The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Poison Papers Reveal EPA Collusion With Chemical Industry
By Rebekah Wilce
The world of independent chemical testing has a shiny veneer. The public is reassured that chemicals they're exposed to on a daily basis are certified by technicians in spotless white lab coats who carefully conduct scientific studies, including on animals in neat rows of cages.
But a federal grand jury investigation that ended with convictions in the early 1980s discovered that Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories (IBT), the largest such lab in the U.S., conducted trials with mice that regularly drowned in their feeding troughs. The dead animals would decompose so quickly that "their bodies oozed through wire cage bottoms and lay in purple puddles on the dropping trays." IBT even invented an acronym "TBD/TDA" for its raw safety data, later discovered to mean "too badly decomposed."
That was just one of a host of problems uncovered at IBT which conducted an estimated 35 to 40 percent of all the toxicology tests performed in the U.S. including for U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulated products and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulated pesticides and chemicals. Scientists at the FDA were the first to spot the fraud and misconduct and blew the whistle on IBT in Senate hearings in the late 1970's. Soon after, the EPA was forced to deal with the issue and estimated behind the scenes that some 80 percent of the data provided to them for chemical registration from IBT was nonexistent, fraudulent or invalid.
The IBT scandal presented the EPA with a potentially immense crisis. Knowing that almost every IBT test it had looked at was seriously flawed and presumptively fraudulent, it could order retests and withdraw its approval from every IBT-tested chemical. This course of action would have been fully warranted, scientifically. But it would have had drastic effects on the chemical industry, on public confidence and on the newly-formed EPA itself.
What the EPA did instead is revealed in a transcript of a meeting that took place at the Howard Johnson Inn in Arlington, Virginia on Oct. 3, 1978. This secret meeting was between senior figures at EPA, Canada's Health Protection Branch, and executives of the chemical industry and was intended to solve the IBT "problem."
This transcript is part of more than 20,000 documents, weighing more than three tons, just released by the Bioscience Resource Project and the Center for Media and Democracy, on the "Poison Papers" website. Most of the Poison Papers were collected by author and activist Carol Van Strum, who used documents obtained through public interest lawsuits and open records requests to investigate chemical pollution and digitized by journalist Peter von Stackelberg. Van Strum's remarkable story was detailed this week in The Intercept.
A Conversation About Collusion
The Poison Papers represent a vast trove of rediscovered chemical industry and regulatory agency documents and correspondence stretching back to the 1920s. Collectively they shed light on what was known about chemical toxicity, when and by whom, in the often-incriminating words of the participants themselves.
The Howard Johnson's transcript is a prime example of the materials in the trove. It allows us to "listen in" on a conversation that took place decades ago, but still has implication for us today.
The transcript "exemplifies as well as any other single document among the Papers the history of everyday regulatory failures and agency complicity that is the unknown story of the EPA and its enduring collusion with the chemical industry, and whose result is a systemic failure to protect the American public from chemical hazards," said Dr. Jonathan Latham, director of the Bioscience Resource Project.
"Not One" IBT Study Free of Errors
The Howard Johnson's meeting was called to discuss the IBT scandal and plan a way forward. No consumer groups, environmental groups or members of the public were present that day in Arlington under HoJo's cheerful orange roof when the topic of how to deal with the dead animals, the fraudulent and the corrupt data was discussed.
Near the outset of the meeting, the EPA's Fred Arnold, acting branch chief of Regulatory Analysis & Lab Audits, assured the chemical company representatives present that no chemicals would be removed from the market, even though the studies supposedly showing their safety had been proven fraudulent:
"We determined that [i]t was neither in EPA's interest or the public interest or the registrants' interest [to replace all IBT data] because a large number of studies, which were performed at IBT, were performed satisfactorily," Arnold said. (p. 6).
Yet Arnold's contention that some of the studies were "satisfactory" was contradicted multiple times in the same meeting. It was later stated, for example, that not one IBT study was free of errors (p. 16). Dr. Arthur Pallotta, consultant to the Special Pesticide Review Division in the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, stated that "there were few [IBT] studies that did not have discrepancies, errors and omissions" (p. 27). Elsewhere in the transcript, EPA accepted that more than 80 percent of the test results from IBT were invalid (p. 123).
But Arnold's assertion that it wasn't in anyone's interest to demand new studies had striking ramifications. It was the grounds for not removing any chemicals from the market, for reassuring the public, and for kicking the IBT mess down the road. By 1983, EPA had determined that more than 90 percent of IBT's studies submitted to them had serious, invalidating problems.
A "Salvage Operation": Ignoring Scientific Controls
Early in the meeting, EPA made a list of IBT errors that it planned to ignore to make the task of "validating" IBT's studies manageable.
It planned to ignore whenever animals were missing from (or added to) studies. No statistic existed—nor does it now—to compensate for such measurement irregularities, but this difficulty was glossed over by the EPA.
