Connect with us


Lead poisoning kills millions annually. One country is showing the way forward.

How Bangladesh removed lead from turmeric spice — and saved lives.

Published by Web Desk



My colleague Dylan Matthews recently wrote about the horrific global toll of lead poisoning, which contributes to as many as 5.5 million premature deaths a year — more than HIV, malaria, and car accidents combined.

Lead is a neurotoxin; it causes premature deaths and lifelong negative effects. It’s said “there is no safe level of lead exposure” — as far as we know, any lead causes damage, and it just gets worse the more exposure there is.

After a 20-year, worldwide campaign, in 2021 Algeria became the final country to end leaded gasoline in cars — something the US phased out in 1996. That should make a huge difference to environmental lead levels. But lots of sources remain, from car batteries to ceramics.

This isn’t a story about all the hard work still ahead of us, though: It’s a story about solutions, about one case where scientists, advocates, and policymakers came together to make one place in the world safer from lead.

Bangladesh phased out leaded gasoline in the 1990s. But high blood lead levels have remained. Why? When researchers Stephen Luby and Jenny Forsyth, doing work in rural Bangladesh, tried to isolate the source, it turned out to be a surprising one: lead-adulterated turmeric.

Turmeric, a spice in common use for cooking in South Asia and beyond, is yellow, and adding a pigment made of lead chromate makes for bright, vibrant colors — and better sales. Buyers of the adulterated turmeric were slowly being poisoned.

That bad news made a lot of headlines, especially as it became clear that adulterated spices were also poisoning kids in America (usually in cases where family had brought spices from abroad).

But there’s also good news: A recent paper studying lead in turmeric in Bangladesh found that researchers and the Bangladeshi government appear to have driven lead out of the turmeric business in Bangladesh.

How Bangladesh got serious about lead poisoning

Reporting from Bangladesh this summer, Wudan Yan in Undark narrates the gripping story of what happened after researchers realized that turmeric might be driving the shockingly high blood lead results they kept observing.

The researchers who’d isolated turmeric as the primary cause of high blood lead levels —working for the nonprofit International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh — went to meet with government officials. They collected samples nationwide and published a 2019 follow-up paper on the extent of the problem. Bangladesh’s Food Safety Authority got involved.

They settled on a two-part approach, starting with an education campaign to warn people about the dangers of lead. Once people had been warned that lead adulteration was illegal, they followed up with raids to analyze turmeric and fine sellers who were selling adulterated products.

They posted tens of thousands of fliers informing people about the risks of lead. They got coverage in the news. And then they swept through the markets with X-ray fluorescence analyzers, which detect lead. They seized contaminated products and fined sellers.

According to the study released earlier this month, this worked spectacularly well. “The proportion of market turmeric samples containing detectable lead decreased from 47 percent pre-intervention in 2019 to 0 percent in 2021,” the study found. And the vanishing of lead from turmeric had an immediate and dramatic effect on blood lead levels in the affected populations, too: “Blood lead levels dropped a median of 30 percent.”

The researchers who helped make that result happen are gearing up for similar campaigns in other areas where spices are adulterated.

The power of problem-solving

A lot of problems in the world are deep-seated and complicated, with many stakeholders and no clear way to make progress. Trying to solve climate change for example, as both activists and diplomats working now during Climate Week in New York City, won’t be a matter of finding a single bullet, but pursuing an arduous multi-decade, multi-stakeholder approach.

But sometimes, a problem exists because there was inadequate knowledge that it even was a problem, and insufficient will to enforce existing rules that would solve it.

One thing I find striking about Yan’s reporting from Bangladesh is that one supplier who sold adulterated turmeric had fed it to their own children. Others knew it wasn’t safe, but felt stuck selling it. They weren’t trying to do something monstrous; they either didn’t know about it, didn’t know what to do about it, or thought they’d go out of business if they stopped using the supplement while other businesses kept using it.

When the Food Safety Authority showed up at the market and started issuing fines for lead adulteration, it stopped being a savvy business move to add lead. Purchasers who were accustomed to unnatural lead-colored turmeric learned how to recognize non-adulterated turmeric. And so lead went from ubiquitous to nearly nonexistent in the space of just a few years.

