Environment and Public Health

From Censorship: A World Encyclopedia, Volume 2, edited by Derek Jones (London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001), pp. 740-743.


 Brian Martin

email: bmartin@uow.edu.au

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Over the past century, censorship in the areas of environment and public health has become increasingly important, for several reasons. First is the rise of powerful groups--notably governments, corporations and professions--with a vested interest in policies, practices or beliefs that are, or are thought to be, damaging to the environment or people’s health. These groups have both a reason and capacity to censor. Second is the increased prominence of experts, such as scientists and doctors, with credibility due to their credentials and positions. When some of these experts try to speak out in a way that threatens vested interests, there is something to censor. Third is the rise of citizen movements, notably the modern environmental movement dating from about the 1960s and the more diffuse movements and initiatives concerning public health. These movements provide an audience for environmental and public health messages and a force that can sometimes challenge vested interests.

The first type of interest group responsible for significant censorship on environment and health issues is states, including militaries. War, military repression and other military activities have major impacts on public health and often on the environment. Some of these impacts are quite obvious and treated as either inevitable or secondary in debates framed around "defence" and "national security". During war time there is typically pervasive censorship that includes environmental and health impacts. Military secrecy also applies in "peace time". It becomes especially salient when information, if available to the public, can become a basis for opposition to military operations.

A prime case is nuclear weapons which, because of their enormous destructive power and symbolic significance, became a prime focus for peace movements. Nuclear weapons states tested their bombs as part of the process of developing their arsenals. As well, they involved troops in training exercises around nuclear explosions. All this was blanketed in secrecy. In countries with pervasive censorship, such as the Soviet Union and China, there were no alternative sources of information. The massive nuclear disaster at Chelyabinsk in 1957 was covered up by the Soviet government for many years. In the West, in contrast, public concern plus independent sources of expertise, such as university scientists, made possible a challenge to government censorship. Radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear explosions can be measured around in the world. Governments censored their own scientists but could not stop scientists elsewhere from making measurements and pronouncements.

Military research is typically subject to strict censorship. In a few cases, especially in the United States, health and environmental implications have been revealed, though often only years afterwards. Examples are research in biological and chemical weapons and research into "mind control", some of which involved exposing unsuspecting subjects or populations to chemicals and drugs.

Nuclear power, with roots in nuclear weapons programmes, has long been subject to state censorship. Many nuclear bureaucracies have sought to cover up any adverse consequences of nuclear power programmes. In India, for example, the Atomic Energy Act 1962 prohibited releasing or attempting to obtain information about nuclear power. Similar acts applied in other countries. Government cover-ups were attempted of the 1957 Windscale reactor accident in Britain and the 1966 Fermi fast breeder accident in the United States. As anti-nuclear movements have gained strength and sympathy, it has become harder for governments to maintain secrecy.

In the Soviet Union, nuclear power was promoted as totally safe and all criticisms and negative information suppressed. Full information about the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979 was provided only to top Soviet managers. Soviet nuclear accidents were concealed from the public and from other nuclear plants, so that there was no learning from the experience of problems. However, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster could not be concealed, although Soviet media did not report it until two days after reports from foreign broadcasters. Members of the Politburo received extensive information about the enormous health impacts of radiation releases from Chernobyl on nearby populations, but this was kept secret and bland reassurances were issued to the media. For years afterwards, articles describing the situation of local inhabitants, especially their health problems, were denied publication, while whitewashes were published.

Disinformation, the intentional dissemination of false information, is commonly used by militaries, especially in war time. Sometimes it concerns health issues, such as the US government allegation that "yellow rain" in southeast Asia was a communist biological weapon. It was later revealed to be bees’ faeces. The success of any disinformation campaign depends on censorship of valid information. The involvement of the US Central Intelligence Agency in the heroin trade in different parts of the world, primarily as a means to finance undercover operations, has been hidden by censorship and disguised by disinformation.

Famine, a public health problem of the first order, is made possible or aggravated by government secrecy. The massive famine in China in the late 1950s, in the wake of the "great leap forward", killed perhaps 20 million people but was covered up by the Chinese government at the time and for decades afterwards. Publicity provides an effective antidote to the development of famine.

A second type of interest group responsible for much censorship in environment and public health is corporations, such as those that produce chemicals, pharmaceuticals, cars or forest products. When corporations fund their own research, they may try to cover up unwelcome findings by their own scientists. There are several ways in which this sort of censorship can be challenged. One is for government regulatory bodies to examine the research. Another is for independent scientists--typically at universities--to carry out their own studies. A third is for industry scientists to leak information or speak out publicly. To be effective, there needs to be a receptive audience, which may be government regulators, politicians or public interest groups. Corporations try to stifle each of these challenges. They can attempt to turn government regulatory bodies into allies of the industry, to fund university researchers, to discredit hostile researchers, to harass and dismiss internal whistleblowers and to block dissemination of unwelcome research findings.

These processes are a recurring pattern in many health and environmental issues. In the 1920s, scientists in the United States raised concerns about lead in petrol and some US states banned it. General Motors sponsored a study by the Bureau of Mines and put pressure on it to prevent release of negative results. GM promulgated its own view but the media also reported critical scientists. Later, a study team investigated, found no short-term effect and recommended long-term studies--but these were to be done by industry. Corporate interests thus censored their own scientists, were able to nobble government studies through funding and pressure, fought a publicity battle with some independent scientists and media and eventually succeeded, in that generation, in preventing an independent study of long-term health effects.

