Brita Belli

Is the Environment to Blame for the Rise in Autism Cases?

Autism cases are on the rise. Or so the most recent data would have us believe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 1 in 100 children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) -- up from 1 in 150 in 2007. A study in the journal Pediatrics in October 2009 revealed similar numbers -- parents of 1 in 90 children reported that their child had ASD. With boys, the rate of ASD was 1 in 58. Without a doubt, autism is the country's fastest-growing developmental disability, affecting more children than cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined. Still, in dealing with a childhood disorder that ranges from "highly functioning" to uncommunicative, and such a long list of potential triggers and treatments, even the numbers themselves are subject to questioning.

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Selling Tap Water in New York to Help Provide Clean Water in Developing Countries

Challenged to create a brand out of "nothing" by Esquire magazine, David Droga of New York ad agency Droga5 envisioned the Tap Project. The concept was simple, but the scope huge: charge New York City diners a dollar for their glasses of tap water during one week in March (dubbed "World Water Week") and give that money to UNICEF to help provide access to clean drinking water around the world. Ads for the Tap Project, launched in 2007 with 300 New York restaurants, showed tap water as a prestige beverage in designer bottles. After all, one billion people around the world do not have access to the "luxury" of clean drinking water. "All of us take for granted the ability to get clean water through the tap," says Kim Pucci, marketing director for U.S. Funds for UNICEF. Asked about bottled water companies' claims that cast doubt on the safety of tap water, Pucci says, "We're staying out of the debate."

The Tap Project, which raised $100,000 its first year, expanded to more than a dozen cities this year and 2,300 restaurants.

The Project has a hip aura, with videos on YouTube, and celebrity endorsements from actors like Sarah Jessica Parker and Lucy Liu. It's UNICEF's most successful initiative to date, even surpassing the charitable response to the Southeast Asian tsunami.

Just $1 can supply 10.5 gallons of safe drinking water to one child (enough for 40 days worth of water for cooking, bathing and cleaning). The project's continued expansion--it aims to go worldwide next year--will help UNICEF reach its goal of halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water by 2015.

And other advertisers are challenging consumer ambivalence toward water, particularly in bottled form. Last year, Eric Yaverbaum of PR firm Ericho Communications and Mark DiMassimo of DiMassimoGoldstein (or DIGO) founded Tappening, a project pushing consumers to switch from bottled water to reusable bottles filled with tap water. They're selling their own refillables with messages like "Think global. Drink local."

Can Green Jobs Save the American Middle Class?

The American middle class -- of which some 80 percent of Americans claim to be a part -- is getting anxious. While there is no carved-in-stone edict about what it means to be middle class, it's the term that Americans hang their dreams on.

It suggests earning enough to get by without struggling; being able to afford health care, college costs and the occasional trip to Disney World. The middle-class ideal is tied to earning power, and it's there that confidence is eroding. Over the last five years, while most workers' incomes have increased slowly or not at all, costs have reached record levels. Housing costs are up 23 percent, college costs up 44 percent and health insurance costs up 71 percent.

And while the traditional economic outlook is bleak, the green economy is taking shape, bringing with it the promise of well-paying manufacturing jobs; of management and sales opportunities with huge growth potential and lots of niche positions for enterprising students and job seekers looking for alternative careers. On the upper tiers of the economic ladder, many CEOs and CFOs are already jumping into green jobs, and online green job directories are heavy with listings for those with established business experience.

What remains to be seen is if the career ladders appearing in every sector, from green building to organic farming, solar installation and sustainable marketing, are available to all or to a select few. With the momentum behind environmental issues, Congress, spurred by advocacy organizations such as the Apollo Alliance and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, is responding with legislation that could ensure a place for America's disadvantaged and disenfranchised in the new green economy. For that to happen, the House version of the new energy legislation -- spearheaded by Hilda Solis (D-CA) and John Tierney (D-MA) -- has to make it through Congress and past President George W. Bush's threatened veto.

