2011 - %3, June

Are Chemical Companies Hiding Toxic Evidence?

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 5:23 PM EDT

Ever wonder what kinds of chemicals make their way into your bloodstream? Good luck finding out. According to a new investigation by the Environmental Working Group, US chemical companies aren't reporting studies on levels of toxic pollutants in people's bodies—and the EPA is letting them get away with it.

Under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA can make companies submit health and safetly reports and notify the government if they come across evidence that chemicals could be putting people at risk. But the EWG suspects that the agency hasn't been exercising this power: When researchers searched public EPA databases containing more than 50,000 industry-sponsored health studies, they found only "a scant number" about chemical exposures, and even fewer on kids' exposures.

In a press release, the EWG offered a blueprint for future action by acknowledging one instance in which the EPA did crack down on a chemical company. In 2004, it fined DuPont $16.5 million after the company hid evidence that workers at a West Virginia plant had been exposed to perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical that has been linked to birth defects.

Academics and government scientists routinely conduct various biomonitoring tests because of these sorts of risks. That prompted EWG president Ken Cook, in a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson (PDF), to ask: "Logically, the chemical industry should be conducting the same basic studies to understand the safety of its chemicals for the public. And if not, why not?"

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This Week in National Insecurity: Comeback Edition

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 4:50 PM EDT

That's right, folks: Like Blackwater, we're back in business! After a long hiatus, it's high time for your end-of-the-week review in defense dementedness. Whichever side of the fence you land on, chances are good that you think America's not a very secure nation these days: economically, electorally, or perhaps physically. So each Friday, we'll grab our lensatic compass, rucksack, and canteen, then mount out across the global media landscape for a quick recon. Whether you're scared because our military is too damned busy—or it's not busy enough—here's all the ammunition you'll need, in a handy debrief.

In this installment: Weird defense budget add-ons; pork bullets; Marines like the Marlboros; the Army's Team Jesus takes a hit; ex-spies gotta eat; and the worst. Attempted. Revenge killing. Ever.

The sitrep:

The United States government's national threat level is Elevated, or Yellow "at a heightened level of vigilance." Isn't that so much clearer than color codes? You're welcome.

  • What do sunken treasure, spiffy brass bands, sheeshy pilot outfits, 200-year-old corpses, Alex Jones-style conspiracies, and George Patton bobblehead dolls all have in common? Ask the congressional authors of 2012's defense budget. (MJ)
  • Anna Chapman, the Snooki of Russo-American espionage, is still working on monetizing her experience as a soultry onetime stealer of US secrets. How about editing a Russian venture capital newspaper? Only because the designer line of cosmonaut suits didn't work out. (Danger Room)
  • And then, an epic revenge fail: A Mumbai attack conspirator explained in a Chicago federal court how he and his al Qaeda cohorts targeted the CEO of Lockheed Martin "because drone strikes were getting frustrating," and the jihadis "wanted to take it out on their manufacturer." Only those drones are made by a company called General Atomics, not Lockheed! Asked for comment, the CEO of General Atomics only laughed maniacally, while caressing what appeared to be a remote control for a model airplane. (Danger Room)

The United States of Online Dating

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 4:45 PM EDT

Last year, an artist named R. Luke Dubois joined 20 online dating sites, not in search of love, but data. After sampling more than 19 million profiles, he created "A More Perfect Union," an atlas that remaps America based on how we digitally describe ourselves to potential partners. In this new nation, where place names are dictated by the aggregation of proclivities and personalites, New York has become Now. Chicago is Always. Los Angeles is Acting. Las Vegas is Strip. Richmond, Virginia is Tobacco. St. Petersburg, Flordia is Dieting. Anchorage is Outdoorsy. Omaha is Steak. San Francisco is Gay.

Look closely at the maps and you'll discover more previously uncharted communities. Zooming in on the San Francisco Bay Area reveals new towns and neighborhoods: North Beach and Chinatown are Folksy; Potrero Hill is Silkscreen; the Outer Richmond is Subconcious. Oakland is Hyperactive. Sausalito is Transsexual. The area near San Quentin is Bratty. Surrounded by locales with names like Dateable, Lucious, Unmitigated, and Kitten, the quiet delta burg of Crockett sighs: Whew.

Find your new hometown here.

(h/t Flowing Data)

Quote of the Day: Playing With A-Bombs

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 2:33 PM EDT

From a "senior GOP lawmaker," explaining why Republicans are OK with touching off financial Armageddon by refusing to raise the debt ceiling:

Who has egg on their face if there is a sovereign debt crisis, House Republicans or the president?

I guess the optimistic take here is that Republicans are just playing the negotiation game really well. The pessimistic take is that they really believe this and think the political benefits outweigh the damage a debt crisis would do to the United States. I'm not really sure which it is anymore. I used to be an optimist, but that attitude is getting a lot harder to sustain these days.

