Rachel's Democracy & Health News #854
Thursday, May 11, 2006

From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #854 ..........[This story printer-friendly]
May 11, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: At first glance, the numbers may make "environment" look like a loser as a basis for building a social movement. But look again.]

By Peter Montague

For Earthday, the New York Times reminded us on April 23 (Section 4, pg. 14) of something uncomfortable but important: the general public no longer has "the environment" high on its list of worries or concerns.

Of course the Times had done its part to lull everyone to sleep about such things. For example, the Times reported April 23 that "water pollution and toxic waste" are "both now largely controlled." Oh? And what of the 4.24 billion pounds of 650 different toxic chemicals released into the U.S. environment during 2004?

In that same story the Times reported the results of two nationwide telephone opinion surveys, one by CBS News and one by Gallup. The results could help us all to realize how isolated and out of touch with the mainstream many of us have become.

Here are the general public's ranking of "most important problems facing the United States:"

War in Iraq -- 27% Economy and jobs -- 13% Immigration -- 7% Terrorism -- 6% Health care -- 5% President Bush -- 4% Gas/heating oil crisis -- 4% Poverty & homelessness -- 4% Education -- 3% Moral and family values -- 2% Environment -- 2% The military & defense -- 2% Budget deficit/national debt -- 2%

These numbers add up to only 82% and the Times did not explain the missing 18%.

At first glance, the numbers may make "environment" look like a loser as a basis for building a social movement. But look again. If environmentalists were to form an alliance with people concerned about jobs (13%) and health (5%) -- that would boost the troops to 20% of the public -- more than enough to pull off a full-scale revolution (non-violent of course). If you add to that the people whose top priority is the energy crisis (4%) and poverty (4%) you've got 28% of the public in your camp -- essentially 1/3 of everyone. That's about a hundred million people.

So environmentalism isn't dead. It's just lonely and needs more friends. Let hope this can become a wake-up call to us all. It's time to climb out of our bunkers, rub our eyes and look around, then set off to find likely friends and allies, send out ambassadors from our group (whatever group we're in) to other issue-groups, then forge ways to work together and support each other. Is there any other way to build a movement?


From: Washington Post ....................................[This story printer-friendly]
May 7, 2006


The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, please make contributions to the fund to help Damu's daughter: Asha Moore Smith Trust c/o The Praxis Project 1750 Columbia Road, NW -- 2nd Floor Washington, DC 20009

[Rachel's introduction: From Rachel's Democracy & Health News #854 (May 11, 2006): Our friend and colleague Damu Smith died May 5, 2006 at age 54. A public celebration of Damu's life has been scheduled for Saturday, May 20th at 5:00 p.m. at Plymouth Congregational Church, 5301 North Capitol Street NE, Washington, D.C.]

By Darryl Fears

Damu Smith, an internationally known D.C. peace activist who advocated for a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in the 1980s, fought chemical pollution on the Louisiana Gulf Coast in the 1990s and campaigned against the war in Iraq in the new century, died May 5 at George Washington University Hospital after a year-long battle with colon cancer. He was 54.

Mr. Smith was one of the city's preeminent civil rights activists, the voice of a thriving local movement. He co-hosted the show "Spirit in Action" on WPFW (89.3 FM), where his advocacy continued "right up to the bitter end," said his partner on the show, Milagros A. Phillips. "He was a freedom fighter. I mean tireless," said another friend, Dera Tompkins. "You could not know Damu and not be politically active. He demanded it."

Mr. Smith had many other friends, including Jesse L. Jackson Sr., with whom he traveled, poet Sonia Sanchez and actor Harry Belafonte, who presented him with a plaque last month for his community service. LeRoy Wesley Smith was a native of St. Louis who came to the District in 1973 to study at Antioch College. His older sister, Sylnice Williams, said he was a curious child, drawn to science, and a natural organizer who became active in school politics.

