Delaware Coal Plant Responsible for Cancer Cluster

January 5, 2011

By: Nick Engelfried 

   
Burning coal for electricity isn’t just a major contributor to climate change, it can also be deadly to public health.  That’s the take-home message from the State of Delaware’s recent discovery that pollution from the Indian River coal plant in the city of Millsboro, is contributing to a cancer cluster in the surrounding area.  Residents of the Delaware communities of Millsboro, Frankford, Dagsboro, Georgetown, Selbyville, and Ocean View are 17% more likely to have cancer than the average for the entire US, a Delaware Division of Public Health study finds. 

State officials first began examining whether the Indian River plant was contributing to higher cancer rates after years of pressure from residents of the Millsboro area, who believe their health is being affected by the power plant.  Burning coal produces a large number of toxic compounds that contribute to cancer, including mercury, lead, nickel, hydrofluoric acid, sulfuric acid, and other chemicals.  Older coal plants are especially likely to be emitting unsafe levels of pollutants, and the Indian River plant is one of the dirtiest power plants in Delaware. 

However other communities across the US are similarly feeling the effects of coal pollution.  The identification of a cancer cluster around the Indian River plant is just one more indicator of growing public awareness that burning coal threatens public health.  According to Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), coal pollution contributes to four of the five leading causes of death in the United States: heart disease, stroke, respiratory diseases, and cancer.  In order to improve public health, PSR recommends slashing US dependence on coal for fuel, ramping up investments in renewable energy, and passing national climate legislation while enforcing the existing clean air act to curb pollution from power plants.

Coal’s impact on health in turn affects the economy.  A report sponsored by the Clean Air Council, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, and others shows the nation’s dirtiest coal plants, which haven’t yet installed the same pollution controls required on newer plants, cost businesses around $6 billion annually by negatively impacting worker health.  Lost work days, lower productivity, and higher insurance costs all contribute to economic loses that could be avoided if workers were healthier. 

The same report concludes a US Environmental Protection Agency proposal to more strictly regulate coal pollution crossing state boundaries will have economic and health benefits that far outweigh the costs.  This proposed Transport Rule would require coal plants in thirty-one states to install more effective pollution controls that protect public health.  It’s one of several EPA proposals to more strictly limit pollution from coal plants and other sources.  Since EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson took office in 2009, the agency has been updating pollution regulations the rules on the books consistent with the latest health science—something the EPA is required to do periodically under the Clean Air Act.

If the EPA is allowed to move forward with the Transport Rule and new limits on mercury, toxic coal ash, and other coal pollutants, the benefits for public health would be significant.  The new rules would protect communities in many states from the kind of health risks found in the Millsboro area cancer cluster.  Yet some members of Congress—mostly Republicans but also some Democrats—argue the new regulations should not be allowed to move forward.  Representative Fred Upton (R-Michigan), incoming chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, says his party will work to prevent new environmental and health regulations taking effect.  Upton says the EPA rules would unnecessarily harm jobs in the coal industry.

With a new Republican majority taking office in the House of Representatives this month, the fight over whether energy companies should be required to reduce pollution from coal plants is likely to be long and heated.  It also has implications for the health of communities all over the United States.  This includes residents of Delaware’s Millsboro area, where coal pollution has already contributed to cancer and other health problems for years.

Photo credit: Darren Blackburn

Glacier National Park’s Most Unique Insect, the Western Glacier Stonefly, Threatened by Climate Change

January 3, 2011

By: Nick Engelfried 

On Thursday the Center for Biological Diversity and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation filed a scientific petition urging the western glacier stonefly be granted protection under the US Endangered Species Act.  Confined to only five streams in Montana’s Glacier National Park, this rare and unusual insect is threatened by the disappearance of its icy habitat due to climate change.

Like other stoneflies—which are not true flies at all but member of an ancient insect order that evolved tens of millions of years ago—western glacier stoneflies spend the first stage of their lives as underwater “nymphs.”  When mature, the nymphs climb out of the water, shed their skins, and emerge as winged adults that take to the air in search of a mate. 

Stoneflies tend to be very sensitive to pollution and changes in water quality, and many are considered “indicator species” used to judge the overall health of aquatic ecosystems.  About 40% of stonefly species in North America are at risk of extinction because of pollution and other effects of human activity.  Yet even in comparison to other stonefly species, nymphs of the western glacier stonefly are especially vulnerable to small changes in the ecosystem around them.  They depend for their survival on very cold water of the type that melt off of mountain glaciers, and are found only in glacier-fed streams located at very high elevations in Glacier National Park.

