This article was originally published on MomsRising.org
Privatizing profits and socializing costs.
Businesses are adept at passing along the true costs of their pollution onto the rest of us. Parents and the health care system pick up a tab of $54.9 billion a year for four childhood disorders: lead poisoning, cancer, asthma, learning and behavioral disorders. Special ed (half the most-used chemicals harm the immature brain and nervous system) costs us $77.3 every year. Care for premature babies, another casualty of toxic harm, adds anther $26 billion to the annual national budget.
The $20 billion that BP, under pressure from the White House, set aside to compensate people and businesses harmed by the disaster is a drop in the bucket of final national bill. Right off the bat, BP will halve that outlay by taking a $10 billion tax credit for the costs of its clean-up. This means that taxpayers will indirectly foot part of the $20 billion. (4)
Oil production is among our most heavily subsidized businesses, with tax breaks handed out at virtually every stage of the exploration and extraction process. For instance, the Deep Water Horizon drilling rig was registered to a company in the Marshall Islands, allowing its owner, Transocean, to avoid taxes. At the same time, BP saved $225,000 a day by using a tax break to write off the rent for the rig. Capital investments like oil field leases and drilling equipment are taxed at an effective rate of 9 percent, significantly lower than the overall rate of 25 percent for businesses in general, lower than virtually any other industry, and much lower than most of us pay as workers. (5)
There are many other clever ways to avoid the full costs. To clean up the Gulf waste, BP has hired prison labor in Louisiana. These men are hired either at low wages or no wage at all, and BP gets a tax credit of $2,400 for every worker, under legislation passed in the Bush’s administration Welfare to Work program. That tax credit comes out of the taxes the rest of us pay. The workers, almost exclusively African American men, are forbidden to talk to the media. (6)
Do the hefty contributions from industry to our elected officials have something to do with the green light that lets them continue their toxicating ways and their capacity to get the rest of the nation to pay? Members of the House Congressional Committee on Natural Resources, the committee that deals with the oil industry, receive substantial funding from Haliburton, BP, Dow Chemical, Chevron, Exxon, Conoco Phillips, and Shell, to name just a few. (7) In addition, the oil and natural gas industry has spent $340 million on lobbyists since 2008. (8)
Ignoring the Health effects
Many people will be exposed to the chemicals in crude oil and dispersants through skin contact, by breathing in contaminated air or soil and sand granules, and by ingesting contaminated water or food. Harm will depend on the level of exposure and susceptibility. The most susceptible are pregnant women, the elderly and children, whose immature bodies have not yet developed the immune and detoxification defense mechanisms that come with maturity.
Oil and dispersants contain chemicals that rapidly penetrate the skin and move through cell walls. They can damage almost every system of the body; from the respiratory system, to the liver, kidneys, immune system, endocrine system, and on to the brain. They can damage cell structures, including DNA, and alter the function of the cells and the organs. The chemicals can impair normal growth and development through a variety of mechanisms, including endocrine disruption and direct fetal damage. They cause mutations that may lead to cancer and multi-generational birth defects, according to an independent research group, ScienceCorps .
While some damages will be immediately evident, others will appear months or years later. Some symptoms are already showing up among workers, surfers, and volunteers who walk along the shore looking for damaged wildlife.
Christie Whitman has just surfaced on various news media averring that three-quarters of the oil has simply disappeared, so we need not worry.
Do you recall that, a few days after 9/11, Ms Whitman, then EPA administrator, assured New Yorkers their air was safe to breathe and presented no health risk? Yet hundreds of clean-up workers, police, and others have since then fallen extremely ill, while the children born to women who were exposed to the fall-out during their pregnancies now suffer from lower IQs, behavioral problems, and the kind of DNA damage that can lead to cancer, according to studies launched right after 9/11 and still going on, by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health.
The Institute of Medicine says that what’s needed is a massive effort to track heath effects over time, but right now only a small federal study of the health of people in the Gulf communities is underway. After the massive Exxon Valdez spill, no one ever followed people over time to identify health outcomes.
Science for hire
BP has hired a private company to assess the health of workers engaged in clean-up, which seems a fine example of the fox guarding the chicken coop.
