Commentary: Your Health Is for Sale

A new commentary titled “Your Health for Sale has been posted in the commentary section of the site:

Last week in Tai Chi class, a student asked Sifu how long would it take to complete Tai Chi training. In broken English punctuated with Mandarin, Sifu said, “Is no end.” He described Tai Chi training as a bottomless pit, not realizing that in English that analogy has a negative connotation. The analogy better fits the workings of the US Government, specifically the FDA as it quietly tries to sneak through regulations that would restrict the sales of vitamins, healing herbs and supplements and the practice of complementary and alternative healthcare modalities so that they are only available via physician prescription. Like a bottomless pit, government agencies and the corporations lining their pockets always find more ways to sell out the American public.

Read “Your Health for Sale”

Professor Challenges Audience to Think Beyond Pink Ribbons

On Monday, GVSU professor Julia Mason delivered a lecture at Aquinas College titled “More Than a Cure: Examining Breast Health, Cause Related Advertising and the Environment.” In her lecture, Mason provided an interesting critique of breast cancer awareness campaigns and how they can distract the public from the causes of breast cancer.

The Aquinas College Women’s Studies Center hosted a presentation by GVSU Professor Julia Mason titled More Than a Cure: Examining Breast Health, Cause Related Advertising and the Environment. She provided an interesting critique of the proliferation of the use of pink ribbons and how it actually can distract the public from really thinking about what causes breast cancer.

Professor Mason began by talking about some of the basic realities in regards to breast cancer. About 2 million women in US are living with breast cancer and in 2006, breast cancer accounted for 1 out of 3 cancer diagnosis in women. Men can also develop breast cancer but that accounts for only about 1% of all people diagnosed with the disease. She also touched on the fact that there are cultural and social factors in the public understanding of breast cancer. Western medical traditions are rooted in male dominated ideology, so our understanding of breast cancer has historically been distorted.

The growth of consciousness-raising led some women to produce the resource Our Bodies, Our Selves. Women became their own health advocates, by talking with each other about their bodies and their sexuality. During the 1970s, breast cancer activists didn’t have a focused political agenda according to Professor Mason, but they did change the conversation about breast cancer. She mentions that environmental research pioneer Rachel Carson had breast cancer, but didn’t want to address it for fear that her research would be discredited. Mastectomies often happened without consultation between doctors and their female patients.

During the 1990s breast cancer activism finally became politicized and went mainstream. October is now breast cancer awareness month, with the pink ribbon as the main symbol. The pink ribbon, according to Professor Mason, has social significance, but the pink ribbon has also evolved with a broader meaning. The Pink ribbon “product” has promoted the notion of “shopping as activism instead of social change.” People just buy stuff with a pink ribbon on it and think it is making a difference.

At this point the presenter examined the media’s role around representation of breast cancer and what she called “consumer activism.” Breast cancer advertising is prolific, with many products displaying the Pink Ribbon on their packaging. Several large corporations are even spending lots of money to associate themselves with the “benign” social message of breast cancer. Professor Mason looked at two ad campaigns in particular; Avon and the Ford Motor Company.

Avon ads have raised $450 million for “breast cancer awareness,” but the speaker pointed out that what consumers need to is “look at what is being sold, especially what the environmental impact of the product is.” This commercialization of breast cancer puts its emphasis on a cure, but not prevention. “The largest drug companies who make cures also make carcinogenic products, which cause cancer.” Professor Mason referred to this phenomenon as Pink-washing, where companies distract the public from thinking about the causes of breast cancer to the feel good detection aspect. Pink-Washing is very similar to Green-washing, where corporations try to present themselves has environmentally friendly.

The Ford Motor Company campaign is called “Ford Cares.” They have created “Warriors of the Pink Scarf” with celebrities wearing this pink scarf. The messages are focused on personal health and personal detection. Ford also promotes Race for the Cure, but Professor Mason pointed out that chemicals in combustion may lead to breast cancer. Ford has donated around $87 million, but much of that amount has been on ads promoting the company’s role in breast cancer awareness.

What Professor Mason was demonstrating was that there needs to be an emphasis on prevention with breast cancer, the public cannot assume that because a package has a pink ribbon on it that it is for a “good cause,” and that people need to scrutinize the corporate roll in this issue. “Pink ribbons might cause us to become complacent and individualistic. We need to move beyond corporate sponsorship of breast cancer.” She encouraged people to investigate this issue on their own and suggested the Think Before You Pink campaign as well as support for the Sister Study.

High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

Ideally, Elizabeth Grossman’s High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health would be included in the box with every new high tech device sold. It is an extremely important book that explores an incredibly serious issue that has been largely overlooked as people around the world have adopted a variety of high tech devices without ever considering their environmental footprint. From the process of extracting the resources needed to produce a device, to potential health affects while using a device, and to the question of where it ends up once it is no longer, Grossman provides a complete and compelling study of the environmental ramifications of modern electronics.

Grossman’s book begins by looking at the raw materials that go into high tech devices, something that is rarely considered by the users of such devices. While users might be inclined to describe a device as primarily being made of plastic, Grossman explains that high tech electronics contain a variety of metals, chemicals, and plastics, many of which are either known to be toxic to humans, animals, and the environment or have not been tested in any meaningful way. Grossman, inspired by an investigation into he dumping of toxic chemicals from the high tech industry into a river in her hometown of Portland, visits a variety of locations around the world ranging from mines to recycling facilities to explore the environmental ramifications of high tech products and their disposal. Throughout the book, Grossman is very good at explaining that the issue of electronic waste–or e-waste–is a global problem that involves everyone from the users of high tech products to the Chinese villagers who “recycle” e-waste. Grossman reveals a variety of facts that are likely unknown to the users of high tech products including the amount of water used in producing microchips (Intel used 6 billion gallons of water in 2003), the fact that e-waste routinely gets dumped in unregulated landfills in third world countries, explains how in the United States prisoners frequently process electronics for recycling without being told about their toxicity, that the manufacture of one .07 ounce microchip (the size of one teaspoon of milk) can generate 57.2 pounds of waste, that there are a variety of toxic chemicals used in electronics, and that many of the components used in high tech products can be recycled.

