Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Get The Lead Out!

I have been stripping many layers of paint from the columns on my porch. The most recent layers come off easily, but underneath are more stubborn coatings of old lead-based paints. They take more work and require more care, because lead is one of the most pervasive poisons in our environment. I wear a mask to protect against the lead dust.

Ingesting lead can harm every organ and system in our bodies. It is dangerous for adults, who can suffer from damage to the nervous system, increases in blood pressure, anemia, and weakness in the extremities. Exposure to lead for pregnant women can cause miscarriages. Children are especially vulnerable, because lead can injure their developing minds and bodies permanently.

Problems with lead exposure are of such concern, because lead was a common additive to paint until very recently. Lead speeds up drying and increases durability. Lead was used to make white paint by the ancient Greeks. The dangers of working with lead have been known for hundreds of years. The monthly newsletter of the Sherwin-Williams Co. noted the dangers of lead in white paint in 1904. In 1886, German law prevented women and children from working in factories that processed lead paint, and Australia banned lead paint in 1914.

Yet toys and furniture in the U.S. continued to be painted with lead-based products. Older homes were covered with lead paint. Children put lead into their mouths every day. Public health researchers wrote, “By the 1920s, virtually every item a toddler touched had some amount of lead in or on it. Toy soldiers and dolls, painted toys, bean bags that were tossed around, baseballs, fishing lures, the porcelain, pipes and joints in the sparkling new kitchens and bathrooms of the expanding housing stock—all were made of or contained large amounts of lead.”

Our federal government was slow to prevent continued lead poisoning in America. Baltimore prohibited the use of lead paint in interiors in 1951. In 1955, the paint industry adopted voluntary standards which excluded lead from interior paints. The use of lead paint was already in decline due to health concerns by then. Yet it was not until 1971 that the federal government passed the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act, which prohibited lead paint in new homes.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission finally banned lead paint for consumer use in 1978. That agency was created by the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and signed by President Nixon. Congressional Republicans and conservative Democrats had tried to prevent the creation of the independent Commission, and to gut the Act’s enforcement provisions, but narrowly lost.

In 1986, the California legislature said that lead exposure was the state’s greatest childhood environmental health problem. Lead is so dangerous that nobody would allow children to ingest lead. Unless those children are poor inner-city blacks. This impoverished, majority-black city was devastated by the closing of General Motors factories in the 1980s. When the water supply was changed to the Flint River in 2014, residents immediately began complaining about pollution. Less obvious were the elevated levels of lead, which systematically poisoned the city’s population. Michigan state officials, including those in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, dismissed the residents’ concerns and repeatedly claimed the water was safe. Republicans and Democrats participated in creating and prolonging the crisis, because they didn’t want to spend the money to deal with it. Now several Michigan officials have been convicted of crimes and a generation of Flint children have been poisoned with lead.

The story of lead poisoning of the water supply in Flint, Michigan, is complicated and controversial. Lawsuits will seek to find those to blame for years to come. But the lessons from Flint are obvious now. Bad environmental decisions can damage enormous numbers of people. Regulation of the poisons which abound in our society are necessary for public health. Governments are responsible to protect our lives.

The demonization of “regulations” that has been a hallmark of Republican politics for decades and that was one of Donald Trump’s signature campaign issues means less protection from all kinds of dangers to our lives, from unscrupulous banking practices (Wells Fargo), to outrageous payday loan interest rates, to unsafe foods, to pollution of our air and water.

The story of lead poisoning in America shows government acting too timidly, permitting industry lobbyists to block safety legislation, while adults and children suffer long-term health problems that could have been prevented. Flint is the tip of an iceberg of water supply problems across the nation’s cities. Minority inner city residents are the most likely to suffer.

It will take lots of money to replace the lead in old water pipes around the country. It will take strict government regulations on lead and other environmental hazards to keep Americans healthy. Conservatives say regulations are “job killers”. I say they are life savers.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 22, 2016

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Working On My House

I=m working on my house. So are many other people, much more skilled than I am. Teams of painters and roofers have transformed my house in a fraction of the time I would have needed to do a much worse job. One man has reversed decades of deterioration to recreate the built-in gutters that direct water to a few ancient and a few new downspouts. That restoration is really an upgrade. Chalmer Herring is lining the channels with copper, replacing the galvanized metal that did not survive 120 years. He works alone and deliberately, because it=s not easy to find younger people who will be as deliberate as he is. Everything he sees gets fixed right.

I=m stripping paint. Less skill than persistence. The 26 columns around my 1895 porch are a triumph of the woodworker=s art. But turned and carved details have disappeared under countless coats of paint, so I=m removing those globby, uneven layers to find the wood underneath. It=s the kind of work I have been doing since we bought this house, wonderful to us for the history revealed in every room, yet still well below the average price of new houses. I=ve taken paint off doors and tarnish off hinges, shined doorknobs, refinished woodwork.

While I=m working on my house, it doesn=t matter who is President. Or who=s in Congress, in the Illinois Statehouse, or in my city offices. Their words and their actions play little role in that part of my life. I=m free to do my work.

Well, almost free. Every level of government makes some rules about what I can do to my house. Probably the biggest restriction is the most local: my house is part of a district of old homes in Jacksonville recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. I can=t just tear off my porch or build out my attic or add a room to the side without getting the approval of Jacksonville city=s Historic Preservation Commission. Their appointed task is to prevent such alterations in the outward appearance of historic homes in the district. The Commission is less about prohibiting than about persuading, in the interest of preserving for everyone a unique collection of American homes, made with materials and by craftsmen no longer available. Except maybe for Chalmer.

