Terry J. Allen

Should Food Stamps Be Used for Soda?

#3 in a new AlterNet Vision series: It is time to stimulate the imagination, rethink, and bring together the best ideas, models, and blueprints for change, especially the ones that can work.

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Federal Agencies Pummel Public Health

Corruption and incompetence in federal bureaucracies are enough to make your blood run thin.

In February, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) admitted that it had allowed into the country tainted, reportedly untested heparin. Distributed by Illinois-based Baxter International, the blood thinner was injected into thousands of vulnerable patients and was linked to adverse effects in more than 800 people, as well as 19 deaths. Given the flawed reporting system, the actual toll is unknowable. But it was preventable.

Baxter imported much of the 35 million vials of heparin it sold last year in the United States from Changzhou SPL. The Chinese company included crude heparin squeezed from the intestines of slaughtered pigs processed in filthy kitchen factories that would make a backwoods meth lab look like an Intel clean room.

The FDA never inspected SPL or most of the 3,249 firms on its list of approved importers, and never tracked the supply chain.

Funding for inspections is down nearly 30 percent under President Bush, according to Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chair of the appropriations panel responsible for FDA funding. At the current rate, the FDA would need more than 13 years to cover all the approved foreign firms. Meanwhile the administration panders to Big Pharma by banning the importation of high-quality, low-priced drugs manufactured in Canada.

Clearly, the current FDA head, Andrew von Eschenbach -- an old friend of Bush -- is doing a heck of a job.

Federal agencies -- such as the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) -- are hobbled by ineptitude and in thrall to political and corporate interests.

FEMA, the poster child for criminal negligence, has sat for two years on hard evidence that trailers warehousing Hurricane Katrina victims were exposing residents to dangerous levels of formaldehyde, linked to cancer and lung disease.

In early 2006, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) excoriated FEMA's leadership for failure "to understand and address the public health implications" of exposure to the toxin. A year later, the agency that brought us duct tape to counter terrorist attacks took action: It advised trailer residents simply to air out their homes. (David Paulison, author of the duct tape strategy, now heads FEMA.)

As of Feb. 1, approximately 38,297 Katrina households were still living in toxic trailers. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study pushed FEMA to acknowledge the danger and warn residents.

Part of the problem with the federal bureaucracies is that their areas of authority can overlap, conflict or leave gaps. While no agency has authority over formaldehyde levels in private homes, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration limits exposure to 0.75 parts per million (ppm) for an eight-hour day. Katrina victims breathed up to .59 ppm for years at a time, according to the CDC, and levels were likely far higher when the trailers were new and the weather was warm.

As for the USDA, the department is slower on its feet than the downer cows dragged through its meat inspections system. An animal rights group -- not USDA investigators -- documented the gruesome sight of dying and diseased cows, riding forklifts to slaughter. The news prompted the February recall of 143 million pounds of beef from Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. By the time the USDA acted, much of the beef had already been served in school lunches.

In a separate incident in 2007, almost 12 weeks passed between the first illness linked to E. coli contamination and the USDA's recall of 21.7 million pounds of Topps Meat hamburger.

Conflicts of interest, cronyism, poor leadership and dispirited staffs have compromised our federal bureaucracies. Underfunding is also a problem, but "funds alone cannot fix an agency that routinely fails at its most basic responsibilities," said DeLauro at a February congressional hearing.

The system intended to protect the public is more tainted than backroom heparin, more toxic than FEMA trailers and more suspect than downer cows.

When Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), head of the subcommittee that oversees the FDA, requested a briefing on heparin, the FDA said it was too busy. "Maybe it's time that we replace the leadership at the FDA," Stupak said.

Maybe that's not enough. Maybe Congress should exercise oversight and the new president should invest the political and financial capital necessary to revamp the structure, priorities and loyalties of the country's failed bureaucracies.

China is Our E-Waste Dumping Ground

The highway of poisoned products that runs from China to the United States is not a one-way street. America ships China up to 80 percent of U.S. electronic waste -- discarded computers, cell phones, TVs, etc. Last year alone, the United States exported enough e-waste to cover a football field and rise a mile into the sky.

