Environment, Health, Reviews February 23, 2015

Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA

by Jonathan Latham

Book Author: Evaggelos Vallianatos with McKay Jenkins

Reviewed by: Carol Van Strum

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts,” Richard Feynman famously declared in 1966. Ever quick to challenge accepted wisdom, he distinguished the laudable ignorance of science, forever seeking unattainable certainties, from the dangerous ignorance of experts who professed such certainty.

Twenty years later, he would drop a rubber ring into a glass of ice water to show a panel of clueless rocket experts how willful ignorance of basic temperature effects likely caused the Challenger shuttle disaster (1).

Experts with delusions of certainty create imitative forms of science, he warned, producing “the kind of tyranny we have today in the many institutions that have come under the influence of pseudoscientific advisors.” (2)

Poison Spring-Valllianatos
Poison Spring-Valllianatos

Feynman’s warning against faith in the phony trappings of “cargo cult science” fell on deaf ears. Policies affecting every aspect of our lives are now based on dangerous forms of ignorance.

A prime case in point is the noble edifice of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where a high-ranking EPA official was recently jailed and fined for collecting pay and bonuses for decades of non-existent work while he claimed to be working elsewhere for the CIA. Such long-standing fraud would hardly come as a surprise to Evaggelos Vallianatos, who toiled for a quarter of a century in the EPA’s Pesticide Division, ostensibly responsible for protecting human health and the environment from commercial poisons. His new book, Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA, documents a culture of fraud and corruption infesting every corner and closet of the agency.

The EPA, created with much fanfare by Richard Nixon in 1970, was an agency crippled at birth by inadequate funding, political hypocrisy, and laws protecting industry profits above all. Vallianatos points out that one of the fledgling agency’s greatest handicaps was its initial staffing with personnel from USDA, steeped in the religion of corporate agriculture and lethal technologies. With USDA staff came also USDA’s outdated pesticide registrations, which were to be reviewed and reregistered by EPA.  In addition, hundreds of new pesticide applications accumulated every year, each supported by industry-produced safety studies to meet new federal requirements. Hired as scientists, EPA staffers spent their time cutting and pasting industry studies and conclusions into rubber-stamped registration approvals. Under industry-crafted laws, once a pesticide was registered, it could never be unregistered without massive, unequivocal evidence of harm.

As if such misuse of science weren’t bad enough, audits by FDA and EPA soon found that most of the thousands of industry safety studies used to approve pesticide registrations were fraudulent. Alerted by FDA scientist Adrian Gross, EPA had discovered in 1976 that Industrial BioTest Laboratories [IBT], which had conducted many of the pesticide safety tests submitted to EPA by manufacturers, had been routinely faking tests, falsifying data, and altering results for years.  Subsequent investigations of other testing laboratories found similar practices in more than half the labs whose tests supported EPA registrations of pesticides.

“IBT was not a unique case of scientific fraud,” Vallianatos writes, “it was emblematic of a dark and deviant scientific culture, a ‘brave new science’ with deep roots throughout agribusiness, the chemical industry, universities, and the government.” (3)

In 1979, during the seven years of EPA dithering over this scandal, Vallianatos came to work at EPA. He soon learned that not a single pesticide registration was to be canceled due to fraudulent or nonexistent test data. Instead, he notes, EPA’s reaction was to outsource science. It shut down its own testing laboratories, closed its own libraries of toxicity data on thousands of chemicals, and outsourced all evaluations of industry-sponsored studies. “The unspoken understanding in this outsourcing of government functions has been the near certainty of finding industry data satisfactory – all the time.” This issue is relevant today, given that chemicals such as 2,4-D and glyphosate (Roundup™), whose uses have been vastly increased by GMO practices, were originally registered on the basis of invalid IBT studies.

During Vallianatos’s first year at EPA,1980, some 1.1 billion pounds of pesticide active ingredients were applied to U.S. food crops, a number that does not include home and garden uses, parklands, golf courses, playing fields, and municipal landscapes. In 2011, two billion pounds of pesticides were sold in the U.S.  Most if not all of those pesticides lacked valid testing data then, and still lack such data today.  Furthering the fraud, Vallianatos points out, the active ingredient is only the tip of the iceberg, being as little as one percent of the product; the remainder is a trade secret stew of untested, unknown “inert” ingredients that are often more toxic than the active ingredients. What he calls “The Big Business of Fraudulent Science” has replaced even the semblance of environmental protection.

Poison Spring chronicles some of the consequences of that fraud in an agency snared in its own tangled lies: cover-ups of dioxin levels in drinking water and in dead babies; routine suppression of data linking pesticides to soaring rates of cancer, birth defects, and chronic disease; industry access to everything; “revolving door” administrators serving corporate bosses; political appointees dismantling EPA labs and data libraries to dispose of damaging evidence; the cutting of research funds for nontoxic alternatives; the harsh retribution visited on whistleblowers; and ever and again, bureaucrats, with full knowledge of the consequences, setting policies that result in death and suffering. For 25 years, Vallianatos saw and documented it all.

“EPA officials know global chemical and agribusiness industries are manufacturing science,” Vallianatos writes. “They know their products are dangerous…. [EPA] scientists find themselves working in a roomful of funhouse mirrors, plagiarizing industry studies and cutting and pasting the findings of industry studies as their own.”

