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Toxic Deception,
Part Two

TOXIC DECEPTION, the must-read book by investigative reporters Dan Fagin and Marianne Lavelle, is subtitled, "How the chemical industry manipulates science, bends the law, and endangers your health." (Available from Carol Publishing Group in Secaucus, N.J.: phone: (201) 866-0490; ISBN No. 1-55972-385-8; and see REHW #553.)

The book delivers on the promise in its subtitle: it tells --and documents --a chilling story of corporate manipulation of science, government (at all levels), the media, and public opinion. It paints a picture of the modern corporation out of control. Here we will focus on only one aspect of corporate power: the way science is used and abused so that corporations can continue to sell dangerous and cancer-causing chemicals to consumers who are kept clueless.

Chapter 3:  "SCIENCE FOR SALE" documents the following techniques used routinely by chemical corporations:

** Falsifying data.

** Subtly manipulating research results.

** Creating front groups with names like the American Crop Protection Association (formerly called the National Agricultural Chemicals Association) to conduct PR campaigns to convince the public that dangerous chemicals are safe and that life would be impossible without them.

** Co-opting academic researchers to control the research agenda and get the desired research results.

** Attacking independent scientists.

These techniques have allowed the chemical manufacturers to keep dangerous products on the market, set the fundamental direction of scientific research, and define the terms of the scientific and policy debates.

Here is some of the evidence:

Falsifying data. "The U.S. regulatory system for chemical products is tailor-made for fraud," say Fagin and Lavelle. They tell the story (among others) of Paul Wright, a research chemist for Monsanto. In 1971, he quit Monsanto and went to work as the chief rat toxicologist for Industrial Biotest (IBT), a laboratory which at the time was conducting 35% to 40% of all animal tests in the U.S. Wright then conducted a series of apparently fraudulent studies of the toxicity of Monsanto products.

Eighteen months later, Monsanto hired him back with a new title, manager of toxicology. On Monsanto's behalf Wright then approved the very studies he had conducted on Monsanto products. When he was testing Monsanto's herbicide called Machete, Wright added extra lab mice to skew the results --"a bit of trickery that was left out of the final report to EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]," according to Fagin and Lavelle. In two studies of monosodium cyanurate, an ingredient in a Monsanto swimming-pool chlorinator, Wright replaced raw data with after-the-fact invented records, concealed animal deaths, and filed reports describing procedures and observations that never happened. Wright got caught because an alert FDA scientist smelled something fishy; a federal investigation ensued. According to Fagin and Lavelle, "In all three cases, the [team of federal] investigators wrote in an internal memo, there was evidence that Monsanto executives knew that the studies were faked but sent them to the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] and the EPA anyway." If true, this would be a serious federal crime. The Monsanto executives were never prosecuted and a company spokesperson claims this is evidence of Monsanto's innocence.

Manipulating scientific research results. Fagin and Lavelle document that this is "part of the everyday strategy of chemical companies enmeshed in regulatory battles." They describe a typical case: formaldehyde. In 1980, the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology (CIIT) released a study showing that rats that inhaled formaldehyde got cancer. Formaldehyde is a common glue in wood products such as plywood and particle board. Kip Howlett, then director of safety and environmental affairs for Georgia-Pacific (a giant wood products manufacturer) laid out a strategy for countering the bad news:

** Claim that rats aren't the right animal to study because they breathe through their noses, never through their mouths;

** Claim that the exposure levels were unrealistically high (even if they were scientifically too low);

** Pay for new studies that will produce different results;

** Hire academic researchers to give "independent" testimonials to the safety of formaldehyde and to put a positive spin on any studies that shows cancer in rats;

** Attack any scientist who says formaldehyde is dangerous;

** Move aggressively to fund universities and other research institutions to steer research in directions that play down formaldehyde's dangers.

This is a fairly typical corporate strategy for using "science" to achieve corporate goals. Together, these tactics are often called "sound science" by corporate polluters and anything else is often called "junk science." Georgia-Pacific needed to counter the bad news about formaldehyde and Kip Howlett laid out a game plan that would be followed by all formaldehyde manufacturers for years to come. It worked. Howlett then graduated to a much more important position: he now heads the Chlorine Chemistry Council where he oversees teams who manipulate science for the purpose of keeping numerous dangerous chlorine compounds on the market.