For millions of years western glacier stoneflies have persisted in their cold habitat, protected from most human disturbances by their extreme isolation.  However now climate change is disrupting glacier ecosystems, putting this and other species at risk.  Of the 150 glaciers counted in Glacier National Park in 1850, all but twenty-five have already disappeared due to global warming.  Scientists predict the remaining glaciers may be gone from the park as soon as 2030 if major reductions in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions are not made.   “This species is just one more example of why we need to address climate change before it is too late,” said Sarah Foltz Jordan of the Xerces Society, referring to the imperiled stonefly.

Yet despite the fact that its only remaining habitat is fast disappearing, the western glacier stonefly is not currently listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.  The conservation groups petitioning to list the insect hope inclusion on the Endangered Species List will help draw attention to the plight of the stonefly and other species threatened by climate change.  The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups involved, has also been at the forefront of the legal battle to protect polar bears, the mountain-dwelling pika, and other species threatened by a changing climate under the Endangered Species Act. 

“The loss of glaciers in Glacier National Park makes it clear that climate change is happening now,” said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The impending loss of the western glacier stonefly is a harbinger of change that will result in the loss of millions of species, disruption of food production, loss of water storage in mountain glaciers, flooding of coastal areas and other impacts that threaten our very way of life.”

Scientists estimate one third of all plant and animal species risk becoming extinct by the year 2050 if major economies don’t dramatically curb their reliance on fossil fuels and the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  As the second largest annual emitter of these gases and the largest historical emitter, the United States is considered by many international policy observers to have a special responsibility to reduce its contribution to climate change and help avert the worst predicted effects of global warming.

Photo credit: Lee Coursey

Coming Winter Cold May be Traced to Global Warming

December 31, 2010

By: Nick Engelfried 

As many parts of the US gear up for what looks to be another cold and snowy winter, it seems counterintuitive to believe the planet is growing warmer.  However the findings of climate scientists over the last couple years have shown that colder winters in parts of the North America, Europe, and Asia can actually be expected to occur partly as a consequence of climate change.  Rather than undermining the scientific data in support of global warming, the harsh winter season facing many highly populated areas are more likely a preview of how climate change is re-shaping the world we live in.

The key to understanding colder winters in a time of global warming is realizing the overall warming of the planet will affect global weather patterns in strange and sometimes paradoxical ways.  For example the winter of 2005 and ’06 was an exceptionally cold one for Japan and several eastern European countries.  Yet globally 2005 was among the warmest years on record, and this may in fact have contributed to winter storms in these temperate regions.  According to Japan’s Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, relatively warm temperatures over the Arctic in 2005 caused northern wind patterns to shift, meaning cold Arctic air blew down into Japan and Europe and contributed to a colder winter.

Similarly as ice continues to melt in the Arctic, there is more liquid water available to evaporate and fall back on the Earth as precipitation.  This has caused an increase in winter snowfall in Siberia—a vast area that affects global weather patterns.  More white snow cover in Siberia means more heat is reflected back into space, causing a local cooling affect that again changes wind and weather patterns around the world.  The growing cool patch above Siberia has been shown to impact the flow of the jet stream—one of the most important wind currents on the planet.  Changing energy patterns in the atmosphere tip the jet stream in such a way that it blows Arctic air down into eastern North America and parts of Eurasia.

Meanwhile as climate change causes cold and snowy winters at a local level, the overall trend of global warming continues.  The decade spanning the ten years from 2000 to 2009 was the warmest since record keeping began in 1880.  In November the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported 2010 is on-track to be the warmest year on record, and will certainly end up being counted as one of the top few warmest.  A certain amount of year to year variation in temperature will always occur, but the overall trend toward increased warming due to human activities is clear.

So why are so many local impacts of changes in global weather patterns traced back to a warming Arctic?  At least part of the reason is that the Arctic is feeling the effect of global warming much faster than most other parts of the world, with the result that dramatic changes in Arctic conditions reverberate throughout the globe.  Climate scientists have long predicted the Arctic would warm faster than other parts of the planet as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere.  This is already happening, and scientists say the Arctic has warmed about two to three times faster than the rest of the planet. 