So while the media ride their new lead-painted hobbyhorse -- the danger of Chinese wares -- spare a thought for Chinese workers dying to dispose of millions of tons of our toxic crap.

Most of the junk ends up in the small port city of Guiyu, a one-industry town four hours from Hong Kong that reeks of acid fumes and burning plastic. Its narrow streets are lined with 5,500 small-scale scavenger enterprises euphemistically called "recyclers." They employ 80 percent of the town's families -- more than 30,000 people -- who recover copper, gold and other valuable materials from 15 million tons of e-waste.

Unmasked and ungloved, Guiyu's workers dip motherboards into acid baths, shred and grind plastic casings from monitors, and grill components over open coal fires. They expose themselves to brain-damaging, lung-burning, carcinogenic, birth-defect- inducing toxins such as lead, mercury, cadmium and bromated flame retardants (the subject of last month's column), as well as to dioxin at levels up to 56 times World Health Organization standards. Some 82 percent of children under 6 around Guiyu have lead poisoning.

While workers reap $1 to $3 a day and an early death, the "recycling" industry -- in both the United States and China -- harvests substantial profits. U.S. exporters not only avoid the cost of environmentally sound disposal at home, but they also turn a buck from selling the waste abroad. After disassembly, one ton of computer scrap yields more gold than 17 tons of gold ore, and circuit boards can be 40 times richer in copper than copper ore. In Guiyu alone, workers extract 5 tons of gold, 1 ton of silver and an estimated $150 million a year.

Many U.S. exporters pose as recyclers rather than dumpers. But a 2005 Government Accountability Office report found that "it is difficult to verify that exported used electronics are actually destined for reuse, or that they are ultimately managed responsibly once they leave U.S. shores."

This dumping of toxic waste by developed countries onto developing ones is illegal under the Basel Convention, a 1992 international treaty that was ratified by every industrialized nation -- except the United States.

Unhindered by international law and unmonitored by Washington, U.S. brokers simply label e-waste "recyclable" and ship it somewhere with lax environmental laws, corrupt officials and desperately poor workers. China has all three. And a packing case with a 100-dollar bill taped to it slips as easily as an eel through Guiyu's ports.

E-waste fills a neat niche in the U.S.-China trade. America's insatiable appetite for cheap Chinese goods has created a trade deficit that topped $233 billion last year. While e-waste does little to redress the financial disparity, it helps ensure that the container vessels carrying merchandise to Wal-Mart's shelves do not return empty to China.

In the 19th century, England faced a similarly massive deficit with China until a different kind of junk -- opium -- allowed it to complete the lucrative England-India-China trade triangle.

Britain, after destroying India's indigenous textile industry and impoverishing local weavers, flooded its colony with English textiles carried on English ships. The British East India Company fleet then traveled to China to buy tea, silk and other commodities to sate Europe's appetites for "exotic" luxuries. But since there was little the Chinese wanted from either India or Europe, the ships traveled light and profitless on the India-China side of the triangle. That is, until England forced Indian peasants to grow opium and, in the process, precipitate mass starvation by diverting cultivable land.

The trade fleet then filled up with opium and pushed it to China through the port of Canton. Since opium was illegal in China, Britain started a war in 1839 to force Peking to accept the drug. By 1905, more than a quarter of China's male population was addicted.

Now it is Americans who are addicted to Chinese junk. And our own government policies and corporations are the ones stoking the jones. Slick marketing and consumer fetishism push Americans to buy the latest, lightest, biggest, smallest, fastest, trendiest items. And even if you are not hooked on the latest gadgets, repairs or upgrades are impractical. The half billion computers we trashed in the last decade have to go somewhere, and shipping them to China and other poor nations is a win-win solution for Chinese and U.S. industry.

As for the populations of both countries, we can feast on the irony that the same ships that carry toxic toys and food ingredients to Americans return bearing deadly e-waste for the Chinese.

Climate Change Forces New Refugees

It has already started. The first ripples from rising seas are inundating low-lying areas, threatening coasts and islands. Climate refugees around the world are fleeing regions beset by violent storms, extreme temperatures, melting glaciers, spreading deserts, swelling oceans and other escalating effects of global warming.

