Gun manufacturers maintain that it’s impossible to know how guns get into the hands of criminals. This episode of NOW with Bill Moyers looked at legislation passed by the House and headed to the Senate that would remove liability from these companies when their guns were misused. It was the first time in history that an entire industry could be immunized against lawsuits. But one former gun industry insider said major gun manufacturers deliberately look the other way while some dealers sell their guns to criminals. Can one whistle blower change the industry? NOW profiles Robert Ricker, former executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council, who turned to fighting the industry he used to protect.
Next, many environmental toxins were banned in the 1970s. But do they still exist in our bodies? Kenneth A. Cook, president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), discussed the alarming traces of pollutants found in our bodies and what is or isn’t being done to protect us.
As a reminder of other ways of seeing, Bill Moyers revisited his poetry series for renewal. Accompanied by the music of the Paul Winter Consort, renowned poet and translator Coleman Barks recited the poetry of 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi.
WATCH A CLIP
Moyers: Welcome to NOW. The war in Iraq has not been easy but it has been quick. The peace will not be easy or quick. A country liberated from tyranny now faces anarchy.
In the last 24 hours there has been a breakdown of law and order across Iraq. NPR reports that even hospitals in Baghdad are being looted. Rivalry among Muslim clerics has led to violence and in the north, Turks and Kurds are at each other’s throats.
The news agency Reuters reported this afternoon that the United States is stepping in to run Iraq’s oil industry, the country’s main source of revenue.
In the weeks ahead, we’ll continue to cover the difficult task of peace in Iraq. But in this broadcast, we are staying home to report on what’s happening right here in America.
Recently we asked you to tell us what news you think is not being covered. At least 2,000 of you have responded. One of the first letters underscored the Catch-22 inherent in our invitation:
My problem is I don’t know what news we are not getting. That’s what I depend on the journalist to tell me. Since the only subject being reported on is the war, it makes a person wonder if everything else that’s happening in the world is newsworthy at all. — B. Kelley
One of the most important but least reported stories has been happening this week in Congress.
On Wednesday, even as the battle for Baghdad ended, the House of Representatives passed a bill to protect the gun industry immunity from lawsuits.
It’s the first industry to be given such blanket immunity, and it comes at a time when cities across the country are suing gun companies for making weapons and then looking the other way as they are sold to criminals.
There’s something behind this story that will take your breath away. Here is our report prepared by NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling and NOW Producer Bryan Myers.
Zwerdling: Bob Ricker has had a change of heart. He spent his career fighting for the gun industry. He was the gun makers’ voice in Washington, DC. But now Ricker’s decided to spill some of the industry’s most troubling secrets.
You don’t look on the face of it like a turncoat or like a formidable enemy. Which is how a lot of people have described you.
Ricker: I guess there are probably a lot of people out there in the firearms industry that are afraid of what I have to say.
Zwerdling: And what this insider says is astonishing: he says executives of America’s leading gun companies know that some dealers are selling their guns to criminals — tens of thousands of crime guns every year. And the companies refuse to stop supplying those dealers.
Ricker: The industry knows, and they’ve known for a long time, that there are bad guns dealers. There are bad distributors. And these people are the source of a large portion, or a majority of all crime guns.
Zwerdling: So you’d be sitting with top gun industry executives…
Zwerdling: And people would be openly talking about the fact that their guns were being sold to criminals and they knew who was doing it?
Ricker: Yeah. They knew how to find out about who was doing it.
Zwerdling: We’re talking about one of the issues that almost everybody in America worries about: How does this country stop criminals from getting guns? More than 10,000 people were murdered last year with guns. More than 40,000 were wounded. Everybody from the President to local police has to grapple with this problem. But Ricker says one group could staunch the torrent of illegal guns faster than just about anyone: the gun makers.
So you’re saying that any day of the week, any gun industry executive could figure out which of their dealers are funneling guns to crooks?
Ricker: Yeah, or where there’s a problem.
Zwerdling: And it’s easy?
Ricker: Sure, it would be easy.
Zwerdling: You might hear Bob Ricker’s name a lot more in the coming months. Cities like Chicago and Los Angeles are dragging the gun makers to court — they’re trying to prove that the companies are guilty of what they call willful blindness.
Mayors like James Hahn of Los Angeles say Ricker’s their star witness.
Hahn: It’s stunning, Robert Ricker’s affidavit because it’s what we suspected all along. But to have an insider like Robert Ricker say it like that, to tell it like it is, I mean, this is, no pun intended, the smoking gun we were looking for.
Zwerdling: Just this week, THE NEW YORK TIMES called Ricker “the gun industry’s first major whistleblower.” This is the first time he’s told his story in detail on TV.
Bob Ricker has been one of the most powerful lobbyists in the gun world since the 1980s. He ran the industry’s main trade group in Washington DC. He was its point man on Capitol Hill, and Ricker was the gun makers’ voice on TV.
Ricker [ABC World News Tonight 1/2/99]: There is no manufacturer of any product that can guarantee that the end consumer is not going to misuse the product in some way.