The cold winter which many parts of the US are likely to experience this year is a reminder of just how complex global weather patterns are, and how changes in climate brought on by human activities can affect the planet in unexpected ways.  If you find yourself kept home be stormy snow conditions this winter, just remember: these local weather condition may be traceable back to a melting Arctic, and a steadily warming Earth. 

Photo credit: Michael Dolan

Warming Climate Threatens Species and Promotes Hybrid Animals

December 29, 2010

Over 150 years ago, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which is considered the footing of evolution biology. His theory on Natural Selection stated that over time an animal’s genetics will adapt to its environment and that will result in the emergence of species. A team of scientists on a different island recently made another discovery when it comes to genetic changes and animals’ environments.

Scientists predict by midcentury, for at least one month each summer, a passage of ice sheet will be available due to rising temperatures around the world. More and more new hybrid species are being discovered in the Arctic due the rapidly depleting Arctic ice according to a paper published in the latest issue of the journal Nature.

A team of researchers from the NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Juneau, University of Massachuetts, and the University of Alaska say that the seasonal loss of an ice sheet which is a natural barrier between species the size of a continent could cause the extinction of rare marine mammals, the loss of many adaptive gene combinations, and interspecies breeding.

Hybrids aren’t just appearing on the roads in the US and around the world, but in the Arctic as well. One example of this is the Grolar Bear, first discovered in the wild by an Australian scientist in 2006. The Grolar Bear is part grizzly and part polar and is white with brown patches of fur. It could be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to new hybrid species being discovered in the Arctic.

The team believes 22 marine mammals are at risk for hybridization because of melting ice including the Beluga, Narwhal, North Atlantic and North Pacific porpoises, the Bearded, Harbour, Spotted, Ringed Hooded, and Harp seals, the North Atlantic and North Pacific Minke, the Humpback, Killer, Fin, and Sperm whales, and walruses.

Over thousands of years, Arctic marine animals have developed fine-tuned adaptations, through genes which allow them to survive in such extreme environments according to marine mammalogist and first author Brendan Kelly of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine mammal lab in Juneau, with conservation geneticist Andrew Whiteley of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and evolutionary biologist David Tallmon of the University of Alaska. Their article looks at these genes and what happens when these species mix their gene pools by hybridization through interbreeding.

According to Whiteley, “the picture is complicated and it is hard for biologists to know exactly what to expect because hybridization can have beneficial consequences in the first generation. But in later generations, the process begins to have more negative effects as genomes mix and any genes associated with environment-adapted traits are recombined. Genes related to any trait that once allowed the animal to thrive in a specific habitat can be diluted, leaving the animal less well suited to surviving and reproducing there.”

Interbreeding might not be so bad in some species, but could be devastating for others. Such as interbreeding between the rare North Pacific right whale with less than 200 whales left and Bowhead whales. It is believed that the whale with the smaller population could become extinct.

The team is calling for an immediate study to be completed on the endangered bears, seals, and whales of the region over the next few decades before large portions of the populations are affected by interbreeding.

Climate Friendly Refrigerators Headed for the US Next Year

December 28, 2010
By: Nick Engelfried 

Starting in June of 2011, consumers in the United States should have the option of reducing their household’s contribution to climate change by choosing refrigerators that use climate friendly coolants.  For the first time, companies like General Electric will introduce the use of “natural” refrigerants on a large scale.  If this new type of refrigerant spreads, it could eventually have a significant impact on the climate, and buy time as further-reaching climate policies are implemented.

Unlike millions of refrigerator units in Europe, South America, China, and many other countries, household refrigerators in the United States use chemical coolants called HFCs, which are also used in home and car air-conditioning units.  HFCs were phased into the market in the 1990s as a replacement for chlorine-based CFCs, which deplete the global ozone layer.  However while HFCs may not harm the ozone, they are greenhouse gases up to 14,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide.  Replacing HFCs in refrigerators and air conditioners with a less harmful chemical could therefore have a significant impact on the climate.

Fortunately a refrigerating alternative to both CFCs and HFCs exists and is already used in many parts of the world.  Refrigerants made from hydrocarbons, sometime referred to as “natural” refrigerants, neither harm the ozone layer nor add substantially to climate change the way HFCs do.  Hydrocarbon refrigerators first became popular in Europe during the 1990s, when industrialized countries began phasing out use of ozone-depleting chemicals.  These first hydrocarbon refrigerators were developed at the urging of Greenpeace, one of the world’s largest environmental organizations, which wanted to find a climate friendly alternative to CFCs.  In 1993 Greenpeace collaborated with a manufacturer in Germany to introduce the first hydrocarbon refrigerators to the market.

