Indecent Exposure: Reagan Guts the Rules on Cancer Protection - Rolling Stone
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Indecent Exposure: Reagan Guts the Rules on Cancer Protection

The risky business of deregulation — four more years?

President Ronald Reagan

President Ronald Reagan campaigns in New Hampshire at the start of his 1984 re-election campaign,1984

Dirck Halstead/Getty

Warning: Four more years of Reagan may be hazardous to your health.

Some 450,000 Americans die of cancer yearly, and the rate is climbing. It is the second leading cause of death in this country. One in four of us will die from a disease that many scientists believe is caused by our environment: what we eat, drink and smoke, as well as the chemicals to which we are exposed. Yet for three years, the Reagan administration has systematically reversed or neutralized many of the safeguards that protected us from carcinogens. Many environmentalists, scientists and members of Congress are convinced that four more years of Reagan will mean an increased chance of cancer for many Americans.

In the interest of freeing big business from the “burdensome” cost of federal regulation, Reagan appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other regulatory agencies have failed to enact regulations for some 1,000 new chemicals introduced each year, shredded rules already on the books and censored the flow of information to the public as well. Acceptable risk levels for people exposed to carcinogens have been increased a hundredfold, in some cases. Hazardous-waste sites have been ignored. Even when popular opinion or a court order has forced the agencies to move, their initiatives have often been squelched in David Stockman’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has the authority to evaluate all new regulations for cost effectiveness.


Scientists don’t know much for certain about cancer, but there is a consensus that environmental factors are the chief culprits, and that cancer can take a long time to show up-from ten to forty years, in some cases. No one can say for sure what causes tumors, how they are formed or how best to safeguard the public. Animals are used to test suspected substances, for obvious reasons, and once a chemical is judged to be carcinogenic, it’s assumed there is no “safe” level of exposure to that chemical. The inability of scientists to tell us much about the disease is overshadowed by society’s gaping ignorance about the chemicals we are exposed to every day. Of the 53,500 chemicals in commercial use today, practically nothing is known about eighty percent of them, according to the National Academy of Sciences. (Only minimal information exists for the remaining twenty percent.)

Ideally, a prudent public-health policy takes the best scientific data and puts it in the hands of capable administrators, who enact safeguards to protect the public. The Reagan administration has demonstrated little such prudence. To justify their opposition to environmental safeguards, Reagan’s appointees have subverted science, fiddled with statistics and, if all else failed, bullied their way past outraged critics and public officials. Early on, regulators and lobbyists began meeting in secret to cement the new “partnership” between business and government, their conversations protected by executive privilege. Despite the scandals at EPA that sent twenty top officials packing and resulted in subsequent congressional investigations, Reagan’s war against regulation continues. Only the tactics appear to have changed.

The appointment of William Ruckelshaus as EPA administrator has restored a patina of gentility to an office that had become sullied by mismanagement and conflict of interest under its previous director, Anne Burford. Ruckelshaus, who was the agency’s first chief under Richard Nixon, is considered a well-intentioned, capable administrator, even among environmentalists. But little has changed at EPA during his one-year term. There has been no progress on the acid-rain problem or implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act. And the renewal of federal pesticide regulation and air- and water-pollution standards has been delayed.

Ruckelshaus is not entirely at fault. He and his deputies have initiated changes, but often come up empty-handed. According to one EPA staffer, “They can’t win when they go up against the White House and OMB.” Budgets for research and enforcement have been slashed. EPA’s overall allowance is now equal to what it was ten years ago. The budget for research and development is at one-quarter of its 1972 level.

Reagan’s money men aren’t shy about explaining White House philosophy. This past March, Christopher DeMuth, OMB’s administrator for information and regulatory affairs, told the National Association of Manufacturers that there is still “much too much regulating.” DeMuth boasted about the administration’s “steady and growing progress on efforts [to reduce regulation] . . . clear reversal of the course of events we inherited.” Todd Oppenheimer contributed additional reporting from Washington D.C.

The “progress” that DeMuth referred to includes some frightening changes in cancer-prevention policy and carcinogen regulation. At the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), rules for additives were rewritten so that carcinogenic contaminants could be allowed in food and cosmetics if they entered as a byproduct of the manufacturing process. At EPA, rules prohibiting the dumping of hazardous wastes were scrapped and then rewritten so that liquid toxic wastes could again be dumped in landfills.

OSHA, perhaps the hardest hit of the regulatory agencies, has not set standards for worker exposure for a single new chemical since 1980, according to Devra Lee Davis, executive director of the board of toxicology at the National Academy of Sciences. The agency gutted a “right to know” rule that would have required employers to identify hazardous substances to workers exposed to them.

Representative Bruce Vento of Minnesota called the present standard an “insidious attempt to undermine stronger state laws that protect greater numbers of employees.”