Zwerdling: But privately, Bob Ricker concluded that the gun makers could be doing a lot more to stop criminals from getting their guns. He says he realized from talking with industry executives that they knew how to curb the market in crime guns.
As you watched the carnage across the country did it bother you mainly because you’re an American citizen and you hated seeing this death and misery, or did it bother you because you’re a businessman, you represent the manufacturers and you thought it was bad for their image?
Ricker: Well, it was bad all the way around. I mean, it was bad for business. They were paying millions of dollars in legal fees to defend themselves.
Zwerdling: To understand Ricker’s charges, you need to understand how criminals get their guns. One of the main ways is simple — they go to crooked dealers. Watch this video which undercover cops made near Detroit. They’re conducting a sting operation to catch crooked gun dealers. The cops are about to make what’s called a straw purchase. That’s when a criminal who can’t buy guns legally gets one through a friend who can.
On the left, one of the cops is posing as a “felon.”
Freeze the frame for a moment . The laws say that a dealer cannot sell guns to anybody who they have reason to believe is a felon.
The “felon’s” solution? He brings a buddy to buy the gun for him. And the salesman goes along, he cheerfully reminds them to lie.
And now the “felon” has his gun. A federal report says that straw purchases like this one are the single biggest way that criminals get guns.
Police and federal agents have been trying to crack down on crooked sales since the 1970s. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the ATF, runs a national tracing system, to help them do it. There’s a whole center in West Virginia where federal employees spend all their time tracing who bought and sold crime guns.
ATF Agent: This is Brenda from ATF. I have a gun trace I need some help with, please.
Zwerdling: This ATF center traces around two hundred thousand crime guns every year. Here’s how it works.
Whenever local police find a gun at a crime scene, they’re supposed to contact the center and report the gun’s brand name and serial number. Then, ATF calls the manufacturer and asks, which dealer did you sell this gun to? Gun makers have to keep a record of every transaction. Those ATF calls give gun makers the information they need to find out which dealers sell crime guns.
Gerry Nunziato was the head of ATF’s tracing center until a few years ago. He helped design the system — Nunziato says he wanted to make it easy for the gun companies to figure out which dealers were funneling their guns to criminals. He says he’d plead with industry executives to act on this information.
Nunziato: I would attend at least four or five major industry shows a year and put on a presentation. I would offer to give them the data.
Occasionally at these meetings that we would have with the industry, an industry member would ask if they could see a printout of all the guns that they manufactured that were involved in crime. I would immediately produce it for them, and give it to them.
Zwerdling: Nunziato says look, do you want to see how easy it is to figure out which dealers might be crooked? It takes only a few minutes.
Nunziato: If you were a manufacturer, and you were interested in what dealers were handling the firearms that turn into crime guns, you actually buy this Freedom of Information Act database from the ATF. It costs $50. It’s published each year.
Zwerdling: I can buy this data?
Zwerdling: Nunziato says here’s what you could do with this disk. Type in a few commands, and presto, the computer shows all of your company’s guns that turned up in crimes in a recent period.
Nunziato: So this is the manufacturer. This is the type of weapon. This is a revolver.
Zwerdling: .22 caliber.
Nunziato: .22 caliber. And this is the dealer number, the license number that’s assigned to particular firearms dealer by the ATF.
Zwerdling: Like your driver’s license number.
Zwerdling: A few more commands and the computer lists every dealer in the country who sold any of your company’s guns that ended up in a crime. And then the computer ranks the dealers according to who sold the most crime guns.
The list shows that this company sells its guns through thousands of dealers. And among those thousands of dealers, 36 stand out. Those 36 dealers were responsible for selling over a 100 crime guns each. So Nunziato says the company could easily identify the fishy dealers, and stop selling them guns.
Nunziato: The question I would ask: why is this small group involved only with crime gun sales? And why is this tiny group only involved with the vast majority of crime gun sales?
Zwerdling: And that brings us back to Bob Ricker and the executives he was working for in the gun industry. Publicly, executives kept insisting there was no way they could find out who the crooked dealers were. Ricker says they were lying. They had access to this kind of information the whole time he was working for them. And he says executives talked about it just about every time they met.
Ricker: I would hear the horror stories they would tell about, well gee, we just, we were called last week by ATF and we found out that there was a gun dealer in Florida who purchased, you know, two or three hundred guns from us and you know what? His license wasn’t valid and he went out and sold them on the street. I mean, these were topics of discussion at every board meeting, every major gathering of the industry.
Zwerdling: Ricker says he couldn’t believe it: the executives decided to ignore ATF’s tracing reports. He says it was part of a careful legal strategy. Local governments began suing the gun companies in the 1990s, like the states were suing big tobacco. Ricker says gun industry lawyers figured, if the executives don’t look at the tracing data, they can honestly testify, “we don’t know which of our dealers might be crooks.”
Ricker: They have set up internal procedures so that they don’t know.
Zwerdling: Ricker says industry leaders eventually decided that this issue of crooked dealers was so potentially explosive, that they shouldn’t even talk about it at their meetings anymore. They worried that opposition lawyers might learn about these conversations, and that could hurt the gun companies in court.
