2012 - %3, May

Toxic Flame Retardants: Now In Your Food

| Thu May. 31, 2012 9:57 AM PDT

Flame retardants are everywhere—in our TVs and other electronics, in couches and chairs, and even in pajamas other products designed for babies. They're even in our bodies—and at higher rates for minority children, according to one recent study. Apparently these toxic chemicals are also finding their way into our food, according to a new paper published Thursday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Researchers tested foods like fish, beef, and deli meats from a local grocery stores in Dallas, Texas. They found that 15 of the 36 foods they tested had detectable levels of hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), a brominated flame retardant often found in insulation and electrical equipment. HBCD has been linked to problems in the immune and reproductive systems and endocrine disruption, and has been found to cause neurotoxic effects in children. It is considered a "persistent organic pollutant" because it sticks around the environment for a long time, is toxic, and can travel over long distances. This is why chemicals from an electronics manufacturer can end up in waterways—and in fish—a long way away.

"It's getting into us, and some of it is getting into us from food," Dr. Arnold Schecter, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health and lead author of the paper, told Mother Jones. Schecter has previously studied levels of HBCD and other similar chemicals in humans, and says that what worries him most is not just finding the presence of this particular chemical, but the cumulative impact of a variety of toxic chemicals in our environment.

"What concerns me is that many of the toxic chemicals we're looking for, we're finding," said Schecter. "It isn't just this one. This is part of a mixture of toxic chemicals we're finding and reporting in food, and also breast milk and blood."

The highest levels of the chemical were found in canned sardines, followed by smoked turkey sausages and fresh salmon. Schecter said animal products were most likely to carry the chemicals, because it accumulates in fatty tissue.

Flame retardants have been all over the news recently, after the Chicago Tribune's devastating series of stories detailing the politics and science of these chemicals. Previous studies have documented that they're in out blood, body fat, and in breast milk, but this is the first study in the US investigating whether these chemicals are making their way into the food chain.

The US has started phasing out some flame retardants linked to health problems, like those that contain polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE). But it has not done so with HBCDs, the kind in this latest study. Recent studies about health impacts did prompt the US EPA to add it to its list of "Chemicals of Concern" in 2010. Earlier this year the European Union listed it as a chemical of "very high concern" and said it plans to ban it in the next three to five years.

As for what to do, Schecter says that eating less animal products is a good way to avoid the chemicals. "We're eating too much animals and too little fruits and vegetables," said Schecter. "For lots of reasons its good to eat less animals than the average American." He noted that he does like hamburgers however, and suggested buying leaner meats and broiling them if you're going to keep eating them.

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Why All Eyes Should Be on the Wisconsin Battlefield

| Thu May. 31, 2012 8:17 AM PDT

Others have written much more eloquently about the recall story in Wisconsin than I ever could. Rick Perlstein, for instance, a homeboy who wrote this epic piece just before the primary election in which he made the case for why we should all care about the governor's race:

Here's why: the voting in Wisconsin this spring "will be the first national test of the possibility of democracy in the Citizens United era," writes Ruth Conniff of the Madison-based magazine The Progressive, referring to the historic Supreme Court ruling that allowed unlimited spending on polticial campaigns. If conservatives succeed in breaking public unions in Wisconsin, they will try the same thing everywhere, with mind-blowing seriousness. Already by this February, Walker, taking advantage of a loophole that allows donors to recall targets to blow through the state's $10,000 contribution cap, had raised an astonishing $12.2 million dollars; then, by April, he had added $13.2 million more. [...] So, $25 per vote from reactionary out-of-state donors versus three bucks and one million petition signatures from regular old Wisconsinites: which one of them will prevail in June will tell us what American democracy will look like – if it will look like democracy at all. It's like one of those posters I saw in Madison last year said. It quoted the Gettysburg Address: "Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived or so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war." The picket sign added: "MADISON is that battlefield."

