dana liebelson

Dana Liebelson

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Dana Liebelson is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. Her work also appears in Marie Claire and The Week. In her free time, she plays electric violin and bass in a punk band.

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Park Service to Congress: Only YOU Can Prevent Government Shutdowns

| Fri Nov. 29, 2013 4:00 AM PST

Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the frustration Americans felt during the October government shutdown, which cost the economy an estimated $24 billion, than the furor over the shuttering of more than 400 federal national parks. Republicans accused Democrats of keeping veterans from seeing the World War II monument in Washington, DC. Democrats blamed the Republicans (who effectively held the nation's budget hostage for 16 days until they couldn't politically afford to anymore) of seizing the park issue to distract from the economy. But now, the US National Park Service—which lost $450,000 a day in park entry and activity fees during the shutdown—has a new message for Congress: No, we're not going prepare for another government shutdown, because you need to do your job.

The smack-down took place at a hearing last week before the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, which weighed in on a new bill introduced by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) in October. The Provide Access and Retain Continuity (PARC) Act, which has 17 Republican co-sponsors, would allow states to keep national parks operating in the event of another shutdown and would make them eligible for reimbursement by the federal government. (During the shutdown, six states entered into a similar agreement.) Right now, the government is only funded until January 15, meaning that Republicans could potentially pull the same shenanigans all over again in 2014. Stewart tells Mother Jones, "This bill is designed to provide some safeguards to local communities that rely heavily on access to public lands in the event that a shutdown does occur."

According to a National Park Service spokesman, more than 11 million people were unable to visit parks during the shutdown, and the park service lost about $7 million in park entry fees. The Park Service also estimates that communities within 60 miles of a national park suffered a collective negative economic impact of $76 million for each day of the shutdown. But Bruce Sheaffer, Comptroller of the National Park Service,testified that the agency "strongly opposes the bill." He said:

We have a great deal of sympathy for the businesses and communities that experienced a disruption of activity and loss of revenue during last month’s government shutdown and that stand to lose more if there is another funding lapse in the future. However, rather than only protecting certain narrow sectors of the economy...from the effects of a government shutdown in the future, Congress should protect all sectors of the economy by enacting appropriations on time, so as to avoid any future shutdowns.

Sheaffer took issue with other parts of the bill, noting that forcing the Park Service to rely on state revenue would be "a poor use of already strained departmental resources" and would "seriously undermine the longstanding framework established by Congress for the management of federal lands." While Sheaffer didn't object to another GOP-backed bill on the table—the Protecting States, Opening National Parks Act, which would reimburse states for National Park expenses incurred during the October shutdown—he concluded that planning for another shutdown "is not a responsible alternative to simply making the political commitment to provide appropriations for all the vital functions the federal government performs."

Scheaffer's position had support from Rep. Raul Grijalva, (D-Ariz.), who told Cronkite News Service at the hearing, "We shouldn’t be coming up with doomsday preparations." But Stewart says, "The [Park Service] opposition is odd and misses the point. Of course the preferred course of action is to avoid future lapses in funding." He adds, "While I cannot predict the future, I do not anticipate another shutdown during the 113th Congress."

When Mother Jones asked the National Park service whether it considered the GOP's fixation on funding national parks a way to deflect blame away from the shutdown, a spokesman said, "Your question asks us to speculate on an issue. We don't do that."

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Twitter Just Made It Harder for the NSA to Read Your Private Tweets

| Fri Nov. 22, 2013 3:56 PM PST
Twitter

On Friday, Twitter announced that it has enabled a new form of Internet security, already used by Google and Facebook, that makes it considerably more difficult for the NSA to read private messages. With this new security, there isn't one pair of master "keys" that unlock an entire website's encryption, instead, new keys are produced and destroyed for each login session.

"If an adversary is currently recording all Twitter users’ encrypted traffic, and they later crack or steal Twitter’s private keys, they should not be able to use those keys to decrypt the recorded traffic," Twitter wrote on its blog. To put that into simple terms, that would be like giving a new set of keys to each visitor coming to your house, melting them down after the person gets inside, and changing the locks. The method is called "Perfect Forward Secrecy," and while it has been around for at least two decades, it hasn't been picked up by tech giants until recently, following the allegations of vast government surveillance by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden

This security system specifically takes aim at the NSA's alleged practice of scooping up the encrypted communications of millions of users—either through hacking or top-secret national security orders—and then storing them until the agency is able to get a company's keys to access all of the data.​ While Twitter was never implicated in the NSA's vast online surveillance program, PRISM, there is still quite a bit of private information the US government could be interested in on Twitter for its counterterrorism efforts—direct messages, time zones, user passwords, and email addresses, for example. 

