Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

Kiera answers your green questions every week in her Econundrums column. She was a hypochondriac even before she started researching germ warfare.

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Kiera has written about the environment, arts and culture, and more for Columbia Journalism Review, Orion, Audubon, OnEarth, Plenty, and the Utne Reader. She lives in Berkeley and recently planted 30 onions in her backyard.

Are Your Kids' Rainbow Bracelets Toxic?

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 1:35 PM EDT

Bracelets and other trinkets made on the wildly popular Rainbow Loom—a toy that allows kids to weave together brightly colored elastic bands—could contain cancer-causing chemicals, a British laboratory has found.

In a study commissioned by a British toy retailer, the Assay Laboratory in Birmingham, United Kingdom, tested charms meant to be attached to bracelets and necklaces woven on the looms. The researchers found that while Rainbow Loom's own name-brand products were safe, some charms made by knockoff brands contained high levels of phthalates, a class of carcinogenic chemicals. Some of the knockoff charms were composed of as much as 50 percent (by weight) phthalates, the Irish blog Mummy Pages reports. (It's currently illegal in the United States to sell a toy that contains more than 0.1 percent of six kinds of phthalates, though some products still slip through the cracks.)

Marion Wilson, a spokeswoman from the lab, told Mummy Pages that while only the charms were tested, it was likely that the bands themselves also contained phthalates. In an email to Mother Jones, Wilson declined to share the names of the brands that were found to have high phthalate levels. "We would never share our customer information as it is clearly commercially sensitive," she wrote. "However, please note that the customers that have received test results like this will have tested the product prior to it going on the market." It's unclear whether the brands tested at the lab are sold in the United States as well as in the United Kingdom.

Phthalates aren't the only dangerous thing about Rainbow Looms: BuzzFeed notes other horrors, including injuries to children. Animal advocates in the Philippines say that the bands can harm creatures that swallow them.

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Obama Is About to Give You the Right to Unlock Your Phone

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 5:26 PM EDT

Ever wondered why you can't transfer your old phone to a new carrier? The practice, known as cellphone unlocking, is illegal. It probably won't surprise you that in the '90s, wireless carriers—who, for obvious reasons, wanted everyone to buy new phones and plans—lobbied for a ban.

As I wrote last year, this ban isn't just annoying and expensive for consumers, it's also wasteful. We only keep our phones for an average of 18 months , and when we get a new one, the old one seldom makes it to a recycling facility. Many languish in desk drawers; some end up in the garbage. That means a lot of electronic waste in landfills, not to mention the environmentally hazardous materials such as rare earths required to make all those new phones.

So it's great news that today the House unanimously passed a law that would finally make phone unlocking legal. The Senate approved the measure last week. Now President Obama just needs to sign off, which he has pledged to do.

After that, if you unearth that old phone from the desk drawer, someone might actually be able to use it.

Study Finds Kids Prefer Healthier Lunches. School Food Lobby Refuses to Believe It.

| Tue Jul. 22, 2014 3:29 PM EDT

From all of the commotion around the new federal school lunch standards, you'd think they were really Draconian. Republican legislators have railed against them. Districts have threatened to opt out. The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the industry group that represents the nation's 55,000 school food employees, has officially opposed some of them—and doubled its lobbying in the months leading up to July 1, when some of the new rules took effect.

Half of those surveyed said that the students "complained about the meals at first," but 70 percent said that the students now like the new lunches.

Here's who doesn't mind the new standards: kids. For a study just published in the peer-reviewed journal Childhood Obesity, researchers asked administrators and food service staff at 537 public elementary schools how their students were liking the meals that conformed to the new standards. Half of those surveyed said that the students "complained about the meals at first," but 70 percent said that the students now like the new lunches. Rural districts were the least enthusiastic about the new meals—there, some respondents reported that purchasing was down and that students were eating less of their meals. But respondents from schools with a high percentage of poor students—those with at least two-thirds eligible for free or reduced-price meals—were especially positive about the new standards: They found that "more students were buying lunch and that students were eating more of the meal than in the previous year."

"Kids who really need good nutrition most at school are getting it," says Lindsey Turner, the Childhood Obesity study's lead author and a research scientist at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "That's really good news."

SNA's response? To issue a statement declaring that "these reported perceptions about school meals do not reflect reality." The group cites USDA data that participation in school meals has declined by 1.4 million since the new rules went into effect in 2012. But Turner, the Childhood Obesity study's lead author, notes that this is only about a 3 percent drop. She also points to a Government Accountability Office study that found that most of the drop-off was among students who pay full price for lunch.

What makes SNA's stance on the new rules even stranger is that they actually are not all that strict. For example: Foods served must be whole grain rich, but as I learned from my trip to SNA's annual conference last week, that includes whole-grain Pop Tarts, Cheetos, and Rice Krispies Treats. Students are required to take a half cup of a fruit or vegetable—but Italian ice—in flavors like Hip Hoppin' Jelly Bean—are fair game.

Not all members of SNA consider the task of tempting kids with healthy foods onerous. As I reported last week, Jessica Shelly, food director of Cincinnati's diverse public schools, has shown that all it takes is a little creativity.

HT The Lunch Tray.

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