Jaeah Lee

Jaeah Lee

Associate Interactive Producer

When Jaeah isn't coding, researching, or writing for Mother Jones, she's usually reading about foreign policy, climate change, or new dinner recipes. A lover of mass transit, she can pretty much navigate the New York City subway blindfolded.

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Prior to joining Mother Jones, Jaeah worked as a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, focusing on China. Her writings have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Global Post, Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, and Movements.org.

A Zagat-Style Guide for Ethical Diners

| Mon Dec. 5, 2011 6:30 AM EST

jeffreysclark/Flickrjeffreysclark/FlickrDiners, foodies, and hungry folk across America: There's a new, handy guide to restaurants for you to peruse. Except, this isn't your typical set of reviews. The Restaurant Opportunities Center United's report from last week scores 186 US eateries based on wages (for both tipped and non-tipped jobs), paid sick days, and opportunities for advancement. After surveying the 150 highest revenue-grossing restaurants in the US as well as 4,300 workers, the ROC found a rather sobering picture of the labor and sanitation practices in the industry, which the group says employs more than 10 million people and is one of of the largest and fastest-growing in the country:

  • The median wage for restaurant workers is $8.90, just under the poverty line for a family of three. More than half of all restaurant workers earn less than the federal poverty line.
  • 90 percent of the 4,300 workers surveyed report not getting paid sick leave. Two-thirds of respondents reported cooking, preparing, and serving food while sick.
  • Women, immigrants, and people of color hold lower paying positions in the industry. ROC found that on average workers of color make $4 less than white workers. Nearly three-quarters of workers surveyed said they did not receive regular promotions.

While it might not shock you that the neighborhood Chuck E. Cheese's is underpaying the busboy, in the report you'll find four-star steakhouses and foodie meccas like Nobu also among the guilty. And Starbucks, which touts "competitive pay," health insurance, bonuses, and even domestic-partner benefits on its career page, scored rather poorly by ROC's measure.

Since these aren't the sorts of reviews you'll find in go-to sources like Zagat or on Yelp! we've compiled our own abbreviated guide for you, pairing the things you normally look for when searching for a place to eat next to their reported labor practices. Sift away.

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From Rock Musician to Anti-Slavery Activist

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 7:00 AM EST
Justin Dillon with Tremolo in 2007.

You've probably never heard of Justin Dillon or his band, Tremolo. After all, until fairly recently, his career was pretty unremarkable: By 2003, Tremolo had developed a following playing the usual tour circuits. They'd even landed tracks on a few films and television shows, including How to Deal, a romantic comedy starring Mandy Moore, and were awaiting an offer from Capitol Records to cut their first album.

"It was a weird phase where Capitol had a hold on us and we were all excited," Dillon recalls earlier this month as we sit in his sun-basked office in Oakland, California's iconic Tribune Tower. Wispy haired with hazel eyes, Dillon sports a militaristic look: khaki-green Mao cap, dark-washed jeans, black boots, 10 o'clock shadow.

Not wanting to sit around stressing about the record deal—which never materialized—the band accepted an invitation from a nonprofit to spend a week performing in a remote corner of Eastern Europe. Soon, Tremolo was in a town in Kalmykia, a Russian territory bordering the Black Sea. "Like, way the hell out there," Dillon says. "It wasn't hard to impress people because there was nothing to compare us to."

Which Household Cleaners Contain Toxins?

| Thu Nov. 17, 2011 1:19 PM EST

Next time you walk down the cleaning product aisle at your local grocery store, take a closer look at those pretty labels wrapped around your favorite surface disinfectant. A new study out today reveals that numerous popular cleaner brands, including Glade, Clorox, Pine Sol, and the ostensibly eco-friendly Simple Green, contain chemicals that are known to cause hormone disruption, pregnancy complications, birth defects, and cancer, and can aggravate allergies. Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE), which published the report, commissioned an independent laboratory to test 20 popular household cleaning products. Turns out, none of the toxic chemicals detected were disclosed on the product labels.

