Rachel's Democracy & Health News #861
"Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?"
Thursday, June 29, 2006.................Printer-friendly version
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^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Featured stories in this issue... New Trend: The Federal Government Is Voiding State Laws The federal government has the power -- and now the will -- to wipe away all progressive state and local programs, including those implementing the precautionary principle and environmental justice, plus all other policies intended to protect human health and the environment. Study Links Air Pollutants with Autism Children with autism disorders in the San Francisco Bay Area were 50% more likely to be born in neighborhoods with high amounts of several toxic air contaminants, particularly mercury, according to a first-of- its-kind study by the California Department of Health Services. Op-Ed: Economic Equality Is Best Medicine Who can tell us what makes a population healthy? Few in this country know, because we don't ask that question. Anyone who does is marginalized for acting stupid. Income Inequality, and Its Cost The gap between the rich and the poor has recently been widening at an alarming rate. Today, more than 40 percent of total income is going to the wealthiest 10 percent, their biggest share of the nation's pie in at least 65 years. The social and political repercussions of this disparity have been widely debated, but what about the effects on the economy? As Americans Grow More Isolated, Communities Suffer Americans, who shocked pollsters in 1985 when they said they had only three close friends, today say they have just two. :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #861, Jun. 29, 2006 [Printer-friendly version] NEW TREND: THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT IS VOIDING STATE LAWS Federal Voiding of State and Local Protections for Human Health and the Environment By Joseph H. Guth** email@example.com People who are working to protect human healh and the environment are focusing their efforts largely on the states because they believe progressive action on many issues can best be achieved at the state level. Many view the Republican-controlled federal government as a lost cause. However, the federal government is much more dangerous than that. It has the capacity and, unfortunately, now has the will to void all that progressives might achieve in the states. We ignore the threat of "federal preemption" at their peril. Under the Supremacy Clause of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, federal laws constitute the supreme law of the United States. This means that in any area in which Congress has the power to make law, Congress can "preempt" (i.e., void) any state law it chooses. More and more, Congress is electing to do just that. A recent House investigative report prepared for Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D. CA) documents the extent of recent federal efforts to preempt state laws. According to this report, in the last five years, the House and Senate have voted 57 times to preempt state laws and regulations, resulting in enactment of 27 preemptive laws. The number of state and local laws that have been preempted was not determined with certainty, but is estimated to be in the hundreds if not thousands. Just six of the 27 enacted federal laws overturned at least 92 state laws. This Republican campaign is of stunning breadth and intrusiveness. The investigative report discerns four broad goals: usurpation of state choices on social policy and family issues; preventing state protection of health, safety and the environment; overriding state consumer protection laws; and seizing power from state courts. Moreover, this campaign reveals the wide gulf between the "states rights" rhetoric of Republican leaders, including President Bush, and their real social and pro-business agenda. The preemptive effect of some of this legislation is reaching new heights of federal disregard for state and local authority. Indeed, some of these laws represent the assertion of federal power to void entire areas of state law, even where the federal government has made no substantive determinations relating to the voided state laws. This form of preemption could be used to wipe away all progressive state and local programs, including those implementing the precautionary principle, environmental justice, alternatives and cumulative effects analyses and other emerging approaches to protecting human health and the environment. One particular bill is instructive. H.R. 4167, "The National Uniformity for Food Act of 2005" passed the House on March 8, 2006 and on May 25 was introduced in very similar form into the U.S. Senate as S. 3128, where it is pending in the Health, Education and Labor Committee. The bill's ostensible purpose is to amend the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (the "FFDCA") to provide for "uniform food safety and food warning requirements." No hearings to establish any need for this bill were held in the House, though the Senate may hold hearings before voting on the bill in the summer of 2006. Opposition to this legislation, being led by California Senators Feinstein and Boxer, now centers on the ability of activists in each state to persuade its Senators to oppose it. Opponents of this bill include the Attorneys General of 39 states, the Association of Food and Drug Officials, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, numerous consumer and public interest groups, dozens of newspapers and even the California Governor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Their primary reason: massive preemption of state food safety laws. As the 39 Attorneys General put it: "Indeed, under this bill, states would be forbidden from adopting their own policies, even if the federal government had not acted in a particular area or adopted a particular warning. Important consumer warnings dealing with mercury in fish, arsenic