And E.J. Dionne went right to the heart of the matter with this piece on Wednesday:

Walker is being challenged not because he pursued conservative policies but because Wisconsin has become the most glaring example of a new and genuinely alarming approach to politics on the right. It seeks to use incumbency to alter the rules and tilt the legal and electoral playing field decisively toward the interests of those in power.

It's hard to overstate just how important this race is to progressives. The polls this week range from a dead heat to Walker leading by up to six points. We'll keep our fingers crossed.

But in looking at the Marquette University poll just out yesterday, I couldn't help but be somewhat surprised by this:

Voters say they feel their current governor would be better at creating jobs than his recall challenger. Half say they think Walker would do a better job, while just 43 percent pick Barrett. And Walker holds a 51 percent favorable rating and 46 percent unfavorable, while his rival is at 41 percent favorable and 46 percent unfavorable.

It's almost unbelievable to me that voters would believe that when job creation has been the biggest issue of the campaign—and it hasn't been good for Walker:

Much of the debate over job creation started when the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics released numbers that showed Wisconsin lost 23,900 jobs from March 2011 to March 2012, the worst performance of any state in the country. Barrett seized on the news, attacking the governor in a press conference and in an ad claiming that, under Walker, Wisconsin lost a job every hour. But Walker's team insisted that the numbers were wrong. By the time the April figures came out last week, showing a gain of 4,500 jobs for the month, his administration had tried to build a case that the monthly estimates were unreliable.

Even though Walker is being recalled mostly because of a fight with workers and the state is dead-last in job creation, 50% of the voters think he'll be better at job creation than the other guy? Nobody in the country has done worse!

This strikes me as yet another success of conservative talking points. I think many people have simply absorbed the oft-repeated notion that Republicans are the advocates for "job-creators" with their low taxes and deregulation and even in the face of clear evidence otherwise they can't really see how anything else would work. And you can't really blame them all that much. Nobody's really telling them another story, at least not one that would make them think that Democrats would be better advocates for the "job creators." So they default to the conventional wisdom or plain old tribalism.

Still, that's just one question and despite everyone being understandably concerned about unemployment, people will base their votes on many factors. This race is close enough that it could go either way. Perhaps the good citizens of Wisconsin will go into the voting booth and realize that they just can't afford another two years of Scott Walker's mess. A handful of very wealthy plutocrats have poured a ton of money into the state for the past year betting that they won't. It would be nice if that money turns out to have been wasted.

Heather Digby Parton is guest blogging this week while Kevin Drum is on vacation.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 31, 2012

Thu May. 31, 2012 7:55 AM PDT

A reconnaissance Marine with Battalion Landing Team 3/1 descends down a thick, plaited rope rigged to a UH-1Y Huey flown by pilots with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 268 on to USS Makin Island's flight deck here May 31. The landing team serves as the ground combat element with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. The unit embarked the ship, as well as USS New Orleans and USS Pearl Harbor in San Diego Nov. 14, beginning a seven-month deployment to the Western Pacific, Horn of Africa and Middle East regions. US Marines photo by By Cpl. Gene Allen Ainsworth III.

Our Nation's Biggest Money Problem of All

| Thu May. 31, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Sometimes I wonder if amidst all of our world-weary cynicism we are even cynical enough. It's hard to wrap your mind around the immensity of the problem of money in politics, but it's this part of it that still shocks and depresses me. Thomas Edsall wrote this column earlier this week:

Four years after the 2008 collapse, the finance industry has regained its dominant position in American politics. Perhaps the development of deepest significance is an absence: the failure of a powerful anti-Wall Street faction to emerge in either the House or the Senate. This is in contrast to the response to previous financial crises, when Congress enacted tough legislation—after the Savings and Loan implosion of the 1980s, for example, and more recently after the bankruptcy of Enron and WorldCom in the early 2000s.

Look at the current political environment this way: if Mitt Romney's campaign and the Romney-supporting super PAC Restore Our Future were a public company, the financial services industry would have a controlling interest. President Obama, in turn, has been noticeably cautious in his critique of Wall Street, trying instead to focus on Romney's former company, Bain Capital. Obama's ambivalence about speaking out is a tacit victory for the industry.