I believe in that work and have served on the Commission for seven years. All I want to do is bring back the original beauty of this house.

When I get tired, I can watch whatever I want on TV. There are dozens of channels of addictive trash, but the breadth of choice and the lack of intrusion by government makes America the promised land of media opportunity. I grew up with a handful of stations in New York, more than most Americans had access to, all very carefully walking a narrow path in the middle. I don=t watch a lot of TV, but if I want, I can now switch from movies made before I was born, to liberal or conservative news, to the wonderful source of information about everything that is public television. Someone else can do the opposite. We both might end up at the Olympics or the World Series.

Those are just two examples of how I can control my own life here in the US. The list is endless. I know that such freedom of choice is a privilege made of good luck and years of good work. Many in America face a more restricted range of choices, because they have too little money or too little health or just bad luck. Many of those people voted for Trump, because he promised to get them more.

There are many others whose circle of freedom is smaller because of who they are. In my lifetime, women and blacks and gays have broken out of very constricted circles. Their gains have been wonderful, but the remaining restrictions are still significant. Government contributed to restricting them and then made their increased freedom possible.

Because I am an ordinary citizen, I need the American democratic system to protect those freedoms. If the great powers of America, media, corporations, and governments, decided to narrow my freedoms, to tell me more often what to do and what not to do, I could fight them, but I=d lose.

Trump has never needed the protection of our democratic system. Every moment of his life has been privileged by wealth. He acts and talks as if he has deserved all his freedoms from birth. He has disdained the freedoms of others to enlarge his own.

I worry about two things. I don=t think Trump will help the Americans who voted for him because they hoped he could get them better lives. Trump has never shown the slightest interest in people without a lot of power and privilege. He has often used his power and wealth to take theirs.

I do think Trump might hurt the Americans who didn=t vote for him because he disparaged who they are. He has made his contempt for large groups of Americans perfectly clear. Now he=ll have much more power to hurt them.

We=ll have to wait and see.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 15, 2016

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

This Election Makes A Difference

Most people know about Chobani yogurt. Few know that it represents a remarkable story of immigrant success in America. Hamdi Ulukaya is a Turkish immigrant with Kurdish heritage, who arrived in upstate New York in the 1990s. He used a family recipe to make feta cheese. With a $800,000 loan from the Small Business Administration, he bought a local yogurt factory and started selling Chobani yogurt 9 years ago. He opened the world’s largest yogurt manufacturing plant in Twin Falls, Idaho, in 2012.

Chobani is now the number one selling yogurt in the US. Ulukaya offers his 2000 employees 6 weeks of fully-paid family leave for new parents and recently gave them shares in the company, which could make some of them millionaires. He sponsors the US Olympic team.

But Ulukaya and the Chobani brand are a new target of a right-wing campaign of disinformation, led by Breitbart News, home of Donald Trump’s campaign CEO Stephen Bannon. Ulukaya employs more than 300 Iraqi, Afghan and Turkish refugees in his factories. He has created a foundation to assist refugees, gaining direct support from IBM and other giant corporations. Breitbart began publishing stories which falsely linked his company with tuberculosis cases in Idaho and a sexual assault case in Twin Falls. This spawned online calls to boycott Chobani and online death threats to the Twin Falls mayor and his wife. Many of these threats come from Trump supporters. Helping refugees become productive citizens in America is a crime in the eyes of those who love Trump.

Certainly this election will make a difference in government and laws. Here’s a big example – the health of our planet. If Trump is elected, we can expect no action to slow global heating. His repeated insistence that climate change is a hoax might mean that his policies, backed by a Republican Congress, would make temperature rise faster. We would lose four crucial years in the race to save our planet for the next generations.

How our laws are interpreted by the Supreme Court would also be starkly different, depending on who wins. Trump promises to appoint very conservative justices, which could mean an end to legal abortion and to our progress toward equal treatment for gay Americans.

But the difference this election makes will not only be in concrete actions of government. If Trump wins, then women who are sexually harassed will have a harder time gaining justice. A Trump victory would be victory for “locker room talk” and worse, sexual assault. Bragging about sexual predation and getting away with it would be confirmed as winning male behavior.

A Trump victory would be a victory for discrimination against Muslims, not only foreign Muslims, but American Muslims, too. Even if he couldn’t pass the discriminatory laws he promises, a hater of Islam in the White House would mean encouragement for haters of Islam all over America.

A Trump victory would be a victory for white racism. About half of Trump supporters hold racist views of American blacks and Hispanics. They attack “political correctness”, because it prevents them from openly espousing their racist ideas. The “great” America they seek is a white America.

A Trump victory would be a victory for the politics of insults and lies. Having the Insulter-in-Chief leading our country would encourage every jerk in America to unleash his nastiness, to spew hatred, to try to win in life by making everyone else small. We see that happen at his rallies, where verbal attacks on reporters are now common.

The people who concoct the wildest stories about evil refugees, terrorist Muslims, lazy blacks and whining women will be able to look at President Trump as their role model. A country in which the President’s closest advisor tells racist lies about a good man, a good employer, and a good yogurt maker is not a great country.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 8, 2016