in drinking water and lead in cans are just a few examples of states food labeling requirements that would be eviscerated by this bill." The preemptive and deregulatory effect of H.R. 4167 is wrapped in a clever disguise, which allows its proponents to delude the public and provides cover for politicians supporting it. Let's see how it works. First, there is a so-called "uniformity" provision. This provision provides (with some exceptions) that no state may impose or maintain a food safety or food warning requirement, unless it is identical to a requirement imposed by the FDA. Proponents of the legislation, food businesses all, sell it by claiming that this uniformity is necessary because state laws now result in a "confusing and erratic patchwork" of requirements (though they have never cited a single instance of such inconsistent requirements). Similar "uniformity" provisions can be found in various federal laws, and may be appropriate in some circumstances. For example, uniformity is imposed on labeling of prescription drugs approved by the FDA and on labeling of pesticides approved by the EPA, so that the states may not impose their own separate labeling requirements in these areas. Most of the federal environmental laws do not require uniformity, however, and the states are commonly free to impose their own stricter laws as long as they do not make compliance with both the state and federal requirements impossible or frustrate the intent of the federal laws. But here is the kicker. Even as amended by H.R. 4167, under the FFDCA the FDA has no obligation to regulate all food safety or labeling (though it has the power to do so). Indeed, the nation's food safety programs are and have historically been run primarily not by FDA but by the states, which perform over 80% of the nation's food safety work. And H.R. 4167 gives the already overburdened FDA no new resources to do any more food regulation than it already does. It is crucial to recognize that this is very unlike the legal regimes governing prescription drug or pesticide labels, because in those cases all such labels must be approved by FDA and EPA, respectively. It is this combination of (1) the uniformity provision and (2) the lack of obligation for FDA to act that creates such a devastating effect. The result is that all existing and future state food safety and warning requirements (with some exceptions) would be voided unless they are specifically required by FDA, whether or not FDA acts, studies the issue or makes any determination at all. At least 200 state food safety laws would be voided by H.R. 4167. The "uniformity" this law would achieve is, in many areas, the uniform absence of food safety laws. The larger lesson of this legislation is: a uniformity provision coupled with lack of federal obligation to act is a highly deregulatory device. With such legislation, the federal government is not simply making a particular determination of how to address a certain problem and then imposing uniformity on the states. Instead, the federal government is determining that an entire field may not be regulated by the states even though the federal government is not requiring itself to act in that field at all. The potential implications of this type of legislation, extended to other fields of progressive activism, should be obvious to all. Effectively resisting systematic federal evisceration of all the progressive work being done on the state and local level will require extensive cooperation between national, state and local groups. These groups no longer have the luxury of competition, for we can see plainly that the states may function as "laboratories of democracy" only at the pleasure of the federal government. **Joseph H. Guth, J.D., Ph.D., is Executive Director of the California League for Environmental Enforcement Now, and is Legal Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: Los Angeles Times, Jun. 23, 2006 [Printer-friendly version] STUDY LINKS AIR POLLUTANTS WITH AUTISM Bay Area children with the disorder are 50% likelier to be from areas high in several toxic substances. Scientists say more research is needed. By Marla Cone Children with autism disorders in the San Francisco Bay Area were 50% more likely to be born in neighborhoods with high amounts of several toxic air contaminants, particularly mercury, according to a first-of- its-kind study by the California Department of Health Services. The new findings, which surprised the researchers, suggest that a mother's exposure to industrial air pollutants while pregnant might increase her child's risk of autism, a neurological condition increasingly diagnosed in the last 10 years. But the scientists cautioned that the link they found in the Bay Area is uncertain and that more definitive evidence would be needed before concluding that mercury or any other pollutant could trigger autism. Gayle Windham, the study's lead researcher and senior epidemiologist in the department's environmental health investigations branch, called it "a single small study" and "a first look" at whether toxic pollutants play a role in the neurological disorder, which is often marked by poor verbal and communication skills and withdrawal from social interaction. Scientists have long wondered if the surge in diagnoses is due, in part, to environmental causes. Some of the increase comes from growing doctor and parent awareness, but experts say that cannot explain all of it. "Clearly this suggests that there may be correlations between autism onset and environmental exposures, especially as it relates to metal exposures," said Isaac Pessah, a toxicologist who heads UC Davis' Center for Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention. Pessah, who was not involved in the study, is also a researcher at the university's MIND (Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders) Institute, which studies autism. "It would be prudent to reserve judgment until we see if this study can be replicated and whether it's of general significance" by looking