Billions of people are at risk and the number is growing. Environmental stress forced more than 25 million to migrate in 1998, according to a Red Cross and Red Crescent study -- roughly the same number that fled armed conflict.

Even though specific events often cannot be pinned to global warming, the scientific evidence that climate change is radically remapping our planet forms a cumulative, consistent and alarming pattern. Everyone but the head-in-the-sand dolt and the hand-in-the-industry-pocket hack understands that as large areas of the planet become unsuitable for human life, the sad stream of climate refugees will become a torrent.

As a resident of the small South Pacific island of Tuvalu recently told NPR's "Living on Earth," a man needs only two skills: how to climb a coconut tree and how to catch a fish. On this remote atoll, halfway between Hawaii and Australia, where the land crests a few meters above the sea, the shoreline is visibly receding. Salt from rising tides is poisoning the palms; bleached and dying coral reefs no longer support the fish that support the people.

New Zealand, one of the few countries to acknowledge and plan for the coming flood of climate immigrants, has agreed to accept all 11,000 Tuvaluans, starting with a limited number each year. Many Tuvaluans live in Auckland, lonely and lost, without the support of community and culture, or the skills to survive an urban life based on money.

In much of South Asia, the irony of climate change is that it creates too little water in some places and too much in others. The summer runoff from mountain glaciers that now provides most of the drinking water to 40 percent of the world's population is rapidly disappearing. And so are myriad inhabitants, forced to leave land their families tilled for generations.

In Bangladesh, refugees who can no longer farm on drowning coastal land are falling inward to cities already crammed with jobless and desperate masses. Smaller than Illinois, Bangladesh has 140 million people, almost half the U.S. population. Imagine what it will be like in 50 years, when the Bay of Bengal is predicted to cover 11 percent of Bangladesh's land.

And then there is New Orleans. At a time when warming oceans fuel stronger storms, this below sea-level city in a hurricane-prone delta sits on sinking lands near a silt-clogged sea.

While the French Quarter parties once again, low-lying areas -- which housed mostly African Americans and the poor -- lie abandoned. Two years after Katrina, the richest country in the world leaves thousands of its climate refugees to live in poisoned trailers or camp in the kitchens of relatives far from their former homes.

Local and federal governments around the world seem paralyzed by callousness or a refusal to make hard choices. Should they spend billions to protect unsustainable, sometimes toxic land, with ever-stronger levees or pipe in water across hundreds of miles? Can they afford to permanently relocate endangered populations to affordable housing on less vulnerable, more valuable land?

And what about the self-indulgent fools society continues to subsidize -- with insurance premiums, taxes or extraordinary and repeated rescues -- who insist on building beach houses on eroding sand, mansions in fire-prone hills and sprawling ranches in the bone-dry desert?

Most officials have tallied the political and economic price of acting and have chosen to wring their hands and tread water.

In the days after the storm, some of Katrina's exiles took umbrage at the label "refugee." But they share much with displaced Bangladeshi and Tuvaluans half a globe away: poverty, powerlessness, and the misfortune of living under governments that are ill-equipped or disinclined to make hard choices.

Driven from home, history and culture by a warming planet, they also share unofficial status as climate refugees -- a category that no international treaties recognize or protect.

Individual countries and the United Nations need to develop policies to define and aid the casualties of dreadful energy policies and reckless consumption; they must expand treaties that protect political refugees to include those who flee the persecution of a deadly climate. And the industrialized countries that contributed most to the problem must contribute most to accepting and resettling climate refugees.

No one knows the winner in the race between the ravages of climate change and the meager but growing measures to mitigate it. But we already know who the losers are. From coral wreathed atolls in the South Pacific to the coast of Alaska, from sinking Bangladesh bearing the weight of impoverished millions, to the drowning city of New Orleans, the new climate refugees are flowing like tears.

Sick to Death of Trusting Bush

Trust me, George Bush says, perched on the remains of Geneva Conventions, the Constitution and habeas corpus.

