TOXIC DECEPTION, the must-read book by investigative reporters Dan
Fagin and Marianne Lavelle, is subtitled, "How the chemical industry
manipulates science, bends the law, and endangers your
health." (Available from Carol Publishing Group in Secaucus, N.J.:
phone: (201) 866-0490; ISBN No. 1-55972-385-8; and see REHW #553.)
The book delivers on the promise in its subtitle: it tells --and
documents --a chilling story of corporate manipulation of science,
government (at all levels), the media, and public opinion. It paints a
picture of the modern corporation out of control. Here we will focus on
only one aspect of corporate power: the way science is used and abused
so that corporations can continue to sell dangerous and cancer-causing
chemicals to consumers who are kept clueless.
Chapter 3, "Science for Sale," documents the following techniques used
routinely by chemical corporations:
** Falsifying data.
** Subtly manipulating research results.
** Creating front groups with names like the American Crop Protection
Association (formerly called the National Agricultural Chemicals
Association) to conduct PR campaigns to convince the public that
dangerous chemicals are safe and that life would be impossible without
** Co-opting academic researchers to control the research agenda and
get the desired research results.
** Attacking independent scientists.
These techniques have allowed the chemical manufacturers to keep
dangerous products on the market, set the fundamental direction of
scientific research, and define the terms of the scientific and policy
Here is some of the evidence:
Falsifying data. "The U.S. regulatory system for chemical products is
tailor-made for fraud," say Fagin and Lavelle. They tell the story
(among others) of Paul Wright, a research chemist for Monsanto. In
1971, he quit Monsanto and went to work as the chief rat toxicologist
for Industrial Biotest (IBT), a laboratory which at the time was
conducting 35% to 40% of all animal tests in the U.S. Wright then
conducted a series of apparently fraudulent studies of the toxicity of
Monsanto products. Eighteen months later, Monsanto hired him back with
a new title, manager of toxicology. On Monsanto's behalf Wright then
approved the very studies he had conducted on Monsanto products. When
he was testing Monsanto's herbicide called Machete, Wright added extra
lab mice to skew the results --"a bit of trickery that was left out of
the final report to EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency],"
according to Fagin and Lavelle. In two studies of monosodium cyanurate,
an ingredient in a Monsanto swimming-pool chlorinator, Wright replaced
raw data with after-the-fact invented records, concealed animal deaths,
and filed reports describing procedures and observations that never
happened. Wright got caught because an alert FDA scientist smelled
something fishy; a federal investigation ensued. According to Fagin and
Lavelle, "In all three cases, the [team of federal] investigators wrote
in an internal memo, there was evidence that Monsanto executives knew
that the studies were faked but sent them to the FDA [U.S. Food and
Drug Administration] and the EPA anyway." If true, this would be a
serious federal crime. The Monsanto executives were never prosecuted
and a company spokesperson claims this is evidence of Monsanto's
Manipulating scientific research results. Fagin and Lavelle document
that this is "part of the everyday strategy of chemical companies
enmeshed in regulatory battles." They describe a typical case:
formaldehyde. In 1980, the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology
(CIIT) released a study showing that rats that inhaled formaldehyde got
cancer. Formaldehyde is a common glue in wood products such as plywood
and particle board. Kip Howlett, then director of safety and
environmental affairs for Georgia-Pacific (a giant wood products
manufacturer) laid out a strategy for countering the bad news:
** Claim that rats aren't the right animal to study because they
breathe through their noses, never through their mouths;
** Claim that the exposure levels were unrealistically high (even if
they were scientifically too low);
** Pay for new studies that will produce different results;
** Hire academic researchers to give "independent" testimonials to the
safety of formaldehyde and to put a positive spin on any studies that
shows cancer in rats;
** Attack any scientist who says formaldehyde is dangerous;
** Move aggressively to fund universities and other research
institutions to steer research in directions that play down
This is a fairly typical corporate strategy for using "science" to
achieve corporate goals. Together, these tactics are often called
"sound science" by corporate polluters and anything else is often
called "junk science." Georgia-Pacific needed to counter the bad news
about formaldehyde and Kip Howlett laid out a game plan that would be
followed by all formaldehyde manufacturers for years to come. It
worked. Howlett then graduated to a much more important position: he
now heads the Chlorine Chemistry Council where he oversees teams who
manipulate science for the purpose of keeping numerous dangerous
chlorine compounds on the market.
The keystone of the formaldehyde strategy was to get new data that cast
doubt on the CIIT study. Once there is doubt, the regulatory process
slows to a crawl or stops entirely. And scientific doubt is relatively
easy to create. In this case, the Formaldehyde Institute hired a small
laboratory to conduct a new rat inhalation study. They limited the
concentration of formaldehyde to 3 parts per million (ppm) whereas the
CIIT study had used 15 ppm. EPA scientists said they believed even 15
ppm was too low, but the Formaldehyde Institute used 3 ppm and got what
it wanted. In 1980, long before the 3 ppm study was completed, the
Institute issued a press release saying, "A new study indicates there
should be no chronic health effect from exposure to the level of
formaldehyde normally encountered in the home." When the study was
published three years later, it showed that, even at 3 ppm, rats
suffered from "severe sinus problems" and had early signs of cancer in
their cells. Furthermore, they had decreased body and liver weights --
sure signs of ill effects. The Formaldehyde Institute did not issue a
press release about these unwanted findings.
