Yesterday, the Philadelphia City Council fell one vote short of overriding Mayor Michael Nutter’s veto of legislation that would have required businesses with more than five employees to let workers earn paid sick leave. This was the second time the Council had passed a paid sick leave bill, only to have it vetoed.
The news for workers was better in New York City late last month, when legislators reached a compromise: a paid sick leave law that will only apply to businesses with at least 15 employees, but that nonetheless will provide this important benefit to an estimated one million workers who currently lack it.
The New York breakthrough came after City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn resisted action on the bill for three years. This prompted a Salon piece from Randy Lobasso entitled “Paid sick leave: The next liberal litmus test?” Lobasso suggests paid sick leave is now “a must-support issue for ambitious Democrats across the nation.” Last month, Portland, Oregon became the fourth US jurisdiction to require employers to offer paid sick leave; the state of Connecticut and the cities of San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC all have paid sick leave laws, although DC’s includes a problematic exemption of tipped restaurant workers.
Washington Post columnist Jena McGregor considers reasons why the issue seems to be gaining traction:
For one, the struggling economy has put new emphasis on the challenges low-wage workers face when they have to call in sick and their pay suffers as a result. In addition, the recent celebration of the Family and Medical Leave Act’s 20th anniversary, Ness says, was a reminder to lawmakers of the impact of similar measures. And now that initiatives have been in place for a few years in some locales — San Francisco was first, in 2007, and Connecticut passed its legislation in 2011 — supporters say the results have helped to shape others’ opinion. “None of the ‘sky is falling’ horror stories have come to pass,” Ness says.
More than 80% of low-wage workers lack paid sick days, so they’re stuck making a difficult choice between missing a day of pay and staying home to recover from an illness or care for a family member. Also in the Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes:
More than 40 million Americans — disproportionately low-income, black and Latino workers — cook, clean, fold, and ring us up without any paid time off when they or their children are ill. On any given day, these workers must choose between caring for a sick child and their job. They handle our food and our purchases, coughing and sniffling through Kleenex, to avoid being handed a pink slip.
The absence of paid sick leave is a glaring injustice that puts American workers in the distinguished company of workers in Syria, Somalia and North Korea. It’s an affront to our values and the dignity of a hard day’s work. And it’s a drag on our families, our businesses, and our society.
Maybe this issue is gaining traction because it seems like common sense to most of the public that people should be able to stay home from work when they’re sick.
In an excellent story about wage theft and unsafe conditions in the Texas construction industry, NPR’s Wade Goodwyn observes, “working Texas construction is a good way to die while not making a good living.”
Goodwyn notes that a Texas home might not cost the buyer much money — a new 3,000 square-foot, five-bedroom home can be had for $160,000 — but oftentimes that low price tag comes at a high cost for the workers who built it. The Austin-based Workers Defense Project co-authored a report with the University of Texas, Austin on Texas construction-industry working conditions, and their findings come from more than a year’s worth of surveys of construction workers. Goodwyn cites several of the findings from the report, including:
- 41% of workers reported being misclassified as subcontractors, which means their employers aren’t paying the required Social Security or payroll taxes or abiding by the relevant wage-and-hour laws.
- The Texas construction industry had 10.7 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2010, compared to rates of 5.2 in California and 8.8 in the US as a whole.
- One out of every five Texas construction workers requires hospitalization for on-the-job injuries — and because Texas is the only US state that doesn’t require employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance, the victims, hospitals, and taxpayers end up paying for much of that care.
Listen to the story to hear the voice of Christian Hurtado, whose father Angel, a roofer, died from falling 20 feet to a concrete floor. Christian’s mother was also working at the site and saw her husband die. The subcontractor who hired Angel Hurtado told Christian that he’d pay for the funeral, but the family never saw him again and he didn’t return their phone calls.
In other news:
NBC 10 Philadelphia: The Philadelphia City Council fell one vote short of overriding Mayor Michael Nutter’s veto of paid sick leave legislation.