Indeed it is. And you can see the results of such far-reaching influence when you read this amazing piece by Matt Taibbi:

The American people will never again be asked to foot the bill for Wall Street's mistakes," Obama promised. "There will be no more taxpayer-funded bailouts. Period."

Two years later, Dodd-Frank is groaning on its deathbed. The giant reform bill turned out to be like the fish reeled in by Hemingway's Old Man—no sooner caught than set upon by sharks that strip it to nothing long before it ever reaches the shore. In a furious below-the-radar effort at gutting the law—roundly despised by Washington's Wall Street paymasters—a troop of water-carrying Eric Cantor Republicans are speeding nine separate bills through the House, all designed to roll back the few genuinely toothy portions left in Dodd-Frank. With the Quislingian covert assistance of Democrats, both in Congress and in the White House, those bills could pass through the House and the Senate with little or no debate, with simple floor votes—by a process usually reserved for things like the renaming of post offices or a nonbinding resolution celebrating Amelia Earhart's birthday.

So maybe they stop this. It's an election year and a little sunlight might make them think twice. But it won't be the end. As we've seen with JP Morgan's recent little 2 billion (and counting) boo boo, the regulators aren't regulating and even if they did, it's entirely probable that the Volcker Rule wouldn't have applied. I don't know what to do about this and I haven't heard anyone come up with anything systemic that this Congress will pass or that this Supreme Court will allow to stand. It's a paralyzing problem, which is why we avoid thinking about it too much, I suppose. (Taibbi has a fun idea that certainly can't hurt.)

It's also why I feel nearly frantic at the idea of the Democrats eagerly buying into the idea of Grand Bargain redux as we face the so-called "fiscal cliff" after the election. I see very little reason to believe any of the Bush tax cuts will be allowed to expire. That ship sailed when the Democrats didn't bother extending only the middle class cuts early in Obama's term. If a deal is struck—a big if—the most probable outcome I see is for the Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dumb of deficit reduction, Simpson and Bowles, to make a comeback (they're already in tryouts) and for the "deal" to be tragic cuts to the safety net in exchange for "tax reform."

"Tax reform" is commonly understood by just about everyone to mean "lower the rates, broaden the base, close loopholes, end tax expenditures." Now go read that Taibbi article about the fate of Dodd-Frank if you haven't already and tell me just how likely you think it is that such "reform" will end up being a worthwhile exchange for cutting vital programs and America's safety net. Right. Those "reforms", to the extent they attempt to raise any taxes on corporations and millionaires, will be quickly dispatched to the dustbin. Indeed, it's likely that the only people to see their taxes raised are those at the lower end of that broad base.

So, even though it's vitally needed, any kind of financial or tax "reform" in the near future is going to be subject to this tidal wave of money that's overtaken our political system. When you have the level of income inequality and corporate profits we have today, buying the political system is a very cheap investment. Until that problem is solved, I'm afraid that any "balanced approach" that puts the well being of average Americans on the table in exchange for shared sacrifice from the one percent is a fools errand.

Will Scandal-Plagued Election Clerk Supervise Walker Recall in Key County?

| Thu May. 31, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
A protester holds up a sign to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Republican Kathy Nickolaus may be the only county clerk known by name across Wisconsin—and not for a good reason.

Last year, Nickolaus, the top election official in Waukesha County, a solidly Republican suburb outside of Milwaukee, blamed "human error" for the late discovery of more than 14,000 missing votes in a bruising state Supreme Court race. Those votes erased liberal favorite JoAnne Kloppenburg's lead in the race, handed victory to conservative incumbent David Prosser, and later led to an expensive recount. This April, Nickolaus resorted to posting election results on strips of grocery-receipt-like paper after the county's reporting system failed on election night.