When Mr. Smith was 17, he took a field trip to Cairo, Ill., and attended a black solidarity rally that showed him the power of community service. Jackson, writer Amiri Baraka, singer Nina Simone and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King's top lieutenant, spoke that day. Shortly after arriving in Washington, Mr. Smith was drawn into two causes: the fight for a national King holiday and the battle against South African apartheid. He took the name Damu, which means "blood, leadership and strength" in the Swahili language of Kenya.

In the 1990s, Mr. Smith joined Greenpeace USA, monitoring corporate pollution on the Gulf Coast. He coordinated the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, in 1991, helping to link the civil rights movement to the environmental movement for the first time, colleagues said.

As founder of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, Mr. Smith arranged so-called "toxic tours" of an area in Louisiana known as Cancer Alley. In 2001, he took author Alice Walker, poet Haki Madhubuti and actor Mike Farrell on a tour of the region, where black people experience a high level of cancer deaths.

Greenpeace released a statement saying that Mr. Smith's work led to a confrontation with Shell Oil over its "chemical dumping practices and forced the Shintech PVC Plant out of Norco, Louisiana." John Passacantando, Greenpeace's executive director, said Mr. Smith's death "is a monumental loss" for many groups and movements.

Mr. Smith was sometimes controversial. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mr. Smith cautioned Americans and the U.S. government against targeting Arabs. At a forum, he reminded the audience that the former South African president Nelson Mandela was once considered a terrorist and that federal officials stood by as southern politicians and the Ku Klux Klan terrorized black people during segregation. "As I recall, there were no Arabs riding horses terrorizing black folks," he said.

Love him or not, said a friend, Kwesi Ron Harris, Mr. Smith "spoke with maximum clarity. Whether you agreed with him or not, you had to take notice. When he walked into a room, you knew something was coming behind him, a rush of energy."

Said Phillips, the radio co-host: "He just had this passion for fairness and justice and wanted all people to live in a world that was compassionate." On the air, he would criticize Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld "for something they had done, and he would end by saying, 'But you know I love you," " Phillips said.

Activist Ayo Handi Kendi said Mr. Smith was such a tireless activist for others that he ignored his health. Last year in March, after complaining of stomach problems off and on for years, he fell ill while leading a delegation for Palestinian rights in the Middle East. After his return to Washington, doctors told him that he was in the end stage of colon cancer. He was given three months to live.

In interviews before his death, Mr. Smith said he wanted to see his daughter, Asha Moore Smith, 13, grow to adulthood and that he wished to broaden his relationship with Adeleke Foster, who became his companion after his cancer diagnosis and assisted him until he died. "He did fight," said Williams, his sister. "With God's help, he fought. He lasted longer than they thought he would." In addition to his daughter, from an earlier relationship, and sister, of St. Louis, survivors include two brothers.

Copyright 2006 The Washington Post Company


From: Democracy Now! ......................................[This story printer-friendly]
November 9, 2004


How the U.S. Uses Globalization to Cheat Poor Countries Out of Trillions

[Rachel's introduction: In this astonishing interview, we learn just how the global reach of corporate wealth and power works. The U.S. government lends vast sums of money to less developed countries for public works projects they cannot afford. U.S. corporations then build the projects and reap the profits. When the poor country cannot repay the loan, we have them over a barrel and can then extract their natural resources at bargain-basement prices. You can also see a video of this interview here.]

By Amy Goodman

We speak with John Perkins, a former respected member of the international banking community. In his book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man he describes how as a highly paid professional, he helped the U.S. cheat poor countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars by lending them more money than they could possibly repay and then take over their economies.

John Perkins describes himself as a former economic hit man -- a highly paid professional who cheated countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars.

20 years ago Perkins began writing a book with the working title, "Conscience of an Economic Hit Men."

Perkins writes, "The book was to be dedicated to the presidents of two countries, men who had been his clients whom I respected and thought of as kindred spirits -- Jaime Roldos, president of Ecuador, and Omar Torrijos, president of Panama. Both had just died in fiery crashes. Their deaths were not accidental. They were assassinated because they opposed that fraternity of corporate, government, and banking heads whose goal is global empire. We Economic Hit Men failed to bring Roldos and Torrijos around, and the other type of hit men, the CIA- sanctioned jackals who were always right behind us, stepped in.