The Green Jobs Act, which passed the House as part of the Energy Bill last August with a vote of 241 to 172, contains specific language about using the green economy as a "pathway out of poverty." Of the $125 million that would be set aside for job training in renewable energy, energy-efficient vehicles and green building, $25 million of that would be earmarked specifically for those most difficult to hire: at-risk youths, former inmates and welfare recipients. The Energy Savings Act of 2007 sponsored by Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Hilary Clinton (D-NY) in the Senate allows for $100 million in training for "green-collar jobs," but is not geared specifically toward low-income Americans.

That, says Van Jones, president of the Ella Baker Center, is a critical difference. "There's this whole invisible infrastructure trying to get people who need jobs connected with work," says Jones. "There are vocational training centers, return-from-prison work centers, community colleges. But none of that infrastructure is pointed at the green economy. There are a lot of 'certificate factories' pointed at the pollution-based economy, and lots of people going to night school for jobs that aren't there any more."

The Green Jobs Act is a way of "repurposing our job training," says Jones. He testified before Congress in favor of the bill -- a national version of the Green Jobs Corps his organization established in Oakland, California -- and says the shortage of skilled workers throughout the renewable energy sector is already leading eco-entrepreneurs to hire their college buddies. But there's a larger issue at stake. Unless the green economy is designed to include America's urban youth, they are bound to be overlooked, shuffled back into the same low-wage, go-nowhere retail and fast food jobs with little opportunity for improvement.

"The work of saving the polar bears and poor kids is the same work," says Jones. "If we give the jobs to the people who most need them, we solve two problems."

Many say that $100 to $125 million is miniscule money for such a major economic transition. But the government's initial investment is only meant to be a launch pad, says Kevin Doyle, president of green consulting and training company Green Economy. "The federal government serves best as an innovative leader," he says. "Money from the private sector should be at least five times that much."

Companies taking the risk of implementing new, sustainable technologies won't be eager to bear the cost of training unskilled workers. And that incentive is needed, especially in the educational system, to create a workforce that's ready for the new economy. Until sustainable practices move from testing phase to the norm, as they have in green building, companies need a reason to make the switch. "All economic activity has to be financed," says Doyle. "There are no jobs without money." At the same time, he notes, "We are reaching the tipping point where cost incentives no longer have to come from some strange amalgam of tax incentives. Green is tipping into the mainstream."

Green on Top

The green economy has already opened doors for those in the upper echelon of the business world, the managers, directors, CEOs and CFOs.

"CEOs and senior-level people across a broad spectrum are entering the environmental field in droves," says Rona Fried, founder and president of SustainableBusiness.com which includes a "Green Dream Jobs" online directory. "They're saying 'I'm the CEO of an IT company and I want to put my skills to work for the environment. How do I make that transition?'"

As corporations build environmental strategy into their policy, partnering with nonprofits and responding more quickly to rising public concern for environmental issues, they need strong communicators. "Many companies have environmental managers that are now being upgraded in terms of status," says Dan Esty, director of the Center for Business and Environment at Yale University, and co-author of Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value and Build Competitive Advantage. "To be a successful environmental manager, you need good analytic skills, to understand the environment in a business context -- as a core business strategy."

That's the advice Esty gives his Yale students: if they want to improve the environment, they should find ways to help companies tackle the issues that are important to them -- be it safe drinking water, less urban pollution or protecting the rainforest.

And the growing partnerships between corporations and environmental activist groups have created jobs on both sides of the aisle. Greenpeace and Coca-Cola are now collaborating on hydrofluorocarbon (HFC)- and chlorofluorocarbon (CFC)-free refrigeration equipment. Other high-profile partnerships include Chiquita and the Rainforest Alliance, which vastly improved that company's labor and environmental practices in Latin America; and McDonald's with (among others) Environmental Defense which led to the fast-food chain eliminating those wasteful Styrofoam containers. "There are many more jobs today focused at managing the business-environmental interface," says Esty.

