The Human Being as Unwitting Research Object for Industrial Chemistry

There are a few excellent movies that are well-worth viewing if you are interested in the connection between environmental pollution and human health. I’ve written a blog about Unacceptable Levels highlighting its excellent use of scientific experts and knowledgeable professionals to document the overwhelming amount of toxic and untested industrial chemicals in our air, water, and consumer products. I hope you get a chance to see it!

Another movie – The Human Experiment – tells a similar story, emphasizing the power of community citizens groups and health impacted communities to identify critical links between pollution and health, and bring them to the public and political consciousness. I found it to be a very smart and informative film, and invited a friend to review it from anSK_2001166.gif outside-the-DC-beltway perspective – way outside the beltway, in a town called La Ronge buried in the piney woods of northern Saskatchewan, Canada. Dr. Guerin sent the following as a guest blog. Hold on to your seat, and enjoy the ride….

Guest blog from Fred Guerin, Ph.D.

Michel Foucault, the French philosopher (1926-1984) described the prison system as a vast laboratory where the elite few were allowed to conduct ‘disciplinary experiments’ on prison inmates and prison staff. Imagine now that the ‘experimental subjects’ are us, and that the ‘powerful elite’ are chemical industries who use us as ‘test subjects’ who can be legally exposed to toxic chemicals on a day to day basis without any sort of informed consent. The Human Experiment, a film directed by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy Jr. and narrated and produced by Sean Penn attempts to show us, in a very personal and moving way, that this shocking possibility is actually a disturbing reality.

The movie gives us a positive model for how everyday concerned citizens—citizen activists and health groups—can come together as a community and advocate for reasonable regulations and environmental justice. It shows us the passionate commitment for justice and regulations that animates individuals to actively take up resistance to the destructive status quo (at what must often appear initially to be impossible odds) not merely for their own benefit or interest, but for the good of all who are affected. We can get behind them because these are not scientists, lawyers, or professional marketers, but real people fighting a good fight.

It becomes very clear, however, that the brave and committed few who take on this fight (almost exclusively portrayed as women) are up against very formidable odds—up against a diametrically opposed, well-oiled propaganda machine that promotes and defends a self-interested, profit-oriented philosophy which is itself part of the American reality of legalized greed, apparent social progress, and, of course, immense individual profit. What the film makes clear is the wretched cowardice of far too many professional politicians who feign an interest or concern towards the public, and then make a mockery of the democratic process by killing any bill that might counter the deleterious effect of toxic chemicals in consumer products, selfishly caving in to the interest of those few who promise to finance their next election campaign.    

It is no mere coincidence in America that the disquieting statistics which show a significant increase in breast cancer, infertility (ovarian syndrome), childhood cancer, autism, asthma, ADHD, birth defects etc might be correlated to the explosion of industrial chemicals beginning in the 1950’s. Neither is it accidental that America is a nation of consumers who are profoundly ignorant of the 80,000 industrial chemicals (many of which are incautiously deemed safe until proven otherwise) which now flood the human world of consumer products. We are not talking about simple oversight. The explanation for what appears to be an unconscionable lack of moral and legal consideration for the health and wellness of a population lies directly at the doorstep of an increasingly unregulated global capitalist system that allows profit to trump human health and safety. Under this global capitalist rubric chemical industries treat our health and well-being not as an intrinsic right worth defending and preserving, but as an annoying hindrance that interferes with the 'bottom line'.

Perhaps there are those who would question whether the causal connection between escalating toxic chemicals used in consumer products, and the upsurge in cancer, autism, asthma, diabetes etc is a logically legitimate correlation, or again something that has been empirically verified. What this film makes clear is that this situation is not a case of ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ (after this, therefore because of this)—for the simple reason that there is an already existing track record of industry intentionally deceiving consumers about the risks to human health that they themselves were and continue to be fully aware of. It was big tobacco companies that provided the perfect propagandistic model, repeated again and again by the chemical industries—flood the market with positive messaging in order to deceive and distract consumers; strategically market the product in a way that targets those who would be most susceptible to the message; capture the health and safety regulatory bodies that might interfere with profits by lobbying politicians with big money; hijack the science by manufacturing doubt and insuring that there were competing results and interpretations of results; and, if necessary, wage an all-out propaganda war against any scientist or advocacy group that pushed for health-oriented regulations.