for the same link outside the Bay Area, he said. About 300,000 U.S. children have been diagnosed with autism and often need special education. The study compared 284 children from six Bay Area counties who were diagnosed as having so-called autism spectrum disorders -- which include a less-severe syndrome called Asperger's ' with 657 children from the same counties without the disorders. All were born in 1994. The scientists reviewed data for 19 hazardous air pollutants that are known or suspected neurotoxins: chemicals that have a toxic effect on the brain. They found that the children with the autism disorders were 50% more likely than the non-autistic children to be born in areas with higher estimated levels of three metals and two chlorinated solvents: mercury, cadmium, nickel, trichloroethylene and vinyl chloride. No significant link was found with 14 other solvents and metals, including compounds such as lead, benzene and chromium. The national autism rate is six children per 1,000, so a 50% increase would elevate that rate to nine per 1,000. The biggest increase came with heavy metals including mercury, a pollutant from power plants, factories and mines that can disrupt brain development. The Bay Area was chosen for the study because extensive data are readily available there because of a federally funded program to count and track autistic children. The region's toxic air pollution is considered typical for urban areas. San Francisco County had the highest estimated levels of metals and solvents, including mercury, and Marin County had the lowest of those studied. But the researchers did not compare autism prevalence by county. In their report, published online Wednesday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the authors said their research "suggests that living in areas with higher ambient levels of hazardous air pollutants, particularly metals and chlorinated solvents, during pregnancy or early childhood, may be associated with a moderately increased risk of autism. These findings illuminate the need for further scientific investigation, as they are biologically plausible but preliminary and require confirmation." The study is the first to look for a connection between autism among children and levels of hazardous air pollutants at birth. Last year, scientists who compared volumes of industrial mercury emissions in Texas with autism in schoolchildren reported a similar link. Autism is believed to start in the womb, early in pregnancy, when the brain develops. Genetic factors determine who is susceptible, but experts theorize that environmental factors contribute. The new study found that mercury was the "most significant correlation with autism," Pessah said, "but every family may not be affected the same way because of their genetic makeup." Many parents of autistic children blame vaccines that contained a type of mercury called thimerosal. Expert reviews have found no link between vaccines and autism, but some scientists do not consider them definitive. No assumptions about vaccines can be made on the basis of the air pollution study. "Mercury in the air is a different type than in vaccines," Windham said. The new study examined elemental mercury, which is released into the air from coal-burning power plants, chlorine factories and gold mines. It spreads globally and builds up in food chains, particularly in oceans. Levels of mercury are increasing in many parts of the world, largely from power plants in China and India. The researchers had not expected to be able to discern a relationship between autism and the air pollution data. The five metals and solvents are common industrial pollutants, but air is only one source of exposure, because they also contaminate water and food. Some experts say that if there is a link between mercury and autism, it most likely comes from fish consumption, the main route of mercury exposure. A 20-year, ongoing study in Denmark's Faroe Islands has shown that children have slightly reduced intelligence when mothers consumed excessive mercury in seafood. The largest limitation or uncertainty in the Bay Area study is that the pollution data did not come from measurements of compounds to which the mothers were actually exposed. Instead, they were based on estimates calculated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency using computer modeling of industrial emissions. Windham said that "there could be other explanations" for the link they found. For example, it could be that women who live in the worst- polluted areas also smoke more or eat more contaminated seafood. The scientists did not track down the mothers to compare lifestyles. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health are conducting a similar study in the Baltimore area to see if they replicate the findings. Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jun. 25, 2006 [Printer-friendly version] OP-ED: ECONOMIC EQUALITY IS BEST MEDICINE Health of societies mostly relies on political and economic policies, not the individual treatment of disease By Stephen Bezruchka The headlines read that rich Americans aren't as healthy as poor Brits, despite our spending twice as much money on health care as they do. Our newborns die at the highest rates of any rich country, even with our ever-advancing medical technologies. The feds report our mortality rates have never been lower. The United Kingdom study director suggests it is the nature of an unequal society in the United States that affects everybody, while experts over here are puzzled. What is going on? Thomas Pynchon wrote in "Gravity's Rainbow" that "if they can get you asking the wrong question, they don't have to worry about the answers." Which medical care drug plan to choose is the wrong question. Instead let's ask, "What makes a society healthy?" An M.Deity can't answer that, nor can most people working in public health departments. One reason for their ignorance: It is very difficult to get people to understand something when their salary depends on their not