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Rosner and Markowitz write: "A hidden epidemic is poisoning America. The toxins are in the air we breathe and the water we drink, in the walls of our homes and the furniture within them."

Poisonous toxins are all around us. (photo: Peter Essick)
Poisonous toxins are all around us. (photo: Peter Essick)

How You Became a Guinea Pig for the Chemical Corporations

By David Rosner, Gerald Markowitz, TomDispatch

29 April 13


How Americans became exposed to biohazards in the greatest uncontrolled experiment ever launched.

hidden epidemic is poisoning America. The toxins are in the air we breathe and the water we drink, in the walls of our homes and the furniture within them. We can't escape it in our cars. It's in cities and suburbs. It afflicts rich and poor, young and old. And there's a reason why you've never read about it in the newspaper or seen a report on the nightly news: it has no name - and no antidote.

The culprit behind this silent killer is lead. And vinyl. And formaldehyde. And asbestos. And Bisphenol A. And polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). And thousands more innovations brought to us by the industries that once promised "better living through chemistry," but instead produced a toxic stew that has made every American a guinea pig and has turned the United States into one grand unnatural experiment.

Today, we are all unwitting subjects in the largest set of drug trials ever. Without our knowledge or consent, we are testing thousands of suspected toxic chemicals and compounds, as well as new substances whose safety is largely unproven and whose effects on human beings are all but unknown. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) itself has begun monitoring our bodies for 151 potentially dangerous chemicals, detailing the variety of pollutants we store in our bones, muscle, blood, and fat. None of the companies introducing these new chemicals has even bothered to tell us we're part of their experiment. None of them has asked us to sign consent forms or explained that they have little idea what the long-term side effects of the chemicals they've put in our environment - and so our bodies - could be. Nor do they have any clue as to what the synergistic effects of combining so many novel chemicals inside a human body in unknown quantities might produce.

How Industrial Toxins Entered the American Home

The story of how Americans became unwitting test subjects began more than a century ago. The key figure was Alice Hamilton, the "mother" of American occupational medicine, who began documenting the way workers in lead paint pigment factories, battery plants, and lead mines were suffering terrible palsies, tremors, convulsions, and deaths after being exposed to lead dust that floated in the air, coating their workbenches and clothes.

Soon thereafter, children exposed to lead paint and lead dust in their homes were also identified as victims of this deadly neurotoxin. Many went into convulsions and comas after crawling on floors where lead dust from paint had settled, or from touching lead-painted toys, or teething on lead-painted cribs, windowsills, furniture, and woodwork.

Instead of leveling with the public, the lead industry through its trade group, the Lead Industries Association, began a six-decade-long campaign to cover-up its product's dire effects. It challenged doctors who reported lead-poisoned children to health departments, distracted the public through advertisements that claimed lead was "safe" to use, and fought regulation of the industry by local government, all in the service of profiting from putting a poison in paint, gasoline, plumbing fixtures, and even toys, baseballs, and fishing gear.

As Joe Camel would be for tobacco, so the little Dutch Boy of the National Lead Company became an iconic marketing tool for Dutch Boy Lead Paint, priming Americans to invite a dangerous product into their children's playrooms, nurseries, and lives. The company also launched a huge advertising campaign that linked lead to health, rather than danger. It even produced coloring books for children, encouraging them to paint their rooms and furniture using lead-based paint.

Only after thousands of children were poisoned and, in the 1960s, activist groups like the Young Lords and the Black Panthers began to use lead poisoning as a symbol of racial and class oppression did public health professionals and the federal government begin to rein in companies like the Sherwin-Williams paint company and the Ethyl Corporation, which produced tetraethyl lead, the lead-additive in gasoline. In 1971, Congress passed the Lead Paint Poisoning Prevention Act that limited lead in paint used for public housing. In 1978, the Consumer Products Safety Commission finally banned lead in all paints sold for consumer use. During the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency issued rules that led to the elimination of leaded gasoline by 1995 (though it still remains in aviation fuel).

The CDC estimates that in at least 4 million households in the U.S. today children are still exposed to dangerous amounts of lead from old paint that produces dust every time a nail is driven into a wall to hang a picture, a new electric socket is installed, or a family renovates its kitchen. It estimates that more than 500,000 children ages one to five have "elevated" levels of lead in their blood. (No level is considered safe for children.) Studies have linked lost IQ points, attention deficit disorders, behavioral problems, dyslexia, and even possibly high incarceration rates to tiny amounts of lead in children's bodies.