Today more than four hundred million hydrocarbon based household refrigerators have been sold throughout the world.  However they never caught on in the United States, partly due to early concerns that flammable hydrocarbons might prove dangerous.  In 1994 the US Environmental Protection Agency decided to prohibit use of hydrocarbons as household refrigerants, because of a lack of information about whether the chemicals were truly safe. 

Since 1994 manufacturers have improved hydrocarbon refrigerator models, and they have been used safely throughout Europe and much of the rest of the world.  Hydrocarbons have also been adopted for use in aerosol sprays, furnaces, and other products in the United States.  In 2008 the EPA gave permission for several US companies to use hydrocarbon refrigeration units in their stores.  In 2010 the EPA began taking another look at the ban on household hydrocarbon refrigerators, and next year the agency is expected to approve the use of hydrocarbon refrigerants.  This will pave the way for manufacturers and retailers to provide climate friendly refrigerator options to consumers throughout the country by June of 2011.

Widespread adoption of hydrocarbon refrigerants in the United States would set an important precedent at a time when more and more refrigerators are being made and sold in developing countries.  If growing economies in the developing world can be persuaded to use hydrocarbons instead of CFCs or HFCs in their refrigerators, it will be good news for both the ozone layer and the climate. 

An international phase-out of HFCs could be accomplished by amending the Montreal Protocol, the treaty that has successfully reduced use of CFCs and slowed deterioration of the ozone layer.  By requiring the climate impacts of CFCs also be considered, the Montreal Protocol could help eliminate at least one important greenhouse gas even in the absence of international climate treaty.  Earlier this year the United States, Canada, and Mexico joined together to introduce an amendment to the Montreal Protocol designed to phase out the use of HFCs.

Because they exist in the atmosphere in far smaller concentrations than the carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels, even the complete elimination of HFCs won’t have the same climate impact as a transition to renewable energy.  However it would make a significant dent in future climate change, and could buy important time as countries around the world transition their economies to a clean energy future. 

Photo credit: Stefan on Flickr

Plastic Bags Banned in San Jose

San Jose, California recently added its name to the growing number of cities banning the use of plastic bags.  Tuesday, December 14, San Jose’s city council passed a 10-1 ordinance prohibiting plastic bag use in most retail establishments.  According to the San Francisco Chronicle, approximately 5,000 businesses would feel the affect of the plastic bag ban.

San Jose is not the first city in California to pass such an ordinance.  In 2005, San Francisco officials “considered imposing a 17-cent tax on petroleum-based plastic bags before reaching a deal with the California Grocers Association.”  The agreement stated that in 2006 large supermarkets must reduce the number of plastic bags given to shoppers by 10 million.  By the end of the year, the Grocers Association claimed it cut back by 7.6 million, but city officials claimed the figures were unreliable based on poor data supplied by the supermarkets. Disagreements renewed interest in banning all plastic bag use.  March of 2007, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to ban petroleum-based plastic bag use.  Legislation voted 10-1 that large markets and pharmacies must use compostable bags made of corn starch or bags made of recycled paper.

Not the first city to prohibit plastic bag use, San Jose became the largest city in the United States prohibiting carry-out bags.  The ordinance, starting January 1, 2012, includes most retailers, excluding restaurants and nonprofit, secondhand stores.  Plastic bags will also continue to be used to protect meat and produce.  Sandwich bags and trash bags will be unaffected by the ordinance.  Supporters of the ordinance state the new law “was the most far-reaching in the country aimed at encouraging shoppers to bring reusable totes.”

The widespread banning is not the only reason the ordinance is considered the most far-reaching.  To encourage shoppers to bring his or her own reusable bag, retailers will charge 10 cents per disposable paper bag.  That amount will increase to 25 cents by 2014.  Food-stamp recipients and low-income situations will be exempted from costs.  Retailers who do not follow the ordinance will face fines of $500 to $1,000 for violations.  According to Save the Bay executive director, David Lewis, the combination of fees and fines places San Jose’s ban as the strictest ban across the country.