understanding it. Medical doctors are paid to treat diseases, so everyone has a disease if we do enough tests. Public health workers ply a trade, make sure enough kids get their shots, tell people to say no or wear a condom and check the water for arsenic. They consider efforts to understand basic conditions that produce health in society to be outside their job description. Who can tell us the answer to what makes a population healthy? Few in this country know, because we don't ask that question. Anyone who does is marginalized for acting stupid. I was told "Medical care, of course, that's why we are teaching you to be a good doctor." Our federal government, in its Institute of Medicine 2003 report "The Future of the Public's Health in the 21st Century," states on page 59: "more egalitarian societies (i.e. those with a less steep differential between the richest and the poorest) have better average health." This remarkable finding has emerged from research carried out over the last 25 years, and the science is as good as that linking smoking and poor health. Why aren't the media broadcasting this news? For the last quarter century it has become unpatriotic to believe in economic justice. Instead we give ever more to the rich through tax cuts and subsidies and demand that the poor accept having less, in the hopes of some trickling down. Egalitarianism is not a treatment taught in U.S. medical and public health schools, nor in any school except kindergarten. What is it about a bigger differential between the richest and poorest that leads to worse average health? Intuitively, we can see that not everyone shares the same stress in a bigger-gap society and those lower down suffer more of the slings and arrows of misfortune rained down from above. There is less caring and sharing in society when the gap is in our face. Other research findings demonstrate that individual behaviors are not as important for our health as political policies that impact the gap between the rich and the poor. These behaviors are those we have learned since about toddlerdom: diet, exercise and not smoking. They are good ideas but when compared with economic justice, these individual practices are relatively unimportant. For example, the healthiest country in the world, Japan, has the highest proportion of men smoking among all rich countries. Obviously smoking is not good for your health but compared with the less steep differential, it is not as important a factor. As a doctor who used to badger people about this habit, it was very difficult for me to reconcile this finding. Studies demonstrate the individual behaviors are not that important for our health. Health care, even universal health care, has been shown to have little or no overall impact on a nation's health. The spending on health care in the United States makes up nearly one half of all monies paid for health care worldwide. Despite that, we who live in the USA, the richest country in world history (with half of the globe's billionaires), die younger than we should. To understand this conundrum, the first step we must take is to recognize that health and health care are two very different concepts -- despite sounding so similar. Health of societies is mostly determined by political and economic policies while health care can only prevent and treat individual diseases. The United States used to be one of the healthiest countries in the world when egalitarian principles were near the horizon. President Kennedy told us not to ask what our country can do for us but to ask what we can do for our country. His request came after a decade of policies in which the poor made relatively more economic gains than the rich, something Robin Hood might have admired. For example, in the United States the general population shared its income growth with returning World War II veterans and subsidized their re-entry into society. Back then we were one of the healthiest countries in the world -- but not for long. The rich and powerful interpreted the president's remarks to mean, "What can ordinary people do for us?" During the last 30 years the rich have gotten much richer, and we have strayed far from egalitarian ideals. The increasingly steep differential between the richest and poorest is the reason why we are as healthy as Cuba, the country we have been strangling for almost 47 years. While our health as a nation has been improving, other countries are seeing better and faster results. People in more than 25 countries, including nearly all the rich nations and a few poor ones as well, live longer and healthier lives than we do. There is currently no federal agency, or any other body, whose goal it is to make us healthier compared with other nations. Our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have put forth Healthy People 2000 and 2010 initiatives, with disease and behavior oriented national goals, but we did not achieve these goals in 2000, and have no chance of coming close to fulfilling them in the next four years. They do not address our standing compared with other nations. This is like giving the Olympic Gold Medal not to the winner, but to the contestant who said they tried the hardest! The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who can't read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn. Much of what I learned in medical school is not acceptable practice today. Some of what we think we know today will be folly tomorrow. What the Institute of Medicine reports will, I think, stand the test of time. If we want healthy grandchildren, we must seriously consider what the feds have said. Economic justice is the medicine we need. In today's situation, this requires overturning all the recent federal legislation that gives ever more to the rich. The work of the Hood Robins (who take from the poor and give to the rich) is bad for our health, as our own Institute of Medicine acknowledges. Perhaps we should demand a Health Impact Assessment like other countries, to track the toll in human lives sacrificed by