Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

September 18, 2009

The Debate over Climate Change and Reproductive Health

The medical journal The Lancet has an editorial in its current issue that argues that one way to help ward off climate change is to increase family planning services and reduce unintended pregnancies.

The writers of the editorial, Sexual and reproductive health and climate change, believe that family planning proponents might gain more support and funding if they focused on how family planning can reduce climate change. They argue:

With less than 3 months to go, the UN Copenhagen conference on climate change provides an opportunity to draw attention to the centrality of women. The sexual and reproductive health and rights community should challenge the global architecture of climate change, and its technology focus, and shift the discussion to a more human-based, rights-based adaptation approach. Such a strategy would better serve the range of issues pivitol to improving the health of women worldwide.

Astute readers of the full piece will note that the editors seem to be talking about efforts to reduce population in places outside the Lancet’s UK location, given specific reference to efforts in Ethiopia and general mentions of the UN and Millennium Development Goals that seem to suggest work in developing nations.

The SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, however, takes a different stance on this approach. The current issue [PDF] of their Collective Voices newsletter is focused on reproductive and environmental justice, and includes a piece that outlines 10 reasons why population control is not the solution to global warming.

The authors – Betsy Hartmann and Elizabeth Barajas-Roman – argue that “it is not population growth that drives carbon emissions but economic systems of production, distribution and consumption based on the profligate use of fossil fuels,” and state:

Blaming climate change on overpopulation lets wealthy countries, corporations, and consumers off the hook. It is part of a long tradition of eugenic environmentalism in which environmental and economic resource scarcities are attributed to “too many people” – usually meaning too many people of color.

The authors address the issues of reproductive rights, race, and blame raised by this approach, and state that that “This strategy threatens to undermine both climate justice and reproductive justice.” The full piece is well worth a read.

Hartmann and Barajas-Roman write more about this topic at

July 30, 2009

Reproductive Justice and Environmental Health: A New Report From Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice

by Morgan Clark
Our Bodies Ourselves intern

The first day of my internship with Our Bodies Ourselves began with a fascinating web conference on reproductive and environmental health, organized by Reproductive Health Technologies Project. Presenters from Planned Parenthood of Connecticut, Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, and MomsRising spoke about their organizations’ efforts in addressing “increasing evidence that industrial chemicals are linked to infertility and a host of negative health outcomes such as early puberty, miscarriage, and reproductive cancers.”

During this web conference I learned about a new report (pdf) published by the Oakland-based Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice (ACRJ). The latest volume in their Momentum Series, “Looking Both Ways: Women’s Lives at the Crossroads of Reproductive Justice and Climate Justice,” highlights the interconnectedness of reproductive health issues and the climate crisis.

The report offers an insightful framework for approaching issues that disproportionately affect vulnerable people, particularly women living in poverty and women of color. An example is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which, among many of the disastrous outcomes, saw a rise in sexual abuse and a decline in access to reproductive health services.

The report finds that while Hurricane Katrina “brought shape to the emerging understanding of women and climate change in the United States, the scope of the climate crisis demands much more: that we not only address how women will be impacted— and how to protect their rights — but also how women’s lives are wrapped up in both the causes of, and potential solutions to, the climate crisis.”

Looking at how women’s lives are binded to some of the causes of the climate crisis, the paper also analyzes the effects of everyday workplace exposure to certain chemicals on women’s health and fertility. It underscores the importance of using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) research to determine “the impact of the entire life cycle of a chemical or material on the environment or a particular aspect of the environment – such as energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, or water contamination.”

An LCA study generally looks at the following phases: raw material acquisition, materials manufacture, production, use/reuse/maintenance, and waste management. In other words, it is important to consider the environmental impacts of how a chemical was made, distributed and disposed of, as well as look at how a chemical’s use in a workplace affects the health of a worker. For more information, the EPA has a website on Life Cycle Assessment Research.

The nail salon industry in California is one of the examples cited, because it is a fast-growing industry that exposes workers to toxic chemicals, some unregulated, that contribute to global warming. The ACRJ’s POLISH program works with the nail care industry to improve the health of nail care workers and to reduce negative environmental impacts. Further,

[a] reproductive justice analysis of working conditions in nail salons directs improvements not only to making the nail salon environment one that is conducive to good health, but also to increasing wages, improving benefits, reducing working hours, reducing harassment and discrimination, and creating more educational opportunities for workers.

ACRJ’s important work, with POLISH and its other programs, makes “clear that the preservation of the planet remains intimately connected to protecting the reproductive capacities and self-determination of marginalized communities.”

I found the ACRJ’s report enlightening. I appreciated its broad perspective on reproductive health and the causes and effects of climate change. As someone concerned with the rapid decline of our environment, and its effects on our health, I appreciate the efforts of the ACRJ and the other organizations that presented during the web conference in addressing these issues.

Morgan Clark is a PhD student in public policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

May 4, 2009

Double Dose: “Common Ground,” Meet “Lines in the Sand”; Economics, Race & Pollution; Immigrants Facing Health Care Cutbacks …

Finding “Common Ground” on Abortion – How’s That Working?:  “President Obama has accomplished a lot in his first 100 days in office, but one campaign promise he’s been unable to keep is a vow to make peace in one of the most polarizing issues in all of American politics: abortion,” reports NPR.

lines_in_the_sand_issueLines in the Sand: Speaking of the elusive common ground, On the Issues magazine chose “lines in the sand” as the theme for its current issue.

An email to readers said the choice was “provoked by today’s too-prevalent sentiment to compromise principles in the interests of seeking ‘common ground’ and reconciliation with opposing views. In these articles we explore the feminist and progressive values that must be held tightly, the ‘lines in the sand’ that we refuse to erase.”

Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Merle Hoffman says reproductive freedom is “the front line, the bottom line and the everlasting line in the sand,” in her editorial “Higher Ground, Not Common Ground.”

Also look for essays by Gloria Feldt, Loretta Ross and many more writers and artists.

Economics, Race and Pollution: A study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Southern California tracking toxic emissions from factories confirms what we already know: poor, minority communities are disproportionately affected by harmful pollution. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports on the findings. View the full report (PDF) here.

Public Attitudes Toward HIV/AIDS as a Health Issue: Kaiser Family Foundation has released its 2009 Survey of Americans on HIV/AIDS. In the United States, the sense of urgency about HIV/AIDS as a national health issue has decreased significantly. Residents’ concerns about the disease as a personal risk also has declined, even among some high-risk groups. This press release summarizes the findings. The study comes less than a year after the CDC  announced that there were 40 percent more new HIV infections each year than previously believed.

Egypt’s FGM Ban, One Year Later: In the year since Egypt outlawed female genital mutilation, the government hasn’t prosecuted a single case, Iman Azzi writes at Women’s eNews. Still, some activists say the law is a tool, among others, for gradually dismantling an ancient tradition.

Legalization – The “X” Factor: On May 1, thousands of activists took to the streets in favor of expanding immigrants rights. Suman Raghunathan, an immigration and public policy analyst, describes what immigrant women, particularly those who are undocumented, need: “A legalization program that’s broad, fair and workable for both immigrants and immigration officials.”

Raghunathan goes on to note that current federal immigration policy leaves it up to states to decide whether to provide free or low-cost health care to their undocumented residents. Several states, including New York, have expanded prenatal and neonatal care to undocumented women and children.

“Legal status,” she writes, “would mean that undocumented women are no longer left to the mercy of state legislatures and no longer denied appropriate nursing and doctoring.”

Plus: The L.A. Times reports on how some California counties are eliminating non-emergency health services for undocumented immigrants.