To get a peek at how this security might play out in real life, look no further than the legal battle the Department of Justice is currently waging against Lavabit, an alternative email provider that was reportedly used by Snowden. When the founder of Lavabit refused to give up its master encryption keys to the US government—because it would have had access to thousands of email accounts—the company was held in contempt of court. If Lavabit had installed Perfect Forward Secrecy, however, the company wouldn't have been able to give up its master keys, since they would have already been destroyed. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet privacy group, supports Perfect Forward Secrecy, arguing that "against the known threat of "upstream" data collection, supporting perfect forward secrecy is an essential step." However, as EFF notes, this doesn't necessarily make a company completely NSA-proof, since it doesn't protect data that's stored on a server (and NSA still managed to hack into Google, by breaking into its front end server, according to documents in the Washington Post).

The New York Times says that this new security will slow traffic down by about 150 milliseconds in the United States, and Tweeters are unlikely to notice. But it will "make the National Security Agency’s job much, much harder," the paper said. 

Will Fake Sugars Kill You?

| Fri Nov. 22, 2013 10:26 AM PST

Sugar kills. The delicious white crack has been linked to obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer's. So what's a person with a sweet tooth to do? Artificial sweeteners are a tempting choice, since they don't have calories or rot your teeth, and they're recommended for people with diabetes. But some of the fake stuff comes with its own potential health risks: Links to cancer in animal studies, reported side effects of dizziness and headaches, and exacerbated stomach problems, to name a few. And in one case, an artificial sweetener that the FDA had proposed banning was kept on the shelves after an aggressive advertising campaign from the pro-sweetener lobbying industry. Peggy Ballman, a spokesperson for Splenda, tells Mother Jones that, "We always encourage people to make informed choices by reviewing the credible research available." So without further ado, here's everything you need to know about the safety of your favorite fake sugar. 

1. Stevia (Brand names: Truvia, PureVia) 

Truvia.com

What is it? Stevia is short for Stevia Rebaudiana, a plant from the Chrysanthemum family that grows in parts of Brazil and Paraguay. The compound that makes the Stevia sugar is extracted from the leaves. It's used in the EU, East Asia, Russia, Mexico, Israel, and many South American countries, and is about 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar.

When did the FDA approve it? In the 1990s, the FDA rejected Stevia as a food ingredient after research linked it to reproductive problems and possible genetic mutations in rats. In 2008, the FDA approved a specific formula of pure Stevia—Rebaudioside A. PureVia and Truvia both contain the Reb A version of Stevia, which is FDA-approved. The FDA recommended daily dosage is no more than 1.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, for healthy adults. You'd need to have at least 29 Truvia packets a day to exceed that. 

What do the experts say? If your Stevia isn't made from Reb A—like, for example, the whole-leaf extract version that's sold at natural food markets and labeled as a "dietary supplement"—it hasn't been vetted for safety by the FDA. For Truvia and PureVia, the FDA concluded with "reasonable certainty that Reb A is not harmful under its intended conditions of use" based on studies it looked at concerning reproductive, blood pressure, and toxicity effects. Although scientific studies in the 1960s and 1980s found that Stevia-derived products decreased fertility in female rats and potentially led to mutations, the FDA concluded that those problems didn't apply to Reb A, based on additional research. (The World Health Organization has also determined that Reb A has no cancer link.) The FDA did note that one form of Stevia was deadly to rats at a dose of 15,000 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, but that's an enormous amount of Stevia. Atalanta Rafferty, a spokesperson for Truvia, says that "A panel of independent experts reviewed a dossier of all available toxicity and safety information relevant to Truvia stevia leaf extract, and concluded that Truvia stevia leaf extract is safe." Pura Via says on its website that, "An extensive library of more than 85 studies exists for Reb A and other components of the stevia plant which supports Reb A’s use in tabletop sweeteners." 

2. Aspartame (Brand Names: Equal, NutraSweet)

Soap.com

What is it? Aspartame is made up of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and methanol, all of which are found in common foods. It's about 200 times sweeter than sugar.

When did the FDA approve it? It was approved in the United States for limited use in 1974. But if you're taking more than 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight a day, you're exceeding the FDA's recommended daily limit. (A 165-pound person would have to be drinking more than 20 cans of diet coke to exceed that.)

What do the experts say? Aspartame has been controversial for decades. In 1987, the Government Accountability Office investigated the FDA after the sweetener was approved. It determined that the "FDA adequately followed its food additive approval process," but noted that 12 of the 69 scientists interviewed by GAO expressed "major concerns" about aspartame's safety.

