Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA

Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA

by E.G. Vallianatos, McKay Jenkins

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Imagine walking into a restaurant and finding chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides, or neonicotinoid insecticides listed in the description of your entree. They may not be printed in the menu, but many are in your food.

These are a few of the literally millions of pounds of approved synthetic substances dumped into the environment every day,…  See more details below


Imagine walking into a restaurant and finding chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides, or neonicotinoid insecticides listed in the description of your entree. They may not be printed in the menu, but many are in your food.

These are a few of the literally millions of pounds of approved synthetic substances dumped into the environment every day, not just in the US but around the world. They seep into our water supply, are carried thousands of miles by wind and rain from the site of application, remain potent long after they are deposited, and constitute, in the words of one scientist, "biologic death bombs with a delayed time fuse and which may prove to be, in the long run, as dangerous to the existence of mankind as the arsenal of atom bombs.†? All of these poisons are sanctioned--or in some cases, ignored--by the EPA.

For twenty-five years E.G. Vallianatos saw the EPA from the inside, with rising dismay over how pressure from politicians and threats from huge corporations were turning the it from the public's watchdog into a "polluter's protection agency." Based on his own experience, the testimony of colleagues, and hundreds of documents Vallianatos collected inside the EPA, Poison Spring reveals how the agency has continually reinforced the chemical-industrial complex.

Writing with acclaimed environmental journalist McKay Jenkins, E.G. Vallianatos provides a devastating exposé of how the agency created to protect Americans and our environment has betrayed its mission. Half a century after after Rachel Carson's Silent Spring awakened us to the dangers of pesticides, we are poisoning our lands and waters with more toxic chemicals than ever.

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Editorial Reviews

Twenty-five years in the Environmental Protection Agency convinced E.G. Vallianatos that it was more accurately described as a polluters' protection agency. Citing frightening specifics, he describes how the $40 billion per year chemical pesticide industries have forced the agency repeatedly to buckle under its demands, exposing everyday Americans to harmful toxins. In Poison Spring, he shows how government and academic scientists have actually smoothed the way for deadly and hugely profitable concoctions that threaten us all. A wake-up call from a former EPA insider.

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By E. G. Vallianatos, McKay Jenkins


Copyright © 2014 E. G. Vallianatos with McKay Jenkins
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60819-914-3


The EPA Nobody Knows

ASAD fact of contemporary life is that most of us have come to accept that we spend our lives swimming in a chemical soup. Our lives are built on synthetic chemicals: in our food, in our cosmetics, in our water bottles, on our lawns. Here are just a few of the soup's ingredients—the words are hard to pronounce, and harder to trace: methoxychlor, chlorpyrifos, amitrole, glyphosate, dibromochloropropane, polychlorinated biphenyls, polybrominated biphenyls, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), vinclozolin, 1,3,-butadiene, petroleum distillates, di-(2-ethylhexyl)-phthalate, fonofos, parathion, malathion, coumaphos, permethrin, atrazine, alachlor, metolachlor, trifluralin, simazine, 2,4-D, carbaryl, dieldrin, diazinon, endosulfan, glasswool (fiberglass), ethylene thiouria, asbestos, acrylonitrile, chloroform, anatoxins, lead, nickel, mercury, cyanide, arsenic, beryllium, benzene, and chlorine.

The words are not exactly name brands. They are not widely advertised. But they are here, they are in us, and they will remain—in our food and water, in our air, and in our bodies—for a long time to come, because their use has been approved by the EPA. Consumers may not know what these chemicals are, but they implicitly trust that someone—if not the companies, then surely the EPA—is keeping their health and safety in mind.

That, at least, is the hope. The EPA is charged with setting standards for environmental and health safety, and then with monitoring industries that threaten to violate those standards. The public is aware that a (very) few chemicals, such as DDT, have been banned. But they have no idea that close molecular relatives of even these dangerous chemicals are still produced in great quantities.

Here's how it works: A company coming to EPA for the "registration" of a pesticide either conducts (or contracts out) several tests of its product on laboratory animals. Each laboratory test costs lots of money, sometimes more than a hundred thousand dollars. When all or part of the tests show that the product does not cause "unreasonable adverse effects on man and the environment," the EPA approves the product, and the company begins selling it. But this process is far from a guarantee that these products, or their chemical ingredients, are safe.

EPA labs can (and do) check on the validity of the information that chemical companies give the government. When a new chemical enters the market (and thereby ends up in our water or our food), the chemical company and EPA discuss how much of the toxin should be allowed in human food. Theoretically, such an amount should in no way harm us. These amounts are measured in parts per million (ppm), parts per billion (ppb), and parts per trillion (ppt). A part per million is like dissolving an ounce of salt into 7,500 gallons of water. One part per billion is like putting an ounce of chocolate syrup in 1,000 tank cars of milk. And a part per trillion is the equivalent of a pinch of salt over 10,000 tons of potato chips.