John Perkins goes on to write: "I was persuaded to stop writing that book. I started it four more times during the next twenty years. On each occasion, my decision to begin again was influenced by current world events: the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1980, the first Gulf War, Somalia, and the rise of Osama bin Laden. However, threats or bribes always convinced me to stop."

But now Perkins has finally published his story. The book is titled Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. John Perkins joins us now in our Firehouse studios.

* From 1971 to 1981 John Perkins worked for the international consulting firm of Chas T. Main where he was a self-described "economic hit man." He is the author of the new book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.


This transcript is available free of charge, however donations help us provide closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing on our TV broadcast. Thank you for your generous contribution. Donate -- $25, $50, $100, more...

AMY GOODMAN: John Perkins joins us now in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JOHN PERKINS: Thank you, Amy. It's great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It's good to have you with us. Okay, explain this term, "economic hit man," e.h.m., as you call it.

JOHN PERKINS: Basically what we were trained to do and what our job is to do is to build up the American empire. To bring -- to create situations where as many resources as possible flow into this country, to our corporations, and our government, and in fact we've been very successful. We've built the largest empire in the history of the world. It's been done over the last 50 years since World War II with very little military might, actually. It's only in rare instances like Iraq where the military comes in as a last resort. This empire, unlike any other in the history of the world, has been built primarily through economic manipulation, through cheating, through fraud, through seducing people into our way of life, through the economic hit men. I was very much a part of that.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you become one? Who did you work for?

JOHN PERKINS: Well, I was initially recruited while I was in business school back in the late sixties by the National Security Agency, the nation's largest and least understood spy organization; but ultimately I worked for private corporations. The first real economic hit man was back in the early 1950's, Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of Teddy, who overthrew of government of Iran, a democratically elected government, Mossadegh's government who was Time's magazine person of the year; and he was so successful at doing this without any bloodshed -- well, there was a little bloodshed, but no military intervention, just spending millions of dollars and replaced Mossadegh with the Shah of Iran. At that point, we understood that this idea of economic hit man was an extremely good one. We didn't have to worry about the threat of war with Russia when we did it this way. The problem with that was that Roosevelt was a C.I.A. agent. He was a government employee. Had he been caught, we would have been in a lot of trouble. It would have been very embarrassing. So, at that point, the decision was made to use organizations like the C.I.A. and the N.S.A. to recruit potential economic hit men like me and then send us to work for private consulting companies, engineering firms, construction companies, so that if we were caught, there would be no connection with the government.

AMY GOODMAN: Okay. Explain the company you worked for.

JOHN PERKINS: Well, the company I worked for was a company named Chas. T. Main in Boston, Massachusetts. We were about 2,000 employees, and I became its chief economist. I ended up having fifty people working for me. But my real job was deal-making. It was giving loans to other countries, huge loans, much bigger than they could possibly repay. One of the conditions of the loan -- let's say a $1 billion to a country like Indonesia or Ecuador -- and this country would then have to give ninety percent of that loan back to a U.S. company, or U.S. companies, to build the infrastructure -- a Halliburton or a Bechtel. These were big ones. Those companies would then go in and build an electrical system or ports or highways, and these would basically serve just a few of the very wealthiest families in those countries. The poor people in those countries would be stuck ultimately with this amazing debt that they couldn't possibly repay. A country today like Ecuador owes over fifty percent of its national budget just to pay down its debt. And it really can't do it. So, we literally have them over a barrel. So, when we want more oil, we go to Ecuador and say, "Look, you're not able to repay your debts, therefore give our oil companies your Amazon rain forest, which are filled with oil." And today we're going in and destroying Amazonian rain forests, forcing Ecuador to give them to us because they've accumulated all this debt. So we make this big loan, most of it comes back to the United States, the country is left with the debt plus lots of interest, and they basically become our servants, our slaves. It's an empire. There's no two ways about it. It's a huge empire. It's been extremely successful.

AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. You say because of bribes and other reason you didn't write this book for a long time. What do you mean? Who tried to bribe you, or who -- what are the bribes you accepted?