              More on Save the Bay:

                  www.savesfbay.org

Critics of the ban, such as the American Chemistry Council, feel government officials should promote recycling instead of banning.  The Council, which represents plastic bag makers, claimed their product is being “unfairly maligned.”  They cited plastic bags can be recycled into products such as shopping carts and composite lumber.  Lewis argued recycling efforts are not enough and has failed in the past.  Reports show the Bay Area uses about 3.8 billion plastic bags per year.  Lewis says only 5 percent of bags are recycled and roughly 1 million end up in the San Francisco Bay, where the bags harm birds and other marine animals.

San Jose joins ten other cities in California with similar bans.  Long Beach, Santa Monica, and Santa Cruz are considering laws restricting plastic bag use as well.  Internationally, Ireland and China practice successful bag ban policies.   In 2009, the U.N. Environmental Program pushed for a global ban on plastic bag production.  Washington D.C. approved a bag tax, but overall bag ban policies in the United States have not seen the success rate of other countries.  The majority of San Jose councilmen are optimistic about the positive affects the plastic bag ban will provide.  Councilman Sam Liccardo says the ordinance is a great step and “an opportunity to lead on an important environmental issue.

White House Hosts Environmental Forum

Last Wednesday, December 15, marked a historic day as the White House hosted the first-ever Environmental Justice Forum.  Major cabinet members along with environmental leaders from across the country met to discuss improving the “health and environmental integrity of the nation’s often-neglected poorer communities.” The summit began at 10 am (EST) with live streaming offered via the internet.  The daylong Environmental Justice Forum agenda specified six sessions starting with green jobs and concluding with climate adaptation.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency held the forum just a week after the conclusion of the Cancun Climate Conference 2010.  The Eisenhower Executive Office, next to the White House, acted as host site for the summit.  The event saw environmental leaders, officials from state, local, and tribal governments, along with feature heads of eight federal U.S. agencies in attendance.  Noted speakers included Nancy Sutley, Chair, White House Council on Environmental Quality; Lisa P. Jackson, Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Ken Salazar, Secretary, U.S. Department of Interior; Eric Holder, Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice; Hilda Solis, Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor; Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; and Janet Napolitano, Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.   Steven Chu, Secretary, U.S. Department of Energy was also slated to speak, but called in sick.   

Environmental justice was a concept formed in the 1980s in response to citizens of poorer communities voicing environmental discrimination (evolving into the term environmental racism).  Lack of political and economical power, combined with lack of environmental awareness, prevented poorer areas from benefiting from environmental regulations.  The lack of environmental regulation lead to practices such as toxic dumping, municipal waste facility, and poor land use decisions which negatively affected less affluent communities.  Championed primarily by minority races, environmental justice began as a grassroots activism eventually changing legislation’s actions by allowing communities to be informed about developments in their area.

Actions in the 1980s gave way to the Environmental Justice Movement, but the development of such a movement is believed to have origins as early as the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and the Environmental Movement in the 1960s and 1970s.  The Movements are considered stepping stones for the concept of Environmental Justice because of “environmental threats from hazardous wastes and other toxic chemicals in their communities, low-income communities of color emerged as strong activists against what they viewed as environmental attacks on their civil rights.”

The Environmental Justice Movement may loosely have roots to the Civil Rights and Environmental Movements, but Warren County, North Carolina is recognized as the Environmental Justice birthplace.  In 1982, Warren County, a community with 69 percent non-white citizens, was selected by the state as a chemical landfill site.  A month long protest proved unsuccessful at preventing the landfill from developing.  However, national civil rights leaders and environmentalists took notice.  During this time, then United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) director and protest participant, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, coined the term environmental racism.  The Warren County event also acted as motivation for a CRJ study on correlations between race and toxic waste.  A 1987 report was published on the study citing large representations of toxic facilities in minority communities. 

In 1992, under the Bush Administration, environmental justice became the cornerstone for the Office of Environmental Justice within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Two years later, the Clinton Administration challenged federal agencies to become more aware of how their actions would negatively affect minority communities’ environment.  Unfortunately, the Office of Environmental Justice lost financial support during the second Bush Administration. 

President Obama hopes the Environmental Justice Forum will re-spark financial backing, keeping environmental discrimination from occurring.  The overall focus of the conference was on President’s Obama’s “commitment to ensuring that overburdened and low-income communities have the opportunity to enjoy the health and economic benefits of a clean environment.” 

EPA States Saccharin is Not a Health Risk

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the removal of saccharin from its hazardous substances list.  The EPA stated the popular sweetener is no longer considered a potential hazard to human health.  Cleared in the late 1990s by the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, saccharin remained on the hazardous substances list until a request for its removal was made from the Calorie Control Council.

