Jaeah Lee

Associate Interactive Producer

Jaeah reports, writes, codes, and charts at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, GuardianWiredChristian Science MonitorGlobal PostHuffington PostTalking Points Memo, and Grist. She is a 2013-14 Middlebury fellow in environmental journalism. Her work has been named a finalist in the Data Journalism Awards. In a former life, she researched and wrote about China at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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The EPA Isn't Protecting You From the Worst Polluters

| Tue Nov. 8, 2011 12:30 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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Energy Department: World CO2 Emissions Rising Faster Than Ever

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 2:54 PM EDT

New figures released by the Department of Energy show that the world is emitting carbon dioxide at a rate much faster than scientists had predicted. Global CO2 emissions reached 10 billion tons in 2010, the Oak Ridge National Lab reports, about 564 million tons or 6 percent more than emitted in 2009. It's the biggest annual jump ever recorded thus far:

Oak Ridge National Lab/APOak Ridge National Lab/AP

"It's a big jump," Tom Boden, director of the Oak Ridge's Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, told The Associated Press. "From an emissions standpoint, the global financial crisis seems to be over."

The new figure also means CO2 is now being emitted at a rate higher than the figure the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) used in 2007 to project its worst-case scenario for global temperature increase by the end of the century (depicted by the red line in the graph below):

NASA Earth ObservatoryNASA Earth Observatory

In light of the new DOE report, the question scientists are asking now is whether the world will experience the IPCC's worst case scenario "or something more extreme," Christopher Field, a Stanford University professor and head of one of the IPCC's working groups, said.

Slave-Labor Candy, Union-Busting Costumes, and Lead-Laden Fake Bling: Happy Halloween!

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 4:30 AM EDT

Let me start by confessing that I have become a Halloween curmudgeon. Almost every year I dress up in some sort of costume, plaster on make up, and devour more than my fair share of a candy bar variety pack. There isn't a holiday that tempts me as much to buy, eat, and wear as many things I don't need as I do on Halloween. So what better time to consider where those Halloween goodies came from and who made them? They do, after all, make up a $6.2 billion industry. And even in the midst of a troubling economy, Americans will spend an average of $72.31 on Halloween this year, the highest amount recorded in the last nine years, according to the National Retail Federation. Herewith, the full scoop on pumpkins, candy, costumes, make-up, and fake bling:

Pumpkins: You've likely already touched, seen, or carved a pumpkin of your own. For the most part, these probably were grown on a pumpkin patch not far from your home or within your state. But if you're also planning on eating a pumpkin, in a pie or other such baked form, you're probably buying it canned. The United States produced no less than 1.1 billion pounds of pumpkin in 2010, the lion share of which is sealed in cans and shipped off to grocery aisles. Most canned pumpkins come from central Illinois, around the town of Morton, the self-proclaimed Pumpkin Capital of the World. It is also where Nestle, owner of the pumpkin subsidiary Libby's, operates a pumpkin processing plant, mostly staffed with migrant laborers traveling up from Mexico.

Although there are few labor rights violations reported on pumpkin patches or at the processing plants, Miguel Keberlein, an attorney with the Chicago-based Illinois Migrant Legal Assistance Project, explains that the fact that migrant labor is used at all raises a flag. "That itself tells you that it's not fantastic work," he says.

Pumpkin cultivation does have some harmful impact on environment. The watchdog group What's On My Food?, which aggregates Department of Agriculture data to monitor pesticide use, lists endosulfan sulfate as a main chemical found on winter squash, which includes pumpkins. Endosulfan sulfates have been known to have toxic and sometimes fatal effects on birds, freshwater fish, insects, and snakes.

If you are willing to shell out some extra cash, you could buy organic pumpkins at a nearby natural foods store or farmers market. Daring gardeners out there might try growing one on their own turf.

In the Ivory Coast and Ghana, a total of 532,030 children worked in cocoa farms or cocoa processing, with some 113,000 reporting that they were working against their will.

Candy: When it comes to chocolate, there's much bad news that we already know. The buckets full of Reese's cups and Hershey's Kisses we'll pass out to trick-or-treaters this week is largely sourced from West Africa. (Some 70 percent of the world's cocoa comes from that region.) Earlier this year, Tulane University published a report (commissioned by the Department of Labor) detailing child labor on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, finding that a total of 532,030 children worked in cocoa farms or cocoa processing in the two countries, with some 113,000 reporting that they were working against their will. In the last year, major candy companies, including Nestlé, Mars, and Kraft, have pledged to purchase certified fair-trade cocoa, according to a September 2011 report by Global Exchange, Green America, and the International Labor Rights Forum. Hershey's has lagged behind in commitments compared with its competitors. Progress has been slow, though, since these companies had already made similar pledges to reduce child labor back in 2001.

You don't have to look too hard to find ethical sweets. GOOD has a bunch of organic and fair-trade recommendations, from chocolates to lollipops. And if you're a die-hard Hershey's fan, good luck with that. Nestlé does sell fair-trade Kit-Kat bars—but only in Europe.