That’s a better world for everyone, from turmeric wholesalers to vulnerable kids — all purchased at a shockingly low price. The paper published this month concludes, “with credible information, appropriate technology, and good enough governance, the adulteration of spices can be stopped.”

There’s still a lot more to be done. India, like Bangladesh, has widespread adulteration of turmeric. And safety testing will have to remain vigilant to prevent lead in Bangladesh from creeping back into the spice supply.

But for all those caveats, it’s rare to see such fast, decisive action on a major health problem — and impressive to see it immediately rewarded with such a dramatic improvement in blood lead levels and health outcomes. It’s a reminder that things can change, and can change very quickly, as long as people care, and as long as they act.

A version of this newsletter originally appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here!

Continue Reading


We cut child poverty to historic lows, then let it rebound faster than ever before

How the expanded child tax credit — not a strong economy — slashed child poverty rates and why we need to bring it back.

Published by Web Desk



During the past two years, child poverty in America set new records — one for the better and one for the worse.

In 2021, the child poverty rate — as measured by the supplemental poverty measure that incorporates the value of government benefits — took a sharp drop to its lowest point on record: 5.2 percent, so that 3.8 million American children were living below the federal poverty line. Then, as a report just released by the Census Bureau found, it experienced the steepest rise in its history in 2022: a hike of 139 percent, or more than double, to 12.4 percent. Five million kids fell back into poverty, pushing the number of kids whose parents were struggling to meet their basic needs up to 9 million.

To anyone following the politics of poverty in America, the jagged rebound was entirely unsurprising. The child poverty rate was like a loaded spring being held down by pandemic-era welfare programs. Chief among them: the child allowance, which expanded on the existing child tax credit (CTC) and sent monthly payments to all parents in poverty, helping to cut child poverty by 46 percent in 2021. Release the spring — or let the expanded CTC expire, as Congress did — and of course it will shoot right back up. The child poverty rates settled right back around pre-pandemic 2019 levels.

The main innovation of the expanded child allowance in 2021 was to do away with the income requirements that kept full CTC benefits from reaching 19 million of the poorest American children whose parents had little or no earnings. When the expansion reverted back to the old CTC at the end of 2021, all those families who had received the benefit were once again excluded by the income requirements.

Which is what makes this frustrating: policymakers saw this coming, watched it happen, and were able to do nothing about it. It wasn’t for lack of effort: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) was the swing vote that blocked the rest of the Democratic Party’s effort to make the program permanent, on the empirically refuted idea that unconditional cash to low-income families will get spent on drugs. The data shows that for the year the program was in effect, parents spent most of the money on food, clothes, utilities, rent, and education costs.

But politics aside, the fact that child poverty rebounded so sharply even while the economy is doing really well — even though inflation hasn’t completely settled down, wage growth at the bottom has been outpacing it since June, and unemployment is historically low — holds an important lesson. No matter how well the economy performs, generous welfare programs that reach everyone in need are our most effective tool against poverty.

A strong economy remains weak on child poverty, apparently

For months, the economy has been surprisingly strong by many measures. The last time unemployment remained this low was the 1960s. Real median household income is fluttering around its highest peak on record. The wage inequality that widened over the past few decades is shrinking. Black Americans — who continue to suffer the legacy of being cut out from economic gains — are also seeing big upswings in earnings, and historically low jobless rates. The economy continues its streak of creating jobs. And so on. “Things are going great, I swear,” Annie Lowrey writes in the Atlantic, already hinting at the dissonance between statistics telling of a strong economy and the reality of both high inflation eating away at those earnings and 5 million kids plunging back into poverty.

The economy is strong, including and especially for low-income workers, but when Congress failed to extend the expanded CTC, none of that mattered — and child poverty surged back. To be fair, there’s probably a lag to be expected between an economy flexing its muscles and downstream benefits to things like child poverty. Historically, a stronger economy that translates to lower levels of unemployment and wage growth for lower-income workers has played a significant part in bringing down child poverty. That describes a lot of what the US has experienced over the past couple of years, and maybe, if the economy stays strong, we’ll see reductions in the child poverty rate in a few years, or more. But when you have a program as effective as the expanded CTC was, why wait to find out?

