Monthly Archives: January 2008

Kill the poor

So it’s official.

The country is plunging headlong into a recession and not even New York City, home of Wall Street and the last bastion of prosperity in the plummeting real-estate market, is exempt.

Last week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced that the city would be slashing its budget for the new year as a result of the market’s recent troubles. The numbers speak for themselves. In June of last year, the city projected $16.8 billion in revenues for Wall Street firms. Current estimates put estimated revenues for 2008 at $2.8 billion – a 600% decrease. If that’s not a recession, tell me what is.

If the richest of the rich are feeling the effects of the market crash, then what about the rest of us, left behind in this age of record inequality? As a result of the subprime mortgage crisis (which is mushrooming into a broader credit crisis), millions of working poor or lower-middle class Americans will be put out of a home by year’s end, or hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Hundreds of thousands have already lost their homes, largely in majority-minority neighborhoods from the Outer Boroughs to Inland Empire.

So what is the solution? Does the government increase taxes for the top 10% of Americans, who reap the majority of this country’s wealth? Think again. The Federal government opts to enact a stimulus package that does nothing, I repeat, nothing for the growing number of working poor – there isn’t even an increase for food stamp allowances at a time when biofuels and international market pressures are pushing food prices steadily upwards. President Bush wants to make his infamous tax cuts, which disproportionately benefit the wealth, permanent.

So how do struggling municipalities stay attractive to businesses and the wealthy without demanding they give up a greater share of their income to balance out the vagaries of the market?

Poor taxes!

New York is at the forefront of this initiative. Mayor Bloomberg’s much-touted congestion pricing initiative hurts everyone but the small segments of New Yorkers wealthy or lucky enough to live below 86th street in Manhattan. Outer Borough residents and business owners who rely on cars rather than far-flung subways, as well as those driving in from New Jersey, Long Island, and Upstate New York (where almost all of the city’s bulk merchandise comes from).

The recent subway fare hike, vigorously opposed by riders and the subject of an incessent Daily News campaign, passed even though the spectacularly inept (whisper it, corrupt) Metropolitan Transit Authority was running a budget surplus. Base fare stayed constant at $2, which is terrific for the legions of tourists here for the day, but does not help everyday commuters who can’t afford $81 monthly passes and live on $10 and $20 Metrocards, which now provide fewer free rides.

More outlandishly, Governor Eliot Spitzer raised the sales tax on sales of malt liquor and cigarillos, and enacted a stamp tax on drugs seized by police. That’s correct – not only is it more expensive to drink away your sorrows legally, but New York State will now tax you $3.50 for every gram of weed they seize from you. It’s not legal to possess, and you still will face narcotics charges, but at least the state got some cash out of you!

There is no comparable tax on caviar, Cristal, or imported cigars.

Things are no better on the West Coast. Rocked by record foreclosures and fearful of a statewide recession, some California politicians are moving to ease the fiscal burden on landlords and allow them to reap greater profits by repealing the state’s rent control laws. 1.2 million Californians live in rent-controlled properties. On the cusp of a recession, the country’s largest state could very well expose over a million residents to higher rents and possible homelessness.

All this in a “classless” society. It’s only a matter of time before something gives and people snap out of their American Idol-induced stupors.  Without a new crop of mind-numbing sitcoms, that could be sooner rather than later. At least some good could come from the writer’s strike…

written by Ali Winston

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How Plastic We’ve Become: Our Bodies Carry Residues of Kitchen Plastics

In the 1967 film classic The Graduate, a businessman corners Benjamin Braddock at a cocktail party and gives him a bit of career advice. “Just one word…plastics.”

Although Benjamin didn’t heed that recommendation, plenty of other young graduates did. Today, the planet is awash in products spawned by the plastics industry. Residues of plastics have become ubiquitous in the environment—and in our bodies.

A federal government study now reports that bisphenol A (BPA)—the building block of one of the most widely used plastics—laces the bodies of the vast majority of U.S. residents young and old.