Ricker: One lawyer in particular, who is very influential with the industry, he became adamant in the late 90’s that these meetings shouldn’t even take place.
Zwerdling: Ricker says there’s one more reason why executives at the gun companies refused to crack down on dealers: profits. One study has found that as many as 25% of all handguns sold in America end up being used in a crime. Ricker says some gun makers could go out of business if criminals couldn’t buy their guns.
So you’re telling us that you’re sitting in meetings, meeting after meeting, with top gun industry executives. You’re saying folks, everybody knows how to find out who’s selling guns to criminals. And these executives are telling you they don’t want to do it because they don’t want to hurt their profits?
Ricker: Right. They don’t want to know. They just don’t want to hear about that.
Zwerdling: By the late 1990s, Ricker was publicly proclaiming that it was time for his industry to reform. Industry leaders didn’t want to hear it. This memo, dated June 1999, is from a top gun trade group. The title reads “Reining in Ricker.” It’s addressed to several prominent gun executives, and the memo says, somebody “needs to direct Mr. Ricker to become silent.”
One month later, Bob Ricker resigned. And he decided to go over to the other side.
Henigan: So there I was in the courtroom and I looked out to the courtroom and I saw Bob Ricker in the back row.
Zwerdling: Dennis Henigan is one of the top lawyers suing the gun makers. In fact, on the day when Ricker showed up in court, Henigan was arguing a gun case.
Henigan: And as I was packing up my files to exit the courtroom, he came up to me and he said, “You know, we ought to sit down and talk.”
Ricker: I viewed the situation developing that the industry was not being responsible. And I felt a moral obligation to come forward.
Zwerdling: We tried to interview company executives who Ricker says have allowed dealers to funnel guns to criminals. And we tried to speak with the industry leader whose name is on that memo that says Ricker should be silenced. None would give us an interview. But one industry spokesman did agree to talk. Lawrence Keane is Vice President of the gun makers’ main trade group.
Robert Ricker. What is your reaction to him and what he is saying now?
KEANE: Well, it’s not appropriate for me to respond to the specific allegations. We’ll respond to those in court. But let me just say that the notion or the suggestion that the industry is willingly and knowingly selling guns to criminals is patently false. It’s offensive. It’s really an outrageous allegation. And it’s just not true.
Zwerdling: Do executives in the gun industry know, or could they know, which distributors and dealers are funneling guns to criminals?
Keane: No, they don’t know that, they can’t know that.
Zwerdling: Do you think executives in the gun industry would like to know which distributors and dealers are funneling guns to criminals?
Keane: Well, sure we would like to see those individuals arrested, prosecuted, and thrown in jail. But I think what your question asks, is, or suggests, is there some way that the industry could know who those individuals are? I don’t know how they would find that information.
Zwerdling: Which seems strange, since government officials have reminded company executives over the years how they can get that information.
Zwerdling: ATF sent this letter to one of the best-known companies. It says “the information will be provided” on a computer disc if the company sends a check for 50 bucks.
But Keane says no, gun makers can’t get that information from the ATF. He says in any case, it’s not appropriate for the industry to crack down on crooked dealers. That’s the job of ATF.
Keane: And what ATF has repeatedly told the industry is it does not want the industry to try to ferret out or conduct its own investigations to find out who the corrupt dealers are. Because doing that, Dan, will jeopardize investigations and jeopardize the lives of law enforcement officers.
Zwerdling: But look at this government document from two years ago. This is the Justice Department’s and ATF’s official strategy to cut down on gun violence. The report calls on gun companies to “police” their own industry, and it asks executives to “identify and refuse to supply dealers” that “have a pattern of selling guns to criminals.”
Ricker: I mean, McDonald’s even has a system where you know, if they find a McDonald’s restaurant who’s putting mustard on a Big Mac, they’re cut off. You know, it’s common business practice.
Zwerdling: So if a dealer is selling to criminals…
Ricker: Cut him off.
Zwerdling: Here’s what I don’t get, though. If it’s so easy as you and as the folks who have worked at ATF say to figure out which dealers are probably funneling guns to criminals, then why doesn’t the ATF go after them and arrest them? Put them in jail?
Ricker: The ATF tries to. I mean, let’s just look at the numbers. Over 100,000 gun dealers out there. And how many employees does the ATF have? Or agents?
Zwerdling: Only about 2600 investigators, actually. And they’re responsible for the tobacco industry, the alcohol industry, overseeing explosives — not just guns.
Ricker: The ATF is overworked, understaffed and underpaid. And the industry knows that.
Zwerdling: And that’s just part of the problem. The gun lobby has convinced Congress over the years to make it incredibly hard for the ATF to shut down crooked gun dealers. In fact, the NRA has called on Congress to abolish ATF. And the NRA has an influential friend. Attorney General John Ashcroft is one of the NRA’s most loyal supporters. Ashcroft just took over the ATF under the Homeland Security Plan. We wanted to interview ATF officials for this story, but Ashcroft’s office said “no.”
The Mayor of Los Angeles says Ashcroft’s policies are making it harder for cities to fight crime.