Unfortunately, when it came to the creation of America's chemical soup, the lead industry was hardly alone. Asbestos is another classic example of an industrial toxin that found its way into people's homes and bodies. For decades, insulation workers, brake mechanics, construction workers, and a host of others in hundreds of trades fell victim to the disabling and deadly lung diseases of asbestosis or to lung cancer and the fatal cancer called mesothelioma when they breathed in dust produced during the installation of boilers, the insulation of pipes, the fixing of cars that used asbestos brake linings, or the spraying of asbestos on girders. Once again, the industry knew its product's dangers early and worked assiduously to cover them up.

Despite growing medical knowledge about its effects (and increasing industry attempts to downplay or suppress that knowledge), asbestos was soon introduced to the American home and incorporated into products ranging from insulation for boilers and piping in basements to floor tiles and joint compounds. It was used to make sheetrock walls, roof shingles, ironing boards, oven gloves, and hot plates. Soon an occupational hazard was transformed into a threat to all consumers.

Today, however, these devastating industrial-turned-domestic toxins, which destroyed the health and sometimes took the lives of hundreds of thousands, seem almost quaint when compared to the brew of potential or actual toxins we're regularly ingesting in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.

Of special concern are a variety of chlorinated hydrocarbons, including DDT and other pesticides that were once spread freely nationwide, and despite being banned decades ago, have accumulated in the bones, brains, and fatty tissue of virtually all of us. Their close chemical carcinogenic cousins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), were found in innumerable household and consumer products - like carbonless copy paper, adhesives, paints, and electrical equipment - from the 1950s through the 1970s. We're still paying the price for that industrial binge today, as these odorless, tasteless compounds have become permanent pollutants in the natural environment and, as a result, in all of us.

The Largest Uncontrolled Experiment in History

While old houses with lead paint and asbestos shingles pose risks, potentially more frightening chemicals are lurking in new construction going on in the latest mini-housing boom across America. Our homes are now increasingly made out of lightweight fibers and reinforced synthetic materials whose effects on human health have never been adequately studied individually, let alone in the combinations we're all subjected to today.

Formaldehyde, a colorless chemical used in mortuaries as a preservative, can also be found as a fungicide, germicide, and disinfectant in, for example, plywood, particle board, hardwood paneling, and the "medium density fiberboard" commonly used for the fronts of drawers and cabinets or the tops of furniture. As the material ages, it evaporates into the home as a known cancer-producing vapor, which slowly accumulates in our bodies. The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health suggests that homeowners "purchasing pressed-wood products, including building material, cabinetry, and furniture... should ask about the formaldehyde content of these products."

What's inside your new walls might be even more dangerous. While the flame retardants commonly used in sofas, chairs, carpets, love seats, curtains, baby products, and even TVs, sounded like a good idea when widely introduced in the 1970s, they turn out to pose hidden dangers that we're only now beginning to grasp. Researchers have, for instance, linked one of the most common flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, to a wide variety of potentially undesirable health effects including thyroid disruption, memory and learning problems, delayed mental and physical development, lower IQ, and the early onset of puberty.

Other flame retardants like Tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate have been linked to cancer. As the CDC has documented in an ongoing study of the accumulation of hazardous materials in our bodies, flame retardants can now be found in the blood of "nearly all" of us.

Nor are these particular chemicals anomalies. Lurking in the cabinet under the kitchen sink, for instance, are window cleaners and spot removers that contain known or suspected cancer-causing agents. The same can be said of cosmetics in your makeup case or of your plastic water bottle or microwavable food containers. Most recently, Bisphenol A (BPA), the synthetic chemical used in a variety of plastic consumer products, including some baby bottles, epoxy cements, the lining of tuna fish cans, and evencredit card receipts, has been singled out as another everyday toxin increasingly found inside all of us.

Recent studies indicate that its effects are as varied as they are distressing. As Sarah Vogel of the Environmental Defense Fund has written, "New research on very-low-dose exposure to BPA suggests an association with adverse health effects, including breast and prostate cancer, obesity, neurobehavioral problems, and reproductive abnormalities."