The 300 largest corporations are in the initial stages of crafting a new social frontier, writes author Bruce Piasecki in World Inc. "Enlightened self-interest is what fuels the global equity culture, from the search for fuel cells and biofuels to new ways to package and new ways to power our economy, transportation and computing infrastructure," writes Piasecki, president and founder of consulting firm the American Hazard Control Group. "Business first seeks to sustain and further itself, but this revolution has the side benefit of being good for us all."

While green jobs are often touted as a way to create a solid American workforce, it's the installation and maintenance jobs in solar and wind that can't be outsourced. "The technology, where a big part of the upper money is...it's not at all clear the U.S. will win that game," says Doyle. "Right now there are a lot of technology companies in Spain, Japan and Switzerland."

Turning Blue Collars Green

But those in-country manufacturing jobs are not to be taken lightly. They represent a huge possibility for a new "green-collar" economy to restore a rapidly disintegrating American middle class. The 10 Midwestern states, ideally suited for wind energy development, could see nearly 37,000 new jobs by 2020, according to the Environmental Law and Policy Center, if the nation's renewable energy portfolio were set to 22 percent. According to a University of California at Berkeley study in 2004 (and updated in 2006), "Putting Renewables to Work: How Many Jobs Can the Clean Energy Industry Generate?" the renewable industry consistently produced more jobs per megawatt of electricity generated in construction, manufacturing, installation, operations and management and fuel processing than the fossil fuel industries. With a 20 percent national renewable energy standard that included 55 percent wind energy, that would equal 188,018 new jobs by 2020.

Kate Gordon, program director for the Apollo Alliance, a nonprofit working for American energy independence, says, "There's been a wholesale loss of manufacturing jobs, which are union-protected, highly skilled jobs. But with wind turbines, solar panels, energy-efficient retrofits -- there's a whole world of green jobs. It's pretty exciting if you can harness it."

Both recent college graduates and professionals looking to redirect their careers need to find ways to plug into this new green economy. As those pathways from conventional to green are still being laid, that's not always easy. But Doyle, who offers consulting and training for the new green economy, says there are two key strategies. One is to look at what skills are needed by all industries to solve environmental problems. All need information management and financing.

"So much starts with gathering huge amounts of data," Doyle says. This includes jobs in information technology, geography and statistics. And whether a nonprofit, a government agency or a business is looking to purchase open space, or evaluating smart growth versus sprawl, people are always needed to find funds. This opens up jobs like sector analysts, green accountants, government finance officers and foundation managers, among others.

The second strategy for green job seekers is to "pick a niche without any sense of ideological blinders," he says. Someone wanting to "fix" climate change would investigate the major sources of carbon emissions -- power plants, automobiles, gas flares -- and focus on finding solutions within these polluting industries.

People on the forefront of this rising green economy see enormous green growth potential within once-suspect corporate entities, from Wal-Mart to Starbucks. "At one point, five to 10 years ago, it was unusual to have an employee involved in corporate social responsibility," says Ted Ning, conference director of LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) and executive editor of the LOHAS Journal. "Now corporate social responsibility is a whole department for large corporations like Office Depot or Trader Joe's." Looking at the big picture, from corporate scandals to Hurricane Katrina to rising gas prices to the conservative ideology of the current administration, Ning says it's "a perfect storm -- people are fed up with what's typically given to them."

Of course, as savvy marketers have realized, the conscious consumer behind many of the fastest-growing green businesses, from eco-travel to organic food to hybrid cars and Fair Trade coffee, are as seduced by the comfort and social status of these items as by their reduced carbon footprint. "People don't have to sacrifice their lifestyle anymore," says Ning. "They don't have to wear burlap or eat sand."

How Much of Your Food is Being Nuked Before it Hits the Shelf?

India alone grows 1,000 varieties of mangoes in such delectable variations as the sweet, orange-skinned Alphonso, the Bombay Green and the Bangalora. Here in the U.S., we rarely see more than one lonely variety at the local supermarket, but that's all about to change. Soon consumers will be able to sample the sweet and tart nectars of many more imported fruits and vegetables from Thailand, India and Mexico piled high in the produce section. But there's a catch: this fruit will arrive irradiated.

