Dying for a Living

Preventing Precaution

Attack of the Killer Potatoes

excerpted from the book

Trust Us, We're Experts!

by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber

Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam Publisher, 2001, paper


Dying for a Living


Without Propaganda, Pollution Would Be Impossible

As evidence began to mount in the 1970s about the harmful effects of chemicals such as DDT, PCBs, vinyl chloride and benzene, companies- including Mobil Oil, Monsanto, and Union Carbide-launched multiple massive advertising and public relations campaigns, using slogans like Monsanto's "without chemicals, life itself would be impossible." Union Carbide's propaganda efforts alone involved some 200 company managers, coordinated by the company's communications department as they pumped out speeches, tapes, canned editorials, educational films for public schools, and articles for newspapers and magazines.

The propaganda effort relied heavily on questionable statistics designed to create the impression that excessive regulation was stifling American creativity and prosperity. Faced with proof that vinyl chloride caused a rare form of liver cancer, chemical manufacturers announced that a proposed federal standard for vinyl chloride exposure would cost two million jobs and $65 billion. "The standard is simply beyond compliance capability of the industry," declared their trade association. After the screaming was over, the standard was adopted and the industry continued to flourish, without job losses and at 5 percent of the industry's estimated cost.

Information on occupational health hazards is rarely collected and even more rarely reported in the news. In the early part of this century, the concept of industrial safety was a novelty in the United States when Alice Hamilton, the country's first industrial physician, began to investigate what she came to call "the dangerous trades." In her autobiography, Hamilton described how she became aware of the problem: "It was also my experience at Hull House that aroused my interest in industrial diseases. Living in a working-class quarter, coming in contact with laborers and their wives, I could not fail to hear talk of the dangers that working men face, of cases of carbon-monoxide gassing in the great steel mills, of painters disabled by lead palsy, of pneumonia and rheumatism among the men in the stockyards." Hamilton went to the library "to read everything I could find on the dangers to industrial workers, and what could be done to protect them. But it was all German, or British, Austrian, Dutch, Swiss, even Italian or Spanish-everything but American. In those countries, industrial medicine was a recognized branch of the medical sciences, in my own country it did not exist."


Preventing Precaution

The Chlorine War

... an emerging body of controversial science regarding a class o~ chlorine-based chemicals-including DDT, dioxin, PCBs, and many others-that have come to be labeled "hormone mimickers" or "endocrine disruptors." Prior to the l990s, much of the debate over these chemicals was shaped by the legacy of science writer Rachel Carson and her 1962 environmental classic, Silent Spring. For years, concerns about these chemicals focused on whether they could cause cancer, and indeed there is a substantial body of scientific evidence suggesting that this is the case. The focus on cancer, however, has tended to obscure the fact that these chemicals also interfere with the hormonal messaging systems that control body development during fetal growth and infancy, thereby affecting growth, the reproductive and immune systems, and even personality, intelligence, and behavior. Although the science surrounding the "endocrine disruptor hypothesis" is still incomplete, leading researchers and scientific bodies have called for precautionary action now to avert the threat of serious harm to the environment and human health.

The role of DDT as a hormone mimic was observed as early as 1950, when researchers noticed that roosters exposed to DDT failed to develop male characteristics. DES, another chlorine-based chemical, was synthesized in 1938 by British scientist Edward Charles Dodds. At the time of its discovery, it was hailed by leading researchers and gynecologists as a synthetic form of estrogen, the female sex hormone. Doctors began prescribing DES for women with problem pregnancies, and eventually 4.8 million pregnant women worldwide would use the synthetic hormone- a massive and irresponsible experiment, as it turned out. In 1971, DES was linked to vaginal cancer in daughters whose mothers had taken the drug during the first three months of pregnancy. Subsequent research would also link DES with reproductive problems, including deformities of the genitals.