New York Times letter to the editor: A recent New York Times story highlighted the issue of occupational illness, which is insufficiently discussed given that an estimated 50,000 workers develop occupational illness each year. A proposed rule that would help prevent worker illnesses related to silica exposure has been stuck at the White House Office of Management and Budget for more than two years.
MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry: Melissa Harris-Perry talks with panelists about poor working conditions among the country’s growing low-wage workforce.
Guernica: “Congress and the courts have reached conflicting decisions on wage rules and protections for vulnerable temporary workers; nobody knows what happens next.”
Washington Post’s Wonkblog: Although Louisville player Kevin Ware suffered an awful leg injury during an NCAA tournament game, basketball is safer for male college athletes than many other sports.
India Today: Wal-Mart Stores Inc has announced a donation of $1.6 million toward a new Bangladesh training academy and new efforts to regain control over suppliers making its products. After a fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh killed 112 people last year, Wal-Mart stated it was not aware that the factory had been producing the company’s private-label clothing.
Getting more than one helping of food is obviously a draw for patrons of all-you-can-eat restaurants. But can one predict how many trips to the buffet a particular diner will make? Does scoping out the buffet before grabbing a plate lead to more trips? How does sitting in a chair that faces the buffet influence those second or third helpings?
Researchers with Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab have been exploring these questions using 30 trained observers staked out in buffet restaurants in six states. Some of their findings are presented in the current issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. They observed 303 diners (systematically selected) at 22 all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet restaurants. The observers looked for specific dining room behaviors in the 165 male and 158 female patrons, such as:
- scouting the buffet versus serving themselves immediately
- using a large plate versus a smaller one
- using a fork versus chopsticks
- facing toward the buffet or away from it
- placing a napkin on their lap versus leaving it on the table
The observers also estimated the patrons’ height and weight, and used the Body Image Assessment for Obesity to assign a body-mass index score to each subject. Here’s some of what the authors reported:
- Those who served themselves immediately took 2.76 (mean) trips to the buffet compared to 2.35 (mean) trips among those who perused the offerings before filling their first plate.
- Those who used larger plates made 2.64 (mean) trips to the buffet compared to 2.07 (mean) trips among those who chose a smaller plate.
Moreover, after controlling for the estimated BMI for each patron, the results remained statistically significant. That is, the association was not simply a result of people with higher estimated BMIs making more trips to the buffet.
This study, along with the dozens of others conducted by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, help us better understand how environment features and our own behaviors affect consumption, and potentially obesity. The lab’s director, Brian Wansink, PhD, is a consumer psychologist and the author of Mindless Eating: Why we eat more than we think. Wansick and his colleagues have examined how catchy names (e.g., Silly Dilly green beans, x-ray vision carrots) can increase school children’s selection and intake of vegetables, and how visual cues can act like stop signs to control overeating.
Back at the all-you-can-eat-buffet, Wansink offers a couple of recommendations. They aren’t directed at the diners themselves, but are consistent with his focus on the environment in which people eat. He suggests that buffet owners use smaller plates and place them behind the buffet. Diners will be compelled to review the food offerings before they get their plate. The added benefit he notes: if patrons don’t overeat, buffet owners will save money on food costs.
Last week, Judge Edward Korman of the District Court of Eastern New York overturned the Obama administration’s restrictions on the over-the-counter sale of the emergency contraceptive Plan B to young women under age 17. This is good news for public health, and I hope it will be the end of a long and disturbing episode in the history of US contraceptives.
Emergency contraceptives like Plan B can dramatically reduce the risk of an unintended pregnancy if taken within 72 hours after unprotected intercourse, but their efficacy wanes the longer a woman has to wait to take the drug. Making Plan B available over the counter reduces women’s barriers to using it. With age restrictions in place, women 17 and older get get the drug without a prescription, but have to show identification to a pharmacist; that limits the hours and places for obtaining the drug and puts it out of reach of women without photo IDs.
