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#553 - Let's Stop Wasting Our Time, 02-Jul-1997

The mainstream environmental movement spends its time urging government
to regulate corporations that are making people sick while poisoning
the planet's air, water, and soil. Regulation is what mainstream
environmentalists aim to do. They gather data, write reports to show
how bad things have gotten, and then they ask government regulators to
modify the behavior of the responsible corporations. In Washington,
D.C., and in all 50 state capitals, hundreds or thousands of
environmentalists toil tirelessly year after year after year, proposing
new laws, urging new regulations, and opposing the latest efforts by
officials (corporate and governmental) to weaken existing laws and
regulations. They write letters, meet with agency personnel, publish
pamphlets and hold conferences, prepare testimony for subcommittees,
serve for years on citizen advisory boards, create "media events," mail
out newsletters and magazines, organize phone trees to create awareness
and raise funds. They pore over immense volumes of technical
information, becoming experts in arcane sub-specialties of science and
law. They work hard, much harder than most other people. When they find
that their efforts have been ineffective, they redouble their efforts,
evidently hoping that more of the same will work better next time.
Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra
Club, Audubon, National Wildlife Federation, The Wilderness Society,
The Environmental Working Group, and many others that make up the
mainstream environmental community are well-intentioned, earnest, and
diligent. They are also, it must be admitted, largely ineffective.

An eye-opening new book describes the nearly-complete failure of all
our attempts to regulate the behavior of the chemical corporations.
TOXIC DECEPTION, by Dan Fagin and Marianne Lavelle,[1] is subtitled
"How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law, and
Endangers Your Health." In his day job, Dan Fagin writes for NEWSDAY
(the Long Island newspaper) and Marianne Lavelle writes for the
NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL. Both are award-winning investigative reporters,
and this book shows why: it is thorough and thoroughly-documented,
even-handed, careful in its conclusions, and absolutely astonishing in
how grim a picture it paints of our corporatized democracy. Even those
of us who study chemicals-and-health full-time have never put all the
pieces together the way these two have.

The book is organized as a case study of only four dangerous chemicals:
atrazine, alachlor, perchloroethylene and formaldehyde.

** Atrazine is a weed killer used on 96% of the U.S. corn crop each
year. Introduced in 1958, some 68 to 73 million pounds were used in
1995, making it the best-selling pesticide in the nation. Atrazine
interferes with the hormone systems of mammals. In female rats, it
causes tumors of the mammary glands, uterus, and ovaries. Two studies
have suggested that it causes ovarian cancer in humans. EPA categorizes
it as a "possible human carcinogen." Atrazine is found in much of the
drinking water in the midwest, and it is measurable in corn, milk, beef
and other foods.

** In 1969, Monsanto introduced Alachlor, a weed killer that
complements atrazine. Atrazine is best against weeds and alachlor is
best against grasses. Often both are applied at the same time. Alachlor
causes lung tumors in mice; brain tumors in rats; stomach tumors in
rats; and tumors of the thyroid gland in rats. It also causes liver
degeneration, kidney disease, eye lesions, and cataracts in rats fed
high doses. Canada banned alachlor in 1985. EPA's Science Advisory
Board labeled alachlor a "probably human carcinogen" in 1986. In 1987,
EPA restricted the use of alachlor by requiring that farmers who apply
it must first take a short course of instruction. Much of the well
water in the midwest now contains alachlor and its use continues

** Perchloroethylene ("perc") is the common chlorinated solvent used in
"dry cleaning" (which is only "dry" in the sense that it doesn't use
water). In the early 1970s, scientists learned that perc causes liver
cancer in mice. Workers in dry cleaning shops get cancer of the
esophagus seven times as often as the average American, and they get
bladder cancer twice as often. A few communities on Cape Cod in
Massachusetts have perc in their drinking water; a study in 1994
revealed that those communities also have leukemia rates five to eight
times the national average. Perc is ranked as a "probable human
carcinogen" and we all take it into our homes whenever we pick up the
dry cleaning.

** Formaldehyde is a naturally-occurring substance present in the human
body in very small quantities. Mixed with urea, formaldehyde makes a
glue that handily holds plywood and particle board together. Mixed with
a soap, urea-formaldehyde makes a stiff foam that has excellent
insulating properties. After the oil shortage of 1973, Americans began
to conserve fuel oil by tightening and insulating their homes, and it
was then that people discovered that formaldehyde can be toxic. In tens
of thousands of individuals, urea-formaldehyde has caused flu-like
symptoms, rashes, and neurological illnesses. In some people, it
triggers multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a life-long, debilitating
sensitivity to many other chemicals, including fragrances and perfumes.
In recent years, scientists have confirmed that formaldehyde causes
rare nasal tumors in mice and in industrial workers exposed to high
levels of formaldehyde gas. It is also linked to brain tumors in people
exposed to it on the job (embalmers and anatomists). It is ranked as a
"probable human carcinogen" in humans, and we are all widely exposed to
it through cabinets, furniture, walls and flooring.

