Saturday, March 29, 2008

P to the V to the C

So yesterday I was a little sarcastic and maybe a little arrogant. I want to apologize to Mr. whateverhisnameis from the Vinyl Institute for comparing his editorial theaterics to a schoolyard bully. I didn't mean it.

Well . . maybe I meant it a little bit.

But more importantly I never, and this is what I am truly apologizing for, explained what PVC was. I guess after having my desk fall on me, I was a little absent minded yesterday. You read that right. I recently started a position at a real non-profit, not one of those non-profits where if you took a three hour lunch at the bar downstairs no one would care, but the kind of non-profit that if the grants stop coming in the staff doesn't get paid but they all keep working anyway. Thats the kind of non-profit I now work for now. And I heard that actually happened to them a couple years ago. So anyway, yeah, my desk fell on me. Alright alright . . . full disclosure. I was standing on my desk and it fell and I fell off and then it fell on my leg. And now I don't want to talk about it anymore. I also don't want to talk about why my mac can't get hooked up to the server in my office. If you work at Apple, can you please call me? (I promise I wasn't part of that Green My Apple campaign . . . ok I'm lying I was totally part of that campaign but I really do love my mac and I really do want it to be greener, but I also want to actually use it at work!)

So . . . . .

PVC - Polyvinyl Chloride also known as vinyl

Things that are made out of PVC:
shower curtains
food containers
children's toys
that new car smell (hmmmmmm off gassing v.i.n.y.l.)

Other important things to know about PVC:
-- The manufacturing process is extremely hazardous. Just ask someone that lives near a plant. Like the people of Lake Charles, LA. A jury found one of the United States’ leading PVC manufacturers liable for “wanton and reckless disregard of public safety”, caused by one of the largest chemical spills in the nation’s history which contaminated the groundwater underneath the surrounding community.

-- In order to be 'useful' manufacturers have to include additives to the products they make out of polyvinyl chloride. So . . . you know that character in Charlie Brown that has the dust cloud around him all the time? Well . . that's basically us. Everyday. Because additives don't stay put. They come off when we touched them. Then they are on our hands, in our children's mouths, and on our clothes. All the time. hmmmmmmm that is s.c.a.r.y.

-- Dioxin. Sounds like a word that can win you a game of Scrabbel. Sounds like a word that could contaminate a town and increase the effects of global warming. Dioxin is what happens when you burn polyvinyl chloride. Dioxin is also known as a group of the most potent chemicals ever created. Now since you are reading my blog you are probably a very rational person and so you are probably asking yourself right now . . . why would anyone burn PVC? Very good grasshopper!

Communities all over the country are fighting plans to build incinerators in their city. And Mr. whatishisface from the Vinyl Institute is using his well crafted schoolyard bully tactics (like writing crazy editorials so when city council's google PVC they stumble upon his spell checked and corporate approved message on how 'green' it is) to scare parents, school teachers, and everyone else that lives in these towns into letting them build or not clean up whatever it is they want to build next door to their elementary school.

-- I mentioned, briefly and a little incoherently, about cradle to cradle yesterday. So the life cycle of products made out of PVC is extremely important to consider. They are made somewhere, a factory. They exist somewhere, your home. They sit for all eternity somewhere, the dump. Or more appropriately these days third world nations. I'm sure you see where I'm going with this. . . . . . I wish I had the capacity on this little blog of mine for it to be more interactive. It would be great if as you are reading this you could insert where you think I am going with this. Anyways .. . life cycle, cradle to cradle, landwaterair contamination. When your child is so done with last seasons my little pony and you throw it away in the garbage, it gets shipped off somewhere and it sits. And those additives we talked about earlier get time to marinate and sauce up the land and the soil and the water. Your water. So now not only has your daughter been chewing on my little pony (come on I've seen a child lick a restuarant wall, you know she was chewing on that pony) ingesting toxic chemicals but now she gets to go outside and play in the soil that also contains toxic chemicals. Life cycle. It's really about the lifecycle of products. It's the reduce in that slogan that is the most important not the recycle.

So . . . here is what I hope I explained today: PVC is bad. Corporate executives that lie are bad. Purchasing products with their lifecycle in mind is good.


PS. Seriously if you work at Apple, please help me figure out how to use my macbook on my server. Please. (charitable giving?)