Here, the film appropriately repeats what has become known as the chemical industry’s 4-dog defense (first described in the 2011 NRDC report The Delay Game by J Sass and D Rosenberg).  When confronted by detractors the industry responds in one of the following ways:Otis puppy.png

  1. My dog does not bite. This flat-out denial is often followed by a sustained attempt to discredit any and all studies or scientists that say otherwise.
  2. Okay, my dog bites, but it doesn’t bite you! At this level, the evidence of toxicity or health risk may be too overwhelming to actually deny. Nevertheless, history teaches us that what cannot be denied can usually be ‘managed’ with the appropriate propaganda. The first order of the day is then to simply repeat the message that ‘all is well my friends’; we gone to great lengths and made significant efforts to insure that people have not been exposed to chemicals in quantities that would damage their health. The average person is simply not at risk by exposure to our toxic product.
  3. Alright, alright…my dog bit you, but it didn’t really hurt you. Here the frank admission that people have been exposed must be assuaged by again promoting the idea that the level of toxic exposure is so very low, one need not even worry.
  4. So my dog bit you and you are hurt, but is that my fault? The objective here is simply to shift the blame, and perhaps along the way invoke that old capitalist standby ‘caveat emptor’ (buyer beware).

This model of deception and distraction (aided and abetted by massive financial lobbying) was used to great advantage by the tobacco industry, and subsequently taken up and deftly employed by other chemical industries—e.g.  to promote the egregious production of what are now very recognizable and apparently ‘indispensible’ everyday products: Polyvinyl chloride or PVC (Vinyl) made from the polymerization of vinyl chloride monomer, which has been linked to cancer, neurological damage, birth defects, immune system damage; Bisphenol A or BPA - an endocrine disruptor in plastics that interferes with the hormone system, and is also linked to neurological and behavioral problems; the toxicity and volatility of formaldehyde used in the building industry, pressure-treated wood, household products and by the textile industry and indisputably known to be a human carcinogen affecting workers and consumers who are exposed to it.plastic bottle waste

However, even if all of these links between exposures and health effects were less than certain, would it not be prudent, and ethical, to err on the side of caution given the history? Is there not something morally repulsive about a governmental-industrial-financial complex that relies on the naivety of citizens who assume that the governments they elect will always work to insure that they will not be treated as human experiments, entirely disposable? 

Let me just speak a little about the title of the documentary here. To get a sense of what the film puts at stake at a distinctly moral level, just imagine that we are indeed perceived as no more than ‘experimental subjects’. The first presupposition in such a case would be that the toxic effects of certain chemicals that we are daily exposed to is not something we know about, much less consent to. Secondly, since no thorough scientific testing is required by governmental regulation—or that industry-funded studies that demonstrate adverse effects are rarely in the public peer-reviewed scientific literature —it will be the case that under the capitalist banner of ‘growth and prosperity’ we must simply be looked upon as ‘negative externalities’, ‘disposable subjects’ that are the necessary consequence of a system where the fiduciary duty of business is to make profit for its investors no matter what the human cost. If the latter presuppositions are reasonable then it would also be the case that the most vulnerable in society would be the prime experimental and disposable targets.