Teflon, or perfluorooctanoic acid, the heat-resistant, non-stick coating that has been sold to us as indispensable for pots and pans, is yet another in the list of substances that may be poisoning us, almost unnoticed. In addition to allowing fried eggs to slide right onto our plates, Teflon is in all of us, according to the Science Advisory Board of the Environmental Protection Agency, and "likely to be carcinogenic in humans."

These synthetic materials are just a few of the thousands now firmly embedded in our lives and our bodies. Most have been deployed in our world and put in our air, water, homes, and fields without being studied at all for potential health risks, nor has much attention been given to how they interact in the environments in which we live, let alone our bodies. The groups that produce these miracle substances - like the petrochemical, plastics, and rubber industries, including major companies like Exxon, Dow, and Monsanto - argue that, until we can definitively prove the chemical products slowly leaching into our bodies are dangerous, we have no "right," and they have no obligation, to remove them from our homes and workplaces. The idea that they should prove their products safe before exposing the entire population to them seems to be a foreign concept.

In the 1920s, the oil industry made the same argument about lead as an additive in gasoline, even though it was already known that it was a dangerous toxin for workers. Spokesman for companies like General Motors insisted that it was a "gift of God," irreplaceable and essential for industrial progress and modern living, just as the lead industry argued for decades that lead was "essential" to produce good paint that would protect our homes.

Like the oil, lead, and tobacco industries of the twentieth century, the chemical industry, through the American Chemistry Council and public relations firms like Hill & Knowlton, is fighting tooth and nail to stop regulation and inhibit legislation that would force it to test chemicals before putting them in the environment. In the meantime, Americans remain the human guinea pigs in advanced trials of hundreds if not thousands of commonly used, largely untested chemicals. There can be no doubt that this is the largest uncontrolled experiment in history.

To begin to bring it under control would undoubtedly involve major grassroots efforts to push back against the offending corporations, courageous politicians, billions of dollars, and top-flight researchers. But before any serious steps are likely to be taken, before we even name this epidemic, we need to wake up to its existence.

A toxic dump used to be a superfund site or a nuclear waste disposal site. Increasingly, however, we - each and every one of us - are toxic dumps and for us there's no superfund around, no disposal plan in sight. In the meantime, we're walking, talking biohazards and we don't even know it. your social media marketing partner


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Founder, Reader Supported News

+69 # universlman 2013-04-29 12:12
Most new chemical substances are not considered "safe" until they are passed through an advertising agency.
+12 # cafetomo 2013-04-29 15:10
Haw. That's funny right there, don't care who ya are.
+54 # PABLO DIABLO 2013-04-29 13:37
Stop buying their crap. Boycott the corporations that are killing us (Mansanto, Dow, Bayer, Coke, Pepsi, Syngenta, etc., etc.).
+20 # tomr 2013-04-29 15:22
Pablo, you have a misspelling here. It's "Monsatan."
+10 # harbormon 2013-04-29 15:36
The list is far longer than any of us know or appreciate. It would have to be literally a "life changing" off-the-grid choice on everything we buy. But in the end, it is a Life or Death choice, anyway they spin it, and death or life under these carcinogens and other toxic chemicals is far worse than anything we can imagine.
+49 # fredboy 2013-04-29 14:10
I recall Hopewell, Virginia, 16 miles southeast of Richmond. Proudly called itself the Chemical Capital of the World. Air so noxious I had to wear a face mask when driving through. And James River fouled all the way to the shipping channel.
But when I mentioned the filthy air, one girl I knew who lived there snapped "That smell is JOBS!" Someone should do a health study to determine what happened to those living there in the 40s, 50s and 60s.
+14 # pushingforpeace 2013-04-29 14:55
One word .. cancer. I bet.
-16 # MidwestTom 2013-04-29 14:56
Let's all stop using chemical products, call your city water department and tell them to stop using chlorine, and other disinfectants in the water, tell them you want it unaltered, and please stop buying anything plastic, especially any plastic packaging. To improve our food supply farmers should stop killing those friendly corn borers, and let them have 40 to 50% of the annual crop. The only way to really hurt the chemical industry is to simply stop using their products.
+17 # seakat 2013-04-29 18:14
Yes, our poor ancestors, how did they manage to live without the aid of chemicals?
+5 # Nominae 2013-04-29 22:48
Quoting seakat:
Yes, our poor ancestors, how did they manage to live without the aid of chemicals?

