THE BLOG

Shooting Non-targets

12/23/2014 10:06 am ET | Updated Feb 22, 2015
  • Evaggelos Vallianatos Scholar and author of several books, including , "Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA" (with McKay Jenkins)

I spent twenty-five years working for America's Environmental Protection Agency. I found myself in an inferno of corruption -- right in the belly of the government.

Corruption came to EPA directly from the industry and through the White House and Congress. But my experience at EPA had its pleasures as well. Those included learning from my constant readings, observations, and my discussions with some exceptional colleagues. Yet I lived through the daily uncertainty of survival in a bureaucracy increasingly becoming the other face of the "regulated" industry. I agonized in vain how to stop corruption and pollution.

The EPA came into being in December 1970. Despite the war politics of the 1970s, EPA tried to live up to its mission: protecting human health and the natural world from factory and agricultural poisons, especially keeping water, air, and food relatively safe.

However, industry intervened and crippled the agency. For example, the owners of farm sprays have their fingerprints all over EPA.

Agricultural sprays are biocides, chemicals designed to kill all life. These poisons also contaminate our food, drinking water and air. In fact, they are so pervasive in the environment, that they poison mothers' breast milk.

I observed EPA "regulating" these toxins. I concluded early on that the machinery of exterminating insects and wildlife with synthetic poisons is a concrete expression of ruthless economic and political power. It follows that the panoply of pesticide companies, science, scientists, government regulators and money serve only to legitimize that immoral power.

And since the result of "pest control" practices is impoverishing the natural world and is causing disease and death among humans, we are witnessing and tolerating violence in the management of agriculture, the chemical industry, government regulation, and politics.

I am not the first to connect pesticides to violence. As early as 1978, an outstanding professor of biology at the University of California-Berkeley, Robert van den Bosch, equated the pest control industry to "a pro-pesticide mafia." In his book, "The Pesticide Conspiracy," he says this pro-pesticide mafia "owns politicians, bureaucrats, researchers, county agents, administrators, and elements of the media, and it can break those who don't conform."

Van den Bosch was right. The global pest control industry makes quite a killing: more than $ 40 billion per year. Some of this money lubricates the politicians and academics; they, in turn, bring the government to their team.

The pesticides establishment (chemical manufacturers, pesticide merchants, large farmers, timber companies, academics and government regulators) labels the victims of pesticides "non-targets."

The "non-target" costs of spraying lethal poisons in the environment are often high. In a cotton field, everything but the bugs feeding on cotton is non-target: that includes farmers, farm workers, children, birds, beneficial insects, other crops and wildlife.

David Coppage and Clayton Bushong, senior EPA ecologists, studied the ecological damage of pesticides in the United States. In their December 1983 draft report, "On the Value of Wild Biotic Resources of the United States Affected by Pesticides," they calculated the harm of farm poisons to a limited number of land and water wild animals cost the people of this country more than 1.25 trillion dollars per year in lost recreational, commercial, personal food, and aesthetic values.

For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, spraying DDT to marshes and tidelands killed billions of fish and aquatic invertebrates, including fish eating birds. DDT-like sprays like dieldrin and heptachlor killed about 80 percent of songbirds, wiping out some game birds while decimating wild mammals. Just the runoff of cotton insecticides, said Coppage and Bushong, "caused staggering losses of fish." It boggles the mind to think of so massive a "potential" loss we put up with yearly in complete indifference.

This ecological damage is a consequence of a political culture that, increasingly, looks and sounds like organized crime.

Some of my EPA colleagues got as angry as I was. They were better diplomats than me, however.

For example, a few of them working out of Dallas, Texas, reported on the ecological and human impacts of policies in Region 6 - a huge area in South Central United States covering Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arkansas. In their November 1990 "Region 6 Comparative Risk Project: Overview Report," they reached these conclusions:

"All ecological threats are ultimately threats to human health. Man depends upon a predictable global ecology for air quality, water, food, shelter, and medicines.... Although humans are one species among thousands, they are the only species that can chemically and biologically alter the planet. Human activity has changed the course of evolution through agricultural and industrial technology; we must begin to understand that, ecologically, humans have a responsibility to preserve the earth's life if but to protect human life. We have not demonstrated the knowledge, wisdom, or compassion to accept this role."

These gems of courage and wisdom inspired me to speak out as well. Rather than being a "team player" and earn a high salary and awards, I took the road rarely taken. I paid a high price for that decision.

I kept saying the environmental conditions in America are deleterious to all life, including human life. EPA failed us but only because our politicians are in bed with the industry. The medicine for EPA's failure is to demolish the corrupting power of the industry. Then let EPA scientists do their work.

We need a new EPA designed to be immune to political corruption.

Young American moms (and other young women all over the world) should never have to discover poisons in their breast milk. But they do. That alone is dangerous to the health of the mothers and newborn. Poisons in mothers' milk are also so offensive to human dignity that young women -- and the rest of us -- ought to overthrow everything that makes their poisoning possible.