It was the hormonal effects of yet another chlorine-based chemical- dioxin-that served as the catalyst for the Chlorine Chemistry Council's concerns and its decision to hire Jack Mongoven. Dioxin has been a subject of fierce debate since the 1970s, when it earned a reputation as one of the most toxic substances known to humans. Formed as an unintentional by-product of many industrial processes such as waste incineration, chemical manufacturing, and pulp and paper bleaching, dioxin tends to bioaccumulate in fatty tissue, which means that it can be found at elevated concentrations in foods such as meat and dairy products. Dioxin was a toxic component of the Vietnam war defoliant Agent Orange, was found at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, and was the basis for evacuations at Times Beach, Missouri, and Seveso, Italy. In 1985, an EPA risk assessment found that dioxin causes cancer in animals and probably 4, in humans as well.

In 1985 and again in 1988, the EPA conducted risk assessments of dioxin, concluding in both cases that it should be classified as a probable human carcinogen. However, scientific data regarding its effect on humans has been limited, in part because scientists have not been certain how much dioxin people are exposed to, and also because of the difficulty in separating dioxin's effects from the confounding effects of the many other chemicals to which people are routinely exposed. In 1990, a group of scientists representing both industry and the public health/environmental communities met at a conference, held at the Banbury Center of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, which called for a new and more comprehensive EPA risk assessment. For industry, the hope was that a new risk assessment would conclude that the risks from dioxin were lower than previously estimated. The Chlorine Institute went so far as to have Edelman, its PR firm, issue a news release which falsely claimed that the Banbury Conference had reached a "consensus" to the effect that "dioxin is much less toxic to humans than originally believed." Although this claim was later retracted following angry complaints by several conference participants, EPA administrator Bill Reilly stated publicly that dioxin seemed less dangerous than previously thought. With industry's blessing, he began a third EPA assessment of dioxin. Unfortunately for industry, the results of that reassessment ran contrary to expectations.

EPA's reassessment took almost four years and cost $4 million. In addition to dioxin, the agency also considered a range of "dioxin-like" chemicals such as PCBs that are known to produce similar effects. It commissioned separate scientists from both inside and outside the agency to draft each chapter of the study, which ultimately involved the participation of about 100 scientists, including non-EPA scientists who peer-reviewed each chapter. In 1994, a six-volume, 2,000-page draft report was released and opened to public comment. It concluded that in addition to promoting cancer, dioxin and a number of other similar chemicals can disrupt the endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems, and that they can do this to a developing fetus at extremely low levels of exposure. Owing to pressures from industry, however, the draft report has become such a hot potato that EPA staff has become reluctant to talk about it publicly. As of late 2000 (the date of this writing), the finalized risk assessment remains unpublished.

"EPA's study indicated that there is no safe level of dioxin exposure and that any dose no matter how low can result in health damage," admitted the 1994 MBD advisory to the Chlorine Chemistry Council. "New findings on the mechanism of dioxin toxicity show that tiny doses of dioxin disrupt the action of the body's natural hormones and other biochemicals, leading to complex and severe effects including cancer, feminization of males and reduced sperm counts, endometriosis and reproductive impairment in females, birth defects, impaired intellectual development in children, and impaired immune defense against infectious disease.... Further, dioxin is so persistent that even small releases build up over time in the environment and in the human body."

Some of the strongest concerns about the effect of endocrine-disrupting chemicals have come from observations of their effect on wildlife. In California, ecologists have found an abnormally high ratio of female to male seagulls. In polluted parts of Florida, panthers have undescended testicles and endocrinologists have observed abnormally small or deformed penises in alligators near a former Superfund pollution cleanup site. In Great Britain, biochemists have noticed "hermaphroditic" fish with both male and female genitals breeding in wastewater effluent. Arctic seals and polar bears have shown declining fertility. In humans, a series of studies have shown an alarming decrease in male sperm counts in different parts of the world, which have plummeted to half the level found 60 years ago.

Researchers have been able to replicate many of these effects in laboratory experiments with captive animals. At the University of California at Davis, toxicologist Michael Fry found that injecting the eggs of seagulls with DDT would cause ferminization of the testes tissue in baby male gulls and result in sterile adults. In one study, 79 percent of monkeys exposed to dioxin developed endometriosis (the development of endometrial tissue in females in places where it is not normally present).

