To address a devastating pattern of elementary-grade absenteeism in Chicago Public Schools and across the state, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn have thrown their support behind legislation to lower Illinois’ compulsory attendance age from 7 to 6 or even 5. That would put Illinois on par with most states and give school administrators some leverage over parents who can’t or won’t get their children to school, supporters of the legislation say. But the proposal faces an uncertain future because of strong opposition from home-schoolers who consider the idea an encroachment on their parental rights, as well as Republican lawmakers and downstate school administrators concerned about the potential costs of retrieving absent elementary students amid painful state budget cuts.
The turn of the millennium was a heady time for many Chicago cultural institutions. Cheap loans, high investment returns and swelling endowments spawned a slew of new attractions along the lakefront and around downtown. The Art Institute built its Modern Wing. The Adler Planetarium expanded. The Goodman Theatre constructed a new home in the recently re-energized theater district. New exhibits sprang up at the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry. The Chicago History Museum underwent a gut rehab. Cultural institutions were joining in the economic bonanza sweeping the country and, as with for-profit companies and individual homeowners, some would pay dearly for taking financial risks.
Sara Baker says the light went on in her head after a cup of hot cocoa set off a storm in her stomach. “I went back and looked at the package, and there it was: carrageenan,” said Baker, a career services coordinator from Bloomington, in central Illinois. Baker had been taking medication for ulcerative colitis for years but still suffered debilitating digestive flare-ups without warning. She had read warnings about carrageenan in a natural health newsletter but didn’t take them seriously. After all, researchers haven’t conclusively linked the common food additive to gastrointestinal problems in humans. This time, though, “it really clicked,” she said. “It took awhile to learn just how many things it’s in, but now that know, I can avoid it, and I no longer have the problems.” Experiences like Baker’s have led some people with gastrointestinal problems to sidestep mainstream medical advice and avoid carrageenan, a seaweed-derived texturizer found in meat, dairy and other processed foods — including some organic products. For scientists, however, these are just anecdotes. Though studies on lab animals and human cells have suggested that carrageenan can cause gastrointestinal inflammation, many researchers and physicians say it’s unclear whether the additive has the same impact on people who consume it. Scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago and University of Chicago are seeking to address that question with a controlled clinical trial that Baker is participating in.
A little more than a decade ago, Chicago’s strategy for fighting homelessness mainly involved stopgap measures like pointing people to a temporary bed in a shelter and giving directions to a soup kitchen. But then city officials, with the help of advocates, set about to better understand the needs of Chicago’s homeless population and offer services aimed at putting a permanent roof over their heads. As a result, they say, the number of homeless people has not spiked despite a harsh economic recession. And now, as officials and advocates embark on a new seven-year plan to fight homelessness, they say they have a good shot at ending the problem altogether. “We strongly believe that homelessness can be eliminated,” said Nonie Brennan, chief executive officer of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, “and we believe that we can be the first major city in the nation to do it, and do it well.”
For many people the defining moment in the Field Museum’s recent history was the bid at a 1997 auction that made Chicago home to the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton known as Sue. But that choice could have far less impact on the Field’s future than another decision made five years later and with much less fanfare: a vote by prominent Chicagoans on the museum’s board to issue $90 million worth of bonds for a laundry list of exhibits and building projects. The move doubled the Field’s total bond debt and added millions to its annual expenses. But the board’s plan to pay back the money was fraught with risk. Now, hamstrung by debt payments, the museum is facing far-reaching consequences: layoffs and a massive restructuring that has stirred controversy around the globe.
Chicago diners who think they are eating red snapper may actually be munching on goldbanded jobfish. Those who order Alaskan cod may really be tucking into a threadfin slickhead. And fans of yellowtail could just be getting a fish tale. These are some of the findings of a Chicago fish fraud investigation by the conservancy group Oceana. After its troubling seafood fraud investigations in East and West Coast cities over the last two years, the group expanded its testing to other cities, including Chicago. Thirty of 93 fish samples taken from Chicago restaurants, retail chains and sushi bars were mislabeled, mirroring percentages found in other cities.
For 13 years, the family of Alma Chavez clung to dwindling hopes that law enforcement would catch up to the man accused of killing the soft-spoken nursing student. Chavez’s ex-boyfriend, Raul Andrade Tolentino, was out on bail facing murder charges for the brutal stabbing in 2000 when he slipped across the U.S. border to Mexico. Stretching from Chicago’s Pilsen community to California and then Mexico, the fugitive manhunt was marked by blown opportunities and inexplicable delays — before it seemed to stall completely. But a fresh turn has come to a case that exposed grievous weaknesses in America’s extradition system: Mexican officials announced this week that they captured Tolentino in the central Mexican city of Morelia. Mexican authorities credited the Tribune with spurring them to reopen the hunt for Tolentino following a 2011 newspaper investigation that determined the suspect had been living in his central Mexican hometown. “We opened the case and pursued it and we finally reached the end when we captured him,” said Luis Lopez, a prosecutor with the attorney general’s office in the Mexican state of Michoacan.
Of 182 boys and young men recently locked up in Illinois’ three medium-security youth prisons, at least 135 used to miss so much school that they were labeled chronic truants. Nearly 60 percent couldn’t even read at the third-grade level when they were booked in. At the largest of the three facilities, the Illinois Youth Center St. Charles, all but nine of the 72 youths had dropped out of school entirely by the time they were incarcerated. These figures, calculated by the Tribune from newly obtained state prison data, serve as a grim reminder that absence from school in the early grades is often the first warning of criminal misconduct that can destroy young lives as well as burden society with the costs of street violence, welfare and prison. The records underscore the stark consequences of a crisis in K-8 grade truancy and absenteeism in Chicago that officials long ignored but have promised to address in the wake of a Tribune investigation that found tens of thousands of city elementary students miss a month or more of school in a year.
In a move that could affect consumers nationwide, California officials Friday unveiled plans to scrap an obscure 1975 rule that led to the widespread use of toxic flame retardants in upholstered furniture and baby products in American homes. The proposed changes would require upholstery fabric to resist a smoldering cigarette — the biggest cause of furniture fires. California currently requires the foam cushioning underneath to withstand a candlelike flame for 12 seconds, a standard manufacturers meet by adding flame-retardant chemicals. The rule also has been applied to baby products such as diaper-changing pads, highchairs and nursery rockers. If the changes are adopted later this year, scores of new household products might soon be free of flame retardants linked to cancer, developmental problems, lower IQ and impaired fertility. Studies show the chemicals migrate out of products into household dust ingested by people, especially young children who play on the floor. Furniture manufacturers say they would meet the new standards without adding flame retardants to foam or fabric.
If co-workers and family members are coming down with infections this winter, you may be tempted to turn to an anti-bacterial soap for protection. But some scientists are increasingly concerned that a common anti-bacterial ingredient called triclosan may harm people’s health. Laboratory studies have found that it may disrupt hormones, interfere with muscle function and promote the growth of stronger bacteria — and other research suggests it is building up in the environment to the possible peril of wildlife. What’s more, there is little evidence that hand-washing with soap containing triclosan or other anti-microbial ingredients offers any health advantages over regular soap and water. “Triclosan is what we call a stupid use of a chemical,” said Dr. Sarah Janssen, a physician and senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. “It doesn’t work, it’s not safe and it is not being regulated.”