The Risky Business of Living

           The corporate push to dismantle federal protections against poisoners and polluters continues without check. The latest assault on the regulatory apparatus comes in the form of a report issued on June 16 by the Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management. This 10-member panel was created by the 1990 Clean Air Act, which itself was a harbinger of the "market-oriented" approach to regulation now carrying all before it.

           Charged with analyzing "risk assessment" techniques in deciding policy on cancer-causing agents, the panel mostly consists of academic research scientists. Also aboard are representatives from Kaiser Permanente, the American Lung Association, and chemical giant Monsanto. Their conclusion was hardly surprising: Environmental laws are often too strict and not flexible enough. They also concluded that "good science" is often hampered by too much public participation. Risk assessments, the panel said, should replace some regulatory prohibitions because they allow companies and federal agencies to find cost-effective solutions to environmental problems.

           Scarcely had the major environmental protection laws of the late 1960s and early '70s gone on the statute books before corporations and their squadrons of rent-a-thinkers began to devise ways to outflank the new regulatory structure. Bulking ever larger on their conference agendas were risk assessment and its love-mate, "cost-benefit analysis." The suggestion was that well-intentioned environmental laws were imposing absurd impediments on a vibrant economy. Was it really rational to ban carcinogens from food and water supplies if statistics showed that to spare one life the food industry might have to spend $100 million? Was it an accurate estimate of risk for humans to test carcinogens on lab animals, especially rats?

           Armies of corporate statisticians and kindred flim-flam artists churned out numbers designed to discredit such laws as the famous Delaney Clause, which imposes an absolute prohibition on carcinogens in processed foods. The corporations recruited legal scholars such as Stephen Breyer (since elevated to the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton) to denounce the inefficiencies of regulations. Also mustered were Chicago School economists like Milton Friedman to argue that regulations would be a disincentive to innovation.

           Through most of the 1980s environmentalists ridiculed this corporate campaign. With the arrival of George Bush in the White House the picture changed. Swaddled in corporate cash, the Environmental Defense Fund loudly proclaimed its conversion to the market-oriented approach. EDF played a major role in drafting the Clean Air Act of 1990 which engendered pollution credits--transferable polluting rights that created a market in what could only be called cancer bonds--and "voluntary compliance." As the Act began the destruction of a quarter-century's attempts to regulate air pollution, it also launched the Commission on Risk Assessment, charged with the task of drawing up guidelines on how the new market approach would operate in government agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, Department of Energy, and Environmental Protection Agency.

           As Theo Colborn writes in her recent book on pesticides and other toxic chemicals, Our Stolen Future, "the tool of risk assessment is now used to keep questionable compounds on the market until they are proven guilty. It should be redefined as a means of keeping untested chemicals off the market and eliminating the most worrisome in orderly, timely fashion."

           This is not the direction recommended by the Commission on Risk Assessment. Instead, the panel's recommendations are quite predictable. Top of the list is elimination of the Delaney Clause, a corporate dream since the early 1960s and an obsession of EDF, EPA director Carol Browner, and President McMuffin himself. The panel recommends a similar downgrading of the Toxic Substances Control Act, which strictly limits the use, storage, and transportation of dangerous chemicals. The panel urges down-grading of research on carcinogens conducted on lab animals. In an effort to undercut critics of incineration of military hazardous wastes such as the corroding stockpiles of nerve gas, the panel urges that the risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis studies be the prime navigational aids for the Pentagon and Department of Energy.

           This sweeping assault on laws designed to save lives received an immediate clap on the back from the New York Times, which has been ardently in the corporate camp on these matters. The Times's Gina Kolata (the sister of Earth First! organizer and car-bombing victim Judi Bari) began her June 14 story: "In a draft report that is winning praise from environmentalists and the chemical industry, a federal commission recommends that the system of assessing and regulating health hazards from environmental pollutants and other sources, like food additives, be overhauled."

           Kolata duly quoted the approbation of the only environmentalists who had been shown the report, namely David Roe, an attorney with the EDF. Of course Roe praised the report as "a significant contribution and a major advance." In her second paragraph Kolata bannered the panel's conclusion that "the current highly fragmented adversarial system should be replaced with a system that enables health hazards to be considered in a broader context." Considered, that is, by corporate scientists and accountants unrestrained by strong environmental statutes.

           Kolata, who was given an award by the chemical industry last year for her stories discounting the dangers of breast implants, was apparently unable to locate a single critic of this brazen attempt to tear the heart out of what Peter Montague calls "the only real anti-pollution laws we've got on the books."

           Montague was savage to us on the subject of Roe and EDF's position on risk assessment: "Roe does an end run on questions of ethics, harm, profit, and democracy, and leaves these decisions in the hands of a half-dozen data dweebs who will manipulate their numerical assumptions to reach any political conclusion they want." Montague ridicules Roe's claim, made in Kolata's article, that relief from regulatory requirements will create an incentive for corporations to make available proprietary information necessary to assess risk. As Montague points out, once corporations are allowed to follow voluntary guidelines, they are under no legal constraint to provide truthful data. Monsanto, for example, has a sordid history of fabricating scientific research on dioxin (which the company produced), enabling it to duck thousands of lawsuits from Vietnam vets poisoned by Agent Orange. To trust a corporate scientist to provide truthful information is a foolish exercise.

           Another spirited critic of the panel missing from Kolata's Rolodex is Michael Colby of Food & Water, a Vermont-based group. "Risk assessment," Colby says, "is the best club industry has to beat its way through the throng of victims awaiting redress."

           The panel called for health hazards to be considered in a "broad context." That context is not hard to discern: the climax of a 25-year corporate campaign, a U.S. president, and a high-profile environmental group in the pocket of the corporations, and a clamor for an end to "costly and frivolous litigation," meaning the use of the courts by citizens to obtain redress for grievous wrongs.

           The next move will be the gradual implementation of the panel's program, mostly through administrative changes, undiscussed in Congress and unreported in the press. The world is changing and they don't want you to know.

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