Shoppers may not be the wiser. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules in place since 1986 have required the radura -- a symbol for irradiation that resembles a flower in a broken circle -- on placards in front of produce displays or on packaged food like ground beef, along with the statement: "treated with radiation" or "treated by irradiation."

But last April, the FDA proposed a revision to those rules. Food which had undergone irradiation, but not "material change," would no longer have to bear the radura logo and companies could replace the word "irradiation" with the more consumer-friendly "pasteurized" or something else innocuous. Public comment on the current proposed change closes in early July.

Industry insiders argue that irradiation is a necessary answer to food-borne illness such as last year's E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in California-grown spinach, which left three dead and sickened 200 others. It was the 20th such outbreak in lettuce or spinach since 1995. "I look at it from a unique perspective," says Dennis Olson, the director of the irradiation program at Iowa State University.

"All of our bagged spinach and lettuce and fresh-cut produce goes through a metal detector. How common is it to find metal? It almost never happens. How often does E. coli 0157:H7 happen? Almost never. [But] if that produce had been irradiated there would have been none."

A commitment to public health is certainly in the best interests of consumer and industry, but a burgeoning worldwide market plays an equally important role in the sudden interest in irradiation. One third of commercial spices in the U.S. are already subject to irradiation -- treatment by gamma rays or electron beams to kill pathogens -- as are some 15 to 18 million pounds of ground beef, according to Ron Eustice, executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council.

In 2000, the FDA reported that 97 million pounds of food products were irradiated annually. But, excluding spices, these products are only available in limited quantity: the occasional hospital meal or the odd chicken breast in a Florida supermarket. Irradiation in the world of fresh produce is still something new, and it's opening the door to American imports of litchi (a red fruit similar to a grape) and longan (a round fruit resembling an eyeball when shelled) from Thailand as well as new mangoes from India.

"I was just in India," says Eustice, "and there are close to 20 irradiation facilities going up [across Asia] in the next 12 months. That may be a conservative estimate." In March of 2006, when President Bush was in India cementing a civilian nuclear agreement, he found time to promote the import of Indian mangoes. Both decisions are likely hinged on the rocketing Indian economy, the fastest-growing in the world according to Goldman Sachs. And irradiation is the strange mistress in the middle.

At a press conference in New Delhi, Bush spoke out in favor of lifting the 17-year ban on mango imports from India, imposed because of heavy pesticide concerns. "The U.S. is looking forward to eating Indian mangoes," he said. It's also looking forward to exporting its own beans, like lentils and chickpeas, to India, as part of the trade agreement.

The market for more exotic foods is exploding, in part because America is home to such a large number of immigrants and because consumers, influenced by their travels and cultural experiences, are demanding more variety.

But traditional bananas and pineapples will cross the borders, too, thanks to irradiation. It's cheaper for American companies to import produce, says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. In Latin America where an increasing amount of the American food supply is grown, "you can use pesticides that are illegal in the U.S. and there are [fewer] environmental standards," Hauter says. "The food industry's plan is moving to the global south."

Irradiation would help that plan along immensely, by delaying ripening in fruits like bananas and avocados and inhibiting sprouting in root vegetables, such as onions and potatoes. Irradiation prevents mushroom caps from opening, and even delicate fruits like strawberries benefit from radioactive zapping, according to information offered by the Food Irradiation Processing Alliance.

Because the process "reduces spoilage bacteria and molds ... irradiated strawberries can last a week in the refrigerator without developing mold." Companies could also use cheaper, slower means of transportation to get their perishable items to grocery stores.

And the FDA says there is no reason why irradiated foods shouldn't become the norm. The process is allowed in nearly 40 countries and is endorsed by the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association.

But even with all the support, the process hasn't penetrated the U.S. market, despite industry claims that consumers are indifferent to its use. "Numerous university studies show that support for irradiated foods can reach as high as 85 to 90 percent when accurate information is provided," says the Minnesota Beef Council.

