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 Serviceat 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."
Aruna, 19, recalls that her bosses at the mill “said that we would get less work if we slept with them.”
ARUNA, A 19-YEAR-OLD NURSE I met in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is a lot like some of my friends in Washington, DC—bright, single, self-assured, loves her job. She speaks quickly and eloquently, not stopping to drink her tea and hardly ever even pausing to breathe. When I first meet her in Coimbatore, a city known for its textile industry, she is on her lunch break, wearing her freshly starched white uniform and a traditional red bindi dot on her forehead.
If Aruna were one of my friends in DC, no one would be asking her why she isn't hitched yet. But in Aruna's home village, if you haven't secured a husband by your early 20s, you're in for a hard ride. "In India, a woman is auspicious because she is married," says Srimati Basu, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky who is an expert on the status of women in India. "Lack of marriage is horrible for the person, the family, and the community."
In order to get married, Tamil village girls like Aruna need at least three gold British sovereigns—bullion is the preferred currency for dowries—the equivalent of about $1,200. Together, Aruna's parents make a little less than $400 a year.
As a child, Aruna dreamed of going to college. But by the time she was 15, when her government-subsidized schooling ended, she understood that she was too poor. Then, a stranger promised to change her life. He offered her a job at a textile factory that has supplied companies including, until recently, UK-based maternity wear maker Mothercare. Her pay would be about $105 a month—enough for food for her family, her further education, and most importantly, the chance to build a dowry.
Sometimes girls would disappear, and everyone would speculate whether they'd died or escaped.
When Aruna arrived at the factory, about 40 miles from her home, she found a vast facility where close to 1,000 girls, many in their teens, lived 10 or 15 to a room. From 8 a.m. till 10 p.m. every day, including weekends, she fed and monitored rusty machines that spun raw cotton into yarn. Her bosses often woke her in the middle of the night because, she recalls, there was "always some sort of work, 24 hours a day." Aruna made just a quarter of the $105 a month she was promised, about $0.84 a day.
Aruna shows me a scar on her hand, more than an inch long, where a machine cut her. She often saw girls faint from standing for too long. One had her hair ripped out when it got caught in a machine. Others were molested by their supervisors. "They said we would get less work if we slept with them," Aruna says. Sometimes girls would disappear, and everyone would speculate whether they'd died or escaped. Still, she needed the money, so she worked there for two years. After she left, a garment workers advocacy organization called Care-T helped her get her current job at the hospital, where she is slowly saving up for a dowry. When I ask if she still has her sights set on college, Aruna shakes her head and tears fill her eyes. But almost instantly, she wipes them away. There's no point thinking about that, since she already has a steady income. "I like my job at the hospital now," she says. Most of her friends are still working at the factory. (The names of Aruna and other former factory workers have been changed to protect them from retaliation.)
In Tamil Nadu, many people know a girl like Aruna, someone who has been lured to work in the garment factories with the promise of earning a dowry. The scheme is so common that it even has a name: sumangali, the Tamil word for "happily married woman." A 2011 report by the Dutch watchdog groups Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and India Committee of the Netherlands found that sumangali factories employed an estimated 120,000 workers, some as young as 13, and supplied dozens of international companies, including Gap (which denied the allegation), H&M, American Eagle Outfitters, and Tommy Hilfiger.
In the village I am told to look for "the girls with alcoholic and missing fathers," because "that’s where the recruiters are looking."
Last April's building collapse in Bangladesh's Rana Plaza, which killed more than 1,000, briefly drew attention to the plight of garment workers. India is an even larger global player than Bangladesh: It's the third-largest textile and garment exporter in the world (after China and the European Union), with about $29 billion in 2012 sales. Between June 2012 and June 2013, the United States imported about $2.2 billion worth of cotton clothing from India, and that number is expected to grow as India ramps up its textile industry.
In the garment industry the world over, it is common for workers to be locked into exploitative conditions until they fulfill contracts. But in India, the dowry tradition—which persists even though it's officially illegal—makes teenage girls especially vulnerable to these schemes. In part because of this, India has comparatively strong child labor regulations: It's illegal for children younger than 14 to work in factories there, and all workers must be paid double for overtime. Enforcing those laws, however, is another matter. Factories go to great lengths to cover up illegal practices. (Aruna recalls that when inspectors would come—she didn't know whether they were government or company auditors—factory supervisors would shove the younger girls into a special wing. If they were found, they were told to say that they were 18.)