After the April controversy, Nickolaus pledged to step down from handling the county's election operations. But ahead of Gov. Scott Walker's recall election on June 5, the most expensive election in state history, recent evidence suggests Nickolaus still has control over the county's vote-counting. Observers and news reports from the recall's May 8 primary say Nickolaus looked like her usual self on election night. The WTMJ news station reported that Nickolaus "appeared to be very much in charge of the count." Says another observer, who asked to remain anonymous to speak openly: "On election night, Kathy Nickolaus was there, and she made it seem as if she was in control."

Republican county executive Dan Vrakas, who said "the public... lost faith in our election process in Waukesha County" because of Nickolaus' failures, has denied that Nickolaus remains in charge of election operations. But after Nickolaus' involvement in the May 8 primary, Vrakas took to the press to say he was "very disappointed" that she showed up. "I'd prefer that she wasn't here on election night but I can't ban her from the building anymore than I can ban anyone else from the building," Vrakas told the Waukesha Freeman. Vrakas said that a deputy of Nickolaus's had taken control of the vote-counting process.

How California Could Force the Rest of the US to Label GMO Foods

| Thu May. 31, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
A sign at a pro-labeling rally in San Francisco in February.

In November, California voters will decide on a ballot initiative that would require labeling of all foods containing ingredients from genetically modified crops. The initiative made it to the ballot after almost 1 million Californians signed a petition in favor of it—nearly double the 504,760 signatures needed under the state's proposition rules. The campaign that organized the push to get the measure on the ballot focused on possible health effects of GMO foods.

This news will not likely be applauded by my friends over at Croplife America, the main trade group of the GM seed/agrichemical industry. The big GMO crops—corn, soy, sugar beets, and cotton—are processed into sweeteners, fats, and additives used widely by the food industry. Everything from high fructose corn syrup-sweetened Coke to soybean oil-containing Hellman's mayo would have to bear a label reading something like "Contains GMO ingredients."

That would send a shockwave through the food industry—one that could ultimately be felt on the industrial-scale US farms that have been devoting their land to GMO crops for years, and the companies that profit from selling them patented seeds and matching herbicides. The reason isn't just that California represents an imposing chunk of the US food market. It's also that a food-labeling law that starts in California is unlikely to stay in California.

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Corn on "Hardball": Romney and Trump's Unholy Alliance

Wed May. 30, 2012 4:25 PM PDT

David Corn and Salon's Joan Walsh joined host Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the newly minted Romney-Trump alliance and what it says about Mitt Romney's strategy and values.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Why Science Education Won't Solve Our Climate Problems

| Wed May. 30, 2012 2:58 PM PDT
Important! But not the solution to climate change.

Think the reason we can't address climate change is because people don't understand climate science? Think again: a new study suggests that people with higher scientific comprehension use their abilities not to disinterestedly parse the complicated details of climate science, but to better fit available evidence to their preexisting values and group identifications.

A team of researchers associated with the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School compared scientific literacy and numeracy with beliefs about climate change and value-laden worldviews for an article published this week in Nature Climate Change. Their conclusions? As individuals' scientific comprehension went up, concern about climate change declined slightly. That relationship isn't what you'd expect to see if ignorance about science explained a lack of concern about climate change, as the "scientific comprehension thesis" (SCT) would suggest; the graph below demonstrates the difference between what SCT predicts and how people actually responded.

SCT prediction versus actual impact of science literacy and numeracy on climate change risk perceptions.  Kahan et.al, Nature Climate ChangeSCT prediction versus actual impact of science literacy and numeracy on climate change risk perceptions. Kahan et.al, Nature Climate Change

But not everyone with greater scientific understanding was equally likely to be less concerned about climate change; the correlation split sharply depending on respondents' worldviews. As the study explains, "members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest." While those results don't jibe with the SCT, they do make sense according something called the cultural cognition thesis (CCT), which suggests that people tend to perceive risks in a way that corresponds to the values of their identity groups.