Nuking It

Just three years ago, irradiation looked like a losing proposition. San Diego-based food irradiation provider Surebeam had declared bankruptcy, closing four plants nationwide and making it difficult for companies like Omaha Steaks who wanted ground beef irradiated to find a local provider. Dennis Olson was then SureBeam's vice president for food technology, and blamed unnecessary expansion and high overhead on the company's demise.

Today, the majority of the 45 U.S. irradiation facilities sterilize medical products, not food, says Richard Hunter, CEO and president of Food Technology Service (FTS), an irradiation facility in Mulberry, Florida. His company does both. The boxed beef patties or Band-Aids are loaded onto carriers and they pass through a field of radiation whose maximum dose (in the case of food) is set by the FDA. "A truckload of frozen beef patties may take 30 minutes" to irradiate, Hunter says.

Hunter claims it's an environmentally responsible process. Nuclear power plants use cobalt-59 as an adjustor or control rod, which is converted to radioactive cobalt-60 during the nuclear reaction process. This cobalt-60, contained in pellets, is then placed in rods for the irradiation facility, grouped with hundreds of other rods surrounded by six-foot-thick concrete walls. Cobalt-60 is also used in Gamma Knife surgery to remove brain tumors.

"That's a usable byproduct instead of waste," says Hunter. He adds that new pellets are spaced with old ones within the long, thin, stainless steel rods, so that they are "isolated from the environment for 50 years." By the time the cobalt-60 pellets are replaced, he says, "They are virtually not radioactive."

Vocal Opposition

But Food & Water Watch, the most vocal group against widespread irradiation and the FDA proposal to soften labeling rules, sees no environmental silver lining. The group points out that irradiation experts and spokespeople often move back and forth between government and the industry trough.

Hunter, for example, resigned as deputy health officer of the Florida Department of Health for his six-figure job as president of FTS. But he was advocating for the process long before he made the switch, the group notes. "In 1998," says a Food & Water Watch report, "he went so far as to write a letter to Florida residents promoting food irradiation, a letter that Food Technology Service since began using in its marketing material."

Opponents say the meat industry wants to use irradiation as a quick fix to poor sanitation in 200-birds-per-minute slaughterhouse lines and that the technology is being pushed through without proper testing.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says, "Irradiation is a high-tech end-of-the-line solution to contamination problems that can and should be addressed earlier. Consumers prefer to have no filth on meat than to have filth sterilized by irradiation."

Such groups as the Organic Trade Association (OTA) are alarmed by greater potential irradiation allowances, too. Since the late 1990s, OTA has opposed federal efforts to increase irradiation, especially on certified organic foods. "Food irradiation is a synthetic pro-cess that has never been allowed in organic production," says OTA. "The long-term effects of irradiation are still un-known, and irradiation is not a panacea to food safety concerns."

Iowa State's Olson says all safety research was completed by the 1980s and "while there is still some continuing work, nothing [negative] has been shown on a consistent basis." In fact, astronauts have been eating irradiated food since the 1970s, increasing its respectability.

But the reason they eat it has more to do with zero gravity than nutrition. The irradiation process removes the fluid from meat so it can be heated and eaten without mess while astronauts circle the planet. But what may be appropriate foodstuff for a traveler on an infrequent voyage to the moon raises far more serious concerns for the majority of the population facing unidentified irradiated foods in all segments of the supermarket.

"It doesn't bode well for the kind of food we want to eat," Hauter says. "To use a euphem-ism like 'pasteurized' is not the equivalent of millions of chest X-rays passing through [the plant] cells and breaking those bonds. The truth is, we don't know the long-term health effects of a mostly irradiated diet."

The food supply already undergoes a lot of unsettling-sounding processes in the quest for consumer safety, says Hunter, and none of those processes are labeled. "Poison gas is used on fruits and vegetables to kill insect larvae," he says, "and organic acid rinses. Irradiation is obviously a scary word, but, for me, it's a badge of honor."