JOHN PERKINS: Well, I accepted a half a million dollar bribe in the nineties not to write the book.


JOHN PERKINS: From a major construction engineering company.

AMY GOODMAN: Which one?

JOHN PERKINS: Legally speaking, it wasn't -- Stoner-Webster. Legally speaking it wasn't a bribe, it was -- I was being paid as a consultant. This is all very legal. But I essentially did nothing. It was a very understood, as I explained in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, that it was -- I was -- it was understood when I accepted this money as a consultant to them I wouldn't have to do much work, but I mustn't write any books about the subject, which they were aware that I was in the process of writing this book, which at the time I called "Conscience of an Economic Hit Man." And I have to tell you, Amy, that, you know, it's an extraordinary story from the standpoint of -- It's almost James Bondish, truly, and I mean--

AMY GOODMAN: Well that's certainly how the book reads.

JOHN PERKINS: Yeah, and it was, you know? And when the National Security Agency recruited me, they put me through a day of lie detector tests. They found out all my weaknesses and immediately seduced me. They used the strongest drugs in our culture, sex, power and money, to win me over. I come from a very old New England family, Calvinist, steeped in amazingly strong moral values. I think I, you know, I'm a good person overall, and I think my story really shows how this system and these powerful drugs of sex, money and power can seduce people, because I certainly was seduced. And if I hadn't lived this life as an economic hit man, I think I'd have a hard time believing that anybody does these things. And that's why I wrote the book, because our country really needs to understand, if people in this nation understood what our foreign policy is really about, what foreign aid is about, how our corporations work, where our tax money goes, I know we will demand change.

AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to John Perkins. In your book, you talk about how you helped to implement a secret scheme that funneled billions of dollars of Saudi Arabian petrol dollars back into the U.S. economy, and that further cemented the intimate relationship between the House of Saud and successive U.S. administrations. Explain.

JOHN PERKINS: Yes, it was a fascinating time. I remember well, you're probably too young to remember, but I remember well in the early seventies how OPEC exercised this power it had, and cut back on oil supplies. We had cars lined up at gas stations. The country was afraid that it was facing another 1929-type of crash -- depression; and this was unacceptable. So, they -- the Treasury Department hired me and a few other economic hit men. We went to Saudi Arabia. We --

AMY GOODMAN: You're actually called economic hit men -- e.h.m."s?

JOHN PERKINS: Yeah, it was a tongue-in-cheek term that we called ourselves. Officially, I was a chief economist. We called ourselves e.h.m."s. It was tongue-in-cheek. It was like, nobody will believe us if we say this, you know? And, so, we went to Saudi Arabia in the early seventies. We knew Saudi Arabia was the key to dropping our dependency, or to controlling the situation. And we worked out this deal whereby the Royal House of Saud agreed to send most of their petro-dollars back to the United States and invest them in U.S. government securities. The Treasury Department would use the interest from these securities to hire U.S. companies to build Saudi Arabia -- new cities, new infrastructure."which we've done. And the House of Saud would agree to maintain the price of oil within acceptable limits to us, which they've done all of these years, and we would agree to keep the House of Saud in power as long as they did this, which we've done, which is one of the reasons we went to war with Iraq in the first place. And in Iraq we tried to implement the same policy that was so successful in Saudi Arabia, but Saddam Hussein didn't buy. When the economic hit men fail in this scenario, the next step is what we call the jackals. Jackals are C.I.A.-sanctioned people that come in and try to foment a coup or revolution. If that doesn't work, they perform assassinations. or try to. In the case of Iraq, they weren't able to get through to Saddam Hussein. He had -- His bodyguards were too good. He had doubles. They couldn't get through to him. So the third line of defense, if the economic hit men and the jackals fail, the next line of defense is our young men and women, who are sent in to die and kill, which is what we've obviously done in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain how Torrijos died?