And workers themselves hardly ever report abuse, in part because many come from lower castes, including the dalit, or untouchables. "People don't take up these issues with factory management because they are afraid of losing income and afraid of possible retaliation because they are in a vulnerable position in society," says Heather White, a fellow at Harvard's center for ethics who has researched global clothing supply chains. In her interviews with factory workers, she says she heard about "numerous cases of sexual harassment, which normally in the factory worker context means rape."
In 2012, the workers' rights group Fair Labor Association examined the cases of 78 sumangali workers who, at dozens of factories, had committed to work for three years. Of the 34 girls who did not complete their contracts, 4 died from accident or illness, 11 were forced to leave due to health problems, 17 were taken home by their parents, and 2 left on their own. Twenty were still working at the time of the FLA interviews, and 24 had completed their contracts. Several other NGOs confirmed that it's very common for girls to not complete their contracts and that on-the-job accidents and even deaths are not at all unusual.
A tea plantation in a village where factory recruiters target girls from poor families
Although some of the workers told the interviewers that they had been sexually harassed by supervisors, the report's authors noted that girls rarely report such incidents because doing so could affect their marriage prospects—and is unlikely to bring results in court, anyway. While reported cases of rape in India have been on the rise, the conviction rate—less than 27 percent—has dipped over the last decade, and victims who go to the police have been known to be raped by them as well.
Despite the growing evidence that abuse is common in sumangali factories, most Western companies have not yet eliminated the practice from their supply chains. A major American trade group, the United States Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel (USA-ITA), has pressured suppliers in other parts of the world to clean up bad labor practices; it recently convinced Bangladesh to pass a binding five-year plan to increase the number of inspections and improve worker safety training. Yet when I asked Samantha Sault, the group's spokeswoman, about sumangali factories, she said, "We have not been aware of the labor practices that you describe." She added that it sounded "disturbing."
SINNATHAMBY PRITHIVIRAJ is a gruff, heavyset man who heads Care-T, the group that helped Aruna find her nursing job. For a decade he has been working with sumangali girls from his office in Coimbatore; he has helped 1,600 of them find work after returning from stints in the factories. If I want to see where the girls come from, he says, I need to go to Aruna's home village, where he's seen an uptick in recruitment recently. He says I should look for "the girls with alcoholic and missing fathers," because "that's where the recruiters are looking."
We set out early the next morning, driving south through heavy traffic past unfinished strip malls and gated textile factories. Getting to the village—a tea-growing area of 71,000 residents, with settlements clustered around 56 different estates—requires a fearless driver managing a rickety stick shift on tight hairpin turns and a healthy tolerance for the 2,000-foot elevation gain. We repeatedly stop the car to let our guide vomit. When we arrive, we see the tea blooming in neon-green tufts straight out of Dr. Seuss. Most of the tea workers are from the lower castes and make about $3 per day; it costs a month's salary just to outfit a child with books and a uniform for school. "We can't give all our children food and schooling, so we sacrifice one child's future for the others," one mother tells me. "In these jobs, girls are preferred, so girls go."
When I arrive at Care-T's office in the village, I am greeted by Julia Jayrosa, the organization's 31-year-old coordinator, in a small room packed with a dozen women and their children. Jayrosa, who seems to have boundless energy and speaks so quickly that I have to beg her to slow down, makes it her business to know what's happening in every house in the village. She tells me there are at least 800 girls from here working in sumangali arrangements right now. Agents are paid $34 to $50 for every worker they recruit to the mills, she says, showing me a bright pink poster that was distributed around the village in May. It promises that in the factories, girls will get part-time education, private bedrooms, and excellent pay. Jayrosa is afraid of the agents and fears that they might shut down her meager business: She provides space for several dozen former factory workers to use their stitching skills and sell their own garments in the village. Her main concern right now is raising enough money to get the women a bathroom, so they don't have to keep going in the jungle.