Just as bad, many IBT studies appeared to be shorter in time than protocols called for. As David Clegg of Canada's Health Protection Branch explained to the meeting:
"Now, we have come across the 90-day study where the study started on, let's say, the 1st of June. The invoice for shipment of the test material from the firm was the 9th of June, and the diet preparation sheets are for the 12th of June.
"In other words, by the time the diet was prepared, according to the raw data, the study has been underway for 12 days for a 90-day study.
"This does not necessarily invalidate the study, of course. You can still get some information from it, but the whole base line, which you are working from, has to be altered to deal with an 88-day [sic] study or whatever length it is and conclusions have to be drawn on this sort of basis." (pp. 34-35).
EPA also noted that IBT had major problems with its controls. It had run a system known as "common controls." These controls were often in different rooms or carried out at different times, presumably with rats from different batches. EPA proposed cobbling such experiments together and thus making use of these controls. Clegg's tone was apologetic:
"I can't say that I am very happy about this on scientific grounds, but we are trying to run this as a salvage operation and, if we can come up with something which gives us a reasonable base line for controls which may be applicable to a number of studies, then, when controls are not available, we'll compare them against those controls," he said (p. 41).
EPA Adopts Unsigned Studies
EPA's Arnold also admitted at the meeting what appeared to be EPA's own historical fraud. In revisiting original data sent to them by IBT, manufacturers might find that, in the past, EPA had itself examined the tissue samples and determined there to be "no significant finding" when in fact "the truth of the matter is the organ was never examined" (Arnold, p. 102).
By the time the FDA and EPA had taken a strong interest in the testing lab, IBT had begun a "policy not to sign" its own reports, according to the transcript, indicating that staff were unwilling to stand behind the findings.
As Fred Arnold told the attendees, "A number of scientists, who may have been involved in the early states of a test, are no longer there and nobody can state, categorically, that everything reflected in the report, in fact, is borne out by the raw data" (pp. 63-64).
Arnold admitted that EPA had in the past sometimes accepted unsigned studies. So he stated that its remedy to the new signature problem would be to adopt such unsigned studies in order not "to create a double standard now" (p. 64), effectively adopting IBT's unprecedented practices as its own.
It was later uncovered in court proceedings that IBT also forged signatures.
The Howard Johnson Take-Home
Three IBT officials went to prison, closing a chapter on a massive scientific fraud, but the book was never closed.
"As the Howard Johnson transcript reveals, a majority of the IBT studies were never intended to be redone, and still underlie the U.S. chemical regulatory system," said Latham.
Author Carol Van Strum commented on the significance of the transcript for Center for Media and Democracy:
"The 1978 Howard Johnson transcript records a crucial meeting of EPA, Canadian, and pesticide industry officials to discuss EPA's response to massive fraud in the safety tests for pesticide registrations. At the meeting, Fred T. Arnold, chief of EPA Regulatory Analysis and Lab Audits, assured industry that EPA's discovery of fraudulent, invalid, or nonexistent safety tests would 'not interfere with the ability to control pests and market pesticides.' This document was the linchpin of my book, A Bitter Fog: Herbicides and Human Rights, documenting the government's acceptance of phony industry studies while dismissing reports of human illness, death, involuntary abortions, birth defects, and other effects of pesticide exposure."
The Poison Papers website and document trove is a project of the Bioscience Resource Project of Ithaca, New York, and the Center for Media and Democracy of Madison, Wisconsin. You can explore the Poison Papers documents at PoisonPapers.org. You can read the illuminating Howard Johnson's manuscript here.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Tara Smith
Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.
Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.
Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.
From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.
Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.
Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.
Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?
Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.
When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.
The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.
The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.
But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.
Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.
This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
By Natalie Hanman
Why are you publishing this book now?
I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.
The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?
When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.
What's stopping the left doing this?
In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.
Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?
I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.
That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.
This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.
One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?
When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?
I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.
This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.
In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?
In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.
Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...
Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.
Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?
I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?
Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?
It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.
What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?
One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.
You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?
I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.
- 'The Battle for Paradise': Naomi Klein on Disaster Capitalism & the ... ›
- Naomi Klein: No Is Not Enough - EcoWatch ›
As the climate crisis takes on more urgency, psychologists around the world are seeing an increase in the number of children sitting in their offices suffering from 'eco-anxiety,' which the American Psychological Association described as a "chronic fear of environmental doom," as EcoWatch reported.
By Ben Jervey
Drivers of electric cars are being unfairly punished by punitive fees in several states, according to a newly published analysis by Consumer Reports. Legislators in 26 states have enacted or proposed special registration fees for electric vehicles (EVs) that the consumer advocacy group found to be more expensive than the gas taxes paid by the driver of an average new gasoline vehicle.
By Oliver Milman
Two-thirds of Americans believe climate change is either a crisis or a serious problem, with a majority wanting immediate action to address global heating and its damaging consequences, major new polling has found.