JOHN PERKINS: Omar Torrijos, the President of Panama. Omar Torrijos had signed the Canal Treaty with Carter much -- and, you know, it passed our congress by only one vote. It was a highly contended issue. And Torrijos then also went ahead and negotiated with the Japanese to build a sea-level canal. The Japanese wanted to finance and construct a sea-level canal in Panama. Torrijos talked to them about this which very much upset Bechtel Corporation, whose president was George Schultz and senior council was Casper Weinberger. When Carter was thrown out (and that's an interesting story -- how that actually happened), when he lost the election, and Reagan came in and Schultz came in as Secretary of State from Bechtel, and Weinberger came from Bechtel to be Secretary of Defense, they were extremely angry at Torrijos -- tried to get him to renegotiate the Canal Treaty and not to talk to the Japanese. He adamantly refused. He was a very principled man. He had his problem, but he was a very principled man. He was an amazing man, Torrijos. And so, he died in a fiery airplane crash, which was connected to a tape recorder with explosives in it, which -- I was there. I had been working with him. I knew that we economic hit men had failed. I knew the jackals were closing in on him, and the next thing, his plane exploded with a tape recorder with a bomb in it. There's no question in my mind that it was C.I.A. sanctioned, and most -- many Latin American investigators have come to the same conclusion. Of course, we never heard about that in our country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, where -- when did your change your heart happen?

JOHN PERKINS: I felt guilty throughout the whole time, but I was seduced. The power of these drugs, sex, power, and money, was extremely strong for me. And, of course, I was doing things I was being patted on the back for. I was chief economist. I was doing things that Robert McNamara liked and so on.

AMY GOODMAN: How closely did you work with the World Bank?

JOHN PERKINS: Very, very closely with the World Bank. The World Bank provides most of the money that's used by economic hit men, it and the I.M.F. But when 9/11 struck, I had a change of heart. I knew the story had to be told because what happened at 9/11 is a direct result of what the economic hit men are doing. And the only way that we're going to feel secure in this country again and that we're going to feel good about ourselves is if we use these systems we've put into place to create positive change around the world. I really believe we can do that. I believe the World Bank and other institutions can be turned around and do what they were originally intended to do, which is help reconstruct devastated parts of the world. Help -- genuinely help poor people. There are twenty-four thousand people starving to death every day. We can change that.

AMY GOODMAN: John Perkins, I want to thank you very much for being with us. John Perkins' book is called, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.



From: New York Times .....................................[This story printer-friendly]
May 8, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: During the 1980's, around 13 percent of Americans in their 40's spent at least one year below the poverty line; in the 1990's, 36 percent of people in their 40's did. About 37 million Americans lived below the federal poverty line in 2004, set at $19,157 a year for a family of four. But far more people, another 54 million, were in households earning between the poverty line and double the poverty line.]

By Erik Eckholm

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Abbotts date their tailspin to a collapse in demand for the aviation-related electronic parts that Stephen sold in better times, when he earned about $40,000 a year.

He lost his job in late 2001, unemployment benefits ran out over the next year and he and his wife, Laurie, along with their teenage son, were evicted from their apartment.

They spent a year in a borrowed motor home here in the working-class interior of Orange County, followed by eight months in a motel room with a kitchenette. During that time, Ms. Abbott, a diabetic who is now 51, lost all her teeth and could not afford to replace them.

"Since I didn't have a smile," she recalled, "I couldn't even work at a checkout counter."

Americans on the lower rungs of the economic ladder have always been exposed to sudden ruin. But in recent years, with the soaring costs of housing and medical care and a decline in low-end wages and benefits, tens of millions are living on even shakier ground than before, according to studies of what some scholars call the "near poor."

"There's strong evidence that over the past five years, record numbers of lower-income Americans find themselves in a more precarious economic position than at any time in recent memory," said Mark R. Rank, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of "One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All."

In a rare study of vulnerability to poverty, Mr. Rank and his colleagues found that the risk of a plummet of at least a year below the official poverty line rose sharply in the 1990's, compared with the two previous decades. By all signs, he said, such insecurity has continued to worsen.

For all age groups except those 70 and older, the odds of a temporary spell of poverty doubled in the 1990's, Mr. Rank reported in a 2004 paper titled, "The Increase of Poverty Risk and Income Insecurity in the U.S. Since the 1970's," written with Daniel A. Sandoval and Thomas A. Hirschl, both of Cornell University.