One reason that’s held some sway for decades is the idea that the long-run economic harms of unconditional cash transfers — or no-strings-attached payments like the expanded CTC, or universal basic income — would erase any short-term benefits (like huge drops in child poverty). The concern is that giving out money to people in poverty without requiring them to work in exchange will ultimately create communities where dropping out of work is both widespread and accepted. Cash with no strings attached “gives up on work,” as one conservative analyst put it.

While there have always been disagreements about that view, increasingly, the evidence is against it. Unconditional cash transfers in low-income countries have been found to stimulate economic activity. In a pilot program for guaranteed income in Stockton, California, recipients of unconditional cash were quicker to find full-time employment than control groups.

Looking specifically at the impacts of the expanded CTC, there was no evidence that receiving the benefit reduced work, and economists at Columbia University estimated that making the program permanent would deliver a more than tenfold return on the investment of about $100 billion per year — a major boost to the economy. That means in addition to solidifying the massive drop in child poverty and giving millions of struggling American families continued support to pay for food, school supplies, utilities, and rent, taxpayers would also save money in the long run.

States are stepping up, but that’s no replacement for a federal program

In the absence of federal action, states are stepping in. Since the expanded CTC expired at the end of 2021, 11 states have passed their own versions, each without the income requirements that kept benefits from the poorest Americans. For these “fully refundable” CTCs, even families with $0 in earnings receive benefits.

Under the conventional CTC, which was “partially refundable,” households needed to earn a minimum of $2,500 per year to receive any benefit — a barrier that effectively screened out unemployed people. After that threshold, even if a family did not owe any income tax (the CTC is a tax credit, which is usually deducted from taxes owed), they could still receive a portion of the CTC benefit as a partial refund on the expenses of raising children. (A non-refundable credit would mean that if you do not earn enough to owe any income taxes, you wouldn’t receive any benefit.)

Now, fully refundable CTCs that reach all Americans in poverty — not just those who already have some earnings — are passing in states with Democratic majorities, though plenty of Republicans are on board with the idea as well. An analysis in July by the Jain Family Institute (JFI), a nonpartisan think tank, found that 40 percent of Republican state senators voted for fully refundable child tax credits. A September poll by Hart Research and the Economic Security Project found that 60 percent of Republican voters support a fully refundable CTC.

While each of these state CTCs are fully refundable, the rest of their policy designs are varied. Benefit amounts range from $180 to $1,750 per child. Some are designed to reach only low-income families by starting to phase out benefits at low levels of income (Maryland, for example, immediately phases out all benefits after $15,000 of annual household income), while others stretch into the middle class before phasing out. Still others (like in Massachusetts) go universally to all families with children younger than 12 regardless of income levels.

At best, though, state programs are a stopgap in the absence of a federal child allowance. The main reason is funding: states face tighter constraints than the federal government, and wind up financing smaller benefits as a result. Even the largest state CTC, in Minnesota, offers only $1,750 per child, about half of what the expanded CTC did.

“Put simply,” said Jack Landry, a researcher at JFI, “the federal government has more fiscal firepower to pass a truly transformative child tax credit.” Relying on states to fund CTCs means those state governments with bigger tax bases could afford better programs, while poorer ones could be left with comparatively meager benefits. “A federal CTC that raises taxes from all 50 states and then distributes them without regard to geography is more equitable than every state financing a CTC on its own,” he said.

Child poverty does not have to be normal

The past two years of child poverty shocks — a 46 percent drop, a 139 percent rise — were significant departures from the prior 50 years. Just as economists talk of there being a balance in the economy that produces a “natural rate of unemployment,” the decades since the US official poverty measures began in 1967 show what looks like a natural rate in the decline of child poverty. It rarely budges more than 1 percent per year.