I spend the day with Jayrosa, talking to the villagers who come in and out of the office. I meet five former sumangali girls, as well as three mothers and a father who sent their daughters to the factories. I talk to a woman who had a miscarriage at a factory because she had to stand so long in the heat, and another who tells me that sexual harassment was rampant in her factory, but "you have to be smart enough not to fall for their tricks."
"We sell to American and European companies!" says the mill boss. "What gives you the right to think you can take photos here?"
At dusk, I meet a girl named Selvi, whose family invites me to their home. At 20, Selvi looks no older than an American middle-schooler, and she weighs 85 pounds. She is shy, quiet, and doesn't often make eye contact. She says she spent the last two years doing stitching for a factory. The recruiter promised her 250 rupees (about $4) per shift, but she says she made only 150 (about $2.50) plus overtime of 15 rupees per hour—even though the legal overtime requirement is twice her hourly pay, or 34 rupees per hour.
The company that owns the factory where Selvi worked has supplied clothing to Mothercare, Walmart, H&M, and the Children's Place. H&M reports that it found no evidence of sumangali workers in its recent audits of three of the company's factories. In 2011, however, the workers' rights group Anti-Slavery International found that the company that runs the factory where Selvi worked was paying workers less than half of what they were promised, sometimes withholding a portion of pay until the workers completed their contracts, monitoring the girls' phone calls, and refusing to let parents visit their children. (The company denies these allegations, and Selvi was allowed to collect her pay and take leave from the factory in March because of problems with her thyroid. She plans to go back to work as soon as she gets better.)
Update: The Electronic Privacy Information Center reports that the court just granted the government more time to decide whether to release the kill switch plan. It now has until January 13.
This month, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Department of Homeland Security must make its plan to shut off the internet and cellphone communications available to the American public. You, of course, may now be thinking: What plan?! Though President Barack Obama swiftly disapproved of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak turning off the internet in his country (to quell widespread civil disobedience) in 2011, the US government has the authority to do the same sort of thing, under a plan that was devised during the George W. Bush administration. Many details of the government's controversial "kill switch" authority have been classified, such as the conditions under which it can be implemented and how the switch can be used. But thanks to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), DHS has to reveal those details by December 12—or mount an appeal. (The smart betting is on an appeal, since DHS has fought to release this information so far.) Yet here's what we do know about the government's "kill switch" plan:
What is a kill switch? A kill switch refers to the government's authority to disconnect commercial and private wireless networks—affecting both cellphones and the internet—in the event of an emergency, such as a viable threat of a terrorist attack.
How does a kill switch work? There isn't any kind of big red button the Obama administration can push to turn off the wireless networks in the United States. Instead, there are a few ways the federal government could exercise its power to shut down and restore internet and cellphone service (see below). It's also unlikely that a "kill switch" would cause a nationwide blackout. Instead, the government is explicitly authorized to target a "localized area"—such as a bridge—or potentially an "entire metropolitan area," according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. (Both DHS and the White House declined to comment for this article.)
Is it harder for the US government to kill cellphones or the internet? Communications experts say that killing phone service is probably easier, because there are only a few companies the government has to deal with to smother cellphone communications (the kill switch doesn't generally govern land lines). Most mobile-phone service passes through physical connection points that are controlled by the big-name phone companies, including AT&T and Verizon. The US government would essentially have to compel these companies to turn off their cellphone towers. The feds could also use cellphone jammers to interrupt service in a localized area.
Experts say that shutting off the internet could be tougher. There are thousands of internet service providers in the United States. According to Allan Friedman, research director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, in Egypt, the government spent a lot of time prior to the anti-Mubarek protests making sure all of the nation's internet service providers ran through a single entryway, so that it could easily shut things off. China is working on nationalized routing. That's not the case in the United States, where trying to cut off internet in one office in Washington, DC, could mean trying to map cables in Baltimore and Virginia. "If the government attempted to disrupt the largest physical networks in the US, it would also likely disrupt its own communications," Friedman notes. But Harold Feld, vice president at Public Knowledge, an advocacy group focused on communications and technology policy, says that big internet companies still control a large portion of subscribers in the United States, and if the top 10 service providers cooperated with the government, "you could shut things down fairly easily."
