Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

A senior editor at Mother Jones, Kiera covers health, food, and the environment. She is the author of the new book Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids—and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever (University of California Press).


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How Do You ID the Body of a Border Crosser?

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that so far this year, the bodies of 170 border crossers have been found in Pima County, Arizona. That means 2010's body count might break recent records: By the end of 2007, 218 bodies had been found.

Of the 170 bodies that have turned up so far this year, two thirds were anonymous. The identification of migrants' corpses is the subject of Andi McDaniel's "The Juan Doe Problem" in the September/October 2010 issue of Mother Jones. McDaniel writes:

A dead body without a name can't be buried, not in good conscience, at least, until efforts to identify it seem completely hopeless. And each person who deals with border bodies has a different definition of hopeless. That's the Juan Doe problem.

McDaniel spent time with the people who attempt to put names to border crossers' remains—which are often little more than piles of bones by the time they are found. She hung out with border agents who recover corpses in the desert, talked to technicians at the office of the Pima County Medical Examiner, and visited the cemetery that is the final resting place for unidentified bodies.

McDaniel also interviewed Chelsey Juarez, a UC-Santa Cruz grad student in physical anthropology who, for the past several years, has been analyzing teeth from Mexico to figure out how their chemical makeup varies by region. She's used her data to create a map, which she hopes medical examiners will one day use for clues to where unidentified crossers might have come from.

Read "The Juan Doe Problem" here, and check out the accompanying photoessay by Matt Nager here.

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Do 'Hypoallergenic' Products Really Cause Fewer Allergies?

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

Since I have lots of allergies, and my skin is prone to bouts of itchiness, I've always chosen soaps and lotions labeled "hypoallergenic." That label means they won't cause me to have an allergic reaction, right?

Wrong! Siobhan O'Connor, author of the new book No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics, recently clued me in that the label 'hypoallergenic' is virtually meaningless. "Unless the product makes a medical claim, the definition of 'hypoallergenic' is entirely up to the company that makes the product," she says. But allergies are a medical problem, so isn't the term "hypoallergenic" a medical claim? Not according to the FDA, which has this to say on its site on the issue:

There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term "hypoallergenic." The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean. Manufacturers of cosmetics labeled as hypoallergenic are not required to submit substantiation of their hypoallergenicity claims to FDA.

(A word of clarification about the word "cosmetics": It refers to any product that you put on your skin—soap, shampoo, lotion, etc.—not just makeup.)

The site is dated October 18, 2000, but labeling ruling hasn't changed since then. "Dermatologist tested" is also an unregulated claim.

I decided to ask cosmetic companies how they define the terms "hypoallergenic" and "dermatologist tested." Of the seven major manufacturers that I asked, only three—Johnson's (the baby products division of Johnson & Johnson's), Colgate-Palmolive, and Novartis—responded. A Novartis publicist said the company's Keri Basic Essentials lotion qualifies as hypoallergenic "because it is fragrance free and contains ingredients such as vitamins E and Aloe Vera." She also cautioned that despite the label, "we always suggest trying a small amount of any new product before applying all over to ensure they do not have a reaction." 

Publicists from Johnson's and Colgate-Palmolive assured me that external dermatologists tested their products, and that they used ingredients that had low allergen potential. But when I asked who the dermatologists were, and what standards they used to do determine an ingredient's allergic potential, neither company would cough up the goods. Check out the frustrating email exchange I had with a publicity rep from Johnson's:

Me: How does Johnson define the terms "hypoallergenic" and "dermatologist tested"? Are the dermatologists who test products in-house, or independent?

Rep: JOHNSON'S scientists work with independent dermatologists and testing facilities in the evaluation of our products. To ensure the product is hypoallergenic, JOHNSON'S carefully chooses ingredients known to have a low potential for allergy and then further evaluates the final formula to ensure that the product has a low potential to cause allergy.

Me: Any way you could give me the names of the independent dermatologists or testing facilities?

Rep: I'm sorry but J&J does not disclose that info. Anything else you need?

Me: Does the company disclose its standards for determining whether a product is hypoallergenic?

Rep: No, they don't but regarding that, they have this to say: JOHNSON'S only selects ingredients that have low allergy risks and performs rigorous safety evaluations on the final product.

