Your Body Is a Corporate Test Tube

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Public health historians David Rosner and Jerry Markowitz’s recent book, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children, chronicles the battles that have taken place over lead poisoning for the last half-century. This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.


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.

A lead warning sign hangs in a window in Lakewood, Ohio, in April 2013. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

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 even credit 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.


David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz are co-authors and co-editors of seven books and 85 articles on a variety of industrial and occupational hazards, including Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution and, most recently, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children, (University of California Press/Milbank, 2013). Rosner is a professor of history at Columbia University and co-director of the Center for the History of Public Health at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Markowitzis a professor of history at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

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  • mona

    really well done – covers several major chemicals and very good points.

  • Anonymous

    Solution, please. What can the public do to protect ourselves and our families?

  • AaG

    More people need to wake up to these facts and become more aware and self responsible for their own health instad of just taking everything for granted and just trusting their doctors alone for the responsibility of their health.

  • ksouthbama

    One nation, under $$$, with liberty and justice for some.

  • ckerbawy

    Not to mention the contamination of our food. Hormones used in beef and chicken
    that also cause early puberty, genetically modified corn, soy, canola, etc., and soon genetically engineered salmon. GMO’s are not required to be tested or labeled, Monsanto has essentially been granted immunity, and the studies that have been done (in Europe, because we don’t do it here) show that there are serious health concerns related to ingesting GMO’s.

  • Anonymous

    Said University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, “The social responsibility of business is profit”. Period. Not a healthy environment. Not disclosure of chemical or environmental risks. Not clean water, Not clean air. Not a lead-free environment. Not education, Not free or even affordable health care. Not an educated populace. Profit. Period. This is the motto and the religion of this country. It is an illness that until eliminated will consume our planet and our lives and our humanity. Those seven words — the social responsibility of business is profit — explains the behavior of our corporations, or politicians, or media, and our military. What is Friedman’s phrase the definition of? Capitalism. Period. Privatize profit and externalize costs. I get rich, you get sick. I get rich, you get poor. I get rich, you get an oil spill. I get rich, you get a phony democracy. I get rich, you get a war. “The social responsibility of business is profit”. Period.

  • Matt

    Seems to pose more questions than answers. Being in the construction industry I am particularly interested in the Lead issue. From the article and what I have heard about how dangerous lead is I don’t understand how the children of the people working in these lead factories were not all devastated with lead associated disease. And if they were, was there a big cover up at the time or what? The government has come out with a lot of expensive procedures and requirements for the construction trades with little explanation about the study that the requirements are based on.
    I am not saying that I am disagreeing with the article, although hypochondriac’s are going to explode after reading this.
    In closing, what was our life expectancy before we started poisoning ourselves?

  • http://www.facebook.com/ottertruth.boxworth Ottertruth Boxworth

    Look up Safer Chemicals Healthy Families on the web. They are working to get congress to update the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. (Healthy Child Healthy World has good ideas for families.) Also, consider supporting an Amendment to the Constitution that would reverse Citizens United and help put some distance between corporations and elected officials. (Groups include Public Citizen and Move to Amend and others.)

  • Anonymous

    And yet there is this huge rise in cancer rates in this nation as well as other illnesses.

  • Charles Hilton

    Cancer, respiratory ailments and allergies, and just about every other chronic illness has risen sharply in recent decades. Medical intervention has kept people alive only to suffer declining health and quality of life while the medical bills pile up.
    Oh, and by the way, America’s average lifespan has leveled off in some places and is actually declining in other places in spite of spending more on healthcare than most other countries. The U.S. is now eleventh in life expectancy behind ten other developed nations.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pat.elgee.5 Pat Elgee

    I lived in a home nearly a mile from a composting facility. They used the “wind row” method. The city took sludge (what ever was flushed or dumped down drains–think truck loads of diarrhea, throw in heavy metals (lead) and toxic chemicals) mix it with sawdust, and let the wind blow across it to dry it. Then spread it on the land and let it contaminate the surface water and the ground water.