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Witch Hunt

Arthur Miller is as relevant today as he was in 1850. There currently is a witch hunt in rural poor chemically contaminated towns all across the country, in fact the world.

Townspeople everywhere are savagely targeting weak corporate executives! Manipulating their higher educations and BMW's against them! How could people be so cruel, I ask you.

Or so says the Vinyl Institute's Vinyl News Service: "Environmental activists prefer to continue their “witch hunt” of vinyl/PVC, even though the facts supporting its use as a building product are readily available and should earn vinyl/PVC more serious consideration as a green building product, a vinyl industry executive said in a recent letter to a magazine for building materials dealers."

One thing about bullies that any kid with hand me down clothes and poorly cut hair can tell you; they get meaner when they get scared.

Oh yeah . . and they make shit up.

Just in case you didn't know, I mean why would you really, Greenpeace built a house in 2004 with Habitat for Humanity that was PVC free, because what we know that those bullies in the Vinyl Institute don't want you to know is that there are safer alternatives that don't harm communities or children that are even more vulnerable to chemical contamination than adults.

I think there is great change happening all over. In every community. We understand the consequences of our actions, though sometimes we're lazy and forget to bring a canvas bag with us to the grocery store or make up counter (yes i need an oversized bag for my glamour product purchases)but we get that the plastics bags come from somewhere, exist in our lives, and then go somewhere. It's that cradle to cradle philosophy that I think our communities need to embrace a little more.

So . . . for a while now I have been setting small challenges for myself to think cradle to cradle in my daily life. I am pledging to never go anywhere without an extra bag and always always turn down one time use disposable plastic.

No plastic water bottles, no plastic CVS bags.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Ummm . . . .

Lead found in vinyl diaper bags, changing pads
Illinois attorney general seeking recall
By Anna Marie Kukec | Daily Herald Staff
March 25, 2008

The Illinois attorney general's office said Tuesday it would ask major retailers to pull more baby products off the shelves due to high levels of lead.

Various brands of vinyl diaper bags, along with their attached changing pads and other components, had lead levels two to nine times higher than lawfully acceptable. One changing pad had eight times the acceptable level of lead, according to a report by Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health.

"U.S. companies know that lead shouldn't be in children's products, even if they are manufactured overseas," said Cara Smith, the attorney general's deputy chief of staff for policy and communication.

Smith said the products were made in China and imported without a problem since no federal law limits such items.

Illinois has one of the toughest laws nationwide regarding lead poisoning prevention. The law was passed in 2006 and bans any children's product that contains more than 600 parts per million of lead.

The Center for Environmental Health contacted the attorney general's office on Monday, requesting it cooperate on a massive recall to get these items off store shelves.

"We began investigating this after one of our staff received a baby diaper bag as a gift and asked us to test it for lead," said Caroline Cox, the center's research director.

Smith said her office is working with the center and then will contact retailers in the next day or two. The state will ask retailers to immediately remove the items from their shelves.

According to the center, products that tested positive for lead include "Baby Got Bag," Disney's "Dolly" and "Baby Necessities" at Kmart; "George" at Wal-Mart; and Carters "Out 'N About" at Babies R Us.

"Kmart takes our customers' safety very seriously, and we've worked with environmental groups and the Consumer Product Safety Commission to create safe standards for lead levels in our products," said Kimberly Freely, spokeswoman for Kmart parent Sears Holdings Corp. in Hoffman Estates. If Kmart determines there is a concern, it will pull the products from the shelves, she said.

"All of our vendors are required to meet all regulatory safety standards including those relating to lead," Freely said.

Spokesmen at other retailers were unavailable for comment.

Removing already-sold products from homes is a different matter.

"It's virtually impossible to put a genie back in the bottle," Smith said.

Last August, the attorney general and the California group went after retailers that sold vinyl baby bibs with high levels of lead

Are you fucking kidding me?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Chemist Shares His Thoughts

I'm one of those people that listens to NPR from the moment I wake up until the moment I turn off the radio in the middle of the night because I just need to get some sleep. I love NPR. I love it. I really do. One of my favorite segments on Friday morning is "This I Believe". People share stories about important things they believe. While it isn't always about activism or global warming or why the irresponsible use of unregulated chemicals are harming our communities and what mass mobilization and engagement can do to stop it, it is comforting to hear how similar we all are in this society.

