Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Banning BPA

It’s what the county legislature in Suffolk County, New York is noted for—passing first-in-the-nation laws. It’s done that with laws banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, the sale of drop-side cribs and the supplement ephedra, and many statutes prohibiting smoking in public places. The measures have often been replicated statewide and nationally.

And the panel did it again this month passing a measure that bans receipts coated with the chemical BPA. BPA, the acronym for Bisphenol-A, has been found to be a cause of cancer and other health maladies.

“Once again this institution is going to set the standard for other states to follow,” declared Legislator Steve Stern of Huntington after the passage of his bill December 4.

The top elected official of Suffolk County, which encompasses eastern Long Island, County Executive Steve Bellone plans to sign the measure into law next week.

BPA has become common. It is used widely to harden plastics and as a coating inside cans of beverages and food. Another use is coating the paper used for receipts enabling it to become “thermal paper” and react to heat to print numbers and words.

In 2009, the Suffolk County Legislature enacted a first-in-the-nation law—also authored by Stern—prohibiting the use of BPA in baby bottles and other beverage containers used by children under three. Stern was made aware of the health dangers of BPA by Karen Joy Miller, founder of Prevention is the Cure, an initiative of the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition. Prevention is the Cure emphasizes the elimination of the causes of cancer.

Ms. Miller testified at the legislative session at which the measure passed 16-to-1: “We’ve got to end this disease [cancer], and a bad-acting chemical like [BPA] is at the top of the list.” After the vote, she applauded “Legislator Stern and the Suffolk County Legislature for taking this important step to protect public health.”

Stern’s “Safer Sales Slip Act” was also backed by Dr. Philip Landrigan, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine and dean for Global Health with the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. It will protect “the health of the public by reducing exposures to BPA for all Suffolk County families and, most especially, pregnant or nursing women, and women of childbearing age…As leaders in pediatrics and preventive medicine, we strongly support this legislation.”

Meanwhile, claiming at the legislative session that BPA is safe was Stephen Rosario of the American Chemistry Council. Billions of tons of BPA are now manufactured annually and the American Chemistry Council has led in defending the substance.

The Stern bill declares that the Suffolk Legislature “finds and determines that BPA is a synthetic estrogen which disrupts healthy development and can lead to an altered immune system, hyperactivity, learning disabilities, reproductive health problems, increased risk of breast and prostate cancer, obesity and diabetes.”

It refers to his earlier “Toxin Free Toddlers and Babies Act” and notes that since the passage of “this groundbreaking ban,” a national counterpart of the measure was enacted—“finally, this summer”—by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Of receipts coated with BPA, the BPA on this “thermal paper can transfer onto anything it contacts, including skin” and through the skin “be absorbed…into the body,” says the bill.

This “dermal exposure to BPA poses a risk to public health and particularly to those whose employment requires distribution of such receipts.” Moreover, “the thermal paper containing BPA is also utilized in bank receipts and at Automated Teller Machines and gas pump receipts, creating multiple and ubiquitous points of exposure in daily life.”

Further, research has determined that “workers employed at retail and food service industries, where BPA-containing thermal paper is most commonly used, have an average of 30% more BPA in their bodies than adults employed in other professions.”

And, critically, as the measure notes, “there are several manufacturers that produce thermal paper that does not contain BPA.” That’s the way it is for toxic products and processes: there are safe alternatives for them. There are safe substitutes for virtually every deadly product and process. The problem: the vested interests that continue to push and defend them.

The Stern law carries penalties of $500 for the first violation and $1,000 “for each subsequent violation.”

It hopefully will be replicated far and wide. And, bans on BPA should be extended to the use of all plastics with BPA along with cans of beverages and food that have a coating of this poison inside.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Challenging the Gun Lobby and Changing the Culture of Violence in the U.S.

We’ll soon see whether the gun lobby can be successfully challenged and the culture of violence that has been growing in the United States changed.

President Barack Obama had it just right yesterday in declaring that the “discussion” that has “remerged” since the killings in Connecticut about “what we might do not only to deter mass shootings in the future, but to reduce the epidemic of gun violence that plagues this country every day” has “to continue. But this time, the words need to lead to action.” He was so accurate in stating, “We’re going to need to look more closely at a culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence.” And important, too: “We’re going to need to work on making access to mental health care at least as easy as access to a gun.”