For example, during the 1980's, around 13 percent of Americans in their 40's spent at least one year below the poverty line; in the 1990's, 36 percent of people in their 40's did, according to the analysis.

Comparable figures for this decade will not be available for several years, but other indicators -- a climbing poverty rate and rising levels of family debt -- suggest a deepening insecurity, poverty experts and economists say.

More people work in jobs without health coverage, including temporary or contract jobs that may offer no benefits or even access to unemployment insurance. Medicaid is offered to fewer adults (though to more children). Cash welfare benefits are harder to secure, and their real value has eroded.

About 37 million Americans lived below the federal poverty line in 2004, set at $19,157 a year for a family of four. But far more people, another 54 million, were in households earning between the poverty line and double the poverty line.

"We don't track this group of people, and they are very vulnerable," said Katherine S. Newman, a sociologist at Princeton University who studies low-end workers.

Those suffering a nose-dive say the statistics do not begin to convey their fears and anguish.

Only a year ago, Machele Sauer thought she was entering the middle class. She and her husband, a licensed electrician, owned a large mobile home. He was starting his own business and Ms. Sauer, after bearing their fourth child, hoped to stop waitressing and be a stay- at-home mom.

"We were the ideal family, the envy of others," she said recently as she collected free food and diapers at the Hope Family Support Center, a small charity in Garden Grove, Calif., in Orange County. "And then, boom, everything flipped upside down."

Life fell apart last spring when her husband was arrested on theft charges, linked to a recent drug addiction she says she did not know about. Because of a prior record, he received a long prison sentence.

Now Ms. Sauer, 34, draws on the charity for goods and its director, Gayle Knight, for advice and emotional support, part of a grueling scramble to provide for her four daughters, ages 16 months, 8, 9 and 15. Many days over recent weeks, she dropped them at the baby sitter after school, worked the night shift as a waitress, picked up the sleeping children after midnight then woke up with the baby at 6:30 a.m. before preparing the older three for school.

At first she went on welfare, receiving $600 a month along with paid child care and counseling for herself and the children. As she resumed waitress work -- four night shifts and two day shifts a week -- she earned about $1,300 a month, which led her welfare payment to be cut to $300.

She receives $200 worth of food stamps that cover bills for just the first two weeks of each month, she said.

"Now the van is breaking down," she said. "With four kids it's really hard to hold a full-time job, and I need to make sure they do well in school." Her goal is to find a way to prepare for nursing school.

The Abbotts, too, sought aid from food banks and other charities, collecting weekly boxes of food and toiletries.

In Orange County, about 220,000 people received food from 400 local charities last year, according to the Second Harvest Food Bank, which distributes donations. Recipients include many families, often Hispanic, with several children and both parents working minimum-wage jobs. Over all, half the families seeking food had at least one working adult, according to a recent study by the food bank.

In the center of Orange County, a world away from its polished coastal towns, borderline poverty is common but seldom visible. On small streets behind strip malls and fast food restaurants, families, sometimes two of them, cram into small, aging bungalows.

What look like tourist motels along Beach Boulevard are mostly filled by working families or single people who stay for months or years, paying high weekly fees but unable to muster up-front money for an apartment rental.

Mr. Abbott, now 58, eventually found a lower-paying sales job. With help from church members, the couple amassed the three months' rent of $2,700 required to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Anaheim.

Describing their last several years, Mr. Abbott kept circling back to the emotional toll. Motels, like the one they lived in for eight months for $281 a week, are "dives," he said, "with lots of screaming and fighting and cops being called."

"It was really stressful," he said, "and still you pay a lot of money."

In a new setback, Mr. Abbott has developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He recently had to stop working and go on state disability, which pays $1,436 a month and gives him health coverage.

