How Money Degrades Our Environment

I originally wrote this piece for the Broad Side. Definitely check it out! -Elisa

Protecting the Clean Air Act as well as the Environmental Protection Agency should be our No. 1 priority as parents. We can disagree on religion, politics and how we run our households, but as individuals we have no control over pollution, which is why our government needs to protect us from it.

But what happens when polluters and chemical companies contribute millions of dollars to the coffers of our leaders? That, amigos míos, is the No. 1 barrier for the EPA and all who support its agenda.

For some years, I have been an environmental activist, not only advocating for clean air and water, but fighting against the use of toxic chemicals in children’s products. A little over two years ago, I testified in Sacramento, California, in favor of a bill that would have ridded toxic flame retardants from four baby products that pose no fire hazards: strollers, high chairs, nursing pillows and changing pads. Unfortunately, this would be one of five bills to fail in the state legislature.

Now I know what I and fellow parents were up against. I just read in a California newspaper, the East Bay Express, that the chemical industry has spent at least $23.5 million over the last five years in lobbying efforts against these bills. In addition, at least $593,000 in campaign money was donated over three election cycles to 85 legislators, including 44 Democrats and 41 Republicans.

Here is more insightful information in the newspaper, which pointed out that flame retardants are toxic and building up in our bodies, including our breast milk and our children’s bodies:

A five-month investigation by Environmental Health News revealed an infusion of chemical industry cash into California that has global implications. During the five years of lobbying, the flame retardants have been building up in people’s bodies, including breast milk, around the world.

Designed to slow the spread of flames, brominated and chlorinated chemicals are added to upholstered household furniture and babies’ products sold throughout North America because California enforces a unique flammability standard. The chemical industry has been fighting to retain that state standard and ward off California proposals to ban the chemicals or mandate alternatives.

As I saw firsthand in Sacramento, the chemical industry claims that flame retardants save lives. As part of their lobbying efforts, they shamelessly brought out burn victims and small children who had lost family members in fires. The point lost on everyone in the room is that these deaths and injuries occurred with flame retardants in the foam of all of our furniture and children’s products!

Another reason that the chemical industry’s claims are misleading at best is this peer-reviewed study released this past June showing that that California’s furniture flammability standard, also known as Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117), does not provide measurable fire safety benefits. TB117 practically mandates the use of toxic flame retardants in the foam of all of our furniture and even baby products like nursing pillows and changing pads.

However, one thing’s for sure: animal studies have linked flame retardants to cancer, neurological and reproductive disorders. The flame retardants easily leach onto dust, pet hair, and the crumbling foam of old products — surely, I am not the only mom who used second-hand baby products! — making them easy to ingest by children.

A silver lining in all of this sludge of dirty air and dirty money is that the public is paying attention. I want to thank the East Bay Express for its expose on the amount of money the chemical industry has spent to pump up its dirty goods. But I also want to acknowledge the growing and influential movement that are the moms here at MotherTalkers, MomsRising, Moms Clean Air Force and The Broad Side. We are a group of moms who are not to be messed with!


A Case Study: Parents CAN Fight Polluters

Cross-posted at the Moms Clean Air Force blog.

(Photo by Lily Dong: Parents in Cupertino, California, were instrumental in fighting a cement plant that emits mercury and other air pollution.)

CUPERTINO, Calif. — If there are two major lessons I have learned from writing for the Moms Clean Air Force it is that there is mercury in our air — blech! — and that we can’t assume that regulatory agencies are doing anything about it.

Oftentimes, these same agencies’ hands are tied by lawsuits and political agendas to further defund them, yet they are also blamed for not protecting us. However, some parents — like those of us at Moms Clean Air Force — have taken matters into our own hands.

The parents pictured above are examples of families who have chosen not to wear the blinders — at least not when their children’s health is at risk. Most recently, parents — and non-parents! — at the Bay Area for Clean Environment from the San Francisco Bay Area recently won a hard-fought victory to possibly keep a politically influential and polluting cement plant from gaining anymore government contracts.

