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#NPRreads: Middle East Air Quality, Lead Poisoning And Jell-O

#NPRreads is a weekly feature on Twitter and on The Two-Way. The premise is simple: Correspondents, editors and producers from our newsroom share the pieces that have kept them reading, using the #NPRreads hashtag. On Fridays, we highlight some of the best stories.

This week, we bring you three items.

From NPR's Jerusalem correspondent, Emily Harris:

The headline drew me in first. If something good could come out of the various conflicts in the Middle East, bring it on. Although on the face of it, the idea that "political disturbance and armed conflict in the Middle East since 2010 have had the unintended consequence of making the air cleaner" isn't entirely surprising. As I read that the amount of nitrogen dioxide in the air over Damascus has fallen by 50 percent since the start of the civil war there, I thought, sure, that's probably because industry has slowed way down, gas is probably not always easy to get, people are leaving and the economic growth that can be connected to air pollution just doesn't happen during war.

And indeed, some of the data suggested that simply people — not economic growth — increased emissions. Sounds like that surprised the scientists studying the satellite data.

"But in nearby Lebanon, there was a "drastic" rise of up to 30% of the same pollutant, thanks to the influx of refugees. The scientists say that this was very unusual as economic growth in Lebanon declined significantly at the same time."

I'm curious to what degree this insight plays a role in politics trying to rein in emissions. But then the pollution observed in Iraq left more questions than answers.

"But in Iraq, the rise of so-called Islamic State can also be clearly seen in the air quality data.

"In Karbala, to the south of Baghdad, a mostly Shiite area, the increase in pollutants continues," said Dr Lelieveld.

"But if you look to the area northwest of Baghdad, where Islamic State is in charge, there you see that things are going in another direction - there are very specific stories in each country."

The scientists didn't theorize as to why. People fleeing? Declining industry? Both? What I found most intriguing overall in this piece was that expected patterns of air pollution get thrown off in the Mideast. "Complex and unpredictable," the article called it — a phrase so often applied to many spheres here.

From NPR's Justice Department correspondent, Carrie Johnson

Lurking in the background of the tragic story of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who died in police custody earlier this year, is yet another tragedy. His exposure to lead paint as a child damaged him, as it did many other impoverished minorities in the city. Reporter Terrence McCoy of the Washington Post takes it from there.

In a stunning investigation, McCoy demonstrates how many of the people who won financial settlements from "slum lords" in connection with their lead-paint exposure are being victimized all over again: by settlement companies that convince them to sign away the bulk of their payments for the promise of immediate cash on hand.

The story starts with Rose, who suffers from brain damage, according to court records uncovered by the Post.

"She remembered a nice, white man. He had called her one day on the telephone months after she'd squeaked through high school with a "one-point something" grade-point average. His name was Brendan, though she said he never mentioned his last name. He told her she could make some fast money. He told her he worked for a local company named Access Funding. He talked to her as a friend.


"He bought her a fancy meal at Longhorn Steakhouse, she said, and guaranteed a vacation for the family. He seemed like a gentleman, someone she said she could trust. One day soon after, a notary arrived at her house and slid her a 12-page "purchase" agreement. Rose was alone. But she wasn't worried. She said she spoke to a lawyer named Charles E. Smith on the phone about the contract. She felt confident in what it stated. She was selling some checks in the distant future for some quick money, right?

"The reality, however, was substantially different. Rose sold everything to Access Funding — 420 monthly lead checks between 2017 and 2052. They amounted to a total of nearly $574,000 and had a present value of roughly $338,000. In return, Access Funding paid her less than $63,000."

To be sure, some families tell McCoy they would be living on the street or in dire circumstances without those immediate financial settlements. But for many others, the short term gains will result in misery.

The investigation already has prompted outrage from members of Congress and lawmakers in the Maryland legislature.

From NPR's Arts, Culture and Books Supervising Editor, Ted Robbins:

When I was a child, Jell-O was ubiquitous at school and a staple of family gatherings. It may have been the least interesting thing on the table. Who knew that the rise of Jell-O was linked to the kitchen "revolution" at the turn of the 20th Century?

"In the mid-nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution was beginning to transform the US economy. Railways were on the rise and so was factory production; both brought radical changes to American food systems. By 1897, when a cough-syrup maker patented the brand name Jell-O, the processed-food industry was thriving. Pearl Wait sold the brand just two years later to the Genesee Food Company for $450 (roughly $11,000 today), according to Lynne Galia, director of communications at Kraft-Heinz, which now owns the Jell-O brand."

The piece by Sarah Grey makes a good argument for Jell-O being the epitome of industrial food. It was SO American.

"My great-grandmother's copy of Knox On-Camera Recipes: A Completely New Guide to Gel Cookery, published in 1960, includes such unappetizing concoctions as "Green Salad Mold," "Molded Avocado and Tuna," and "Jellied Veal Loaf" (complete with two teaspoons of MSG). The standard cookbooks of the era, like the 1964 edition of Joy of Cooking, devote entire sections to savory gelatin salads. Jell-O even introduced savory flavors like celery, mixed vegetable, and "Italian salad" during the 1960s. By the mid-1970s, though, their popularity had declined so much that they were pulled from shelves."

It's now served mostly in places which still celebrate mid-century cooking, notably Utah. But, watch out: artisanal Jell-O molds may be the next Brooklyn hipster trend.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Laura Wagner
Ted Robbins
As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.
Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
Emily Harris
International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.
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