Holder Advocates Extending Fair Drug Sentencing Laws

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 2:21 PM EDT

For drug war skeptics and civil libertarians, Wednesday was a good day. For law enforcement hawks, it was, potentially, pretty terrifying. Speaking before the US Sentencing Commission—the body charged with drawing up sentencing rules for federal courts—Attorney General Eric Holder said that the Obama administration favors retroactively applying reduced penalties for federal crack-cocaine offenders "who are not considered dangerous drug offenders," reports the Wall Street Journal.

Bridging the disparities built into the drug crime-sentencing system has been a cornerstone priority for the Obama administration. Last August, the president signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which reversed 1980s-era rules mandating stricter sentences for crack-cocaine crimes than for those related to powder cocaine. Under the older, harsher rules, defendants faced a minimum five-year prison term if convicted of possessing just five grams of crack; in contrast, it took 500 grams of powder cocaine to draw the same sentence.

Those rules were broadly decried as racist (their conservative proponents notwithstanding): most people sentenced for crack charges are black, while those hit with powder-cocaine raps tend to be white or Hispanic. The new guidelines upped the amount of crack cocaine that would require a five-year mandatory minimum sentence to 28 grams, and the amount triggering a ten-year mandatory minimum to 280 grams. 

But Holder's recommendation to grant softer standards to those already convicted is sure to draw strident protest from conservatives. Consider:

If the new guidelines are applied retroactively, 12,040 offenders sentenced between Oct. 1, 1991 and Sept. 30, 2010 would be eligible to seek reduced sentences, according to Sentencing Commission research. About one-third of the group would be eligible for release, if approved, by Nov. 1, 2012, while the releases as a whole would be spread over 30 years. The average sentence would be reduced from 164 months to 127 months, Commission data showed.

Those prospects are pretty upsetting for some Republicans. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.)—who also opposed the Fair Sentencing Act—said that the administration's newly announced position "sends a dangerous message to criminals and would-be drug offenders that Congress doesn't take drug crimes seriously." And Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also thinks Holder's recommendation was a "bad idea."

For its part, the DOJ said that it wouldn't grant softer sentences to offenders who had used weapons in their crimes, or to those who boasted lengthy rap sheets. But its position could confirm the right's worst fears about fairer sentencing and prison reform, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court's recent 5-4 ruling that overcrowding in California's prisons is so bad that it violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. That decision is expected to result in the release of some 30,000 California prison inmates.

Obama obviously didn't have a hand in that. But for conservatives bent on characterizing him as a soft-on-crime liberal, that might not matter.

The Military's Sweet, Flawed Tobacco Deal

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 2:18 PM EDT

US troops have long been able to purchase products at a discount. But what happens when those discounts are even deeper than the Defense Department allows? And they're for harmful products? Tobacco is a case in point. A new Public Radio investigation finds that soldiers on some bases can buy cigarettes and chewing tobacco for up to 30% less than they'd pay in local stores: that's far more than the 5% price-drop allowed by the Department of Defense (DoD).

The reason for the disparity in prices is often faulty research. Sometimes the DoD representative who's comparing on-base and off-base prices will reference a store at a Reservation or at a Coast Guard base where tobacco products are already discounted. So in effect, the military is giving a discount on top of a discount.

Not that soldiers are complaining. Military personnel are much more likely to use tobacco products than non-military: 32% of active-duty personnel uses tobacco, versus about 20% of the general population. Many troops only started using tobacco when they enlisted, and say smoking and chewing helps alleviate the stress (and boredom) that come with the job.

But the American Lung Association finds that soldiers who smoke are less fit, more likely to sustain injuries, and more likely to be stressed out than their non-smoking counterparts. Even the Defense Department is wising up to the costs of tobacco products: it spends around $1.6 billion a year on related health costs and the Veteran's Administration spends much more battling long-term effects. The Defense Department gave a plea last year for their "active duty and retired servicemembers and their families to make a resolution to quit tobacco" and pointed interested parties to the DoD's Train2Quit tobacco cessation program, www.ucanquit2.org. If the DoD is really serious about reducing tobacco use, they might want to consider doing what civilians have already done: make tobacco more expensive. Or at the very least, reduce the discount.

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Too Lazy to Write My Own Post About Laziness

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 1:33 PM EDT

Here's an email exchange with a friend in response to my post last night about zero-tolerance policies in schools:

Friend: “Zero tolerance” is right up there with “everything is on the table” in terms of laziness in terms of making policy.

Me: And "across the board cuts." Hey, this is fun! We should make a list of the top ten lazy policy slogans.

Friend: I’ve always liked “doing nothing is not an option.”

But that's only four, and a top ten list needs ten. Help us fill out our list in comments.