    Be sure to turn it over 2x daily (think snow blower) throwing it into the air. OCSHA sees to it that workers wear protective gear, but the neighbors are on their own. Actually those who get sickest are those who live nearby and spend the most hours in their homes, women, children, and the elderly.

    There were half a dozen cases of hepatitis, new auto-immune diseases, but mostly upper respiratory infections; pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infection. To be expected since people were inhaling human feces. With sinus infections, people reported thought disorder, probably because of the lead. People experienced vision problems. Those who wore contacts knew pain.

    The EPA and DEP (state of Maine) helped the city council fight the citizens whose children were sick. I knew of 3 deaths directly connected to the facility, but how to prove the connection?
    My point? We have no democracy–our congress is bought and paid for by large corporations. The EPA is a joke. They were fighting for the right to keep making the people sick, regardless of the death toll!
    Homes, well yes, the Chinese drywall, MDF, particle board, paints, plastics, carpets, furniture. Industry can do what it wants. Did you know that if there is a fire and you have carpet, you will be overcome by fumes sooner than by smoke? I am voting out all incumbents. My best effort.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Herman/100001010274735 James Herman

    You can’t buy a singlewide that doesn’t have formaldehyde in it. They just won’t even make one. I’ve inquired just in case something happens to my singlewide and I need a replacement. I’d be willing to pay more just to avoid the formaldehyde. Probably because exclusionary zoning doesn’t allow singlewides to be placed on residential lots so the only people buying singlewides are mobile home park residents who are looking for the least expensive housing possible. I eventually installed a fresh air heat recovery ventilator after owning my singlewide for 10 years. Prior to that I opened the windows at each end of my home and ran a window fan at both windows. Did that even during winter. It was 5 years of doing that before the formaldehyde gased out enough so that just the air that got sucked in through a damper that opened every time the furnace blower motor ran brought in enough fresh air through a vent in the roof. The symptoms I experienced were similar to having a cold with your nasal passages swollen so you just couldn’t breathe. Now this article says formaldehyde may be linked to prostate cancer. When I visit my Dad 300 miles away I just put on a disposable diaper and make the 6 hour drive nonstop. I pee 5 times in 6 hours. So you know my prostate is choking off the flow. When I was in my early 20′s and had to really go I could almost fill a 12 ounce can. Now when I’m on a long bicycle ride and pee into a water bottle I only put in 3 or 4 ounces. At least Absopure has said that their one gallon water jugs are BPA free. I’ve been drinking their bottled water since the late 70′s.

  • Anonymous

    What action, sir, can be taken to get past the “Not no way, not no how” Congress and open the gates to reason? This is what happens when corporations are people and human beings are products.

  • Montaigne Lover

    The problem won’t be solved in DC right now, that is corporate owned territory. The bad news is: there IS no quick fix to our long term problems, environmental issues being only one of them. The good news: there is hope. We can start EDUCATING our young’ns. So here is how you can best serve the world, your country, and possibly, ironically, your own self as well: TEACH! Find a subject you love, learn everything about it, then go share your passion with your students. Try to inspire them- learning can be FUN dammit! Also, whatever subject you teach, you MUST instill critical thinking capabilities by modeling them yourself and constantly pushing the kids. I recommend serving in a poor area- the kids can be difficult, but they can be very creative and critical as well. Good luck and spread the word :)

  • Montaigne Lover

    I use to blame capitalism, but I don’t anymore. I actually think our system COULD work well if its two primary prerequisites were met: an EDUCATED and INFORMED citizenry. We have neither in this country, and the ubiquitous corruption in politics seems to me to be the NATURAL result of such a state of ubiquitous ignorance and corporate propaganda.

    The two issues, the ONLY two issues that matter today are these: education and media reform. So long as our citizenry remains horribly misinformed and indoctrinated, nothing of substance will change.

  • HelenInPgh

    Devra Davis wrote an excellent book called “The Secret History of the War on Cancer” that shows how the tobacco companies, the asbestos companies, etc. suppressed known dangers of their products and exposed their employees and customers to toxic substances. I highly recommend it.