A couple days ago I was taking a coffee break with a colleague. We were wondering a couple blocks from our office and in front of us were three young boys. Maybe around 12 or 13. They were taunting an older man walking in front of them. They were running around him and screaming in his ear. I watched nervously thinking that this older man should be taking care of himself somehow but he walked quickly pretending this children were not even there. Begging for attention of any kind, they started to throw rocks at the back of his head. At this point I was no longer in control of my own actions. I screamed, "What are you doing?". My mother came out through my flared nostrils and quicken heartbeat and scared the shit out of those boys. The man kept walking and I kept yelling. "What do you think you are doing? Show some respect for yourself. And pull up those pants!!" And as I waited for a reaction, I mean I just yelled at three young boys that could easily have chosen a physical altercation to settle my problem, I thought about the fact that I just told these kids to pull up their pants. As if that was the biggest issue I had.

And they did. They stopped tormenting the older man, pulled up their pants, and crossed the street. My colleague hadn't even noticed what they were doing in front of us, but I had been so upset and felt it was within my place to act that afternoon. I think that what this shows and what the segment This I Believe shows is that we are a closer community then we think. Those kids didn't question my authority, they did what I told them and because I was well within my right that day.

Anyways . . read on.

Asking the Right Questions
by John Warner

Chemist John Warner
Jack Hartzman
John Warner is co-founder of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry in Woburn, Mass., where he develops environmentally benign chemicals. A one-time rock musician, Warner encourages young people to express their creativity by studying science.

"I believe the most important question -- the right question that has not been asked -- is a simple one, really: 'Why?'", March 24, 2008 · I'm a chemist, and I thrive on laboratory work. In college and graduate school, I would arrive at my lab before the sun came up, and spend 60 hours a week or more there. After graduation, I got a job in industry and my passion for lab work resulted in several patents and the synthesis of countless chemical compounds.

My success, I believed, came in asking the right questions.

As my career evolved, so did my family, but my son John was born with a birth defect called biliary atresia. I spent many nights in the hospital with him. I would review Excel spreadsheets in the wee hours of the night. One file showed my son's blood electrolyte levels, and another file charted how my chemical compounds were performing back at work. By this time in my career I figure I must have synthesized over 2,500 compounds.

This story doesn't have a happy ending. At the age of two, my son John died after a failed liver transplant. I can't begin to describe the anguish that followed - the nights I lay awake wondering how did this happen? No one knows the cause of this disease. What if some chemical I worked on caused my son's illness?

I had prided myself on my ability to make compounds, and on the ability to ask myself the "right" questions. But it hit me, that for eight years of undergraduate and graduate education, at no time in my schooling did I ever have a class in chemical toxicology or environmental impacts of chemistry. Come to think of it, no universities in the world require chemists to learn these things. It's just not in our curriculum. So the people inventing products for industry - people like me - have not been taught how to do it any other way.

Now, I believe the most important question - the right question that has not been asked - is a simple one, really: "Why?" "Why do we have hazardous chemicals?" "Why do we make things the way we do?"

I believe that the right questions are not being asked enough. And perhaps more troubling, the response rings out: "But that's the way we've always done it!" And that is exactly the point. We chemists need to take a look at our relationship with the community we serve, focusing on the cumulative effects of the compounds we release into the environment. We can start by changing how we teach chemistry to future chemists and to the general public.

Society is demanding safer materials, industry wants to make safer materials; the next generation of chemists needs to learn how to do this. We need armies of students to go into chemistry and materials science to learn to invent safer products.

I understand the physiological causes for my son's disease are complicated, and it is very unlikely that my son's illness and subsequent death were linked to any chemicals from my lab. Still, a father can find ways to blame himself when his son dies. Blame won't change the past. But I believe by asking the right questions - by challenging the old assumptions - maybe we can change the future.

Independently produced for NPR Digital Media by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.


Friday, March 21, 2008

Chemical by Chemical

It's Friday morning. I have had the entire week off and I start a new job on Monday. I've slept to 11am, took naps at 3pm, and fixed all those little things in my apartment (except I didn't hang anything, damn it) that I've wanted to do for a while. Right now I'm drinking coffee at a little shop near my house and am meeting a friend in a bit to enjoy the day via a long bike ride. Even though Florida wasn't in the first seed, I'm excited for another two weeks of NCAA games.

