Vanja Petrovic

The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products

American industry would have you believe that taking potentially hazardous and toxic chemicals out of everyday consumer products -- removing phthalates from children's toys and cancer-causing coal tar from hair dye -- would damage our economy and result in a loss of American jobs. In his latest book, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products, Mark Schapiro busts this myth and reveals the grim fact that some companies, whether American or international, often have two production lines: one that manufactures hazard-free products for the European Union and another that produces toxin-filled versions of the same items for America and developing countries.

Schapiro examines how America, once a leader in environmental protection, came to allow potentially toxic and mutagenic chemicals, banned by the EU, into everyday products. He also looks at how the EU's economy -- almost identical to that of America -- continued to thrive even after these chemicals were banned, essentially "calling the bluff" of the American industry.

Schapiro, an investigative journalist for more than two decades, has built an award-winning track record with a focus on environmental and international affairs. His work has appeared in Harper's, the Nation, Mother Jones, and the Atlantic Monthly. He has also been a correspondent on NOW with Bill Moyers, Frontline/World, and Marketplace.

AlterNet spoke with Schapiro in Berkeley at the Center for Investigative Reporting, where he is currently the editorial director.

Vanja Petrovic: Why did you choose to write this book now?

Mark Schapiro: I've been following the evolution of the European Union for some time now, just because I spent a lot of time working in Europe. I've been both a reporter and an editor in Western Europe as well as Eastern Europe after 1989. And I spent quite a bit of time reporting in and out of the European Union. So, I watched as this entity, called the European Union, evolved into a functioning, powerful political and economic body.

What I think most Americans have missed is that, in the interim, this very powerful political force has emerged within Europe. It has enforced laws from Brussels that are applied now in 27 different countries.

Traditionally, the United States has been the single most powerful economic force in the world -- that's what we've seen until now. Suddenly, the EU has a bigger economy than the United States of America. The EU exports more goods to the rest of the world than the United States of America. The EU has a higher GNP than the United States of America.

Now, I think, we are in a historic period. There's an enormous historic shift that's going on right now. And that shift, when historians look back on this time period, they're going to look at this enormous tectonic shift in international influence and international power. What they're going to see is a kind of dramatically dwindling American influence, and that's partly a result of the foreign policy of the current administration, and it's also partly a result of the sheer, cold economic numbers, in which the United States is no longer the only dominant economic force in the world. That shift has enormous implications, and I think it's one of the biggest untold stories of the 21st century. What I wanted to look at is what the environmental implications of that shift are.

Petrovic: What is the message behind this book?

Schapiro: The environmental battles in the United States have been kind of repeated over 20 years, and it's the same battle over and over with different ingredients. The environmental community says, "Take this chemical out of this because it's dangerous," and the industry says, "One, it's not dangerous, and two, it's not economical, and we'll fall out of business, and Americans are going to lose their jobs." And this goes back and forth over and over again -- it's like Kabuki theater.

So, for the first time what you have is an economic power that's the equivalent of the United States -- it's the equivalent in terms of affluence, in terms of education, in terms of overall sophistication and overall development -- which is saying, "No, we can actually take these particular toxic chemicals out of these products, out of our computers, out of our pajamas, out of our cosmetics, and still be successful as an economy."

So, essentially they're calling the bluff of the United States. They're calling the bluff of the U.S. industry by demonstrating that taking out substances deemed toxic can keep the economy going. The economic argument has been taken away.

Petrovic: You talk about how some companies are making one product for the United States, with potentially toxic chemicals, and another, without those chemicals, for Europe. Why is there such a resistance for making the same products for both?

Schapiro: You have two things happening: One, you have companies that have separate production lines for Europe and America. In other instances, when it comes to transnational companies, they are adopting one set of standards for their products, following tighter standards from the EU.

So, for the first time, these American companies, we're talking about electronic companies, some of the cosmetic companies -- not a whole bunch of them, but some of them -- are actually following the rules of the EU. They're jumping right over the heads of Washington. Part of the point of this book is to illustrate to Americans how our own government is digging itself into a place of irrelevance. In some instances business is getting ahead of the government, but in other instances, there are things that are banned in Europe that are ending up in America, and that includes things like phthalates in children's toys. And formaldehyde, which you can't sell in Europe at certain levels, is ending up in American furniture.

Twenty-five years ago, I co-authored a book called Circle of Poison, and that book talked about the double standard that was emerging between the United States and other countries. Here in the United States we were beginning to ban certain toxic chemicals, such as pesticides and other chemicals. Our book was essentially an expose about how we would ban the chemicals here, but we would send them oversees where they weren't banned. And, suddenly, 25 years later, I'm looking at this whole power dynamic and realizing, "My god, the United States is now in the position that the developing world once was in relation to the United States."