“We are mortgaging the future to scrape through the present,” said David Hayes-Bautista, professor of medicine and director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture.

HRT and Heart Health: A study in the May issue of the journal Medical Care (abstract) looks at whether the decreased use of HRT has affected the rate of cardiovascular health outcomes, according to this release. The number of heart attacks in menopausal women has decreased, though it’s not conclusive that there’s a link. Researchers did not find a difference in the rate of strokes.

Before 2002, physicians believed HRT reduced the risk of coronary heart disease by up to 50 percent in menopausal women. As a result, physicians prescribed it broadly to treat many of the symptoms of menopause, as well as to protect women against cardiovascular disease. However, a report by the Women’s Health Initiative in 2002 revealed that HRT actually had the opposite effect — it increased the risk of heart attack in these women.

“After the 2002 report, the use of HRT in women aged 50 to 69 declined from more than 30 percent to less than 15 percent,” said lead study author Kanaka Shetty, M.D.

March 19, 2009

Toxic Kiddie Toiletries: Study Finds Possible Carcinogens in Popular Products

More than half of the 48 baby shampoos, bubble baths and baby lotions analyzed in a recent laboratory test were found to contain formaldehyde and/or 1,4-dioxane, chemicals that have been linked to allergies and skin cancer.

The study was sponsored by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a national coalition of nonprofit organizations focused on health and the environment. The full report, “No More Toxic Tub” (pdf), is available online. Among the findings:

  • 17 out of 28 products tested – 61 percent – contained both formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.
  • 23 out of 28 products – 82 percent – contained formaldehyde at levels ranging from 54 to 610 parts per million (ppm).
  • 32 out of 48 products – 67 percent – contained 1,4-dioxane at levels ranging from 0.27 to 35 ppm.

Though the levels found were relatively low, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics notes in this release “that babies may be exposed to several products at bath time, several times a week, in addition to other chemical exposures in the home and environment. Those small exposures add up and may contribute to later-life disease.”

Product labels do not disclose the chemicals because they’re contaminants (byproducts of the manufacturing process), not ingredients, and therefore are exempt from labeling laws.

Many of the products on the study list are  manufactured by Johnson & Johnson. The company released a statement, published in the Washington Post, noting that their “products meet or exceed the regulatory requirements in every country where they are sold.”

The European Union has banned 1,4-dioxane in personal care products, but the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has determined that trace amounts found in personal care products do not pose a threat. Health advocates are pushing for increased FDA regulation.

“The fact that we are bathing our kids in products contaminated with carcinogens shows how woefully out of date our cosmetics laws are and how urgently they need to be updated,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) told the Post. “The science has moved forward; now the FDA needs to catch up and be given the authority to protect the health of Americans.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said she will introduce legislation requiring stronger oversight of the cosmetics industry.

In an online discussion about safety limits on commercial products, Stacy Malkan, the study’s co-author and author of ” Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,” stressed that the purpose of the study was not to cause alarm but to point out that products advertised as “gentle” and “pure” may still contain contaminants.

Many companies are already reformulating products for markets with stricter regulation outside the United States. Our own safety standards need to be updated, said Malkan.

Current cosmetics laws in the U.S. were created in 1938 — they’re a bit outdated, to say the least! Scientists have learned a lot over the past few decades about the health risks of low dose chemical exposures, and the special vulnerabilities of children. Companies have also learned a lot about how to make high performance products without carcinogenic chemicals. I believe that shifting to cleaner product formulations will benefit the beauty industry in the long run, making them more competitive globally.

To get there, we need a smarter regulatory system that requires companies to remove chemicals that are known or highly suspected of causing cancer, reproductive harm or other health problems, and also requires them to fully disclose the ingredients in their products. In other words, we need a regulatory system that keeps companies honest and rewards the companies that are doing the best job of making the safest products. This will take an act of Congress. FDA currently does not have the authority to properly regulate cosmetics.

Plus: If you want to look up the products you use, the Environmental Working Group maintains a Skin Deep database with toxicity information on more than 42,000 products.

March 15, 2009

Double Dose: Congress Moves to Ban BPA; Kansas Abortion Doctor on Trial; Pregnant Inmates Denied Abortion Access; Racial Disparities and Breast Cancer; Targeting Craigslist Over Prostitution; Health Data State by State …

Congress Considers Ban on BPA: Senate and House leaders on Friday said they would introduce bills establishing a federal ban on the chemical bisphenol A in all food and beverage containers. Meg Kissinger of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes:

The move comes a day after Sunoco, the gas and chemical company, sent word to investors that it was now refusing to sell bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA, to companies for use in food and water containers for children younger than 3. Sunoco told investors it could not be certain of the compound’s safety. Last week, six baby bottle manufacturers, including Playtex and Gerber, announced that they would stop using BPA.

The bills would immediately outlaw the sale of all food and drink containers made with BPA. Anything on store shelves would have to be removed. It would suspend the manufacture of food packaged in containers that contain the chemical, but items already made could be sold.

For more information, check out the Journal Sentinel’s ongoing BPA investigation “Chemical Fallout,” at Great reporting.

Tiller Trial Starts Monday: The L.A. Times previews the trial of Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, who faces charges stemming from late-term procedures, and the politics surrounding his prosecution.

Pregnant Inmates Denied Abortion Access: Writing at Feministing, Diana Kasdan, staff attorney for the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, discusses the limited access pregnant inmates have to abortion.

A new study, “Incarcerated Women and Abortion Provision: A Survey of Correctional Health Providers,” found that only 68 percent of respondents indicated that women in their facilities can obtain “elective” abortions. And a recent investigative piece in the Texas Observer reported, “For pregnant women in immigration detention facilities, it is virtually impossible to obtain an abortion.”

Racial Disparities and Breast Cancer: An article in the International Journal of Cancer points to high blood pressure as a cause for some of the disproportionately higher mortality rates among African American women with breast cancer compared with white women, reports Reuters. Hypertension explained 30.3 percent of racial disparity in “all-cause survival,’ as well as 20 percent of the racial disparity in breast cancer-specific survival. The study abstract is available online.

Dannon Goes rBGH-Free: As we reported earlier, General Mills, which makes Yoplait, agreed to stop using milk treated with artificial growth hormones in its yogurt. Now Dannon has followed suit. The decision makes economic sense: More than 200 hospitals around the country recently pledged to serve rBGH-free products to their patients, staff and visitors.

Writing about the move by both companies, Patty Fisher of the Mercury News notes that Yoplait never acknowledged any concern over rBGH and women’s health, despite promoting breast cancer awareness through yogurt sales. “The ‘rBGH-free’ label will be on the carton because it will sell yogurt. I guess that’s why the pink ribbon is there, too.

New State Numbers: recently added new and updated data on Demographics and the Economy, Medicaid & CHIP, Medicare, Managed Care & Health Insurance, Providers & Service Use, Health Status and HIV/AIDS.

A list of all recent updates is available here. is part of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Plus: Utah, Hawaii and Wyoming top the nation in well-being in an analysis of more than 350,000 interviews conducted in 2008. Southern states West Virginia, Kentucky and Mississippi have the lowest well-being ratings, according to a new Gallup survey.

The Well-Being Index score for the nation and for each state is an average of six sub-indexes: life evaluation, healthy behaviors, work environment, physical health, emotional health and access to basic necessities.

National Women & Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day: March 10th was National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Here’s a great post by Veronica explaining why women and girls need to be the focus of an education and awareness effort.

