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Home > Features > Action > Commerce > Chemical Cover-up

Better Living through Chemistry?

Sure, if your idea of 'better living' is pain, suffering, death and disfigurement! In only a few decades, our chemical industry has managed to pollute every person, every animal, every plant, every ecosystem on earth with literally thousands of toxic, persistent chemicals. These chemicals cause a vast array of problems - cancer, birth defects, brain and immune system disorders, sexual abnormalities, and more. Why are these dangerous chemicals being used? Certainly not for 'better living', since there are safer alternatives for all of them. Instead, the reason is more mundane: Profit.

Chlorine-based organic chemicals were originally developed to profit from the waste chlorine liberated during alkali production. Pretty quickly, the industry became aware of their toxicity, yet chose to hide the facts and continue making and selling them them, for the same reason: profit, regardless of the health and rights of workers and consumers, profit, regardless of the ultimate cost of cleanup, profit, regardless of the viability of life on Earth, itself.

How do we know this? We have it in their own words. Thanks to a series of lawsuits, thousands of secret industry documents, spanning almost a hundred years, are now public. These documents show clearly that:

  • Since the 1950's the chemical industry has known that its products were poisoning both the people who made them and consumers exposed to them.

  • Industry officials knowingly conspired to keep this information from their workers, from the government and from the general public.
What's the result of this cover-up? According to a variety of studies summarized by The Environmental Working Group (EWG), "The average person born in the United States has 50 or more industrial chemicals in his or her blood that have been shown to disrupt normal functioning of hormones in animal studies. The levels of some of these compounds are as great or greater than the amounts linked to adverse effects in animal studies. Many of these substances have also been shown to cause cancer of the testes, breast, prostate, and other reproductive organs in laboratory animals...". And that's only looking at the tiny percentage of chemicals that have been tested in any way. Most of these chemicals have never been tested.

Deadly Combinations

Furthermore, almost none of these chemicals have been thoroughly tested in combination. This is absurd since, in nature, no chemical exists or acts in isolation. However, a few preliminary studies have been done. And the results are not encouraging. In one study, the researchers looked at four persistent organochlorines that can be found in human tissues, observing their effect on the growth rate of breast cancer cells. There were combination effects that resulted in faster proliferation of the cells even when each mixture component was present at levels at or below its individual no-observed-effect-concentration.

Another study examined the biological effects of 3 agricultural chemicals commonly found in drinking water - a pesticide, an herbicide, and a fertilizer. The chemicals were tested at levels equal to the levels currently found in groundwater. Each chemical was tested for effects alone and in combination with one or two of the others. The results? A powerful, synergistic magnification of effects, when the chemicals were combined. Increased aggression, plaque formation, and levels of thyroid hormone were noted. Since all the tests were done on adult rats, and younger animals are typically far more sensitive to the effects of chemicals, developmental studies might find impacts at far lower levels. Of, course this danger applies to human children as well.

Yet another study found that mice exposed at low levels to a combination of pesticides used on millions of acres of crops such as potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, corn, soybeans, cotton and fruit develop symptoms behaviorally and anatomically very similar to Parkinson's disease in humans.

Cancer and Birth Defects Rising

As reported on PBS, The incidence of the types of cancer and birth defects associated with chemical exposure has been steadily increasing since the seventies. For example, testicular cancers are on the rise, increasing by 70% among older teenagers in the United States between 1973 and 1992. According to a 1996 review by a team of U.S. and European scientists, birth data from several countries show "substantial increases" since the 1950s in the number of human boys born with undescended testicles and hypospadias (doubled in the U.S. since 1970). A 1996 study examined birth defect rates in western Minnesota -- an area where farmers rely on insecticides and herbicides to protect their crops. Children of farm families had significantly higher rates of birth defects than the state's general population. The highest rates were among children conceived in the spring, when spraying is most intense.

Allergic diseases are on the rise in both prevalence and severity, especially in industrialized countries. A study of human placental tissue from a city polluted by an organic chemical industry versus that from a rural region devoid of industrial sources of pollution found an association between organochlorine compounds and higher levels of total immunoglobulin E (IgE), a marker for allergic sensitization, signaling a higher allergic sensitization of newborn babies in the industrial region. This association was supported by higher rates of atopic eczema cases in the population in the industrial region.

Is This the Price of Progress?

Are these problems the price we have to pay for progress? No. The majority of the associated chemicals all have one thing in common: Chlorine, a chemical for which non-toxic substitutes and alternatives are readily available. The sad truth is, we are awash in a sea of chlorinated chemicals not by accident, or for any good reason. This worldwide problem is one that has been created and sustained by the chemical industry despite its secretly acknowledged awareness of the dangers. Read about:

  • Vinyl Chloride - Caused dissolving finger bones and was later found to cause liver cancer at levels well below those to which workers and many consumers were exposed. Yet, neither workers nor consumers were told of the dangers.

  • Scotchguard - a liver-damaging chemical that now universally contaminates the American population.

  • Hairspray - When the companies learned that the vinyl chloride propellant they were selling was toxic, they continued to sell it for 10 years and stopped only because the "unlimited potential for product liability claims" outweighed "the limited commercial value of the aerosol propellant market."

  • Anniston, AL - For nearly forty years, unfiltered and untreated PCB waste was discharged directly into streams or dumped in landfills around town.

  • CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) - By 1974, scientists confirmed that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) deplete the ozone layer, but DuPont continued massive CFC production until the early 1990's. As a result of ozone depletion, up to one billion people may develop skin cancer, and as many as 17 million people may die, according to the U.S. EPA.

  • PR - From 1952 to 1996 the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now known as the "American Chemistry Council") spent an estimated $185 million to shape public opinion.

  • Education - How the industry uses awards and newsletters to influence elementary and high school teachers.

  • Right to Know - How the industry has spent millions and successfully fought your right to know what's in the products you use.

  • 'Astroturf' - How the industry created a fake 'grassroots' movement to, in their own words, "frame the debate on our issue on our terms and put our opponents on a defense".

  • Responsible Care - Another fake: a public relations effort to polish the industry's image. During the 1990s, the CMA spent $1 million to $2 million a year on implementing Responsible Care at its member companies, but more than $10 million a year on advertisements about the program.

  • Scientific Fact, Industry Fiction - Read the truth about industry claims of safety, about the heightened vulnerability of children, the steady increase of cancer rates since 1973, etc..

So, what can you do?