Petrovic: In the book, you say one of the reasons that companies are unwilling to stop producing products with potentially toxic chemicals is a fear of liability. Why aren't these companies stopping manufacture of these potentially toxic chemicals in their products now in order to not be sued in the future?

Schapiro: I think there is a concern in U.S. industry that, basically, if they were to start removing chemicals they were using for years and finding alternatives, it puts them in a very tricky position. They don't want to be seen as acknowledging that those chemicals are dangerous to begin with, because once you acknowledge that a chemical was dangerous to begin with, you are then subject to legal action. And I don't think that's an illegitimate concern.

What happens here is that there's very little information provided to the U.S. government. So, the EPA has extremely limited power to look at test results or anything around chemicals. The FDA has almost no power to really oversee the chemicals used in cosmetics. But most Americans perceive them as being present. So, what's interesting to see is that really the regulatory bodies of the U.S. government really have very little oversight authority on these chemical questions. Nevertheless they do provide a path for a company to say it passed scrutiny by this agency or that agency, when the scrutiny was really pro forma pharma? As in pharmaceuticals?. ...

I think also that the idea that Europe is somehow defining what is or is not safe is a brand-new situation for many companies. They are used to having a regulatory system which they, to some extent, have contributed to. So, suddenly they have a brand-new regulatory system in Europe which they had nothing to do with and can't go do the usual stuff with campaign finance and lobbying and campaign contributions. It doesn't quite work like Washington. So, there was a time when America was the central place where action was taking place; for American companies that action is now shifting to Brussels. That's left them very disoriented.

We're not saying that these are bad people that want to poison us and so forth and so forth, but I think that there is a resistance to taking in the growing body of scientific evidence that suggests the dangers that are inherent in many of these chemicals.

Petrovic: What is the difference between the Americans and the EU approach certain hazardous and toxic chemicals?

Schapiro: The basic difference between the way Americans and the EU approach certain chemicals is something called the precautionary principle. The EU essentially abides by the principle that if enough body of evidence accumulates around the toxicity of a certain substance, whether it is a carcinogen or a reproductive toxin, whatever it is, rather than wait for what is the final bit of clinching evidence, they ban certain chemicals to essentially prevent whatever harm it is that could be happening from happening.

The United States tends to function under the assumption that final scientific proof on a question of chemical toxicity -- that there will be a final resolution of scientific doubts -- and then the agency can move forward.

Well, how often does that happen? Not very often. We saw it in the global warming debate; the United States was waiting for the final answer on global warming while the rest of the world was seeing the accumulation of the evidence, which they at some point decided to act upon. The same thing happens with chemicals. The EU is willing to act on an accumulation of scientific evidence that suggest problems down the line to prevent certain problems from happening.

The American industry argues that the more loose system in the United States helps encourage innovation, and to some extent, perhaps at a certain point in our history that might have been true. But, now if you look at it, the imposition of principles to take the most toxic chemicals out of products in Europe, which is happening now as we speak, is giving rise to a huge industry in green chemistry that is being prompted by the industry.

Petrovic: How did this fall of American environmental leadership happen over the course of 25 years?

Schapiro: I think these last six years have been a remarkable retreat.

Petrovic:Just these last six years?

Schapiro: Well, I think these years have been more dramatic. I do think that Clinton's EPA could have done a lot more than it did. There has been a very dramatic and active retreat from the very principles of environmental protection over the last five to six years. I think there has been very little effort to even pretend to be protecting the environment in this current administration.

Petrovic: How extreme do you think the problem of toxic chemicals in everyday products is?

Schapiro: I'm not one of these apocalyptic guys; I'm not one of these Armageddon types thinking that everything is toxic. We make trade-offs in the world. We make trade-offs everyday -- we put a light on everyday.

Nor should people walk around freaked out that everything they're touching is toxic, but I think they have a right to know. If there is a toxic substance in something, they should have a right to know and then decide whether they want to use it. Like, for example, I smoke. If I do smoke, and I make a decision to smoke, I know exactly what I'm doing. I know there are certain risks associated with it.

So, I think one of the issues of the toxicity of everyday products is that so much of this stuff we don't know. We don't know because the manufacturers are not required to tell us or tell the government what's in their products. No. 1 is to require a full disclosure as to the substances that are in all the products that we buy every day so that people can decide. Americans have every right to ask of their government what's going on.