Manufacturers link BPA molecules into long chains, called polymers, to make polycarbonate plastics. All of those clear, brittle plastics used in baby bottles, food ware, and small kitchen appliances (like food-processor bowls) are made from polycarbonates. BPA-based resins also line the interiors of most food, beer, and soft-drink cans. With use and heating, polycarbonates can break down, leaching BPA into the materials they contact. Such as foods.

And that could be bad if what happens in laboratory animals also happens in people, because studies in rodents show that BPA can trigger a host of harmful changes, from reproductive havoc to impaired blood-sugar control and obesity (SN: 9/29/07, p. 202).

For the new study, scientists analyzed urine from some 2,500 people who had been recruited between 2003 and 2004 for the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Roughly 92 percent of the individuals hosted measurable amounts of BPA, according to a report in the January Environmental Health Perspectives. It’s the first study to measure the pollutant in a representative cross-section of the U.S. population.

Typically, only small traces of BPA turned up, concentrations of a few parts per billion in urine, note chemist Antonia M. Calafat and her colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, with hormone-mimicking agents like BPA, even tiny exposures can have notable impacts.

Overall, concentrations measured by Calafat’s team were substantially higher than those that have triggered disease, birth defects, and more in exposed animals, notes Frederick S. vom Saal, a University of Missouri-Columbia biologist who has been probing the toxicology of BPA for more than 15 years.

The BPA industry describes things differently. Although Calafat’s team reported urine concentrations of BPA, in fact they assayed a breakdown product—the compound by which BPA is excreted, notes Steven G. Hentges of the American Chemistry Council’s Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group. As such, he argues, “this does not mean that BPA itself is present in the body or in urine.”

On the other hand, few people have direct exposure to the breakdown product.

Hentges’ group estimates that the daily BPA intake needed to create urine concentrations reported by the CDC scientists should be in the neighborhood of 50 nanograms per kilogram of bodyweight—or one millionth of an amount at which “no adverse effects” were measured in multi-generation animal studies. In other words, Hentges says, this suggests “a very large margin of safety.”

No way, counters vom Saal. If one applies the ratio of BPA intake to excreted values in hosts of published animal studies, concentrations just reported by CDC suggest that the daily intake of most Americans is actually closer to 100 micrograms (µg) per kilogram bodyweight, he says—or some 1,000-fold higher than the industry figure.

Clearly, there are big differences of opinion and interpretation. And a lot may rest on who’s right.

Globally, chemical manufacturers produce an estimated 2.8 million tons of BPA each year. The material goes into a broad range of products, many used in and around the home. BPA also serves as the basis of dental sealants, which are resins applied to the teeth of children to protect their pearly whites from cavities (SN: 4/6/96, p. 214). The industry, therefore, has a strong economic interest in seeing that the market for BPA-based products doesn’t become eroded by public concerns over the chemical.

And that could happen. About 2 years after a Japanese research team showed that BPA leached out of baby bottles and plastic food ware (see What’s Coming Out of Baby’s Bottle?), manufacturers of those consumer products voluntarily found BPA substitutes for use in food cans. Some 2 years after that, a different group of Japanese scientists measured concentrations of BPA residues in the urine of college students. About half of the samples came from before the switch, the rest from after the period when BPA was removed from food cans.

By comparing urine values from the two time periods, the researchers showed that BPA residues were much lower—down by at least 50 percent—after Japanese manufacturers had eliminated BPA from the lining of food cans.

Concludes vom Saal, in light of the new CDC data and a growing body of animal data implicating even low-dose BPA exposures with the potential to cause harm, “the most logical thing” for the United States to do would be to follow in Japan’s footsteps and “get this stuff [BPA] out of our food.”

Kids appear most exposed

Overall, men tend to have statistically lower concentrations of BPA than women, the NHANES data indicate. But the big difference, Calafat says, traces to age. “Children had higher concentrations than adolescents, and they in turn had higher levels than adults,” she told Science News Online.

This decreasing body burden with older age “is something we have seen with some other nonpersistent chemicals,” Calafat notes—such as phthalates, another class of plasticizers.

