Planet Waves | September 2000 | Inside, Outside by Eric Francis


Earth from space, late 20th century. The thin blue line across the arc
at the top of the image is the atmosphere. Note how thin it is.

Inside, outside

Planet Waves for September 2000
By Eric Francis

Background Article on Hormone Disruptors | Protesting Monsanto

Three astonishing stories on metaphysics and religion made it into the news in the last weeks of August.

The first was about an explosion that sank a Russian nuclear submarine in the Arctic region, taking 118 sailors and two uranium reactors to the bottom of the Barents Sea with it. A few days later, an unrelated article appeared on page one of The New York Times reporting the finding of scientists at the North Pole one day earlier that, where there had previously been ice cover six to nine feet thick in recent years, and indeed continuously for an estimated 50,000,000 years, there was open water lapping at the sides of the icebreaking ship. A hand-held Global Positioning System (GPS) device confirmed that they were exactly at the North Pole. The North Pole has melted.

No, this is not something I read in an old The Far Side cartoon.

One week later, newspapers across the United States carried an article about how the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the US agency which monitors epidemics, was concerned that high levels of chemicals called phthalates (pronounced tha-lates), which are used in almost all food wrapping, springwater bottles, and thousands of other plastics, from carpeting to tires, were accumulating in the human body at alarmingly high levels. Phthalates are hormone-disrupters (also called estrogen-disrupters or xenoestrogens, among other things). Hormones are natural chemicals operating in the body at exceedingly low levels (as low as parts-per-billion or parts-per-trillion levels in the blood) which control cell development and reproduction, as well as regulate emotions, sexual functioning and innumerable mental and physical functions. Hormone disrupters scramble their messages, and are responsible for problems ranging from endometriosis (a menstrual disorder) to birth defects to metabolic problems.

Why do I call these articles about metaphysics and religion when they are clearly science and political stories? Because they reach into the core of our ideas about existence, and reveal a great deal about the way that perception, belief and experience interact. And they give a vivid picture of the condition of spiritual and physical life -- that is to say, of life, period -- here in the time of revelation. And yes, they represent three of the most important ecological, political and business issues in this time of history: nuclear power and weapons, global warming, and pollution by dioxin-like compounds, which are a wide range of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that include PCBs, pesticides and poisonous packaging which even organic tofu comes wrapped in. Despite the fact that media will not generally tell you about this connection, dioxins, PCBs, pesticides and phthalates are extremely similar in how they function in the body -- and in other ways which I will get into.

So if it's not plainly apparent, I will say it out loud: we have a lot of poison on our hands. Not only is much of our food genetically modified, sprayed with pesticides and grown in nutrient-depleted earth; not only is it shot and sprayed full of hormones and antibiotics; not only does it take up a variety of toxins rampant in the food chain such as PCBs, mercury and lead; not only is it processed beyond recognition and mixed with formaldehyde to preserve it, and thousands of additives to color it, shape it and make it behave all kinds of strange ways; it is then wrapped in plastics which leach into the food and add a source of direct contamination. We live in ocean of pollution.


At dinner tonight, I brought up these issues with my housemate Dan. He responded with the idea that the poisoning we see outside of ourselves is a reflection, extension or external version of the poison we contain in our minds. I am sure many of you would agree.

Yet if you have not noticed, this is just the kind of statement that I don't typically make in this column, even though as a metaphysical column that addresses environmental issues, it might be something you would expect me to say. I refrain not because I don't think it's true. I do so because I am aware that there are more factors involved than simple projection of inner (emotional or spiritual) toxins into the outer world, and there are other people besides you and me to hold responsible for conduct in which we have no part, even as the most rampant and gluttonous consumers of plastic containers.

I feel that as someone who eats tofu, I am different than a person who, for profit, intentionally creates a package that is poisonous because it's efficient or cheap and highly profitable. In a sense, I take the position that we are victimized, which I am fully aware is not "spiritually correct."

But I asked Dan to give his best throw at an explanation for how the process of inner poison to outer poison works. His first response was that it's an intuitive connection and does not need to be explained or proven, but that, looking in more detail, every reality in the outer world has a corresponding intention in the inner world. One of Dan's talents is drafting, that is, drawing objects prior to their creation in the material world; another is writing and testing software; so he participates in this process of making things all the time. My grandfather Vincent, also a draftsman, gave me a similar idea many years ago. For everything that is created in the world, there is a drawing or a picture, and before that, there is an idea. It's just that most of us, as consumers, victims and political sheep, totally miss out on the creative process.