In 2006, cancer researchers in Bologna, Italy, released the results of a $1 million, seven-year study of the use of aspartame in rats. The team found that, at a dosage equivalent to a 150-pound person drinking at least four 20-oz bottles of diet soda daily, the sweetener caused cancer in the animals. But the FDA shot down the study, noting that the researchers wouldn't give them all of their information, and found major shortcomings in the data that was available. According to the FDA, five other cancer studies found that the sweetener was safe. The American Cancer Society says on its website, "Aside from the possible effects in people with phenylketonuria [a rare genetic disorder], there are no health problems that have been consistently linked to aspartame use​" but adds that "research continues." The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends that Americans avoid it on the basis that the independent studies have found that consumption of aspartame causes cancer in rodents (although again, not in humans), and it's been anecdotally linked to other health issues. In a 2002 FDA report, reported aspartame side effects included nausea, heart palpitations, headaches and depression, among other things. NutraSweet and Equal both say that its products are very safe. "Aspartame offers one simple step in helping people move closer to achieving a more healthful diet," notes NutraSweet's website. 

3. Sucralose (Brand Name: Splenda)

Splenda

What is it? Sucralose is a chemical that's produced by chemically reacting sugar with chlorine. It's about 600 times sweeter than sugar. 

When did the FDA approve it? Sucralose was approved in 1998. The FDA recommended daily dose is 5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. 

What do the experts say? There have been more than 110 studies on sucralose over a 20 year period, and the American Cancer Society says the studies have shown "no evidence that these sweeteners cause cancer or pose any other threat to human health." The Center for Science in the Public Interest says that "sucralose is safer than aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame-K, and cyclamate," but notes that people with inflammatory bowel disease and other gastrointestinal issues should try avoiding the substance, since it's been known to aggravate symptoms (Peggy Ballman, a spokesperson for Splenda, says that this finding "is not consistent with the extensive data base on sucralose and its more than 20 years of safe use.") In 2008, Duke University researchers also found that Splenda can harm intestinal bacteria, although that study was funded by a pro-sugar lobbying group, and Ballman says that "no regulatory agency has acted on the results from that study." In 2012, the same controversial research team in Italy that busted aspartame announced that sucralose increases cancer in rats, but the results of the study have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. "In contrast, more than 110 studies [have] proven the safety of Sucralose. Worldwide authorities, including the US Food and Drug Administration, the European Food Safety Authority, Health Canada, and the World Health Organization, have reviewed these studies and confirm that results show no link between sucralose and any form of cancer," says Ballman. 

4. Saccharin (Brand names: Sweet'N Low)

Amazon

What is it? Saccharin is made from benzoic sulfilimine, a chemical compound that was accidentally discovered in 1879 when a professor, Constantin Fahlberg, was analyzing coal tar at Johns Hopkins University. He spilled saccharin on his hands and later noticed that the bread he was eating at dinner tasted sweeter, according to Elmhurst College. Saccharin is 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar. 

When did the FDA approve it? Saccharin has been around since before the FDA governed food additives, but the FDA has put the acceptable daily limit at 5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. A 150 pound person could consume 340 milligrams of saccharin per day, which is equal to more than 48 12-ounce servings of Diet Wild Cherry Fanta. 

What do experts say? In the 1970s, tests showed that high doses of saccharin caused bladder stones in rats, which could lead to bladder cancer, particularly in male rats. Studies after that found similar results. Initially, the FDA proposed banning the substance—but on Congress' recommendation in November 1977, the FDA kept it on shelves, with warning labels that the sweetener was found to be a carcinogen. According to Christopher Foreman, Jr.​, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a number of congress members fought against actually banning the substance, pushed along by the Calorie Control Council, a sugar substitute and diet-food lobbying group, which "launched an advertising campaign ridiculing both the FDA and the studies on which it based its decision." In 1991, the FDA finally stopped proposing to ban the sweetener, and in 1996, the warning labels were done away with. In 2000, the US National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens finally removed saccharin from its list. According to the National Cancer Institute, "the bladder tumors seen in rats are due to a mechanism not relevant to humans [and] there is no clear evidence that saccharin causes cancer in humans." Stephanie Meyering, a spokesperson for Sweet'N Low, says, "Saccharin is the one of the most thoroughly tested food ingredients in the world and it has the longest safe human consumption record among non-nutritive sweeteners." The Center for Science in the Public Interest isn't convinced and puts it on its list of substances to "avoid." 

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