“This is a huge milestone for the people who have been advocating regulatory agencies to hold a polluting cement plant accountable to the law,” local mom Hoi Yung Poon said.

Bay Area Clean Environment board member, father and grandfather, Richard Adler said this is the first political action he has ever taken aside from voting.

“When I moved here in 1999, I sort of knew that this plant was here,” Adler told me on my visit to Cupertino, which is in California’s tech hub, Silicon Valley. “I went on the assumption that this was a regulated business, which is true. But the people who regulate it were not doing their jobs. That’s the reason for this movement.”

Adler, like other members of the Bay Area Clean Environment, became informed of the Lehigh Southwest Cement Company’s polluting ways when Earth Justice filed a lawsuit against cement plants in general in 2008. Cement plants are a major source of mercury emissions as they burn limestone that contain mercury. Mercury is a major neurotoxin that can damage the brain, kidneys and a developing fetus.

Mercury emissions are not to be taken lightly, which made Cupertino residents’ discovery all the more disturbing. They learned that not only did the mercury-emitting Lehigh plant receive notices of ordinance violations, but that the government did nothing about it and even rewarded the company with huge contracts like interstate highways.

“It’s like the police giving people speeding tickets, but not doing anything about it,” Adler said.

Adler said that Lehigh’s tactics were quite sinister. The company tried to deflect blame for air pollution by saying that it wasn’t its fault that limestone contained mercury. He also said that the company invested a lot of money in lobbying efforts to paint Adler’s group as a fringe, vocal minority. The experience taught him the importance of informing neighbors and gaining their support.  

It resulted in the community fighting back, collecting more than 25,000 signatures and holding meetings and rallies. Some residents, he said, just assumed that regulatory bodies were protecting them.

“Before (this issue), I voted and had done my duty,” Adler said. “In the last year I realized that it isn’t enough.”

The deadline to help curb mercury emissions on a national scale is TOMORROW. To quickly e-mail the EPA, click here.


Monday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

Here is a unique use of our community colleges: California Assembly Member Marty Block has authored legislation that would permit two community colleges in the state to offer baccalaureate degree pilot programs in subject areas where the workforce needs are high such as health and biotechnology, according to La Prensa San Diego.

An educated workforce in specific industries is what we may need to avoid this: a significant amount of Americans who can’t pay their mortgages are paying their credit cards instead, according to the Washington Post. At a time when less people have savings to rely on, they are turning to credit cards to make ends meet.

Attention Glee fans: I got a kick out of an encounter between actress Lea Michele and a young fan who has two dads just like Michele’s Glee character Rachel Berry. From the blog Mombian:

(Michele) is supposed to be on set with her cast, but insists that the little girl with two fathers wait for her outside the auditorium. Once there, Michele wraps her delicate arms around the girl and asks her about the experience. “How do you feel in school? What did you tell them?” she asks, visibly touched by her character’s impact. “You’re cool now; you’re like Rachel Berry,” she says to the nodding fan, adding, “I’m so proud of you.”

Aww. What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


Healing Hearts, Changing Hearts

It’s easy to get cynical about politics. I often tout the importance of making personal connections when trying to make change–which for me, is often about LGBT rights. It is rare, however, that I see an example of the importance of such connections as powerful as this story from RH Reality Check, by Jaime Jenett. Jenett writes from her perspective as the nonbiological mother of a critically ill child, and says, “policies designed to prevent same sex families from having legal protections took on a whole new meaning for me” after the birth of her son.

She also describes her neighbors in California, whose “Yes on Prop 8” sticker hurt her every time she passed by. She wrote them a letter (also posted at her blog)—and got a response, not from the same neighbor, but from another Yes on 8 supporter whom they had met at a camp for children with cardiac disease.