Eula Bingham, former assistant secretary of labor at OSHA, says the agency is “in a shambles. There’s no inspection activity. They inspect records instead of workplaces. Their attitude is, ‘Blame the victim,’ and ‘Expect a little cancer as the price of a job.”‘

Both EPA and OSHA have refused to issue regulations for formaldehyde, a chemical that turns up in $240 billion worth of products every year, even after it was shown by an industry-sponsored study to cause cancer in animals at very low levels. Because formaldehyde is used in everything from permanent-press fabrics to cosmetics, insulation, plywood and furniture, millions are exposed to this suspected carcinogen at levels close to those that cause cancer in animals.

In deciding not to regulate formaldehyde, EPA and OSHA officials dismissed the findings of long-term studies on laboratory animals, opting to wait for evidence of sickness and death in humans.

Consumers panicked earlier this year over EDB (ethylene dibromide), a pesticide used to fumigate fruit and grain. And rightly so: EDB is so potent a toxin that a worker exposed to as little as twenty parts per billion has a ninety-nine percent chance of developing cancer, according to EPA and OSHA estimates. When the chemical first turned up at high levels in Florida’s ground water last summer, EPA administrator Ruckelshaus called a halt to its use in soil. However, he did not ban the use of EDB on grain or citrus products, nor did he set tolerance levels for ready-to-eat foods.

Florida and Georgia health agencies began testing for residual amounts of EDB in foods and, as a result, started recalling products containing measurable amounts of EDB. Florida’s state health commissioner ultimately ordered seventy-seven products removed from supermarket shelves. Other states began testing for EDB and setting their own guidelines. The scare was on, and it wasn’t just the public that was frightened: The food industry was facing severe financial losses.

On February 3rd, Ruckelshaus finally announced an “emergency ban” on the use of EDB on grain. (Citrus fruit, however, could still be dosed, and his recommended levels for EDB in flour and finished foods were remarkably close to those the food industry asked for.) The emergency action was, in the words of one critic, “too little, too late.”

Too little, because even the EPA’s own studies concluded that the recommended level of thirty parts per billion for ready-to-eat foods could result in 3.3 cancer deaths per thousand people. Cancer experts say that over forty years, this translates to 750,000 deaths over and above the expected cancer rate.

Too late, because it was nine years ago that the National Cancer Institute first informed the government that EDB was carcinogenic. Nevertheless, EDB is still in our food, and under Reagan, OSHA has done nothing to protect workers who handle it.


While budgets have been slashed at the regulatory agencies, the government has decided to spend $700,000 on a propaganda effort to convince people that “they are not always at the mercy of our environment.” On March 7th, Margaret Heckler, secretary of health and human services, launched a Cancer Prevention Awareness Campaign to tell “the simple truth that cancer is usually caused by the way we live.”

In Heckler’s view, pollutants and occupational causes of cancer account for as little as eight percent of all cancer cases — say, a mere 36,000 or so deaths per year — and, therefore, are scant cause for worry. Instead, Heckler announced that 95,000 lives a year could be saved by the end of the century if only we’d change our diet and stop using tobacco.

The problem with Heckler’s announcement is that the research on which much of it is based — a 1981 study by two eminent British scientists, Sir Richard Doll and Richard Peto — contains two serious flaws, according to critics.

First, it ignores the presumption that carcinogens in combination can substantially increase the risk of cancer. There is a synergistic effect, in other words, when people are exposed to multiple cancer-causing agents. “We know, for instance, that there are interactions between smoking and occupational exposure to asbestos,” says Dr. Frederica Perera, assistant professor of public health at Columbia University.

Second, the study excludes people sixty-five and over, thus overlooking cancers that often don’t show up until late in life. For example, mesothelioma — a cancer known to be caused by exposure to asbestos — takes thirty-five years to appear, on the average.

But even the Doll-Peto study, as comforting as it is to the Reagan antiregulators, warns that in the future, up to twenty percent of all cancer cases could be caused by toxic pollutants in the environment and the workplace, as well as by food additives, industrial products, medicine and medical procedures. Whether the number is as low as eight percent or as high as twenty percent, Columbia’s Dr. Perera feels the key point is that “actions should be taken to address exposures that are identifiable and preventable. Our goal should be to reduce those exposures to the greatest extent possible.”


Another assault on the theories that have guided federal regulatory policies for the past decade will begin on June 27th, with the publication of Edith Efron’s The Apocalyptics: Politics, Science and the Big Cancer Lie, a 500-page denunciation of the “myths” of environmental-cancer prevention. According to Efron, it is a “lie” that synthetic industrial chemicals are significant causes of cancer.

In her view, peanut butter, hamburgers and tea are every bit as “evil” as DDT. Scientists have known this but have decided to withold such information. Why? Because it was their initial suspicion of synthetic chemicals that led to the creation of their jobs by the government. These scientists became the “in” group in cancer-research circles. They got the jobs, the grants, the government subsidies. To buck the system, Efron says, would mean a loss of livelihood. Some of the brightest names in environmental medicine are vilified for withholding information and for scaring the public to death.

