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Half Steps

Last week President Obama began to draw a couple of steps closer to the dream of a nuclear-free world. Unhappily, they were just baby steps. In Prague, with Russia’s President Dmitri Medvedev, he signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The agreement cuts back the number of bombs each side can hold by only a third. It does nothing to abolish arsenals of tactical weapons. Because their small size makes it easier for terrorists to steal and deploy these field-grade weapons against civilian targets, they may actually be a greater threat in a time of terrorism than the larger, strategic weapons.

Also last week, the administration released its Nuclear Posture Review, pledging not to mount a nuclear attack against non-nuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a formulation targeted to make Iran and North Korea exceptions to the rule. Missing, however, was a no-first-use pledge, which is a sine qua non for a morally justifiable deterrent.


With the Nonproliferation Review scheduled for May at the United Nations, further commitments to deeper cuts in nuclear arsenals are necessary to motivate aspiring nuclear states not to enter a new nuclear arms race. Furthermore, the N.P.T. itself must extend to countries like India and Pakistan, which stand outside the pact. Through the network of the physicist A. Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb, that country has been the world’s major proliferater. Moreover, as a de facto center of global jihadism, Pakistan is at risk of losing its weapons to terrorists. Finally, Israel, a known but undeclared nuclear power, must be brought under the N.P.T.’s arms reduction requirements for possessing nations, ending an egregious diplomatic double standard and reducing the incentives for acquisition among Muslim and Arab states and non-state actors.

A Virtual Fence, With Holes

“I see people, but they look like trees walking around.” This was the report given by the blind man in the Gospel (Mk 8:24) whose healing was not yet complete. A similar confusion reigns in the story of malfunctioning radar devices along the problem-plagued virtual fence between Mexico and the United States. In wind and rain, they often cannot distinguish between trees and border crossers. The radar failures, as well as huge cost overruns, led Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in March to divert $50 million in funding to other purposes. A Government Accounting Office report on March 18 said that the number of new defects in the virtual fence “has increased faster than the number that has been fixed.”

The virtual fence is part of the Bush administration’s 2005 Secure Borders Initiative to combat smuggling and illegal immigration. It called for radar and other high-tech devices to help Border Patrol agents spot and quickly apprehend undocumented men and women attempting to cross into the United States. The fence has already cost the government over $1 billion, and the G.A.O. notes that it would take several more years to cover the entire 2,000-mile border between the two countries. The fence’s malfunctioning underscores the need for the comprehensive immigration reform that advocates long for. But it also suggests the need for more foreign aid to Mexico to create jobs there with a living wage that could encourage Mexicans to stay home.

Haz-Mat Alert

A too-casual approach to the commercial deployment of chemical compounds is creating a significant health risk. Only a relative handful of the 80,000 to 100,000 compounds widely used in manufacturing have been tested for carcinogenic or other effects on humans. Among those not yet properly vetted are phenols, phthalates and phytoestrogens, classes of chemicals widely used in food storage, cosmetics and fragrances, and in children’s plastic toys, shampoos and soaps.

A new study conducted by researchers from New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine reports that these chemicals are likely disrupters of pubertal development in young girls, which puts them at risk for health complications later in life. Phthalates have already been linked to increased risk of Attention Deficit Disorder, lower I.Q., breast enlargement in girls and smaller testicles in boys.

We have to do better at containing the threat from untested chemicals. While supermarket shelves in Canada and Denmark have already been stripped of food containers and baby bottles that use Bisphenol A, a synthetic estrogen implicated as a potent endocrine disrupter, the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to complete a study of the chemical’s potential health risks.

Other nations, following the precautionary principle, are attempting to remove these potentially dangerous chemicals from the market stream, but in the United States, industrial chemicals are treated as innocent until proven guilty. This may be a welcome standard for U.S. manufacturers, but it deeply fails our children. Environmental contaminants are now being indicted in a wide range of developmental, neurological and endocrine system anomalies suffered by U.S. children. This is a real but completely preventable health crisis, and it should be treated as one.

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