Chlorine Plus Carbon

What DDT, DES, dioxin, and PCBs all have in common, along with many other endocrine-disrupting solvents and pesticides, is that they belong to a class of chemicals called organochlorines-organic compounds containing chlorine bonded to carbon. In nature, chlorine makes up less than 0.2 percent of all chemicals, but some 15,000 organochlorines are now commercially manufactured and marketed, and approximately half of the endocrine disruptors identified to date have been organochlorines. "This doesn't mean that all chlorine compounds behave the same way, but virtually every organochlorine that's ever been tested has been found to cause at least one significant adverse effect," says biologist Joe Thornton, the author of Pandora's Poison: Chlorine, Health and a New Environmental Strategy. Although organochlorines are rare in nature, they are produced in the manufacture of pesticides, herbicides, petrochemicals, plastics, and paper. They wind up in such common products as household cleaners, plastic wraps, food containers, children's toys, compact disks, car doors, tennis shoes, and TV sets. Chlorinated chemicals are also introduced into water as a result of pulp and paper bleaching and through the use of chlorine to treat sewage and disinfect drinking water.

Chlorine-based chemicals are valued in the commercial world because they retain their potency for long periods of time. This very durability, however, also means that they remain in the environment for a long time after they have been released. DDT, for example, continues to accumulate to alarming levels in the fatty tissues of Great Lakes fish nearly a generation after its use was banned in the United States. Likewise, PCBs are still ubiquitous in the environment despite having been banned in 1976 because of links to human cancer.

Given the expense and difficulty involved in individually testing each of the 15,000 organochlorines currently in use, many environmental groups believe that this is a case where the precautionary principle should apply. Rather than assuming that each chemical is safe until it is proven | otherwise, they believe that industry should bear the burden of proving a chemical's safety or else find a safer alternative. Greenpeace has called for a 30-year phaseout of organochlorines.


Attack of the Killer Potatoes

Mutatis Monsanto

The world leader in the biotech industry has been Monsanto, whose 1997 sales of $10.7 billion and market capitalization of $22 billion easily dwarfs the many tiny start-up companies also clamoring for a share of the emerging biotech market. Although Monsanto today calls itself a "life sciences" company, most of its history has been devoted to chemical manufacturing. Founded in 1901 to manufacture saccharine, the first artificial sweetener, Monsanto quickly branched out into the production of industrial chemicals. During World War II, it participated in the development of plastics and synthetic fabrics and also played a significant role during the Manhattan Project in developing the atom bomb. In the decades following the war, it was one of the agrochemical companies that relentlessly promoted the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture. By the 1960s, it had become the primary producer of PCBs-the widely used chemical compound that causes cancer and birth defects. Monsanto was also the largest producer of dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange herbicide, used by U.S. troops to defoliate the rain forests of southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and a known cause of skin rashes, joint pains, muscle weakness, neurological disorders, and birth defects. By the late 1960s, the company's association with some of the world's worst poisons had begun to threaten not only its reputation but its future corporate viability. "We were despised by our customers," admitted former Monsanto vice president Will Carpenter. Its interest in genetic engineering was driven as much by the need to escape this past as by an interest in the future. By the 1980s, it had begun to divest its chemical interests and invest in biotechnology with an eye to positioning itself as a savior and solution to many of the pressing environmental problems that it had created in the first place. As recently as 1996, Monsanto was still the fourth-largest chemical company in the United States, but in 1997 it spun off its industrial chemicals business as a separate company and devoted itself fully to biotech.

Many of the battle lines in the biotech food debate were drawn during Monsanto's PR and lobbying campaign to win approval for recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a controversial product that, when injected into dairy cows, can induce them to produce more milk. In 1986, Wisconsin dairy farmers led by fifth-generation milker John Kinsman formed an alliance with biotechnology critic Jeremy Rifkin to oppose rBGH, and by 1988, the anti-rBGH coalition had come to include family farm organizations, consumer groups, and animal welfare activists. One thing that these groups easily agreed upon was the need for safety testing and mandatory consumer labeling so that individual consumers could decide for themselves whether or not to purchase rBGH-treated milk. As early as 1986, however, industry surveys showed that labeling milk from cows treated with the drug would lead to consumer rejection. Not content with escaping from mandatory labeling, Monsanto tried to make it impossible for anyone to voluntarily put labels on milk from cows that had not been injected with rBGH. When some states and several dairies tried to t label their products as rBGH-free, Monsanto threatened to take the dairies to court and backed up the threat by actually filing suit against two of them.


