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A Lesson in Decision Making
by John N. Newstead, RRT, CHT

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 unfound.

 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 mother’s milk as unfit for human consumption. Industry has killed billions of life forms from all classifications and in every habitat on the planet.

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 law—including criminal law.

America faces some serious environmental problems. Locally, we see this problem daily and we call it the Willamette River—a 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.

References

Kitman, Jamie Lincoln, “The Secret History of Lead,” THE NATION, 20. March 2000.

Rachel’s 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 date: 2000.

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