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Rosner and Markowitz: Your Body Is a Corporate Test Tube

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

Just over three years ago, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig leased by BP killed 11 people, injured 17, and -- according to government estimates -- polluted the Gulf of Mexico with 210 million gallons of Louisiana sweet crude.  It turns out, however, that the casualty toll didn't end with those 28 workers.  The real number may reach into the thousands. 

Last year, BP pled guilty to 14 felonies stemming from the disaster, including misleading Congress about the amount of oil that gushed into the gulf.  But that wasn't the only way BP attempted to cover up the extent of the spill.  The main method was using 1.84 million gallons of a substance known as Corexit that acts to "attach itself to leaked oil, break it into droplets, and disperse them into the vast reaches of the gulf, thereby keeping the oil from reaching Gulf Coast shorelines."

Writing for Newsweek and with the support of the Nation Institute's Investigative Fund, Mark Hertsgaard recently laid bare how Corexit was utilized and the dire effects it apparently had on the men and women who worked to "clean" the gulf in the wake of BP's historically unprecedented spill. People like Jamie Griffin. A BP representative reportedly assured Griffin that the smelly sludge cleanup workers were tracking into the "floating hotel" where she was a cook would be "as safe as Dawn dishwashing liquid" -- so she scrubbed and scrubbed to clean it up. "Within days," Hertsgaard writes, "the 32-year-old single mother was coughing up blood and suffering constant headaches." She soon "fell ill with a cluster of excruciating, bizarre, grotesque ailments... unstoppable muscle spasms were twisting her hands into immovable claws... she began losing her short-term memory... The right side, but only the right side, of her body "started acting crazy. It felt like the nerves were coming out of my skin. It was so painful. My right leg swelled -- my ankle would get as wide as my calf -- and my skin got incredibly itchy.'"

Hundreds, perhaps, thousands of other workers were exposed to the same chemicals, including those who were coated in a mist of Corexit, since almost 60% of it was sprayed out of airplanes.  Hertsgaard reveals that not only "did BP fail to inform workers of the potential hazards of Corexit and to provide them with safety training and protective gear, according to interviews with dozens of cleanup workers, the company also allegedly threatened to fire workers who complained about the lack of respirators and protective clothing."

So, add Corexit to the list of toxic substances brought to us by industries that promised better and include BP in a long catalog of companies which, over the last century, have tried to hush-up the truth about the types of chemical assaults for which the Department of Homeland Security issues no fact sheets.  It's a story as old as industrial America and one that public health historians David Rosner and Jerry Markowitz know all too well.  For years, they have earned the ire of the lead and petrochemical industries for historical exposes that demonstrate how American companies regularly sacrificed workers' health and children's lives for the sake of big profits. 

In their latest historical tour de force, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America's Children, Markowitz and Rosner chronicle the battles that have taken place over lead poisoning for the last half-century, with special emphasis on a study in which researchers from Johns Hopkins University conducted what the Maryland Court of Appeals deemed unethical research on African-American children.  Knowing that some of the children in their study could be exposed to lead from old paint in the apartments they were moved into and so at greater risk for learning disorders and behavioral problems, they went ahead anyway.  If it sounds to you like some dark corollary to the notorious Tuskegee experiment, in which hundreds of black men with syphilis were denied treatment with penicillin so that U.S. government researchers could study the course of the disease, you're not alone in thinking it.  The Maryland Appeals Court thought so, too.  But while the Tuskegee study began in the 1930s, when protocols for protecting people from medical experimentation were lax, the Johns Hopkins research started in the 1990s, when regulations supposedly provided ample protection from harm at the hands of public health professionals.  The story of how and why this came to pass is riveting and revelatory. (The co-authors will soon be discussing it with Bill Moyers on "Moyers & Company.") 

Today, Markowitz and Rosner -- the first guest author ever to pen a TomDispatch piece back in December 2002 -- lead a toxic tour, not through Superfund sites and nuclear no-go zones, but average American homes.  And no wonder, we live our lives immersed in a chemical soup never before encountered in human history.  We're the lab rats in a make-it-up-as-they-go-along nationwide corporate experiment, which is also a sure-fire recipe for disaster.  Nick Turse

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You Are a Guinea Pig
How Americans Became Exposed to Biohazards in the Greatest Uncontrolled Experiment Ever Launched
By David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz

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.  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

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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. 

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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