Multinational Monitor

MAR 1999
VOL 20 No. 3


Unsafe In Any Seed: U.S.Obstructionism Defeats Adoption of An International Biotechnology Safety Agreement
by Kristin Dawkins

The Nuclear Boys Return to Ukraine: The European Scheme to "Compensate" for the Chernobyl Shutdown
by Tony Wesolowski

Corporate Soldiers: The U.S. Government Privatizes the Use of Force
by Daniel Burton-Rose and Wayne Madsen

Domesticating Markets: A Social Justice Perspective on the Debate Over a New Global Financial Architecture
by Walden Bello


Toxic Deception
an interview with Dan Fagin


Behind the Lines

Corporate Schoolyard Bullies

The Front
Election Rigging in Japan - Greenlining, Whitewashing? - Exxon: Mean and Stupid

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Toxic Deception

an interview with Dan Fagin

Dan Fagin is the co-author of Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law and Endangers Your Health, along with Marianne Lavelle and the Center for Public Integrity. Originally published in 1997, the book has just been updated by the authors and released in paperback by Common Courage Press. Fagin has been the environment writer at Newsday since 1991, and before that covered politics and government at Newsday and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. A Pulitzer finalist in 1994 for stories about pesticides and breast cancer, Fagin is also an adjunct professor of environmental journalism at New York University.

Multinational Monitor: The central finding of Toxic Deception is that the chemical industry has overpowered the regulators and as a result, hazardous chemicals have been allowed onto the market.

Daniel Fagin: That is the central argument of the book. People who write about the chemical industry, people in the chemical industry, people at the EPA -- everybody at least privately recognizes that there is this fundamental imbalance. And yet it is difficult to put a finger on it and document it and bring it to the public, and that's what the book is all about.

MM: You looked at four chemicals -- alachlor, atrazine, formaldehyde and perchloroethylene. What is the correlation between industry financing of studies on these chemicals and findings of human health hazards?

Fagin: People who are in the business or write about it know that you can almost always predict the outcome of a study from its funding source. But that is not something that the public reads or hears about. So we decided that we would do our own objective analysis.

The results were quite powerful. We looked at 161 peer-reviewed published studies on those four chemicals. That's a sample that already favors the chemical industry because the vast majority of industry-funded studies submitted to EPA are not peer reviewed.

Even so, out of those studies, 43 were funded by the industry, and out of those 43, only six returned results unfavorable to the chemical involved. But for the 118 studies conducted by non-industry researchers, 71 were unfavorable. That tells you that when industry is calling the shots, the results are often favorable to industry.

That may seem self-evident, but it is also extremely important. People may not realize it, but we have effectively privatized our regulatory assessment of toxic chemicals. That doesn't apply for all issues the EPA regulates, but when it comes to the particular, one-by-one regulatory decisions for individual chemicals, we have effectively turned regulatory science over to the folks who have the most to gain or lose by the outcome of the regulatory decisions. I'm referring, of course, to the manufacturers.

MM: You also found that the vast majority of the scientists themselves are employed by the industry.

Fagin: In some areas, that's true. We looked at the subset of agricultural scientists known as weed scientists, for example. Weed scientists are also known as pesticide scientists, and they sometimes call themselves "nozzleheads." That is because the only place most of them can get their work funded is the chemical industry.

And of course, if they are taking grants from chemical companies, their research will not look for innovative solutions to the problem of weed control that take into account effects on the broader environment. Instead, the idea is to look specifically at chemical agents and to try to figure out which chemicals can generate profits for manufacturers by wiping out weeds.

MM: Under the regulatory system, chemicals are presumed safe unless proven harmful?

Fagin: Chemicals that have been on the market for at least 15 or 20 years -- and there are thousands of them, and they tend to be the most dangerous ones -- get to remain on the market unless regulators can somehow prove that they pose an unacceptable risk. And of course, the regulators have to base their decisions on studies that are generated by and for the manufacturers.

The EPA does have emergency revocation authority but rarely uses it. Instead, the EPA relies on a very, very slow review process by which existing chemicals, one by one, are reevaluated based on studies produced by the manufacturer. It is extremely unusual for the EPA to order a chemical removed based on that kind of a review.

If you are introducing a new chemical onto the market, you do have to do a series of studies first. There are many people who think the current battery of tests is not really adequate. But those tests do have to be conducted before a new product is introduced onto the market.

MM: Do the companies have to show that a chemical is safe?