This "legal" amount of a poison permitted in food is an artifice known as human "tolerance," which—if we are talking about pesticides—is really just a cover meant to protect farmers from lawsuits filed by people sickened by the food they eat. To detect "tolerable" poison in apples, for example, EPA looks over the experiments conducted by the industry that makes the poison. Animal studies testing the toxicity of sprays, assuming they are done honestly, reveal the real (or potential) danger of the pesticides or drugs fed to experimental animals such as mice, rats, rabbits, and dogs. Once these results are in hand, EPA then disseminates them to state agencies and foreign countries.

Tests are designed to detect both immediate and long-term danger. You want to know whether, say, 7 parts per million of a certain chemical will poison someone eating corn sprayed with that chemical. But you also want to know about eating this chemical over a long time. This is where the "chronic toxicity" testing comes in: dosing animals for two years to see how the animal reacts. Does the animal become blind or paralyzed? Does it stop eating or develop cancer tumors? These would be clear signs the chemical is not fit for human consumption and therefore inappropriate for EPA approval.

Congress can cut funding for labs, but such action is unusual. Instead, Congress cuts funding for the EPA itself, and—depending on the politics of the administration—the EPA then cuts funding for the labs or turns testing over to private labs. As we will see in due course, private labs do the testing for chemicals; nevertheless, EPA labs are critical in monitoring the activities of private companies and labs. If EPA management cuts funding for EPA labs—which it has done—it becomes difficult to detect, much less control, industry corruption.

Since lab tests are so critical to protecting our health and the environment, you would think they would be used widely to help monitor the eighty thousand synthetic chemicals in common use today. Nothing could be further from the truth. My first supervisor, Bill Preston, a good scientist with extensive experience in the federal government, lamented that the number of laboratories serving the Office of Pesticide Programs of the EPA had dropped from a dozen in 1971 to a half dozen in 1979. By the time I retired from the EPA in 2004, there were two.

For the majority of politicians and executives in corporate America, effective environmental protection and the safeguarding of public health—the legal mission of the EPA—has rarely been a compelling priority. To understand this fact, one has only to look back at the EPAs history during its first three decades. I was there, increasingly incredulous, watching that mission being betrayed.

The Office of Pesticide Programs, the largest organization of the EPA, within which I did most of my work, is essentially owned by the global chemical-pesticide industry, and this has been true under both Democratic and Republican administrations. EPA became a place where honest science has been replaced by dishonest "risk assessments" and "cost-benefit analyses," both of which serve as thin bureaucratic covers for putting the interests of industry ahead of the environment and public health.

At its foundation, the EPA inherited much of its work from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and, to a lesser extent, from the Department of the Interior and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services). This inheritance led to a disastrous impact on the EPA's noble mission, which was—and remains—not the coddling of industry, but the protection of the country's environment and human health.

Congress has given the EPA the authority to implement more than a dozen environmental laws designed to keep air, water, and food relatively clean and safe; trash properly disposed off; radiation away from people; and the environment relatively unharmed by industrial pollution or manufacturing practices.

The most important of our environmental laws administered by the EPA include the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act of 1947, which evolved from the 1910 Insecticide Act that was supposed to do away with fraudulent pesticide products.

The EPA also oversees the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, which brought commercial chemicals under the purview of the law. The benefits of this law have been nominal at best, since the EPA has failed miserably to regulate the spread of industrial chemicals—which is exactly how the chemical industry wants it. From the outset, industry has neutered the TSCA law, forbidding the EPA from requiring premarket health and environmental testing of the massive amounts of chemicals the agency is charged with "regulating."

The Clean Air Act of 1970 gave the EPA the authority to set national air quality standards and air pollution limits. The Clean Water Act of 1972 authorized the EPA to issue pollution discharge permits to those who would otherwise continue to dump unlimited wastes into streams and rivers, and enabled the EPA to fund wastewater treatment plants throughout the country.

Although these laws have been of incalculable benefit (at least compared to the way things would look had they not been implemented), the EPA remains a timid imitation of what it could have become. Sometimes the agency doesn't even bother to enforce its own rules. Other times it takes years for the EPA to publish its regulations. Even when regulations are posted promptly, they are routinely watered down by the White House Office of Management and Budget, or by congressional or industry demands. These forces often order EPA to rewrite its regulations to benefit industry, a cynical process that grinds down even the most thick-skinned scientists.