Here’s a summary of the FDA’s actions on Plan B OTC sales, largely copied from my previous posts on this issue: In 2003, over 70 medical and public-health organizations petitioned FDA to allow unrestricted over-the-counter access to Plan B. Scientists on FDA’s scientific advisory committees and professional drug review staff strongly recommended that Plan B be granted nonprescription status, but the FDA first dragged its feet on issuing a decision and then approved nonprescription status only for those age 18 and older. In 2009, Judge Korman ruled that FDA’s determination had been based on politics rather than science, and ordered the agency both to reconsider its decision and to extend nonprescription access to 17-year-olds (which the agency did).
In 2011, Plan B manufacturer Teva Women’s Health Inc. applied to the FDA to make the drug nonprescription for “all females of childbearing potential.” In December 2011, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg stated that “there is adequate and reasonable, well-supported, and science-based evidence that Plan B One-Step is safe and effective and should be approved for nonprescription use for all females of child-bearing potential.” However, Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius invoked her authority over FDA and required that the approval be denied — in other words, deciding to retain the age limits for non-prescription sales of Plan B.
In his statement supporting Secretary Sebelius’s decision, President Obama raised the specter of 11-year-old girls going into a drugstore and seeing emergency contraceptives alongside bubble gum and batteries. Given the approach of the 2012 elections, it was hard to view the decision as anything other than a politically motivated attempt to avoid having the President’s opponents blaming him for just such an 11-year-old-girl scenario.
My colleague Susan Wood, who resigned her FDA position as assistant commissioner for women’s health in 2005 out of frustration over the Bush administration’s handling of the request to approve over-the-counter sale of emergency contraceptive Plan B, wrote about Secretary Sebelius’s decision:
On its surface, the secretary’s action was a small thing. After all, invoking concerns about sexually active preteens is enough to garner the support of most parents, no matter what. But when Sebelius decided to block the FDA’s recommendation, and when she asserted her own interpretation of medical and scientific data, she set a new and potentially dangerous precedent.
While the HHS secretary does have final legal authority to make decisions for the FDA, by law these decisions must be made based on very specific and limited criteria. Political considerations are not one of them. The FDA makes recommendations based on scientific evidence to ensure that the products it approves are safe and effective. Approving or blocking medications based on political or other grounds is a slippery slope.
Imagine a future secretary appointed by a president who objects to, say, embryonic stem-cell research. Pointing to the Plan B decision, this new secretary could assert that he or she doesn’t believe the data showing effectiveness of a stem-cell-based cancer therapy and so could deny approval. Or maybe a major political contributor wants a new drug or device approved (or blocked)? The secretary–a senior political appointee, after all–could identify a “scientific” rationale to overrule the decision by the professional medical and scientific staff at the FDA.
There is a good reason why earlier secretaries have not publicly or formally overruled “controversial” FDA product-approval decisions: it doesn’t benefit the public’s health, and all of us are at risk if we cannot trust the FDA’s decisions.
There are real options for the HHS and FDA to revisit the Plan B decision and to ensure that it does not set a very risky precedent. It all starts with giving independence back to the scientists and physicians at the FDA–who, it should be noted, have recommended full approval for Plan B over the counter for nearly 10 years.
Judge Korman’s latest decision doesn’t erase the disturbing precedent set by Secretary Sebelius’s overruling of FDA Administrator Hamburg’s decision. Assuming the administration doesn’t appeal the ruling — a Justice Department statement said it’s “reviewing appellate options” — the decision will make emergency contraceptives more readily available: Judge Korman’s ruling directs FDA to make Plan B and similar emergency contraceptives available without prescriptions or age restrictions, and to do so within 30 days.
In a conversation with Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff, Susan Wood expresses hope that elected officials are understanding that the public supports contraception:
Now, I think, we’re in a place where hopefully even folks in the political realm appreciate the fact that contraception is something that women and men support and don’t see as controversial. There are small elements that do, but that this is a subject that women care about because it affects their health, lives, opportunities, families and kids. All of this is really important to people.
