It is the question whether scientific experts are to be consulted,
and the action of Government guided by their advice, or whether,
on the contrary, commercial interests are to be allowed to subordinate
every other consideration to that of profit .
Yendell Henderson of Yale University 1924
The crux of the entire environmental movement in the United States
is summarized by this statement. In 1924, the federal government
faced a decision. The controversy regarding the safety of tetraethyl
lead (TEL or Ethyl) was just beginning. Scientists from
various backgrounds - industry, academia and government - met to
decide how to handle the problems associated with using Ethyl
as an anti-knock agent in gasoline.
Several large cities had already banned the additive because its
safety had been called into question. The decision was made to proceed
with using this additive while further study was being done. But,
to ensure neutrality, a new agency was needed. The government bureaucracies
involved were to develop a plan for dealing with the issues raised
and request funding from congress. But the government bureaucrats
dropped the ball. The funds were never requested.
Remember, that was in 1924 - long before the cancerous Love Canal
killed hundreds; long before Three Mile Island contaminated thousands;
long before Rachael Carson warned of pending environmental catastrophe;
long before genetic engineering gave us corn with bacterial toxins
and unknown health effects for generations as yet unborn.
Today, all the indicators are telling us that massive ecological
catastrophe is knocking at our door. Our excessive consumption of
fossil fuels warms the world. Raging storms grow bold in their anger
against our transgressions. Rain grows more deadly as acids and
other toxins cloud our skies threatening to destroy the life on
which it falls. Anguished cries of need rise up from Third World
nations but are lost in the never-ending galas of politicians and
multinational corporations. The number of vanishing species grows.
Questions abound. What role should the EPA play in regulating industry?
Should the government be responsible in ensuring that the products
and waste materials of big business are safe? Should industry be
held accountable for the harm done to life on this planet? Answers
Anyone who watches the news on a regular basis is
aware that air pollution has reached a global crisis point. Pesticides
are now so common that the FDA would have to ban mothers milk
as unfit for human consumption. Industry has killed billions of
life forms from all classifications and in every habitat on the
The Tobacco Wars raise another question. Should multinational corporations
be held criminally accountable for their misdeeds? Consider - would
the outcome of the Tobacco Wars have been different if the same
charges were made against a small business? If you or I knowingly
deceived the public about the health hazards of our products, we
would have been prosecuted for murder and held liable for damages.
If you or I knew that millions suffered and died because of our
active program of misinformation and outright deception, we would
have been found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment or worse.
With the corporate veil protecting the individuals responsible
for those deeds, is it unreasonable to expect that the corporate
structure itself be prosecuted for the same crimes? How should our
legal system approach this situation? For starters, the assets of
the corporation should be frozen and all data confiscated at the
first sign of a misdeed. In the event of a conviction, the corporation
should be dissolved, its assets liquidated, and the funds used to
pay restitution or repair the damage to the ecosystem. The parent
corporation and its stockholders should be banned from engaging
in any similar business activities or suffer additional penalties.
Individuals and corporations should be treated equally under the
lawincluding criminal law.
America faces some serious environmental problems. Locally, we
see this problem daily and we call it the Willamette Rivera
superfund site. Who should pay for repairing the damage to this
ecosystem? Should it be the multinational corporations who made
these poisons? Should it be the advertising agencies that advocated
the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides? Should it be the state
agencies that did little to monitor or enforce regulations protecting
the environment? All are guilty.
In the end we know that the burden will be paid by every man, woman
and child on the planet. We will pay with the pain and suffering
from innumerable chronic, chemically-mediated disorders. The multinational
corporations will continue to evade their responsibility for the
environment and will ignore their complicity in perpetuating fatal
chronic illnesses. Species will continue to die, and with them,
an essential part of what it means to be human.
1924. In that year America had the opportunity to establish a system
of checks and balances that would have prevented the environmental
crisis we now face. The Bureau of Mines failed to request funds
from congress. The creation of an independent watchdog agency did
not occur. Corporate culture placed the responsibility for establishing
the safety of their products in the hands of the government while
making that chore virtually impossible by their use of deceit, misinformation
and subterfuge. The result is a government decision-making process
that allows commercial interests . . . to subordinate every
other consideration to that of profit.
John N. Newstead was a Respiratory Therapist for twenty years
until chemical exposures during remodeling resulted in the development
of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) and neurological abnormalities.
He has since become a writer and consultant, and can be contacted
by email at NewsteadJNA@aol.com.
Kitman, Jamie Lincoln, The Secret History of Lead,
THE NATION, 20. March 2000.
Rachels Environment and Health Weekly, as reported in Welcome
to CIIN, Chemical Injury Information Network, White Sulphur
Springs, Montana, 1998.
, When the Rain in Spain is a Shame, Rachel Carson
Council News, No. 91, Spring 1999.
, Erin Brockovich, Universal Studios, VCR Copyright