Selling death isn’t just about cigarettes |

Selling death isn’t just about cigarettes

Hal Sundin
Staff Photo |

In 1994, the chief executives of seven tobacco companies appeared before a Congressional committee and claimed that nicotine is not addictive, and that smoking does not contribute to heart and lung diseases. Four years later they were back to recant those claims, and accepted a $200 billion settlement of damage claims from victims of the health effects of smoking. But the tobacco industry is not alone in putting profits ahead of people’s lives.

In the 1950s, Clair Patterson was conducting studies to determine the age of the earth based on the rate of decay of uranium to lead. But lead contamination in the atmosphere interfered, so he had to use a “clean room” to perform his studies. He found that compared with air trapped in past centuries in ice cores from Greenland, the amount of lead in the atmosphere had risen over 600-fold. What could be the source of all this lead? The only explanation was tetraethyl lead, which had been added to gasoline since the 1920s to increase its octane rating, making higher compression engines possible. He then learned that Dr. Howard Needleman had found a correlation between lead and mental defects in children, and in 1970 he recommended discontinuing the addition of tetraethyl lead to gasoline.

Of course he was immediately attacked by the lead industry, and particularly by the Ethyl Corporation, founded by General Motors and Esso Corporation of New Jersey (for all of whom it produced enormous profits). In 1972, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took action to phase out the addition of tetraethyl lead to gasoline. The Ethyl Corp. sued and lost, and by the mid-1980s leaded gasoline was outlawed in the U.S., and worldwide by 2011.

Another culprit is Aspartame, an artificial sweetener developed by Monsanto, and used in Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi and many food products, and marketed as “Nutrisweet” and “Equal.” When heated above 86 degrees F, the wood alcohol in Aspartame converts to formaldehyde and then to formic acid, mimicking, among other conditions, the symptoms of multiple sclerosis and systemic lupus, which often disappear when intake of Aspartame is discontinued. Children, and women during pregnancy, in particular, should avoid Aspartame. There have been Congressional hearings on the effects of Aspartame, but due to the strength of the drug and chemical lobbies, no action has been taken.

Since 2002, General Motors knew about an ignition-switch defect which has produced a series of crashes resulting in over 20 fatalities. GM decided in 2005 that a recall would cut into profits, so there was no recall. This year GM finally recalled more than 2 million vehicles to correct this defect.

Now, electromagnetic radiation from cell-phone towers and cell phones, themselves, which can be as high as100 million times the natural level, is suspected of possibly increasing the frequency of headaches, memory loss, birth defects, behavioral and learning-ability problems, cancer and degenerative nerve diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Motorola, which had sponsored a study which it expected to dispel any such rumors, discontinued its funding when the results weren’t what it wanted.

But people aren’t the only victims of death being sold by the chemical industry. Companies like Monsanto have created pesticides and herbicides which have caused or are causing the death of millions of birds, bees, and the spectacular monarch butterflies.

We are all familiar with DDT, Monsanto’s cash cow that was being sold on the hope of ridding the world of the mosquitoes that transmit malaria. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring”, revealed how the widespread use of DDT to control mosquitoes was also threatening to rid the world of many bird species, including most notably the American eagle. She was viciously attacked by the entire chemical industry, but eventually proven correct, with the result that regulations restricting the use of DDT were enacted.

The mystery of what has been causing the massive die-offs of honey bees (which are essential for the pollination of crops that produce one-third of our food supply) has been identified as a recently developed group of potent pesticides known as neonics. And the monarch butterfly population is plummeting as a result of a new herbicide which has the side effect of killing the milkweed that is their sole food supply.

We need to make our government put the health of its citizens, and of the environment on which our survival depends, ahead of corporate profits — as has been done in Europe — instead of the other way around.

“As I See It” appears on the first Thursday of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at

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