To start my day I caught up on my email and I found this article called, "Fearing TSCA Push, Industry Steps Up Battle Over State Toxics Bills". Finding strategic ways to make the chemical industry take responsibility for its poor decisions and encouraging technology that is helpful instead of harmful to our bodies and lives has been a lifetime goal before I was lucky enough to stumble upon it as a career.

Here are some highlights of the current story that if it wasn't real life could easily have been created by a classic poet. Not thoroughly discussed are the protagonists; the housewives, students, and activists working on solutions to current chemical messes.

Where we lay our scene:
-"Chemical industry leaders are urging company officials to gear up for a major battle with environmentalists over state toxics legislation, warning that the activists' strategy is aimed at creating a patchwork of state restrictions as a way to force industry to agree to federal reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)."

The fiercest battle is drafted:
-"Many environmental, public health groups, Democratic lawmakers and other critics of TSCA are increasingly seeking to reform the 30-year-old federal law that regulates the manufacture or importation of industrial chemicals along the lines of the European Union's Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) program. While TSCA generally allows products to be registered unless EPA can show that they are unsafe, REACH forces manufacturers to show that their products are safe before they can be registered."

Strategy is conceived:
-"He urged companies to go on the offensive and be prepared in advance to combat an activist campaign. Many regulatory decisions involve peer review, which "functions more like stakeholder functions, so you need to be involved," he said. Companies need to put together resources, including scientists, public relations people, and engage "downstream customers," Rawson said."

Targets are discussed:
-"Bernstein and other speakers emphasized concerns that public health groups are succeeding in convincing WalMart and other companies to drop products containing contentious chemicals and said ACC is planning on "beefing up" its relationship with big box retailers."

Weakness in their plans are found:
-"The [activists] are taking us on chemical by chemical, he said. "It's much harder [for industry] to organize with that as a strategy."

The only thing that is currently missing in this drama is a love triangle and a conclusion. I guess we will all have to stand by.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Race to the Finish

I watched Obama's speech on Tuesday on Youtube while I sat in a very comfy chair at Busboys and Poets. I drank a skim latte and ate some soy yogurt and granola mixed with your normal cafe fruit cup. It was good.

I am 28 years old. Old enough to have had some experience with the political system, maybe more than most since I have a degree in Political Science. I've volunteered on local campaigns and read the articles candidates write for Foreign Affairs journal. I can't outline their entire platforms and often do not read the comparsion articles publications like USA today run in the last stretch of Fall. But I do work in an industry that closely monitors the daily output of our government and particularly high profile politicians.

I understand that what these politicians are saying on Youtube and with Anderson Cooper isn't who they really are and so as sad as it is for me as a scholar of politics and as an activist, I am pretty comfortable knowing there is no good choice. I can not look at the 'liberal' candidates and think 'wow I have a real tough decision ahead of me this year'. Because I don't. And I really doubt I ever will.

I think this year is an amazing year in politics and I am extremely honored to be involved. A woman and a black man are the candidates I have to choose from. And yes, this could be a Margaret Thatcher moment for America, I still think we deserve this choice. And I think that it says something for America and for Clinton and Obama to have gotten to the place that they have.

So . . . I watched Obama's speech and I thought god damn it. I got to watch a black man running for president talk about racism in a way this country could understand and my parents watched the Arkansas National Guard make a safe path for 9 high school students in 1957 and my grandfather threw out disgusting racial slurs at christmas dinner every year I knew him.

I am living in a different United States.

I have friends who are Clinton supporters. They cry 'we don't need hope we need help'. They support her at such a degree that it is impossible to have a conversation with them about what the differences between a Clinton Administration (Part 2) and a Obama Administration would look like. I doubt there would be many differences myself. But I think the real questions is: What would the country look like?

Obama is making people feel like our country has changed, that it has finally evolved, that it has grown up from the times of race riots and Contract with America. The fact that a poetic, educated black man can have this type of success in politics, in mainstream politics, means something. It means that maybe we can be a different America.

I don't want to say these things without acknowdleging how far women have come in this country as well. We have a Speaker of the House and a promising candidate for president and that means something too. And it is worth celebrating.