History informs us that the German physicians who conducted deadly or debilitating experiments on concentration camp prisoners were held liable and subject to criminal indictment during the Nuremberg Trials. From this dark history we managed to enact the first international document supporting the essential moral imperative that voluntary informed consent of the risks involved in any experiment on the human person is inviolable. How is it then that the chemical manufacturer who treats whole populations as ‘experimental subjects’ is not subject to this rather minimal legal requirement? Oh right, I forgot, they are contributing to the progressive welfare of all of us! And yet even in America there was some recognition in a 1962 Drug Amendment passed by the United States Congress that made changes to the Federal Food Drug & Consumer Act by requiring drug companies to prove that their products were effective and safe. Unfortunately, even the FDA has been captured by the moneyed and aggressive promotion of new drugs by mega-pharmaceutical manufacturers who make it their business to understate the risks and overestimate the benefits of a whole plethora of drugs (see law review here with references for documentation). If drug companies need oversight—i.e. if an industry that is ostensibly in the business of ‘restoring health and wellness’ and in actuality operates more from a profit motive needs to be regulated, then we can reasonably ask how much more imperative it is that we exercise an uncompromising regulatory scrutiny over the chemical industry—an industry that has time and again shown that it is recklessly and willfully blind to human health and welfare.(See Doubt is Their Product: How industry’s assault on science threatens your health by D. Michaels).

In some ways I think the film misses a great opportunity to make precisely this point by narrowly focusing on the effects of Americans. Perhaps it might have been more persuasive if it had examined (even in a cursory way) the toxic and gruesome legacy of Union Carbide (later purchased by Dow Chemical) in Bhopal, Chevron in the Ecuadoran Amazon and Dupont’s dumping of over 5,000,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into New Jersey/Delaware waterways. Recalling this historical reality is important, and for that matter so is repeating the very real fact that industrial toxic chemical releases into air (0.8 billion lbs/yr), water (0.22 billion lbs/yr), land (2.44 billion lbs/yr), underground injection (0.22 billion lbs/yr), and off-site (0.41 billion lbs/yr) total 4 billion pounds annually (based on U.S. EPA 2011 data from industry reporting). This is 11 million pounds each day, or 456 thousand pounds each hour, or 7.6 thousand pounds of toxic chemical waste produced and released each second by industrial facilities in the U.S., some of which are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and other debilitating diseases, and most of which have never undergone comprehensive toxicity testing. (see global statistics here)

Having said this, such startling statistics can also numb us to the really existing tragic consequences of exposure to toxic chemicals in products we use every day. In this sense I would note that there are very believable moments in the film where the reality of the effects of toxic chemicals on the most vulnerable—the unborn, and the newly born, are put forward in a way that is profoundly touching and at times painful and distressing to watch. These images are never overtly or manipulatively emotional: they are presented in a matter-of-fact way that pleads for rather modest and reasonable reforms of an otherwise reckless and unregulated chemical industry in America. There is also something in the film that we hear far too little of—the notion of sustainable, non-toxic green chemistry (benign by design), and the growing efforts to re-educate chemistry students in a way that approaches the issue of chemistry in a sane way as something that could actually be life-enhancing rather than life-destructive. What a novel idea!!

In the end, however, while I am willing to accede to the potential economic benefits of ‘green chemistry’, I want to believe that there exists a deeper moral perspective that may yet come to animate our thinking. What I am saying here is that all of the progressive green chemistry talk is still very much oriented around business and profit-driven ideals. Perhaps I am just stuck in an old-fashioned form of principled idealism, but I sure wish we could just lose the pervasive presupposition of economic profit as the only practical motivator for positive change. That said, if there is a saving grace, then it is perhaps that we can only realize a more substantive moral orientation when we are prepared to wager that doing something to change things for the better—even something small and seemingly insignificant—is always preferable to just standing idly by and allowing the few to make choices that preserve their money-making prerogatives and shield them from devastating consequences, while our health and well-being, and that of our children is entirely taken out of our hands.

The philosopher Aristotle was surely right when he claimed that we become good persons by actually performing good acts. I would only add that we become good communities, organizations and countries by acting collectively to insure the health and well-being of all human beings—and indeed of the planet itself.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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