Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thursday's Hot Plate: Divide and Conquer

It's New Years Eve! Its pretty damn cold out there and it has been grey and rainy all day. Not pleasant, but maybe it will keep the 20-somethings from Virginia out of the district tonight. . . . hmmm . . .

I just started a new book "The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela". Turns out I might be the last person on the planet to not have read this book. I first discovered it in Mae Sot, Thailand while I was helping to (badly) edit a document for one of the Burmese groups working on the border, Assistance Association of Political Prisoners Burma (AAPP). They help raise awareness about and get released Burmese political prisoners. I had brought a group of professors and college students to the Thai-Burma border to volunteer and learn more about the Burmese democracy struggle in order to raise awarenss on our own college campus'.

Bo Kyi, the man I was (badly) helping, was reading it. Volunteering in that office was a bit intense and a lot of times, more than anything else, they wanted us to stay out of the way until they finished their work, so we could all drink whiskey, play basketball, sing songs, and heatedly discuss democracy and freedom late into the night. Several times on the way to some house party one of the Burmese guys would get arrested and us volunteers, who felt pretty useless and in the way, would bribe the cops and get whoever it was released. At least we were productive in something.

Not too long ago I was speaking to a forest campaigner who worked in the Congo and she said that when they get stopped and asked for bribes it is pretty common to just refuse and stand there for hours until the cops calculate their cost benefit of the situation, cut their loses, and move on to someone that might be an easier target. Bribing customs throughout the world are pretty interesting.

Earlier this month there were a slew of articles popping up about the impacts of people, "crusaders" to quote one, demanding the elimination of chemicals in products such as toys. On December 4, The Good Guide, a non-profit consumer product rating organization, released chemical testing of the children's toy Zhu Zhu hamster, claiming that it contained unsafe levels of antimony. Antimony is a chemical being eliminated in many products and can lead to cancer and reproductive disorders.

The testing it turns out was not identical to the federal testing that said the toy's level of antimony was safe. Enter shit storm.

On December 7, The Good Guide posted "New Protocols to Enhance Product Testing" and published a press release to apologize and clarify their mission of testing and rating products. The blog post is simple, to the point, and acknowledges their mistakes and explains the steps they are taking to make sure it doesn't happen again. The comments and reaction are another story.

"when you claimed the ZHU ZHUs were unfae and toxic, why did tou have a link on where to buy the "toxic toys" COULD IT BE THAT IS YOUR REAL EXPERTISE, MAKING MONEY ON THE WEB?"

"DO THE RIGHT THING for once in your life and man up. Pay the company the millions of dollars you have cost them."

"are you going to test EVERY toy that is produced in the U.S.? Manufacturers do. How do you have any credibility when your criteria for selecting toys to test is obviously those, which if they fail the test, will give you the largest platform to promote yourself? This is probably one of the most shameful episodes in business in recent years. You have capitalized on fears and concerns to promote yourself."

These comments are an unfair reaction and . . . don't actually make any sense. Manufacturers test EVERY toy produced in the U.S? Have you watched the news over the past two years? Lead in toys, anyone? Do the right thing for once in your life and man up? Your real expertise, making money on the web?

What is going on here?

A couple months ago, I did an interview with a school board association journal about my efforts to help communities pass laws to prevent the building of schools on or near sources of pollution. The author wasn't sure where she was going to go with the article. Her editor had asked her to write something about crisis. H1N1, terrorism, whatever.

In her research, she saw a press release we put out about the EPA having found acrolein (very bad chemical found in exhaust, cigarettes and many other things) at a hundred times higher than levels deemed safe at 15 schools around the country. After a series of articles in USAToday testing air quality outside of over a 1,000 schools, EPA decided to test 63 schools in 22 states themselves over the past several months.

And this author thought . . . whoooaaa . . . crisis. We had a decent conversation where at one point she asked me if I thought people like me (enviros, non-profit, et al) were creating an atmosphere of fear in parents and communities. I hedged the question for a while and then said I don't know. What I do know is that I have information that can help communities, but it is up to communities to take that information and make the best possible decisions for their children. I believe that one thing communities can do to protect their children after hearing something like this is to make sure that schools are no longer built on or near sources of pollution.

I think the Good Guide serves an important purpose and I think the reaction to their mistake shows how valuable product testing is to the elimination of toxic chemicals, even if at some moments it looks like it's creating unnecessary fear. Because it scares the shit of industry, which is evident in that industry roams from town hall meeting to town hall meeting trying to beat back local and statewide ordinances that promote precaution.

On December 16, the Wall Street Journal released an article called "Chemical Crusaders Target Christmas". It talks about how the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) passed last year includes a temporary ban on phthalates. Phthalates are a group of chemicals that softens plastics such as PVC blood storage bags, rubber ducks, and medical tubing. It is an endocrine disruptor. The article then goes on to list studies and scientists and governmental agencies who say all this worry over the introduction of tens of thousands of chemicals that nobody knows anything about their long term impacts is "hogwash".

Tens of thousands of chemicals that nobody knows anything about their long term impacts being introduced into our waters, land, and bodies . . . isn't a concern?

Articles like this Wall Street Journal and the comments that say The Good Guide (a non-profit) is only interested in gaining money from its product testing and people from the chemical industry showing up at small town hall meetings to testify against communities taking control of what chemicals are ingested by the children are proof that the chemical industry knows that we are right. That having tens of thousands of chemicals that nobody knows anything about their long term impacts is a big fucking problem. And that we shouldn't and we aren't going to stand by and let industry control our water, our land, and our bodies anymore. We aren't going to let them divide us with fear mongering about fear mongering. These are tactics and they are designed to make you question what you believe.

And those of us using studies and reports to make our case will continue to be aware of what we are doing and how we are doing it in order to make sure our tactics are on the side of protection.

And as one of my favorite people on this planet said, "We must not allow ourselves to become like the system we oppose. We cannot afford to use methods of which we will be ashamed when we look back, when we say, '...we shouldn't have done that.' We must remember, my friends, that we have been given a wonderful cause. The cause of freedom! And you and I must be those who will walk with heads held high. We will say, 'We used methods that can stand the harsh scrutiny of history." (Desmond Tutu)

Ciao and Happy New Year,
Renee Claire

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