Saccharin is most well known as the white crystalline powder used to sweeten diet soft drinks, chewing gum, juice, and toothpaste.  Commercially, saccharin can be found in acid form known as saccharin or in salt form known as sodium saccharin or calcium saccharin.  First synthesized in 1879, the sweetener known to be roughly 300 times sweeter than sucrose or sugar, became widely popular across the U.S. during the 1940s and 1950s.  The world’s oldest artificial sweetener allowed people to enjoy sweets in a low-calorie or sugar free form.

Discovered by John Hopkins University researchers, saccharin was first enjoyed by diabetics.  Saccharin allowed the diabetic person to sweeten his or her food without worrying about the glucose (or calories) found in sugar.  Saccharin became so popular, the president of the time, President Theodore Roosevelt, formed the Remsen Board of Consulting Scientific Experts.  The Remsen Board continually reviewed charges of safety issues associated with the sweetener.  President Roosevelt was personally involved in regulatory saccharin activity and opposed any attempts of stopping production. 

Though popular, saccharin use was limited until the onset of World War I and World War II.  Food rationing made alternative food substitutes necessary.  Rationings included sugar limitations in both the U.S. and across Europe.  With sugar availability limited, households turned to saccharin.  After World War I and World War II, saccharin continued to increase in popularity as people’s interest in weight issues increased.  Its low cost, low-calorie, and sugar free availability made saccharin a leader in sugar alternatives.  However, in the 1970s and 1980s health concerns increased as studies linked large quantities of saccharin use to carcinogens. 

The EPA listed saccharin as a potential cancer causing agent based on controversial 1970s rat experiments.  The experiments found high doses of sodium saccharin caused bladder cancer / tumors in male rats.  Based on the research findings, the United States Congress mandated all foods with saccharin must provide a warning on the label.  The Saccharin Study and Labeling Act of 1977 went into affect strengthening the need for warnings on all food products with saccharin.    

Of all food ingredients, saccharin is the most researched. Continued analysis from international scientists found “saccharin administered to the rat at high doses produces profound biochemical and physiological changes which do not occur in humans under normal patterns of use.”  Further research determined the sweetener is indeed an unlikely cause for human cancer.  Reviews of the rat experiments suggests rat’s have a unique combination of urine pH and sodium levels, protein types and concentrations, and diet.  The combination of chemistry levels are not found in humans.  Scientists, government, and industry are currently in agreement with the safety of saccharin use.   

In December 2000, President Clinton signed legislation removing the need for warning labels on saccharin products.  That same year, the National Toxicology Program removed saccharin from its list of known carcinogens.  Despite saccharin being delisted on other hazardous product listing, saccharin continued to appear on EPA’s list.  The Calorie Control Council, an international food trade association representing low-calorie food industry, petitioned EPA to delist saccharin.  In April 2010, “EPA proposed removing saccharin and its salts from the hazards’ list.”  With no opposition, saccharin was removed.

Food Safety Modernization Act Likely to Pass this Month

It seems likely US consumers will be able to rest a little easier in the months and years ahead, as the Senate passed a bill Sunday evening that will increase safety regulations for most foods, and help prevent outbreaks of food-born bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli.  The Food Safety Modernization Act still awaits a vote in the US House of Representatives and must be signed into law by President Obama.  However the House is expected to pass the Senate version, and President Obama says he will support the legislation as well. 

Sunday’s senate vote is a significant victory for food safety advocates as the bill’s history has been fraught with unexpected obstacles to passage, and many observers feared it would die before the current Congress adjourns for the last time later this month.  In fact while it enjoying broader bi-partisan support than most major pieces of legislation this year, the journey of the Food Safety Modernization Act is one of the strangest stories of any bill considered by Congress in 2010.

Supported by both Democrats and Republicans, the earliest version of the Food Safety Modernization Act passed the House of Representatives by a very wide margin in the summer of last year.  However facing a full agenda, including time-consuming issues like the health care debate that took months to resolve, the Senate did not get around to seriously taking up food safety until this fall.  For the bill to become law the Senate had to pass it before Congress adjourns.  Otherwise lawmakers would have had to start all over in 2011 when the new Congress is sworn into office.

The Senate passed its version of the Food Safety Modernization Act last month, but afterwards a procedural error was discovered that invalidated the vote.  With time running out before the end of the session, it seemed like the Senate might not get another chance to vote on the bill.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid attached a corrected version to a separate funding bill the Senate was scheduled to vote on, and meanwhile Democrats in the House again voting to pass the legislation from their chamber.  Yet the Senate funding bill failed to pass, leading many observers to conclude food safety reform was dead for the year.