The Empire Strikes Back

... Biotech advocates claim that genetically engineered crops will be good for the environment by reducing the need to use environmentally toxic pesticides and fertilizers. So far, however, the opposite may be true. The vast majority of genetically modified crops currently on the market have been modified to either withstand herbicide (so that more can be sprayed) or produce their own insecticide. For Monsanto, of course, herbicide-tolerant crops create the perfect opportunity for marketing tie-ins. Not only do they get to charge farmers premium prices for their patented, genetically modified seeds, they also get to sell more weed-killing chemicals. In 1999, more than half of the U.S. soybean crop was "Roundup Ready"-genetically engineered to survive spraying with Monsanto's best-selling weed-killer, Roundup. However, an independent analysis of 8,200 university research trials by Dr. Charles Benbrook found that contrary to Monsanto's promised advantages, yields of herbicide-resistant GM soybeans were 5 to 10 percent lower than comparable conventional varieties. Benbrook, a former executive director of the National Academy of Sciences Council's Board on Agriculture who now works as an independent consultant, reported that lost production due to this yield drag amounted to an estimated 80 to 100 million bushels in 1999. Benbrook also noted that nobody is testing the crops for increased pesticide residues.

The EPA, moreover, has raised the allowable residue limits for Roundup on soybeans and cotton.

Some genetically modified crops do require fewer chemical pesticides-at least in the short term. The most common way to accomplish this is through the insertion of a gene that causes the plant to produce bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, which has been used for decades by organic farmers as a natural pesticide like Pusztai's snowdrop lectin) the Bt toxin has been tested and used for a long time with no reported harmful effects to humans, but it destroys the digestive tracts of certain very pesky insects. Biotech companies have successfully spliced the Bt gene into corn, cotton, canola, potatoes, and rice. Monsanto's New Leaf potato, for example, is legally registered as a pesticide with the U.S. Environmental Projection Agency because it contains the Bt gene, making it toxic to Colorado potato beetles. The Novartis company's Bt corn is similarly deadly to European and Southwestern corn borers, caterpillars that mine into cornstalks and cause up to $1 billion worth of crop losses annually.

Enabling a plant to make its own insecticide may seem like a good idea, but it poses problems of its own. Organic farmers have applied Bt sparingly to their crops as a natural pesticide of last resort, but insect exposure was short-lived, and far fewer acres were sprayed than currently are planted with Bt crops, which are now planted on about 20 million acres in the United States alone. Moreover, Bt crops typically express the toxin in every cell of the plant. The widespread use of conventional pesticides has led to the emergence of more than 500 types of pesticide-resistant insect since 1945, and biologists who study bugs expect that the widespread introduction of Bt into the environment will create similar selection pressures that speed the emergence of Bt-resistant pests. If Bt-resistant pests emerge, organic agriculture will lose one of its most effective, time-honored tools, making it harder and more expensive to control insects without the use of synthetic chemical sprays.

Plant biologists also worry that pollen from genetically modified crops is spreading the genetically inserted traits to closely related weeds. Rice with the Bt gene, for example, might pollinate wild grasses that are close relatives. This could make the weeds pest-resistant and help them multiply. Similarly, the use of Roundup Ready crops might create herbicide-resistant "superweeds." Even commercial crops can become weeds if they turn up in unwanted places, which is what happened to Charles Boser, a Canadian farmer who found to his dismay that some of Monsanto's Roundup Ready canola had drifted from a neighbor's farm into a field that he was trying to fallow. Boser, who was not trying to grow canola, tried unsuccessfully to kill the plants with two applications of herbicide before finally calling Monsanto in frustration. "Take your product and get it the hell off of my land is exactly what I told them," Boser said. "I don't want the stuff." Monsanto dutifully complied, hiring workers to pick the plants out of Boser's field by hand and compensating him for the additional costs of spraying that he had incurred.