Economic booms and busts can nudge the annual rate a little higher or lower, which raises further concerns in the absence of strong programs like the expanded CTC. Some economists still warn of a lurking recession, which would raise the prospect of a double bind in our future: a slouching economy, and less effective protections against child poverty. That rates rebounded so sharply even during historically excellent economic conditions shows that the economy, on its own, can only do so much.

When we talk about child poverty, we’re talking about parents being unsure whether they’ll be able to keep up with their utility bills enough for their kids to take a bath, or afford a backpack for school, or whether they’ll be able to feed them enough to keep them healthy. Since the expanded CTC ran out, Megan Sandel, a pediatrician, told NPR that she’s already seeing 3-year-old children lose weight because their parents can’t afford to feed them enough.

But as the short-lived success of the expanded CTC showed, federal welfare programs — when they include all children in poverty, not just the working poor — can almost immediately forge a new normal in the level of child poverty, no matter what’s going on in the wider economy. With all the abstract talk around pandemic-inspired “new normals,” cost-effectively cutting child poverty in half is a pretty decent pillar worth moving toward, and may even help build momentum to simply ending it altogether.

Continue Reading


What climate activists mean when they say “end fossil fuels”

How climate protesters want Biden to address the climate crisis.

Published by Web Desk



“We are all here for one reason: to end fossil fuels around the planet,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told a cheering crowd on Sunday. Some 75,000 were gathered for the New York March to End Fossil Fuels on Sunday, where Ocasio-Cortez urged on, “We must be too big and too radical to ignore.”

As world leaders are in New York City for the annual United Nations General Assembly and the Climate Ambition Summit, protesters hit the streets. Members of Extinction Rebellion, a climate group dedicated to disruptive civil disobedience, staged demonstrations at the Museum of Modern Art to highlight a board member’s links to fossil fuel projects. Nearly 150 activists were arrested for blockading the Federal Reserve in New York to call for financial institutions to stop funding companies that extract coal and oil and gas. Protesters also camped outside of Bank of America to criticize the $280 billion in loans it has given to oil companies since 2016.

These demonstrations are the biggest climate protests in years. But they are also bolder, more singular in focus, and have narrowed their attack on the fossil fuel industry in particular. Fossil fuels — and the companies that have profited mightily from extracting them — have long been the central villains in the climate crisis, but over the past decade or so, the movement’s message has been more diffuse. Consider the 2014 People’s Climate March, which didn’t focus specifically on ending fossil fuels but rather on broad global action and spreading awareness of global warming’s potentially devastating impacts. Today’s activists are angry. They want to name and shame.

“Many people don’t actually connect the dots between fossil fuels and the climate emergency,” Jean Su, a co-organizer of the climate march and energy justice attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The purpose of the march was to make that message crystal clear.”

In the spirit of making the movement’s aims even clearer, what exactly do protesters mean when they call for an end to fossil fuels?

What protesters want, explained

Protesters have demanded that President Joe Biden, the United Nations, and corporations stop federal approvals for fossil fuel projects, phase out drilling on public land, and halt dirty energy investments abroad.

Activists are trying to push vested financial and political interests into reining in fossil fuel production, the primary cause of climate change. Environmental groups have traditionally relied on a mix of pressing for change from the outside and reforming financial and government bodies from within, and protests are just a slice of the organizing that goes on to enact climate policy. This week’s slate of events in New York — the protests, blockades, and demonstrations — are a show of the force that plans on pressing from the outside and a reminder that the clock is running.

The demands from Sunday’s march include asking Biden to phase out oil and gas drilling on public lands, reject permits for new fossil fuel infrastructure, and halt oil and gas exports. Many of these demands are hard to deliver on, not only for political reasons but also because government leasing practices would probably require Congress to change.

The underlying moral argument here is that the world needs to stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure and begin to phase out coal, oil, and gas before the end of this decade to prevent the worst-case scenarios of global warming. Plus, gains in technology in recent years have made the transition away from extractive energy and toward renewable energy far more accessible.

There are a lot of complications in getting there, but many politicians and business leaders still don’t want to concede the basic point that it’s the energy industry that’s driving greenhouse emissions that are trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. Even during global climate conferences, the US and other oil-reliant countries have, as recently as last year, blocked language urging a phase-out of fossil fuels.