Is it legal for the Obama administration to activate a kill switch? Yep, and kill switches aren't new. In 1918, a congressional joint resolution authorized the president to assume control of US telegraph systems, in order to operate them during World War I. Then, in 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Communications Act, which decreed, "Upon proclamation by the President that there exists war or a threat of war, or a state of public peril or disaster or other national emergency, or in order to preserve the neutrality of the United States, the President, if he deems it necessary in the interest of national security or defense, may suspend or amend" both wireless radio and phone services, which means it's not clear whether this could apply to internet service (although the Federal Communications Commission has used that argument before, when deregulating internet service over telephone lines in 2005).
What is clear is that in 2006, the Bush administration entered into a secret agreement with telecom giants and came up with a specific plan as to when and how the government can actually shut down these networks—called Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 303. This is the plan that the US government is required to release under the federal district court ruling. In 2011, the White House asserted again that the administration has the legal authority to control private communications systems in the United States during national emergencies. And in 2012, President Obama reaffirmed that DHS could seize private facilities and shut down communications in a July executive order.
Why would the US government need to exercise a kill switch? The US government has always considered it a good idea to have full control over communications networks during a war. During peacetime, government officials could conclude that suspending cellphone service on a particular channel might stop would-be terrorists from setting off one or more bombs. There's certainly the chance that some government official might consider shutting down communications to stop or hamper protests. This did happen in 2011 in San Francisco's subway stations (see below), although not on the federal level. It's possible that a wide-scale cyberattack that targets major financial and government institutions could require an immediate shutdown of internet service. In 2010, Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) attempted to pass legislation that would have allowed the president to take over private computer systems during a "national cyberemergency" for such a purpose. The controversial bill didn't pass.
Critics contend that activating any kind of kill switch will do more harm than good. "I find it hard to imagine why an internet kill switch would ever be a good idea, short of some science fiction scenario wherein the network comes alive a la Terminator/Skynet," Feld says. "At this point, so much of our critical infrastructure runs on the internet that a 'kill switch' would do more harm than anything short of a nuclear strike. it would be like cutting off our own head to escape someone pulling our hair." The same argument applies to smothering cellphone service. "The benefit of people being able to communicate on their cellphones in times of crisis is enormous, and cutting that off is in and of itself potentially very dangerous," argues Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Has the government ever turned off cell phones or the internet? Yes—but the only known reports concern cell service. In 2005, shortly after suicide bombers attacked the London tube, federal authorities disabled cell networks in four major New York tunnels. The action was reportedly taken to prevent bomb detonation via cellphone, and according to a National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee review, it "was undertaken without prior notice to wireless carriers or the public." (In an April statement to Mother Jones, Verizon denied have any role in shutting down cell service in New York.) In 2009, during Obama's inauguration, the feds used devices that blocked cellphones from receiving signals to prevent bomb detonation. In 2011, officials for the San Francisco transit system cut off cellphone service in four Bay Area Rapid Transit stations for several hours to preempt a planned protest over BART police fatally shooting a homeless man.
What are the constitutional problems? Civil liberties advocates argue that kill switches violate the First Amendment and pose a problem because they aren't subject to rigorous judicial and congressional oversight. "There is no court in the loop at all, at any stage in the SOP 303 process," according to the Center for Democracy and Technology. "The Executive Branch, untethered by the checks and balances of court oversight, clear instruction from Congress, or transparency to the public, is free to act as it will and in secret." David Jacobs of EPIC says, "Cutting off communications imposes a prior restraint on speech, so the First Amendment imposes the strictest of limitations…We don't know how DHS thinks [the kill switch] is consistent with the First Amendment." He adds, "Such a policy, unbounded by clear rules and oversight, just invites abuse."
What don't we know about the kill switch plan? A lot. We don't know the "series of questions" that help DHS determine whether it should activate a kill switch, how DHS will go about implementing the kill switch, how long a shutdown will last, and what the oversight protocols are. For example, Jacobs from EPIC says that, it appears that "DHS wouldn't have to call up the president to implement this, he would be involved in the same indirect way that he is with all kinds of executive branch actions." This information was requested in the FOIA lawsuit filed by (EPIC) and could be revealed as early as December. "Hopefully exposure of such a lunatic idea will allow the public to beat some common sense into these agencies," says Feld.
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).
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)
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 FDArejected 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)
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." TheCenter 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.
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)
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.
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."