BPA Makes Little Girls Anxious and Depressed

| Tue Oct. 25, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

A new study shows that girls who were exposed to chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) as fetuses are more highly prone to hyperactive, anxious, aggressive, and depressed behavior than boys of similar age. BPA, an estrogen-mimicking chemical used to harden plastic, is found in consumer products ranging widely from canned soups to baby bottles and grocery receipts. (MoJo's Kiera Butler's got the full rundown on BPA's health risks.)

The study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, joins a mounting body of evidence linking BPA to various reproductive and developmental diseases. The study's authors tested urine samples of 244 mothers during pregnancy and at birth and of their children for the first three years. The urine tests showed BPA in 84 percent of the women's samples and in 96 percent of the children's, with indications that behavior problems in the girls rose with rising BPA levels. But while the study shows a strong correlation between behavioral change and BPA levels, its authors say more research is needed.

Meanwhile, other studies in recent years have linked BPA exposure to impaired thyroids, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, breast and prostate cancer, and infertility in both men and women. The Pediatrics study confirms two previous ones finding that prenatal exposure to BPA affects child behavior, and it's the first to demonstrate that BPA exposure prebirth may matter more than exposure postbirth, lead author Joe Braun told Bloomberg.

The growing case against BPA has motivated an increasing number of state legislators to ban the substance from certain consumer products. Earlier this month, California officially banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups, joining 10 other states that have recently passed similar bills. Around the world, BPA is already outlawed in the European Union, Canada, China, the United Arab Emirates, and Malaysia.

The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees federal regulation over chemicals in the United States, does not support a ban on BPA. This, despite being heavily criticized by consumer advocacy groups and being sued for failing "to safeguard the food supply." In 2009 the Consumers Union warned of the health risks posed by BPA in food containers, basing its position on more than 200 different scientific studies. The FDA recognizes that the recent studies on BPA warrant reason for "some concern." But it ultimately argues that there are "substantial uncertainties" in the interpretation of the studies and says it is conducting its own research on the matter.

Marion Nestle, a nutrition, food, and public health professor at New York University, sums up the regulatory BPA debate neatly:

In the absence of compelling science, regulators have two choices: exercise the "precautionary principle" and ban [BPA] until it can be proven safe, or approve it until it can be shown to be harmful. The United States and European safety agencies—and the food industry, of course—prefer the latter approach.

It's not just about the science. Unsurprisingly, plastic and other industry lobbyists routinely call into question the methodology of studies condemning BPA use, as they did in this most recent case. The criticism makes sense given that industry groups have also been campaigning aggressively against state legislation banning BPA from certain consumer products. In California alone, the American Chemical Council (ACC) spent $9.4 million on lobbying since 2005, Greenwire reported earlier this month. And the money can be persuasive. Mother Jones reported last month that the Susan G. Komen foundation, a leading breast cancer research group, downplayed BPA's links to cancer around the time it was receiving funding from pro-BPA pharma companies.

Now that states are starting to move toward BPA bans despite industry opposition, groups like the ACC seem to be stepping up their game, making a new push for the FDA to have final say over BPA regulation. Of course, if federal jurisdiction were to override the emerging state-level bans, the FDA's inconclusive position on BPA as a public health threat would work well in the industry's favor.

Report: Countries Catch Way More Bluefin Tuna Than They're Supposed To

| Fri Oct. 21, 2011 3:48 PM EDT
Bluefin tuna at the Tsukiji Market, Japan.

Countries around the world are selling more than twice as much Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna than international standards allow, according to a new report from the Pew Environment Group. The report, released earlier this week, compares the recorded volume of Atlantic bluefin tuna caught and traded in the Mediterranean Sea and northeastern Atlantic Ocean with catch quotas set by the intergovernmental body responsible for regulating the fish's trade.

Pew looked at bluefin tuna trade data recorded over the last 13 years by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), Eurostat, Japanese customs, the US Department of Agriculture, and the Croatian Chamber of Economy, plotted in the graph below. The data tells us that while the overall recorded catch and international quota declined over time, in recent years the difference between the quota and actual trade volume has increased significantly:

Pew Environment GroupPew Environment GroupIn 2008 the amount of eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna traded on the global market was 31 percent larger than ICCAT's quota that year. In 2010, the gap expanded to 141 percent.

We've long known that national fishing fleets regularly break ICCAT's catch quotas. But the extent to which the nearly extinct bluefin tuna is being overfished is concerning, particularly since the report doesn't account for bluefin tuna traded on the black market. On this point: In February 2009 a team of British researchers wrote in the journal Public Library of Science that between 2000 and 2003, an average of 30 percent of all bluefin tuna caught around the world were caught illegally:

John Pearce et al/www.illegal-fishing.infoJohn Pearce et al/www.illegal-fishing.infoReliable and comprehensive data is important, not least because it informs major decisions about species protection. As I reported here in May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—the US agency that oversees the Atlantic bluefin tuna—declared that the fish did not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. NOAA reached its decision at the time on the assumption that fishing fleets abided by ICCAT quotas. Whether Pew's findings will prompt NOAA to revisit its decision remains to be seen.

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