Analysis Law and Policy

For Father’s Day, Hidden Dangers at the Hardware Store

Danielle Ohlemacher

While my dad always knew the difference between a flathead and a Phillips screwdriver, it isn’t so easy to differentiate the products with toxic chemicals that could be harmful to health from the ones that are safe.

As a child, one of my favorite father-daughter activities was trips to Home Depot on Saturday mornings to pick out supplies for around the house projects. We’d buy wood, paint, varnishes and nails. My dad would teach me and my sisters how to build step stools, stain a desk, or paint walls. Of course our little hands near hammers probably wasn’t a dream come true for our mom, but my dad made sure to put our safety and health first with bulky safety goggles and over-sized gloves. But sometimes the risks to health and safety aren’t so obvious or easy to avoid.

Mounting scientific evidence indicates that the products we use in our daily lives are not as safe as we might expect. While we constantly take safety steps to protect our eyes and hands, we do not often think to take extra steps to protect our reproductive health. Many everyday products, including the ones we used in our Saturday building projects, contain toxic chemicals linked to birth defects, miscarriage, cancer, and infertility in men and women.

Plywood is a low-cost, strong building material, but it can also contain formaldehyde, which is known to cause cancer and has been linked to reproductive problems as well. Varnishes and wood preservatives can transform an old desk but the chemicals they contain – dioxins and glycol ethers – can also transform your hormonal system, reduce fertility, and lead to birth defects. That’s because these compounds contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). EDCs mimic the body’s natural hormones and block or accelerate its normal processes. They can have a profound effect on reproductive health, even in very small doses, because tipping this system out of balance impacts the hormones that control human growth and development.

And while my dad always knew the difference between a flathead and a Phillips screwdriver, it isn’t so easy to differentiate the products with toxic chemicals that could be harmful to health from the ones that are safe. Dad had no idea that the toxins we were breathing in could actually be harmful to our reproductive health; most people assume the products on our shelves are safe.

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However, current law doesn’t actually require that a chemical be proven safe to human health before it is used. In fact, out of more than 84,000 chemicals on the market today, only 200 have been tested by EPA. Even when all the scientific evidence shows a chemical is dangerous, EPA has little ability to protect us because it lacks the authority to regulate chemicals under current law. A chemical like asbestos, for example, which is known to cause mesothelioma and other cancers, is still being used in buildings today even though EPA has been trying to ban it for twenty years.

The good news for Dads – and everyone else – is that there are some simple ways to avoid some dangerous exposures within the household. For example, after working outside, it is a good idea to leave your shoes at the door so you don’t track in any of the chemicals used in yard work. It is also a good idea to dust and clean your house frequently, especially after doing some inside handy work, as dust often times has lots of residual toxic chemicals that you and your family can unknowingly breathe in.

Still, these steps can only reduce exposure, not eliminate it. Most of us don’t have a team of scientists or the hours of spare time to investigate every purchase, but we all deserve safe products.

Fortunately, Congress has an opportunity to help families by overhauling the broken system that regulates chemicals in the United States today. The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 will make sure manufacturers prove the safety of their products before putting them into our products and lives, and it will start by testing and regulating the chemicals we already know are harmful. When the evidence shows that a chemical in use today is dangerous, the Safe Chemicals Act gives EPA the power to regulate those chemicals to keep them out of products. Congress has a powerful opportunity to protect our families from dangerous chemicals, but so far the bill hasn’t moved forward. Unless we demand action from our legislators and safer products from chemical companies, the status quo will remain.

As we take time to thank our dads, let’s also provide them with the tools to protect the health of their families and themselves from toxic chemicals. And let’s ask Congress to get tough on toxics so everyone is safer: you can start by encouraging your Senator co-sponsor the Safe Chemicals Act for Father’s Day.

News Human Rights

The Case for Closing Youth Prisons

Kanya D’Almeida

The United States locks up an estimated 54,000 youth on any given day in a range of facilities whose names often fail to reflect the harsh realities of life inside them, according to Youth First.

Youth First, a national campaign dedicated to closing youth prisons, launched Thursday with a call to close 80 of the oldest, largest, and most notorious institutions in 39 states.