The issue of allergenicity is another health concern with GM crops. In 1995, the Pioneer Hybrid seed company added a Brazil nut gene to soybeans in hopes of achieving a more nutritional balance of proteins. Pioneer Hybrid abandoned the project after tests on the transgenic soybeans revealed that they could induce potentially fatal allergies in people sensitive to Brazil nuts. We can feel thankful that Brazil nuts contain a known allergen, so researchers knew what to look for. However, many of the other foreign genes now being inserted into foods are taken from viruses, bacteria, and insects, and they produce proteins that have never before been part of the human food supply. Are they toxic? The only way to find out would be to test them rigorously, first on animals and then on volunteer human subjects. By deciding that GM foods are "substantially equivalent" to normal foods, the FDA has left it up to industry to decide when and if such testing will ever be done, an approach that "would appear to favor industry over consumer protection," according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

The risk of introducing unpredictable hazards into foods is inherent in the use of recombinant DNA technology. Genetic manipulations are frequently described as "gene splicing," a term that obscures much of the uncertainty and imprecision of the process. It evokes the idea that gene manipulators are doing something akin to splicing a movie-an exacting process in which film is secured firmly on a cutting board, giving the editor complete control over which frames of the film are removed or added and in which order. By contrast, one common gene-splicing technique uses a patented "gene gun" that shoots little metal slivers that have been coated with DNA taken from one organism into the cell of another organism. If all goes well, the genes slip off the metal "transports" and are incorporated into the DNA in the cell of that organism, but no one can predict where the new gene is going to land within the genome of the targeted organism. It may attach to the site of any chromosome, or may attach in the middle of another gene and interfere with the normal functioning of the cell.

Crisis Containment

"Although most U.S. consumers aren't aware of it, ingredients made from genetically modified crops are present in various products made by CocaCola Co., Kellogg Co., General Mills Inc., H.J. Heinz Co., Hershey Foods Corp., Quaker Oats Co., McDonald's Corp.-and on and on," the Wall Street Journal reported on October 7, 1999. "Nothing would please these companies more than for Americans to remain oblivious or indifferent to this fact. But that's hardly likely." Pointing to the situation in Europe, the Journal noted that "regulators in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Canada are devising strategies for labeling such foods, and many other countries are considering similar actions. Increasing the likelihood that such concerns will spread to the U.S., the same organizations that incited the GMO consternation in Europe-among them Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth-are considering ways to awaken Americans to the issue.... If pressure builds in the U.S. to label all genetically modified foods, the impact on sales could be chilling.... Such a backlash would also be a devastating blow to U.S. biotechnology pioneers Monsanto Co. and DuPont Co. The premium prices they are charging farmers for genetically modified seed is only now beginning to help them recoup the billions of dollars they invested in biotechnology research and acquisitions."

U.S. farmers have already felt the consequences of the growing international rebellion against biotech crops. Between 1997 and 1998, European purchases of U.S. corn fell from nearly 70 million bushels to less than 3 million-a 96 percent drop in a single year. In June 1998, U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture Gus Schumacher said American farmers were losing $200 million a year from French refusal to import genetically modified corn and soybeans. Farmers who initially responded favorably to industry's intense pro-biotech sales pitch have begun rebelling. The American Corn Growers Association, a commodity group that represents thousands of corn growers in 28 states, is encouraging its members to plant non-GMO varieties. "American farmers planted [gene-altered crops] in good faith, with the belief that the product is safe and that they would be rewarded for their efforts," the American Corn Growers Association complained in a September 1999 statement. "Instead they find themselves misled by multinational seed and chemical companies and other commodity associations who only encouraged them to plant increased acres of [these crops] without any warning to farmers of the dangers associated with planting a crop that didn't have consumer acceptance." Even the pro-biotech National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), the "official" corn commodity group that represents larger growers, can't argue with market reality. At a U.S. Senate Agricultural Committee hearing, NCGA board member Tim Hume called on biotech seed companies to make sure they offered their best hybrid varieties in conventional versions.

As the biotech controversy grows, the food industry appears to be realizing the consequences of ramming through market approvals without full public debate. "Consumers' faith in the government and retailers as watchdogs over food safety could be broken, undermining one of the pillars upon which the modern supermarket was built," observed an October 1999 issue of the trade publication Supermarket News.

Trust Us, We're Experts!

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