The woman wrote, “After meeting you two and reading your blogs I’m so sorry for my stupidity. I saw the love you and Laura shared with each other and Simon. As a fellow heart mother I know whats it’s like to have a child fighting for their life. Why would I or should I deny you or Simon the same rights as me.”

You should go read the whole response at Jenett’s blog. You might want a box of tissues handy.


Monday Morning Open Thread

Here is the picture my dad sent of their backyard in New Hampshire. Keep in mind, this is before the last two snowfalls hit the state.

My dad, who is six-feet-tall, said the snow is up to his waist. The tool shed in the backyard is completely covered. The kids and I can’t wait to play with the snow. Of course, being Californians who just had 70 degree-plus weather this past weekend, we can say that. :)

In education news: Daily Kos’s TeacherKen had his AP students do an interesting exercise in “metacognition.” As someone who excelled in open-ended essay questions as opposed to multiple-choice tests — it’s impossible to memorize an entire textbook! — I appreciated his approach.

In other news: President Obama gave an interview to Bill O’Reilly right before the Super Bowl. I actually arrived at friends’ house late for the game. I was enjoying a jog outside on our sunny and clear day.

Okay, I will stop rubbing it in. Go ahead and discuss the game’s highlights as well as your favorite commercials. I actually don’t like football so I watch the Super Bowl for the company and commercials.

Oh, and Glee is back this week! This gleek can’t wait!

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


Devastating Cuts Proposed for California Working Families

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Last week, I attended the annual California Working Families Policy Summit, which drew 750 people, including legislators, non-profit groups and policy wonks. On our minds: what to do about California’s $26 billion shortfall as well as proposed budget cuts that will hurt working families.

Unfortunately, based on the chatter over lunch and in the hallways, families mired in the recession won’t receive respite, unless California’s governing system is changed. Take for instance, the devastating impact Proposition 13 has had on the state’s economy.

Proposition 13 caps all residential and commercial property taxes. What this means is there is less money for schools and public services, less control of the budget by municipalities and more control by the state, and an unfair burden on new homeowners — including start-up businesses.

In not making traditional companies in the state — think Disney and other companies in southern California, for example — pay their fair share of taxes, potential new companies face such high property taxes that they may not be able to open shop in California.

“If Disney paid the same rate on all its properties that could bring $3 million in revenue to Orange County,” said Lenny Goldberg, executive director of California Tax Reform Association.

Goldberg trotted out an impressive chart on how much revenue the state would generate simply by re-assessing commercial real estate. The Los Angeles Unified School District could gain an additional $400 million. Just making the Hilton Tower Hotel in San Francisco pay the same tax rate as the Clift Hotel would yield an additional million dollars.

Goldberg also brought up the unfair tax burden placed on new businesses in the state. For example, a locally owned gas station could pay $30,000 a year in property taxes while the Chevron across the street could be paying $10,000.

“Unless they are Costco or Wal-Mart, no one wants to buy commercial property,” he said. “They are paying full price and getting nothing in return.”

Other systematic changes legislators should make? Getting rid of the 2/3 vote requirement for approving budgets and tax increases. That, and stop letting voters pass unfunded mandates.

“Californians like to vote for initiatives, but what they don’t like to do is to pay for what they vote for,” said Mark Paul, co-author of the book California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It. “The three strikes law, Jessica’s Law, park bonds, the stem cell initiative and even Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggar got in on the action with his own afterschool initiative. These have piled new obligations on the state budget with no way to pay for it.“

Instead, the state has resorted to borrowing money — at the public’s expense. “Our motto is ‘We want, therefore we borrow,'” Paul said. “We used to pay for our roads with a gas tax. We haven’t raised the gas tax in years so we are paying for our roads with our schools and health care.”

This can’t be more apparent than in Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed budget. It is a balanced budget in that there is almost a dollar for dollar match of tax increases with budget cuts, according to Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project.

The bad news is that our most vulnerable families — the poor and low-wage working class — are the ones hardest hit by both tax increases and budget cuts.