Will Grassroots Nonprofits Survive When Boomers Retire?

In Illinois, a boy named Kevin found himself homeless at age 18 in one of Chicago's dangerous neighborhoods. He was thrown out of his home. And no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't see himself living past 20; his surroundings were just too violent.

But Kevin, who prefers that his real name not be used, received help from Teen Living Programs, a nonprofit organization working to end teenage homelessness in the Chicago area, and turned his life around. He left his neighborhood and has a steady job with full benefits at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. He is now 20 years old and keeps coming back to volunteer at TLP.

In adjacent Missouri, Tom, who also prefers a pseudonym, experienced seven years of on-and-off homelessness caused by chronic mental health problems and drug and alcohol abuse. Tom spent years sleeping on back porches and in his van, getting apartments and losing apartments, getting jobs and then losing them. He stayed in Missouri the whole time, but because he moved around so much, he was ineligible for disability benefits.

Eventually, Tom got in touch with Phoenix Programs, Inc., a Columbia, Mo., nonprofit that provides treatment for those suffering from addiction. He stayed with Phoenix for nine months. Today Tom has successfully battled his addiction problems, has a car and an apartment, and is pursuing a serious love interest.

In California, Els Cooperrider wanted to keep Mendocino County, which has a long and proud tradition of organic farming, free from genetically modified seeds. To preserve her county's tradition (which stretched back to the 1970s), Cooperrider, and 200 other volunteers, mobilized the nonprofit Mendocino Organic Network and successfully pushed through a countywide ordinance prohibiting the growing of genetically modified organisms. This initiative made Mendocino County the first GMO-free zone in the United States. Soon after, several other counties followed suit.

Nonprofit organizations like these are often referred to as the conscience of our society. They devote time to work that businesses and the government do not. They also protect us from the dangers of the two. But nonprofits may be facing a leadership shortage, now and in the decades to come, as the baby boomer generation, which heads the nonprofit world, starts to retire. At the same time, the number of nonprofits is expected to increase, leaving many to wonder who will steer their helm in the boomers' absence.

Disturbing data
According to a report called "The Leadership Deficit," written by Thomas Tierney, chairman and co-founder of the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit that provides other nonprofits with management consulting services, "For the years spanning 2007 to 2016, these organizations will need to attract and develop a total of 640,000 new senior managers -- or the equivalent of 2.4 times the number currently employed. To put the challenge in perspective, attracting that many managers is the equivalent of recruiting more than 50 percent of every MBA graduating class at every university across the country, every year for the next 10 years."

Even Tierney's more conservative estimate is cause for alarm: 330,000 new senior executives will be needed over the next decade. "Forecasts are always imperfect," Tierney writes. "Nevertheless, the message in these numbers is clear: In the decade ahead, nonprofit organizations will need far more new senior leaders every year than they did in the past. Our leadership needs, it seems, are unprecedented."

Most businesses anticipated this problem and started preparing for it in the early 1990s by hiring individuals they perceived would be strong leaders in the future, writes Tierney. But nonprofits are only beginning to do so. And because they pay less than the corporate world, nonprofits are at a disadvantage when they try to attract new talent.

College students, wracked with ever-increasing amounts of educational debt, aren't as eager or willing to step into the low-paying, often thankless positions. Stephen Bauer, director of the Initiative for Nonprofit Sector Careers and Technology, gives the example of an average law student with $120,000 in educational debt to illustrate the extent of the problem. That law student can't afford to take a job with a nonprofit, he says, because at about $40,000 a year, they just don't pay enough.

Students who do plan to work for a nonprofit right out of school are often the ones who don't need the money. Take Kathleen Bauer, for example. A junior at the University of Dayton, Bauer describes herself as a "trust fund baby." Her college costs are paid by her parents, and when she graduates, she will have no educational debt. She plans to work for a nonprofit after getting her degree and was inspired to do so after a three-month trip to Africa with Operation Crossroads Africa, a cross-cultural exchange program.

Bauer acknowledges that she would probably not work for a nonprofit if she didn't have her parents' financial security as a backup. "The fact that I have the financial luxury of my college being paid for is a big help," Bauer says. "I know my parents are there for me to fall back on."

More typical of today's college students is Jonathan Walz. Currently a junior at Howard Stowe University, Walz estimates that he will have at least $25,000 in educational debt when he graduates. He originally planned to graduate from St. Louis Community College at Maramac with an associate degree in human services and start working for a nonprofit right away. Walz, who was particularly interested in working with underprivileged or abused children, wanted to get his bachelor's degree while working.