From this moral high ground, the United States is assuring the world that a new facility for researching a horror shop of weaponized infectious diseases will be used purely for defensive purposes. The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center’s (NBACC) $128 million, 160,000-square-foot facility is under construction at Fort Detrick, Md. There, the United States has already weaponized more than a dozen diseases -- including anthrax, plague, botulism and ebola -- and bioengineered war-friendly “improvements.” Scientists are also using DNA-synthesizing techniques to fabricate genetically altered or man-made viruses, and to study the feasibility of creating germ weapons targeting particular ethnicities.

“De facto, we are going to make biowarfare pathogens at NBACC in order to study them,” Penrose Albright, former assistant Homeland Security secretary for science and technology, told the Washington Post.

The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention made it illegal under international and U.S. law to make or stockpile bacteriological or viral organisms for use as weapons. The United States is exploiting a loophole: The treaty allows nations to develop small amounts of biological warfare agents for defensive research.

That, according to a NBACC Power Point presentation, briefly posted on the Internet and quickly removed, is what the Fort Detrick lab does -- in secret and without meaningful monitoring. The profound secrecy that surrounds the project, as well as CIA and intelligence involvement, raises alarms; these are ratcheted up to red alert in light of the Bush administration’s track record of violating international treaties and lying to the public. And then there is Congress’ history of defining “oversight” as a failure to notice rather than a duty to oversee.

According to the Department of Defense, the secrecy surrounding the Fort Detrick expansion is necessary for national security. The interests of the public, administration officials argue (as they did to defend NSA spying), would be compromised by legislative and judicial meddling -- a.k.a. the constitutionally mandated balance of powers.

Odds are the Fort Detrick research exceeds the purely defensive, rendering the CBW treaty as quaint as the Geneva Conventions barring torture. But even if the research conformed to law, what nation would believe that the United States abides by treaty obligations that limit its “war on terror”?

The possibilities for disaster are plentiful. By undermining the treaty, the United States greenlights other nations and groups to similarly “defend” themselves. And compared with making and delivering nukes, creating and distributing biowarfare agents is dead simple. A competent scientist with a good lab can cook up enough to sicken and kill thousands, perhaps millions.

Second, the lesson taught by recent dealings with Iran and North Korea is that possession of weapons of mass destruction tends to inoculate against U.S. attack. Secret expansion of U.S. bioterrorism research -- without monitoring through the CBW treaty -- could spark a bioarms race.

And then there is the risk of accident. On its Web site, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a lead government agency on bioterrorism, asks: “Has there ever been an accident at a BSL-3 or BSL-4 facility?” (Bio Safety Level-4 labs hold the most dangerous infectious agents.)

NIAD cheerily answers: “No,” although “Rare accidents such as needlesticks may cause exposure of laboratory staff,” but not “to other workers or to the community.”

But according to the Council for Responsible Genetics, “mistakes happen.” Fort Detrick and other Level-3 and -4 facilities have had a number of accidents, including the loss of ebola and anthrax samples; exposure of workers to anthrax; a three hour power failure that compromised containment and led workers (you’re going to love this) to seal the windows with duct tape; a leaking test chamber that infected workers with tuberculosis; a researcher who contracted the ebola-like sabia virus and exposed 75 other workers; and two researchers infected with HIV from defective gloves. And, last but not least, don’t forget that the anthrax spores used in the September 2001 mail attacks traced back to Fort Detrick.

NIAD is equally noncommittal about the safety of shipping bio agents to and from labs: “There are specific Government regulations for transportation of infectious materials. Infectious materials are safely transported worldwide on a daily basis under these regulations.” Feel better? Perhaps you didn’t hear that in 2003 a package containing West Nile virus samples exploded and exposed workers at the Columbus airport.

And then there is the insanity of trusting critical scientific decisions to an administration that gives equal weight to the theory of evolution and the fable of creationism, that undermines stem cell research by confusing a zygote with an infant, and that is waiting until it has to govern in scuba gear before acknowledging global warming.

Trust me, indeed.