But we are consumers of ideas as well as of packaging.

Like global warming, for instance. It's clear that when ice melts, such as at the North Pole, it's getting warmer, and that what's getting warmer is the globe, so that is what you could reasonably call global warming. To help them understand this, we may need to send researchers with three Ph.D.s back to third-grade science class, and demonstrate the ice cube in the Bunsen burner experiment.

But companies that make the chemicals responsible for global warming also routinely deny the entire problem and their specific contribution, and they say it will take decades of study before anything conclusive can be known for sure -- decades during which they will profit, and during which the problem will proliferate. Most people either believe them or are sufficiently confused or unconcerned due to the "controversy" to ignore the whole thing. This is the basic karate stance of corporate public relations: deny the problem and create psychological chaos, which is uncomfortable and raises a fog of delusion, which results in delay, cynicism and profit.

This runs through all environmental issues. Phthalates are not exactly new news. The book Our Stolen Future by Dr. Theodora Colborn dealt brilliantly with the issue five years ago, and it was well known long before then because it took her years of sleuthing to nail the issue conclusively -- but industry has managed to raise a very effective fog of denial. Scientists were dealing with the crisis of phthalates in lab equipment contaminating their experiments in the early 1970s. In one breast cancer study, the raging proliferation of cancer cells in test tubes was linked to phthalates in the new, improved test tube caps the lab was using. Peter Montague recently detailed the problem of phthalates in IV-tubing and other medical supplies in Rachel's Health and Environment Weekly. Part of the fog is the sheer volume of plastics. If it's all so dangerous, why is it everywhere? Reading the phthalate story in the Seattle Times a few days ago, I came across this really interesting paragraph:

"Because phthalates are used so widely, any call to label or reformulate hundreds of products would be met with stiff resistance from manufactures. The American Council on Science and Health, supported by grants from corporations and foundations, contends that claims of harm from phthalates are exaggerated and that the chemicals are safe."

The above paragraph consists of two sentences. Split them apart and compare them, and see what you learn from the contrast.


The American Council of What?

Meanwhile, the American Council on Science and Health sounds pretty reputable, but I recognized the name, and two minutes of digging through my files yielded this nugget: a Aug. 15, 1991 General Electric press alert memo sent out basically to the whole company's environmental (pollution) team and legal staff. The memo was triggered by an article appearing in Business Week a few weeks earlier, which started to unravel the story that Westinghouse, GE's supposed competitor, was aware of PCB dangers long ago but lied to the public and the government. PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are a class of chemicals related to phthalates, serving the same purpose and used in much the same way, that were used in everything from fireproofing in kids' pajamas, to ink, to plastics base, to food processing. Industry long argued that the western economy would grind to a halt if PCBs were banned.

After they spread into every living thing on the planet, they were finally outlawed in 1976 as an imminent threat to human health and the environment, though many very serious PCB problems still persist today [please see related story on Planet Waves].

Indeed, GE's own files on the dangers of PCBs go back to 1937, when the company knew for sure that there were serious health problems with the PCBs used in many of its electrical products. Those early health problems included systemic poisoning from absorption through the skin, as well as liver necrosis, that is, dead flesh on the living liver. In the following 20 years, the company, its "competitors" and suppliers amassed an incomprehensible collection of evidence that the chemicals are extremely toxic, and later learned they were explosive (despite being required by insurance companies as "safety products"), yet, because they were making so much money, the manufacturers insisted on fighting to the bitter end when Congress finally banned them.

But in 1991, GE was facing a public relations crisis because of the Business Week article, as well as the potential to be sued for its PCBs by the many people whom it had harmed. So something called a "holding statement" went out along with the press alert memo, which included a bunch of people with scientific-sounding credentials quoted as saying that PCBs are just perfectly safe. This statement was intended for company officials to feed bad information to reporters, which they would then use in their articles and television stories, which would create confusion in the public's mind and cynicism among members of the press.

Among those people quoted in the holding statement was Elizabeth Whalen, president of the American Council on Science and Health, who said, "No evidence exists that the normal background levels of PCBs, or even levels among heavily exposed workers are causing damage or posing even a potential threat."

