking away in the shame and horror of what they created, is hubris at its very worst. Every nuclear scientist should have to spend time touring Hiroshima and Nagasaki, meeting the survivors face to face, looking in their eyes and the eyes of their children and hearing the stories of their pain.

Then there is my own shame: shame for having worked in Los Alamos, NM, birthplace of this bomb. While I can (and did) justify my actions—I didn’t work for Los Alamos National Labs, I didn’t work in an era of aboveground testing—it was and still is a flimsy, lame excuse. Through the very act of choosing to work there, I was giving my tacit acceptance for the killing of innocent Japanese citizens, the killing of all of those who have sustained breast and lung cancers due to living in the path of nuclear reactors, and the potential for centuries of perpetrating the kind of harm we witnessed this year with Fukushima.

Despite a huge media cover-up telling us that the fallout was not harmful, the truth is that people will die and become ill not only from radiation exposure, but also from ingesting the milk and meat of cattle in its path. And that these effects will travel throughout the world, as they did with Chernobyl. The fact that it’s not happening right this moment, that most everyone appears “fine,” has nothing to do with the truth. It generally takes 5-20 years for people to begin to get ill from such incidents. The Russian publication Chernobyl concludes that 985,000 excess cancer deaths occurred between 1986 and 2004 as a result of radioactive contamination from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.(1) Other estimates put that number at closer to 1.5 million. Fukushima may well end up killing more.

The first 3 weeks I worked in Los Alamos, I cried each day and didn’t want to go back. But at the time the job was offered to me, I had a severe physical illness and realized that it would provide something rare in NM: a good salary and the health insurance I needed. I felt trapped in a moral dilemma and chose wrongly. From my reading, I have come to understand the role of proximity to a nuclear reactor in my mother’s death. I understand that exposure to manmade nuclear fission products dramatically increases cancer, specifically breast cancer,(2) the type that killed my mother. The process of becoming informed involves a loss of innocence and, if we’re lucky, a stripping away of denial. I am sad to realize that my own denial enabled me to work for the entity that invented the atomic bomb. And as horrified as this makes me, at least I now have the ability to see clearly. Amazing the power of the political become personal.

The amends I want to make involve sharing with people what I’ve learned. Becoming more informed. Continuing to take action on this issue. Not sanctioning government expenditures of my tax dollars on war and nukes. And, if it helps even one little bit, offering a great apology on behalf of my country to all of those Japanese citizens affected by the events of August 6 and August 9, 1945. As I begin this vigil in my heart, I light a candle and pray for your health, peace, and well being.

(1) Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesterenko, Alexey V. Nesterenko. Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences) (paperback ed.). Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

(2) Jay Gould, The Enemy Within: The High Cost of Living Near Nuclear Reactors. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996, p. 24.

Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt
Mother and child, 4 months after the explosion of the atomic bomb.

Here is Amy Goodman's excellent piece about this topic: