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Death by Corporation, Part II: Companies as Cancer Cells

Many corporations work like tumor cells for the relentless destruction of the environment.

(Image: Businessmen arrive via Shutterstock)

The financial industry, chemical industry, drug companies, nuclear industrial complex and dirty energy empire work “like tumor cells for the relentless destruction of the environment that they themselves depend upon for their very lives. And the rest of us stand by and watch it happen.”

Also See: Part I – Mankind: Death by Corporation

The Financial Industry

The global financial crisis of 2008, at a cost of more than $20 trillion, caused millions of people to lose their jobs and homes in the worst recession since the Great Depression. The financial crisis became a human crisis. The World Bank estimated that 53 million people worldwide were thrown into poverty and that between 200,000 and 400,000 babies died annually as a result. Millions of children in sub-Saharan Africa have suffered severe malnutrition and long-term brain damage as fallout from the financial disaster.

Suicide rates rise and fall with the state of the economy. Unemployment and foreclosure are the largest triggers in increased suicide risk. About 35,000 Americans die every year from suicides, up about 28 percent since 1999. Suicide rates in Europe, where the recession has been even more severe, are even higher. Ervin Lupoe from Wilmington, California, shot his five children and wife to death before turning the gun on himself. Lupoe was deep in debt, behind on his mortgage and had been fired from his hospital job. Anxiety, fear, crime, domestic abuse, murder and suicide all increased worldwide because of the financial crisis.

It was an “avoidable” disaster caused by widespread failures in government regulation, corporate mismanagement and heedless risk-taking by Wall Street, according to the conclusions of a federal inquiry. It was the private market, not government programs, that made, packaged and sold most of these wretched loans without regard to their quality. The packaging, combined with credit default swaps and other esoteric derivatives, spread the contagion throughout the world. That’s why what initially seemed to be a large but containable US mortgage problem touched off a worldwide financial crisis.

The speculative binge was abetted by a giant “shadow banking system” in which the banks relied heavily on short-term debt, snake oil mortgage hucksters and credit rating agencies that essentially prostituted themselves for cash from the investment banks. Regulators “lacked the political will” to scrutinize and hold accountable the institutions they were supposed to oversee. The financial industry spent $2.7 billion on lobbying from 1999 to 2008, while individuals and committees affiliated with it made more than $1 billion of campaign contributions.

The banking industry is completely unchastened. It is now pressing a full-frontal assault on repealing Dodd-Frank – a small, inadequate attempt to prevent it from destroying our economy again.

The Chemical Industry

Albert Einstein is often attributed with a statement like, “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.” Although Einstein may not have actually said that, and he was not an entomologist, the importance of pollinators to modern agriculture is difficult to overstate. Humans likely will not survive a total collapse of the bee population, and we are headed in that direction. Eighty-seven of the top human food crops, which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition, are pollinated by bees.

“Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less, dependent on nature’s services in a world of close to 7 billion people,” said UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Achim Steiner.

“Colony collapse disorder” (CCD) began to appear in 2007. The bees were abandoning their hives, losing their homing behavior and acting disoriented, kind of like “bee autism.” Like three blind mice, scientists, federal regulators and the media initially pointed the finger at climate change, poor nutrition, fungus, cell-tower radiation, mites, and viruses. Finally they’ve begun to open their eyes.

A new class of pesticides that systemically infiltrates the entire plant from seed to flower, called neonicotinoids, attacks the nervous system of insects with devastating efficiency. Neonicotinoids surged in popularity about the time CCD appeared. Not surprisingly, they were found to be as toxic to beneficial insects as they were to pests. These pesticides have risen to the top of the list of CCD culprits, and the European Union has placed a two-year ban on neonicotinoids. So far, nothing has been done by the EPA in the US.

Europe and the United States have different approaches to environmental regulation of toxic substances. Europe errs on the side of safety; the US errs on the side of corporate profits. Where Europe requires chemicals to demonstrate safety before release and is willing to take products off the shelf at a relatively low threshold of evidence, the United States does virtually the opposite. The EPA basically assumes all products are safe and will withdraw products only after they have been conclusively proven guilty of serious harm.

The chemical companies Bayer, Syngenta, BASF, Dow, DuPont and Monsanto (highlighted in Part I of this essay) have waved a smoke screen in front of the bee calamity, claiming the mystery cannot yet be solved and not even precautionary action can be taken. The mounting science that implicates their product is “faulty,” they say, just like the “junk” science that exposed tobacco, asbestos, lead and human-caused global warming. But to show its objectivity and concern, Monsanto is hosting a “Bee Summit,” Bayer is breaking ground on a “Bee Care Center,” and Sygenta is funding grants for research into the accelerating demise of honeybees in the United States. I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m willing to guess that the pesticide industry’s research will exonerate pesticides.

Despite the unique and critical function that bees perform, despite what is common sense to everyone else, the EPA appears only too happy to let the smoke screen obscure its responsibility to protect our food supply. The EPA has shunned researchers who have drawn conclusions critical of neonicotinoids and are poised to make the situation even worse by approving another bee-killing class of pesticides from our friends at Dow – the sulfoximines.

When it comes to safeguarding the food supply of all humankind or the profits of a handful of chemical companies, you can tell who has the upper hand.

The Drug Companies

About 20 years ago, the United States became, and still is, virtually the only major country where the $600 billion drug industry can advertise directly to consumers. Patients now tell their doctors what drugs they should be on. For the drug companies, the results have been spectacular, for public health, the exact opposite. The US is 49th in the world in life expectancy despite Americans taking more prescription drugs per capita than any other country. Spending on prescription drugs more than doubled between 1999 and 2008. Nine of ten adults over 60 are on a prescription drug, as are one of every four children and teenagers. More than 20 percent of all American adults are taking at least one drug for “psychiatric” or “behavioral” disorders. Americans’ recent fascination with doped-up zombies is a reality show playing out in front of their own mirrors.

Between 2001 and 2007, the percentage of adults and children on one or more prescriptions for chronic conditions rose by more than 12 million. Twenty-five percent of American children now take a drug for some kind of chronic condition. Nearly 3 million children are on Lipitor, the anti-cholesterol drug that is increasingly suspected of causing a wide range of neurologic pathologies, including Lou Gehrig’s disease. (It turns out nerve cells require cholesterol to function). Twenty million Americans are on these anti-cholesterol drugs, the largest-selling class of prescription medicine.

I have seen patients on as many as 18 prescription drugs. When I was in medical school, I was told that by the time a patient is on five different drugs, there is virtually a 100 percent chance of having an adverse drug interaction. One doctor observed that there is no scientific basis for treating older folks with more than $300 of meds per month that have serious side effects and largely unknown multiple drug interactions. In fact 200,000 Americans are killed every year by prescription drugs, including adverse drug interactions. A standard marketing approach for drug companies seeking to meet “sales quotas” is to send drug reps to doctors and push them to prescribe drugs for off-label use, which although legal, raises obvious questions of ethics, efficacy and magnification of side-effect risks. The end result is Americans take epilepsy seizure drugs for pain, antipsychotics for the blues and an antidepressants for knee pain – and hot flashes – all because of marketing and sales quotas.

A deadly example is Cephalon’s painkilling fentanyl lollipop, Actiq, which is loaded with the potent painkiller that I use only as a supplement to general anesthesia and for the first few hours of postoperative pain. The product was approved only to treat terminal cancer patients in chronic pain who are already on an opioid drug because life-threatening conditions can occur at any dose in patients without a chronic, buildup of tolerance for narcotics. With the pressure to meet their quota at their backs, Cephalon sales reps were regularly sent to doctors who treated no cancer patients, with free coupons to pass out to patients with simple problems like migraines and back pain. A study by Prime Therapeutics found Actiq was prescribed off-label nearly 90 percent of the time. You can go online right now and get a free coupon for a “reduced price” on your fentanyl lollipop. Meeting a sales quota is certainly one of the reasons prescription pain killer overdoses kill 15,000 people a year, nearly four times more than in 1999, with 500,000 ER visits and costing health care insurers $72.5 billion annually. Some pharmaceutical corporations have become simply drug dealers with fancier clothes.

Many drugs become part of mainstream medical practice only because of studies sponsored by drug companies. Most published trials funded by drug companies show positive results and are conducted overseas – on sick Russians, homeless Poles and slum-dwelling Chinese – in places where regulation is virtually nonexistent. Furthermore, drug companies spend twice as much on sales and marketing as they do on research. The pharmaceutical industry has the largest political lobbying force in the United States. None of that lobbying is to persuade Congress to let them save more lives. Its only objective is let the industry make more money.

The pharmaceutical industry has heavily infiltrated the curriculum in American medical schools, is taking a dominant role in its relationship with the medical profession, and is having a corrupting influence on academic research into its own products. At Harvard Medical School, the pinnacle of American medicine, where I served as an instructor years ago, of the 8,900 professors and lecturers there in 2009, 1,600 admitted that they or a family member have had some kind of business link to drug companies, sometimes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, that could bias their teaching or research.

The story of Vioxx and Celebrex is a microcosm of drug company behavior. When studies on Vioxx and Celebrex became available in 1998 and 1999, many doctors were disappointed. Neither drug alleviated pain any better than the older medicines. And the drugs cost close to $3 a pill; over-the-counter pain relievers, in contrast, cost pennies a dose.

Merck had known of potential lethal side effects even before launching Vioxx in 1999 but had brushed all such disturbing tests under the rug. Merck held data for three years that proved Vioxx caused an alarming increase in the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Estimates of deaths caused by Vioxx are as high as 500,000. Merck knowingly and maliciously allowed a deadly drug to continue to be sold to patients for years to maximize profits through the sale of a product they knew was killing people. Merck’s actions fit the legal definition of “negligent homicide.” Part of this story is the cozy relationship between Merck and the FDA. An FDA scientist who discovered the Vioxx heart connection early on said his FDA bosses forced him to quash information that was potentially damaging to Merck. The most disturbing part of the Vioxx story is – despite paying out billions of dollars in lawsuits, Vioxx still made money for Merck. Walking over a few dead bodies on the way to meet a sales quota is just what we do in corporate America.

The Nuclear Industrial Complex

Any discussion about corporations that threaten the future of mankind must obviously include the nuclear industry. Even outside the realm of nuclear accidents, every phase of the nuclear fuel cycle releases radiation into the environment – the uranium mining, the milling, the fuel production, the power plant operation and the multiple streams of waste.

For example, out of sight, out of mind, and virtually out of the discussion of nuclear power are the 200 million tons of uranium mill tailings still lying scattered throughout the Western US exposed to the winds and rain. Dr. William Lochstet of Penn State University calculated that operation of a single uranium mine could result in 8.5 million deaths over time.1 Dr. Robert O. Pohl of Cornell believed the potential health effects from mill tailings could “completely dwarf” those from the rest of the nuclear fuel cycle and add significantly to the worldwide toll of death and mutations.2 In 1977, Dr. Walter H. Jordan, of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), stated the commission “had underestimated radon emissions from tailings piles by a factor of 100,000. It is very difficult to argue that deaths to future generations are unimportant.”3 Radon gas is heavier than air but can travel thousands of miles from its source, damaging chromosomes and causing cancer every mile of the way.

The health risks of radiation always have been viewed differently by scientists with a background in the hard sciences – physics and engineering – compared with scientists with a background in the soft sciences – biology, genetics, physiology and medicine. Generally, the “hard” scientists tend to discount risks of low-dose radiation and are more often proponents of nuclear power. The “soft” scientists observe that biological organisms are too complex to establish rules for safe exposure; they more often oppose nuclear power, like the aforementioned scientists who have warned about mill tailings.

Hermann Muller won the 1943 Nobel Prize for discovering genetic mutations caused by X-rays. In a paper he published in 1964, “Radiation and Heredity,” he predicted the gradual reduction of the survival of the human species as the exposure to ionizing radiation increased. Since then, radiation to the human population has steadily increased. And, in fact, sperm counts and fertility rates are dropping worldwide, according to a 2010 report from the European Science Foundation. Multiple culprits likely are involved, but our exposure to radiation, from medical procedures to fallout from nuclear tests, accidents and power plants, are at the top of the list.

The National Academy of Sciences’ last report on the health risk of radiation in 2006 (BEIR VII) stated all radiation has consequences, and no dose can be considered safe. Radiation damage is cumulative, and each successive dose builds upon the cellular mutation caused by the last. It can take years for radiation damage to manifest pathology. For nuclear apologists to declare that no one died from Fukushima, so onward with the “nuclear renaissance,” reveals childlike ignorance or deliberate deception.

All nuclear power plants are potential global disasters that threaten the future of mankind and every living thing. Every human has been affected by radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl accident because the radiation eventually circumnavigated the entire globe. Radiation’s calling card is damage to chromosomes that can be passed on to subsequent generations. Chromosomal damage is not just the first step in a long road to cancer and infertility, it is also a common denominator for myriad diseases and dysfunction involving virtually every organ system.

Fukushima, although it has disappeared from the news cycle, is the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind. Three self-sustaining nuclear meltdowns that will not be fully contained for years, six damaged reactors, the equivalent of 20 nuclear cores exposed. Half of Japan is now contaminated. Serious cleanup could cost $10 trillion. The Japanese government has admitted that the amount of radioactive cesium-137 released by the Fukushima nuclear disaster so far is the equivalent of 168 Hiroshima bombs. That doesn’t count the radioactivity that is still being spread into the Pacific Ocean from radioactively contaminated water used to cool the doomed reactors, which will end up distributed throughout the global ecosystem.

The whole concept of nuclear power plants, launched by President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations in 1953, was an afterthought to the development of nuclear weapons. The public had become terrified of “mutually assured destruction” and those politicians, convinced that nuclear arms were nonetheless imperative, were looking for a means to soothe Americans’ nuclear anxiety, or what we might call today “pre-traumatic stress disorder.”

The promise of safe, “too cheap to meter” electricity turned out to be a complete and utter fraud, and the governments of the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Russia played a major role in that deception.