Five days after the massacre in Newtown, he announced he was forming a panel, led by the vice president, and emphasized that he wants it to “come up with a set of concrete proposals no later than January­proposals that I then intend to push without delay.”

The killings have been called the 9/11 of U.S. mass murders and a tipping point­ -- a horrific event involving weapons about which words of condemnation, and then no action, can no longer suffice.

We’ll see. The National Rifle Association, the spearhead organization of the gun lobby, is enormously powerful and extreme. “It is opposed to virtually every form of gun control, including restrictions on owning assault weapons, background checks for gun owners and registration of firearms,” notes the Center for Responsive Politics. Based in Washington, this nonpartisan, independent research group tracks how money affects politics and public policy in the U.S. and has long investigated the millions of dollars the NRA pours each year into campaign contributions, lobbying and targeted campaigns for and against candidates.

Still, as U.S. Senator Charles Schumer of New York said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation: “I think we could be at a tipping point…where we might actually get something done. First, this was not a single incident. It followed a series of others. In the last few months, we've had mass shootings in Oregon, in Wisconsin and Colorado. When the public sees these as isolated incidents, they're less upset than when they occur one after the other. And the public will not accept…as a ‘new normal’ one of these incidents every month, these mass shootings. Second, of course, it involved children. And it's so poignant to see those pictures. …What agony, what horror. So I think we can get something done.”

“One is to ban assault weapons, to try and reinstate the assault weapons ban. The second is to limit the size of clips to maybe no more than 10 bullets per clip. And the third would be to make it harder for mentally unstable people to get guns,” said Schumer.

The federal government’s ban on the manufacture for civilian use of assault weapons­firearms specifically designed to kill people, such as the AR-15 (a version of the military’s M-16) used in the Connecticut shootings ­was scandalously allowed to lapse eight years ago.

“When he was campaigning for office in 2008, Barack Obama vowed to reinstate the assault weapons ban that had expired in 2004,” noted the New York Times in an editorial in July, after the killings in Aurora, Colorado. “That would have prohibited the AR-15 rifle used in the Colorado theatre shooting…along with the large 100-round magazine attached to it. But as president, Mr. Obama has made no attempt to do so.” It added, “Mitt Romney banned assault weapons as governor of Massachusetts…but now he opposes all gun control measures.”

Another editorial three days later further criticizing both of them was entitled: “Candidates Cower on Gun ControNew York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said to Piers Morgan on CNN after the Aurora massacre: “Someday there will be a shooting which you would think would trigger in the American psyche this ‘I’m not going to take it any more’ attitude. Maybe if… you shot a president? But Ronald Reagan, when he got shot, didn’t trigger it. Maybe if you shot a congresswoman? No. Maybe if you shot a bunch of students on campus? No. Maybe if you shot a bunch of people in a movie theater? I don’t know what it is, we obviously haven’t gotten there yet, but we just­this cannot continue.”

Maybe the killing of 20 first-graders will result in an “I’m not going to take it any more” stance. Hopefully, it will­but it will have come at such a terrible cost.

As to U.S. culture glorifying guns and violence, one only has to sit through the 20 minutes of coming attractions now commonly inflicted upon movie-goers: one ultra-violent film after another. Film violence has increased radically in recent years. Director Peter Bogdanovich commented earlier this year that “violence on the screen has increased tenfold….There’s too much murder and killing….It numbs the audience into thinking it’s not so terrible.”

In college I wrote a novel reviewed by a professor who advised: “You’ve got to kill some people”­to up the “tension.” A cheap trick. Greek dramas and Shakespeare’s plays, yes, include violence, but not the extraneous, ridiculous violence out of Hollywood today to hype “tension.” Cheap tricks and dangerous.

And then there are the violent video games marketed to children.

In the wake of the Connecticut massacre, the Discovery Channel decided not to renew for a third season its TV show “American Guns,” about a family of gun makers. The Weinstein Company toned down the Los Angeles premiere of Quentin Tarantino’s ultra-violent “Django Unchained.” A spokesman for the company said: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the tragedy in Newtown, CT, and in this time of national mourning we have decided to forgo our scheduled event.”

Small adjustments, and how long will they last?