Yeah, isn't that great ? And, back then, it wasn't called "organic food", the exact same thing was just accurately called "food".
+4 # Douglas Jack 2013-04-29 21:29
Tom, If you learn about the much more efficient human traditions of: plant based bio-digestion, tree roots percolating water, 3-dimensional polyculture orchards providing 100 times (10,000%) more food, materials, energy & water-cycle than 2-D 'agriculture' (Latin 'ager' = 'field'), whole foods already packaged in bio-degradable skins. You'll be surprised at how quickly humans can recapture these ancient traditions with abundance for all in a totally clean world. Here's one section on food production to start on, but check around in the other 70 sections on humanity's 'indigenous' (L. 'self-generatin g') worldwide universal heritage.
+8 # curmudgeon 2013-04-29 15:23
+11 # cafetomo 2013-04-29 15:44
I consider myself experienced and knowledgeable. But gems such as this are history lessons sans the revisionism we are generally unaware of being subject to. Do not underestimate the value of learning the truth about the past, in allowing a view of our future. Sometimes, it seems the only hope we have.
+15 # LeeBlack 2013-04-29 15:46
"...The toxins are in the air we breathe and the water we drink, in the walls of our homes and the furniture within them." - and in the ground where are food grows and in the streams that carry all the cast off toxins.
+7 # Nominae 2013-04-29 23:00
Quoting LeeBlack:
"...The toxins are in the air we breathe and the water we drink, in the walls of our homes and the furniture within them." - and in the ground where are food grows and in the streams that carry all the cast off toxins.

And likewise in the carpeting on our floors, the curtains over our windows, the adhesives and glues used to tile the bathroom, the clothing that we wear, the bedding that we sleep on, and the towels we use after a shower.

Even the much more expensive "organic cotton" retains chemical residue from the way it is processed.

I am disabled from chemical sensitivities. The human body will *NOT* just "put up" with any crap we choose to throw at it for indefinite periods of time.

And, there is no longer any such thing on the planet as "clean air", even in the Polar Regions. The best one can do is to look for "Chemically Less Polluted Air" and eat "Chemically Less Polluted", food a.k.a. "organic". No matter how carefully the food is grown, if the crop is breathing the ambient air on this planet, the best of it is simply "Chemically Less Polluted" food.
+5 # Douglas Jack 2013-04-29 16:43
Electro-polluti on-smog for Electro-Magneti c Fields EMF, Microwaves coming from undiscerning electric consumption & wiring & wireless message transmission & communications. Cell-phone microwaves, microwave ovens, electric, gas company meter microwave usage data transmission systems. Resonance Beings of Frequency
The ignorance & resistance of companies making profits & government shills & paid-for politicians is phenomenal. These systems are weak, expensive & dysfunctionally prone to sunspot, other microwave interference, ice & snow storms, expensive & unnecessary. The cables which feed electricity into & within our homes can transmit digital data for our own monitoring as well as the corporate accounting offices which monitor such consumption.
Hierarchal corporations & their government servicing systems are typically based in top-down behaviour modification penalties & incentives. Everyone is disposable, so fear insecurity reigns supreme & communication is thus distorted/perve rted. Corporations have essential knowledge within members, but do not operationalize it. Top layers of the corporate fear pyramid are most ignorant. Let's recognize the essential complementary knowledge of each other to build collective intelligence as humanity's worldwide 'indigenous' (Latin 'self-generatin g') ancestors have known for 100s of 1000s of years.
+5 # MikeM327 2013-04-29 16:45
This article reminds us of the past and present sins that result from our "free" economy's incentives to maximize profits. Comments like those of MidwestTom and curmudgeon illustrate opposite ends of a "hands off to hands on" continuum regarding the need for governmental regulation of chemicals used in agricultural and manufacturing processes. MidwestTom points out that we really wouldn't want to eliminate their use completely. cumudgeon's ironic comment implies that we need more regulation.