Hahn: I think the attorney general’s position is an embarrassment to the country. We ought to be doing everything we can to make sure that people who shouldn’t have guns don’t get them and the nation’s top law enforcement officer actually stands in the way of law enforcement doing what they should do.
Zwerdling: So Los Angeles and dozens of other cities are suing the gun makers. So are activist groups like the NAACP. There’s no law that specifically requires gun makers to crack down on the criminal trade, but Hahn and the other plaintiffs are coming up with novel legal strategies.
Hahn: No, I can’t point and say that Colt, or Smith & Wesson, actually murdered somebody on the streets of Los Angeles. But I think their deliberate indifference causes that crime.
I think that’s what Ricker points out, is that that’s the dirty little secret that they don’t want to admit. The dirty little secret is they know their products are getting into the hands of criminals and they could have done something about it.
Zwerdling: So far, the gun companies have been winning the majority of their legal battles. But that could change. One prominent pro-gun lawyer told the magazine GUN WEEK that Ricker’s charges are “devastating.”
Moyers: Devastating indeed. And it explains why the gun distributors, dealers, and manufacturers are flexing their muscle in Congress to get sweeping immunity from citizen lawsuits. If they succeed in the Senate as they have in the House, those lawsuits with Bob Ricker as the star witness would be thrown out.
Sarah Brady has something to say about that. Her husband — then the White House press secretary — was paralyzed by gunfire during the assassination attempt on President Reagan. Since then, Sarah Brady has been leading a campaign against gun violence. She says the legislation passed this week by the House would slam the courthouse doors to people who have been wronged.
Oh yes, that $50 computer disk that traces which dealers sell guns to criminals? Well, the ATF under Attorney General John Ashcroft is no longer allowed to give out that information.
When we asked you two weeks ago to let us know what stories and issues you thought were not being covered, your response was valuable and voluminous.
Many of you want to know what’s happened to all those corporate scandals.
What’s the current status of Kenneth Lay and other CEOs [implicated] in Enron and other similar business scams? Are any of them actually behind bars? — Gordon Bennett
Kenneth Lay, in fact, has yet to be indicted for any wrongdoing in the Enron debacle.
Enron creditors, though, are suing Mr. Lay and his wife for $84 million that the corporation lent the happy couple a few years ago.
On our NOW Web site on pbs.org, you can find out what’s happening to other corporate executives embroiled in scandal.
Some of you wanted to know what’s happened to executive pay since our report on the subject a year ago.
Here’s an excerpt from an interview we did then with Bud Crystal, one of the country’s foremost analysts on the subject.
Crystal: We did a study of CEO pay in 1973, from major companies the ratio of pay to the CEO of worker was 140 times then it kept rising and rising. 200… 300… Now it’s very close to 500 times.
Moyers: Since our report, as everyone knows, the economy and the stock market have continued their downward slide. 108,000 people lost their jobs just last month, almost half a million in the last two months, and over two million in the last two years.
During this time, the biggest paychecks in 200 large companies have shrunk to an average of just $10.8 million a year.
However, the median pay of chief executives in those companies still rose faster than the typical workers’ income and executive pay remains 500 times greater than worker pay.
Some corporate boards still don’t get it.
Honeywell Corporation shares fell 27 percent last year, but Honeywell gave its retiring chief executive a $4 million bonus, sort of like the coach who gets a raise despite a losing season.
Walt Disney, Abbott Labs and Cardinal Health also increased the pay of their executives even as their investors were suffering large losses.
Continental Airlines gave its CEO nearly $15 million in compensation even as the company is laying off 1,200 additional workers.
Here’s a letter from Liz and Jim McGowen with a question about another big story concerning politics and corporations:
How many corporations that do business with the Department of Defense have off-shore tax shelters?
We are looking into those military contracts.
But there is some good news: 152 members of Congress, a bipartisan group, have introduced a bill, called the Corporate Patriot Enforcement Act, that would close down offshore tax havens used by some of America’s biggest corporations to avoid taxes.
Take a look at this ad campaign that was launched by supporters of that effort this week.
Television Ad: In the sands of Iraq our soldiers risk their lives for our country.
At the same time big corporations are abandoning our country and setting up phony headquarters in the sands of Bermuda.
President Bush and Vice President Cheney are asking American taxpayers for $75 billion to pay for the war but they won’t close the loopholes that let corporations cheat us out of $70 billion a year in taxes.
We’re doing our part to support our brave men and women overseas. Why aren’t they?
Moyers: Those ads are being run in several places in the country, including the Texas district of House majority leader Tom Delay, and the Illinois district of Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.
At a Washington press conference this week, sponsors of the ads said Hastert and Delay are refusing to allow the House of Representatives to vote on the Corporate Patriot Enforcement Act.
Huffington: We are calling our Americans to call their own legislators to vote on this bill. But first calling on Dennis Hastert and Tom Delay to allow the bill to come to the floor.
Moyers: Columnist Arianna Huffington is one of the co-founders of the Bermuda Project, the citizens’ organization that is trying to end to overseas corporate tax shelters.