The Battle to Ban Toxic Toys

"Phthalates" (pronounced THA-lates) are found in everything from cosmetics to IV bags to children's toys. Environmentalists and environmentally minded legislators are beginning to worry about long-term exposure to the chemical compounds.

Specifically, they worry about diisononyl phthalate or DINP, a plasticizer commonly used in soft vinyl products made for babies, such as bath books, rubber ducks and teething rings as well as bisphenol A (BPA), a building block for polycarbonate plastic used in shatter-resistant baby bottles.

Studies have linked BPA to hormone disruption in rats, to increased breast cancer and prostate cancer cell growth, to early onset puberty and obesity; studies with phthalates have linked the chemicals to rodent cancers and genital abnormalities, especially in males.

Legislators have yet to revisit the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, and the EPA has banned just five chemicals since its passing. But this year, with Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) heading the Environment and Public Works Committee, a revised act, known as the Kid-Safe Chemical Act, may have a chance. First introduced by Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Jim Jeffords (I-VT) in 2005, the bill would require manufacturers to list health and safety information and require the EPA to determine the safety of 300 chemicals within the next five years. By 2020, "all chemicals distributed in commerce would need to meet the safety standard."

The city of San Francisco would have been the first U.S. jurisdiction to ban phthalates and BPA from children's toys and feeding products under the "Stop Toxic Toys" law beginning January 1, but two lawsuits, one state and one federal, both backed by chemical and toy manufacturers, stalled the initiative.

Since the lawsuits, from a coalition including the California Retailers Association, the California Grocers Association and the American Chemistry Council went into effect, the city's departments of environment and public health introduced amendments that would repeal the ban on BPA.

They also gave themselves another two years to revise the list of phthalate-containing products to ban. In 2006, the Maryland legislature failed to pass similar legislation prohibiting phthalates and BPA in children's toys.

Debbie Raphael, toxics reduction and green buildings program manager for the San Francisco Department of the Environment, told Plastics News: "When we saw the ordinance, we were dismayed and confused as to how it could be implemented."

Environment California, a citizen-based environmental advocacy organization had sponsored earlier legislation that would have imposed a statewide restriction on the manufacture, sale or distribution of phthalate- and BPA-containing products for kids under three, and is pressuring the state to revisit a more inclusive ban on toxic toys. "The state will take up the issue again sometime this year," says spokesperson Rachel Gibson.

Requiring the labeling of products could be a first step, but Gibson says it's not enough. "Short of a big explanatory message [saying] 'this is linked to cancer,'" she says, "it doesn't give consumers any information."

Until more stringent regulations are passed, consumers can use the recycling codes on plastic products to determine content. If it's marked #7, it's polycarbonate plastic and contains BPA; if it's marked #3, it's PVC plastic and contains potentially harmful phthalates.

"According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, these products are tested and deemed safe for use," says Tiffany Harrington, director of public affairs at the American Chemistry Council (ACC). ACC calls the ban on BPA "both legally flawed and scientifically unsound" because it is at odds with Food and Drug Administration rulings and hurts California's economy.

Studies of DINP-containing toys in 1998 found that, on average, most babies and toddlers would not mouth the toys long enough (75 minutes or more) to present a health risk. But according to the author of the study, Dr. Michael Greene, "the two eight-month-old children averaged 78.3 minutes [mouthing the toys]" and there was a "maximum duration of 141.2 minutes provided by one of the ... subjects."

The European Parliament considers phthalates dangerous enough to ban them from children's products. The European Union has ordered the removal of the phthalates DEHP, DBP and BBP from children's products and banned DINP, DIDP and DNOP from anything that children might mouth. "They're banning some phthalates from children's toys that were never used in toys," says Harrington.

But Environment California and other groups see the EU ban as evidence that alternatives to these plasticizers exist and must be explored in the U.S. "Many places in the world have to comply with restrictions on phthalates," Gibson says. "It's a mystery why we sell toxic toys to American kids."

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