Toxic DeceptionToxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law, and Endangers Your Health

Birch Lane Press (first edition, 1997) Common Courage Press (second edition, 2002)

I co-authored this book on chemical industry lobbying and corporate-sponsored science, with Dan Fagin, who is now director of New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting program, and The Center for Public Integrity. Both won Pulitzer prizes in 2014.

 “The story of the triumph of a special interest over the public interest,”

Bob Herbert, The New York Times (2/17/97)

 “…describes the nearly complete failure of all our attempts to regulate the behavior of the chemical corporations…. Even those of us who study chemicals and health full-time have never put all the pieces together the way these two have.” — Peter Montague, Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly, July 11, 1997

 The authors present a very frightening and, unfortunately, mostly credible account of the ways in which the chemical industry and its lobbying arm have been able to shape and subvert federal legislation ostensibly designed to protect consumers as well as the environment.—Publishers Weekly


Chapter 2: Science for Sale

The rats gnawed at Clifford T. “Kip” Howlett.

“The issue is more than weak rats—it’s dumb rats,” Howlett wrote in an internal memo to his superiors at Georgia-Pacific Corporation in September 1980. Howlett was in charge of safety and environmental affairs for the Atlanta-based forest-products giant.

Now, some rats threatened to make that a very difficult job indeed. Cancerous cells had begun to multiply in the tiny nasal passages of rats in a laboratory test chamber in Ohio. A second group of rats, bred carefully to be their genetic equals, twitched their tumor-free noses in an identical chamber nearby. The only difference between the two chambers was in the air: The tumor-ridden rats were breathing formaldehyde six hours a day, five days a week.

Georgia-Pacific had a lot on the line. It was the nation’s number-one manufacturer of particleboard and other low-cost wood products. If the Environmental Protection Agency judged the Ohio study a valid test of the human cancer risk from formaldehyde, it might require warnings or restrictions, or even ban formaldehyde outright, because the chemical was such a pervasive presence indoors, where Americans spent 90 percent of their lives. With so much riding on the outcome of the study, it is no wonder that Howlett was feeling the pressure and planning an elaborate counterattack.

In the 1980 memo, Howlett was already laying out the essential elements of a strategy that he and others in the industry would pursue for years to come. They would argue that the rats were “weak”—that they developed the nasal tumors because of their poor physical condition, not because of formaldehyde. They would also argue that no one in his or her right mind would stay in a room with formaldehyde concentrations as high as that inflicted on the laboratory animals. Even the mice in the experiment, which had fewer tumors that the rats, knew enough to slow their breathing and “tuck their noses under their legs,” as Howlett put it. The rats were “dumb,” he said, because they maintained their normal breathing rates.

To bolster both points, the industry scientists would rely on a four-pronged plan. They would pay for a competing rat study that would be carefully designed to minimize the chance of another damaging finding. They would hire academic researchers to give “independent” testimonials to formaldehyde’s safety and put the most favorable spin possible on the test results. They would attack any scientist who said that formaldehyde was dangerous. And they would move aggressively to steer research in directions that would play down the chemical’s risks.

In short, they would use the trappings of laboratories and the language of science in a decidedly unscientific venture: to stave off any real regulation of formaldehyde.

Ultimately, they would win.

Toxic Deception is available at Amazon.

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