Ms. Abbott has no health insurance -- if she gets sick, she says, she will go to a medical van that serves the homeless. But a generous dentist from church helped her get new teeth, and now she plans to hunt for work.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company


From: Scientific American ................................[This story printer-friendly]
May 1, 2006


Harmless Levels of Chemicals Prove Toxic Together

[Rachel's introduction: One chemical alone may do no harm in low doses, but in conjunction with a few of its peers, even in doses that individually seem safe, it may inflict serious harm.]

By David Biello

One chemical alone may do no harm in low doses, but in conjunction with a few of its peers, even in doses that are individually safe, it can inflict serious harm. New research in frogs shows that a mixture of nine chemicals found in a seed-corn field in York County, Nebraska, killed a third of exposed tadpoles and lengthened time to metamorphosis by more than two weeks for the survivors.

Biologist Tyrone Hayes and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, have spent the past four years testing four herbicides, two fungicides and three insecticides commonly used in American cornfields. Individually, the chemicals had little effect on developing tadpoles at low concentrations, such as about 0.1 part per billion. But when Hayes exposed them to all nine at the same low level in the laboratory--the lowest level actually found in the field--the future frogs fell prey to endemic infection. Those that survived ended up smaller than their counterparts raised in clean water--despite taking longer to mature into adults. "In humans, this is like saying, 'The longer you are pregnant, the smaller your baby will be," which means the womb is no longer a nurturing environment," Hayes notes.

Hayes's study joins a growing body of work showing that chemicals in combination can produce a wide range of effects even at low concentrations. Rick Relyea of the University of Pittsburgh has shown in several studies that tadpoles exposed in their water to low levels of a single pesticide and the smell of a predator will face significantly higher mortality rates. For instance, about 90 percent of bullfrog tadpoles died from exposure to the pesticide carbaryl when the smell of predatory newts was present, whereas no tadpoles perished if exposed to each individually. "The pesticide may be inducing a general stress in the tadpole that, when combined with another stressor, becomes deadly, Relyea argues.

It is not just pesticides that show a mixture effect. Phthalates-- chemical softeners that make polymers flexible--can interfere with the sexual development of male rats. "We have males treated with phthalates where the testes are under the kidneys or floating around in the abdominal cavity," explains L. Earl Gray, Jr., a biologist at the Environmental Protection Agency and codiscoverer of this deformity, which has been dubbed phthalate syndrome. Gray has also found that various kinds of phthalates in combination either with one another Or with certain pesticides and industrial effluents exert ever more powerful effects. For example, two phthalates at concentrations that on their own would not produce much deformity combined to create defective urethras (hypospadias) in 25 percent of exposed rats.

Besides adding to the issue of endocrine disruption--whether industrial chemicals are mimicking natural hormones--the findings on mixtures pose an incredible challenge for regulators. With tens of thousands of chemicals in regular use worldwide, assessing which combinations might prove harmful is a gargantuan task. "Most of the offices in the agency recognize that we cannot operate via the idea of 'one chemical, one exposure' to an individual anymore. We need to look at broader classes of compounds and how they interact," says Elaine Francis, national program director for the EPA's pesticides and toxics research program. But such testing has a long way to go to reach any kind of regulation, particularly given industry's qualms about the validity of existing research.

Marian Stanley, who chairs the phthalates panel for the American Chemistry Council, notes that at least one study showed that rodents suffering from phthalate malformations could still mate and have litters.

"The additivity of phthalates alone are on end points that may not have any biological relevance," she says.

Nevertheless, evidence continues to accumulate that mixture effects are a critical area of study. In its National Water Quality Assessment, the U.S. Geological Survey found that a sampling of the nation's streams contained two or more pesticides 90 percent of the time. "The potential effects of contaminant mixtures on people, aquatic life and fish-eating wildlife are still poorly understood," states hydrologist Robert Gilliom, lead author of the study. "Our results indicate, however, that studies Of mixtures should be a high priority."


Sidebar: Human Disruption

By David Biello

Besides affecting amphibians, endocrine disruption -- chemical interference with hormonal cascades involved in development--may also be happening in humans. Shanna Swan of the University of Rochester has linked fetal exposure to phthalates and genital changes in 85 baby boys. "We found effects at levels that are seen in a quarter of the U.S. population," Swarm says.

