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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

The Human Being as Unwitting Research Object for Industrial Chemistry

In the popular science-fiction film The Matrix has its origin in a provocative philosophical thought-experiment called the “brain in a vat.” This thought experiment has a rich history dating back to philosopher René Descartes’ notion of an evil genius who is “supremely powerful and intelligent and does his utmost to deceive us.”1 Descartes imagines that such an evil genius would be able to seduce us into thinking that our senses are profoundly deceiving us and that, in reality, there is no external world that exists outside of our imagining mind. In the modern retelling, we are nothing more than a “brain suspended in a vat of nourishing liquid” connected to a computer. Presumably, the scientist at the computer’s keyboard can stimulate our brain in such a way as to create elaborate realities that would dupe us into thinking we were sensing and experiencing the real thing. However, we would be nothing more than experimental brains whose ultimate fate would be in the hands of an evil, all-powerful mind.

Imagine now that the evil genius is not an identifiable scientist at a computer but an anonymous and powerful group of chemical companies that are legally exposing our human bodies to an endless mixture of toxic chemicals without our knowledge or consent. Our bodies would be very much like the unwitting experimental subjects of The Matrix. We would not be aware of what was happening to us because we would have been propagandized into falsely thinking that it was all for the good – or as the old Dupont advertising slogan assured us, we would be part of that fortunate new generation who would have access to “Better Things for Better Living … Through Chemistry.” However, we would no longer have knowledge or control of what goes into our bodies, because our present reality and our future possibilities would be in the hands of people who evade transparency and are not interested in public good or human health. They would be defined and driven by one thing and only one thing: profit – the enrichment of the chemical industry itself. We would be their unwitting experimental subjects. In the heart of this toxic darkness many will hear Joseph Conrad’s fictional character Kurtz’s dying whisper echoing in our ears: “the horror, the horror.” Indeed, this is a horror. It is not based on a fictional book, an imaginary film or a skeptics’ dream. It is grounded in reality, a reality with which we have lived for more than 75 years.

The disquieting statistics tell us that a significant increase in breast cancer, infertility (ovarian syndrome), childhood cancer, autism, asthma, ADHD, birth defects, etc. is correlated to the explosion of industrial chemicals beginning in the 1950s. It is no accident that we have built a world of consumers who are mostly ignorant of the approximately 80,000 industrial chemicals (many of which are incautiously deemed safe until proven otherwise) now flooding the human world of consumer products – more than 200 of which have been shown to pass through the placenta from an exposed mother to her fetus. We are not talking about a simple lapse or oversight. The explanation for what appears to be an unconscionable lack of moral and legal consideration for the health and wellness of a population lies directly at the doorstep of an increasingly unregulated global capitalist system that allows profit to trump human health and safety. Under this global capitalist rubric, chemical industries treat our health and well-being not as an intrinsic good or right worth defending and preserving, but as an externality – an annoying hindrance that interferes with the bottom line.

Perhaps there are those who would question whether the causal connection between escalating toxic chemicals used in consumer products and the upsurge in cancer, autism, asthma, diabetes, etc. is an empirically or logically legitimate one. However, there is an existing track record of the chemical industry’s efforts to deceive consumers intentionally regarding the risks to human health of which they themselves were, and continue to be, fully aware. Big tobacco companies provided the perfect propaganda model: flood the market with positive messaging to deceive and distract consumers; strategically market the product in a way that targets those who would be most susceptible to the message; capture the health and safety regulatory bodies that might interfere with profits by lobbying politicians with big money; hijack the science by manufacturing doubt and ensuring there are competing results and interpretations by well-paid insiders; and, if necessary, wage an all-out propaganda war against any scientist or advocacy group that pushes for health-oriented regulations.2

This model of deception and distraction (aided and abetted by massive financial lobbying) was used to great advantage by the tobacco industry and subsequently was taken up and deftly employed by other chemical industries – to promote the egregious production of what are now very recognizable and apparently indispensable everyday products: polyvinyl chloride, or PVC (vinyl), made from the polymerization of deadly vinyl chloride monomer, which causes cancer, severe and painful neurological damage, birth defects and immune system damage; formaldehyde used in the building industry, pressure-treated wood, household products and by the textile industry and indisputably known to be a human carcinogen affecting workers and consumers who are exposed to it; and bisphenol A, or BPA – an endocrine disruptor that mimics the hormone estrogen and essentially interferes with the hormone system. Estrogen is a key hormone in the development of the brain and other body organs, especially in early childhood – too much or too little of it can really screw things up for us in later life.3

A recent exposé by Mariah Blake in Mother Jones informs us that although BPA was removed from the production line (not by the Environmental Protection Agency) “many plastic products, from sippy cups and blenders to Tupperware containers,” which are marketed as BPA-free actually “share the sorts of qualities that made BPA potentially harmful.” Indeed, the ingredients of one of the most popular BPA-free options (Tritan) that uses triphenyl phosphate, or TPP, were discovered to be more estrogenic than BPA. The article goes on to relate that the campaign by chemical companies to cast doubt on the potential dangers of chemicals in plastics “closely resembles the methods Big Tobacco used to stifle scientific evidence about the dangers of smoking.” In an interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, Blake relates what must be considered the final infamy of the chemical industry: “In their efforts to portray plastics as safe, they oftentimes target the groups who are most vulnerable to the effects of these chemicals. So, prenatal exposure and exposure during early childhood is potentially the most harmful, and oftentimes the marketing of these products targets pregnant women, targets families with children.”

What about the government charged with safeguarding the health and safety of citizens? What did it do to help? Well, when the Mother Jones story went to the press, “the US Food and Drug Administration published a paper finding that BPA was safe in low doses. However, the underlying testing was done on a strain of lab rat known as the Charles River Sprague Dawley, which doesn’t readily respond to synthetic estrogens, such as BPA. And, because of laboratory contamination, all of the animals – including the control group – were exposed to this chemical. Academic scientists say this raises serious questions about the study’s credibility.”

