After World War II, Nazi Germany's chemical technology became available to American companies, and our chemical industry took off. Once chemists learned how to make new molecules upon demand, success required only marketing and glitz to convince American consumers that they needed all manner of unnatural new items like plastic raincoats, beef marbled with fat, throw-away razors, and lawns without dandelions. Sprinkled among the glitz were a few genuine advances (antibiotics, for example); since everything was bundled in one package called "the modern way of life," people bought the whole thing unquestioningly. (It helped that most people had attended the same kind of school, where questioning was taken as a sign of a bad attitude.)
At manufacturing sites, post-WW II chemical technologies were managed as if they represented nothing new. Chemical wastes were handled as factory wastes had always been handled: thrown into the river, or buried in a shallow pit behind the outhouse. The chemists who developed the new products recognized that the new molecules were radically different--much more dangerous and longlasting in the environment--(see RHWN #97, #98 and #152), but corporate money managers called the shots and the chemists went along like sheep. Once the system got rolling, in the early 1950s, an unavoidable consequence was the massive production of toxic products as well as toxic wastes, which led to contamination of every corner of the planet with chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, and genetic damage, known to disrupt animal nervous systems, known to build up in food chains and to stress the stable functioning of ecosystems. Taken together, it was a sure prescription for disaster. Now nearly everyone recognizes, to one degree or another, that disaster is upon us in many different forms (global warming, ozone depletion, intercontinental acid rain, steadily increasing cancer and asthma, most of our children contaminated with brain-damaging lead, many thousands of leaking Superfund dumps that cannot be cleaned up at any reasonable price, no safe place to hide growing mountains of radioactive debris, to mention only the obvious). Industry keeps pretending that it can maintain business as usual by making alliances with national environmental groups and by renaming its divisions EcoSafe and its products Toxi-Good-4-U, but the citizenry is onto this game, and the Chemical Wars have broken out. These are not wars that industry can win: the citizens have formed a loose-knit grass-roots movement AGAINST toxics and FOR environmental justice. Their tactics reflect those of the Minute Men of 1776 who fired from behind trees, then slipped away. At stake is the fundamental question, who should control production decisions in American industry: what products should be made, using what raw materials, employing what processes? Never before in our nation's history has the public been forced to debate this fundamental question. Massive pollution demands it now.
The Chemical Wars--and the accompanying public debate--were inevitable, but both had been avoided up till now by coordinated planning by government and industry. Chemical technology first fell under a cloud of suspicion in the early 1950s because of doubts about the safety of food additives. Food additives, particularly food colorings, had first been regulated under the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, but regulation was exceedingly lax. Then on Halloween night in 1950, large numbers of youngsters fell ill from exposure to an orange dye that bore the stamp of approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The resulting publicity forced government to reexamine the safety of all approved food additives. Three years of Congressional hearings revealed that several perfectly legal food additives caused cancer.
Other bits of bad news entered the public consciousness. In 1951 and 1953, the cities of Rochester and Troy, New York, were showered with radioactive fallout from bomb tests in Nevada; radioactivity levels measured 1000 times higher than normal; camera film fogged up and people wanted to know what it meant. Throughout the '50s, magazine articles appeared here and there questioning the wisdom of strafing the nation's food supply with billows of toxic fog. By 1959, even the READER'S DIGEST carried an article highly critical of the way pesticides were being used. That Thanksgiving, the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare announced that cranberries had been discovered to be contaminated by amitrole, a pesticide known to cause cancer in rats, and cranberry sales plummeted as the public responded with near-panic.
This was a really serious problem. If the public turned against chemical technology, children might begin to question the sustainability of the entire modern way of life. Billions of dollars of investment might be threatened. Government could see this as plainly as industry could. In fact, as President Eisenhower warned toward the end of his term of office in 1959, government and industry were pretty much one and the same, a military-industrial complex, to use Ike's phrase, sharing a common vision.
By 1954, government had decided that it was not possible to prevent chemical contamination of the American people, or their food supply, even if such prevention were highly desirable and highly desired. The industrial polluters were simply too powerful for mere elected representatives to bring them to heel. But the public still expected that government would protect them (it's the one thing both liberals and conservatives can usually agree on--the main role of government is to protect the people), so government acted in 1954: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established the first "tolerance limits" for chemical residues on food. These were numerical standards for each chemical on each crop: 0.1 ppm [parts per million] of DDT would be allowed on corn; 0.5 ppm on celery... and so forth. Over the years, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of tolerance limits have been set, all based on a small amount of data (small compared to the sea of ignorance about living processes that surrounds all science) and a large amount of guesswork.
This approach worked out better than its inventors could have dreamed; for one thing, it delayed the onset of the Chemical Wars for 30 years. In addition, it had three other important consequences:
1) It immediately put the majority of the public to sleep: "Now I can relax because government is taking care of these problems. I know my government wouldn't let industry do anything to hurt me."
2) It immediately changed the debate from simple right and wrong (who gave industry the right to douse my family with cancer-causing chemicals? Isn't this a form of toxic trespass?) and put it into the realm of so-called scientists who, for a substantial consulting fee, will wrap anything in technical arguments most people can't possibly understand (in no small part because the nation's schools haven't prepared them to think about such things).
3) Chemicals were given the Constitutional protections that individuals enjoy--chemicals were presumed innocent until proven guilty, and chemicals received the legal protections called "due process." To ban a new chemical, or curb its use, the burden of proof was on you (the consumer) to line up the dead bodies and prove with legal certainty that a chemical had damaged you. (Actually, it was worse than that--you had to prove that MANY people had been damaged; if only you were harmed individually, it was assumed to be YOUR fault because you were chemically sensitive--a freakish and unnatural condition, industry argued, often successfully.)
3) It laid the groundwork for the modern system that TO THIS DAY allows the chemical industry to pollute the planet unabated. That modern system goes by the name of "risk assessment," a technique we will discuss in detail next week.
People who care about chemicals should subscribe to the quarterly
JOURNAL OF PESTICIDE REFORM, P.O. Box 1393, Eugene, OR 97440; $15
for 4 issues. Their Spring, 1990, issue treats the theme,
"Challenging Risk Assessment." Essential reading.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: risk assessment; radioactive fallout; history; nuclear weapons; pesticides; food safety; amitrole; cranberries; tolerance limits; fda; eisenhower; chemical industry; disposables; chemical production; health effects; food drug and cosmetic act; media; ny; nv; amitrole; federal regulations; standards; dyes;