Monthly Archives: August 2013

Pesticides and Chemicals Make It Dangerous Out There

When lawmakers failed to pass the far-reaching farm bill recently, which already threatened cuts in food stamps by $2 billion a year, it also put an end to proposed regulations requiring farmers and food companies to exercise greater caution to prevent food contamination. The rules would have ensured that food workers wash their hands, irrigation water is clean, and animals are kept out of fields, among other things.

Such regulations seem warranted in view of the latest contamination of salad greens. And in June a frozen berry mix caused a hepatitis-A outbreak in eight western states. Bacteria was the culprit when a food-borne illness sickened people at a food festival in New York while E-coli made people ill at a Mexican burrito restaurant in Illinois. A Kansas beef processing plant was also found to have E-coli. Let’s not even count the salmonella outbreaks.

Then there was the GMO wheat found on an Oregon farm, thanks to Monsanto’s testing of a genetically-engineered wheat variety it had developed.

But food isn’t the only source of worry when it comes to what we consume, or subject our bodies to. Pesticides and chemicals pose other risks. As the Toxic Action Center points out, “pesticides are the only toxic substances released intentionally into our environment to kill living things.” This includes substances that kill weeds, insects, fungus, rodents and other pests. “Pesticides are used in agricultural fields and in homes, parks, schools, public buildings, roads, and forests. They are found in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink.”

Not a very comforting thought when you consider that Rachel Carson began warning about the harmful effects of pesticides in 1962 when her groundbreaking book Silent Spring appeared. Since then the use of pesticides has only increased while evidence of their harm mounts. One 2012 study, for example, conducted by Canadian and American scientists, found that exposure to pesticide residues on vegetables and fruits can double a child’s risk of attention deficit disorder.

Rachel Carson

Pesticides can cause health problems ranging from headaches and nausea to cancer and reproductive disorders. Sometimes the problems take years to surface. Some of us are old enough to remember running after trucks spewing DDT in the summer when we were kids; many of those kids grew up to get breast cancer. In fact, children are particularly susceptible to the hazards of pesticide use. The short version of all the evidence about pesticides harmful effects is this: Pesticides are toxic to living organisms.

So are many chemicals. More than 380 of them listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as inert ingredients were once or are still registered as pesticide active ingredients. That means we aren’t playing with a full deck when it comes to knowing the contents of pesticide products that may be hazardous. Yet we assume that chemicals in shampoos, detergents and other everyday products have been proven safe despite the fact that industrial chemicals are not required to be tested before hitting the market.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, in its entire history the EPA has mandated safety testing for only a small percentage of 85,000 industrial chemicals in use. Once they’re being used, it’s extremely difficult for the agency to restrict a particular chemical because of stringent requirements needed for banning them. After the 2010 BP oil spill, two million gallons of chemical dispersents were used to break up the slick but federal officials could not say they were safe because only minimal testing had been done.

Thankfully, the Safe Chemicals Act of 2013 has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and the late Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). It requires the chemical industry to prove that a chemical is safe before it is sold and puts limits on trade secret practices. It also requires the industry to reduce the use of chemicals designated by the EPA to be of “greatest concern” because of their toxicity. It’s no surprise that the proposed legislation is already garnering strong opposition from the Republican side of the aisle.

Kirsten Gillibrand

Clearly, we need to make our food, air, water, and soil free from toxic pesticides and chemicals. That will require better testing, reduced dependency on pesticides and chemicals, legislation aimed at protecting land, waterways, buildings, cleaning and hygiene products, and foods.

Rachel Carson knew this fifty years ago. “If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals, eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones – we had better know something about their nature and their power,” she said. “The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster.”

Ask Not For Whom the Bell Tolls

Back in the days when I worked internationally I often found myself lying awake at night in some precarious and lonely place, aware that the only thing connecting me to my world was a runway and an airline that still had permission to use it. The feeling that gripped my stomach in those moments was unsettling in the nebulous way that fear often manifests itself. It’s an uncomfortable sensation I’ve come to know frequently even in what is supposed to be the safety of my American home.

That sense of disquiet came to me in a noticeable way when I read Dave Eggers’ book Zeitoun, the true story of a Syrian-American man arrested without reason or explanation in New Orleans following the Katrina flood. Wrongfully accused of terrorist activity presumably because of religion, he spent a harrowing time in a secret jail before his family secured his release. Similarly, the film Rendition, which recounts the chilling story of an innocent Egyptian-American man suspected of terrorism, filled me with a horrific sense of what can go wrong – even in a proudly democratic country.

Given recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s invasions of privacy, including the unauthorized and illegal surveillance of Americans in the U.S. as reported by The Washington Post last month, that chill is again running up and down my spine. It is exacerbated by the fact that as a journalist I often visit websites that could be suspect. In the course of doing research I’ve explored child pornography, gun violence, Muslim leaders, sexual abuse, particular politicians, right-wing organizations and more. Now I wonder if my communications are being scrutinized and whether I will find myself prevented from traveling because I’m on a “no fly” list. Or worse.

I am furthered frightened because of a Netflix film I watched recently called American Violet. It’s the true story of a black woman in Texas who found herself unjustly prosecuted in a large-scale drug case by a corrupt district attorney who along with her own attorney tried to coerce her into accepting a plea bargain rather than fighting the charges. Turns out, the false charges and plea bargain scam happens all the time where that woman lives.

Then came a lengthy article in The New Yorker Magazine called “Taken.” It recounts what happens to Hispanics and Blacks in the Texas town of Tenaha, where under “civil forfeiture” Americans who haven’t been charged with any wrongdoing can be stripped of their cars, cash and homes by the time it’s all over simply because they have been considered suspect. It seems “cash for freedom deals” are “a point of pride for Tenaha.” The same thing is happening elsewhere.