But whether the malformations stem from phthalates alone or in combination with other compounds remains unknown, because humans encounter many chemicals in mixture. To help sort out matters, a Johns Hopkins University study will look for the most common chemicals in people. Umbilical cord blood will be tested for a wide array of substances, from pesticides to phthalates to heavy metals, and the overall levels then correlated with the babies' characteristics at birth. Explains the study's leader, Lynn Goldman: "If we can identify some of these mixtures to which people are commonly exposed, then those might be the mixtures to look at more closely."



From: New York Times .....................................[This story printer-friendly]
May 9, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: "The U.S. ranking [near the bottom in the industrialized world for survival of newborn babies] is driven partly by racial and income health care disparities. Among U.S. blacks, there are 9 deaths per 1,000 live births, closer to rates in developing nations than to those in the industrialized world."]

By The Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) -- America may be the world's superpower, but its survival rate for newborn babies ranks near the bottom among modern nations, better only than Latvia.

Among 33 industrialized nations, the United States is tied with Hungary, Malta, Poland and Slovakia with a death rate of nearly 5 per 1,000 babies, according to a new report. Latvia's rate is 6 per 1,000.

"We are the wealthiest country in the world, but there are still pockets of our population who are not getting the health care they need," said Mary Beth Powers, a reproductive health adviser for the U.S.-based Save the Children, which compiled the rankings based on health data from countries and agencies worldwide.

The U.S. ranking is driven partly by racial and income health care disparities. Among U.S. blacks, there are 9 deaths per 1,000 live births, closer to rates in developing nations than to those in the industrialized world.

"Every time I see these kinds of statistics, I'm always amazed to see where the United States is because we are a country that prides itself on having such advanced medical care and developing new technology ... and new approaches to treating illness. But at the same time not everybody has access to those new technologies," said Dr. Mark Schuster, a Rand Co. researcher and pediatrician with the University of California, Los Angeles.

The Save the Children report, released Monday, comes just a week after publication of another report humbling to the American health care system. That study showed that white, middle-aged Americans are far less healthy than their peers in England, despite U.S. health care spending that is double that in England.

In the analysis of global infant mortality, Japan had the lowest newborn death rate, 1.8 per 1,000 and four countries tied for second place with 2 per 1,000 -- the Czech Republic, Finland, Iceland and Norway.

Still, it's the impoverished nations that feel the full brunt of infant mortality, since they account for 99 percent of the 4 million annual deaths of babies in their first month. Only about 16,000 of those are in the United States, according to Save the Children.

The highest rates globally were in Africa and South Asia. With a newborn death rate of 65 out of 1,000 live births, Liberia ranked the worst.

In the United States, researchers noted that the population is more racially and economically diverse than many other industrialized countries, making it more challenging to provide culturally appropriate health care.

About half a million U.S. babies are born prematurely each year, data show. African-American babies are twice as likely as white infants to be premature, to have a low birth weight, and to die at birth, according to Save the Children.

The researchers also said lack of national health insurance and short maternity leaves likely contribute to the poor U.S. rankings. Those factors can lead to poor health care before and during pregnancy, increasing risks for premature births and low birth weight, which are the leading causes of newborn death in industrialized countries. Infections are the main culprit in developing nations, the report said.

Other possible factors in the U.S. include teen pregnancies and obesity rates, which both disproportionately affect African-American women and also increase risk for premature births and low birth weights.

In past reports by Save the Children -- released ahead of Mother's Day -- U.S. mothers' well-being has consistently ranked far ahead of those in developing countries but poorly among industrialized nations. This year the United States tied for last place with the United Kingdom on indicators including mortality risks and contraception use.

While the gaps for infants and mothers contrast sharply with the nation's image as a world leader, Emory University health policy expert Kenneth Thorpe said the numbers are not surprising.

"Our health care system focuses on providing high-tech services for complicated cases. We do this very well," Thorpe said. "What we do not do is provide basic primary and preventive health care services. We do not pay for these services, and do not have a delivery system that is designed to provide either primary prevention, or adequately treat patients with chronic diseases."


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.

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