Along with a report mapping out these archaic and sprawling facilitiesmany of them over a century old and housing more than 100 beds—Youth First released the results of a survey conducted this year which suggest that an overwhelming majority of Americans support overhauling the juvenile justice system from one of incarceration toward a spectrum of community-based rehabilitation programs.

The United States locks up an estimated 54,000 youth on any given day in a range of facilities whose names often fail to reflect the harsh realities of life inside them, according to Youth First. Colorado uses the term “youth services center”; Florida claims it houses some juvenile offenders in a “youth academy”; Iowa has a “training school for boys.” Diversity of names notwithstanding, these institutions share many commonalities: They are often geographically isolated, practice solitary confinement, utilize security hardware like barbed-wire fences, employ physical and chemical restraints, and have documented histories of physical and sexual abuse.

In a phone interview with Rewire, Youth First National Field Director Mishi Faruqee said only facilities that met a majority of such criteria were on the interactive map released today. “Almost all the facilities we included had documented reports of sexual abuse, according to a 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics report on sexual victimization in juvenile facilities,” she explained.

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Maltreatment in youth prisons runs the gamut from excessive use of force by prison staff, to beatings, suffocation, and sexual abuse of residents by both staff and other inmates, a 2015 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found. Some states have worse track records than others: Georgia’s youth facilities, for instance, were found to have the highest sexual abuse rates in the nation. In 2011, a resident in Georgia’s Augusta Youth Development Campus beat one of his fellow inmates to death.

That facility is just one of many included in Youth First’s report. Another is the Arkansas Juvenile and Assessment Treatment Center, which is notorious for its mistreatment of youth.

“During my 20 plus years at Arkansas Advocates I have witnessed continuous cycles of news exposes of abuse and mistreatment of youth in our youth prison,” Paul D. Kelly, a senior policy analyst at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, told Rewire in an email. “These include a series of suicides, physical and sexual abuse, broken bones and other injuries, and the lack of health, mental health, and educational services in this prison. These tragic events occur, the news upsets everyone, they fire the staff and or administrators, change management from public to private entities to run the prison, then it’s quiet for years and everyone forgets about it—and then it happens again. And again. In 2012 the Department of Justice listed our prison among those with the highest rate of sexual victimization … This information was never reported in the state press.”

In 2014, the Arkansas facility saw a 25 percent increase in assaults, fights, and self-harm, according to a local news report. “Again, we asked for this prison to be closed,” Kelly said. “It is still in operation. I must note that in 2011 the Division of Youth Services did reduce its contract with G4S [a for-profit company that operates youth prisons] from 143 beds to 100 beds. It was a small step in the right direction—but not nearly enough.”

In addition to being unsafe, youth prisons cost a lot to maintain: Youth First estimates that most states dedicate the largest chunk of their juvenile justice resources to prisons, amounting to some $5 billion every year. On average, it costs states $100,000 to detain a single juvenile for one year.

On a press call Thursday, Youth First CEO and President Liz Ryan also drew attention to high recidivism rates among juvenile offenders, and highlighted disproportionate rates of incarceration for youth of color compared to their white peers, “even when charged with similar offenses and despite the fact that they engage in similar levels of delinquency.”

States with the highest racial disparities include Utah, where Black youth comprise 24 percent of incarcerated juveniles, despite making up just 2 percent of the state’s overall youth population; Wisconsin, where Black youth account for 58 percent of all incarcerated juveniles compared to 29 percent of white youth, even though only 10 percent of the overall youth population in the state is Black, while an overwhelming 74 percent of Wisconsin’s youth population is white; and New Jersey, where Black kids represent 69 percent of juveniles locked up, even though they account for just 15 percent of the population. In comparison, whites account for 51 percent of the state’s overall youth population, yet account for just 10 percent of its incarcerated juveniles.

Da’Quon Beaver, a community organizer at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia, addressed some of these disparities on Thursday’s call, while also recalling his personal experiences inside youth prisons.

Beaver was just 14 years old when he was charged as an adult and sentenced to 48 years. He spent several years in four facilities across the state, which housed between 280 and 300 residents.