The spread between the average BPA concentration that her team measured in children 6 to 11 years old (4.5 µg/liter) and adults (2.5 µg/L) doesn’t look like much, but proved reliably different.

The open question is why adults tended to excrete only 55 percent as much BPA. It could mean children have higher exposures, she posits, or perhaps that they break it down less efficiently. “We really need to do more research to be able to answer that question.”

Among other differences that emerged in the NHANES analysis: urine residues of BPA decreased with increasing household income and varied somewhat with ethnicity (with Mexican-Americans having the lowest average values, blacks the highest, and white’s values in between).

There was also a time-of-day difference, with urine values for any given group tending to be highest in the evening, lowest in the afternoon, and midway between those in the morning. Since BPA’s half-life in the body is only about 6 hours, that temporal variation in the chemical’s excretion would be consistent with food as a major source of exposure, the CDC scientists note.

In the current NHANES paper, BPA samples were collected only once from each recruit. However, in a paper due to come out in the February Environmental Health Perspectives, Calafat and colleagues from several other institutions looked at how BPA excretion varied over a 2-year span among 82 individuals—men and women—seen at a fertility clinic in Boston.

In contrast to the NHANES data, the upcoming report shows that men tended to have somewhat higher BPA concentrations than women. Then again both groups had only about one-quarter the concentration typical of Americans.

The big difference in the Boston group emerged among the 10 women who ultimately became pregnant. Their BPA excretion increased 33 percent during pregnancy. Owing to the small number of participants in this subset of the study population, the pregnancy-associated change was not statistically significant. However, the researchers report, these are the first data to look for changes during pregnancy and ultimately determining whether some feature of pregnancy—such as a change in diet or metabolism of BPA—really alters body concentrations of the pollutant could be important. It could point to whether the fetus faces an unexpectedly high exposure to the pollutant.

If it does, the fetus could face a double whammy: Not only would exposures be higher during this period of organ and neural development, but rates of detoxification also would be diminished, vom Saal says.

Indeed, in a separate study, one due to be published soon in Reproductive Toxicology, his team administered BPA by ingestion or by injection to 3-day-old mice. Either way, the BPA exposure resulted in comparable BPA concentrations in blood.

What’s more, that study found, per unit of BPA delivered, blood values in the newborns were “markedly higher” than other studies have reported for adult rodents exposed to the chemical. And that makes sense, vom Saal says, because the enzyme needed to break BPA down and lead to its excretion is only a tenth as active in babies as in adults. That’s true in the mouse, he says, in the rat—and, according to some preliminary data, in humans.

Vom Saal contends that since studies have shown BPA exhibits potent hormonelike activity in human cells at the parts-per-trillion level, and since the new CDC study finds that most people are continually exposed to concentrations well above the parts-per-trillion ballpark, it’s time to reevaluate whether it makes sense to use BPA-based products in and around foods.

Source: Janet Raloff – Science News Online

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Two Years and Waiting

This video, from mid-December, features Jamie Leigh Jones on MSNBC recounting her nightmare.  While working for KBR in Baghdad, a former subsidiary of Halliburton. Jamie was drugged and gang-raped vaginally and anally by a group of co-workers.

It’s been two years since the event happened and still no suspects have been arrested.  As for Jamie, she was told right after the incident that if she reported the rape, she could kiss her job goodbye. Military doctors confirmed that Jamie had been raped but the rape kit “magically” disappeared once it was handed over to KBR security officers.

Ask yourself how many other scenarios like this are occurring that the public is not made aware of – Why this situation has not come to a conclusion–How many other US employees deployed over seas are mistreating, not only American women, but women all over the world.

We’re given this squeaky clean image of the US “Installing Democracy,” some even going so far as to saying the other countries are “lucky” for our intervention. This event is not even the apex–it is the slightly protruding head of a very large submerged iceberg.  We are not fed the truth, we are fed propaganda.  And when brave young women come forth as victims and speak up, their own moral fiber is questioned.

