Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson


Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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The GAO Slams EPA's Regulation of Toxics

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 4:06 PM EST

Yesterday the Government Accountability Office released its annual list of government programs that it considers to be at risk of waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement and due for reform. The list included three new programs: the financial regulatory system (duh), the FDA's regulation of drugs (Vioxx, and this), and the EPA's regulation of toxic chemicals. The last has received little press, except here and here in Mother Jones (MJ contributor Mark Schapiro also published a book on the subject), which makes the GAO's bold suggestions much more striking.

The GAO says the EPA has a huge backlog of unperformed assessments that are needed to determine whether individual toxic chemicals should be regulated:

Overall the EPA has finalized a total of only 9 assessments in the past 3 fiscal years. As of December, 2007, 69 percent of ongoing assessments had been in progress for more than 5 years and 17 percent had been in progress for more than 9 years. In addition, EPA data as of 2003 indicated that more than half of the 540 existing assessments may be outdated. Five years later, the percentage is likely to be much higher.

Of course, as we've pointed out, Europe has stepped into this vacuum with a much more stringent set of toxics regulations that essentially puts the burden of proving the safety of chemicals upon the industries that use them. The logical thing would be for the US to simply adopt Europe's approach, and that's essentially what the GAO is now suggesting. The government should "shift more of the burden to chemical companies for demonstrating the safety of their chemicals," the GAO says, "and enhance the public's understanding of the risks of chemicals to which they may be exposed."

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What is Private Equity Good For?

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 6:52 PM EST

From the London Guardian:

More than half the profits generated by private equity firms in recent years have been made by piling debt onto the companies they invest in, according to a report published today.
The findings of the first annual report on the industry, designed to increase transparency and improve the image of private equity, instead provided further ammunition for the industry's critics.
The analysis by accounting firm Ernst & Young claims that just one fifth of returns achieved come from strategic and operational improvements.

Is it reasonable to expect that these ratios would be about the same for U.S. private equity firms?

Obama Keeps Bush's White House Chef

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 1:40 PM EST

Remember the hubub over whether Obama would plant a White House garden and pick a chef who serves sustainably-grown foods? Well, nevermind. It turns out that Bush's chef, Cris Comerford, sources much of her food from local farmers and some of it from a White House roof garden. And, according to previous Bush chef Walter Scheid, Laura Bush "was adamant that in ALL CASES (his emphasis) if an organic product was available it was to be used in place of a non-organic product." Who knew? Obama, I guess, who's decided to keep Comerford on. Let's just hope he applies her philosophy to the nation's food system, because that, at least, would be a first.

Image: Cris Comerford

Mississippi, Vanguard of Abstinence Sex Ed, Now Boasts the Highest Teen Pregnancy Rate in the Nation

| Thu Jan. 8, 2009 1:42 PM EST

Mississippi now has the nation's highest teen pregnancy rate, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control released yesterday. Between 2005 and 2006 the state's rate of teen pregnancy increased 13 percent, and is now more than 60 percent above the national average.

The report did not attempt to explain the spike, but a major factor is probably Mississippi's rejection of sex ed. The state's schools must stress abstinence and are prohibited from demonstrating how to use contraceptives. Numerous studies have found that kind of approach to be ineffective.

A common myth surrounding abstinence-only sex ed is that it works for teens who are evangelical Christians--the kids of the parents who are pushing schools to adopt the programs--so if schools would stick with the approach, the Godless masses would eventually get on the straight-and-narrow. But Bristol Palin isn't the only evidence that shreds that argument. In November the New Yorker's Margaret Talbot described the findings of Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, who published a book called "Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers":

His findings are drawn from a national survey that Regnerus and his colleagues conducted of some thirty-four hundred thirteen-to-seventeen-year-olds, and from a comprehensive government study of adolescent health known as Add Health. Regnerus argues that religion is a good indicator of attitudes toward sex, but a poor one of sexual behavior, and that this gap is especially wide among teen-agers who identify themselves as evangelical. The vast majority of white evangelical adolescents--seventy-four per cent--say that they believe in abstaining from sex before marriage. (Only half of mainline Protestants, and a quarter of Jews, say that they believe in abstinence.) Moreover, among the major religious groups, evangelical virgins are the least likely to anticipate that sex will be pleasurable, and the most likely to believe that having sex will cause their partners to lose respect for them. (Jews most often cite pleasure as a reason to have sex, and say that an unplanned pregnancy would be an embarrassment.) But, according to Add Health data, evangelical teen-agers are more sexually active than Mormons, mainline Protestants, and Jews. On average, white evangelical Protestants make their sexual début--to use the festive term of social-science researchers--shortly after turning sixteen. Among major religious groups, only black Protestants begin having sex earlier.

IMAGE AT RIGHT: Logo for Mississippi's abstinence campaign

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