Reproductive Health in Africa: North Carolina Public Radio reports on the high maternal mortality rate in Zambia, where the number of women who die during pregnancy or childbirth is 60 to 70 times higher than it is in the United States. As part of the series North Carolina Voices, Global Health Connections, Rose Hoban traveled to the Zambian capitol of Lusaka to spend time with health care workers who work with Ipas, a global nonprofit organization based in Chapel Hill that helps women get access to the full range of reproductive services.

Targeting Craigslist Over Prostitution: Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart filed a federal lawsuit against Craigslist, asking the website to remove its “erotic services” section, calling it a public nuisance that knowingly facilitates prostitution.

“At a news conference, the sheriff said his office has made hundreds of prostitution arrests, many of them based on ads found on Craigslist,” reports the Chicago Tribune. “But the sex-for-sale ads still proliferate on the site five months after Craigslist promised new safeguards to settle a nationwide lawsuit by the top state prosecutors from Illinois and 39 other states.”

Where Are the Female Coaches in Youth Sports?: University of Southern California sociologist Michael Messner has written a new book about the persistent gender divisions in youth sports, especially at the coaching level. He expands on his findings at Moms Team and shares tips from women coaches.

March 9, 2009

Double Dose: Where’s the Media Coverage of Breast Cancer and Environmental Causes?; New Report on Sex Education in Florida; Gender Neutral Prounouns; Domestic Violence and Technology …

Overlooking Evidence: “When it comes to breast cancer, why is it so hard to get the most influential media to pay attention to the possibility that, in addition to better-understood risks, unnatural substances entering women’s bodies might also be a factor?” That’s the million-dollar question in this Fair! analysis on the surprising dearth of news coverage on environmental hazards and breast cancer. An excellent report by Miranda Spencer.

Skimping on Care: More than a third of people surveyed have skipped medical check-ups or dental visits over the past year due to concern over health care costs, and 27 percent have put off getting needed health care, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s first health care tracking poll of 2009.

Supreme Court: No Legal Shield in Drug Labeling: The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that people injured by drugs can sue the drug manufacturer in state courts, even if the drugs were approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

“The ruling could have significant implications beyond drug manufacturing,” writes Adam Liptak at The New York Times. “Many companies have sought tighter federal regulation in recent years in part to shield themselves from litigation.”

The case involved a Vermont woman, a musician, whose arm had to be amputated following an injection of the anti-nausea drug Phenergan. Levine sued the drug maker Wyeth because Wyeth had not changed the label indicating that one method of administering the drug had a small risk of error which caused irreversible gangrene. Nina Totenberg did a good report on the ruling. The NPR link also includes excerpts from the oral arguments heard last November.

Sunshine State Keeps Teens in the Dark: The Healthy Teens Campaign of Florida and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) have released a report on failed abstinence-only sex education programs in Florida’s public schools: “Sex Education in the Sunshine State: How Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Are Keeping Florida’s Youth in the Dark” (pdf).

“[O]ur research has exposed both the state’s appalling indicators of poor outcomes for young people and the equally appalling nature of how abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have become pervasive throughout the state,” writes Adrienne Kimmell at RH Reality Check.

Him/Her/They: Elizabeth Landau at CNN reports on the history of the search for gender-neutral pronouns, an issue that has recently been taken up on Twitter. An interesting story.

On the Issues: Good reads in the On the Issues Magazine cafe, including Diana Whitten‘s look at Women on Waves, a Dutch organization that provides on-ship abortions in international waters for women from countries where it is illegal. Women on Waves recently won an important victory in the European Court of Human Rights. And don’t forget to check out the winter issue, which features stories on topics from ratifying CEDAW to Second Life.

Moving Reproductive Services Off-Site (Six Feet Away): From Women’s eNews: For more than a decade, a hospital merger in New York state was held up by abortion politics. Last week, community activists gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony marking their hard-fought compromise. Rebecca Harshbarger reports.

Plus: Emily Douglas points to this Albany Times Union op-ed on the implications of a possible merger between two secular hospitals and one religious hospital in Rensselaer County, New York. The merger raises questions about reproductive health care for patients and employee health insurance benefits, since Catholic directives prohibit coverage for contraception.

In Translation: Over at Sociological Images, a blog sponsored by the American Sociological Association, there’s been some debate over the English and Spanish versions of a pamphlet for pregnant women offered by Kaiser Permanente. Kaiser provides a response.

The Economic Future and Women’s Roles: The Chicago Foundation for Women looks at how the stimulus package affects women’s economic security.

Teaching Domestic Violence Victims Safe Use of Technology: Via this press release, I learned about a Washington state program designed to help victims of domestic violence by increasing their knowledge of how to use technology safely.

“Domestic violence is built around control, not anger, and an abusive partner often limits a woman’s access to information and support. Monitoring computer activity is one of many ways to control a spouse,” said Jerry Finn, a University of Washington Tacoma professor of social work who also evaluates the effectiveness of human services programs.

The training covers how to prevent such things as identity theft; concealing browser history; how to be safe in a chat room; how to set up an e-mail account without using a real name; and how to prevent being followed with a GPS device. What a smart idea.

Welcome Particle, Wave, Astarte and …: To apologize for the late Double Dose, I offer some cute overload, via feminist poet and performance artist Diana Tigerlily, who also raises goats.

Meet the newest ones — five in all, if my counting is correct. Makes me think two dogs and two cats may not be enough : )

March 1, 2009

Double Dose: Report on Public Funding and Family Planning; Women in Iran; Teen Girls on Chris Brown & Rihanna; Doctor Wins Sex-Discrimination Suit; Where You Live Determines Dietary Health …

Publicly Funded Family Planning Programs Make Sense: This new report (pdf) from the Guttmacher Institute on the essential role of family planning shows the pay-off: prevention of nearly 2 million unintended pregnancies and more than 800,000 abortions each year, saving billions of dollars.

“Report co-author Rachel Benson Gold called the family planning program ‘smart government at its best,’ asserting that every dollar spent on it saves taxpayers $4 in costs associated with unintended births to mothers eligible for Medicaid-funded natal care,” reports the AP.

Iran’s Women Are Taking On The Mullahs: “Iranian women, and not just the sporting queens or Nobel prize winners, are standing up to the mullahs. And some of them are experiencing a frightening political backlash,” writes Katherine Butler at The Independent. A strikingly good story, it provides an in-depth look at life in Iran. Grab a cup of coffee and settle in for this one.

Sex-Discrimination Suit at Boston Hospital: Dr. Sagun Tuli, a 39-year-old neurosurgeon, filed a lawsuit against her employer, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and her boss, Dr. Arthur Day, the chairman of the neurosurgery, alleging a hostile work environment and retaliation against her when she complained.
After a seven-week trial, a jury agreed and awarded Tuli $1.6 million, reports the Boston Globe.

Read more analysis from Vanessa Merton at Feminist Law Professors.

Facts Matter Most: When you need to be reminded that kids today are (generally) all right, check in with Mike Males, a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco who also heads up, which aims to debunk media myths, such as all girls are “girls gone wild.”

Star Tribune columnist Gail Rosenblum recently wrote about a lecture Males gave, sponsored by the University of Minnesota’s Konopka Institute for Best Practices in Adolescent Health, that separated fact from fiction.

Plus: Here’s a great response to the media coverage of Chris Brown & Rihanna, penned by Alex Pates, 15, and Ansheera Ace Hilliard, 17, members of the Chicago-based Females United for Action. FUFA is a youth group that works on issues of violence against women and media justice.

Beautiful Cervix Project: It took a headlamp and a lot of mojo, but photos of a cycling cervix are now available. From the author’s introduction: “I am a 25 year old woman who has never given birth.  My intention with this project was to better understand my cycle and the changes in my cervix throughout the month. As a doula and student midwife, I used this project to help me see how a cervix might look different throughout the cycle in the absence of vaginal infections and to understand speculum exams.”