Representatives from the internet web site moveon.org, from the Campaign for America’s Future, and from Citizens for Tax Justice also spoke at the event.
McIntyre: The kind of tax sheltering that is going on today in corporate America and among wealthy Americans is unprecedented in the history of our nation’s tax system.
Huffington: It’s not a left/right issue actually because many conservatives are feeling also passionate about the need to abolish tax shelters.
Moyers: The Bermuda Project has posted the names of companies using overseas tax shelters on its Web site.
These are some of America’s best-known corporations: Bank of America, Boeing, American Express, Sara Lee and Halliburton.
Huffington: So you have Halliburton for example which is in a way a poster child for this, a company that had been run by Dick Cheney until he joined George Bush’s presidential ticket and which on his watch went from having nine tax shelter subsidiaries to having 44.
Moyers: Halliburton makes most of its money from oilfield services.
Just this week, the Army Corps of Engineers disclosed that despite its use of offshore tax breaks, Halliburton got a contract to put out oil well fires in Iraq that could bring the company tens of millions of dollars in profit. And it got that contract from the Bush-Cheney administration with no competitive bid.
Halliburton subsidiaries, again despite its use of off-shore tax breaks, also have government contracts to build prison cells at Guantanamo Bay and to provide cooking, construction, power, and fuel transportation to the Army and Navy.
The Defense Department, headed by Vice President Cheney’s close friend Donald Rumsfeld, gave no public notice for awarding the Halliburton contract claiming that in a time of war, that’s classified information.
Huffington: It’s a real irony that the cost of tax shelter is about the same as the cost of the war. At a time when we’re paying over $70 billion for the war, we’re losing over $70 billion in tax shelters. That has to stop.
Moyers: Which brings us back to your emails. One of you asked: “Exactly how many bombs have been dropped so far in Iraq?” We don’t have the latest figures, but for the first 16 days of war the answer would be: 12,000 precision-guided bombs alone.
This week the newspaper roll call reported that the Bush administration “has quietly doubled the amount of money it is seeking from Congress to reload its stock of cruise missiles, smart bombs, and conventional bullets,” providing, in the newspaper’s words, “a modest wartime bonus to several of the nation’s leading munitions makers.”
Who will profit from the war while the deficit grows and health and education are blown to smithereens? I’m a high school English teacher in California who just got her pink slip. — Betsy Taylor
Betsy Taylor is just one of many. This week it was reported that 25,000 primary and secondary school teachers in California have been notified that they would be laid off.
The state is broke, although that’s not keeping democratic Gov. Gray Davis from building a new death row unit at San Quentin prison at a cost of $220 million.
We received several letters asking why only $3 million had been allocated to an independent commission investigating the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Recently, Congress and the White House agreed to give an additional $9 million to the work of the commission.
Many of you wrote to ask for coverage of the secret trials of suspected terrorists and the draft Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, also know as PATRIOT II.
We reported on this subject on Feb. 7 with Chuck Lewis at the Center for Public Integrity.
You can learn more about PATRIOT II on our web site at pbs.org.
Many of you asked for more coverage of the rest of the world: civil war in Colombia, the resurgence of chaos in Afghanistan, hunger in Africa.
But most of you asked for more news about power and democracy. What’s behind closed doors in Washington, who wins and who loses.
Several of you put the environment at the top of your list — especially the rollback of environmental protection.
Cliff Ivy wrote: “The House of Representatives vote to cut $844 million dollars next year and billions more over the following nine years from veterans medical care.”
And this from Ann Barysh in Massachusetts: “My umbrella topic would be what’s happening in the school house?”
Finally this letter:
How is it all government’s fault for there not being enough money for the homeland? Why not have industry pay out better wages, so people don’t need taxcuts to survive? How is it OK for service economy jobs to pay so dismally compared to production industry? — Jeff Szklennik
You’ll find more of your letters about what’s not being covered, on our Web site at pbs.org.
Go there as well for information about Project Bermuda, MoveOn, and Arianna Huffington’s best-selling book, Pigs at the Trough.
Announcer: Next week on NOW: the American work week is under assault.
Bravo: There’s a whole slew of measures that have been taken to hurt worker rights.
Announcer: What hard-won labor protections will fall by the wayside if new legislation passes in Congress? Next week on NOW.
Connect to NOW With Bill Moyers online at pbs.org.
What’s not in the news? NOW viewers respond. Find out how criminals get guns and read about lawsuits against the gun industry. Is your environment dangerous to your health? Discover the body burden study. Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
Once again, Bill Moyers.
Moyers: I’m going to talk now, not as a journalist, but as a guinea pig. Or as my buddy, Bill O’Reilly might say, a lab rat. Most of us don’t know it, but our bodies are laboratories for a vast chemical experiment. We’re bombarded daily by toxins. They’re in the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe. They’re in the things we touch every day. Look at this headline, quote, “Government Report Says Wood Play Sets Pose A Cancer Risk.” The story goes on to report that scientists now know that children playing in millions of outdoor wood playground sets face an increased risk of bladder and lung cancer from arsenic exposure. But chemicals are showing up in everyone’s bodies, not just kids’. And that’s how I became a guinea pig. I volunteered for a test to discover my body burden. That’s the term scientists use to describe the chemicals accumulating in our bodies simply by living in our world. I was one of the first participants in the study. Here’s a clip.