– written by Elena Gaudino

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Get Your Eyes Off My Thighs

So I live in this neighborhood that’s . . . well, not exactly like the safety bubble I had experienced in college. I recall the good old days where I could scooter over to class wearing a jumble of tye-dye sleeveless shirts and camo shorts or if it was really hot, a yellow cotton halter and a loose-fitting mid-cut skirt. I never left the house worrying what others thought of me. I was never bothered. The only signals I got were the occasional wave and/or verbal greeting from a friend or classmate. What I wore didn’t matter to anyone. Those that knew me knew my personality and those who didn’t know me, well … got out of my way before I ran them over with my razor scooter.

Then I moved. I moved to a some-what financially distressed, socially oppressed neighborhood in Brooklyn where the schools were struggling and the graduation rate was teetering. That’s when I noticed. I noticed that my body was being followed by dozens of eyes. The first thing I did was look down to see if a button was missing … or maybe a third eyeball had grown out of my cheek. But I saw no signs that would lead to alienation. I must admit, I was puzzled. Why would anyone do that? What’s there to see anyway? I’m just another human being walking down the street. Isn’t that what we all are?

So when I took on a job that had a fairly materialistic dress code that required “trendy attire,” I panicked. I panicked for the first time since I was four years old – about what I should wear. I knew that if I had received stares and taunts now, imagine what I would get when I was wearing flashy blouses and black dress pants with heels trotting down the street. For the first time, I walked outside of my apartment not with the thought of what I was going to do or who I was going to see, but how I could make myself as invisible as possible. I made sure that, no matter how high the temperatures reached during the soggy summer days, I always had a zip-up sweater over me. It was like a comfort blanket to me and I felt that without it, things would be a lot worse.

As I said goodbye to the tingling rays of sunlight and warm temperatures, and welcomed in the winter season, I felt a sigh of relief. Yes, now I would be wearing bulky jackets and surely now I won’t receive any attention! This is what I told myself, but when I started taking a tally and calculated the ratio between people on the street and number of glances/cat calls, I noticed that the numbers during the winter time reflected the numbers during the summer time.

Then a small miraculous gift came into my world: an iPod shuffle. I played my anthems and speed-walked down the street changing my atmosphere into a fake playground of bass lines and pure funk. For those of you who believe that I am just ignoring the problem, have no fear. One of the first tasks I did when I moved to my neighborhood was to print out fliers and hand them to every pervert on the street who dare mentioned a word. Don’t get me wrong, at first I was shy and just walked away, but I found myself unable to contain my anger as time went by. I found relief in replying with a few nasty words myself, shaking my fist or a combination of pointing my finger and swearing in different languages. I feel it’s important to let the perpetrators know that what they’re doing is not acceptable. After all, it may be possible that some of them believe women like to be treated as sub-human.

One day, my shuffle ran out of batteries while I was still on the subway. Being somewhat lazy at times, I left the ear pieces in and, being the somewhat forgetful person I am, I forgot that the ear pieces were still in my ear as I walked down the street. That day, no one said a word, and the obvious glaring was non-existent. I didn’t think anything of it until I reached my door and reflected. The next day, I resolved to partake in this experiment and walked with my ear pieces in sans music. It was the same deal; no one even attempted to harass me.

My experience with street harassment isn’t special or an exception by any means. Coincidentally, a recent article in the Gotham Gazette called to light the issue of street/subway harassment and the growing popularity of the website, “Holla Back” a resource that invites New Yorkers to share their experiences and anecdotes in an online forum. But before this website was even created in 2005, filmmaker Maggie Hadleigh-West created a documentary in 1998 that focused on men who harass women entitled “War Zone” that still receives publicity to this day.

According to the Gotham Gazette, group of women from Brownsville Brooklyn, inspired by this documentary, congregated to form Girls for Gender Equity. They’ve set out to create “harassment-free zones” in their neighborhoods and, according to Executive Director Joanne Smith, train the girls to “Own up to their own comfort zone and identify what they think is harassment.” The girls are encouraged to hang posters to raise awareness and to take part in the battle by letting their perpetrators know that they are uncomfortable with that type of behavior.