Fagin: No, it really doesn't work that way. Chemicals are evaluated through the prism of risk assessment. A risk assessor would never use the words safe or unsafe. Instead, these very complicated questions are boiled down to numbers. Using these toxicology studies, and occasionally epidemiological studies, the industry and the agency produce a series of numbers that determine whether or not the product constitutes an unacceptable risk. You see the numbers expressed as lifetime risks, for example, a 1-in-10,000 risk of a certain type of cancer for a farmer using a particular product over a certain period of time.

A declaration by the EPA that a chemical poses an acceptable risk doesn't mean that it is safe, or unsafe. It simply means that the EPA has decided that that risk is acceptable.

MM: There is also a legal requirement that the chemical companies have to turn over findings that show that a chemical poses a substantial risk to health or the environment. You report that in 1991 and 1992, the EPA gave amnesty from big money fines to any company that came forward with studies they have showing that their products pose a substantial risk.

Fagin: For many years, manufacturers maintained that they never withheld studies that showed that their products could pose a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment. Subsequent events suggested that wasn't the case.

When the EPA offered this amnesty in 1991 and 1992, manufacturers produced more than 10,000 studies showing exactly that -- that they did indeed pose a substantial risk of injury to health or to the environment. And remember, these were studies conducted by the manufacturers themselves -- not by disinterested researchers. Until the amnesty was offered, until it was clear that they wouldn't be sanctioned, the manufacturers simply kept those studies to themselves, even though they were obligated by law to turn over the information.

MM: Why doesn't the EPA do its own testing on these chemicals?

Fagin: The key reason is money. It would be extremely expensive for the EPA to do toxicity screening for all of the chemicals it has authority over. There are tens of thousands of important consumer and industrial chemicals subject to EPA and/or FDA review.

The EPA does do its own science in some areas. Some important global warming science was done by EPA folks, for instance, and some of the most important research on the health effects of air pollution. But the EPA is mostly out of the research picture when it comes to chemical-by-chemical safety testing.

MM: Does the EPA audit the industry labs?

Fagin: Almost never. That was something that really surprised me. When I went about trying to take a look at the EPA oversight of the labs, I found that this is a long-running scandal.

There have been a couple of times when outrageous examples of fraud at private labs have been proven, and we explain what happened in the book. There may be others, but we would never really know because the oversight is so poor. In 1991, the inspector general at EPA wrote a scathing report saying that EPA desperately needed to improve its oversight of these testing labs. But when I looked at it a few years later, I found that the inspection rate was even worse than in 1991, and the audit rate hadn't improved much.

We found that out of the approximately 2,000 labs doing industry-funded studies on pesticides around the country, the EPA had never even inspected 1,550. And just because an EPA inspector walks in and looks around once is no guarantee that those labs are doing what they should be doing. The EPA has the ability to audit the studies that are submitted to it by these labs, but almost never utilizes that authority. Almost all of the studies that come in are taken at face value. Less than 4 percent of the thousands upon thousands of studies that pour into the EPA are audited.

MM: What is the chemical industry relationship with EPA and Congress?

Fagin: The industry has worked to create a very close relationship with the agency and with its allies in Congress. In Congress, the industry makes contributions and funds junkets, and often directly pays honoraria to members of Congress who speak at resort meetings. The public knows about these kinds of attempts to influence Congress, but few people realize that the industry also flies EPA officials around the country. We found that over a period of a couple years, EPA employees took more than 3,000 trips that were paid for by some private group, often corporations.

More significantly, the chemical industry is the landing spot for former top EPA officials, especially toxics regulators, as we document in the book. The running joke is that if you want to know what is really going on in toxics at the EPA, you have to call some of the really big and important consulting firms in Washington. Jellinek, Schwartz & Connolly is perhaps the most important one. Top EPA people also go to work for the Washington offices of the important chemical manufacturers -- from Dow and DuPont to Monsanto and Novartis. There really is a tight relationship between the top levels of EPA and the industry it regulates.

MM: Is there any real difference between the policies of a Democratic-controlled EPA and a Republican-controlled EPA?

Fagin: In some ways, you do see a difference. Democrats are more likely to seek new laws and oversight. But when it comes to changing the fundamentals of the regulatory system, you really don't see any major changes. You see business as usual.

MM: In the afterword to the current edition of Toxic Deception, you tell the story of Vice President Gore and how he derailed a rule-making. What happened in that case?

Fagin: A few years ago, Congress broke with its recent pattern and passed two important laws in this area. The Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) amended federal pesticide laws, and Congress also updated the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Those laws, theoretically at least, imposed some new requirements on industries that manufacture toxic chemicals. But the way those laws are being implemented suggests that it is going to be business as usual. One of the requirements of the FQPA, for example, is that the EPA review all of its regulated pesticides and take a fresh look at whether or not those products have hormone-disrupting effects and whether they pose a special risk to children. We know that children are especially vulnerable to toxins, and we also know that these endocrine-disrupting effects have often been overlooked in previous regulatory schemes.

