Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#194 - Risk Assessment -- Part 1: Early History Of The Chemical Wars, 14-Aug-1990

After World War II, Nazi Germany's chemical technology became available
to American companies, and our chemical industry took off. Once
chemists learned how to make new molecules upon demand, success
required only marketing and glitz to convince American consumers that
they needed all manner of unnatural new items like plastic raincoats,
beef marbled with fat, throw-away razors, and lawns without dandelions.
Sprinkled among the glitz were a few genuine advances (antibiotics, for
example); since everything was bundled in one package called "the
modern way of life," people bought the whole thing unquestioningly. (It
helped that most people had attended the same kind of school, where
questioning was taken as a sign of a bad attitude.)

At manufacturing sites, post-WW II chemical technologies were managed
as if they represented nothing new. Chemical wastes were handled as
factory wastes had always been handled: thrown into the river, or
buried in a shallow pit behind the outhouse. The chemists who developed
the new products recognized that the new molecules were radically
different--much more dangerous and longlasting in the environment--(see
RHWN #97, #98 and #152), but corporate money managers called the shots
and the chemists went along like sheep. Once the system got rolling, in
the early 1950s, an unavoidable consequence was the massive production
of toxic products as well as toxic wastes, which led to contamination
of every corner of the planet with chemicals known to cause cancer,
birth defects, and genetic damage, known to disrupt animal nervous
systems, known to build up in food chains and to stress the stable
functioning of ecosystems. Taken together, it was a sure prescription
for disaster. Now nearly everyone recognizes, to one degree or another,
that disaster is upon us in many different forms (global warming, ozone
depletion, intercontinental acid rain, steadily increasing cancer and
asthma, most of our children contaminated with brain-damaging lead,
many thousands of leaking Superfund dumps that cannot be cleaned up at
any reasonable price, no safe place to hide growing mountains of
radioactive debris, to mention only the obvious). Industry keeps
pretending that it can maintain business as usual by making alliances
with national environmental groups and by renaming its divisions
EcoSafe and its products Toxi-Good-4-U, but the citizenry is onto this
game, and the Chemical Wars have broken out. These are not wars that
industry can win: the citizens have formed a loose-knit grass-roots
movement AGAINST toxics and FOR environmental justice. Their tactics
reflect those of the Minute Men of 1776 who fired from behind trees,
then slipped away. At stake is the fundamental question, who should
control production decisions in American industry: what products should
be made, using what raw materials, employing what processes? Never
before in our nation's history has the public been forced to debate
this fundamental question. Massive pollution demands it now.

The Chemical Wars--and the accompanying public debate--were inevitable,
but both had been avoided up till now by coordinated planning by
government and industry. Chemical technology first fell under a cloud
of suspicion in the early 1950s because of doubts about the safety of
food additives. Food additives, particularly food colorings, had first
been regulated under the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, but
regulation was exceedingly lax. Then on Halloween night in 1950, large
numbers of youngsters fell ill from exposure to an orange dye that bore
the stamp of approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The resulting publicity forced government to reexamine the safety of
all approved food additives. Three years of Congressional hearings
revealed that several perfectly legal food additives caused cancer.

Other bits of bad news entered the public consciousness. In 1951 and
1953, the cities of Rochester and Troy, New York, were showered with
radioactive fallout from bomb tests in Nevada; radioactivity levels
measured 1000 times higher than normal; camera film fogged up and
people wanted to know what it meant. Throughout the '50s, magazine
articles appeared here and there questioning the wisdom of strafing the
nation's food supply with billows of toxic fog. By 1959, even the
READER'S DIGEST carried an article highly critical of the way
pesticides were being used. That Thanksgiving, the U.S. Secretary of
Health, Education and Welfare announced that cranberries had been
discovered to be contaminated by amitrole, a pesticide known to cause
cancer in rats, and cranberry sales plummeted as the public responded
with near-panic.

This was a really serious problem. If the public turned against
chemical technology, children might begin to question the
sustainability of the entire modern way of life. Billions of dollars of
investment might be threatened. Government could see this as plainly as
industry could. In fact, as President Eisenhower warned toward the end
of his term of office in 1959, government and industry were pretty much
one and the same, a military-industrial complex, to use Ike's phrase,
sharing a common vision.

By 1954, government had decided that it was not possible to prevent
chemical contamination of the American people, or their food supply,
even if such prevention were highly desirable and highly desired. The
industrial polluters were simply too powerful for mere elected
representatives to bring them to heel. But the public still expected
that government would protect them (it's the one thing both liberals
and conservatives can usually agree on--the main role of government is
to protect the people), so government acted in 1954: the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) established the first "tolerance limits" for
chemical residues on food. These were numerical standards for each
chemical on each crop: 0.1 ppm [parts per million] of DDT would be
allowed on corn; 0.5 ppm on celery... and so forth. Over the years,
hundreds (perhaps thousands) of tolerance limits have been set, all
based on a small amount of data (small compared to the sea of ignorance
about living processes that surrounds all science) and a large amount
of guesswork.

This approach worked out better than its inventors could have dreamed;
for one thing, it delayed the onset of the Chemical Wars for 30 years.
In addition, it had three other important consequences:

1) It immediately put the majority of the public to sleep: "Now I can
relax because government is taking care of these problems. I know my
government wouldn't let industry do anything to hurt me."

2) It immediately changed the debate from simple right and wrong (who
gave industry the right to douse my family with cancer-causing
chemicals? Isn't this a form of toxic trespass?) and put it into the
realm of so-called scientists who, for a substantial consulting fee,
will wrap anything in technical arguments most people can't possibly
understand (in no small part because the nation's schools haven't
prepared them to think about such things).

3) Chemicals were given the Constitutional protections that individuals
enjoy--chemicals were presumed innocent until proven guilty, and
chemicals received the legal protections called "due process." To ban a
new chemical, or curb its use, the burden of proof was on you (the
consumer) to line up the dead bodies and prove with legal certainty
that a chemical had damaged you. (Actually, it was worse than that--you
had to prove that MANY people had been damaged; if only you were harmed
individually, it was assumed to be YOUR fault because you were
chemically sensitive--a freakish and unnatural condition, industry
argued, often successfully.)

4) It laid the groundwork for the modern system that TO THIS DAY allows
the chemical industry to pollute the planet unabated. That modern
system goes by the name of "risk assessment," a technique we will
discuss in detail next week.

People who care about chemicals should subscribe to the quarterly
JOURNAL OF PESTICIDE REFORM, P.O. Box 1393, Eugene, OR 97440; $15 for 4
issues. Their Spring, 1990, issue treats the theme, "Challenging Risk
Assessment." Essential reading.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: risk assessment; radioactive fallout; history;
nuclear weapons; pesticides; food safety; amitrole; cranberries;
tolerance limits; fda; dwight eisenhower; chemical industry;
disposables; chemical production; health effects; food drug and
cosmetic act; media; ny; nv; amitrole; federal regulations; standards;