Given the ongoing resistance to requirements for health insurance plans to cover contraceptives without co-payments, I fear that we still have a long way to go before contraception is viewed as a health issue rather than a political issue.
Trying to make the unacceptable acceptable: New books by Dan Fagin and Sarah Vogel illuminate our flawed history of controlling chemical hazards
By Elizabeth Grossman
An anecdote related in Dan Fagin’s compelling new book, Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, that tells the heartbreaking and infuriating history of how chemical industry pollution devastated that New Jersey community, points to one of the biggest flaws in our regulatory system’s approach to protecting people from toxics. In 1986, during a public meeting of the Ocean County Board of Health – Ocean County is home to Toms River, where the Ciba chemical company began manufacturing dye chemicals in the 1950s – an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official attempting to explain why Ciba-Geigy would not have to clean up all of the groundwater it had contaminated was interrupted by a community member who said, “What I really think you’re trying to do…is make the unacceptable acceptable.”
“What you’re trying to say,” he continued, is “Don’t worry about it. There will be one case of cancer in a million, and that person who gets it is someone you don’t know. He’s not a neighbor. He doesn’t have a family. He doesn’t have friends. He’s just an isolated incident and that’s the guy that’s going to get poisoned and going to get cancer. But you don’t look around the audience and say it could happen to you or to your child.”
By then Ciba had, over the course of several decades, dumped millions of gallons of toxic chemical-laden wastewater daily into local ground and surface waters – the same water sources that provided drinking water to Toms River households. The company had also, for decades, been dumping untreated toxic chemical sludge into the community’s porous soils. Local landfills and a nearby farm property became the repository for huge numbers of leaky barrels filled with poisonous waste. By the mid-1980s, dozens of Ocean County children had been diagnosed with cancer, including leukemia and brain and nervous system cancers. Many had died.
It had taken years for the community or any outside experts to begin to investigate whether Ciba’s toxic waste (making dye chemicals produced far more waste than finished product) might be affecting community members’ – or company workers’ – health. When the pollution came to light, as it did through a ruptured pipe, stinky tap water and the discovery of illegal waste dumping, Toms River families wanted answers. Those whose children had cancer knew they were on the wrong end of statistics.
Fagin, a prize-winning environmental journalist and New York University journalism professor, expertly tells the story of the search for links between the chemical pollution – which included numerous well known carcinogens – and the Toms River children’s cancers. To explain how Ciba-Geigy, a company whose roots go back centuries to the birth of the synthetic chemical dye industry, came to be using such toxic chemicals, and how we have come to understand their toxicity, Fagin deftly weaves into the New Jersey narrative, the history of the dye industry. He also delves into toxicology and epidemiology to explore how we regulate industrial pollution and its effects on public health.
A poster child for regulatory dysfunction
Read Toms River in tandem with another excellent new book, Sarah Vogel’s Is It Safe: BPA and the Struggle to Define the Safety of Chemicals, and you come away with a detailed and disheartening understanding of why this system so often fails to adequately protect human health. Vogel, managing director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s environmental health program, uses bisphenol A (BPA), the chemical building block of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins used in countless consumer products including food containers and food packaging, as the lens through which to examine why US chemicals policy is struggling to keep up with environmental health science and how it has become dysfunctional when it comes to making decisions about chemical safety.
Scientists have identified BPA as an endocrine disrupting chemical capable of prompting numerous potentially adverse health effects at very low levels of exposure, and researchers have found it in more than 90% of Americans’ tested. BPA has also become something of a poster-child for the tug-of-war between industry-generated and academic science. Vogel’s illuminating account takes us back to the origins of the United States’ attempts to regulate carcinogens and other toxic chemicals that can contaminate food. It shows that while our scientific understanding of synthetic chemicals’ interaction with living cells has advanced enormously not much has changed over the past 50 years in the chemical industry’s approach to government regulation of its products or the government’s reluctance to make decisions that could be labeled anti-business.