The 9/11 Faith Movement

Americans love a conspiracy. According to a May 17 Zogby poll, 42 percent believe the U.S. government and the 9/11 Commission are covering up what really happened on September 11, 2001.

There is something comforting about a world where someone is in charge -- either for good (think gods) or evil (think Bush insiders plotting 9/11). Many people prefer to believe a Procrustean conspiracy rather than accept the alternative: Life can be random, viciously unjust, and meaningless; tragedy and joy alike flow from complex combinations of good and bad intentions, careful plotting, random happenstance and bumbling incompetence.

Conspiracy hypotheses often consist of a vast pile of circumstantial evidence shaped into a seemingly coherent whole with the strong glue of faith. Debunk one or even many allegations and the pile still stands, impressive in its bulk and ideological coherence. If size were all, it would convince Pyrrho himself.

Scientific theories, on the other hand, depend on interlocking chains of evidence: The integrity of the whole relies on the soundness of each link. Break any one and the theory founders.

The 9/11 conspiracy is a classic example of a faith-based pile hypothesis. Its proponents cite a mountain of evidence to conclude that the U.S. government perpetrated the 9/11 attacks for its own traitorous ends, chiefly staging "a new Pearl Harbor" to rally support for an invasion of Iraq.

I spent months as a researcher conducting a fact-by-fact dissection of a few key aspects of this hypothesis. I approached the project knowing that U.S. cabals had previously concocted casus belli to drive public support for war: the Gulf of Tonkin for Vietnam, incubator babies for the first Gulf War. And clearly from its early days, the Bush administration had lusted for war with Iraq.

But the hypothesis that it planned and executed the 9/11 attacks is just not supported by a chain of evidence, nor do the facts support the conspiracists' key charge that World Trade Center buildings were destroyed by pre-positioned explosives. Structural engineers found the destruction consistent with fires caused by the jet liner strike; that temperatures need not actually melt the steel but that expansion and other fire-related stresses would account for compromised architectural integrity.

When David Ray Griffin, a theologian by trade, said it was "physically impossible by laws of physics" for the planes alone to have brought down the towers, I asked what engineers had confirmed that. "I haven't talked to any because they would be too afraid to tell the truth," he said. "How would you be able to protect your family if you were to accuse the government?" he asked, accusing the government.

Many conspiracists offer the collapse of WTC Building 7 as the strongest evidence for the kind of controlled demolition that would prove a plot. Although not hit by planes, it was damaged by debris, and suffered fires eventually fueled by up to 42,000 gallons of diesel fuel stored near ground level. Griffin cited as evidence of government complicity that the building's sprinkler system should have, but didn't, put out the fires. But the theologian did not know and had not considered that the collapse of the towers had broken the area's water main.

Another conspiracist, Alex Jones, writes on his web site, "Larry Silverstein, the owner of the WTC complex, admitted ... that he and the NYFD decided to 'pull' WTC 7." (Leave aside how unlikely it would be for the government to include Silverstein in a treasonous conspiracy, or that the NYFD was in on it, too.)

Silverstein's actual quote: "I remember getting a call from the fire department commander, telling me that they were not sure they were going to be able to contain the fire, and I said, 'We've had such terrible loss of life, maybe the smartest thing to do is pull it.' And they made that decision to pull and we watched the building collapse."

Jones continues: "The word 'pull' is industry jargon for taking a building down with explosives." In fact, a Nexis search for a three-year period fails to find one American reference to "pull a building" without the preposition "down" when referring to intentional destruction. An alternative explanation would be that given the lack of water and the number of injured and missing firefighters, the NYFD decided to pull workers from Building 7 to concentrate on search and rescue at the fallen towers.

In the end, this kind of undermining of individual "facts," although relatively easy, is irrelevant for those who base their beliefs on piles rather than chains of evidence.

But the work should be done. Pile conspiracies can be dangerous. Those who deny that HIV is responsible for AIDS, for example, have contributed to unnecessary infections and deaths.

And the 9/11 conspiracy hypotheses distracts from the growing chain of evidence documenting how the Bush administration actually manipulated this country to war on a train of lies riding tracks of fear -- cynically using the bodies of the 9/11 victims as fuel.