But so did the corporations that stood to cash in on the nuclear power “boom.” The companies that helped bring us these nuclear power plant disasters – General Electric, Hitachi, Toshiba – through flawed designs, poor construction, cheap materials and prioritizing profits over safety have nonetheless enjoyed near immunity from financial consequence. In virtually every country with nuclear reactors, the laws seriously limit a nuclear company’s liability to a tiny fraction of the real damages. So when that is the case and a corporation’s only motive is profit, there is little incentive for them to prioritize safety instead.

The list of examples of nuclear corporations cutting safety corners to save money is too long for this article, but how the nuclear industry responded after the Fukushima debacle is just the most recent example. Rather than being chastened by this disaster, the nuclear industry has done just exactly what the financial industry did – act like nothing happened and fight tooth and nail against any reform. The NRC spent a year assembling a list of 12 post-Fukushima safety improvements but, succumbing to industry pressure, chose to demand only three. Then it gave the industry up to five years to comply. Recently the nuclear industry complained to congressional Republicans that NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko was being too aggressive in pursuing post-Fukushima safety regulations, so they got him canned.

Granting a license extension to an existing nuclear power plant may not seem like much of a reason to march and protest, but nuclear reactors have a limited life span because all their component parts do. And the materials degrade more quickly because of the radioactive exposure. Extending a plant’s life of operation definitely increases the risk of an accident. So far by 2013, 71 nuclear reactors have applied for a 20-year extension of their licenses, and all 71 have been approved, many with the same design flaws as found at Fukushima. “Fukushima? What Me Worry?”

The Dirty Energy Empire

Finally, this brings us to the fossil fuel industry. As I write this, the temperature is a record-setting 105 degrees in Salt Lake City; no relief is expected for a week. Western forests are being obliterated by drought, pine beetle infestations and wildfires. Reservoirs are only half full. The summer is just getting started; so is global warming.

To keep the climate stabilized enough to maintain civilization as we have come to know it, or even avoid mass starvation and global chaos, we will have to stay within a carbon budget. The world must only allow about one fifth of the known, economically recoverable reserves of coal, oil and gas to be extracted and burned. There is no evidence whatsoever that any of these corporations are entertaining any thoughts of self-restraint. As mindless, amoral, and unbridled as a malignancy destroying its host, Exxon-Mobil, TransCanada, Peabody Energy, Koch Industries and the like employ hundreds of thousands of people working like tumor cells for the relentless destruction of the environment and climate that they themselves depend upon for their very lives. And the rest of us stand by and watch it happen. In fact, if we work for a bank, we may not only be watching it happen, we may be loaning them the money to make sure it happens.

If the fossil-fuel corporations seem like Frankenstein monsters, unbelievably they may actually not be the worst. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, many Chinese and Indian companies that make the refrigerant HCFC-22 are demanding big money to dispose of a byproduct of that process, HFC-23, which is a greenhouse gas 14,800 times more potent than CO2. Despite having cheap destruction technology readily available, they intend to hold their stores of HFC-23 hostage until the rest of the world pays up. This has caught the attention of other manufacturers of HCFC-22 in developing countries who are poised to join in the “climate bomb” threat.

Under a UN program, incinerators for HFC-23 are installed at 19 refrigerant facilities, mostly in China and India but also in South Korea, Argentina and Mexico, to help control the super greenhouse gas. Destruction of HFC-23 is extremely cheap. But refrigerant companies made billions in windfall profits from the sale of carbon credits, maximized through manipulation of HCFC-22 and HFC-23 production levels. This prompted the European Emissions Trading Scheme to ban the trade of HFC-23 credits as of May 1, 2013. Other carbon markets have followed suit, resulting in the collapse of the HFC-23 credit market. What is at stake here is the greenhouse gas equivalent of one-fourth of China’s annual CO2 emissions.

As disturbing as all of this is, something looms on the horizon that could dismantle what few tools citizens have to defend their health, environment, wallet and climate from evisceration by corporate invaders from across the globe. In Part III of Mankind: Death by Corporation, we’ll investigate what is being assembled behind a curtain of secrecy, a “Death Star” of corporate omnipotence, allowing them to impose their will on citizens and communities anywhere in the world as never before – The Trans-Pacific Partnership.

[1] William Lochstet, “Radiological Impact of the Proposed Crownpoint Uranium Mining Project,” August 1978, unpublished manuscript.

[2] Robert O. Pohl, “In the Matter of Public Service Company of Oklahoma,

Associated Electric Coop., Inc. and Western Farmers Coop., Inc. (Black Fox Station Units 1 and 2,” testimony before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, Docket Nos. STN 50-556 and STN 50-557.

[3] Walter Jordan, “Errors in 10 CFR Section 51.20, Table S-3,” memorandum to James R. Yore, NRC, September 21, 1977; and Walter Jordan, letter to Congressman Clifford Allen, December 9, 1977.

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