A License to Kill

Without environmental regulations, many companies would gladly poison you to earn bigger profits.

David ReingoldRegulations stink, right? Lots of politicians run on promises that they’ll get rid of them to make way for an economic boom.

Well, have you ever considered what our world would look like without regulations?

In the early 20th century, almost all paint contained lead. Despite many reports documenting the dangers of lead exposure, especially on children, the lead industry did nothing about it. Indeed, it responded by establishing an organization that countered bad publicity with campaigns like an ad depicting Santa Claus encouraging children to paint toys with lead paint. The companies also refused to put labels on their products warning parents not to paint toys and cribs with that toxic product.

matthileo/Flickr

In the 1950s, it took local and state health officials to make the case that lead paint should be banned for interior use. The lead industry fought vigorously against that ban, which we now take for granted. Without regulation, paint would still have lead in it, and our kids would still be dying and suffering from brain damage because of it.

Historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner teamed up to document this shameful tale in Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial PollutionTheir book also tracks a second case of industrial foot-dragging, which involved vinyl chloride. That’s the ever-present stuff that PVC pipes, vinyl siding, and many toys are made from. The plastics industry first learned of animal studies in Italy suggesting that vinyl chloride caused cancer in 1970, but manufacturers hid this information from the public, the government, and their own workers for several years.

When the government found out, regulators proposed that the plastics industry lower the allowed level of exposure to vinyl chloride in its factories. The industry fought that logical measure, claiming that to lower exposure to the suggested levels would cost $90 billion and result in plant closings, job losses, price increases and massive economic dislocation, Markowitz and Rosner wrote. Government regulators overrode those concerns and lowered the permissible exposure level in 1975. The industry quickly found ways to comply with this new standard for less than $300 million, and none of those dire predictions came true. Those plastics manufacturers would never have done it on their own.

The stages of industrial denial are always the same:

  1. X is perfectly safe.
  2. Well, there’s evidence that X might cause some problems, but there’s no proof, and it could be something else.
  3. OK, X is harmful, but it’s irreplaceable.
  4. Well, there’s something else we could use instead, but it would be soooo expensive to change, and it would ruin our business and everyone associated with it.
  5. A new product comes out that’s better and cheaper than the old one.

Whenever you hear of someone making those claims, whether it’s about fossil-fueled climate change, illness-causing fireproofing additives in furniture, pesticides suspected of making bees die off, the potentially hormone-disrupting antibacterial agents in your soap, or anything else, get skeptical.

Although there certainly are cases where chemicals suspected of being harmful ultimately prove harmless, companies almost always deny the claim that their product is dangerous.

Just remember, in a truly free market, many companies would gladly poison you to earn bigger profits. Predictions of dire consequences if we impose regulations, or benefits if we remove them, rarely come true. And anyone advocating the outright elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency, as several Republican presidential candidates did in our last election, is essentially saying they want to grant corporate America a license to kill.


David Reingold, a retired chemistry professor at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, now lives in Portland, Oregon. Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org) Photo credit to matthileo/Flickr

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Did You Hear About that Big Oil Spill That Just Happened? No, Not That One, No, Not That One Either!

Reject the Confirmation of Moniz for DOE

Please reject President Obama’s nomination of “fracking” proponent Dr. Ernest Moniz to serve as the next head of the Department of Energy.

“Fracking” is a highly polluting form of oil and gas extraction that requires blasting huge volumes of water mixed with toxic chemicals and sand…

If you think blasting toxic chemicals into the same ground that gives us the food we eat and the water we drink, is dangerous, if you think allowing fracking to destroy our farmland, contaminate our groundwater and endanger our health sounds like a bad idea, you’re part of a growing movement that is determined to ban fracking across the U.S. and move the country toward a sustainable future of clean energy and organic food and farming.

President Obama has nominated ardent “fracking” supporter Dr. Ernest Moniz as the next head of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).  Moniz is the director of MIT’s Energy Institute, which boasts such Big Oil financial backers as BP, Chevron and Saudi Aramco.

Please sign our petition. Tell the Senate: Reject Moniz!

Fracking is a highly polluting form of oil and gas extraction that requires blasting huge volumes of water, mixed with toxic chemicals and sand, deep into the earth to break up rock formations. There are more than 600,000 fracking wells and waste injection sites littering the United States.

Contaminated crops and farm animals raised for food subsequently serve as possible avenues for exposing humans to these same hazardous chemicals, including arsenic, benzene, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), formaldehyde, lead, toluene, Uranium-238 and Radium-226. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ list of common health problems from exposure to these fracking chemicals includes autism, asthma, cancer, heart disease, kidney failure, infertility, birth defects, allergies, endocrine diseases and immune system disorders.

recent study that involved interviews with animal owners who live near gas drilling operations revealed frequent deaths. Animals that survived exhibited health problems including infertility, birth defects and worsening reproductive health in successive breeding seasons. Some animals developed unusual neurological conditions, anorexia, and liver or kidney disease.

Increasing numbers of farmers on the front lines of the fracking fight have fallen ill, too:

  • Carol French, a Pennsylvania dairy farmer is surrounded by nine gas wells. Two weeks after she noticed her water had changed her daughter developed a fever and diarrhea that turned to blood. She lost ten pounds in seven days.
  • Steve and Jacki Schilke, two North Dakota ranchers, are surrounded by 32 oil and gas wells within three miles of their 160-acre ranch. Jacki blames the wells for the loss of two dogs, five cows and a number of chickens, as well as the decline of her own health. Her symptoms began a few days after the wells were fracked, when a burning feeling in her lungs sent her to the emergency room.
  • Christine Moore, an Ohio horse rescuer, had a well fracked five miles from her house. Within two months her water went bad. An oily film formed across the surface of the water in her horses’ bowls. The water inside her home, pumped from her well and filtered through a softener, began giving her severe stomachaches.

Stories like these are no longer isolated incidences but increasingly common place. President Obama needs to hear from you: Expanding fracking operations won’t serve as a bridge to a cleaner future. Instead, it will sound the death knell for sustainable farming, healthy food, clean water, and a stable climate.