Texas is also the place where a number of women, stopped for traffic violations as minor as having a rear light out, have recently been subjected to roadside finger probes of their genitals by state police.

And it isn’t only Texas that has me alarmed. In Kansas City a man named Robert Nelson was recently freed from prison after serving nearly thirty years for a rape he never committed. Sharon Snyder, the court clerk who helped Nelson obtain the necessary DNA evidence denied to him by the legal system, was fired for her role in his exoneration.

Granted, I’m not from Texas or Kansas or any of the states now legislating horrific laws that infringe upon individual liberties (think suppression of voting rights or violation of women’s constitutional right to reproductive health decisions). And I’m not Black, Hispanic or poor. But what comes next? Jews, liberals, feminists, gays, people who simply disagree with you? All it takes for things to go seriously south for any one of us is one corrupt cop, one hostile judge, one powerful politician, one ignorant legislator, one false claim, one time being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So as the poet John Donne once noted, “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

I am ever conscious these days that the bell could easily toll for me. That’s why the chill I felt long ago on those foreign tarmacs is with me still. It’s why I look over my shoulder, metaphorically, more than I wish I had to. And it’s why I won’t be driving through Texas any time soon.

Can Women’s Health Trump the Abortion Debate?

When Margaret Sanger was a young nurse working in New York tenement houses early in the 20th century she was called to assist a 28-year old woman who had attempted to terminate her fourth pregnancy. Recovering from the infection that nearly killed her, the woman asked Sanger how to stop having children. “What did the doctor say?” Sanger asked. “He said ‘Tell Jake to sleep on the roof,’” the beleaguered mother replied. Promising to learn more about birth control and return with answers, Sanger’s research began. Several months later she was called to the same house where the woman she’d promised to help had tried to end another pregnancy. This time the young mother died, leaving behind three small children. Sanger redoubled her efforts to educate women about “family planning.” Her lifelong work began culminating in the organization now known as Planned Parenthood.

The bad rap that Planned Parenthood and other women’s full service health clinics get because of the abortion debate in the country is unfortunate and dangerous. Women’s health clinics provide a wide range of services including cancer screenings, pre- and post-natal coverage, care for some chronic illnesses, and well-woman visits. They are not “abortion clinics,” although many do provide that constitutionally protected service. Most of them serve women ranging in age from early teens to end-stages of life. An estimated three million women and men use Planned Parenthood affiliate health centers annually; more than 70 percent of them receive help to prevent unintended pregnancies. Over half a million women get Pap smears and breast-cancer screenings. Only three percent of all Planned Parenthood health services are abortions. In short, the organization is about quality comprehensive health care within the context of privacy and personal rights.

Republican legislators in states like North Dakota, Arkansas, Virginia, and Texas still don’t get it. Their ignorance and political agenda put innumerable women at risk because the regulations they want to impose on clinics providing abortions among a cafeteria of services will require many of them to close. Where will women, especially those in rural areas or lacking health insurance, go when they are hemorrhaging or suspect a breast lump or need birth control pills? In Texas alone in 2011 fifty-six health centers were closed, thanks to Gov. Rick Perry and his ilk. More than 130,000 women lost their access to health care.

This year Perry and his pals proposed a law that would ban abortions after the twentieth week of pregnancy and close thirty-six of forty-two Texas clinics that provide abortions among other services. Nevermind that the 20-week abortion ban gaining traction relies on a false measure of pregnancy only politicians use. Medical professionals know that the accepted term “20 weeks pregnant” indicates time since last menstrual period, not 20 weeks “post-fertilization.” (A pregnancy does not start at fertilization, but at uterine implantation.) As Cecile Richards, head of Planned Parenthood says, “When it comes to a woman’s health, no politician should be able to decide what’s best for you.”

President Obama agrees, noting that “Planned Parenthood is a vital partner” to his administration in “protecting women’s health.” Unlike him, those arguing as Texas legislators do, that demanding abortion providers have hospital privileges and abortion facilities meet ambulatory surgical-center standards “in the interest of protecting women’s health” are doing nothing more than demonstrating “the last refuge of scoundrels,” as one noted scientist and women’s health advocate remarked.

In my novel Hester’s Daughters, a contemporary, feminist re-visioning of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, there is a scene in which an illegal abortion takes place. There is also one involving a woman having to run the gamut at a Planned Parenthood clinic. Both of these are imagined narratives: Thankfully, I’ve never had to seek an illegal abortion, nor have I been confronted with vengeful protesters at a women’s health clinic. But I have known women who lived both experiences. In the days before Roe v. Wade I “covered” for a 19-year old friend who flew to Puerto Rico for an abortion. (Luckily the man with whom she conceived had funds to cover costs.) I have counseled married friends on where to obtain a safe abortion, and I’ve used women’s clinics for my own health needs. I know firsthand from working in women’s health for thirty years how vital these clinics are for providing women access to safe, accessible, affordable health care, whether preventive, diagnostic or service-oriented. There is so much more to Planned Parenthood and women’s health clinics than people realize.

In my novel, for instance, one woman is forced to abort a pregnancy she wishes to complete. The other seeks help at a Planned Parenthood clinic, not for an abortion but for infertility treatment. These two narratives are not unrelated; they both offer a glimpse of women’s health needs, physical and psychological.

Margaret Sanger understood their connection. In this important juncture in women’s lives, when politicians have no business in our bedrooms or doctors’ offices, so must we all.