“Anything that you can imagine happening in an adult facility is also taking place in these juvenile prisons: there are fights and riots, threats of sexual abuse, [and] residents with mental illness are not given the treatment they rightly deserved and placed in isolation.”

“But the worst abuse of all,” he said, “is being so far away from our families.”

He recalled one Christmas spent in a facility that was on lockdown due to a riot, meaning residents were denied holiday visits with their families. “I remember like it was yesterday, just crying by myself for hours and hours,” Beaver said. When the lockdown ended and visitation rights were reinstated, Beaver remembers entering the visiting room in a facility of 300 residents, and being one of just six youth to receive a visitor—he said the accumulated costs of travel, missed work, and child care for younger family members make prison visits a luxury that few can afford.

Beaver calls himself a “passionate” advocate for juvenile justice reform, and his efforts are paying off. Thanks in part to pressure from advocacy groups, Virginia is now one of three states whose governors have committed to closing large and outdated prisons. The other two states are Connecticut, under Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy, and Illinois, under Republic Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Faruqee says such bipartisan support is encouraging, but believes the fight is likely to be a long one. “One of the biggest challenges is that there is a lot of money caught up in the youth prison system, so there are vested interests in seeing that system continue as it is,” she explained. While most of the facilities identified in Youth First’s report are state-run, there are also private entities that profit from juvenile incarceration, she said.

“In Florida, where 100 percent of facilities are privately run, you have a clear profit motive. But there are [also] vested interests in state-run facilities, and concerns about things like the impact of [prison closures] on local communities and fears of job losses,” she added.

Still, with the new poll showing that 54 percent of respondents favor closing youth prisons altogether, with 89 percent supporting the creation of family-centered treatment and rehabilitation plans, the pendulum of public opinion appears to be swinging toward reform.

“Part of what this national campaign is about is building the political will and broad-based political support for closing youth prisons and showing leaders that there is wide support for this initiative,” Faruqee said.

Analysis Human Rights

The Flint Water Emergency Is a Reproductive Health Crisis

Kanya D’Almeida

Today, the entire nation is aware of the disaster. But for well over a year, residents in this city of some 100,000 people fought a lonely battle to convince the authorities that they were drinking, bathing, and cooking with poisoned water.

Read more of our articles on Flint’s water emergency here.

At first the signs were subtle—a slight discoloration of the tap water, a strange smell lingering in the shower stall or bathtub. Then the symptoms became more severe. Adults started to lose clumps of their hair and children broke out in rashes. Suspicions grew into fears, which were subsequently confirmed by studies. Families waited anxiously for test results to trickle in.

It all began in April 2014 when the city of Flint, under a state official, switched its water source from Lake Huron to the highly corrosive Flint River in a cost-cutting scheme aimed at saving $5 million in a two-year period. The chloride-heavy water quickly ate away at Flint’s aging infrastructure, leaching lead from the pipes into the water supply. Today, the entire nation is aware of the disaster. But for well over a year, residents in this city of some 100,000 people fought a lonely battle to convince the authorities that they were drinking, bathing, and cooking with poisoned water.

From the very beginning, women were at the forefront of the movement to raise awareness about possible lead contamination, demanding answers from officials and teaming up with independent researchers to conduct their own water tests.

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As households continued to consume the murky, toxic water, mothers started noticing changes in their kids’ behavior, including slower cognitive capabilities, according to reports. Elderly people were developing lesions in their skin. Before long, local, women-led groups like Water You Fighting For and the Flint Democracy Defense League had begun to mobilize their communities to raise the issue as a public health crisis. Families came out to demonstrations holding samples of the discolored water and signs that said, “Stop Poisoning Our Children.”

“I remember one woman who would come out to some of the earliest protests—she was a senior citizen and each time she would show up with a bigger and bigger ball of her own hair,” Sylvia Orduño, an organizer with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, said in an interview with Rewire. “She had this really long hair but pretty soon, I was able to see her scalp because she was losing so much of it.”

She said other women were panicking about rashes breaking out in their children’s genital areas. “And one mother even told me her 4-year-old was having trouble speaking: Like, there were words he knew but he was struggling to communicate them.”