But one of Walz's professors opened his eyes to the reality of working for nonprofits. She told him that with an associate degree, he should expect about $20,000 a year, which Walz says is not enough to "make ends meet and keep going to school." Instead of following his original path, Walz decided to get his bachelor's first, in hopes of upping his starting pay -- a move that he calls "a headache."

Although Walz says that he was never interested in having a lot of money or "fancy cars," he does not want to feel exploited either. One way to ensure this, he says, is by getting paid a fair amount for the work he does, regardless of what job he ultimately takes.

Chanda Hinton, executive director and founder of the Chanda Plan Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to fund alternative health treatments for the disabled, says that nonprofits are often caught in a tricky position when deciding how much to pay their employees. Because nonprofits are often funded by grants and donations, she says, providing large salaries for your employees just plain looks bad to donors, because that money is supposed to fund your mission. "You need to spend money on the mission and not the people," Hinton says. Donors often think that nonprofit employees should be working for moral and spiritual rewards, not monetary ones, she adds.

A reason for hope?
Some people in the field reject the idea that nonprofits will experience a severe brain drain. Erica Greeley, deputy director of the National Council of Nonprofit Organizations, is one of them. "Most of what I've heard mitigates the idea that there's going to be a crisis," she says, explaining that, in the American economy, people don't think of their careers in 20-year increments. Rather, most say they will leave their job in the next five years.

Recently, this has been a cause for alarm as studies and reports projected that the nonprofit sector will lose a majority of its work force in the next five years. But Greeley says that this is not a "red flag" yet. She believes baby boomers' retirement will be much more gradual than that of the previous generations because boomers are healthier, committed and impassioned by their work.

Additionally, some boomers may continue to work because they don't have enough money to retire.

Jan Masaoka, an independent consultant for nonprofits, also doesn't think the nonprofit sector will face a leadership shortage. Boomers are "echoing their own age anxieties" by saying that there is going to be a crisis, she says, because they don't know who will replace them. She says that individual nonprofits may have trouble finding good leaders, but that would not reflect the sector as a whole. "A given person may have a problem finding a good car mechanic, but would I think that there is a car mechanic crisis? No," Masaoka says. She believes that boomers want to work longer, citing as an example a 79-year-old friend of hers who recently took a job as a nonprofit's campaign director.

Masaoka expects that as nonprofit leaders leave their current jobs in the years to come, they will take jobs at other nonprofits. And though student debt is forcing a lot of college graduates to not take nonprofit jobs as their first choice, they may well enter the nonprofit sector at a later age. A lot of people are entering the nonprofit sector at age 40, Masaoka says. This differs from current executive directors, who began working for nonprofits right out of school.

Although there are a variety of opinions on whether or not the nonprofits are facing a leadership shortage, and how severe that shortage is, nearly all agree that nonprofits should be preparing for a potential crisis through building safety nets, recruiting new talents and keeping the talent they already have. If a leadership crisis is in fact on the horizon, the consequences will be felt most severely by individuals who depend on the work of nonprofits.

"The short-term effects of a "brain drain" will be tolerable," Tierney of Bridgespan says. "Yet day after day, the leadership deficit will take its toll as organizations across the sector fall short of their potential. Staff will become frustrated, donors discouraged and reputations tarnished. And while the sector stumbles, the deepest suffering will be visited upon the millions of people who rely, directly and indirectly, on the services that nonprofits provide and the social value they create."

Putting a Face to the Immigration Debate

Cathy Gurney, a landscape business owner, says she is finding it increasingly difficult to find legal workers to sustain her business in Chico, Calif. If Congress doesn't pass an immigration reform bill, Gurney says she might have to close her business -- one that she and her husband started as a legacy for their family.

But instead of protesting and marching in the streets to get Congress' attention, Gurney is trying a different approach: She's headed to Capitol Hill to tell her story in person. Gurney, along with 100 other "dreamers," yesterday boarded a D.C.-bound train from Union Station in Los Angeles in hopes of putting a face to the debate about immigration.

"Why did I leave my business to take 10 days to go to D.C.?" Gurney asks. "I saw this as a chance to take people of diverse backgrounds and show the American public that there is another side to this issue. ... Immigrants are not taking jobs from Americans; I know for a fact, from my business, that is absolutely not true."

Congress shelved immigration negotiations last week, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell announced last night that the immigration bill could return to the Senate floor as early as next week.

Last night's news picked everybody up, Gurthy said. The dreamers were running seven hours behind schedule at noon today, but Reid and McConnell's announcement has made this trip all the more worth it.