Now, even if one could make a persuasive case that the link between exposure and health effects was less than absolutely certain, it would still be prudent and ethical to err on the side of caution. There is something morally repulsive about a governmental-industrial-financial complex that has no problem treating people as if they were no more than unwitting human experiments or entirely disposable bodies. Reflect for a moment what the chemical industry or the government has to presuppose to treat us in such a way. Firstly, they must presuppose that the toxic effects of certain chemicals that we are daily exposed to is not something we should know about or need to consent to. Secondly, they must presuppose that no sort of thorough scientific testing that might demonstrate adverse effects is required. Under the corporate capitalist banner of growth and profit at any cost, this means health impacts to humans and the invironment are simply viewed as externalities, this dehumanization an inevitable consequence of a system where the fiduciary duty to make a profit for investors trumps everything else. Thirdly, they would presuppose that everything that breathes and lives is expendable. Finally, they would have to presuppose that the powerless and vulnerable of society are the easiest and therefore the prime experimental and most disposable targets.

History informs us that the German physicians who conducted deadly or debilitating experiments on concentration camp prisoners were held liable and subject to criminal indictment during the Nuremberg trials. From this dark history, we managed to enact the first international document supporting the essential moral imperative that voluntary informed consent of the risks involved in any experiment on the human person is inviolable. How is it then that the chemical manufacturer who treats whole populations as experimental subjects is not subject to this rather minimal legal requirement?

In America, there was some early recognition of health risks that arise from the industrialization of food and drugs. The 1962 Drug Amendment passed by Congress made changes to the Federal Food Drug & Consumer Act by requiring drug companies to prove that their products were effective and safe. Unfortunately, even the FDA has been captured by the moneyed and aggressive promotion of new drugs by mega-pharmaceutical manufacturers who make it their business to understate the risks and overestimate the benefits of a whole plethora of drugs. This was precisely the theme of recent Academy Award-winning movie Dallas Buyers Club.

If it is the case that drug companies need oversight – in other words, if an industry that is ostensibly in the business of restoring health and wellness actually operates purely from a profit motive, and therefore needs to be regulated – then how much more imperative is it that we exercise an uncompromising regulatory scrutiny over the chemical industry – an industry that has time and again shown that it is recklessly and wilfully blind to human health and welfare. Need some examples?

How about the toxic and gruesome legacy of Union Carbide (later purchased by Dow Chemical) in Bhopal? How about Chevron in the Ecuadoran Amazon? How about Dupont’s dumping of more than 5 million pounds of toxic chemicals into New Jersey/Delaware waterways?How about the incontrovertible fact of toxic chemicals released into air (0.8 billion pounds per year), into water (0.22 billion pounds per year), on land (2.44 billion pounds per year), by underground injection (0.22 billion pounds per year) and off-site (0.41 billion pounds per year) for a total of 4 billion pounds annually (based on US EPA 2011 data from industry reporting). This is 11 million pounds each day, or 456,000 pounds each hour or 7.6 thousand pounds of toxic chemical waste produced and released each second by industrial facilities in the United States, some of which are known to cause cancer, birth defects and other debilitating diseases and most of which have never undergone comprehensive toxicity testing.

The fact is that of the more than 200 chemicals shown to be neurotoxic to human adults, almost half are produced or imported into the United States at more than 1 million pounds annually. Roughly 1,000 chemicals have been shown in animal studies to be neurotoxic. Most of the rest of the 80,000 chemicals in commerce have never been tested for long-term effects such as neurological damage, memory or learning impairment or cancer.

Behind all of these facts and statistics are human beings. Statistics are “human beings with the tears wiped away,” wrote Paul Brodeur, a heroic science writer who courageously exposed and challenged the asbestos industry. They can tell us something about the scale of the problem, but they do not even begin to describe the tragic consequences of exposure to toxic chemicals in products we use every day. Here we must speak for the most vulnerable – the unborn and the newly born and the poor and destitute, who have no choice but to live and work under the toxic umbrella of reckless and unregulated chemical industries. Is there a choice?

Yes, there is. There is such a thing as a sustainable, non-toxic green chemistry (benign by design) and there are growing efforts to re-educate chemistry students in a way that approaches the issue of chemistry in a sane way – as something that could actually be life-enhancing rather than life-destructive. There are very significant economic benefits to green chemistry. It can supply non-hazardous replacements for deadly and destructive chemicals. What will accelerate this supply, create new jobs and lead to growth in new markets is, of course, consumer demand for safer, non-toxic products.

However, real consumer choice must be informed by easily accessible, accurate and timely information obtained from reliable and impartial science. Whether we are talking about existing chemicals or green chemistry, we need to insure that there is full testing and transparency regarding the inherent hazards of new and existing chemicals.

What we cannot do is allow the statistics or the science of chemistry to render human suffering and misery invisible, or in any way distract us from continuously bringing to light the moral and political implications of allowing human beings to be unwitting research objects for industrial chemistry. It is at this level of thought and action where we speak of our human right first to know and then democratically to determine what we are prepared to risk. It is here where we individually and collectively express a moral obligation to preserve the health and well-being of our children, our societies, our environment and our eco-system – not because these are a means to the end of profit but, quite plainly and simply, because they are goods in themselves.4

(This article originally appeared in Truthout


1 Rene Descartes, Philosophical Writings. Translated by Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Thomas Geach, Nelson’s University Paperbacks, 1979. p.65

4 I am much indebted to Jennifer Sass, senior scientist at NRDC, for reading this article, making incisive comments and helpful suggestions.

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