If approved by the incoming legislature, Brown’s budget would eliminate childcare for 11 and 12-year-olds, limit the amount of time people can remain on public assistance, and cut some home aid for the elderly and disabled. Many of these families can expect being hit by multiple proposals, for example, seeing their monthly checks reduced and the loss of their childcare subsidies — during a recession.

“Those cuts are deep and they are potentially devastating,” Ross said.

These cuts are also permanent as opposed to the tax increases, which have a five-year limit. The underlying theme of the conference seemed to be that we must convince the affluent folks — and top companies — in our state to pay their fair share in taxes in order to protect our families and make sure this state remains great.

“There is no vision in Jerry Brown’s budget other than we have to make the numbers work,” Paul said. “We need to make Californians understand that we are not going to have the schools we want with this governmental structure.”


Corporate Sponsorship of Public Schools?

The Los Angeles Unified Board of Education just approved a measure to seek corporate sponsors of athletic stadiums and gear for students like drums for the band, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Critics are uncomfortable with the move because they say it is the public and not private companies that should fund schools. From the L.A. Times:

Under the approved rules, the district superintendent could ink agreements up to $500,000, with school-board approval required for larger amounts. Sponsors would not be able to sell or market specific products to children; instead, they would have “branding“ opportunities.

Examples could include signs on scoreboards or naming rights to auditoriums or athletic fields or a brand name on a drum purchased with a corporate donation.

“Let me tell you, this is all advertising,” L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said, adding, “we’re not going to put advertising where it offends.”

….One estimate put potential annual revenue at $18 million, but Cortines cautioned that such expectations might be overly optimistic. The district already was able to preserve some sports programs with a fundraising effort that netted about $1.5 million.

“We’re asking for help from our corporate community,” said board President Monica Garcia. “We’re trying to get help.”

It’s a shame the corporate community has hemmed and hawed about taxes that would actually benefit the public schools. What do you all think about these corporate sponsorships?


Health Insurance for Kids Easier Than You Think

Cross-posted at

When Los Angeles single mother of two, “Nadia,” learned that close to 5 million children actually qualified for free or heavily-reduced health insurance and didn’t have it, she was astounded. “I don’t understand that,” she said. “It’s an easy program to understand. It really isn’t complicated at all.”

For more than five years, Nadia’s two children, ages 12 and 5, have been insured through California’s Healthy Families Program. For $42 a month and a $5 or $10 co-pay per visit — fees are based on household income — her two children receive health, dental and vision insurance.  

“Even if you don’t qualify for Medi-Cal, your children should at least qualify for Healthy Families,” Nadia said. “Your premiums are based on what you earn.”

Sadly, there are 700,000 uninsured children in California who qualify for the Healthy Families Program, but are not enrolled, often because their parents don’t know about the program. An additional 4.3 million children in the United States also qualify for health insurance through Medicaid or CHIP, yet they are uninsured.

This is why is helping spread the good news this holiday season: millions of children can get health insurance. Their parents just need to enroll them. Here is what you can do to help: forward this link to your family and friends, and let them know that they can help provide health insurance for their own children or a child that they know. (Para servicio en español, visite… o llame a 1-877-543-7669 y pregunte por alquien que hable español.)

From Nadia’s point of view, enrolling is as easy as downloading an application off the Internet and filling it out. And it’s also easy to enroll without going online. Parents and guardians can simply call 1-877-KIDS-NOW to find out if they are eligible for heavily subsidized, if not, free healthcare for their children in their home state.

Every year, Nadia receives a reminder from the state to re-enroll her children. “I can’t believe that many kids are uninsured,” she kept saying throughout the interview.

Nadia, by the way, qualified even though she works part-time and has health insurance for herself through her job and receives child support.

“What single mother, who can barely afford her own health insurance, can afford to add $400 or $500 a month to insure her children?” she said. “Healthy Families is a great program. I don’t understand why more people don’t reach out to them.”


