By Donella Meadows
–June 26, 1997–
So the cigarette companies have negotiated a deal that would limit public control of their product and limit their liability for the millions of people who have died using that product.
As the nation debates their offer, I hear people branding tobacco executives as somehow uniquely evil. I’ve just read a book that leads me to believe they are neither unique nor evil. Just trapped in a system that forces them and many others to do evil things.
The book is Toxic Deception by Dan Fagin and Marianne Lavelle. Its subtitle is: “How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law, and Endangers Your Health.” It’s a stunningly documented account of the tactics companies have used when their products have been shown to be harmful. Read it to understand the meaning of the term “junk science.”
Fagin and Lavelle illustrate their case with four chemicals that are still in wide use, despite clear evidence of their danger. Watch for future negotiations, similar to but less spectacular than the tobacco one, around these products.
Atrazine, a weed killer applied to 96 percent of the cornfields of America, causes ovarian, breast, and other types of cancer in rats. It interferes with the production of sex hormones. It washes off fields and ends up in the streams, lakes, wells, even the rain, of the Corn Belt. The maker of atrazine, Ciba-Geigy, has waged a 20-year battle to deny the evidence of its harm.
Another herbicide, alachlor (trade names include Lasso, Bronco, Bullet, Cannon, and Lariat), causes cancer, liver degeneration, kidney disease, and cataracts in test animals. It has appeared in drinking water in Nebraska, Ohio, Ontario, Iowa, and Illinois. The evidence against alachlor was enough to make peanut-butter makers decide in the early 1990s to stop buying peanuts grown with alachlor (about half the nation’s peanut crop at the time). Canada has banned it. Our EPA considered a ban in 1986. Alachlor’s maker, Monsanto, squashed that ban.
Those two chemicals are mostly found in rural areas. The next two are ubiquitous in the suburbs and urbs — perchloroethylene, the favorite degreaser of the dry cleaning industry, and formaldehyde, contained in glues that hold together plywood, particleboard, and other constituents of almost any recently built or remodeled home.
“Perchloroethylene seeps and spills into groundwater, while its vapors invade nearby apartments and stores,” say Fagin and Lavelle. “Tests show that customers frequently bring ‘perc’ home with them in their dry-cleaned clothes.” For over two decades studies have linked perc with cancer and kidney, liver, nerve, and reproductive problems. Its makers, including Dow, PPG, Vulcan, and Imperial Chemical Industries, know all about those studies. They have acted on that knowledge much as cigarette companies acted on the evidence that smoking causes cancer.
Formaldehyde seeps out of wood products into the air. In the short run it can cause gagging and weakness, eye irritation, and breathing problems. In the long run it causes cancer in rats. But company scientists (in this case wood products companies, such as Georgia-Pacific) keep pointing out that rats are not people.
The strategy the companies use to keep these four very profitable chemicals on the market is not noticeably different from the strategy of the tobacco industry — and many other industries. For another example, Fagin and Lavelle quote David Ozonoff of Boston University, summarizing the arguments he heard in his long, hard battle against asbestos:
Asbestos doesn’t hurt your health.
OK, it does hurt your health, but it doesn’t cause cancer.
OK, asbestos can cause cancer, but not our kind of asbestos.
OK, our kind of asbestos can cause cancer, but not the kind of cancer this person got.
OK, our kind of asbestos can cause that kind of cancer, but not at the doses to which this person was exposed.
OK, asbestos does cause cancer, and at this dosage, but this person got his disease from something else.
OK, he was exposed to our asbestos and it did cause his cancer, but we did not know about the danger when we exposed him.
OK, we knew about the danger when we exposed him, but the statute of limitations has run out.
OK, the statute of limitations hasn’t run out, but if we’re guilty, we’ll go out of business and everyone will be worse off.
OK, we’ll go out of business, but only if you let us keep part of our company intact, and only if you limit our liability for the harms we have caused.
Just like tobacco companies. Or chemical companies, nuclear power companies, fossil fuel companies, drug companies. The problem here is not any particular product or set of CEOs, but the very logic of business, which believes it MUST defend its profits and products, even if they cause grievous damage to the population at large.
That’s why public regulation was invented and why it has to be at least as powerful and well funded as anyone who might make a profit from a product that hurts people.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997