as Bad for Public Health
power is a major cause of health problems, according to the October/December
2005 special issue of the International Journal of Occupational and
Environmental Health. Contributions to the issue reveal how corporate
structure results in pressure to influence science and place the public at
risk from pesticides, lead, asbestos, toxic municipal sewage sludge, and
other harmful substances.
"Occupational and environmental health diseases are in fact an outcome of a
pervasive system of corporate priority setting, decision making, and
influence," state guest editors David Egilman and Susanna Rankin Bohme.
"This system produces disease because political, economic, regulatory, and
ideological norms prioritize values of wealth and profit over human health
and environmental well-being."
Skip Spitzer, Program Coordinator at PAN North America and a contributing
author to the journal notes that, "In market economies, private corporations
play such a decisive role in the economic sphere that they are often able to
secure more rights than people. Corporations deeply influence politics, law,
media, public relations, science, research, education and other
institutions. It's no surprise that corporate self interest routinely
supersedes social and environmental welfare."
In his article "A Systemic Approach to Occupational and Environmental
Health", Spitzer describes how corporations are part of a "structure of
harm", meaning that the very way in which corporations are structured
produces social and environmental problems and undermines reform. The
pressure to compete in the marketplace and create demand for their products
creates incentives for corporations to shape the political system, the mass
media, and science for commercial ends. Corporations use this power to avoid
taking responsibility for the larger environmental and social impacts of
their actions (or "externalities"), including the public health impacts of
developing dangerous new technologies. Spitzer quotes Reagan administration
economist Robert Monks describing the corporation as "an externalizing
machine, the same way that a shark is a killing machine - no
malevolence...just something designed with sublime efficiency for
self-preservation, which it accomplishes without any capacity to factor in
the consequence to others."
This "structure of harm" creates incentives for corporations to seek
political influence over institutions designed to protect and serve the
public good. Corporations often use this power to influence scientific
debates so as to avoid regulation and litigation. "Science is a key part of
this system," note Egilman and Bohme, "there is a substantial tradition of
manipulation of evidence, data, and analysis ultimately designed to maintain
favorable conditions for industry at both material and ideological levels."
Independent scientists whose findings counter corporate interests often face
pitched battles to obtain funding, publish their research, and gain academic
The corporate "structure of harm" undermines health protections not only
domestically, but also by influencing the international agreements and
treaties that shape the global economy. In her article "Who's Afraid of
National Laws?", Erika Rosenthal, a frequent consultant to PAN in North,
Central and South America, identifies how pesticide corporations are using
trade agreements to block proposed bans on pesticides identified as the
worst occupational health hazards in Central America. Through privileged
access to closed-door negotiations, agrichemical corporations inserted
deregulatory mechanisms into the draft Central American Customs Union and
the Central American Free Trade Agreement. These agreements undermine
health-based national pesticide registration requirements, weaken health
ministries' role in pesticide control, block marketing of cheaper and less
toxic pesticides, and have a chilling effect on future pesticide regulation.
Rosenthal argues that as long as corporations have privileged access to
trade negotiations and civil society is excluded, the resulting agreements
will benefit special interests at the expense of public health.
The editors conclude that corporate corruption of science is widespread and
touches many aspects of our lives, as indicated by the range of articles in
the issue. In "Genetic Engineering in Agriculture and Corporate Engineering
in Public Debate", Rajeev Patel, Robert Torres, and Peter Rosset analyze
Monsanto's efforts to convince the public of the safety of genetically
modified crops. Other articles describe how industry pressure on government
agencies such as EPA have influenced cancer research and resulted in
approving toxic municipal sewage sludge as crop fertilizer.
Corporate corruption of science represents a real threat to the health and
well-being of people and to the environment the world over. "The negative
social impacts of corporate structures deserve a concerted response on the
part of conscientious public health researchers," note Egilman and Bohme.
Spitzer sees this analysis as a call for researchers to join movements
working for fundamental change of corporate structure and power. "We need to
build bigger, more integrated social movements with the popular wherewithal
to make deep change," he states. "This means combining multiple issues,
connecting local work nationally and internationally, and building long-term
change goals into action for more immediate change."
Source: International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health,