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Et Tu, Computer?

Computers have become the latest in a long line of things that might be bad for you. Or rather computer dust. A recent study by environmental groups found that dust from computers is contaminated with toxic flame-retardant materials. The study, conducted by the Computer Take Back Campaign and Clean Production Action, was the first nationwide analysis of computer dust. The dust was taken from 16 computers, two from each of eight states.

The organizations were testing for brominated fire retardants, chemical compounds used in products such as televisions, computers, and flame- retardant fabric material. Brominated fire retardants have been classified as a human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency, and have given liver cancer to rats and mice who have eaten food containing the chemical compound. The chemical family, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), comes in many different forms, depending on the amount of bromine: penta-BDEs, octa-BDEs, and deca-BDEs. Deca-BDEs are the most widely used fire-retardant chemicals in the electronics industry.

PBDEs are increasingly being found in human tissue and breast milk worldwide, and according to a study done by the Computer Take Back Campaign, women in North America have the highest levels of these chemicals in their breast milk and the levels are doubling every two to five years. Studies such as this one led Europe to phase out all PBDEs in consumer electronics sold in Europe by 2006. In the United States, manufacturers are voluntarily phasing out penta-BDEs and octa-BDEs, and several states are passing legislation to ban BDEs in new electronic equipment. Maine recently banned the sale of products containing deca-BDEs, and California banned the use of penta- and octa-BDEs in 2003.

In New York, a similar bill is raising some questions. The bill originally contained language providing for the phase-out of most BDE types, but has been modified in the state Senate to remove references to deca-BDEs, which has some environmental groups up in arms. New York’s computer-dust samples tested the highest for deca-BDEs among all the states’ tests. According to Kathy Curtis, executive director of Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, “since manufacturers are voluntarily phasing out penta-BDE and octa-BDE, any legislation that doesn’t deal with deca-BDE is mere window dressing at this point.” Industry representatives say that deca-BDE is safer because it is too large to inhale, but environmental advocates say it is still dangerous because it breaks down into smaller particles.

Safer alternatives do exist, says Curtis, but “the industry is just being dragged kicking and screaming to safer practices.”

—Amelia Koethen

Stay in Your Seat Until You’ve Finished Your Work

Speaking at the Alliance for Quality for Education’s rally and civil disobedience on Tuesday (June 22) were longtime activists, state legislators, and well-known figures like United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. But in many ways, the more important people were those who made up the rest of the crowd: parents and students for whom this was their first protest of any kind, many up from Brooklyn and the Bronx, more than a few who spoke only Spanish.

They traveled to Albany to demand that the Legislature, which was scheduled to end its session that day, comply with the decision in the recent Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit and pass a budget that meets New York’s constitutional requirement to provide an equal education to all its children. The state has a deadline of July 30 to bring its school-aid formula into compliance.

“You’d think that children would come first to people,” said Ralph Leguillow, a retired firefighter and parent of three children who go to school in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.

Eddie Citron, a 13-year-old who attends P.S. 3 in the Bronx, carried a sign he made that showed a school, with labels like “no music,” “no gym,” “no science room,” “dead flowers,” and, perhaps most poignantly for the state’s lawmakers that day, “no time.”

After a rally, the crowd of 200 marched around the Capitol, and 22 people holding yellow caution tape arranged themselves in front of the State Street entrance to the building. They said their intention was to keep the legislators from leaving until they passed a budget that complied with the CFE decision.

Doug Williams, an AQE board member and parent from Schenectady, said he’d watched his daughter’s class size grow from 16 to 32 from kindergarten to 4th grade, and that her schools lacked certified teachers, pre-k programs, after-school programs, and adequate facilities. This was his first civil disobedience. “They have to do their job,” he said.

Paul Webster, an Albany School Board member, also joined the civil disobedience. “We wouldn’t have to raise taxes if we had adequate money from the state,” he said. Tuesday was Albany’s second school budget vote this year; the first proposal didn’t pass. “We need to give our teachers, nurses, educators, the resources they need,” said Webster.

Other arrestees included county legislator Wanda Willingham (District 2), Brooklyn Democratic state Sens. Carl Andrews and Kevin Parker, and Weingarten.

After a short time, state police arrested the protestors, taking them into the Capitol to avoid cheers from the gathered crowd, which continued chants such as “Vacation can wait, save the children of the state.” Those arrested were charged with disorderly conduct, and given appearance tickets for next Tuesday, June 29.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Second Time’s the Charm

On Tuesday, June 22, voters passed a $145.3 million revised budget for the Albany City School District by an 858-vote margin. Last month, a $147.9 million budget was rejected by a margin of 448 votes. Community activists, school-board members and teachers heaved a collective sigh of relief: If this attempt had failed, the school district would have been forced to implement a contingency budget that would have resulted in significant job and program cuts.

Before the vote, school-board member Patricia Fahy admitted to being nervous about the outcome. She was concerned that voters had used the first budget vote as a referendum on the facilities plan, an ambitious program of rebuilding, renovating or replacing most of the district’s schools—including a controversial new middle school to be built at Kelton Court. The facilities plan had already been approved, and had no connection to the budget. “For people to think that it does [would be] a big mistake,” Fahy said.

Other theories about the first ballot’s failure included white-voter dissatisfaction with outgoing schools Superintendent Michael Johnson, and simple unhappiness with a 10-percent tax-rate increase (reduced by 4 percent in the revised budget).

“This was a tough year in Albany to pass a school budget,” said Jim Tierney of the group People Advocating Small Schools (PASS). As Tierney explained, Albany county taxes “went up dramatically,” and city taxes increased by 19 percent.

PASS was one of the organizations, which included the PTA and less-formal, student-led groups, that worked hard to get the revised budget passed.

“We ran a fundamental turn-out-the-vote campaign,” Tierney noted. PASS used their database of likely “yes” voters to make calls and send postcard reminders of the revote. These efforts had the desired effect: In the second ballot, more than 2,000 more voters went to the polls.

“If we lost this budget,” Tierney summed up, “we would have gone backward” on all the positive efforts made to improve public education in Albany.

—Shawn Stone

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