As ineffective as some may claim this approach is, I do believe that this can be used as a crucial tactic. I recall a story I was told about a friend who was getting harassed on a fairly filled subway car. This friend pointed at the man and proclaimed loudly “Dirty man!” Everyone on the train looked over to the man, who immediately ceased his taunts. Not only did this effectively shut him up for the time being, but perhaps taught him a lesson to never harass again. Of course there are more physical ways to approach this dilemma, such as the instance where four women stabbed and beat a harasser in Greenwich village with a steak knife, but I would like to stay away from advocating violence unless necessary.

On a positive note, I was happy to find that I wasn’t the only one handing out fliers, and relieved to see that I was certainly not alone when I say that I know that sexual harassment is unacceptable. And for the sarcastic commentators: no, my fliers weren’t banal. They did not simply say “Don’t look at me.” They called upon the fact that I am a human being: a daughter a sister and a girlfriend. (People forget those things, you know.) They also defined what a rape culture is and how that harasser is contributing to it and how it affects our future . . . perhaps even that harasser’s future daughter. Those fliers helped define me as a human and hopefully made them see the situation from my point of view so that I’m not just tits and ass floating down the street, I’m alive and have feelings. They need to know that their words aren’t just words, their words are poison to the community, to the victim and even to the harassers themselves.

As for blaming attire . . . it really urks me when a woman is harassed or even raped and people ask what she was wearing at the time. First of all, not only is it irrelevant, but it doesn’t make any sense – what was “trampy” back in the fifties, wasn’t “trampy” in the 70’s. What’s tasteful fluctuates with time. What people need to get off of their minds is this myth that what women wear determines if a man will “lose it” or not. What people need to realize is that everything from cat calls to rape to domestic violence is all about power. And no wonder these issues are prevalent in low-income neighborhoods. They are oppressed socially and economically and in most cases, will stay hovering among the lower rungs of the ladder by the corrupt powers that be. According to sociologist Laura Beth Nielson who was quoted in the Gotham Gazette, sexual harassment “[Is] a mechanism designed to reinforce [traditional] status hierarchies.” I couldn’t agree more.

A part of me tries to find a thread of compassion, but it’s hard to look through your enemy to see the battered soul that feels that there is nothing left to lose. The anger I feel is the most prevalent emotion I experience and I have to admit that it’s a good idea that I stay away from firearms. But there also exists a small ray of hope that tries to show me that it doesn’t have to be like this. After all, I lived in a community where I felt completely at ease – these places exist! Why not make it happen everywhere else? Why not dream and work on that day where you can walk outside your home wearing whatever you want and for once, not think about how modest or appropriate you are in other’s eyes for your safety against men’s “weakness”, (cough cough, BULLSHIT) but instead focus on what goodness your day can bring.

– written by Elena Gaudino

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NYC public schools, video surveillance, and the criminalization of a generation

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[Stuyvesant students walking to class under video monitoring. Photo by Ali Winston for City Limits]

What do cameras cure? System gets own scrutiny. 

Now in the fourth year of citywide operation, the New York City public school video surveillance program continues full steam ahead even as many parents, advocates, elected officials and students raise serious questions about the system’s effectiveness and transparency.

By the end of 2008, more than 300 middle and high schools in 130 buildings will be equipped with some 6,000 cameras belonging to the Department of Education’s $120 million Internet Protocol Digital Video Surveillance (IPDVS) system, intended to help reduce violence in public schools. Although school officials consider IPDVS a success, problems have cropped up with both its technical workings and people’s ability to gain access to the footage. Read on at City Limits.

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Metal detectors and math classes.

The Internet Protocol Digital Video System is only one aspect of New York City’s school safety program, a joint Department of Education – New York Police Department effort that some student advocates consider so aggressive, they’ve dubbed it the “school to prison pipeline.” In addition to security cameras, the public school atmosphere today includes more than 4,500 uniformed officers patrolling the halls, enforcement of zero-tolerance behavior policies, and thousands of predominantly minority students attending “Impact” schools – a designation given to the most crime-ridden – who must walk through metal detectors and past armed police officers just to get to class. Read on at City Limits.