Five Things I'm Tired Of

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 1:12 PM EDT

There are a few things I'm pretty tired of:

  • The press corps' embarrassing infatuation with Sarah Palin's bus trip. Can't they just leave this stuff up to Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight, which are already in the business of following people around no matter what they do and no matter whether they "want" to be followed?
  • Anthony Weiner's Twitter account. He probably did something slightly skeevy and he should own up to it, but really, who cares?
  • Republican hostage taking over the debt ceiling. What's next? Threatening to withdraw funding for the Fed's computers since that's where all the money comes from?
  • The almost extra-galactic chutzpah of Republicans, who spent an entire year screaming about death panels and vilifying actual Medicare cuts in the healthcare reform bill, now complaining that it's demagoguery when Democrats point out — both correctly and mildly — that making Medicare too expensive for many seniors to afford would "end Medicare as we know it." How much more milquetoasty could you possibly get and still be tolerably within the bounds of accuracy?
  • The insane idea that the federal deficit needs to be addressed now now now! Republicans didn't care about the deficit when Reagan was president, they didn't care when Bush Sr. was president, and they didn't care when Bush Jr. was president. They only get religion when a Democrat is president and they need an all-purpose reason to oppose everything Democrats want to do. Is this really too complicated to understand? It's a political tactic — and a good one! — not a genuine reaction to anything in the real world. In the real world, stimulus spending is winding down, Medicare was reformed a mere 14 months ago and is solvent for at least another decade, Social Security is solvent for two or three decades, and the deficit is very plainly not a domestic spending problem. It wasn't a problem at all until 2001, and after that it was caused by two gigantic tax cuts, two unfunded wars, and a finance-industry driven recession. If we just let the tax cuts expire, get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and get the economy moving, the medium-term deficit will disappear. In the meantime, grinding unemployment in the United States is really a wee bit more important than continuing to humor Republican political posturing.

I guess there's more, but that'll do for now. Unfortunately, these five things, along with the odd tornado and sensational trial-of-the-century are pretty much the only things the media is bothering to report right now. From a blogging point of view, this leaves me high and dry until I think of yet another way to complain about our insane preoccupation with the federal deficit.

Did I mention that this is almost clinically insane? I did? Then I guess I'll have to use some other descriptive phrase next time.

Republicans Court the Fat Vote

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 12:54 PM EDT

There isn't much dispute in the public health world that Americans are too fat. A quarter of all Americans living in 39 states are clinically obese, numbers that have expanded dramatically over the past 20 years. So you'd think that when the Obama administration tries to actually do something to address the obesity epidemic, most everyone would be on board. With the current crop of Republicans in Congress, though, you'd be mistaken.

The Washington Post reports that House Republicans have decided to slash away at public health measures designed to combat obesity, especially those aimed at children. On Tuesday, a House appropriations committee decided to do away with the first new upgrade of federal nutritional standards for public school meals in 15 years. Making the meals lower in fat and sugar and adding in more fruits and veggies, they concluded, simply cost too much. And those regulations passed last year that would require fast-food outlets to post the calorie information of their fattening offerings? Well, House Republicans want to exempt 7-Elevens, grocery stores, and other businesses from those rules. Americans apparently don't need to know that the Double Gulp they're about the buy contains a whopping 600 calories. Children, who are assaulted daily with advertising for horrible, fatty, sugar-laden food will get no relief from Republicans, who have told the Department of Agriculture to back away from crafting even voluntary guidelines for companies that pitch food to kids.

Clearly, Republicans are pandering to their big-ag and corporate food processing donors here. But by doing so, it sure looks like they are giving new meaning to the party's "big tent." They aren't setting a particularly good example, at least, when it comes to taking obesity seriously. But perhaps they don't care that much. One of the party's leading lights, the heavyset New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, once told Don Imus, "I am setting an example Don. We have to spur our economy. Dunkin Donuts, International House of Pancakes, those people need to work too.”  Christie this week took a state helicopter to his kid's baseball game, got in a black sedan that drove him 100 yards to the baseball diamond and then back to the helicopter. Apparently walking was just out of the question. Republicans are trying desperately to get Christie to run for president.

Things That Make Me Go "Hmmm"

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 11:55 AM EDT

In a post about a spat between the United States and Europe over who's implementing financial reform faster, Felix Salmon says:

In the short term, the biggest winners in any fight between regulatory authorities are always going to be the banks, who will happily arbitrage differing regional regulatory regimes and take advantage of their parents’ squabbles to stay out drinking all night. In the long term, however, even the banks would ultimately prefer a single global regulatory regime with clear ground rules and a level playing field — something which lets them concentrate on their main job, of banking, rather than expending enormous effort on lobbying and loopholes.

Really? In the long term, I'd guess that clear rules and a level playing field are the last thing that big banks want. Lobbying costs are a drop in the bucket to them and produce returns that make Bernie Madoff look like a piker. What's more, over the past couple of decades big banks have made it crystal clear that they have very little interest in their "main job" and are instead intensely obsessed with bending rules and discovering clever innovations that will make them trillions of dollars in trading profits. "Banking" is for suckers.

This is why simple, blunt rules are best in the financial industry. Sure, they'll end up being inefficient in some ways and unfair in others. That's inevitable. But it pales compared to the inefficiency and unfairness of business as usual. Unfortunately, that's largely what we still have in the aftermath of Dodd-Frank and Basel III. They're better than the status quo, but they simply aren't blunt enough to rein in the rocket scientists of Wall Street for long. And that's just the way Wall Street likes it.