Another Sign of the Financial Crisis: We know advertising standards have loosened over the years, but it took an economic downturn for some media outlets to let alcohol and sex ads go prime time, reports the L.A. Times.

Food/Access Studies: There’s new research out linking the availability of healthy food and the quality of one’s diet with place of residence. The studies, by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, appear in the March 2009 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and the December 2008 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

“Place of residence plays a larger role in dietary health than previously estimated,” said Manuel Franco, MD, PhD, and lead author of the studies, in this release. “Our findings show that participants who live in neighborhoods with low healthy food availability are at an increased risk of consuming a lower quality diet. We also found that 24 percent of the black participants lived in neighborhoods with a low availability of healthy food compared with 5 percent of white participants.”

Paging Mr. Whipple: A Toilet Paper Crisis: “The national obsession with soft paper has driven the growth of brands like Cottonelle Ultra, Quilted Northern Ultra and Charmin Ultra — which in 2008 alone increased its sales by 40 percent in some markets, according to Information Resources, Inc., a marketing research firm,” writes Leslie Kaufman at The New York Times.

“But fluffiness comes at a price: millions of trees harvested in North America and in Latin American countries, including some percentage of trees from rare old-growth forests in Canada. Although toilet tissue can be made at similar cost from recycled material, it is the fiber taken from standing trees that help give it that plush feel, and most large manufacturers rely on them.”

February 14, 2009

Double Dose: Chemicals in Toyland; IVF Provides Clues on Nature vs. Nurture; Recession Affects Botox Sales; Happy Valentine’s Day …

Chemicals in Toyland: The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) took effect this week, mandating stricter enforcement of lead and phtalates in children’s products and toys.

“While the ban was hailed as a victory for children’s health, it’s no guarantee that the products are safe,” reports NPR’s “Morning Edition.” “That’s because companies currently aren’t required to publicly disclose the chemicals they use in place of phthalates — and little is known about the health effects of one of the most widely used alternatives.”

Pthalates have been shown to affect the development of the male reproductive system in lab animals. They’re also present in some cosmetics, personal care products, pharmaceuticals, food packaging and cleaning and building materials — making them almost impossible to avoid. Check out NPR’s timeline of phthalate regulation and an interactive look at chemicals in the home.

IVF – New Lab for Studies: “In addition to helping thousands of infertile couples have children, ‘test tube’ babies are offering scientists a novel laboratory for resolving one of the most vexing debates in science: nature vs. nurture,” writes Rob Stein in the Washington Post.

In the first study of its kind, British researchers have studied children conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF) to examine whether children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy were more likely to develop behavioral problems because of the toxic effects of smoking — as has been suspected — or because their mothers passed on a genetic predisposition to antisocial behavior.

The study, which appears to debunk the notion that smoking’s effects on the brain of a developing fetus result in antisocial tendencies, could be the first in a series of attempts to use the approach to disentangle whether genes or various prenatal exposures are responsible for later behavioral problems.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Get “Booty” Injections: And definitely not from a woman who administers shots without a medical license. Two women are now hospitalized in critical condition in Tampa, Fla. “It almost is bootleg cosmetology here,” said sheriff’s office spokesman JD Callaway.

Plus: The economy is having some effect on cosmetic enhancements, reports The New York Times. Natasha Singer writes that doctors and pharmaceutical executives thought antiwrinkle shots like Botox would be resistant to the downturn, but the latest earnings report from Allergan, the maker of Botox, fell almost 9 percent compared with a year earlier. Allergan’s sales of breast implants were down 12 percent.

“You could forecast that with implants, but the bigger question was, ‘How have injectables been holding up?’” said Gary Nachman, an analyst with Leerink Swann, a health care investment bank. “Now, even the injectables have been impacted significantly.”

Maternal & Child Health in the Obama Administration: “[...] President Obama has lauded and pledged to expand presidential initiatives to fight HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria — recognizing the sizeable effect they have had not only in saving hundreds of thousands of lives, but also in improving U.S. foreign policy. Now is the time for President Obama to elevate the issue of global family health to that high level,” argues Maurice Middleberg, vice president for public policy at the Global Health Council.

Council members, including global maternal health, child health and family planning organizations, are developing a framework for a Global Family Health Action Plan.

On Their Own Terms: “[B]etween the clinic demonstrations, the political discussions and the imprecations from the pulpit, too many American women have come to feel that their pelvis is public property. Slowly, quietly, a new abortion method has become part of the landscape, and it’s no accident that those women who have chosen it often cite reclaiming privacy and control as the reason,” writes Anna Quindlen at Newsweek, describing how RU-486 has allowed women to keep abortion private and personal.

Plus: Glamour magazine recently featured a whole section on abortion, acknowledging that one in three women will have at least one abortion by age 45. Eight women share their personal stories.

Salma Hayek Sparks Breastfeeding Discussions: By now you’ve probably heard about Salma Hayek breastfeeding an infant in Sierra Leone. ABC’s “Nightline” filmed Hayek during a trip to Africa to spotlight efforts to eliminate tetanus through vaccinations. The infant’s mother had no milk, so Hayek did what came naturally. Tracy Clark Flory nicely sums up some of the respectful and sophmoric public reactions.

Hayek, who is still breastfeeding her 1-year-old daughter, said, “I actually think my baby would be very proud to share her milk. And when she grows up I’m going to make sure she continues to be a generous, caring person.” Read more reactions and more about Hayek’s journey. The full “Nightline” episode is quite moving.

Happy Valentine’s Day: Some feminist advice from RH Reality Check. Plus, researchers at the University of Iowa report on what college-age men and women are looking for in a mate and how priorities have changed since the 1930s. While it’s nice to see that “chastity” is no longer an important characteristic, I’m surprised “similar political background” is considered unimportant as well.

And here’s the best act of defiance I’ve seen mentioned for Valentine’s Day — members of the Facebook group “A Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women” are encouraged to “Join us on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, the day on which Indian women’s virginity and honor will self-destruct unless they marry or tie a rakhi. Walk to the nearest pub and buy a drink. Raise a toast to the Sri Ram Sene.” Swati Prasad explains the rebellion against the right-wing Sri Ram Sene.

January 31, 2009

Double Dose: Breast Cancer Memoirs; Keeping Open the Window on Healthcare Reform; Red Sex, Blue Sex; Chemicals May Delay Pregnancy …

What I Learned From Breast Cancer Memoirs: “Breast cancer memoirs have become such staples — reliably displayed during Let’s Wave Pink Ribbons for Breast Cancer month — that it’s hard to remember a time when women didn’t document their journey from onset through the catalog of treatments to restored health, stabilization, or imminent death. But it wasn’t always thus,” writes S.L. Wisenberg in the Chicago Reader.

She continues:

True, British author Fanny Burney wrote to her family about the agonizing mastectomy she underwent — without anesthetic — in 1811. And Katharine Lee Bates (whose poem “America the Beautiful” became the famous hymn) wrote to friends in 1915 about her partner’s breast cancer and death. But neither of these works was published in the author’s lifetime. It was only after World War II that prominent American women went public with their tumors. Marion Flexner, wife of a well-known doctor, wrote “Cancer — I’ve Had It” for Ladies’ Home Journal in May 1947, breaking a taboo by refusing to euphemize her condition — and even inserting a little slapstick with a passage describing “roving boozies”: prosthetic breasts that escaped the confines of a bra and fell to the floor.

It’s a terrific essay, and it makes this reader eager to read Wisenberg’s own story, “The Adventures of Cancer Bitch,” due out in March from University of Iowa Press. In the meantime, visit her blog.