Here are six of the most egregious brands that WVE says you should watch out for:

Jinx!/FlickrJinx!/FlickrSimple Green Naturals Multi-Surface Care, it turns out, is a bit of a misnomer, since it's laden with phthalates, which even at low-dose exposure, can negatively affect reproductive and neurological development in pregnant women. Researchers also detected 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen. The Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner, meanwhile, contained toluene, which has been linked to pregnancy complications, birth defects, and developmental delays in children. The problem, WVE says, is that Simple Green committed to reformulate products containing phthalates in 2010.

txkimmers/Flickrtxkimmers/FlickrGlade's Tough Odor Solutions with Oust Air Sanitizer also tested positive for phthalates despite SC Johnson (its manufacturer) pledging to phase out the chemical from its product line last year. And lab researchers found a common fragrance ingredient called galaxolide, another hormone disruptor that's previously shown it can decrease a cell's defense mechanism against other toxic chemicals. The fact that galaxolide is used in the Glade aerosol deodorizer is particularly concerning, WVE says, because once sprayed the toxin can directly enter your system as you inhale.

marc_buehler/Flickrmarc_buehler/FlickrTide's Liquid Laundry Detergent (and its Free & Gentle version) also contains 1,4-dioxane. Although its maker Procter & Gamble reformulated its Herbal Essences hair care line to strip out the chemical in 2009, it has yet to do the same for the laundry detergent.

In Clorox Clean Up with Bleach, the WVE study found chloroform and carbon tetrachloride, both widely known cancer-causing chemicals. Scientific studies on animals have shown carbon tetrachloride exposure to cause breast cancer. Chloroform has been linked to nervous system effects including dizziness, nausea, and headaches.

aperture_lag/Flickraperture_lag/FlickrAs with the Simple Green cleaner, Pine Sol Original Formula also showed it contained toluene. Both brands have been marketed to women, WVE says.

rocknroll_guitar/Flickrrocknroll_guitar/FlickrGalaxolide was also detected in Febreze Air Effects, a much-favored household fragrance spray. The lesson? Next time you want to strip away the smell of garbage in your home, you just might want to go with some citrus rinds or vanilla extract.

EPA Could Save 35,700 Lives by Limiting Soot, but Won't

| Thu Nov. 17, 2011 8:15 AM EST

Stronger national standards on fine particulate matter could prevent 35,700 premature deaths and save Americans $281 billion per year, according to a new report. Earth Justice, the American Lung Association, and Clean Air Task Force published the report in conjunction with a petition they filed yesterday (PDF) against the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to meet its deadline to revisit the standard.

Fine particulate matter (otherwise known as PM 2.5 or more commonly as soot) is a mixture of solid and liquid particles that derives largely from diesel vehicles and equipent as well as coal-fired power plants. Soot is formed when tailpipe and smokestack emissions—including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides (both of which are classified as hazardous under the Clean Air Act)—mix with other chemicals in the atmosphere.

While not considered a hazardous pollutant by EPA standards, there's been a growing amount of scientific evidence supporting PM 2.5's health risks, including respiratory and heart diseases, aggravation of asthma, and diabetes. PM 2.5 is so fine (about 1/30 the width of a human hair) that it bypasses our usual mechanisms to dispel irritating air particles, like coughing and sneezing. Even just a few hours of exposure can aggravate lung disease, asthma attacks, or acute bronchitis, the report's authors say. Exposure has led to incidents of missing school and work, and even emergency visits to the hospital.

The report, citing previous studies, says that children are highly vulnerable to getting sick from PM 2.5 because much of their respiratory systems are still developing, and because they spend more time outdoors than do adults. The report also points out that elders and diabetics—who are more prone to heart or lung disease—are at risk, as are low-income groups, which "often live closer to the sources of soot pollution and have less access to medical care."