political policies that favor the rich over the poor. This state's Washington Health Foundation is unique in the nation for trying to make Washington state the healthiest in the country. According to a composite indicator used to rank the health of states, we have fallen to 15th place while Minnesota is first and Louisiana is last. To effect real change and improve health through this country, I suggest we strive to make Louisiana first in the nation. That state has among the highest infant death rates, the shortest length of life, the highest homicide rates, the highest teen birth rates and the biggest gap between rich and poor. Katrina's aftermath was no accident. By concentrating on improving health in this country's worst off state, everyone will do better. The last 40 years have seen an unbridled giveaway to the minority of the wealthy and powerful, as politicians distorted Kennedy's words and did what they could for the rich of America. It is now time for the majority, who make up the bottom 80 percent of this nation, to ask what our country can do for us. Everyone's health, both rich and poor, will benefit from this old- fashioned idea: economic justice. Stephen Bezruchka, M.D., MPH, is with the Department of Health Services, School of Public Health and Community Medicine, at the University of Washington. Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: The New York Times, Jun. 25, 2006 [Printer-friendly version] INCOME INEQUALITY, AND ITS COST By Anna Bernasek Inequality has always been part of the American economy, but the gap between the rich and the poor has recently been widening at an alarming rate. Today, more than 40 percent of total income is going to the wealthiest 10 percent, their biggest share of the nation's pie in at least 65 years. The social and political repercussions of this disparity have been widely debated, but what about the effects on the economy? Oddly, despite its position in the political debate, the question has received little attention from economists. Mostly, they have focused on measuring income inequality and establishing its causes. Some research has been done, however, and the results, including insights from related disciplines like psychology and political science, are disturbing. Start with recent findings in the field of public health. Some scientists believe that growing inequality leads to more health problems in the overall population -- a situation that can reduce workers' efficiency and increase national spending on health, diverting resources away from productive endeavors like saving and investment. Sir Michael Marmot, a professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London and director of its International Institute for Society and Health, has spent most of his career studying the link between inequality and health around the world. In a much-publicized paper published in May in The Journal of the American Medical Association, Sir Michael and three colleagues studied health in the United States and in Britain. They found that at various points throughout the social hierarchy, there was more illness in the United States than in Britain. Sir Michael theorizes that a reason for the disparity was the greater inequalities in the United States and heavier stresses resulting from them. Other researchers have focused on how income inequality can breed corruption. That may be especially true in democracies, where wealth and political power can be more easily exchanged, according to a study of 129 countries by Jong-Sung You, a graduate student at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and Sanjeev Khagram, a professor of public affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle. Corruption, of course, can hurt growth by reducing the efficient allocation of public and private resources and by distorting investment. That may end up creating asset price bubbles. Unchecked inequality may also tend to create still more inequality. Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard, argues that as the rich become richer and acquire greater political influence, they may support policies that make themselves even wealthier at the expense of others. In a paper published last July, he said, "If the rich can influence political outcomes through lobbying activities or membership in special interest groups, then more inequality could lead to less redistribution rather than more." In the United States, there is plenty of evidence that this has been occurring. Bush administration policies that have already reduced the estate tax and cut the top income and capital gains tax rates benefit the well-to-do. It seems hardly an accident that the gap between rich and poor has widened. There may be other ways in which growing inequality hurts the economy. Steven Pressman, professor of economics at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J., has identified a psychological effect that may lower productivity and reduce efficiency. Professor Pressman draws on the work of Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate in economics, and his experiments on fairness. One experiment, called the ultimatum game, involves two people with a fixed sum of money that must be divided between them. One person is to propose any division he likes; the other can only accept or reject it. If the division is accepted, each person receives the proposed amount; if it is rejected, neither gets anything. It might be expected that a rational individual in the role of divider would take a large part of the money and that rational receivers would accept a small portion rather than walk away with nothing. But it turned out that when faced with an offer they considered unfair, most people rejected it outright. Perhaps in anticipation of this, many dividers made substantial offers. Professor Pressman relates those results to economic behavior in corporate America. "If a C.E.O.'s salary is going through the roof and workers are getting pay cuts, what will happen?" he said. "Workers can't outright reject the