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Nail Polish That Detects Date-Rape Drugs Stirs A Storm

By Jay Price, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Four N.C. State University students have dreamed up a striking way to detect date rape drugs that’s getting some major media buzz.

It’s also generating a backlash from people who say it doesn’t get at the root causes of rape.

The idea: nail polish formulated to change color if you dip your finger in a drink spiked with one of the incapacitating drugs, such as GBH, Rohypnol, or Xanax.

This simple approach fired the imaginations of journalists around the world this week, just as the college fall semester was getting under way.

It also has caught the eye of at least one local investor, who has reportedly pumped $100,000 into the project. It won $11,250 this past spring in the university’s Lulu eGames, a contest sponsored by Lulu.com and the university’s Entrepreneurship Initiative that’s aimed at encouraging students to develop solutions to real-world challenges.

The startup is called Undercover Colors, and its slogan is “The First Fashion Company Empowering Women to Prevent Sexual Assault.”

The idea isn’t entirely new. There were already startups promoting date rape detectors built into drinking straws, coasters, drinking glasses, lip gloss, and a small device you dip into your drink. Another company also claimed to be developing a similar nail polish, called Dip Tip, this spring.

Few seem to have actually reached the market, but interest in them has been high, and all generated media splashes.

And now it’s Undercover Colors’ turn. Stories on the fledgling company have appeared this week in the Daily Mail and The Guardian in Great Britain, Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Reddit.com, Salon.com, USA Today and BuzzFeed, among others.

It’s unclear how far along in development the nail polish is, or when it might come to market. The students who started the company, all of them men in the materials science and engineering department, are declining interviews.

“At this point, we are early in the development of our product and are not taking interviews or doing stories,” wrote Stephen Gray, a spokesman for the group, in an emailed statement.

Even so, they have not only got a whirlwind taste of the startup world with the wave of attention and investment, they also stepped into a societal minefield: the politics of sexual assault. One question about the nail polish is precisely how big a problem it seeks to solve.

Susan R.B. Weiss, associate director for scientific affairs for the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, said that data on the subject is sparse, but that the use of date rape drugs is probably not common. Alcohol is by far the drug most likely to be involved in rape, Weiss said.

For various reasons, it may never be clear just how common it is for surreptitiously planted drugs to be used in rapes. In part that’s because most rapes aren’t reported and when they are, it’s often after any trace of drugs has worked its way out of a victim’s system.

There is at least some data, though.

A 2007 study of college students by RTI International in Research Triangle Park supports the notion that alcohol is the drug most linked to rape. The researchers found that 11.1 percent of undergraduate women had been sexually assaulted while incapacitated, and the large majority reported that what had knocked them out was alcohol.

Only about 0.6 percent reported being certain that their sexual assault occurred after they were given a drug without their knowledge or consent. Others thought they had been drugged but weren’t sure.

“Clearly, undergraduate women are at much greater risk of sexual assault that occurs in the context of voluntary consumption of alcohol and/or drugs or that is physically forced than sexual assault that is drug facilitated,” concluded the researchers, who were funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Anti-rape activists have begun voicing objections to the nail polish.

The fact that date rape drugs aren’t a major factor in sexual assaults is one issue, said Rebecca Nagle, co-director of a group based in Baltimore called FORCE.

“These four young men took an approach based on some pretty popular mainstream views about how sexual assault happens and who it affects,” Nagle said. “We need to have conversations about how sexual assault really happens, and we have to be talking about it accurately, because basing our fears on assumptions actually doesn’t get us very far.”

Rape is an epidemic in the United States, Nagle said, and one factor that allows that is victim blaming.

The nail polish would perpetuate that, she said. Suddenly, it would be a woman’s responsibility to use the polish. Otherwise, if you become a victim of assault, then some would say that the rape was your fault because you didn’t test your drink.

It would simply put another burden on women when the real causes of rape are elsewhere, she said.

“Yes, we need to take steps toward ending rape and preventing rape, and it’s really not the responsibility of people who might be raped to do that. It’s actually the responsibility of two groups of people,” she said. “One is the perpetrators. People need to stop raping people. And then it’s also the responsibility of communities and our country.”

On Tuesday, Undercover Colors co-founder and CEO Tyler Confrey-Maloney posted what appeared to be a reaction to the backlash on the company Facebook page:

“We are grateful for and encouraged by the support we’ve received over the past few days … We hope this future product will be able to shift the fear from the victims to the perpetrators, creating a risk that they might actually start to get caught.