Then in an unforeseen event Sunday evening, Senator Reid struck a deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that the two leaders would encourage both Democrats and Republicans to support resurrecting the bill.  Reid called for a last-minute vote, and the Food Safety Modernization Act passed the Senate by unanimous consent.  A final House vote on the version passed by the Senate is expected in the next few days.  But since the House has already voted to support similar legislation twice in the last year and a half, this is not expected to be a major hurdle.

Groups like the Consumer Federation of America and the Consumers Union say the Food Safety Modernization Act will help prevent outbreaks of potentially deadly disease.  The bill sets new safety guidelines to prevent contamination of food with disease-causing bacteria, and gives the federal Food and Drug Administration greater authority to force companies to recall tainted food.  Responding to concerns that requirements in the bill would be difficult for small farmers to meet, the version passed by the Senate also contains an amendment designed to protect small food producers.  The bill represents the first major overhaul of US food safety policy since the 1930s. 

Bill Marler, publisher of the web site Food Safety News, commended Democrats and Republicans for coming together to pass food safety legislation.  “I think it says something good about Democrats and Republicans this holiday season,” said Marler.  “The process [of passing the bill] was not pretty, but politics was put aside for this and the safety of the U.S. food supply has been enhanced.” 

Photo credit: slave2thetea on Flickr

US Endorses UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

December 17, 2010
 
On Friday, President Barack Obama announced the United States will endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, lending US support to an effort designed to help repair some of the historical injustices done to indigenous communities throughout the world.  The Obama administration’s decision is a reversal from the former US position, taken in 2007 when President George W. Bush decided not to endorse the declaration.

Though the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is not a legally binding treaty, it provides clear guidelines that nations concerned about the rights of their indigenous populations should follow.  For example, Article 3 of the declaration states that, “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”  Article 10 of the says, “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories,” while Article 20 states, “Indigenous peoples deprived of their means of subsistence and development are entitled to just and fair redress.” 

Other parts of the declaration establish that indigenous communities and individuals should be allowed to maintain their traditional culture, religion, and language, should be guaranteed full economic and political rights, and should be protected from forced assimilation into another culture.  In many respects the declaration represents an acknowledgement by world leaders that indigenous peoples around the world are still being subjected to discrimination and cultural prejudice, and that more is needed from national governments to ensure their rights are fully respected.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was first adopted by the United Nations in 2007.  At that time only four UN countries declined to endorse the resolution: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.  Perhaps not coincidentally, all four of these countries have relatively large populations of indigenous inhabitants, and so are affected by the resolution more than others.  However after at first rejecting the resolution, both New Zealand and Australia decided to grant their endorsements after all.  In April of 2010, President Obama said the US would reconsider its position.  Then in November Canada granted its endorsement, leaving the US the only country not to support the declaration.  Today’s announcement from President Obama means the declaration is universally supported by UN countries.

The announcement has already been hailed by human rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union.  It is also welcomed by environmental groups that frequently partner with indigenous communities who want to preserve their traditional way of life.  The Rainforest Action Network (RAN), for instance, has applauded President Obama for reversing the US position.  “This is an enormously important announcement,” said RAN’s Mike Gaworecki in an email to supporters.  “There is now a global consensus that will improve the lives of Indigenous peoples everywhere.”

For years RAN has been working with indigenous communities from Canada to Ecuador who are trying to regain control of their lands and prevent environmentally destructive activity there.  Right now RAN’s Change Chevron campaign is seeking to draw attention to a class-action lawsuit filed by indigenous communities in Ecuador against Chevron Corporation for polluting their land and water.  While drilling for oil in the Ecuadorean Amazon between 1964 and 1990, a company later acquired by Chevron (Texaco) released over eighteen billion gallons of toxic waste into the water supply of local communities. 

RAN points to the Chevron case an example of the kinds of abuses of indigenous rights still going on in the world today.  Though adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples doesn’t guarantee an end to destruction of traditional lands, it does provide a framework for governments to follow when dealing with companies like Chevron.  It remains to be seen how countries like the United States will adhere to the guidelines laid out in the declaration, and in doing so bolster protection of the rights of indigenous peoples.

Photo credit: Keith Kristoffer Bacongco