The keystone of the formaldehyde strategy was to get new data that cast doubt on the CIIT study. Once there is doubt, the regulatory process slows to a crawl or stops entirely. And scientific doubt is relatively easy to create. In this case, the Formaldehyde Institute hired a small laboratory to conduct a new rat inhalation study. They limited the concentration of formaldehyde to 3 parts per million (ppm) whereas the CIIT study had used 15 ppm. EPA scientists said they believed even 15 ppm was too low, but the Formaldehyde Institute used 3 ppm and got what it wanted. In 1980, long before the 3 ppm study was completed, the Institute issued a press release saying, "A new study indicates there should be no chronic health effect from exposure to the level of formaldehyde normally encountered in the home." When the study was published three years later, it showed that, even at 3 ppm, rats suffered from "severe sinus problems" and had early signs of cancer in their cells. Furthermore, they had decreased body and liver weights --sure signs of ill effects. The Formaldehyde Institute did not issue a press release about these unwanted findings.

The Formaldehyde Institute then entered into a contract with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to conduct a joint study of 26,000 workers exposed to formaldehyde. The study eventually showed a 30% increase in lung cancer deaths among workers exposed to formaldehyde, but the Institute put its own "spin" on the results and got the NCI to go along: the excess cancers may have been caused by something besides formaldehyde, the NCI concluded.

(The study design made it impossible to rule out other causes.) Formaldehyde was thus seemingly exonerated.

What was never revealed (until TOXIC DECEPTION told the story) was that the contract between the Formaldehyde Institute and NCI contained the following clauses:

** The Formaldehyde Institute, not NCI, would select which workers that would be studied;

** NCI researchers were denied access to the raw data: job histories, death certificates, information about plants, processes or exposures --in sum, the basic data needed to conduct and evaluate such a study.

Thus NCI had no way to judge the accuracy or the reliability of the data being handed them by the Institute, and no way to check what assumptions and judgments had been made in gathering the data.

Despite this, NCI helped the Institute explain away the 30% cancer increase that the study revealed. It was a clear demonstration of the raw power of the corporation over a federal agency's science.

Corporations assert their influence over academia as well. In the field of weed science, for example, there are few independent scientists. The federal government has 75 weed scientists on staff and the nation's universities have 180. The chemical corporations have 1400. Furthermore, most of the university scientists are not independent researchers. Rather than seeking less-dangerous alternatives, the vast majority conduct studies that promote the continued use of dangerous chemicals. The chemical companies give at least a billion dollars to universities and foundations for agricultural research. "If you don't have any research [funding] other than what's coming from the ag chem companies," says Alex G. Ogg, Jr., former president of the Weed Science Society, "you're going to be doing research on agricultural chemicals. That's the hard, cold, fact."

If academic researchers become too independent, they are attacked. Peter Breysse, a professor of environmental health at the University of Washington gathered evidence that people were being harmed by exposure to formalde-hyde in mobile homes and elsewhere. The Formaldehyde Institute hired a consultant to visit Breysse's superiors at the University to criticize and discredit his work.

Criticizing scientific studies is a standard, even a knee-jerk, corporate tactic. Often any criticism --no matter how far-fetched --serves industry's purpose of deflecting attention away from the real problem.

Fagin and Lavelle describe a study that carefully evaluated exposure to formaldehyde through inhalation, taking into account smoking and exposure through drinking water. Nevertheless, in scientific conferences, corporate scientists attacked the study for failing to take into account smoking and exposure through drinking water.

It is easy to criticize a scientific study, whether the criticisms have any basis or not. The effect on government regulators is predictable: no one wants to base a regulation (which will almost certainly be challenged in court) upon scientific studies that have been criticized. So criticism --whether valid or not --helps derail the regulatory process.

Most importantly, these corporate tactics for manipulating the regulatory process have succeeded in tying up the chemical industry's only nationally-visible adversaries --the mainstream environmental movement. The movement is caught up in endless unsuccessful attempts to regulate corporate behavior around the edges, never tackling the central issue, which is the illegitimacy of corporate power.

Grass-roots environmentalists, on the other hand, are usually engaged at the local level in a power struggle with one corporation or another, directly challenging the corporation's right to poison the local environment. THIS IS THE KEY ISSUE, but eventually it will need to be moved from the local level to larger arenas. When we do that, we will find the larger arenas already occupied by the mainstream environmental movement which seems never to ask fundamental questions. They never ask, "By what authority do corporations spread their poisons into the environment?" and, "What will it take for the American people to reassert the right they used to take for granted, the right to DEFINE corporations, not merely try to regulate them?" After more than 100 years of regulation, we now know without doubt that it does not work and cannot work. Yet the mainstream environmental movement seems unable to think of other, more fundamental, approaches.

No wonder the environment is continuing to deteriorate.

--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: Descriptor terms: chemical industry; regulation; environmental movement; formaldehyde; toxic deception; cancer; carcinogens; monsanto; dupont; corporations; formaldehyde institute; dan fagin; marianne lavelle; georgia-pacific; kip howlett; junk science; corporations; chlorine chemistry council; mci; national cancer institute; peter brysse;

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