However, we are not the only ones working to stop this crime. We are taking just one angle among many to combat this problem. Organizations across the country need your support in raising awareness, fundraising, and education.”

Among those Undercover Colors recommends, he wrote, were: The Rape Abuse Incest National Network; Men Can Stop Rape; and Raleigh-based InterAct.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Feds Investigating Potential Evironmental Violations In NC State’s Hofmann Forest

By Jay Price, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

RALEIGH, NC — Two federal agencies are investigating whether the managers of North Carolina State University’s massive Hofmann Forest violated the Clean Water Act by illegally draining wetlands.

An NCSU foundation is in the midst of selling the 79,000-acre forest to a company headed by a large-scale farmer from the Midwest. A small group of foresters and environmentalists is fighting the $150 million deal in court.

Regulators from the Army Corps of Engineers visited the forest in January to check the ditches there after the North Carolina Coastal Federation asked the Corps about the history of several thousand acres of cleared land in the forest. The regulators found extensive draining by ditches. Mickey Sugg, a regulator with the Corps’ Wilmington office, said in an interview this week that at least some of the drainage work appeared to be illegal.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also is involved in the investigation, and it will determine whether the ditching falls within an exemption in the Clean Water Act that allows some drainage improvements for tree farming, Sugg said.

A spokeswoman for the EPA said she was aware of the case but declined to outline the possible range of penalties.

According to an EPA website, penalties for improperly draining wetlands can include administrative fines of up to $17,000 per day of violation to a maximum of $177,500, and being required to restore improperly drained wetlands. Criminal charges also are possible but only in extreme cases. The website says the agency likes to resolve violations through voluntary compliance or administrative enforcement.

NCSU and its Natural Resources Foundation — which gave the land to the university’s endowment fund — are working with the Corps to provide whatever information it needs as it reviews records related to management of the forest, Brad Bohlander, a spokesman for the university, said by email.

“The Foundation has always strived to conduct its forest management operations in accordance with the Clean Water Act and has carefully adhered to the North Carolina Forestry Best Management Practices as originally drafted and adopted in collaboration with the Corps of Engineers,” Bohlander wrote.

The forest, which is in Jones and Onslow counties near Jacksonville, is named for Julius “Doc” Hofmann, the founder of NCSU’s forestry program. He began buying up the land in the mid-1930s, with the aim of using it for research and to provide income for the forestry program via timber harvesting.

University officials said they decided to sell Hofmann in part because they need money and because NCSU’s field research for forestry is now mainly done elsewhere.

Hofmann had become mostly a source of income, but an unstable one: It had been producing about $2 million a year, but in 2012 that dipped to less than $900,000. The university’s endowment officers believe that investing the sales proceeds will yield about $6 million annually, helping make up losses in state funding.

NCSU’s history with the forest predates the 1977 version of the Clean Water Act, which includes a minor exemption for drainage for tree farming. It also predates the modern respect for the value of wetlands. Indeed, one of Hofmann’s original purposes was to show that such swampy “pocosins” could be drained to create commercially successful timber farms.

Sugg said a key part of the investigation was to determine what parts of the drainage system were built after the Clean Water Act took effect. NCSU is providing regulators with records to help determine that, he said.

Ditching that drains wetlands, even for tree farming, isn’t exempt from the law, he said. At least some of the work, Sugg said, appeared recent enough to be illegal.

He declined to say how much acreage might have been improperly converted from wetlands but said a substantial amount of land was involved.

None of the drainage work appeared to be aimed at specifically allowing the creation of agricultural land, Sugg said.

Todd Miller, executive director of the Coastal Federation, said his group was pleased that the federal agencies are taking the matter seriously.

Miller said he became curious about the drainage at Hofmann after reading a prospectus developed by the buyer of the forest to attract potential investors.

It mentioned 5,500 acres had been cleared and that it would be possible to clear 50,000 to 60,000 acres more for agriculture. Miller said he began wondering whether managers of the forest had obtained any required permits from the Corps of Engineers, and he put in a query for public records related to ditching.

Most of the land in the area is unusually wet, he said, and that, combined with the long history of the land, will complicate the investigation.

“It’s going to take close scrutiny to figure out what never was wetland, what was wetland and was converted before the Clean Water Act, and what was converted after the act and would therefore be illegal without permitting,” he said.

Photo by Mr T in DC/Flickr