Healthcare Overhaul: “Mindful of how delays sapped the political will to overhaul healthcare during the Clinton administration, health advocates hoped to get a major bill during the new administration’s first 100 days,” reports the Boston Globe. “Now, it looks like it will take longer, and some observers fear that a historic opportunity could be missed.”

Family Planning Nursing Program Saved in Washington: “A campaign by Planned Parenthood to save a program that provides family-planning services in welfare offices has apparently worked, for now,” reports the Yakima Herald. “The Community Service Office (CSO) Family Planning Nurse program, which houses 70 nurses statewide at 58 Department of Social and Health Services offices, will stay open through June. Previously, DSHS planned to shut down the service Jan. 30.”

Split Over Abortion-Reduction Tactics: “The election of a pro-choice administration and a Democratic Congress has divided the pro-life movement, between those who are preparing for the fight of their lives and those who see an opportunity to redefine what it means to be pro-life,” reports Newsweek.

Plus: Red Sex, Blue Sex: Back in November, The New Yorker looked at another type of divide:

During the campaign, the media has largely respected calls to treat Bristol Palin’s pregnancy as a private matter. But the reactions to it have exposed a cultural rift that mirrors America’s dominant political divide. Social liberals in the country’s “blue states” tend to support sex education and are not particularly troubled by the idea that many teen-agers have sex before marriage, but would regard a teen-age daughter’s pregnancy as devastating news. And the social conservatives in “red states” generally advocate abstinence-only education and denounce sex before marriage, but are relatively unruffled if a teen-ager becomes pregnant, as long as she doesn’t choose to have an abortion. A handful of social scientists and family-law scholars have recently begun looking closely at this split.

What About …: The delivery of octuplets in Los Angeles this week raised many questions, including: Can a woman breastfeed eight children?

Lawsuit Takes on Higher Insurance Rates for Women: “California insurers are discriminating against women, charging them more for individual health insurance than men, the city of San Francisco maintained in a lawsuit filed Tuesday against the state regulators who govern them,” reports the L.A. Times.

Gender rating is health insurance is also the focus of two bills have been introduced in the California state Legislature to address the issue. If either of the bills is signed into law, the suit may be dropped.

Study Says Common Chemicals May Affect Fertility: HealthDay News reports on a study that suggests chemicals known as perfluorinated chemicals, which are pervasive in food packaging, pesticides, clothing, upholstery, carpets and personal care products, may delay pregnancy. The study appears in the Jan. 29 edition of Human Reproduction and is available online.

These chemicals are being phased out in the United States because of their toxic effects, and are expected to be completely gone by 2010. However, they remain in the environment and in the body for decades, and have been linked to developmental problems.

“These widespread chemicals apparently lower the fertility in couples trying to get pregnant,” said lead researcher Dr. Jorn Olsen, chairman of the Department of Epidemiology at UCLA’s School of Public Health.

Danish women in the study who had with high levels of perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) took longer to get pregnant, Olsen said.

January 24, 2009

Double Dose: No IUD For You!; Teens for Safe Cosmetics; Medical Debt a Growing Worry; Biblical Battered Wife Syndrome …

Nurse Pulls IUD Out of Patient; Says IUD Are a Type of Abortion: Trying to understand the logic of why someone against abortion would remove a contraceptive device will hurt your head — trust me. But do read the court story nicely summarized by Tracy Clark-Flory. Understandably, the patient is suing nurse practitioner Sylvia Olona and Presbyterian Medical Services Rio Rancho Family Health Center (Albuquerque, N.M.).

Heroes of the Week: Writing at Women’s eNews, Kristin Bender reports on Teens for Safe Cosmetics, which last year endorsed a small body care product line that promises to keep suspicious chemicals off adolescents’ skin. Sales figures through the end of December totaled $150,000, and the group, which has active chapters in the San Francisco Bay area and New York, plans to add more products this year.

The New, Improved The new White House website is worth a visit. In addition to the information you’d expect to find on President Obama’s cabinet and White House history, this is the first administration to feature a blog. And the agenda includes a women’s section that addresses healthcare, economic security and gender equity.

Medical Debt a Growing Worry: The problem of medical debt is “climbing the income scale, affecting not just the poor or the uninsured,” writes Sandra G. Boodman of Kaiser Health News. These are the latest numbers:

Experts define the underinsured as those forced to spend at least 10 percent of their income on health care, excluding premiums. But the nonprofit Center for Studying Health System Change found recently that financial pressures on families increase sharply when out-of-pocket spending on medical bills exceeds 2.5 percent of family income. New York’s Commonwealth Fund has reported that 72 million adults under age 65 had problems paying medical bills or were paying off medical debt in 2007, up from 58 million in 2005. Many had insurance, and 39 percent said they had exhausted their savings paying for health care.

Additional stories on healthcare costs are available here, here and here — along with tips and resources for managing medical debt.

Plus: The New York Times reports that Medicaid roles are surging due to the recession and employees losing their health coverage along with their jobs. For many states it’s become an unmanageable burden.

Senate Passes Wage Discrimination Bill: The Senate passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act this week by a vote of 61-36 (here’s the vote breakdown). When the Senate voted on similar legislation in April, it failed by two votes.

“We’ve had an enormous victory,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), a main sponsor. All 16 female senators voted in favor. The legislation now goes back to the House for reconciliation before being sent to President Obama, who is expected to sign the bill.

Biblical Battered Wife Syndrome: “In the face of prominent leaders who claim helplessness in the face of biblical tradition, [Christian domestic violence survivor and advocate Jocelyn] Andersen and a small but growing cadre of like-minded abuse survivors are fighting this established conservative wisdom on domestic violence not with secular or feminist domestic violence tactics, but with new theological arguments arguing for abused wives’ rights within a biblically literalist, and in some cases even complementarian, framework,” writes Kathryn Joyce in this piece at Religion Dispatches.

Joyce has a book coming out next month titled “Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement.”

What Do Women Want?: The New York Times Sunday Magazine tackles the question via this cover story, summed up as: “A new generation of postfeminist sexologists is trying to discover what ignites female desire.” I haven’t read the piece yet, but I skimmed the comments. This response prompted a “hell, yeah.”

January 10, 2009

Double Dose: House Passes Bills Improving Access to Equal Pay; Blogging for Lesbian Health; Is There an Easy-Bake Oven in Your Vagina?; Nine Easy Steps to a New You (Ha!); And Much, Much More

Job Bias Bills Pass the House: The House on Friday passed two bills related to sex discrimination and workers’ pay. From The New York Times:

One, approved 247 to 171, would give workers more time to file lawsuits claiming job discrimination.

The bill would overturn a 2007 decision by the Supreme Court that enforced a strict 180-day deadline, thwarting a lawsuit by Lilly M. Ledbetter, a longtime supervisor at the Goodyear tire plant in Gadsden, Ala. Three Republicans voted for the bill.

The other bill — passed 256 to 163, with support from 10 Republicans — would make it easier for women to prove violations of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which generally requires equal pay for equal work.

President Bush threatened to veto both bills, saying they would “invite a surge of litigation” and “impose a tremendous burden on employers.”

The sentence that follows the Bush quote is the best: “Congress will not give him the opportunity.”

That’s because in less than two weeks there will be a new president in town who is enthusiastic about signing both bills.

Plus: Jill Miller Zimon has a good wrap-up and points to this NWLC page, from which you can contact your senator and urge support for these bills.