Health-care providers, too, began noticing how their patients became particularly anxious about what the water situation meant for their family’s health and well-being.

“Soon after the switch we started noticing a difference in the communities we serve and the patients who were seeking care,” Sabrina Boston, manager of the Planned Parenthood Health Center in Flint, told Rewire in a phone interview.

In June 2015, a full year after Flint residents had first begun to consume lead-contaminated water, the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union released a mini-documentary titled Hard to Swallow: Toxic Water Under a Toxic System in Flint. It featured several Flint residents, including LeeAnne Walters, whose five children started falling ill shortly after the switch in 2014. Anxious about her kids’ “scaly skin,” rashes, and rapid hair loss, Walters summoned city officials to test her tap water. The test returned results that showed lead levels at 397 parts per billion (ppb). By comparison, the Environmental Protection Agency warns that anything over 15 ppb can cause “irreversible” damage to a child’s brain.

Subsequent testing by volunteer researchers from Virginia Tech University showed Walters’ tap water to contain lead levels of over 13,000 ppb. According to this ACLU video, a lead-to-water ratio of 5,000 ppb is considered hazardous waste. Walters has since moved away from Flint, but her attempts to get to the bottom of her family’s sudden health problems have been widely recognized as instrumental in galvanizing national attention for the situation on the ground, which state and city officials had long sought to conceal.

Serious Consequences for Maternal and Child Health

Today, much of that cover-up is a matter of public record, with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) last week releasing official emails revealing his administration’s knowledge of the problem for well over a year.

On January 16 President Obama declared a federal state of emergency in the majority-Black city, days after Gov. Snyder had deployed the National Guard to assist in relief efforts, including distributing bottled water and filters to tens of thousands of households. Federal aid totaling $5 million—the maximum allocation possible under federal emergency laws—was recently made available to help mitigate the crisis. In addition, according to the New York Times, President Obama announced last Thursday Michigan could have immediate access to $80 million that had previously been earmarked for federal water infrastructure development. It is still unclear how this funding will be allocated.

Even as help pours in from around the nation, with big-name celebrities pledging tens of thousands of dollars in financial support, residents in Flint continue to suffer the health impacts of consuming and being in contact with lead-poisoned water, which has particularly serious consequences for maternal and child health.

According to the World Health Organization, there is no known “safe” blood-lead concentration, although the severity of symptoms and likelihood of longer-term impacts increase along with exposure. These include behavioral issues and reduced cognitive functioning in young children, as well as anemia, hypertension, and toxicity to their reproductive organs. WHO research also shows that high levels of lead exposure over a prolonged time period can severely damage a child’s brain and central nervous system, causing comas, convulsions, and in some cases death.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that pregnant women and lactating mothers who are exposed to lead are at heightened risk of gestational hypertension. And since lead can persist in bones for decades, especially in pregnant and lactating women, mothers and their babies remain exposed to lead long after external sources of contamination have been eliminated.

“This is a reproductive health crisis of monumental proportions that you would not expect to see in a developed country and certainly not in a state … like Michigan, which ironically is surrounded by one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world,” Dr. John Hebert, director of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Residency Program at the Hurley Medical Center, told Rewire.

By his estimates, based on his department’s observations of the unfolding crisis, between 9,000 and 10,000 children, and at least “a couple of thousand pregnant women” have likely been exposed to lead-contaminated water. For pregnant women this means “a heightened risk of pre-term delivery, increased rates of miscarriage, and low birth weight in infants,” he said.

In fact, one of the earliest notices warning residents to refrain from drinking Flint water, back in September of 2015, was directed at “senior citizens, children, and pregnant women,” after an independent study by the Hurley Medical Center found double the acceptable levels of lead in Flint water.

But simply issuing such an advisory in a city with a staggering poverty rate could not ensure compliance. In its Geography of Poverty article series, MSNBC reported that between 2009 and 2013, nearly half (41.5 percent) of Flint’s residents lived below the poverty line, far higher than the state’s 16.8 percent poverty rate. During the same period, about a quarter of Flint’s families lived on less than $15,000 per year, while the child poverty rate was 66.5 percent—nearly 10 percentage points higher than Detroit’s, which sits about 70 miles south.

