Science, Lies, and Politics

For eight years, TEDxMidAtlantic has brought together outspoken leaders in science, journalism, and the arts to tap the power of ideas to positively change the world. Dr. Susan Shaw shared insights from her life work at the most recent gathering of minds: TEDxMidAtlantic 2017: SUPERPOWERS in Washington DC.

Her fifteen-minute talk “Science, Lies, and Politics” highlighted decades of industry delays and cover-ups, starting with tobacco, to protect vested interests at the expense of public health.

Drawing on a 30-year career as an environmental scientist, explorer, author, and ocean advocate, Shaw spoke about the impact of the “raging” war on science.  Science for the public good always wins out in the end, but always after a long battle with many casualties.

Tobacco Wars

It started with the tobacco industry’s aggressive ad campaign in the 1940s through the 1960s when thousands of doctors and celebrities were paid to promote cigarette smoking and sell their favorite brands. In response to the mounting toll of smoking-related cancer deaths, including most of the famous “Marlboro Men”, the tobacco industry poured millions into lawsuits and denial of the connection between smoking and cancer. This battle defined the industry “playbook” of public deception and delay, Shaw said. It was not only decades later, in the 1970s, that science prevailed and public health warnings appeared on cigarette packets.

As petrochemicals like DDT and PCBs were introduced after World War II, the chemical industry launched its “Living Better With Chemistry”campaign. DDT was promoted as a “miracle of modern science” for killing a plethora of “deadly insects” until Rachel Carson pointed out that DDT was also poisoning the food chain and decimating bird populations. Her book Silent Spring (1962) led to meaningful legislation and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, but only after an acrimonious, decades-long battle with the chemical industry.

"I started in a darkroom, literally, a dark room filled with toxic chemicals that no one knew anything about.”

– Dr. Susan Shaw

Dr. Shaw related several encounters with the playbook from her own career, which began as a filmmaker in the 1970s. Later, in the early 1980s when she was working in public health, she was contacted by landscape photographer Ansel Adams who asked her to write a book on the dangers of photographic darkroom chemicals. Photographers were getting cancer at a young age, Adams told her. At the time, photochemicals were tightly held as trade secrets but Shaw was able to access secret chemical formulas from a toxicologist at Kodak. OverExposure was published in 1983. Kodak went on the attack and denied any connection between photochemicals and cancer. But, fortunately, photographers got the message and changed how they worked. Ultimately the book transformed the field.

In 2010, BP followed the industry playbook, perfectly, Shaw said, relating her personal experience when she dove in the Gulf to investigate the toxicity of chemical dispersant, Corexit, that was used to sink the oil. The company circulated the deceptive slogan, “Corexit is as safe as Dawn dishwashing detergent” and BP told clean-up workers not to wear respirators, they would “scare off the tourists”.  This resulted in chronic exposures to oil and dispersant for some 47,000 workers, many of whom became seriously ill.

Shaw was appointed to a Department of the Interior Scientific Working Group that predicted a public health crisis from the prolonged exposure of people to the dispersant-oil mixture. But their conclusions were suppressed. BP spent millions on lawsuits and an ad campaign “The Gulf is Safe, Come on Down”. Thousands of victims were told to keep quiet, even by their doctors.

"The worst was the lying. People were sacrificed for profit."

– Dr. Susan Shaw

Finally, seven years later, the National Institutes of Health report (September 2017) confirmed what the scientists knew, that Corexit was not safe at all, it caused suffering for thousands of exposed workers and people living nearby that continues to today.

Shaw cited flame retardants as another example of public deception and industry denial of harm. In the 1970s, the flame retardant TRIS, which was added to children's pajamas to protect them from “horrible fire deaths” was found to be mutagenic and was banned from childrens’ clothing. Industry began adding these same chemicals to a long list of household items - carpets, mattresses, plastics, foam furniture – and over time, Americans have absorbed these toxic chemicals in their bodies. Tragically, children and fire fighters have extremely high levels and are at risk for birth defects, IQ deficits, and cancers. The chemical industry has spent millions denying any connection, replacing one flame retardant with another very similar, less studied one. Finally, after decades, scientific evidence has shown that organohalogen flame retardants are not effective and cause irreversible harm, driving the Consumer Products Safety Commission’s decision to warn the public that organohalogen flame retardants are no longer considered safe in furniture and children’s products.

Cheap US shale gas and dirty coal from China are propelling a plastics boom that will last for decades. Plastics are already choking the oceans and  microplastics are in our seafood. But the chemical industry is poised to invest $164B in new plants, increasing plastic production by 36% in just eight years.

“Today, the biggest lie of all is the denial of climate change....and its evil twin - plastics. This is planetary ecocide.”

– Dr. Susan Shaw

The good news is, people can and are pushing back. Despite massive government assaults on science and health protections, a revolution based on renewable energy is happening across all sectors – energy, transportation, design and technology. Market forces are powerful drivers, and renewable energy and non-toxic products make good business.

The war on fact-based science has had a deep, long history. Shaw cited Galileo (1564-1642), who was branded a heretic for proving that the earth revolves around the sun. His science pitted him against religious dogma and he spent his last 30 years under a church gag order. Ultimately his ideas prevail, but, Shaw noted, “Today we don't have that kind of lag time."

"The future we want is within our grasp, but we’re up against a real planetary deadline.”

– Dr. Susan Shaw