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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Toxic Deception

Air Date: Week of June 6, 1997

The federal government says nearly six trillion pounds of chemicals are produced every year for industrial and agricultural use. According to an investigation by two journalists, some chemical companies are not above manipulating scientific studies to win legal approval. Dan Fagin is the environment writer at Newsday in New York City who teamed up with Marianne Lavelle of the National Law Journal to write a new book called, "Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law and Endangers Your Health." Mr. Fagin says he began his research by looking at how the funding of scientific studies on chemical safety may affect the results.

Transcript

CURWOOD: The Federal Government says nearly 6 trillion pounds of chemicals are produced every year for industrial and agricultural use. In 1995, the 100 largest US chemical companies earned about $35 billion in profit. With so much at stake, the chemical industry lobbies hard to get and keep its products on the market. And according to an investigation by 2 journalists, some chemical companies are not above manipulating scientific studies to win legal approval. Dan Fagin is the environment writer at Newsday in New York City. He teamed up with Marianne Lavelle of the National Law Journal to research and write a new book called Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law, and Endangers Your Health. Mr. Fagin said he began his research by looking at how the funding of scientific studies on chemical safety may affect the results.

FAGIN: About 3 out of 4 studies that were financed by chemical manufacturers or their associations tended to reflect favorably on the chemicals involved. On the other hand, when objective folks were doing the studies, universities, government-funded researchers -- when they were doing their work, the studies tended more than half the time to reflect unfavorably on the chemicals.

CURWOOD: Dan Fagin, I'm wondering if you found any examples of companies that really tried to cook the results.

FAGIN: Well, it depends on how you define cooking the study. In terms of outright fraud the answer is no. In terms of being careful to ask the kinds of questions that would tend to reflect favorably on their chemicals, the answer is absolutely yes, and I'll give you just one example. One of the products that we looked at in detail is alachlor; that's a product made by Monsanto. It's a weed killer that's used extensively in the Midwest. It's listed as a probable carcinogen by the EPA. Well, the EPA was taking a very close look at alachlor in the mid-1980s, and one of the key issues with alachlor was the extent to which alachlor was getting into drinking water, either groundwater or surface water. So the EPA told Monsanto, look, we're considering banning this product. We want you to do a study to show how extensive this water contamination problem is. Well, Monsanto set about doing their study, and in the Midwest they were very careful about the kinds of wells that they picked to sample. They tended not to pick well sites where the soil was sandy. They tended instead to pick places where there were clay layers, where wells would tend not to get contaminated. And sure enough, when it came time for the EPA to do its final risk assessment of alachlor and to try to determine whether or not this very pervasive product should be banned, the EPA concluded that it simply couldn't include the drinking water risk in its risk assessment because it didn't have any good data. And the end result was that the EPA decided not to ban alachlor.

CURWOOD: Why didn't the EPA just do the study itself?

FAGIN: I think most people have a fundamental misunderstanding about what the Agency does, at least on the subject of chemical regulation. When it comes to making these core decisions about whether a given chemical should remain on the market or should be gone, the EPA is not a white coat agency. They're an agency of bureaucrats that rely on studies that are submitted to them, and those studies are overwhelmingly submitted by chemical manufacturers.

CURWOOD: Dan Fagin, I'm wondering when drugs come to market, the government requires that they prove safe, and this is not true for chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides. Why is that?

FAGIN: Well, it all goes back to the way that the law was written. The key pesticide law is called FIFRA; it's the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. It had its origins after World War II as a law designed not to ensure that pesticides were safe but to ensure that they were sufficiently lethal to bugs and to weeds. The burden of proof lies with the EPA to get the product off a market, not with the manufacturer to get their product onto the market.

CURWOOD: Okay, so your thesis is that our chemical regulatory system is unbalanced. That manufacturers have far more input than the public whose health is supposed to be protected. What do you think should change?

FAGIN: Well, a lot of things should change, in my view. There are many different ways to go.

CURWOOD: For example?

FAGIN: Well, California is a really good example. They decided that they would have Lawrence LIvermore Laboratory, not the chemical industry but this Federal lab, conduct tests on several hundred ubiquitous chemicals and consumer products. Using those tests, the state, not the Federal Government, would set a level that it considered safe. And then what would happen was that the state would inform the manufacturer that it would have to put on a label that says hey, this particular product contains excessive levels of a given chemical. So what's happened? Well, the folks that make Liquid Paper, confronted with the possibility of having a warning label put on their product, withdrew their product from the market and then returned it quickly with a different formula that did not contain excessive levels of perchloroethylene, PERC. And the nice thing is that because it doesn't really make sense for manufacturers to do different products from California that they would do in the rest of the country, they wound up using these new and improved formulas throughout the country.

CURWOOD: Why do you think the Federal system is so stuck right now?

FAGIN: Well, I think it's the same reason that we are unable to make progress on so many important national issues, whether it's health care or campaign finance reform. There are a lot of people who have an incredible amount of money invested in preserving the status quo. It's going to be very tough to change that.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us.

FAGIN: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Dan Fagin is coauthor of Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law, and Endangers Your Health.

 

 

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