So the Food Quality Protection Act was supposed to require that chemicals be evaluated under these new criteria that reflected the best and latest science. In reality, it hasn't worked that way so far.

There were strong indications that in early 1998 the EPA was poised to restrict, or even ban, some very important products based on the new requirements of the FQPA. Then the chemical industry started lobbying heavily. For example, they used their web site and direct mail to get thousands of farmers to write to the EPA, and if farmers didn't really know what to say in their letters, the pesticide industry was happy to supply the wording and to mail the letters too.

Congress swung into action, too. Vice President Gore was visited by some very important farm belt Democrats -- Charles Stenholm of Texas and Marion Berry of Arkansas -- who apparently warned Gore that he would face a tough time in important farm states like Iowa, Texas, Florida and California in the 2000 elections if the EPA moved against these organophosphate pesticides it was considering banning.

Soon after this visit, and after a lot of lobbying pressure from the industry, Gore directly ordered the EPA to slow down its implementation of these tougher pesticide standards that were required by the FQPA. He also told the EPA to make a special effort to consider the needs of agribusiness and the views of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A new advisory committee, which included many of the key chemical manufacturers and their consultants, was set up to review implementation of the new law. That committee is still meeting, and the EPA still hasn't moved against organophosphates.

Nobody seems embarrassed or surprised at what happened. In its newsletter, Jellinek, Schwartz & Connolly boasts that through its membership on the advisory committee the firm will be "instrumental in changing EPA policies and practices."

MM: Toxic Deception was initially released at a press conference in Washington, D.C. in February 1997. What impact on policy did this book have?

Fagin: It is difficult to know for sure, but the bottom line regarding the EPA is: not much. The Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general initiated a special inquiry as a result of certain aspects of what we found in our book. He concluded that we were accurate in describing what was going on at the EPA, but went on to say that in his opinion -- and presumably the administrator's -- the activities that we described did not constitute a bias in favor of the industry.

MM: Do you think that Vice President Gore's Reinventing Government initiative translates in the enforcement area into more cooperation and less confrontation?

Fagin: That is certainly the trend, and it is being driven by many factors, not just industry lobbying and political influence. International trade is also driving this. You see American companies complaining that they're trying to compete with companies in less-developed countries that don't have much environmental regulation. Plus of course the companies are an important source of campaign cash.

Beyond that, these companies are primarily the only people that the folks at the EPA are hearing from. They just don't hear from regular consumers. Consumers don't get involved in these arcane regulatory decisions.

MM: Don't groups like the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides represent consumers and the public interest on these matters?

Fagin: There are public interest groups, but they are so badly outgunned. They don't have the resources or the personnel. They get involved in the larger legislative issues, like trying to get through the FQPA. But they don't get involved in these regulatory fights over specific chemicals. They are sideline players. The field belongs entirely to the manufacturers.

Oftentimes, the only counterforce that you see in these regulatory cases are other chemical companies who make competing products. They are the only ones with the drive, the resources, the money and the time to speak up -- and they do. Many times, when the EPA ends up making an apparently tough regulatory decision, it is because they are using data supplied by one chemical company against a product produced by a competing chemical company.

MM: What would you prescribe to break the stranglehold of the chemical industry over public policy making in this area?

Fagin: I certainly don't pretend to have all the answers. Reporters are better at identifying problems that coming up with solutions. But in the book we do offer a series of commonsense ideas that have been put forward by some smart people and in many cases have already been shown to be effective when tried on a small scale.

For instance, it makes sense to make the regulatory system as transparent as possible, and to try and arm consumers with the most information they can get about chemical products. California is a pretty good model for this. Its labeling law is far from perfect and doesn't address many important consumer products, including pesticides. But it does mandate that when certain products contain a toxic chemical found to be dangerous, based on criteria and testing by non-industry scientists, then those products have to be labeled as potentially carcinogenic or hazardous.

We know the marketplace can be an important force in making products safer. As a result of the California law, manufacturers of china plates took lead out of their plates, and the Liquid Paper people took perchloroethylene out of correction fluid. Nobody wants to sell a product that has a big ugly warning label on it.

People have also suggested -- and to me this makes sense -- that basic safety research on chemical products shouldn't be done exclusively by manufacturers. I'm not about to say that the EPA ought to take on that job. It would be extremely expensive, and it is just not practical. But if industry is going to keep funding those tests, why not have EPA select the labs that do the testing and oversee their work?

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