The Formaldehyde Institute then entered into a contract with the
National Cancer Institute (NCI) to conduct a joint study of 26,000
workers exposed to formaldehyde. The study eventually showed a 30%
increase in lung cancer deaths among workers exposed to formaldehyde,
but the Institute put its own "spin" on the results and got the NCI to
go along: the excess cancers may have been caused by something besides
formaldehyde, the NCI concluded. (The study design made it impossible
to rule out other causes.) Formaldehyde was thus seemingly exonerated.
What was never revealed (until TOXIC DECEPTION told the story) was that
the contract between the Formaldehyde Institute and NCI contained the
** The Formaldehyde Institute, not NCI, would select which workers that
would be studied;
** NCI researchers were denied access to the raw data: job histories,
death certificates, information about plants, processes or exposures --
in sum, the basic data needed to conduct and evaluate such a study.
Thus NCI had no way to judge the accuracy or the reliability of the
data being handed them by the Institute, and no way to check what
assumptions and judgments had been made in gathering the data.
Despite this, NCI helped the Institute explain away the 30% cancer
increase that the study revealed. It was a clear demonstration of the
raw power of the corporation over a federal agency's science.
Corporations assert their influence over academia as well. In the field
of weed science, for example, there are few independent scientists. The
federal government has 75 weed scientists on staff and the nation's
universities have 180. The chemical corporations have 1400.
Furthermore, most of the university scientists are not independent
researchers. Rather than seeking less-dangerous alternatives, the vast
majority conduct studies that promote the continued use of dangerous
chemicals. The chemical companies give at least a billion dollars to
universities and foundations for agricultural research. "If you don't
have any research [funding] other than what's coming from the ag chem
companies," says Alex G. Ogg, Jr., former president of the Weed Science
Society, "you're going to be doing research on agricultural chemicals.
That's the hard, cold, fact."
If academic researchers become too independent, they are attacked.
Peter Breysse, a professor of environmental health at the University of
Washington gathered evidence that people were being harmed by exposure
to formalde-hyde in mobile homes and elsewhere. The Formaldehyde
Institute hired a consultant to visit Breysse's superiors at the
University to criticize and discredit his work.
Criticizing scientific studies is a standard, even a knee-jerk,
corporate tactic. Often any criticism --no matter how far-fetched --
serves industry's purpose of deflecting attention away from the real
Fagin and Lavelle describe a study that carefully evaluated exposure to
formaldehyde through inhalation, taking into account smoking and
exposure through drinking water. Nevertheless, in scientific
conferences, corporate scientists attacked the study for failing to
take into account smoking and exposure through drinking water.
It is easy to criticize a scientific study, whether the criticisms have
any basis or not. The effect on government regulators is predictable:
no one wants to base a regulation (which will almost certainly be
challenged in court) upon scientific studies that have been criticized.
So criticism --whether valid or not --helps derail the regulatory
Most importantly, these corporate tactics for manipulating the
regulatory process have succeeded in tying up the chemical industry's
only nationally-visible adversaries --the mainstream environmental
movement. The movement is caught up in endless unsuccessful attempts to
regulate corporate behavior around the edges, never tackling the
central issue, which is the illegitimacy of corporate power.
Grass-roots environmentalists, on the other hand, are usually engaged
at the local level in a power struggle with one corporation or another,
directly challenging the corporation's right to poison the local
environment. THIS IS THE KEY ISSUE, but eventually it will need to be
moved from the local level to larger arenas. When we do that, we will
find the larger arenas already occupied by the mainstream environmental
movement which seems never to ask fundamental questions. They never
ask, "By what authority do corporations spread their poisons into the
environment?" and, "What will it take for the American people to
reassert the right they used to take for granted, the right to DEFINE
corporations, not merely try to regulate them?" After more than 100
years of regulation, we now know without doubt that it does not work
and cannot work. Yet the mainstream environmental movement seems unable
to think of other, more fundamental, approaches.
No wonder the environment is continuing to deteriorate.
--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 Dan Fagin, Marianne Lavelle, and the Center for Public Integrity,
TOXIC DECEPTION (Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1996).
Descriptor terms: Descriptor terms: chemical industry; regulation;
environmental movement; formaldehyde; toxic deception; cancer;
carcinogens; monsanto; dupont; corporations; formaldehyde institute;
dan fagin; marianne lavelle; georgia-pacific; kip howlett; junk
science; corporations; chlorine chemistry council; mci; national cancer
institute; peter brysse;