Efron goes on to attack as scientifically invalid the two pillars of existing federal cancer policy: animal testing as a way to evaluate human risk, and the “no threshold” concept, which holds that there is no safe level of exposure to suspected carcinogens.

According to Efron, tests in which laboratory animals are subjected to high doses of a chemical in order to assess its risk to man prove only one thing: what causes cancer in animals. As for the belief in no safe exposure level, she observes that science has substituted a moral position — “We must protect the public at all costs” — for verifiable fact.

So science, corrupted by politics, has not been able to serve its purpose of finding the truth. Rather, the scientific community has set out to uphold the prevailing beliefs and has scorned new information. In the process, the public has had to endure the great cancer scares of the Seventies, and industry got bogged down in red tape and regulation.

The author gives away her political leanings in her acknowledgments. The money for her five-year effort came from the right-wing Olin Foundation, Pepsi-Cola and various other foundations. Additional support came from Richard Mellon Scaife, a right-wing financier and generous Reagan backer who, in the late Seventies, also bankrolled the endeavors of Edwin Meese and James Watt. The Apocalyptics has already been reviewed favorably in Barron’s and excerpted in such conservative journals as Reason and the American Spectator. It’s a sure bet that The Apocalyptics will be quoted extensively by the Reaganauts, and the book could provide the philosophical underpinnings for a new assault on regulation.


In a world where government money funds scientific research and underwrites the programs of private universities, science and politics will never be completely separate. In fact, the marriage of science and government defines the problematic reality of public-health policymaking. “A shotgun wedding” is how EPA administrator Ruckelshaus described it. Science is never entirely free of political pressure — and this can bias the interpretation of presumably unambiguous data. After all, as one of his policy advisers said in defense of his boss, “Even a single rat study can be interpreted two ways, depending on your ideology.”

Ruckelshaus, unlike theorist Efron and doctors Doll and Peto, must make decisions that directly affect peoples’ lives. He, too, has some new ideas about the government’s role in protecting the public.

In a June 1983 speech before the National Academy of Sciences, Ruckelshaus introduced a new philosophy for EPA that he hopes will eventually apply to all federal regulatory agencies. “Life now takes place in a mine field of risks,” he said. “No more can we tell the public, ‘You are home free with an adequate margin of safety.”‘ The solution is risk assessment and risk management, he told the NAS. “Scientists assess a risk to find out what the problems are,” Ruckelshaus said. “Deciding what to do about the problem is risk management.”

In other words, science will tell us what causes cancer, and the government will decide, depending on the cost, whether risks can feasibly be reduced or eliminated. The public will be involved in the decision-making process in that the government will lay out the risks and let communities voice their opinions.

Unfortunately, the policy starts to look a little sinister when it’s put into practice. Last July, for instance, EPA, under court order, proposed a safety standard for arsenic pollution in Washington State. Arsenic, a known carcinogen, was being spewed out at extremely high levels by a copper smelter in Tacoma, Washington. EPA asked the plant workers and nearby residents what they thought of the agency’s proposal to install “air screens” that would not reduce the arsenic emissions to a safe level but might make it economically possible to keep the factory open. Naturally, the workers were willing to accept some danger to keep their jobs, but the community would still face cancer at the rate of four cases per thousand (down from an alarming twenty-three cases per thousand).

Since previous administrations routinely sought to regulate carcinogens when the cancer risk reached a rate often cases per million people exposed, Tacoma appears to have become one of Ruckelshaus’ mine fields of risk. EPA’s decision on the fate of the plant — and, with it, the health and safety of the residents of Tacoma — is expected this summer.

Dr. Myra Karstadt, a professor of community medicine at Mount Sinai Medical School, calls this shifting of responsibility from EPA to the affected communities “a form of environmental blackmail.”

David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council sees in this example of risk management the potential for abuse. “Making the issue a trade-off between jobs and health is a call to complacency,” he says. “Stating the danger as ‘risk’ instead of actual illness is a semantic sleight of hand that does not address the moral issue.”


Back in the Fifties, it was a fad at suburban shoe stores to have children stand on X-ray machines to check the fit of their new shoes. Only thirty years later, Margaret Heckler, as part of her cancer-prevention campaign, is warning Americans to “avoid X-rays unless medically necessary.”

Similarly, the first generation of birth-control pills contained levels of estrogen that most doctors would now deem dangerous. The bank of medical knowledge about cancer and other diseases is based on the scientific method of trial and error. The results keep changing, and a certain degree of error is a natural result.

While science continues to determine the most significant causes of cancer — synthetic chemicals, tobacco, high-cholesterol diets — the government has a moral obligation to protect the public, even if it errs on the side of safety. The Reagan administration, which has taken a high moral tone when discussing such issues as school prayer and abortion, has, in the area of safeguarding its citizens from cancer-causing substances, chosen to err on the side of risk.

In This Article: Coverwall, Ronald Reagan


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