If we're really concerned about the use of chemicals, we must find ways to evaluate the evidence of the dangers versus the benefits of each particular use. At the very least that requires putting pressure on our elected representatives as well as the corporate executives and stockholders of chemical companies to assure that products are thoroughly tested and results made public before they are marketed. This will take time, energy and money, and it will raise taxes and/or make some products more expensive. Still, to my mind, it's more promising than arguing with each other from opposite sides of the continuum.
+6 # da gaf 2013-04-29 17:17
IF THERE IS SUCH A THING AS reincarnation- who would want to come back to such a corrupt world as this planet has become-thanks to all the idiotic politicians and man made-gods and superstitious religions and making illegal certain recreational drugs that are common in nature that have been here as long as man has.. just because the politicians decided to pass laws making it against the law to use.
+12 # 2013-04-29 17:28
Thankfully, RSN is reporting on this issue. It's for sure that the Maim Stream Media is not.
+6 # RnR 2013-04-29 17:38
We have to put serious brakes on the chemical industry, particularly gmo plants/animals. The Congress and elected/appoint ed federal officials who are passing ok's on these things are totally clueless as to what they're doing and I'm being kind.

We have to stop it. The earth, with our help, will heal but we have to really make an issue out of it.

And this is another reason we can't let CISPA pass - these bastards will do anything to win. I'm sure Monsanto will quietly "partner...yeah " with most of the beekeeping organizations in the country and then either shut them down or bastardize reports. Who will notice?

Check Monsanto's track record with regards to the truth - start with Agent Orange.
+4 # NonnyO 2013-04-29 18:25
Now, if someone could just Puh-leeze do something about REMOVING the chemical stenches in perfumes, after-shaves, shampoos, hair sprays, makeup, lotions, deodorants and/or antiperspirants , laundry detergents, fabric softeners, dish washing soaps, body washing soaps, disinfectant cleaners (Lysol, Pine-Sol, and other similar cleaners cause people with asthma &/or emphysema to have a cough attack), scented candles, potpourri, et cetera and so on and so forth.

Chemical stenches are the bane of my existence and I have to buy products that say "perfume-free and dye free" (AND I do a smell test right there in the store because some are labeled 'unscented' and most don't know the 'unscented' stench is also a chemical). If I start coughing at the first sniff of a product, I put the cap back on and don't waste my money buying it. Even so-called "green products" have those awful chemical stenches, and some are worse than the regular chemical smelling products! Ick!

The smell of chemical odors hangs in the air like skunk spray..., and smells worse!
+1 # Nominae 2013-04-29 23:15
Quoting NonnyO:
........Chemical stenches are the bane of my existence and I have to buy products that say "perfume-free and dye free" (AND I do a smell test right there in the store because some are labeled 'unscented' and most don't know the 'unscented' stench is also a chemical). If I start coughing at the first sniff of a product, I put the cap back on and don't waste my money buying it. Even so-called "green products" have those awful chemical stenches, and some are worse than the regular chemical smelling products! Ick!

The smell of chemical odors hangs in the air like skunk spray..., and smells worse!

I have exactly the same problem, and would like to offer you a relative solution in re: the clothing, in case you are not already aware of the practice.

New clothing is saturated with formaldehyde used to make colors fast, and to reduce wrinkling. Anything "perma-press"
is a chemical soup.

However, for other clothing - shirts, T-shirts, socks, slacks, jeans and bedding I will bring straight home and wash it with an all-clear detergent and a full gallon of vinegar. For the initial washing only. To use vinegar every time would be to seriously weaken the garment fabric. One or two washings should do it.

As for the rest of your description, I am of little help because there is simply no way I could join you in *any* of those stores.
+2 # Mrcead 2013-04-29 18:54
America is one huge test market. Vaccines, freedom, financials, social, media, foodstuffs, medicals, you name it, the products are tested here first and the line to become a willing guinea pig wraps around an entire city block twice.
+2 # DPM 2013-04-29 20:35
There is a "positive", here. The people making it, selling it and the politicians ignoring it are all being poisoned just like the rest of us "cattle". If that's of any consolation.
+2 # BLBreck 2013-04-29 20:49
Anyone old enough to remember the slogan: "Better Living Through Chemistry"? Well, we are now living the result. Of course, they neglected to tell the public about the under text...better living for the chemical company's profits, not the public.

I remember ads where children were running behind a DDT truck in the cool wet spray... well, we kind of got rid of they just sell it to 3rd world countries. I suppose when the US conversion to 3rd world status is complete it will be back.
Well, don't stop fighting.
+3 # Jaysson Brae 2013-04-29 23:12
Some of us have been fighting for years to get this info better known.

There's an good monthly publication called Our Toxic Times that's been covering this subject for the past 20 years. It's available by contacting the Chemical Injury Information Network.

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