“When you live in the affected zip codes you don’t have a choice,” Dr. Hebert explained. “You can’t simply stop drinking the water. Mothers have used this water to prepare formula for their infants; they may have been forced to drink contaminated water and then breastfeed their children. This crisis is absolutely not to be taken lightly.”

“The Damage Has Already Been Done”

Reproductive justice advocates say the situation in Flint not only represents a local public health emergency but also mirrors a larger crisis of reproductive justice for low-income women of color around the country.

“We are seeing so many intersecting issuesfrom economic justice to environmental justice to health-care accessmeeting right in the middle, and landing in a community that is overwhelmingly Black and where low-income communities of color are bearing the brunt of this collision in the most horrific ways,” Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, told Rewire. A majority of Flint’s residents—about 52 percent—are Black.

Simpson stated, “This is a severe reproductive justice crisis that cannot be ignored.”

Referring to the fact that Michigan’s Republican-led legislature, which was complicit in the water crisis, has a long history of pushing a so-called pro-life agenda, Simpson said, “This is our opportunity to reclaim our language. For too long many of us within the reproductive justice movement have been forced into the ‘pro-choice’ category by default, because we support abortion access. In fact, I consider myself pro-life: I support every woman’s right to live her best and most healthy life possible. But I haven’t been able to embrace that label, which has been hijacked by people who call themselves pro-life but are really pro-privilege and pro-white supremacy. If they cared about life, they would not be hand-picking who gets access to water, they would be ensuring that every woman and child has that right and that access.”

For reproductive health-care providers, the decision to respond to calls from the community was an obvious one. Planned Parenthood’s Boston told Rewire that the Flint Health Center, which sees about 3,200 patients annually, amounting to close to 7,000 visits each year, initially distributed water filters in partnership with the Flint Health Department, and later began to hand out free bottled water.

Flint resident Tunde Olaniran, the outreach manager for Planned Parenthood of Mid and South Michigan, who first brought the crisis to the organization’s attention, said he took his cue from local organizers who’ve been mobilizing since the switch happened back in April 2014.

“I was listening to the voices of women of color and organizations like the Genesee County Healthy Sexuality Coalition and the Coalition for Clean Water, who were talking about the toxicity of water long before any reports were released,” he told Rewire. “There is a lesson here on the need to listen … to grassroots organizers and impacted community members on how to solve very serious issues.”

Boston said that many patients and visitors to the center are “still expressing fears, confusion, and anger.”

“They are looking for guidance on what this means for their children, their families, and their own health,” she explained, adding that the clinic continues to educate patients about possible health risks and steps they can take to mitigate the impacts of lead contamination. Staff at the Flint center are urging women to “pump and dump” their breast milk, especially if they haven’t been tested; advising men on the possibility of lead contamination reducing their sperm count; and handing out resources, including lists of where testing is being done.

As residents fret over their health, the city is continuing to issue bills and past-due notices for water that residents say is good for nothing but flushing the toilet. The Detroit Free Press reported Monday that some 100 residents protested outside the Flint city hall, ripping up their bills—as high as $100—and holding signs reading, “Why Pay for Poison?” According to some sources, Flint residents are saddled with some of the highest water bills in the country, often touching $150 per month.

While the political machine continues to grind on—with groups like the ACLU now pushing for several reforms including the immediate repeal of Public Act 436, which enabled a string of politically appointed emergency managers to override public concerns about the water—health-care providers are preparing for the long haul.

“A lot of the damage has already been done,” Dr. Hebert told Rewire. “There is no magic anecdote that can reverse it. Cognitive deficits and other neurological impacts on infants and unborn children will not become apparent for a long time. We are not talking about weeks or months here—these children are going to have to be monitored closely for several years.”

He said there is an urgent need for thorough follow-through and early childhood intervention programs to give a boost to those kids that wind up with developmental difficulties.

And even these steps, some say, will not be enough. “I think the families and the women who have come forward and put this issue on the map are very brave,” Michigan Welfare Rights Organization’s Orduño said. “But I don’t see how there can ever really be adequate solutions, or recourse, or reparations for any of this.”

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