"It's very much encouraged us," Gurthy said. "It's worth it because this is a historical trip for a historical event. We're thinking positive thoughts; we're bringing them the story of the people of the United States."

Gurney is traveling with Dreams Across America. Along the way, they will use online storytelling to profile their personal struggles and keep the pressure on Congress to push through an immigration reform bill. The "dreamers" chose to travel on train tracks built by Chinese immigrants. They are also traveling on trains that were, in the beginning, staffed by African Americans.

"The purpose of this journey is the journey," said online/video director Rick Jacobs. "Immigrants are nearly all of us. There are faces associated with action and inaction in Washington, and we're calling on members of Congress and telling them our stories."

The campaign has faced harsh criticism from Lou Dobbs, who on his show alleged that the group is promoting illegal immigration and calling for "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.

Jacobs said that the group is not promoting illegal immigration, but instead calling for Congress to pass legislation to help illegal immigrants stop living in the "shadows."

Americans have one of two choices to make, Jacobs said: You can either allow illegal immigrants to continue living in the shadows, unable to participate in the economy or the banking system, or "you can have people who are part of the economy, who are vibrant people, who have full documentation."

Dreams Across America will be stopping along the way, and holding rallies in certain cities.

They are also asking people to submit their own stories and "get on the train," by signing a petition to support immigration reform that:

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Only 35 Years in Prison? For Crimes Against Humanity?

As I read the following words in a Washington Post about the recent sentencing of Milan Martic to 35 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity, a nasty, disgusting chill ran through my body, and I'm still fighting it off.

During Milan Martic's trial in the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague, he said that "all he did was to protect the citizens of Serb Krajina regardless of where they were from."

There are so many levels of why this statement is absolutely disgusting and insulting. I'm numbed by where to start. Maybe it's because I was born to a Croatian mother and a Serbian father that the recent ruling strikes me as such an injustice to his victims.

So, I could splash expletives all over this page, but I won't do that because that would be immature and not very constructive.

Instead I'll begin by saying that I don't understand the notion of saying that a specific section of land belongs to a specific group of people. The statement is all the more confusing when you realize that Croatians and Serbians are essentially the same people, separated only by a slight variation in religions in which most don't even truly believe.

Martic was sentenced to 35 years in prison on Tuesday, and I believe that a New York Times quote explicitly exposes the sheer idiocy of the whole situation:

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Springing Head-first Into Another Foreign Policy Disaster

Apparently the Bush administration thinks the best way to welcome the president of a country with an enormous nuclear arsenal is through a series of political attacks and accusations. You know, now that I think about it, why be diplomatic and fair? Why don't we just accuse Russia and Vladimir Putin of terrorist-aiding activities, freedom-hating and anti-Americanism?

"Security dilemma, what's that?" says the Bush White House.

I suppose I should explain myself. In the past couple of days, Russia has expressed concern about the United States placing 10 antimissile interceptors in Poland and missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic.

Condoleezza Rice called these fears "ludicrous," and Thursday, a top Russia expert in the State Department issued a fresh series of accusations. Among other things, David Kramer, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. Dept. of State, said the Kremlin was "bullying its neighbors while silencing political opponents and suppressing individual rights at home."

Bullying neighbors -- wait, I thought that was the history of America.

Silencing political opponents -- hmm, how about voter suppression and fraudulent elections? Or the firing of eight U.S. attorneys because they didn't go after the right people, according to the Bush White House.

Suppressing individual rights at home -- all I have to say to that is "Patriot Act".

And this all amidst Bush's invitation to Putin to visit his family compound in Maine.

Through ignoring the fears of a country that is legitimately concerned about its security (Russia), the White House is walking dangerous line between stability and a renewed arms race/security dilemma. You simply can't put antimissile interceptors next door to a number of rivals and expect everything to be cool! You just can't.

Putting antimissile interceptors and a missile tracking radar in Europe will not only shake America's relationship with Russia, it could also give Iran an incredible incentive to hurry up and build some nukes because they also have an American military base next door.

In addition, Iran is experiencing Iraq's society and government spiral steadily downward at the hands of the United States. They don't want the same to happen to them

This is an obvious game of smokes and mirrors. The White House wants to rally public support against Russia through hypocritical accusations in order to carry out its plan to keep the world in check and fearful of America's military power .

The American people can't let themselves get tricked into any more foreign policy disasters. We have a little over a year to go under this administration. So, let's keep a leveled head and realize that, yes, the Kremlin might be horrible, but we ain't any better.

Fix the Patriot Act fiasco, fix Guantanamo Bay, fix the Iraq situation, then worry about Russia.


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