TOXIC DECEPTION documents how the manufacturers of these chemicals --
and thousands of others like them --have managed to keep their
dangerous, cancer-causing products on the market despite hugely
expensive government regulatory efforts, civil litigation by citizens
who feel victimized, investigative news reports, congressional
oversight of the regulators, right-to-know laws, and hundreds of
scientific studies confirming harm to humans and the environment. The
book documents how corporations buy the complicity of politicians;
offer jobs, junkets and sometimes threats to regulators; pursue
scorched-earth courtroom strategies; shape, manipulate, and sometimes
falsify science; and spend millions of dollars on misleading
advertising and public relations to deflect public concerns. In sum,
the book shows how corporations have turned the regulatory system --and
those who devote their lives to working within that system --into their
best allies.

After reading this book, one realizes that the purpose of the
regulatory system is not to protect human health and the environment.
The purpose of the regulatory system is to protect the property rights
of the corporations, using every branch of government to thwart any
serious attempts by citizens to assert that human rights should take
precedence. "At the most fundamental level," write Fagin and Lavelle,
"the federal regulatory system is driven by the economic imperatives of
the chemical manufacturers--to expand markets and profits--and not by
its mandate to protect public health."(pg. 13) Why are so many of us
still defining our environmental work entirely within the confines of
this hopeless system?

After 27 years of unremitting, well-meaning attempts to regulate
corporate polluters, here is our situation:

** The government does not screen chemicals for safety before they go
on the market.

** Chemicals are presumed innocent until members of the public can
prove them guilty of causing harm. Naturally this guarantees that
people will be hurt before control can even be considered. After harm
has been widely documented, then government begins to gather data on a
chemical, but "the agency usually relies on research conducted by or
for manufacturers when it is time to make a decision about regulating a
toxic chemical."(pg. 14)

** Industry manipulates scientific studies to reach the desired
conclusions. According to Fagin and Lavelle, when chemical corporations
paid for 43 scientific studies of any of the four chemicals (atrazine,
alachlor, perc or formaldehyde), 32 studies (74%) returned results
favorable to the chemicals involved, 5 were ambivalent, and 6 (14%)
were unfavorable.(pg. 51) When independent nonindustry organizations --
government agencies, universities or medical/charitable organizations
(such as the March of Dimes) --paid for 118 studies of the same four
chemicals, only 27 of the studies (23%) gave results favorable to the
chemicals involved, 20 were ambivalent, and 71 (60%) were unfavorable.
(pg. 51)

** As of 1994, after 24 years of trying, EPA had issued regulations for
only 9 chemicals.(pg. 12) EPA has officially registered only 150
pesticides, though there are thousands of others in daily use awaiting
review by the agency.(pg. 11) The Occupational Safety and Health
Administration has done only slightly better, setting limits on 24
chemicals after 18 years of effort.(pg. 81)

** Close to 2000 new chemicals are introduced into commercial channels
each year in the U.S., virtually none of then screened for safety by
government prior to introduction. When screening does occur, it occurs
AFTER trouble has become apparent. All together, about 70,000 different
chemicals are now in commercial use, with nearly 6 trillion pounds
produced annually in the U.S. for plastics, solvents, glues, dyes,
fuels, and other uses. All six trillion pounds eventually enter the

More than 80% of these chemicals have never been screened to learn
whether they cause cancer, much less screened to discover if they harm
the nervous system, the immune system, the endocrine system, or the
reproductive system. In sum, in the vast majority of cases, nothing is
known about the health or environmental consequences of dumping these
chemicals into the environment. It's a huge corporate experiment on the

The corporations use a single line of defense: we don't know FOR SURE
how dangerous these chemicals really are. But this simple strategy
works perfectly because Congress has placed the burden of proof on the
public, not on the corporations. We have to prove that we have been
harmed. Because we are all exposed to hundreds if not thousands of
chemicals each day, pinpointing the source of a rash, a headache, or a
brain tumor is next to impossible. Meanwhile the exposures continue.
The dice in this game are loaded. Why do we continue to play?

Instead, why doesn't the environmental movement come together to
discuss a new strategy --one that asserts the right of a sovereign
people to control subordinate entities like corporations? We could
lawfully shift the burden of proof onto the purveyors of poisons. We
could legitimately deny them the protections of the Bill of Rights.
(Rule of thumb: if it doesn't breathe, it isn't protected as a person
under the Constitution). We could legally define what corporations can
THE REPUBLIC. (See REHW #488 and #489.) Such a program would no doubt
have enormous popular appeal because so many people have been treated
with injustice and disrespect by one corporation or another in recent
years. Why keep wasting our time? Let's get together and focus our
energy on DEFINING (not regulating) corporations. It's the only way
we'll ever achieve environmental protection. And it would give people
some control over their lives once again.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Dan Fagin, Marianne Lavelle, and the Center for Public Integrity,
TOXIC DECEPTION (Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1996).

Descriptor terms: chemical industry; regulation; environmental
movement; edf; nrdc; sierra club; wilderness society; epa;
environmental defense fund; natural resources defense council;
formaldehyde; toxic deception; perchloroethylene; perc; alachlor;
atrazine; ewg; environmental working group; pesticides; herbicides;
cancer; carcinogens; mcs;