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Floods, Mold, Cancer, and the Politics of Public Health

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In 2004 I interviewed a number of leading US scientific figures, doing so while writing an exposé series on the drug industry.  One article, “Intimidation, Politics and Drug Industry Cripple U.S. Medicine”, contained several interviews worth revisiting.

Kathleen Rest, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) - whose membership is comprised of much of the cream of
's scientific community, including a number of Nobel laureates – told me of a "pattern," a pattern of "politicizing or manipulating scientific advisory boards."  She also noted the UCS had found "evidence and cases of agencies manipulating or suppressing scientific analysis."

Dr. David J. Graham, the courageous Associate Safety Director of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), separately added that "intimidation of scientists who threaten the status quo at FDA is routine."

It was just this summer when a Swedish environmental researcher – who spoke only under condition of anonymity - told me that challenging the Swedish status quo on ‘sick building’ issues was almost like challenging the mafia.  Other Swedes, from different perspectives, have spoken similarly.  Leif Kåvestad – a former environmental inspector who received a personal award from the then Swedish Prime Minister, Göran Persson – is one of these.

Both Kåvestad and the researcher indeed described efforts aimed at intimidation, efforts sometimes undertaken by those pursuing self-serving denials of Swedish indoor-environment problems. 

On a local level, Kåvestad spoke of how “community Health Departments often cooperate with the community housing companies and their consultants.  Tenants which complain over sick buildings with health complaints are threatened...the parties together act like a mafia against the tenants.”
  And while speaking generally, he added he’s aware of this pattern at some of Stockholm's 'sick buildings', and as an ombud has just taken the question before the Environmental Court.

Such circumstances do not appear limited to

An SBS victim myself, I have just filed a civil suit against my landlord, Kopparstaden, a housing firm within the Swedish county of Dalarna
.  In 2007, my community’s health department declared the apartment Kopparstaden had recently rented me to be uninhabitable.

To this day, my health remains shattered – I suffer a particularly nasty form of SBS.    

When I arrived here, as a newcomer to the community, the local ‘Integration Authority’ had offered me the flat.  Though it had an unusual odor from the first time I saw it, I was told the odor would ‘disappear’ when I used the plumbing.

When I asked to see other apartments, I was told by the Integration Authority that the apartment was ‘fine’, that there were no others, and, if I didn’t accept it, I wouldn’t be offered another and would likely not find any apartment on my own.  Given the circumstances, and that I had no reason to then disbelieve the assurances I was given, I took the flat accordingly.

Later, laboratory analysis revealed “powerfully elevated” mold levels and “unusually high levels” of chemical toxins - such as chloroform - were in every breath I took.  According to my physicians, virtually all of my belongings must be disposed of because of contamination, and my insurance policy – as with most insurance policies today – does not cover this kind of claim.  However, Kopparstaden’s only compensation offer for my ruined property and shattered health was about a thousand dollars.  I refused it. 

It is difficult for me to reconcile the many instances I’ve witnessed demonstrating Swedish society’s honesty and integrity with the circumstances I describe.

While the US civil court system has awarded a number of ‘sick building’ and mold sufferers millions of dollars in damages, such things do not exist in this country – there are no punitive damages in this legal system, court awards are ‘minimal’.  And, despite such circumstances accentuating the need for robust enforcement of safe housing laws, the opposite appears to have occurred.  But, this does well illustrate how the costs of ‘sick buildings’ – though extremely substantive - are today borne mainly by individual victims, not the businesses which provide the properties, nor the governments which allow them to continue doing so.  Is today’s ‘crisis’ far broader than merely finance?
While many have called the widespread corruption and failure of regulatory authorities an ‘open secret’, perhaps ‘national catastrophe’ may well prove itself a far better term.

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I am an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden, and have lived in Sweden since July 1997. My work has appeared fairly widely, including in America's Christian Science Monitor, Spain's El Mundo, Sweden's Aftonbladet, Austria's (more...)
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