Think about it: An oil worker who expresses concern about climate change may be mocked, while an English professor who calls climate science a hoax may be shunned. People therefore adjust their beliefs to fit those of others around them: according to the study, "public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare." Or, as researcher Ellen Peters of Ohio State University puts it, "What this study shows is that people with high science and math comprehension can think their way to conclusions that are better for them as individuals but are not necessarily better for society."

The Bogus Uproar Over Obama's "Polish Death Camp" Gaffe

| Wed May. 30, 2012 2:43 PM PDT
President Obama and President Bronislaw Komorowski of Poland in May 2012.

For most Americans, referring to a Nazi death camp located in Poland as a "Polish death camp" makes clear sense. That it was a Nazi camp simply goes without saying. To my knowledge, virtually no American has ever blamed Poland itself for a part in the death camps. After generations of films, video games, and novels about World War II and the Holocaust, Americans are as familiar with the Nazi camps as we are with our own Civil War. So with President Obama referring to a Nazi camp as a "Polish death camp" we understand clearly that he is referencing the location of the Nazi camp, not implying that it was somehow Polish.

Or we would, if it wasn't the president, and this wasn't an election year, and our political discourse was slightly more elevated than it actually is.

Writing at The Daily Beast, David Frum argues that Obama was out of line:

The president intended to honor Jan Karski, a Polish-born U.S. citizen, who died in 2000. Karski was a hero of the Polish resistance, the courier who brought to the outside world the irrefutable proof of the Nazi extermination campaign against the Jews of Eastern Europe. But instead of honoring Karski, the president stumbled into the single most offensive thing he could possibly have said on this occasion.

Here's what the president said:

Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale, and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself.

Outside of election season it's hard to see how Frum and other commentators could get so worked up about a statement like this.

On the one hand, the Poles themselves have been extremely sensitive over this phrase for years now. They've issued public statements discouraging its use, even going so far as to request that UNESCO change the name of Auschwitz Concentration Camp to former Nazi German concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. In all fairness, president Obama likely should have been aware of this. The president is diplomat-in-chief, and he's visited Poland in the past (where he received one of the most unique diplomatic gifts of all time). It's not that much to expect the American president to do his homework.

And yet the uproar over these statements seems to imply that the president was being purposefully insulting at worst, and hopelessly ignorant at best. The right is doing its level best to affect the same outrage as the Polish people, using the cultural sensitivities of a European country to attack the president—an irony that I'm still struggling with.

Even the Polish reaction to this strikes me as overwrought. There were death camps set up by the Nazis all across Europe, and these are often referenced as either Nazi death camps, by their individual names such as Treblinka or Auschwitz, or by their geographical location. Yet even if the camp is referred to as a Polish or Hungarian death camp, everyone talking about it knows full well that it was run by the Nazis.

Respecting the sensitivity of the Polish people is one thing—and I think it's absolutely fair to respect Polish wishes and stop using the phrase to as great an extent as possible. They've suffered untold hardships, first at the hands of Nazi Germany, then at the hands of the Soviets. It's not so hard to say "Nazi death camps located in Poland" after all.

But turning honest mistakes into petty feuds is another thing altogether. And either way, this gaffe and the overblown reaction to it are an excellent distraction from actual issues, feeding the American political circus yet another non-troversy to keep the proverbial show rolling.

Japan Quake and Tsunami Rattled Upper Atmosphere

| Wed May. 30, 2012 1:04 PM PDT

Travel-time plots of observed ionospheric perturbations and modeled ocean tsunami within 1,500 km (932 miles) of earthquake's epicenter NASA/JPL-CaltechTravel-time plots of observed ionospheric perturbations and modeled ocean tsunami within 1,500 km (932 miles) of earthquake's epicenter NASA/JPL-CaltechThe 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan in March 2011 did more than rattle the ground and upheave the ocean. Shock waves also rippled all the way up through the ionosphere—the upper atmosphere stretching ~50-500 miles above Earth's surface.

That motion was observed in the signals between GPS satellites and a dense network of ground receivers around Japan, reports NASA. The video explains these observations, never before seen in so much detail for a quake and tsunami of this size.