Given these findings over recent years, the report's authors argue that the EPA should save lives and money by strengthening its standard without further delay. The EPA, which is mandated under the Clean Air Act to revise pollutant standards every five years, last set its standard for PM 2.5 in October 2006—and is now a month overdue for revision. The environmental groups behind the report and the petition are now asking the courts to impose a September 2012 deadline for the EPA to come up with the new standard.

The general onslaught of recent Congressional action to undercut the EPA's authority to regulate under the Clean Air Act might help to explain the agency's delays in standard setting. According to an August 2011 Congressional Research Service report (PDF), there are at least six EPA regulations currently under consideration that would impose tougher air pollution standards on coal-fired power plants. The proposed regulations are being met with strong resistance from electric utility groups, Edison Electric Institute (EEI) chief among them, which calls the EPA's proposals a "regulatory train wreck." The National Mining Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential lobbying group, have similarly criticized the EPA proposals.

The primary anti-EPA regulation argument touted by industry, of course, is related to cost. One of the proposals under consideration, the Utility Maximum Achievable Control Technology, would require power plants to install better scrubbing and filtering equipment. Industry groups like EEI have argued that such a regulation could impede electric generating capacity and system reliability. According to the CRS analysis, however, many of the industry impact assessments grossly inflate the EPA's own estimated costs of compliance. For example, the EPA projects that complying with the Utility MACT proposal would cost the industry about $10.9 billion annually, while the average consumer would see bills go up by about $3 to $4 per month.

This cost to industry might be sizeable. But compare that with the estimated $218 billion Americans could save in health costs just with a stronger standard on soot? You do the math.

The EPA Isn't Protecting You From the Worst Polluters

| Tue Nov. 8, 2011 1:30 PM EST

The Center for Public Integrity has an eye-opening report on the Environmental Protection Agency's poorer-than-thought track record enforcing the Clean Air Act. The report comes out of an investigative team at the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News, and NPR, which delved into reams of EPA documents, federal and state data, interviewed with former officials, and dispatched reporters to 10 different states. The investigation reveals a grim picture of how declining EPA funding, staff cutbacks, and flawed enforcement structures have contributed to the agency's ability to regulate the most egregious toxic air polluters.

It's a must-read no matter where you live in the US because, for one, you can locate 17,000 toxic air polluters near you on an interactive map:NPR/Center for Public IntegrityNPR/Center for Public Integrity

Noteworthy among the iWatch and NPR's findings:

  • The EPA has specific limits on seven air toxins—including the familiar asbestos, benzene, and mercury. The Clean Air Act, however, covers 180 other chemicals, and those are loosely regulated under sector-wide laws, despite the chemicals' proven links to cancer, birth defects, brain impairment, respiratory disease, among other maladies.
  • Today, states receive about $200 million a year in federal grants, or about 25 percent of what it costs states to enforce private compliance with the Clean Air Act. When the act first went into effect in 1990, federal funds supported 60 percent of the cost.
  • The funding cutbacks have resulted in local environmental protection agencies relying on voluntary pollutant emissions reporting by industry players, which, as you might imagine, has made for some weak data. Mike Fisher, deputy director of the EPA's office of criminal enforcement, tells iWatch that of some 120 ongoing Clean Air Act cases his department manages, 90 percent involve polluters trying to mislead regulators.
  • In all, the EPA knows of more than 1,600 "high priority violators" of the Clean Air Act, a quarter of which appear on the internal EPA watchlist. Previously undisclosed, the list includes more than 383 chronic US polluters, ranging from chemical companies to corn processors, paint stripping operations, and tire makers spanning across the country. Among some of the more recognizable names are ArcelorMittal, Boeing, and Huntsman Corp., owned by the family of former Utah governor and ambassador to China Jon Huntsman. Now that the list is public, you can sift through them yourself:

 

 

 

More than anything, the report serves as a reminder that wherever the ongoing Congressional debate over the EPA and Clean Air Act lands, the health of entire communities hang in the balance.

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