I truly think that speech was one of the most honest discussions of race I have ever heard on national television. Because of the work I do I have heard honest discussions on race and I understand how isolating and hurtful they can be. Discussions on race can stymie relationships and ruin institutions. But I think he spoke as honestly as he could and in a way that could make everyone feel he was speaking directly to their situation and experiences.

I'm pretty sure Obama will not be the best President our country could have, I doubt he will end the Iraq war like he promises or solve the problems within our education system or provide affordable health care to those who really need it, but I do think that he can make people feel like our country is heading in the right direction. And I think real change comes from this type of hope. You have to dream it before you can touch it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Chemical Industry gets EPA Scientist Fired

There is no secret that the EPA has been under extreme scrutiny for its many actions or inactions over the past 8 years. The Bush administration proves over and over again that good science means little to nothing if it isn't scratching behind the ears of its trusted and well paid lobbyists. The latest controversy over a fired EPA scientist isn't proving any different.

Dr. Rice, who has been studying the effects of a type of brominated flame retardant called Deca, was recently fired after lobbyists from The American Chemical Council criticized her studies. She has spoken out on the findings of the EPA panel of scientists who are investigating the chemical.

I know that I love reading about the details of these chemicals (it helps me decipher industry rhetoric). Here is a little background info on deca.

Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) have many subsets, including polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs. There are three common commerical types, but two have been voluntarily phased out due to health and environmental concerns. The one that is still in use is called deca-bde. It exists in an ungodly number of home items. Including your tvs, couches and mattresses. One of the reasons it is so horrible is because it is an additive and leaks out of whatever product it is in. That's why the dust in our homes is so full of chemicals. It's also why you shouldn't carry around those plastic reusable water bottles.
States have started recognizing the dangers of BFRs. Maine's ban on deca-BDE goes into effect at the end of the year. A number of other states are also debating the same type of legislation.


So this story on deca isn't new. It is no longer surprising that scientists at the highest levels are asking for it to be taken out of products. The evidence is in, but the chemical industry is still living in some time warp where people didn't notice or didn't have access to the same type of information it does. Guess what Jack Gerard? The info is out and people know about it. And we all want chemicals that are harmful out of our baby bottles and mattresses and electronics. The good thing about science and industry is that when forced to it has always found a safer alternative.

Take a look at the ABC Nightly News website. It did an interesting article on Dr. Rice and the American Chemical Council's role in her firing.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

My Activism

There wasn't a moment. I didn't have a moment when I knew this was what I wanted to do. I didn't have a coming to Jesus inspirational event that changed who I was as a person. I don't really remember being any different than I am now. I'm just a little more well adjusted and able to interact with a wider range of people.

I held meetings with friends on how we could clean up the parks, what books we should read, why and how we can conserve water. I pretended I was a teacher and sat in the tree in my front yard teaching English and discussing the civil rights and women's movement. I was odd. I was a very odd child. But that's just what I was. Many would say I still am.

I am an activist. I haven't considered myself an activist for as long as I have been one, mostly because I didn't know what it was called that I did and believed. But now I know, I am an activist. I get angry when I see children being disrespectful in public and I tell them so. I even tell them to show respect for themselves and pull up their pants. I read articles and books that keep me knowledgeable on the world's ills and for the past two years I have worked for an international organization that is known for hanging banners and boarding ships full of illegally cut rainforest. I have crossed borders to document internally displaced communities and made dinner for recently released political prisoners. I have spent nights in refugee camps and sang songs with orphans. I do not identify with many of the kids that scream about their activism while smashing windows and setting fires and refusing to listen why people have made the decisions that they have made. I moved to DC to be closer to political change and though it has taken me close to 6 years to enjoy this city, I finally do.

I started the work I did by becoming outraged by international human rights situations and seeing injustice in Southern Louisiana, mostly pontificated by my own family. I am now an environmental justice activist. Technically an environmental justice organizer, though my first day isn't until March 24.

I will be helping communities reclaim their communities from the chemical industry.

I will be working with communities in New Jersey, Maryland and Florida who want to eliminate toxic chemicals in the areas that their children live, play and learn. And I feel very privileged for being able to do it.

I hope for this space to be a spot where I can talk about how communities are winning against environmental injustice.