First, the "normal background level"? There is NO normal background level of PCBs, but there is the pollution that has lodged everywhere on the planet. Note how casually she tried to slip that in -- "Oh, yeah, pollution is normal."

When you consider that PCBs have sickened and killed every animal they have every been tested on, including wiping out entire populations of test rats in some experiments, this statement is all the more outrageous. Yet when you see how hard the PCB manufacturers worked to make sure people would not this find out so that manufacturers could keep making money for several extra generations, it's enough to make Adolph Hitler look like a nice guy. In the end, he will have maimed and killed far fewer people.

Does it surprise you that, shortly after this statement by Elizabeth Whalen was made, it came out in a lawsuit against GE that the company had provided funding to the American Council on Science and Health? Does it surprise you that nowhere in the holding statement or press alert memo is this information revealed to reporters, to warn reporters that the information might not be so trustworthy? And is it not amazing that a decade later, their propaganda is still circulating in daily newspapers around the world, poisoning the public's minds about a whole new generation of toxins that fill our refrigerators and pantries?


The Lies We Believe

This is the uncensored story of ecological history of the 20th century. It is the story of just these kinds of lies being told over and over again. It includes product safety testing labs (such as the infamous Industrial Bio-Test Labs in Illinois, and many of its "competitors") being bought off to "prove" that chemicals like PCBs don't cause cancer. It includes innumerable lies told by industry to Congress and regulatory agencies, and those regulatory agencies outright being taken over BY industry in the past 30 years. It involves scandals within the government to cover the truth of what some people within environmental agencies know. It involves companies buying the independent cancer research of college professors and hiding it away in their files. And it involves highly reputable newspapers and journals making up the news, and reporting false mortality studies which "prove" that chemicals are safe (see Dioxin Critic Sued).

What is troubling to me is that we believe these lies over and over again. By "believe," I mean that they cause us any confusion at all, and confuse us they do, into paralysis, fear and phony ignorance. And here is the metaphysical crisis.

It is, however, very stressful to look at lies and to look past lies. We live in very stressful years of history, for never have we had to take any measure of individual responsibility for the fate of the Earth. And if I tell you that you hold responsibility for the fate of the Earth, and that your actions matter, that is a terrific burden to place on your shoulders. You already have enough to worry about.

Yet we cannot, of course, do nothing. And we need at least two approaches to this problem, inner and outer. We first need to raise our awareness to the level where we know we are being lied to and refuse to believe what we are told by profit-making corporations; we need to see the global crisis for what it really is: not an accident, but an intentional act perpetrated against us. We need to look inside and see why we are so prone to believe what is not true.

But once we know, once we have what lawyers call "scienter," or awareness of a problem, then we have a responsibility to act -- just like polluters. We must act in our homes, in our communities, in the streets, and here in the datasphere where can share information.

I think that one clear reason we don't take the first step -- awareness -- is that it's all too heavy. We can't accept such huge problems. So we will accept any reassurance, like students at SUNY New Paltz (and their parents) who go strolling into tainted buildings. Knowing that we'll believe anything, and that we will often run for cover when we learn about a serious problem, industry and government continue to deceive us and convince us we need things that we don't need. Does anybody really need a nuclear submarine, sugar-free Jell-o or organic tofu that comes wrapped in vinyl?

And of course, many of us do things to intentionally poison ourselves, whether it be smoking because we are nervous and have problems (or because everyone else does), or taking psychiatric meds when we need to go to therapy instead, and actually understand ourselves and solve our problems rather than paper them over. I know many suffering people with plenty of money who would benefit from having someone intelligent and reasonable to talk to on a regular basis, which is what therapy is. But instead most people take drugs. Yet these are the choices that we make, and they are also based on lies, with exceedingly rare exceptions.

But the most devastating lie of all, and the one that we accept the most readily: that we are powerless. People who strive to change their lives often succeed at doing so. People who strive to change the world often succeed at doing so. But it's clear that we cannot do it alone. And fortunately, we are not alone.++

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Message from Eric about the global ecological crisis

Protesting Monsanto

Related Article on PCBs on a College Campus


RACHEL's Health and Environment Weekly
-- Excellent Free Environmental Resource
Great for Students and Activists

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