Health Issues at the Top of the List: Women’s eNews looks at the to-do list of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues. In addition to reintroducing a bill to address heart disease in women, the Caucus intends to focus on human trafficking, sexual and domestic violence against women, women in the military and the backlog of DNA evidence in rape cases.

Lesbian Health Day & Summit: Jan. 5 was Blog for Lesbian Health Day. In response, Jane, a community health nurse and nurse practitioner student who blogs at Fallacy Findings, wrote an excellent post that includes discussion of “lesbian neglect” — which “refers to the fact that many lesbians fail to get Pap smears, do not get them regularly, and/or do not think they need to get them” — and lesbian health as a much-needed topic in nursing and medical schools.

The blogging event was organized as a lead-up to the National Lesbian Health Summit 2009 taking place March 6-8. Organized by the Lesbian Health & Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco, among other groups, the summit “approaches health issues from the perspective of those who face disparities and discrimination and who also generate health and resilience everyday. We will engage in deep thinking and extended discussion to create new responses and innovative programming that reflect our lives.”

Should a TV Doctor be Surgeon General?: Well looks at what health and science blog are saying in response to the news that Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and CNN’s chief medical correspondent, is Obama’s pic for U.S. surgeon general. Rachel weighs in with some concerns. Here are more links from Shakesville.

The Easy-Bake Oven in My Vagina: Over at Womanist Musings, a reflection on motherhood, race and class includes this gem:

How many of you have run across the vagina equals Betty Crocker syndrome? If you have not, then you probably soon will.  The education system seems to think that this is still 1950 and that mothers are at home with tons of time on their hands to participate in bake sales.  This request is never gender neutral, even though Daddy has two perfectly good hands himself.  Why is this still the norm when most women work a double day?  Even if a woman is a stay at home mother how does a vagina translate into the ability to bake? Do I have an easy bake oven stashed somewhere in my vaginal opening that I was not aware of?

Pull Up a Chair: On my to-do list was to write about the blog The Kitchen Table, a dialog between Princeton University professors Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Yolanda Pierce. Miriam beat me to it and sums up why it’s an essential read.

In this post, Harris-Lacewell discusses violence against gays and lesbians, in the context of the movie “Milk” and the brutal gang rape of a woman who may have been targeted because she is openly lesbian. She writes:

As much as I appreciated Milk, the story has the unfortunate effect of reinscribing an image of gay identity as primarily white, male, urban, and childless. The American imagination of “gay people” as childless, white, men living in cities can render invisible lesbian mothers of color like the woman attacked in Richmond. [...]

Harvey Milk understood that “straight folks” needed to feel our interconnections with gay men and lesbians. We have to know that our destinies our intertwined. We cannot be a great and free country while we sanction violence against and degradation of our neighbors. I consider it a sacred and politically necessary task to speak out for the rights and equalities of others, because they are not truly other. We are all one.

Information on sending contributions or cards of sympathy and solidarity is also provided. Four suspects in the case were arrested last week.

Eye-Rolling Quote of the Week: Ann Coulter refers to single motherhood as “a recipe to create criminals, strippers, rapists, murderers.” Remind me again why she is considered a suitable interviewee?

The Deeper Truth: A new study that looked at the five most popular women’s magazines in Canada found that articles commonly portray cosmetic surgery as an empowering option that improves women’s emotional health, even though there’s no scientific consensus that it does anything of the sort. Here’s Reuters’ take, and the abstract:

Content analyses show the articles tend to present readers with detailed physical health risk information. However, 48% of articles discuss the impact that cosmetic surgery has on emotional health, most often linking cosmetic surgery with enhanced emotional well-being regardless of the patient’s pre-existing state of emotional health. The articles also tend to use accounts given by males to provide defining standards of female attractiveness.

Inside the Medicine Cabinet: Chicago Tribune health writer Julie Deardorff lists essential items to keep in your medicine cabinet (courtesy of the American College of Emergency Physicians) and chemicals found in personal care products that you might want to consider keeping out.

Look Your Best in the New Year: Writing in The New Yorker, Amy Ozol reveals her secrets to “a trim and attractive physique” in just nine easy steps. She spent years perfecting this system, as you can tell. A sampling:

Step 5: Surround yourself with thin people. This will naturally encourage you to emulate their healthy habits. Weigh your friends on a regular basis, then weigh yourself. Do you have a friend who weighs less than you? If so, consider gastric bypass surgery.

December 26, 2008

Double Dose: Breast Reconstructive Options Not Fully Discussed; Connecticut to Fight New HHS Rule; FDA to Reconsider Risk of BPA; Plus the Top Stories of 2008 – Add Your Lists

First, An Important Announcement: Don’t burn the gift-wrapping paper. In case you didn’t know, it’s bad for you. And remember to check new toys for lead.

New Reconstructive Surgery Options Not Discussed: Women undergoing reconstructive breast surgery are often not told about the full range of options available to them, reports The New York Times.

For instance, there is a new procedure that involves transplanting a wedge of fat and blood vessels from the abdomen or buttocks, which would be refashioned to form new breasts. This procedure is more complex and less profitable for doctors than breast implants.

The story also mentions this language appropriation:

To raise awareness of breast reconstruction and to market it to patients, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons has adopted the vocabulary of the movement to support a woman’s freedom to choose an abortion, adjusting it for women with breast cancer. Although women “don’t choose their diagnosis, they can choose to go ahead with reconstruction or not, and with the aid of a knowledgeable plastic surgeon they can choose what their options might be,” Dr. Linda G. Phillips, a plastic surgeon in Galveston, Tex., said in a telephone news conference organized by the plastic surgery society to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. “Then they have that much more power over their lives if they have that power to choose.”

But for many patients, the options may be limited because their doctors are not proficient in the latest procedures. Dr. Michael F. McGuire, the president-elect of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, said it is not unusual for surgeons to omit telling patients about operations they do not perform.

Single-Payer Health Care Unlikely: “President-elect Barack Obama said at a town-hall meeting in August that he would ‘probably go ahead with a single-payer system’ if he were designing a system from scratch. But that’s not anywhere close to what he’s been advocating,” reports NPR. Congress seems to feel the same way.

That frustrates single-payer health plan advocates like David Himmelstein, an associate professor at the Harvard Medical School and co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program, which has been advocating for a single-payer model since the late 1980s.

HHS Rule Could Override Plan B Protections: “New federal regulations, set to take effect Jan. 18, could override Connecticut’s law requiring all hospitals to offer rape victims emergency contraception, according to Attorney General Richard Blumenthal,” reports the New Haven Register. “Blumenthal said he plans to fight the federal rule, issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It reinforces protections for health care workers and institutions that refuse to provide certain services, such as abortions, for personal reasons.”

Plus: Read more about the new “conscience” rule here. Its one of several Bush-era regulations women’s health activists expect the new Obama administration to overturn.

FDA to Reconsider Plastic Bottle Risk: In August, the FDA concluded that bisphenol-A, a chemical found in numerous plastic products, including baby bottles, water bottles and metal can linings, is safe, despite the fact that many scientific studies have found otherwise.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. As The New York Times reports, the FDA’s science board subcommittee on BPA found that the FDA was wrong to disregard research showing health effects even at extremely low doses. The FDA is now reconsidering its position — which it reached after relying on studies funded by the American Plastics Council.

“This was the F.D.A. finally acknowledging that its assertion that BPA is safe may not be correct,” said Dr. Anila Jacob, a physician and senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. “Still, we don’t think it’s enough. With millions of babies being exposed to this chemical on a daily basis, every day we continue to delay removing this chemical from baby products is another day millions of infants continue to be exposed.”

And now, 2008 top stories …

*Any other lists or favorite stories you want to share? Add your links in the comments.