“This entire book is, in a sense, about a bureaucracy going mad,” Vallianatos adds.

Bureaucracy does not go mad by itself, however. Public indifference to the ignorance of experts and public tolerance of lies are what allow such madness to flourish, enabled by the scientific community’s silence. Inexorably, Vallianatos found, “science and policy themselves have been made a prop to the pesticides industry and agribusiness.”

Such monumental fraud demands drastic remedies, which Vallianatos bravely urges: rebuild an EPA completely independent from industry and politics, remove incentives for huge scale, chemically-dependent corporate agriculture, and address the underlying problem by encouraging small family farms and agriculture without chemical warfare.

“Traditional (and often organic) farmers – until seventy-five years ago, the only farmers there were – are slowly beginning to make a comeback.  They have always known how to raise crops and livestock without industrial poisons,” Vallianatos points out.  “They are the seed for a future harvest of good food, a healthy natural world, and democracy in rural America – and the world.”

These are facts, and this is a book that scientists and citizens alike ignore at great peril.

(1) See his account of the investigation into the Challenger disaster in What Do You Care What Other People Think? By Richard P. Feynman, 1988.
(2) Richard Feynman, What is Science? Presented at the fifteenth annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association, 1966 in New York City, and reprinted from The Physics Teacher Vol. 7, issue 6, 1969, pp. 313-320 by permission of the editor and the author.
(3) For more information about the extent of this lab fraud, see A Bitter Fog: Herbicides and Human Rights, by Carol Van Strum, 1983, revised 2014 with full texts of Peter von Stackelberg’s exposé of the issue in a new appendix.

ISBN: 1608199142 Bloomsbury Press (2014)

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Comments 10
  • Holy cow! The book exposes a nightmare more diabolical than I ever imagined. My ‘faith’ in the EPA, low as it was, has just been extinguished.

    Thanks much for the review, John, and for putting this book in our sights…! I think I’ll buy two copies and send one to Obama.

    • Oops! I just noticed that the review was submitted by Carol Van Strum. THANK YOU Carol, for the superb review…one more thing to cure my habit of sleeping when I go to bed.

  • It is still against the “law” to control pest problems with safe and far more effective unregistered alternatives to the EPA registered POISONS – I have written a free book on how to do so with many hundreds of safe and far more effective alternatives………

  • Bravo!!

    Evaggelos has done a great service illustrating the corruption and irrelevance of EPA. However I would disagree about EPA funding. What’s the point of giving more money to a corrupt agency? If Evaggelos were in charge of EPA he could do a splendid job of it on one tenth of its current budget.

    Bill Sanjour

    • Clean miss. Underfunding left government agencies crippled, intentionally unable to do their jobs. People already bought and paid for at the USDA were brought in at the start; the EPA was broken, from its inception, by industry/lobbyists’ design.

      The Office of Technological Assessment (OTA), created in 1972 to do unbiased research for the US Congress (cross checking what should have been able to be done at the EPA) was dissolved, at the insistence of lobbyists, because it was providing studies that other government agencies were designed too handicapped to accomplish. The logic to de-funding, (in the 1995, “Contract with America”) shuttering, the OTA, was that the studies were duplicating efforts.

      The OTA was to be a check on the research being presented by other agencies, but wound up originating research that lobbyists did not want done in the first place; hence the handicapping of agencies like the EPA.

      Profit trumped responsibility, so industry paid lobbyists, who paid politicians and important research was never done; practices that continue unabated currently. Trust in industry was adopted in the US Congress, largely (but not solely) by Republicans; paying no heed to the now revered, oft revised, memory of President Ronald Reagan’s wisdom: “Trust, but verify.”.

      • (1995 was years of Clintons follow up to Bush work to gut genuine intelligence, keeping genuine knowledge from flowing to front lines, appointing corp execs to oversee their own profiteering off anything type of interests, this built upon the ugliness of empire building and mass edu systems dumbing down / mass media infiltration via op mockingbird amongst other known m.i.c. deceitfulness)

        • (systemic dumbing down, in which requires decent and genuine acts on genuine intelligence by individuals and companies {People that do not tow the insanity found in such monopoly and empire promotion of toxicity & blindnesses} to have to compete with, and now fight massively needed (legal) battles to try to overcome the toxic momentum of other, not wise, ill faited business/gov practices)

  • This factual look at the EPA should remind readers that laws written that protect the common good are meaningless unless the regulatory agency charged with implementing these important public health protections are adequately funded. All testing and followup inspections must be totally free from any influences by the corporations that they are being regulated.
    The EPA is the agency that decides what pesticides and other toxic chemicals are registered for use in commerce. Other critical federal agencies that have been totally corrupted and subject the public to dangerous food, water, and breathing air are: the FDA, the USDA, and the implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act.
    All of these agencies have been brought under the control of the Executive branches of the federal and state governments, and their pro-corporate behavior is a consequence of the control of elections by the large corporations, Wall Street, and the centralized financial institutions. The only hope is that the public will understand the importance of organizing to elect green, progressive, local and national politicians that do have principles that support the welfare and health of all of us.

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