Worst of all, the EPA—like all government agencies—is infected with political appointees, a great many of them with strong ties to the very industries they have been hired to regulate. Once these people have been confirmed to senior posts by the Senate, they divide the agency budget and staff among themselves and then mold regulations as they see fit to satisfy their former (and often future) industry employers. Always, of course, industry is there on the other side of the thin line, watching, influencing, and disciplining both legislators and administrators of the country's laws.

What does this industry influence mean in practice? With few exceptions, environmental statutes allow chemicals to be dumped on the market without ever having been tested. In the case of the pesticides law, for instance, the EPA is authorized to demand premarket health and environmental testing of new products. But in practice, the chemical industry plays a major role in writing those regulations and has a powerful hand in restraining the EPA from enforcing its rules. The chemical industry's allies in Congress and the White House raise no objections.

The truth is, most toxic chemicals enter the market without ever being tested for health and environmental effects, and this is just the way the chemical industry likes it. The Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the cosmetic provisions of the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, and all other federal laws require no testing for the chemicals or other products entering the market. Only the pesticides act and the food sections of the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act require testing of chemicals likely to enter the food we eat. This does not prevent industry marketers from saying that their products "meet EPA standards."

How does this happen? EPA staffers routinely cut and paste studies conducted by the very industries they are supposed to be regulating—and rubber-stamp industry conclusions with the imprimatur of government. They fund studies no one reads; they pay for travel for political appointees; and—as political administrations change—they grease the revolving door that barely separates the agency and industry.

When political men and women leave the government for positions in industry—or when industry people move into government—they carry their influence with them. Pesticide companies hire senior EPA officials because those officials know how to craft strategies that will ensure the flow of toxins into the market and the profits derived from them. Former government officials are able to persuade their former colleagues to be more lenient in their scrutiny of data provided by industry, which ensures that new and more dangerous pesticides continue to be "registered" and to enter the market. The former "government insiders" become the mirror image of what they once were—they are now industry insiders. This revolving door is a fundamental fact in the continuing hegemony of corporations over would-be regulators.

Long after tobacco was proven to be deadly dangerous, cigarette companies continued to make billions of dollars because the industry manipulated science and hid from the government what industry knew about the hazards of cigarettes. The chemical industry has enthusiastically adopted this model of deception, manipulating the EPA the way Big Tobacco manipulated the Food and Drug Administration. The EPA has always claimed there was "good science" behind its approval of the chemical industry's products. As became tragically evident in the case of Big Tobacco, the truth about the safety of products hawked by Big Chemical is far less convincing.

Companies hire professional writers to compose articles favoring their products. Company bosses then find doctors and scientists to attach their names to the articles to make it appear as if their own research supported the findings. Such fake "scientific" articles then somehow pass the "peer review" process of scientific journals and become the very texts influencing public policy.

For example, scientists for several years have been documenting the health effects of mixtures of two pesticides: the fungicide maneb and the weed killer paraquat. Researchers find that both mice and people exposed to maneb-paraquat mixtures increase their risk of Parkinson's disease. The companies manufacturing these chemicals don't like what this evidence might mean for their gold-minting toxins; paraquat alone earns something on the order of $1 billion per year. (The world's largest producers of paraquat are companies based in China; the Swiss company Syngenta also manufactures it, though Switzerland has banned it for home use.)

So the owners of these two poisons hired Exponent, Inc., a scientific consulting company, to prepare a campaign to protect paraquat and maneb from scrutiny. Exponent went straight to the federal government and agreed to donate $60,000 to fund a study of the chemicals by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The money went to the Centers for Disease Control Foundation, which accepts private money for private research.

Such a system raises obvious worries that the "partnership" between industry and government will blur the line between "the monitor and those who are being monitored," said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. With industry pressing to "reduce the size of government"—that is, to reduce any oversight at all—such "partnerships" are becoming all too common. For decades, companies have lobbied hard to shrink the size of agencies prepared to scrutinize their products. They call this being "fiscally conservative." What it really is, of course, is being self-serving. And there, at the end of the toxic pipeline, is the American public.

By the 1960s (before the EPA was founded), it was clear that the federal organizations set up to protect human health and the environment—including the USDA, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services)—had already failed miserably in their mission. These departments did little more than defend industry, often more blatantly than they do today. The situation was so bad that President Richard Nixon—hardly an environmentalist when he came into office—was forced to address the issue in his 1970 State of the Union speech.

"The great question of the seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?" Nixon said. "Clean air, clean water, open spaces—these should once again be the birthright of every American. I see an America in which we have made great strides in stopping the pollution of our air, cleaning up our water, opening up our parks, continuing to explore in space."


Excerpted from POISON SPRING by E. G. Vallianatos, McKay Jenkins. Copyright © 2014 E. G. Vallianatos with McKay Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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