But that’s a very common occurrence. In Toms River, NJ, home to Ciba-Geigy and Union Carbide chemical facilities, an unusually high number of workers and then children in the community fell ill with cancer. Yet scientists hired by the companies never found any evidence of a connection.
BP is now buying up scientists from public universities in all the Gulf states, including the entire marine science department at one Alabama university. The well-paying contracts have a non-disclosure clause that prohibits scientists from publicizing their research, sharing it, or speaking about data for at least three years. The purpose is to aid the company in its defense against lawsuits, including the one the fed government is poised to bring against BP. (9)
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) recently proposed a broad overhaul of rules for the use of oil dispersants, one piece of legislation that seems irrefutable. It seems obvious that the federal government needs to overhaul its oversight of oil drilling and extracting, and clean up the corruption in the agency (the Minerals Management Service) that was supposed to regulate the industry.
Even apart from (and in addition to) global warming, the health of our children demands that we switch away from coal, oil, and gas to alternative energy sources. It is madness to spend billions of dollars first subsidizing the production of these fuels, more billions cleaning up the disasters they cause, and billions more to deal with the illnesses they bring about. (Not to mention the billions we spend on overseas wars to protect our sources of oil.)
As individuals and families, we can make a difference by the way we lead our lives – cut back on our gas usage, send a message to manufacturers by avoiding products based on oil such as plastics and synthetic fabrics, avoid petroleum-based pesticides by eating organic foods.
We should also give a strong push to the widespread use of “green chemistry,” which manufactures products out of a non-petroleum and non-toxic base. Green chemistry redesigns the molecules that go into manufacturing chemical products, to replace those that are toxic, and builds the products from plant-based materials such as corn, potatoes or other agricultural products, and even agricultural waste. A good article on how green chemistry can help avoid another Gulf-like catastrophe: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elizabeth-grossman/can-green-chemistry-get-u_b_660191.html
PS: A warning re eating fish
The dispersants sink into the water, enter the organisms fish eat, and travel up the food chain.
The Food and Drug Administration proposes to use a “sensory test” to decide whether fish are dangerous to eat. That means, they intend to smell the fish. But actually the fish can be contaminated without an odor. Right now, some independent scientists are advising that pregnant women and children avoid eating fish until a better test is put in place.
Sources of Information and Help
ScienceCorps is an informal alliance of scientists and other researchers who provide evaluation, communication, technology and other types of assistance in environmental and occupational health. See their fact sheet on the hazards of the ingredients that are in the Gulf, http://www.sciencecorps.org/crudeoilhazards.htm, and for medical repercussions, see their Clinical Evaluation fact sheet, http://www.sciencecorps.org/crudeoilhazards/ClinicalHealthEvaluation.pdf.
Dr, Riki Ott
Is a marine biologist, who studied the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez, and is now investigating the extent and repercussion of the Gulf blow-out.
Wilma Subra, Subra Company
Chemist and warrior who helps communities fight toxic assaults. Winner of a MacArthur “genius award.”
Environmental Defense Fund
This site helps you identify the energy reducing actions you’re willing to make, then aggregates everyone’s actions in equivalent gallons of oil, and displays the figure on the site’s home page.
If you google any terms relating to the Gulf catastrophe, at the top of the page you will find: Gulf Response, www.BP.com/GulfOfMexicoResponse
For an amazing video summarizing the situation:
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Except for the cited material, the examples and facts in this article are drawn from the book Alice wrote with her husband Philip, Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill. See www.poisonedforprofit.net
4. BP to cut U.S. tax bill by $10 billion because of losses in gulf spill,” Jia Lynn Yang, Washington Post, July 27, 2010
5. “Oil industry enjoys abundant tax breaks,” David Kocieniewski, The New York Times, July 03, 2010, pg 1.6. Abe Louise Young, “BP Hires Prison Labor to Clean Up Spill While Coastal Residents Struggle,” The Nation, July 21, 2010. www.thenation.com
7. Federal Elections Commission
8. Center for Responsive Politics
9. BP buys up Gulf scientists for legal defense, roiling academic community,” Alabama Register, July 16, 2010.
Alice and Philip Shabecoff’s book Poisoned for Profit, How Toxins are Making Our Children Chronically Ill, is available in our bookstore.