Chemical industry trade associations maintain that BPA is safe and criticize the science or decision-making processes that suggest otherwise. This response, Vogel demonstrates, is disconcertingly similar to what happened in the 1950s when industry sought to and succeeded in whittling away the federal government’s power to eliminate carcinogens from food and food-contact products.
Continuing the story David Michaels chronicled in Doubt is their Product and Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway illustrated in Merchants of Doubt, Vogel shows us that doubt-production is still in full swing. What makes her history so interesting is its examination of how the whole regulatory system with which we are now saddled has been shaped by these forces. BPA, as an endocrine disrupting chemical that can interact with exceptionally sensitive cellular receptors and produce effects at low levels of exposure and either very different or no effects at higher levels, is a challenge to traditional toxicology that assumes dose and effect have a linear relationship. Add to this the fact that chemicals like BPA can produce adverse health effects that may take years to manifest and effects that depend on timing as well as level of exposure. All are inherent challenges for a regulatory system built around setting safe exposure levels determined by risk assessments that include assumptions of acceptable risk.
Ongoing health consequences
This, in the end, is what the Toms River families confronted as they pursued answers to exactly which chemicals might be responsible for the cancers. While Ciba had dumped incalculably large amounts of carcinogenic chemicals into the local environment, ultimately pinpointed as a likely culprit was an obscure mixture of styrene and acrylonitrile dumped not by Ciba, but in illegally discarded Union Carbide barrels that had leaked into groundwater. Was that chemical definitively responsible for sickening Toms River children? No one will ever know for sure. Did other toxic chemicals also play a role in these children’s diseases? It’s likely, but again, no one will ever know for sure. Fagin’s account of these toxicological and epidemiological forensics is dramatic and eloquent.
What we also don’t and will probably never will know is how workers at Ciba’s Toms River plant were affected by occupational exposure to these toxic chemicals. Dye industry chemicals are well known to be associated with cancer, and Fagin weaves this history into his narrative. He also shows why it’s proven so difficult to definitively connect occupational exposure with adverse health effects suffered by workers – or to prove a cancer cluster – particularly if that data is destined for a court of law, a history that continues to this day for all too many people.
While the Toms River families’ case against Ciba was eventually settled and that factory closed, the story is not over. The dye industry is now running full throttle in Asia where, in sickening cases of déjà vu, communities in China and India (among others) are suffering the effects. Meanwhile, many Toms River families and former Ciba workers continue to live with anxiety.
Read Is it Safe? and Toms River and you’ll come away with a deepened understanding of how flawed our chemical regulatory system is, how it is designed to err in favor of the chemicals and those who produce them, and how it places overwhelming burdens of proof of harm on those who may suffer ill effects of toxic chemical exposure. Modern regulations have mechanisms to prevent to wholesale dumping of toxics into the environment and prohibit poisoning of workers, but these regulations are often poorly enforced. And as Vogel illustrates in her account, policy’s failure to catch up with science is taking a toll on human health. Both books tell histories that we ignore at our peril.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.
Three years ago today, April 5, 2010, at approximately 3:02 pm (ET) a coal dust explosion ripped through Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia. Twenty-nine miners were killed by the blast, suffering fatal injuries from the explosion itself or from carbon monoxide poisoning. They were:
- Carl Calvin “Pee Wee” Acord, 52
- Jason Atkins, 25
- Christopher Bell, 33
- Gregory Steven Brock, 47
- Kenneth A. Chapman, 53
- Robert E. Clark, 41
- Cory Thomas Davis, 20
- Charles Timothy Davis, 51
- Michael Lee Elswick, 56
- William “Bob” Griffith, 54
- Steven “Smiley” Harrah, 40
- Edward Dean Jones, 50
- Richard K. Lane, 45
- William Roosevelt Lynch, 59
- Joe Marcum, 57
- Ronald Lee Maynor, 31
- Nicolas Darrell McCroskey, 26
- James “Eddie” Mooney, 51
- Adam Keith Morgan, 21
- Rex L. Mullins, 50
- Joshua Scott Napper, 25
- Howard “Boone” Payne, 53
- Dillard “Dewey” Persinger, 32
- Joel “Jody Price, 55
- Gary Wayne Quarles, 33
- Deward Allan Scott, 58
- Grover Dale Skeens, 57
- Benny Ray Willingham, 61
- Ricky Workman, 50
The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. writes that some Members of Congress are renewing their calls to strengthen the federal Mine Act.