[Excerpt from Trade Secrets: A Moyers Report]
Moyers: In this arm?
Nurse: Preferably, if that’s where your vein is good at.
Moyers: For the purpose of this broadcast, I volunteered to take part in their study. A much larger project is underway at the US Centers for Disease Control.
Moyers: And you’re looking for chemicals?
McCally: Not the body’s normal chemicals. We’re looking for industrial chemicals, things that weren’t around 100 years ago, that your grandfather didn’t have in his blood or fat. We’re looking for those chemicals that have been put into the environment, and through environmental exposures — things we eat, things we breathe, water we drink — are now incorporated in our bodies that just weren’t there.
Moyers: You really think you will find chemicals in my body?
McCally: Oh, no question. No question.
Moyers: I’ll be back in a moment to tell you the results of that study, but right now we’ll introduce you to Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group. Mr. Cook’s organization commissioned that study, along with the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine here in New York and Commonweal, a nonprofit health and environmental research institute based in California. Welcome to NOW.
Moyers: Why did you do that study?
Cook: We did that study for a couple of reasons. One, every time you eat fruit, every time you breathe air, every time you put gas in your tank or paint your room, there’s an opportunity for some of these toxic chemicals to find their way into you. We wanted to document that. And oddly enough, it hadn’t really been documented before.
The study that you were a part of, is nine individuals, was the group of people who’ve been most extensively tested for a wide range of chemicals ever. And, in some cases, the levels we found in people were very high. And these weren’t incinerator workers or factory workers, they’re folks like you, maybe sitting behind a typewriter all day or making phone calls. Not out in a place where you’d expect a high chemical exposure. Just living.
Moyers: Just living?
Cook: Just living.
Moyers: Well, at the end of that documentary, I came back to find out what they had found out. So look at this.
[Excerpt from Trade Secrets: A Moyers Report]
McCally: We tested for 150 different industrial chemicals, and you have 84 of those 150.
Moyers: Wow. Eighty-four.
McCally: Eighty-four. In the PCB case, you had 31 different PCBs of this whole family of similar chemicals. They are all over the place. And it’s probably a function of where you live. You lived in some locale where PCBs were in the environment, and you got them into you through the air you breathed. Some of them get down in groundwater. Some of them get coated on food. You didn’t get them sort of in one afternoon because you ate a poisoned apple.
[End of excerpt]
Moyers: I may have eaten a poison apple, but I’m not sure. Now, I’m almost 70 years old, so clearly those PCBs haven’t killed me.
Moyers: Or any of the other stuff that I’ve been taking in during my lifetime.
Cook: No, I think the real issue becomes, you know, what does it to your risk in the case of PCBs, of cancer and in the case of PCBs also, nervous system disorders. You’ve lived a long time, and I hope you live a lot longer. The real issue here is, do we know enough at this stage to be allowing this wide range of chemicals to get into our bodies without fully understanding their effects? And the answer is we don’t know that, they’re not well studied.
Moyers: You tested for what? 210 chemicals?
Cook: Yeah something like that.
Moyers: And I brought these figures in. One year alone, I think this was ’98, American companies manufactured 6.5 trillion pounds of 9,000 different chemicals. And the major companies alone — this does not include the small chemical companies — dumped 7.1 billion pounds of 650 chemicals into our air and water.
Moyers: So we don’t know what most of these chemicals are doing.
Cook: No, we don’t. Most people are surprised to find out that it’s legal to dump so much chemical into the environment. Toxic chemical. Most people are surprised to find out that when they go to the grocery store or a pharmacy or a hardware store, that a lot of the chemicals that are in those products, the federal government does not stand behind them with safety testing. There are no safety tests required in many cases.
Moyers: I don’t want people to be alarmed unnecessarily, to think that — you don’t either — to think that, well, just because we had these chemicals, they’re going to cause cancer or they’re going to cause leukemia or whatever. So what’s the balance we have to strike here?
Cook: Well, I think the first balance that we should strike is a more rigorous testing system before we allow the chemicals on the market. Some chemicals are tested more rigorously. For example, pesticides are required to have 120 tests conducted on them. Now, we have quibbles ourselves with the kinds of tests that are done and how they’re interpreted. But the fact remains, before you can bring a new pesticide on the market, you have to do that testing because it’s going to be in food. That’s not the case with industrial chemicals. Very few tests are required. Well —
Moyers: Industrial chemicals, meaning?
Cook: Oh, an industrial chemical might be something that’s in gasoline or a chemical that’s in paint or something that’s in a consumer product. Another example of a pesticide that got out of the regulatory realm, and should have been regulated, is the arsenic that you described earlier in play sets. That’s technically a pesticide. And anyone who’s seen the high school play knows that arsenic’s bad stuff. And here we have it on play sets for decades, until finally EPA decides, “Hey, you know what? This arsenic’s kind of dangerous. We ought to take steps to get it off the market.”