In her travels, Grossman interviews numerous individuals who have a stake in the problem of e-waste and gets their perspectives on what can be done to solve the problem. She talks to mine operators, product designers, government officials, people living with the toxic effects of e-waste, and numerous others. While the majority of those with whom she talks agree that there is a problem, they often disagree as to the extent of the problem and the best approach for addressing it. Grossman explores a variety of legislative approaches, including recent measures enacted in the European Union that require that certain chemicals be removed from products if they are to be sold in the European Union. When the interviewees talk about reluctance to share product material lists or enact legislation that might “unfairly” impact business, it becomes clear that the issue is one that needs a commitment on a global level. However, action will likely need to be inspired by a large, industrialized country committing to act on the issue. The United States, because it is the biggest consumer of computers and the biggest generator of e-waste, should be obligated to take this role, but it has not done so as no widespread demands have been made asking it to take action.

This might be a role for those involved in movement for social change, as they could use their organizing skills to call for better policies for dealing with the environmental impacts of technology. Unfortunately, the environmental ramifications of computers and other electronics have largely gone unconsidered outside of a few groups involved in the environmental justice movement. While computers and other electronics have provided important tools to social change movements, those within such movements have largely failed in considering how computers impact the environment. Grossman’s book provides an illuminating exploration of the issue and a compelling case for pursuing strategies–from recycling to improving product design–that can help to reduce the ecological footprint of computers. However, for those involved in social change movements, there must not only be a push for improved recycling and design, but also an understanding that on a variety of levels–from their toxicity to the dumping of e-waste in third world nations–computers are not sustainable. To that end, social change movements need to consider both the impacts of our increasing reliance on computers for the work that we do as well as how we can incorporate this specific knowledge about the environmental impact of computers into a theoretical framework that recognizes that on a variety of different levels our current standard of living is not sustainable (see Derrick Jensen’s Endgame). However, such an approach need not take on a Luddite view of technology, but must realistically examine the environmental ramifications of new technologies and look at how they can be used strategically–and with minimal adverse impact–for the creation of a new world.

While Grossman’s book may not be the most compellingly written book reviewed by Media Mouse in our two years of doing book reviews, it is one of the most important in that it addresses an incredibly important issue that has been overlooked by not only the population at large, but the activist community as well. The environmental consequences of computers and electronics have largely been ignored as society has rushed to adopt the latest computer, iPod, cell phone, or PDA without considering the ecological footprint of new devices or how to dispose of old devices, the majority of which are riddled with a variety of toxic chemicals and materials. Of course, Grossman’s book does not provide an answer to the question of how we deal with e-waste, but it provides a number of ideas and brings attention to a largely ignored issue.

Elizabeth Grossman, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, (Island Press, 2006).

Grand Rapids City Commission Endorses Health Care Finance Resolution

Back in May, the Grand Rapids City Commission passed a resolution endorsing a proposal by the Michigan Universal Health Care Access Network (MichUHCAN) that calls on Govern Granholm to establish a commission to examine the financing of health care in the state and to make recommendations for the establishment of a comprehensive system for all state residents.

While Media Mouse is late in its reporting, the July/August issue of the Heartside Spoon has a short article of the Grand Rapids City Commission’s unanimous May 9th endorsement of the Health Care Finance Resolution that has been promoted across Michigan by the Michigan Universal Health Care Access Network (MichUHCAN). The resolution passed by the City Commission reads that:

We, the Grand Rapids City Commission, hereby call on Jennifer Granholm, Governor of Michigan, to establish a commission to study the financing of health care in Michigan and to make recommendations to change that financing so that all people in Michigan shall have health insurance in a system which is affordable, cost efficient, provides comprehensive benefits, promotes prevention and early intervention, eliminates disparities in access and in mental health care, provides continuity of care (is portable from one job to another, protects consumer choice, and is easy to use.

The Grand Rapids City Commission’s endorsement was the first municipal endorsement on the west side of the state and a significant one with Grand Rapids being the state’s second largest city. Spoon credited MichUHCAN, the Green Party of Kent County, and the Michigan Organizing Project’s Health Care Task Force for their work in getting the resolution passed, as well as Hard Times Café and the Heartside-Downtown Neighborhood Association for their earlier endorsement of the effort. Statewide, the resolution has been endorsed by over one-hundred municipalities and organizations.

Spoon reports that endorsements are still being sought and interested organizations should contact Richa at (616)-245-8633 or richa [ at ] safe-mail.net

U.S. Residents are Less Healthy, Less able to Access Health Care than Canadians

A study in the July 2006 issue of the American Journal of Public Health has found that United States residents are less healthy than Canadians despite spending nearly twice as much per capita on health care. According to a press release by Physicians for a National Health Program, the study is the first-ever analysis of the Joint Canada-United States Survey of Health. The study found that the United States has higher rates of nearly every serious chronic disease examined including diabetes, arthritis, and chronic lung disease. US residents also had higher blood pressure and higher rates of obesity. The study concludes that Canada’s level of care is significantly better with Canadians 7% more likely to have a regular doctor and 19% less likely to have an unmet health need. Cost was cited as the number one barrier to care in the United States.

Read the Full Study