“‘It is not enough merely to think back, to mourn, and to wish,’ said Rep. Nick J. Rahall, a Democrat whose district includes the site of the April 2010 explosion. ‘That does not do justice to those we lost. We must act.’”
Ward quotes from a statement issued by Congressmen George Miller (D-CA) and Joe Courtney (D-CT):
“While many on Capitol Hill have turned their attention elsewhere, some of us refuse to forget that horrible day and the promises made to the families that we would act to prevent future tragedies.”
These and a few other Congressional Democrats have introduced the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act (H.R. 1373). As we mark the third anniversary of a mine safety disaster that could have been prevented, I’ll note that neither the U.S. House nor the U.S. Senate has held a hearing on a bill to improve miners’ safety.
by Kim Krisberg
If you serve it, they will eat it. That’s one of the many lessons gleaned from a new report on the national Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.
In the first really rigorous study of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP), researchers found that fruit and veggie consumption was higher among students in FFVP schools. In fact, such students ate about one-third of a cup more of fruits and veggies than students in comparable schools that were not taking part in FFVP. Designed to improve kids’ diets, FFVP reimburses elementary schools with high rates of free and reduced-priced school meal enrollment for offering fresh produce outside of normal meal times. Initial funding for the program began in 2008–2009 at $40 million and as of 2011–2012 had grown to $150 million.
In a news release, USDA stated that the March report “demonstrates that when children are provided healthy fruits and vegetables as snacks, they were not only willing to try them, but the majority finished them.” In addition to providing fruits and veggies, FFVP schools are also encouraged to offer nutrition education. And the report found that FFVP schools were indeed home to greater levels of nutrition education and promotion, including distributing promotional flyers, brochures and newsletters. On average, schools participating in FFVP provided nutrition education more than twice a week, whereas non-FFVP school offered such education less than once a week. FFVP schools also promoted messages about trying new kinds of foods more often.
Susan Bartlett, a lead author of the report and a principal associate at Abt Associates, noted that participating schools really did take the nutrition education component seriously and helped improve kids’ attitudes about fruits and veggies.
“And those attitudes carried over at home,” Bartlett told me. “It’s a consistent story.”
The report, which studied nearly 4,700 students in 214 schools, found that students attending FFVP schools tended to eat more fruits and veggies outside of school as well. In fact, their attitudes about produce also changed. Such students were more likely to agree that they “like most fruits” and that they “like to try new fruits and new vegetables.” Researchers also found no statistical difference in energy intake (calorie intake) between FFVP schools and non-FFVP schools. (This last finding meant researchers couldn’t definitely accept or reject hypotheses that increased fruit and veggie consumption may contribute to weight gain or that it was replacing consumption of more calorie-dense foods.)
Federal guidelines encourage schools to put the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program into action at least two times each week, and researchers found that 94 percent of schools did so. Moreover, 41 percent of FFVP schools provided free fruit and veggie snacks five days a week.
Bartlett noted that the program is providing a particular nutritional boost for kids from lower-income families, many of whom tend to start out with narrower access to fresh produce and lower consumption.
“So having any kind of increase, even by small amounts, is important,” she said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adopting a diet rich in fruits and veggies can reduce the risk of cancer and other chronic conditions. Unfortunately, according to a 2009 action guide from the agency, only 21 percent of middle and high schools offered students fruits and non-fried veggies outside of official school meal programs.
To download a copy of the “Evaluation of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program,” click here.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.