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From Luxury Comes Tragedy

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[Worker safety circa 1932 – some things never change]

On Monday afternoon, two workers fell from the incomplete hulk of Donald Trump’s Soho Hotel. One man, a Ukrainian immigrant from Greenpoint, was decapitated during the fall, while his more fortunate colleague miraculously survived.

Leaving aside the fact that the men were employed by a construction firm with clear mafia ties and a rash of code violations, and the Trump building is going up in spite of zoning violations and vehement protests by residents, this was the second incident inside a month where workers fell to their death from New York City high-rises. Edgar Moreno, an Ecuadorean immigrant and window cleaner, died on Dec. 8th after falling 43 stories from a scaffolding while washing windows on a skyscraper. In both instances, improper construction or safety procedures were deemed culpable.

This is the dark side of New York City’s soon-to-end real estate boom: worker safety.

Construction accidents were on the rise as recently as 2006, until the media got caught up in the housing bubble and accompanying paid advertisements by realtors. In 2007, accidents at high-rise sites resulting in injury or death rose 83 percent, according to the New York City Building Department.

Real estate, and construction in particular, are industries driven by the bottom line. Profits are management’s prime concern, and the highest margin is best achieved by skimping on construction costs. This includes safety training, equipment, and following proper construction procedures designed to lessen the chance of mishaps. At the Trump Soho, substandard construction procedures were documented in photos taken minutes before Yuriy Vanchytskyy met his fate.

In a climate where the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a federal agency in charge of worker safety, issues fines of $3,500 for failure to provide proper security devices, what incentive do contractors have to comply with existing regulations? $3,500 is pocket change when compared to the lucrative profits taken in by boom-time construction firms. Furthermore, New York City’s Building Department is stretched thin, with a dearth of inspectors to examine the myriad of unfinished or under-construction projects.

Until tragedies like these occur, blue-collar workers simply do not rate in the minds of New York City’s new generation of “urban pioneers.” Their multi-million dollar glass-and-steel lofts are literally paid for in sweat, tears, and blood.

But do they care? Hell, no, they’ve got more important things to worry about: The new Macbook Air is out!

written by Ali Winston

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Bush Plan Could Axe Scientists’ Access to Sensitive Data

Another day, another sound science policy getting Buswhacked: The Bush administration is quietly pushing for the elimination of a committee that provides crucial intelligence data for scientists studying everything from climate change to hurricanes and pollution. The Civil Applications Committee, which is under the jurisdiction of the USGS, reviews civilian requests for classified information and makes recommendations to intelligence officials – who exercise the final say in deciding what gets declassified.

In its place, the Bush administration would establish a new office in DHS to review these requests and others from various law enforcement agencies. “They are worried. The scientists say this information is very valuable to them, and they are concerned this new office will be looking more at homeland security and law enforcement,” said Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the USGS and a member of the Homeland Security Committee.

Over the years, this sensitive agency has provided information to U.S. Forest Service officials during the forest fire season; to scientists using classified measurements from nuclear submarines to study how the polar ice cap has thinned; and to USGS officials seeking information about volcanic eruptions in the Aleutian Islands. This information has often proven “critical,” as James Devine, a senior adviser to USGS’s director, explained. “Sometimes this information is critical, and we need to know right now,” he said.As far as he knows, he has never been denied a request from the intelligence community that the Civil Applications Committee had already approved. The government’s spy satellites often provide much better resolution than private ones, in addition to precise IR and electromagnetic activity readings.

The government’s plan to replace the Civil Applications Committee with the National Applications Office in DHS was hatched shortly after the attacks of 9/11. The Bush administration had hoped the new office would already be up and running by now; plans have since been put on hold to tackle new questions about scientific and civil liberties.

 Source: Jeremy Elton Jacqout’s article on Treehugger.com via: McClatchy Newspapers – Scientists fear losing access to intelligence data

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