There have been reactions to the link between mental illness and the Connecticut shooter and so many other mass murderers. On Long Island this week, for example, a Nassau County legislator called for a restoration of millions of dollars cut from mental health programs in light of the Connecticut tragedy. “It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish,” said Judy Jacobs. “Obviously, anyone who could do what we saw in [Newtown] has to be mentally ill. But there are signs and there are signals. And it’s not something we should shirk from.”

Obama on Wednesday said, “The good news is there’s already a growing consensus for us to build from. A majority of Americans support banning the sale of military-style assault weapons. A majority of Americans support banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips. A majority of Americans support laws requiring background checks before gun purchases.”

He stressed, “I’m not going to be able to do it myself. Ultimately, if this effort is to succeed it’s going to require the help of the American people­it’s going to require all of us. If we’re going to change things, it’s going to take a wave of Americans­mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, pastors, law enforcement, mental health professionals­and, yes, gun owners­standing up and saying ‘enough’ on behalf of our kids.”

This will only be good news if, as the Connecticut horror fades from the media cycle, the pressure from public officials and all people continues leading to meaningful results.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Republican Fight Against Higher Taxes for the Rich

President Barack Obama’s demand that taxes of the rich be raised has become a key issue in the battle which, if not settled, could send the United States over a “fiscal cliff” at year’s end.

A series of extreme government spending cuts—including in defense and social programs among them Medicare—mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 would then kick in if no compromise is achieved, and, it is widely forecast, send the U.S. into recession.

Democrat Obama is arguing that higher taxes for the wealthy must be part of any package, and Republicans are fighting this.

Important in understanding the issue is how the tax rates for the richest Americans have fallen precipitously over the last several decades.

The “tax rates on the richest Americans fell from 91 percent in the 1950s and 1960s, and 70 percent in the 1970s, to the current low rate of 35 percent,” notes Dr. Richard D. Wolff, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, currently visiting professor at New School University in New York.

The “richest Americans won that spectacular tax cut,” says Dr. Wolff. “Middle- and low-income Americans won no such cuts.”

This has been paralleled by how “big business and conservatives have worked to undo the regulations and taxes imposed on them in the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930s.”

“Since the end of the Great Depression—and especially since the 1970s—the class warfare waged by business and its allies, most conservatives in both parties, was successful,” he says. He notes how, at the end of World War II, “for every $1 Washington raised in taxes on individuals, it raised $1.50 in taxes on business profits. In contrast, today, for every dollar Washington gets in taxes on individuals, it gets 25 cents in taxes on business. Business and its allies successfully shifted most of its federal tax burden onto individuals.”

“In plain English,” says Dr. Wolff, a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in economics from Yale, “the last 50 years saw a massive shift of the burden of federal taxation from business to individuals and from rich individuals to everyone else.”

Involved has been “class war policies” in a “war that victimized the vast majority of working Americans.” And “today, business and the rich are waging class war yet again to avoid even a small, modest reverse in the huge tax cuts they won in that war over the last half-century.”

Now, there are some that argue that even with steeply reduced tax rates, the rich pay more in taxes. Robert Frank of CNBC said earlier this year: “Despite the oft-repeated fact that tax rates for the wealthy are at an all-time low, which is true, it’s also true that the actual amount paid in taxes by the wealthy is higher than before the recession.”

He also stressed: “The One Percent paid an average effective tax rate of 28.9 percent on their income—far more than any other group, and more than twice the average effective rate of the middle class, who paid 11 percent on average.”

Then there are those who say the rich are being unjustly attacked. “I believe the president has vilified this so-called 2 percent,” Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, said last week. “Vilifying people and then punitively taxing them is un-American,” he declared.

The bottom line is that there has been a successful effort in the U.S. to alter the progressive income tax system that is based on individuals who earn more, paying higher taxes. The tax rates for the wealthy have been reduced drastically.

And Obama isn’t seeking a return to a 91 percent rate, or 70 percent or even close. During the campaign, he proposed raising the top rates for high-income people to 36 and 39.6 percent.  That would be a return to the top tax rates during the Clinton presidency.

Part of the battle between Obama and Congressional Republicans involves who should be considered high-income. The Obama administration has talked about a threshold of $200,000 in annual income for an individual, $250,000 for a family. The GOP complaint is this is too low.

This is a valid area of debate. But to reject a hike in tax rates, period, for the millionaires and billionaires who make up the top economic strata of this nation is not right.