Tuesday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

First, I need to send some props to my friend, Annabel Park, whose amazing documentary Liberty 9500 has been picked up by MTV. Liberty 9500 is about the ordinance in Prince County, Maryland, which very much like Arizona’s SB 1070, allowed for local law enforcement to pull over anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. It was interesting to see the fallout of that law, as well as the consequences of letting vocal extremists take over the government.

Annabel is also the brain behind the Coffee Party, a forum allowing people of different political persuasions to come together. I plan to attend and speak at the Coffee Party’s first conference this September 24 to 26. I will be on a few panels named “America’s Culture War: Immigration,” “Countering the Politics of Division/Advancing Equality” — with Lt. Dan Choi! — and “The Revolution Will Be on YouTube & Twitter: Online Tools.”  Yes, I will be going to Louisville, Kentucky, sitting on panels with not only fellow liberals, but conservatives from, among other movements, the Tea Party. It should be interesting and I will definitely keep you posted. But if you wish to attend — it is open to the public — here is the link. Also, if you are in the area, how about an impromptu MT meet-up? Let me know here or at elisa at mothertalkers dot com.

Also, this Saturday I will spend the day at the Los Angeles Convention Center for an event hosted by Latinos in Social Media. At 3 p.m., I will participate on a panel of Latina mami bloggers. This event is free to the public. Just register.

On another personal note, MomsRising is running a blog carnival on child nutrition this Thursday. The blog carnivals are usually well-trafficked as they are tweeted to MomsRising’s million-plus members. If you’d like to submit a piece about food, just let me know here or e-mail Anita, aka “Rolling,” at anita at momsrising dot org.

In other news: After a nasty outbreak of whooping cough in our state, the San Francisco school district will now bar unvaccinated kids from attending school for three weeks after each reported case. From Newsweek:

Every state grants vaccine exemptions based on medical need. But since the ’90s, as concern (albeit scientifically unfounded) about a link between vaccines and autism intensified, at least 20 states have allowed opt-outs for “personal belief.“ As a result, the percentage of unvaccinated kids has more than doubled nationally. And the number has quadrupled in California, where two out of three kids in some San Francisco schools are unprotected from 19th-century medical terrors.

According to the article, national advocates want to put an end to check-a-box exemptions entirely. What say you?

Also in Newsweek: Former prison chaplain Lynn Litchfield wrote a disturbing “My Turn” column about a mentally retarded woman who is about to be executed in Virginia. She would be the first woman executed in that state in 98 years. The thing is the convicted inmate, Teresa Lewis, did not carry out the killings, and the actual killers got life in prison. Hmm…random justice?

A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. military’s ban on openly gay service members violates the Constitution, according to the Washington Post. The judge granted an injunction to stop the military from discharging openly gay men and women, but allowed the government time to appeal the ruling.

Here is a bummer of an article on how even “healthy” cereals can be sweet and fattening like Raisin Bran. Considering I am a sucker for General Mills’ Reese’s Puffs cereal, I should not have read this article.

How awesome is this: on her final show, Oprah Winfrey told her studio audience of 300 that she was taking them to Australia, according to MSN TV. Can I fit into your suitcase, Oprah?

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


Gratuitous Kid Picture

(Picture by Elisa’s iPhone: Ari and Eli hide out in a cave in Rock City on Mount Diablo, California.)

What are you up to this Labor Day weekend?

We are off to friends’ barbecue today. But yesterday we got to spend the day together as a family at Mount Diablo in Clayton, California. It is in the Danville-Walnut Creek area in the Bay Area, and it is breathtaking. We are always amazed how in California you could live in the city and in no time get to mountains and hiking trails or the beach, if that is your preference.

We kicked off our trip — only 20, 25 minutes away from home — with a picnic. Then we drove up the winding roads of the mountain to a place called “Rock City.” We hiked through some rocks, and the kids found a crevice or two to hide in. Here is another picture of the view:

Feel free to use this open thread for pictures of cool places you have visited. Happy Labor Day everyone!