November 15, 2008

Double Dose: Obama’s Pre-Inauguration Boom for Women’s Health; Baby in the Home (and Garden); Changing the Culture of Rape Prevention; Prescription Drugs Deliver Phthalates …

Obama Does More for Women’s Health Pre-Inauguration Than Bush in 8 Years: “President-Elect Obama has not been inaugurated yet and, already, he’s taken some critical steps towards restoring the United States as a leader in global women’s health,” writes Amie Newman at RH Reality Check. Newman goes on to identify global reproductive and sexual health mandates that Obama has prioritized since he won the election way back on, oh, Nov. 4.

Plus: NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation has unveiled a new initiative, Free.Will.Power. Check out the t-shirt design contest.

Baby, You’re in the Home (and Garden): The New York Times published a cool story on the increasing number of women opting for home births (still a very small percentage of all births) that took a very New-York perspective: How does one give birth in a small apartment — especially if the room is filled with family and the walls between neighbors are thin?

If the story had left it there, it’s placement in the Home & Garden section might have been more justified. But as it reads — complete with condemnation of home births from the American Medical Association — it’s better suited for Health.

Plus: Don’t miss the related slide show of home births. And here’s a great trivia question: Who was the first American president to be born in a hospital? Answer: Jimmy Carter.

Sexual Assault on Campus – Changing the Culture: Terrific story in the Star Tribune about rape prevention programs on college campuses that focus on men. Check out the intro below, and be sure to read the rest:

Tyler Jones was tipping back a couple of beers with friends at a Dinkytown bar when he suddenly had to take a stand.

“Hey, see that girl over there?” Jones recalled an acquaintance asking, nodding toward a woman he wanted to take home. “She’s almost drunk. Not quite drunk enough. … What shot should I buy her?”

There was a time, Jones says, when he might have laughed off the remark. Not anymore.

“You want to buy her something really strong to like, basically knock her out?” Jones, a University of Minnesota senior, recalled saying. “Man, that’s not right. That’s rape. That’s sexual assault.”

The acquaintance looked stunned. “Whatever,” he mumbled, and walked away.

It was one moment at one bar. But it’s also a sign of a big shift in strategy on campuses trying to tackle a culture that some say tolerates sexual assault. Instead of teaching women not to walk alone at night or to carry Mace, some colleges are trying something much harder — changing college men. Jones, fresh from sex assault prevention training, is in the vanguard of the movement.

Hat-tip: Kay Steiger

Women Gain Some Access, but Not Political Power: “Women still lag far behind men in top political and decision-making roles, though their access to education and health care is nearly equal, the World Economic Forum said Wednesday,” reports Reuters. “In its 2008 Global Gender Gap report, the forum, a Swiss research organization, ranked Norway, Finland and Sweden as the countries that have the most equality of the sexes, and Saudi Arabia, Chad and Yemen as having the least.”

Where does the United States rank? A measly 27th — below Germany (11th), Britain (13th), France (15th), Lesotho (16th), Trinidad and Tobago (19th), South Africa (22nd), Argentina (24th) and Cuba (25th). Here’s the full report (PDF).

The EPA’s Stalin Era: Yes, it really has been that bad, reports Rebecca Claren at Salon. To wit: “[T]he story of the hundreds of sick people who live near the former Kelly Air Force Base illuminates an entirely new manner in which the Bush administration has diluted science and put public health at risk. This year, largely in obeisance to the Pentagon, the nation’s biggest polluter, the White House diminished a little-known but critical process at the Environmental Protection Agency for assessing toxic chemicals that impacts thousands of Americans.”

Prescription Drugs May Deliver Phthalates: We’ve written before about the potential dangers of phthalates — chemical compounds commonly found in plastics, perfumes and lotions that are linked to reproductive abnormalities. But this one is news to me: Environmental Health News reports that prescription drugs can deliver high doses of phthalates.

“At least 47 prescription medications — including the colitis drug Asacol, an antacid and an HIV drug — contain phthalates, according to scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” writes Marla Cone.

Victoria’s Toxic Secret: Feminist Peace Network picks up the story concerning allegations that Victoria’s Secret’s bras are causing skin irritations. The suspect irritant? Formaldehyde.

Racial Barriers Between Doctors and Patients: “In politics, the racial barriers might have fallen, I thought, but what about in health care?” asks Pauline Chen, MD, in her latest doctor/patient column in The New York Times. Chen looks not only at the striking health care disparities and racial inequality, but also at the experiences of minority physicians:

Of all the surgical residents I trained with, “Eric” was easily one of the smartest. He possessed a great bedside manner, brilliant clinical skills and plenty of that Obama cool. Eric was African-American, and one night, when we were both on call together, he told me something I have never forgotten.

“You know, Pauline,” he said, “there are a lot of times when I go to a patient’s room for the first time and they ask me, ‘Are you transport? Are you here to wheel me to radiology?’” I can remember Eric shaking his head as he spoke. “They never assume I’m one of the doctors.”

Supreme Court Hears Gun Rights Case: Allison Stevens of Women’s eNews explains a gun-control case heard before the Supreme Court this week that could effect abusers’ access to guns in some states.

If the justices side with the U.S. government’s challenge — which argues the law should not be restricted to just a portion of the states — batterers in every state and territory would be subject to the gun control ban.

If the court rejects the government’s reading of the law and limits the application of the law to those states with specific anti-domestic violence laws, safety advocates are apprehensive that thousands of abusers across the country will be erased from criminal lists, giving them new access to guns, said Peter Hamm, a spokesperson for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a group in Washington, D.C., that lobbies for gun control.

October 30, 2008

Report Criticizes FDA for Ignoring Risks of Widely Used Chemical

A new report criticizes the FDA for ignoring studies questioning the safety of bisphenol A, a chemical found in many household products. From the Washington Post:

The Food and Drug Administration ignored scientific evidence and used flawed methods when it determined that a chemical widely used in baby bottles and in the lining of cans is not harmful, a scientific advisory panel has found.

In a highly critical report to be released today, the panel of scientists from government and academia said the FDA did not take into consideration scores of studies that have linked bisphenol A (BPA) to prostate cancer, diabetes and other health problems in animals when it completed a draft risk assessment of the chemical last month. The panel said the FDA didn’t use enough infant formula samples and didn’t adequately account for variations among the samples.

Taking those studies into consideration, the panel concluded, the FDA’s margin of safety is “inadequate”. The panel is part of the Science Board, a committee of advisers to the FDA commissioner, and was set up to review the FDA’s risk assessment of BPA.

The FDA’s findings were at odds with a report released in September by The National Toxicology Program, which found that there is “some concern” that BPA can affect neural and behavioral development in fetuses, infants and children. Another study found an association between BPA and cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and liver-enzyme abnormalities in adults.

The possible connection between chemicals such as BPA and cancer was the focus of a Boston Globe op-ed this week. Rita Arditti, one of the founders of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Women’s Community Cancer Project, writes that “because we still do not know what the causes of breast cancer are, primary prevention remains an elusive goal while mammography and early detection are the focus of attention.”

Here’s what we do know:

Since World War II, the proliferation of synthetic chemicals has gone hand-in-hand with the increased incidence of breast cancer. About 80,000 synthetic chemicals are used today in the United States, and their number increases by about 1,000 each year. Only about 7 percent of them have been screened for their health effects. These chemicals can persist in the environment and accumulate in our bodies. According to a recent review by the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, 216 chemicals and radiation sources cause breast cancer in animals.