Reach Out and Track Someone

If you are one of the more than 200 million Americans with a cell phone nestled in your pocket, authorities may be able to find you any time day or night--even if you never make or receive a call.

You know the Verizon ad where a lockstep crowd personifies the network that accompanies its customer everywhere? Well, within that seemingly friendly horde, a high-tech Big Brother is lurking.

Most people know that when they make a mobile call--during a 911 emergency, for example--authorities can access phone company technology to pin down their location, sometimes to within a few feet.

A lesser-known fact: Cell phone companies can locate you any time you are in range of a tower and your phone is on. Cell phones are designed to work either with global positioning satellites or through "pings" that allow towers to triangulate and pinpoint signals. Any time your phone "sees" a tower, it pings it.

That is what happened last month when a New York City murder highlighted the existence of the built-in capability of phones to locate people even when they aren't making calls.

The case of Imette St. Guillen captivated the New York City media as only the murder of a young, attractive, middle-class, white female can. One piece of evidence leading to the arrest of Darryl Littlejohn, the bouncer at the club where St. Guillen was last seen, was what police called "cell phone records." In fact, it was not an actual call that placed Littlejohn at the crime scene. Instead, according to the New York Daily News, police traced Littlejohn's route the day of the murder by tracking the "pings" of his cell phone, which were "stored" in a tower and "later retrieved from T-Mobile by cops."

Telecom companies and government are not eager to advertise that tracking capability. Nor will companies admit whether they are archiving the breadcrumb trail of pings from a cell phone so that they--or authorities--can trace back, after the fact, where the customer had been at a particular time. "Of course, there is that capability," says Bruce Schneier, chief technical officer with Counterpane Internet Security. "Verizon and the other companies have access to that information and the odds are zero that they wouldn't sell it if it is legal and profitable. This is capitalism after all."

But legality can be so tricky to pin down, especially when national security and corporate profits are involved. Communications companies and government have been repeatedly caught collaborating in highly questionable practices. Warrantless wiretapping, now sparking cries for Bush's impeachment, was implemented by the NSA accessing the "gateway" switches that route calls around the globe. Most of these switches are controlled by AT&T, MCI and Sprint.

Recently, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said it had internal AT&T documents and a sworn statement by retired AT&T technician Mark Klein showing that the company's use of a "dragnet surveillance" was "diverting Internet traffic into the hands of the NSA wholesale."

It is likely that authorities are also accessing cell phone call records and conducting real-time tracing of hapless Palestinians who donated to clinics and liberal activists who dared march for peace. And if the administration's record is a guide, it is interpreting privacy protection laws relating to cell phones in ways that bend and perhaps batter the Constitution.

"I think there's a substantial worry that location information about cell phone users is being released without a court order," EFF Staff attorney Kevin Bankston told CNN.

Echoing the Bush administration's rationale for warrantless wiretapping, the Justice Department argues that time lost justifying a search warrant can mean dangerous delays. Several judges around the country have disagreed. Citing officials' failure to show probable cause, they have denied government requests for cell phone tracking. According to EFF, a New York magistrate revealed that "the Justice Department had routinely been using a baseless legal argument to get secret authorizations from a number of courts, probably for many years."

"Justice Department officials countered that courts around the country have granted many such orders in the past without requiring probable cause," the Oct. 28 Washington Post reported.

Real-time tracking technology also opens disturbing entrepreneurial opportunities. Anyone who provides their kids, spouse or employees with a software-readied cell phone can secretly monitor them on the web. Wherify.com "locates loved ones within feet/meters in about a minute," and allows subscribers to "view location on both street and aerial mapping, to include date/time stamp, lat/long and block address" and "set breadcrumb schedule for periodic locates." Another Internet business promises to sell you the calling records for any phone number you provide. (Note to readers: If you have Karl Rove's number, I'll cough up the $100 fee to get a look.)

But as far as invasiveness goes, the ability of the government to secretly track and find you anywhere, anytime, ranks right up with a pelvic exam in Times Square.


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