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
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
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
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
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Federal Voiding of State and Local Protections for Human Health and
the Environment

By Joseph H. Guth** jguth@cleenca.org

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

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

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

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

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From: Los Angeles Times, Jun. 23, 2006
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Bay Area children with the disorder are 50% likelier to be from areas
high in several toxic substances. Scientists say more research is

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

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

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.

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From: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jun. 25, 2006
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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

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

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

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.

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From: The New York Times, Jun. 25, 2006
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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

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

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

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

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

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.

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From: Seattle Times, Jun. 23, 2006
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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

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
sample -- were asked to count and describe all the people with whom
they had discussed matters important to them in the previous six

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

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  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
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