offer -- they need to work -- but they can reject it by working less hard and not caring about the quality of what they are producing. Then the whole efficiency of the firm is affected." The effects of income inequality aren't entirely negative. Without some inequality, there would be little economic incentive to earn more. And some researchers, particularly advocates of supply-side theories, predict that as the rich get richer, their increased wealth will be used for greater savings and investment, thereby bolstering growth. The latest data on the American economy, though, do not seem to support this prediction. Savings among top income earners have actually declined. According to the Federal Reserve's latest Survey of Consumer Finance, the percentage of families in the top 10 percent by income that saved anything at all dropped to 80.6 percent in 2004 from 84.3 percent in 2001. And this was during a period when President Bush cut top marginal income tax rates and taxes on capital gains and dividends. The trend of growing income inequality may eventually be reversed, but at the moment, current policies appear to be worsening the situation. If more researchers turned their attention to the subject, they would find plenty to explore. Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: Seattle Times, Jun. 23, 2006 [Printer-friendly version] FEEL LONELY? YOU'RE NOT ALONE By Ely Portillo, Knight Ridder Newspapers WASHINGTON -- Americans, who shocked pollsters in 1985 when they said they had only three close friends, today say they have just two. And the number who say they have no one to discuss important matters with has doubled to 1 in 4, according to a nationwide survey released today. It found that men and women of every race, age and education level reported fewer intimate friends than the same survey turned up in 1985. Their remaining confidants were more likely to be members of their nuclear family than in 1985, according to the study, but intimacy within families was down, too. The findings are reported in the June issue of the American Sociological Review. Weakening bonds of friendship, which other studies affirm, have far- reaching effects. Among them: fewer people to turn to for help in crises such as Hurricane Katrina, fewer watchdogs to deter neighborhood crime, fewer visitors for hospital patients and fewer participants in community groups. The decline, which was greatest in estimates of the number of friends outside the family, also puts added pressure on spouses, families and counselors. "People are isolated in their own families," said Laurie Thorner, a therapist in Annapolis, Md., since the 1980s. "I definitely agree that there's less support for people." Study co-author Lynn Smith-Lovin, a sociologist at Duke University in Durham, N.C., called the sharp declines startling, and added, "You don't usually expect major features of social life to change very much from year to year or even decade to decade." One explanation for friendship's decline is that adults are working longer hours and socializing less. That includes women, who when homemakers tended to have strong community networks. In addition, commutes are longer, and TV viewing and computer use are up. Another factor, Smith-Lovin acknowledged, may have been confusion among some of those polled on how to count e-mail friendships. Smith-Lovin speculated that social isolation may have made Hurricane Katrina worse. "The people we saw sitting on roofs after Katrina hit were probably people without close ties to someone with a car to get them out," she said. She's right, said Bob Howard, spokesman for the American Red Cross' Hurricane Relief Project. "People that had friends and family were probably most likely to evacuate," he said. Robert Putnam, the author of "Bowling Alone," the 2000 best-seller on declining U.S. civic life, said his more recent research generally tracked the findings of Smith-Lovin and Miller McPherson, a sociologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "We would actually think that the trends have leveled off a little bit" since 2000, but not reversed, said Putnam, who teaches public policy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. People pay a price when bonds of friendship weaken, he continued. "Communities that have tighter social networks have lower crime and lower mortality and less corruption and more effective government and less tax evasion." The Duke-Arizona team's findings are based on questions they added to one of the nation's classic attitude polls, the General Social Survey, which the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center has conducted every two years since 1972. In the face-to-face survey, 1,467 people -- a nationally representative sample -- were asked to count and describe all the people with whom they had discussed matters important to them in the previous six months. The question asked in 2004 was the same as that asked in 1985, although the term "discussed" may have led some recent respondents to omit friendships sustained by e-mail, Smith-Lovin said. "But if you need someone to pick up your kid from the day-care center because you're stuck at work, you can't e-mail someone in New York," she said. Copyright 2006 The Seattle Times Company Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment & Health News) highlights the connections between issues that are often considered separately or not at all. The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who bear the brunt. Our purpose is to connect the dots between human health, the destruction of nature, the decline of community, the rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among workers and families, and the crippling legacies of patriarchy, intolerance, and racial injustice that allow us to be divided and therefore ruled by the few. In a democracy, there are no more fundamental questions than, "Who gets to decide?" And, "How do the few control the many, and what might be done about it?" 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