Nearly all of the chemicals cause mutations, and most cause tumors in multiple organs and animal species, findings that are generally believed to indicate they likely cause cancer in humans. Yet few have been closely studied by regulatory bodies. There is concern about benzene, which is in gasoline; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are in air pollution from vehicle exhaust, tobacco smoke, and charred foods; ethylene oxide, which is widely used in medical settings; and methylene chloride, a common solvent in paint strippers and glues.

There is also broad agreement that exposure over time to natural estrogens in the body increases the risk of breast cancer, so it is important to consider the role of synthetic estrogens in breast cancer development. Many other chemicals, especially endocrine-disrupting compounds – chemicals that affect hormones, such as the ubiquitous bisphenol A, which is found in plastic bottles and cans – are also thought to raise breast cancer risk. Endocrine-disrupting compounds are present in many pesticides, fuels, plastics, air pollution, detergents, industrial solvents, tobacco smoke, prescription drugs, food additives, metals, and personal-care products including sunscreens.

There’s no definitive evidence that these substances cause cancer, but all the information acquired so far makes a strong case for more research and precautionary measures as this research develops. The Massachusetts state Senate this year passed the Safer Alternatives Bill, which would create a program to replace toxic chemicals with safer alternatives when feasible. The bill was not taken up by the House. Advocates for the bill, under the umbrella group Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow, continue to work on its passage.

October 14, 2008

Our Food, Ourselves: Michael Pollan on the Next Farmer in Chief

Chicago Green City Market / photo by schopie1

It’s mid-October, but the warm weather here in Chicago has me thinking we’re approaching summer. My small garden thinks so, too. Lettuce, basil, kale, peppers and chives are coming up strong, undaunted by the brown, crinkly leaves falling from the trees above.

Living in the city, planting space is limited and the season is (eventually) finite; I can’t rely solely on what I grow. But along with trips to the Green City Market downtown, and smaller farmers’ markets nearby, we probably eat locally grown produce for over half the year.

Of course, we are fortunate to have easy access to an abundance of fresh food choices. Huge swaths of Chicago are considered “food deserts” — in these neighborhoods, corner convenience stores and fast food restaurants greatly outnumber supermarkets, and access to affordable, healthy produce is severely limited by distance and cost.

Not surprisingly, residents in Chicago’s food deserts, the majority of whom are African American, experience a higher rate of diet-related illnesses (as a recent report shows), including diabetes, certain kinds of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Support for urban agriculture is growing, along with a push to increase the number of farmers markets located throughout the city — a new market opened in Englewood, an impoverished South Side neighborhood, earlier this year. Yet affordability remains an issue. As this story points out, equipment is not available to process food stamp debit cards at all farmers markets, and even at markets with the equipment, not all vendors accept the cards.

Meanwhile, as Rachel has mentioned, the federal Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) is adding a paltry $8 a month for use at farmers markets by mid-2009 (read the latest here).

Despite increased public interest in farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSAs) that offer consumers a stake in a local farm, the relationship between food, health and the environment, as well as the importance of affordable and sustainable agriculture, doesn’t exactly make for a crowd-rousing stump-speech.

In fact, we’ve heard almost nothing from the presidential candidates about federal food policy, even as food prices keep rising. Perhaps that will change in the final weeks, but I wouldn’t bet my kale on it.

The political aspect hasn’t escaped Michael Pollan, however. The author of, most recently, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” Pollan penned an open letter to the president-elect that was published in The New York Times Magazine. It is perhaps the smartest and most engaging piece you’ll read this year on what a McCain or Obama administration should do to overhaul the way we grow food and radically change our approach to healthy eating.

Pollan begins by explaining, in no uncertain terms, the urgency:

[W]ith a suddenness that has taken us all by surprise, the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close. What this means is that you, like so many other leaders through history, will find yourself confronting the fact — so easy to overlook these past few years — that the health of a nation’s food system is a critical issue of national security. Food is about to demand your attention.

Complicating matters is the fact that the price and abundance of food are not the only problems we face; if they were, you could simply follow Nixon’s example, appoint a latter-day Earl Butz as your secretary of agriculture and instruct him or her to do whatever it takes to boost production. But there are reasons to think that the old approach won’t work this time around; for one thing, it depends on cheap energy that we can no longer count on. For another, expanding production of industrial agriculture today would require you to sacrifice important values on which you did campaign.

Which brings me to the deeper reason you will need not simply to address food prices but to make the reform of the entire food system one of the highest priorities of your administration: unless you do, you will not be able to make significant progress on the health care crisis, energy independence or climate change. Unlike food, these are issues you did campaign on — but as you try to address them you will quickly discover that the way we currently grow, process and eat food in America goes to the heart of all three problems and will have to change if we hope to solve them.

Pollan takes readers on a detailed yet easy-to-follow journey of how the United States food system developed the way it did — and what it can count as its chief success: namely, we produce cheap calories in great abundance.

He then offers an agenda for a 21st-century food system with specific proposals under three main sections: resolarizing the American farm; reregionalizing the food system; and rebuilding America’s food culture. His plan plan for a decentralized food system includes such essentials as modifying the food stamp program and expanding WIC:

Food-stamp debit cards should double in value whenever swiped at a farmers’ markets — all of which, by the way, need to be equipped with the Electronic Benefit Transfer card readers that supermarkets already have. We should expand the WIC program that gives farmers’-market vouchers to low-income women with children; such programs help attract farmers’ markets to urban neighborhoods where access to fresh produce is often nonexistent. (We should also offer tax incentives to grocery chains willing to build supermarkets in underserved neighborhoods.)

Federal food assistance for the elderly should build on a successful program pioneered by the state of Maine that buys low-income seniors a membership in a community-supported farm. All these initiatives have the virtue of advancing two objectives at once: supporting the health of at-risk Americans and the revival of local food economies.

The adventurous agenda includes suggestions for changing our relationship with food. For children, that means starting early: Plant gardens at every primary school, overhaul school menus and increase “school-lunch spending per pupil by $1 a day — the minimum amount food-service experts believe it will take to underwrite a shift from fast food in the cafeteria to real food freshly prepared.”

We also need to cease negotiating health messages with the food industry. Pollan calls for the surgeon general to take over the job of communicating with Americans about their diet. Currently it falls to the Department of Agriculture, which you might say has a conflict of interest.

But why not start at the top? In addition to encouraging the White House to go meatless one day a week, Pollan calls for the ultimate suburban sacrifice: tear out a portion of the White House lawn and plant an organic fruit and vegetable garden.

OK, insert your favorite arugula-loving-liberal joke here. But at another crucial point in history, White House support was influential:

When Eleanor Roosevelt did something similar in 1943, she helped start a Victory Garden movement that ended up making a substantial contribution to feeding the nation in wartime. (Less well known is the fact that Roosevelt planted this garden over the objections of the U.S.D.A., which feared home gardening would hurt the American food industry.) By the end of the war, more than 20 million home gardens were supplying 40 percent of the produce consumed in America. The president should throw his support behind a new Victory Garden movement, this one seeking “victory” over three critical challenges we face today: high food prices, poor diets and a sedentary population.

Eating from this, the shortest food chain of all, offers anyone with a patch of land a way to reduce their fossil-fuel consumption and help fight climate change. (We should offer grants to cities to build allotment gardens for people without access to land.) Just as important, Victory Gardens offer a way to enlist Americans, in body as well as mind, in the work of feeding themselves and changing the food system — something more ennobling, surely, than merely asking them to shop a little differently.

Read the whole piece (it’s well worth it!). Readers have posed interesting questions and suggestions in the comments, and the Times breaks out Pollan’s responses. Finally, here’s more good stuff from the “food issue.”

*Photo of scenes from Chicago Green City Market by schopie1, reprinted under a Creative Commons license.