Right. Back to square one. Next I consulted veteran dermatologist Patricia K. Farris, a clinical assistant professor at Tulane University who has more than 20 years of experience in her field, about her understanding of the term "dermatologist tested." She wrote to me in an email, "I have actually asked this question myself many times but nobody seems to know the answer as to how they make these claims 'dermatologist tested' or even 'dermatologist recommended.' I personally do not know of any criteria that need to be met to claim dermatology tested or dermatologist recommended."

Stacy Malkan of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of groups dedicated to reforming the cosmetics industry, says that misconceptions about the meaning of these terms are common. "People think 'hypoallergenic' means there are no allergens," she says. "That is just not the case." Malkan also recommends that consumers be wary of the term "organic," since the food rules don't apply to cosmetics. "You can't call a food 'organic' unless it meets USDA standards, but a lot of cosmetics on the market are labeled 'organic' and they have all kinds of synthetic ingredients," she says.

The good news is that new legislation aims to update the FDA's rules for the cosmetics industry, some of which have not changed since 1938. The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010, introduced in July by Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), would require companies to disclose all the chemicals in their products—including fragrance, about which companies are notoriously secretive. It would also require safety assesments and the phasing out of ingredients suspected of causing cancer and reproductive harm. Unfortunately, the new legislation would not crack down on labeling claims, but ingredient transparency would certainly be a step in the right direction, says Malkan.

Siobhan O'Connor says she'd love to see the new legislation pass but is worried that lobbying by the mighty industry group Personal Care Products Council will squash it. "You can't underestimate how powerful and well-funded the PCPC is," she says. "The last time legislation like this came along, it went away very quickly and quietly." Sure enough, the PCPC is already on the case, claiming that the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010 is "not based on credible and established scientific principles."

Want to learn more about the cosmetic industry's dirty secrets? O'Connor's book is a great place to start. Malkan has written another one called Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry. And the Story of Stuff Project produced this eight-minute video that really pissed off the PCPC.

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12 Most Toxic Fish (For Humans and the Planet)

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

Food & Water Watch just released its 2010 Smart Seafood Guide to the safety and sustainability of more than 100 kinds of fish and shellfish. Now I still love the Monterey Bay Aquarium's pocket guides and searchable Seafood Watch site (the only place where you can geek out with a trawling fact card, as far as I know), but the Smart Seafood Guide has a few unique features worth pointing out.

For starters, while some guides only address human health issues (like mercury) and environmental problems (like overfishing), Food & Water Watch also considers seafood's socioeconomic impact. "For example, lobster is a a key part of the economy up in Maine," says Marianne Cufone, director of Food & Water Watch's fish program. "Knowing that fact is really important to some consumers."

Another handy thing: It's organized by texture and taste, so you can figure out the safest and most sustainable options in categories such as "mild" and "steak-like." This makes it easy to figure out substitutes for recipes. 

Here's Food & Water Watch's "dirty dozen" list of seafood that failed to meet at least two of the group's criteria. For more details, plus a list of alternatives for each verboten species, check out the guide. In no particular order:

1. King crab: Even though crab is abundant in some parts of the US, imports from Russia—which aren't well regulated—are much cheaper and more common.

2. Caviar, especially from beluga and other wild-caught sturgeon: Overfishing and poaching of this coveted species is very common.

3. Atlantic bluefin tuna: Extreme overfishing, plus concerns about mercury and PCB contamination.

4. Orange roughy: May contain mercury and "is particularly vulnerable to overfishing due to its long lifespan and slow maturation."

5. Atlantic flatfish (e.g. flounder, sole and halibut): Seriously overfished.

6. American eel: Concerns about mercury and PCBs.

7. Atlantic Cod: Overfished, and also has major bycatch problems.

8. Imported catfish: Much of it comes from Southeast Asia, "where use of chemicals and antibiotics is barely regulated."

9. Chilean seabass: Concerns about mercury, plus illegal fishing in Chile damages marine life and seabirds.

10. Shark: May contain mercury, also overfished.

11. Atlantic and farmed salmon: Concerns about contamination with PCB, pesticides, and antibiotics. Also, waste and germs from salmon farms often leaches out of the cages and can harm the surrounding marine life.

12. Imported shrimp: About 90 percent of it comes from countries where the seafood industry (waste control, chemical use, and labor) isn't well regulated.

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