Moyers: But doesn’t this mean a lot of parents are going to go out and pull their kids off the play sets, or not take them out this weekend to play on those play sets, when that may not be necessarily called for?
Cook: Well, in the case of arsenic, I would say if I had an arsenic-treated play set, I wouldn’t let my child play on it. And if I had an arsenic-treated deck, and I was out on it all the time, even now the government’s saying don’t eat on it. The Consumer Products Safety Commission is saying for play sets, wash your children’s hands every time they play on it. Ridiculous advice, when you think about it. We shouldn’t have had these products on the market to begin with. And it takes incredible effort to pull them off once they get on.
Moyers: How does it come to be that we know that ar … we know that arsenic causes …
Cook: Can …
Moyers: … can cause problems.
Moyers: And yet, all of these play sets are out there all across the country. Where did the system break down so that the knowledge we had does not get to the parents who ought to know about it?
Cook: Well, I think first of all, the government makes a decision in favor of the industry that it’s safe to use this material. Once that decision is made, and the lobbyists for the pressure-treated wood industry were very good at this for decades, they made the case to the government that this was a safe material. That not much of it rubbed off. That it didn’t get into soil.
Well, we all now know as a result of the scientific research, that was not true. So even in the Bush administration, you have action being taken during a time when there’s not a lot of regulatory action on the environment against play sets that have arsenic and deck wood that has arsenic. They’re phasing that out of the market. So it takes a lot. But the lobbying that goes into making sure that a product, once it’s on, stays on the market, however dangerous it may turn out to be is really the difference between an informed public that’s aware of risks and a government that basically turns a blind eye and lets the industry run the show.
Moyers: To its credit, the Environmental Protection Agency just last week confirmed, for the first time ever, that kids are more at risk from chemicals in the environment than adults.
Cook: That’s right. They’ve said that for certain kinds of cancer causing agents, the ones that act through mutation, the risk for children can be ten-fold greater than the risk for adults. In terms of the carcinogenic lifetime risk. Kids get a dose of those, and they’re going to be much more vulnerable to getting cancer later in life.
And EPA did come out and say, “Yes, that’s the case.” I think this is going to happen now with a lot of other realms of science that affect environmental policy. I think we’re going to find out that kids are much more vulnerable to nerve system toxins that might affect their development and their function. We may find issues with autism and asthma related to environmental exposure in children. We already have a lot of evidence. And I think that’s going to mean shifting the policy to be more protective of kids. And in doing that, will be more protective of all of us.
Moyers: What effect do you think your study will have on public policy?
Cook: Well, we’re already seeing some major effects from this study and other Body Burden studies that are being done around the country. Let me give you a great example, a study done in the Bay Area, out in San Francisco, looking at women and mercury content of their blood. And found out that women who were eating a lot of fish had very high levels of mercury. So high, in fact, that if they were thinking about having kids, it might be a risk to the infant. So what happened? The state Attorney General jumped in, and, filed a lawsuit against grocery chains out there, requiring them to label fish as being high in mercury. So that people could avoid them if they were informed.
Well, that kind of reaction, that’s what industry worries about. That once you find out what is in people and begin working back to the conclusion that we ought to avoid the exposure, you start flipping policy questions on their head. Instead of waiting until you prove a chemical’s guilty, and in this country, it’s the chemicals who are innocent until they’re proven guilty. Once you flip that on its head and say, “Until you can prove it’s safe, we ought to at least inform people that they’re going to be exposed.” Laws like that, that I think our study and others like it are inspiring, industry’s fighting very hard. Mostly, as you know, they win those fights. But, once we find out the chemicals are in us, I think it makes it harder to win.
Moyers: Industry says that that standard of study would be so expensive economically that the good effects that we gain from the chemicals in our environment can — better living through chemistry — that it would be too costly and we’d lose too much if we submitted all of these chemicals to the kind of high bar of testing that you are advocating.
Cook: Well, and, I think they’ve, you know, they’ve got a point. We’ve got all these chemicals on the market now, it’s too late to start from scratch with each and every one of them, take them off the market until we know they’re safe. So that’s not a possibility. But, you know, they raise this argument all the time. When it was found that lead in children was impairing their development and affecting their mental function. The obvious solution was to take lead out of gasoline and get it out of lead paint. Well, the industries for each of those products fought for decades to stop that from happening.
Moyers: But let me show you a headline from a recent edition of the LOS ANGELES TIMES. The headline says, “EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, plans to relax toxic emission standards. The proposal would allow businesses such as chemical plants to monitor their own releases and apply less rigorous control.”
Cook: Yes, self-regulation is very much the watchword in the Bush administration, unfortunately. And that’s a direct result…the headline you’re reading is a direct result of administration policy. The president, when he was governor of Texas had a similar kind of approach for pollution from power plants and other facilities in Texas. He was going to have them volunteer to cut air pollution. We didn’t find out until right after the election that no one had signed up for it. None of the companies had cut back any of their pollution in a voluntary way. And now that policy’s been scrapped.
