PANNA: Scientists Identify Corporate Structure as Bad for Public Health


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Scientists Identify Corporate Structure as Bad for Public Health
November 15, 2004

Corporate 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 consequences 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 tenure.

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,

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