Mall residents of East Palestine, Ohio are wary of the environmental contractor Norfolk Southern brought in to measure chemical exposures following the massive train derailment, toxic spill and chemical burn of the month last. Over the past decade, the Center for Environmental Toxicology and Health (CTEH) has become the go-to contractor for companies seeking to track environmental disasters with which they have been associated. CTEH carried out environmental tests after other derailments where toxic chemicals were released, such as the 2012 Kentucky derailment of a CSX train carrying butadiene (a human carcinogen) and other Norfolk Southern derailments in South Carolina and Georgia. CTEH also carried out environmental monitoring for BP’s cleanup efforts after the Deepwater Horizon offshore well blowout in 2010.
The people of eastern Palestine have reason to be suspicious. My experience working in government regulatory agencies in the Clinton and Obama administrations has led me to conclude that CTEH’s business model often involves providing clients with the ammunition needed to slow regulation or frustrate lawsuits. I think consulting firms like CTEH are entangled in irreparable conflicts of interest; if they produce results showing that customers’ products are harmful, it seems likely that their customer base will quickly disappear.
When companies face indications that their products or activities may cause environmental harm, it has become standard operating procedure to hire scientists not to determine the truth, but rather to manufacture doubt about the evidence. scientists then use this misinformation to try to slow down public health protections and frustrate lawsuits. This is where consulting firms, including CTEH, come into play.
The two industries most closely associated with this strategy are, of course, the tobacco And fossil fuels. In both cases, these industries dishonestly demanded evidence rather than public interest precaution. For decades, cigarette companies have employed scientists to claim that the links between tobacco and lung cancer, or nicotine and addiction, are unproven. Similarly, fossil fuel producers funded a small cohort of scientists to challenge the scientific consensus around the expected effects of increased atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases, while their own scientists were Accurately predict today’s climate crises. Debating science is a proven way to avoid discussing necessary political solutions.
I have seen this up close during two stints at the head of federal agencies. When I led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under President Barack Obama, the American Chemistry Council, the trade association for the chemical industry, opposed our efforts to issue a rule protecting more than 2 million workers from exposure to silica, which increases the risk of silicosis and lung cancer. The ACC hired mercenary scientists to question virtually all of the science underlying the proposed standard; their chief consultant even stood up in a public hearing and claimed that we had not proven the link between silica and silicosis.
It wasn’t the first time I had seen these tactics. During President Bill Clinton’s administration, I served as the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Assistant Secretary for Environment, Health, and Safety – among other things, this meant that I was responsible for the security of the nuclear weapons complex. There were dozens of workers across the complex with chronic beryllium disease, a debilitating and sometimes fatal lung disease caused by exposure to beryllium, a metal critical to making nuclear weapons. When the DOE was preparing to issue a standard to protect workers employed in the weapons complex from exposure to beryllium, Material (then called Brush Wellman), the nation’s leading metal fabricator, objected to the rule. The company hired product defense scientists to challenge existing studies and called for more research rather than efforts to reduce exposure. I was able to reject this attempt to delay these arguments and we published the most protective standard in 1999. Materion finally caught on and, together with the United Steelworkers (which represented many beryllium-exposed workers not covered by the DOE rule), asked OSHA to issue a beryllium standard similar to the one which the industry had opposed earlier, to cover the rest of the country’s beryllium-exposed workers.
Nonetheless, these efforts to thwart public health protections infuriated me. After leaving the Obama administration in 2017 and returning to the George Washington University School of Public Health, I wrote The Triumph of Doubt: Black Money and the Science of Deception, in which I document case after case of companies adopting the misinformation manual. Volkswagen, for example, funded efforts to challenge studies who documented the deleterious impact of diesel pollution on human health – at the same time he secretly installed “neutralization devices” to trick automotive emissions testing systems into underestimating engine exhaust diesel engines of its cars. Fossil Fuel Producers Use Product Defense Consultants in their efforts to counter studies showing that gas stoves increase household air pollution and the risk of asthma in childrenand to affirm that the the evidence for the health effects of air pollutants such as ozone is too uncertain to be used in setting regulatory limits. Even the National Football League, following early reports of concussion-related brain damage in its players, has taken the tobacco route. He appointed a committee of “experts” made up of members who had conflicting financial ties with the teams, and endeavored to discredit the mounting evidenceallowing the league to delay fixing the problem for a decade.
The CTEH was the source of controversy Before. As a result of their Hurricane Katrina reconstruction efforts, thousands of Gulf Coast residents have continued Knaufa German company that manufactures building materials, claiming that hydrogen sulfide, giving off gases from its construction drywall made in china, corroded their pipes and damaged their homes, making many of them sick. Knauf hired CTEH to measure chemicals emitted from drywall, and The CTEH declared them “not a public health problem.” However, in response to a deluge of consumer complaints, the Consumer Products Safety Commission hired Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to conduct an independent study. The CPSC reported that the Knauf drywall samples emitted hydrogen sulfide at a 100 times higher rate than the comparison samples. In this case, CTEH’s efforts for the manufacturer were unsuccessful; the builder ended up settling the dispute, pay hundreds of millions of dollars.
I understand the dilemma faced by corporate CEOs or their professional associations. They will never say that they put profits before the health and safety of their employees or the public, or that they care little about our air, our water or our food. But the decision-makers at the top of today’s corporate structures are responsible for delivering short-term financial returns to investors, and in the pursuit of these goals, a certain dissonance creeps in: profits and growth come first. . Minimizing the costs of cleaning up environmental disasters, opposing costly regulations, and defending against litigation are all part of the company’s calculus.
CTEH is the railway industry’s consultant of choice in these efforts. When the American Association of Railroads, the industry trade association, wanted to weaken the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s policy on classifying chemicals as carcinogens, their comments were written by the CTEH and sent under the CTEH header.
I do not claim that CTEH engineers intentionally falsify numbers or sample in such a way as to ensure a lower risk of exposure. There’s a famous quote from Upton Sinclair that says, “It’s hard to convince a man of something if his salary depends on his not believing it.” Psychologists call this phenomenon “motivated reasoning”. There is no doubt that being paid by a polluter changes a scientist’s motivations, and therefore his way of thinking and working, including the way he measures exposure and interprets the results.
We all need the best science to protect our health and our environment. The people of eastern Palestine must have confidence in the exposure monitoring carried out in their community. But why should we trust the result of a study carried out by a product defense consultancy?
There is a solution. Companies whose products or activities can harm people should be required to fund testing and research and then pull out.
To do this, we will need to develop new mechanisms for funding and administering surveillance and research. There are models like the Institute of Health Effectsa research group originally established in 1980 by the EPA and the automotive industry to study the health effects of motor vehicle emissions, with each party contributing half of the budget.
The bottom line is that scientific research into the potential harms of products and activities should be paid for by the producers of those products and activities. But research should be planned, conducted, analyzed and interpreted by independent scientists, not financial conflicts of interest. Only then can we have confidence in the results.
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