Well, that now, that has moved to the national stage. So, volunteering for auto safety, volunteering for pollution control, volunteering for all manner of things is seen as a substitute for regulation.
Moyers: Industry, if they’re listening here, would tell us that, look, they’re simply correcting a balance. That there was too much command and control regulation by government of industry. And that they’re just trying to strike a better balance, right?
Cook: Yeah. Oh, sure, that’s the line. They’ll make the case that we’ve got a regulatory apparatus out there that is constricting the economy. That’s hurting job formation. That’s making it difficult for people to invest in inner cities because of population problems there. And if we just relax that a little bit, we’ll make progress and save the environment, uh, at the same time we make money. The problem with that line of argument it is, in so many cases in the past, where we have had regulatory action to deal with clean air, clean water problems, and the fears that were raised by industry were just as severe as they are now, we’ve gone ahead, taken the regulatory action, and lo and behold, the economy survived.
We banned DDT, we got lead out of gasoline. We took air pollution way, way down. We’ve got a long way to go. And in every instance, industry predicted this would be the end of the world. The sky would be falling economically. It just doesn’t happen. The American economy and American ingenuity is very dynamic. But, to hear industry tell it, and sometimes to hear the White House tell it, you’d think we volunteered to deal with all these air and water pollution problems. And that regulations are really just encumbering, but to be honest, if we continue the track we’re on now, which is rolling backwards, we’re weakening environmental standards, we’re loosening…
Moyers: Is that right? Is that happening across the board?
Cook: Across the board. It’s really been astonishing in this administration. Not so much in the Congress, it’s mainly been administrative action. We have seen rollbacks, changes to laws affecting wetlands. Obviously energy production has been put way ahead of environmental controls. Clean air, clean water, endangered species, forest protection. Everywhere you look, really, we’ve had significant rollbacks in environmental protection just in the past few years. You can’t always see the effects yet. But, we’ll be seeing those soon enough. And the problem, of course, is when it’s across so many issues, where do you take them on?
Moyers: When it comes to how Washington operates, the industry’s power is almost as strong among Democrats as it is among Republicans, isn’t it?
Cook: Yeah, it’s very hard for the Democratic party, and they’ve not moved forward hard on the issue of regulating the chemical industry. Too many Democrats are beholden, they come from states that have big chemical industries. They get big campaign contributions from the chemical industry.
Over time, we’ve really seen Democrats avoiding this topic. They’ll take on one chemical at a time, if there’s a major, dramatic exposure or accident or problem in our water supply. But they have been very reluctant to go at the root causes. Take on the lack of testing. Take on the fact that so much of our chemical industry is, in effect, self-regulated when it comes to exposing us to these toxic chemicals. No, the Democrats are not there yet for us, by any stretch.
Moyers: And self-regulation is not doing the job?
Cook: Self-regulation, shockingly enough, is not doing the job. It didn’t do the job at Enron, it’s not doing the job when it comes to toxic chemicals or automobile safety or anything else.
Moyers: If people listening want to know more about the Body Burden, want to know more about the Environmental Working Group, what can they do?
Cook: Well, they can come to our Web site, www.ewg.org. If they want to find out more about the Body Burden study that was just released by the Centers for Disease Control, fascinating work. They can go to the Web site for the Centers for Disease Control, just “Google” it and you’ll find it. Uh, that’s a great deal of information about toxic chemicals in the whole American population, a $6 million study.
Moyers: Ken Cook, the Environmental Working Group, thank you very much for joining us on NOW.
Cook: Thank you, Bill.
Moyers: An email circulated in cyberspace last weekend. Its author said simply, “it’s time for a break.” So we are ending tonight with a small space of our own.
For a decade or more we have made poetry part of our journalistic beat, and have filmed often at the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey. One of our favorite poets there is Coleman Barks, who is also widely known for his translations of the great 13th century Islamic poet and teacher, Jalaladdin Rumi.
Rumi was born in what is now Afghanistan, in the year 1207, but his family moved on, in the face of the Mongol invasion, moved to Baghdad, then Damascus, and finally to a crossroads on the Silk Road.
There, as a Sufi Muslim, he was influenced with both Christian and Jewish thought. It was a violent time, with the crusades raking back and forth across his land. But Rumi’s sense of the sacred remained inclusive, gentle, and true to the longing of the human heart.
Not only is Rumi’s work heard on radio throughout the Arab world, he is a best-selling poet in America. Hear, now, Coleman Barks, with the Paul Winter consort, and three poems from Rumi.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.
Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right,
It lands left.
I ride after a deer and find myself chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want and end up in prison.
I dig pits to trap others and fall in.
I should be suspicious of what I want.
Today, like every other day, we woke up empty and frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
The mind cannot understand Rumi’s poetry. Neither can desire. Mind and desire are not enough. There’s something else, some other way of knowing, some deeper part of our being that knows we’re not in grief, that knows we’re in eternity, you know, that sings out of that. That’s the mystery, I think, that cannot be said.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Moyers: Coleman Barks, the Paul Winter Consort, and the poems of Rumi. That’s it for NOW. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 9, 2015.