The climate movement has also evolved on this. Since 2014, there have been almost-annual climate marches, and in that time the aim has shifted from simply trying to raise awareness about the climate crisis to demanding that the world stop burning and developing new fossil fuels.

Longtime organizer and climate journalist Bill McKibben says fossil fuels have always been a key focus of the movement, remembering when activists demanded President Obama “keep fossil fuels in the ground.” But he does think there’s a change in who’s taking notice.

“The notion is working its way up the food chain,” McKibben told Vox, pointing out that more US politicians are naming and shaming fossil fuel companies. That recently included California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s lawsuit against oil companies for climate deception, significant from the state that is the largest oil and gas consumer in the country.

But Biden is taking less notice of fossil fuels than activists would like. While his administration has passed a historic climate law, as Su explains, Biden himself “needs to also stop his expansion of fossil fuels.”

Another example of Biden favoring the jobs-creation component of climate action is his announcement on Wednesday that his administration is moving ahead with a Civilian Conservation Corps, a green jobs program modeled after the original New Deal. The clean energy economy may score political points, but it means little for climate change if the fossil fuel industry continues to expand. Indeed, oil and gas are expanding, despite the US’s commitments on climate change. The US set a new record for petroleum exports this year and is the biggest natural gas exporter in the world. Oil companies are charting out big new expansions on public lands, including ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project in Alaska.

You see this tension even in his speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday. Biden said his administration “has treated this crisis as an existential threat,” pointing to the Inflation Reduction Act’s “largest investment ever anywhere in the history of the world to combat the climate crisis and help move the global economy toward a clean energy future.”

The law could get the US most of the way toward its goal of slashing climate pollution in half by 2030 from peak 2005 emissions, but its implementation will matter as much as whether those cuts are as large as promised. And while $369 billion is a lot of money, it still comes up short of the downpayment needed to handle climate change’s impacts. Compare the seemingly large sum to what governments put into the fossil fuels industry just last year: Fossil fuel subsidies grew to a new record level worldwide, at $7 trillion, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Activists recognize the US won’t end its production or consumption of oil in a single day. But they’re staking out a position that phasing out our dependency needs to get underway aggressively, and every domestic policy — from the implementation of the IRA to Biden’s interpretation of his executive powers — should reflect the ultimate goal.

Are the protests having an effect?

With an eye on Democratic turnout in 2024 as well as his legacy, Biden has responded to criticism from climate activists, even if he hasn’t gone as far as they would like. Last week, the administration announced that it was canceling the remaining leases in the Arctic Wildlife National Refuge while protecting new swaths of the National Petroleum Reserve, both important Arctic regions valued for their ecosystems.

Biden’s policies are also not the only measure of the climate movement’s success. In the last few years, climate activists have increasingly gone after targets that are less obvious than oil companies. Some groups like Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion have gone after the rich individuals and institutions that enable fossil fuels by popping up at art museums and sports events.

“Everyone has different perspectives of who to target, and it’s all part of a tapestry of naming governments and corporations that haven’t been held accountable to the public,” Su said.

Lately, protesters have targeted the financial sector for its role in funding the expansion of oil and gas development. Private companies and central banks are still aligned around fossil fuels, which puts them at odds with their own climate commitments. But the increasing criticism has led banks and the energy industry to make scores of new net-zero commitments and pledges to fight climate change. How much these commitments translate into concrete action is debatable, as the corporate world chases quarterly profits instead of delivering on promises made in press releases.

Activists are sticking around to remind these industries that they are watching closely. This influence sometimes translates into change within the industry, such as the rise of shareholder resolutions pushing climate priorities at annual oil company meetings.

Biden’s comments to the UN General Assembly do hint at activists’ strength. He singled out fossil fuels a cause of the record-breaking heat waves, wildfires, and flooding throughout the world. “Taken together,” the president said, “these snapshots tell an urgent story of what awaits us if we fail to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and begin to climate-proof our world.”

Continue Reading


Take a poll