The drug thalidomide was manufactured by the German firm Chemie Grünenthal and licensed in other countries. It was marketed as a completely safe sedative. Although Grünenthal received reports of adverse health effects, such as peripheral neuritis, it didn’t withdraw the drug. It lied to doctors who wrote asking if specific side effects had been seen before, tried to conceal the number of cases reported to the company, tried to suppress publication of reports about peripheral neuritis, and sought to counter critical reports with favourable ones by using money, influence and distortion. Grünenthal waged a smear campaign against Lenz, a German doctor trying to expose a link between thalidomide taken by pregnant women and birth defects in their children. The issue escaped company control when reports of the birth defects were published in medical journals and publicised in the media.

In the case of the health effects of smoking, tobacco companies covered up their own research findings, showing adverse effects, for decades. Research money was channelled through tobacco company lawyers so that findings were covered by lawyer-client privilege; thus, unwelcome results could be denied publication and scientists prevented from testifying in court.

Pesticide manufacturers have for decades used various methods to stifle critical viewpoints. In 1962, the Velsicol Chemical Corporation put pressure on Houghton Mifflin in an attempt to stop publication of Rachel Carson’s famous book Silent Spring. In 1971 in Australia, Clyde Manwell, professor of zoology at the University of Adelaide, wrote a letter to a newspaper critical of government spraying for fruit fly. This triggered a lengthy attempt to dismiss him; thereafter his research grant applications were unsuccessful. US scientist Melvin Reuber, who studied the cancer-causing effects of pesticides and provided results to citizen groups, received a severe reprimand which was published in a chemical industry trade journal, leading to destruction of his career. The chemical company Velsicol, manufacturer of the pesticides chlordane and heptachlor, has failed to publish adverse findings from its own in-house research, failed to undertake many relevant studies, misrepresented its unpublished test data, omitted mention of hazards from labels and advertisements, and illegally withheld results from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Corporations have an obvious incentive to prevent release of information about their activities that damage health or the environment, but sometimes government bodies develop just as strong an interest. For example, many government agriculture departments have become enthusiastic advocates of pesticides and have tried to cover up or discredit contrary information.

Unethical public relations can be considered the civilian equivalent of military disinformation. Corporations have used various techniques to undermine and discredit critics pointing to environmental and health problems, including spying, buying support from experts, cover-ups, lying and payments to journalists. To limit the impact of unwelcome books, there are cases of covert disruption of speaking tours and dissemination of damaging material to media outlets. David Steinman’s 1990 book Diet for a Poisoned Planet was subject to this sort of treatment.

Another technique used by corporations is the silencing "agreement". When workers or citizens sue manufacturers over the health effects of their work processes or products, the corporation may settle out of court--with the condition that details of the case remain secret, including claims of harm, the size of the payout and company documents provided as part of the case.

A third type of interest group responsible for much censorship in environment and public health is professions, especially the medical profession. The classic example is the response of doctors to Ignác Semmelweis, who beginning in the 1840s advocated antiseptic handwashing by obstetricians to reduce the high rate of maternal death during childbirth due to puerperal fever. Semmelweis was ignored, dismissed and misrepresented.

Standard cancer treatments are surgery, radiation and chemicals. Those who criticise these approaches or promote alternative therapies or theories, such as vitamin C or bacterial theories, are marginalised by techniques including denying research funds, cutting off grants, blocking publications and dismissing researchers. The American Cancer Society compiled a list of "unproven methods" of cancer management in order to discredit alternatives, although some of them had shown positive results whereas, in comparison, many standard therapies had not been shown to be effective.

The dental profession’s promotion of fluoridation has used similar techniques. Referees have tried to block certain articles because they might help antifluoridationists. Dentists who have spoken out against fluoridation have been threatened with reprisals and sometimes deregistered. Scientists have had research funds removed. In the 1960s, the Journal of the American Dental Association published a dossier on antifluoridationists, including much dubious material, and used it to discredit scientists and doctors opposed to fluoridation.

The theory that AIDS arose from contaminated polio vaccines used in Africa in the 1950s is very threatening to the medical research establishment. Articles and letters outlining the theory were refused publication at several medical and scientific journals. The developer of the vaccine, Hilary Koprowski, sued authors and media outlets for defamation, thereby stopping discussion of the theory.

The legal system has often been used to stop discussion of environmental and health issues. In the so-called McLibel case, Helen Steel and Dave Morris were sued by McDonald’s over a critical leaflet. Numerous US citizens have been sued by corporations for writing letters, signing petitions or making media statements about environmental and health issues (among others); these sorts of legal actions are now commonly called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or SLAPPs. They are a form of harassment that inhibits people from speaking out, and are also used in some other countries. In a number of US states, there are "food disparagement laws" that prohibit criticisms of certain foods.

Although most censorship in health and environmental areas stems, directly or indirectly, from powerful interest groups, censorship is also possible in and by opposition groups. Within the environmental movement, for example, open criticism of distortions or power plays is frowned upon and anyone who engages in such criticism may be subject to various sanctions, perhaps even losing a job. Such social movement censorship is the counterpart of censorship by the more powerful interests that the movements oppose.


Further Reading

Article 19, Starving in Silence: A Report on Famine and Censorship, London: Article 19, 1990

Curtis, Michael Kent, "Monkey Trials: Science, Defamation, and the Suppression of Dissent" in William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, 4/2, Winter 1995, pp. 507-593

Deyo, Richard A., Bruce M. Psaty, Gregory Simon, Edward H. Wagner and Gilbert S. Omenn, "The Messenger under Attack--Intimidation of Researchers by Special-Interest Groups" in New England Journal of Medicine, 336, 17 April 1997, pp. 1176-1180

Donson, Fiona J. L., Legal Intimidation, London: Free Association Books, 2000

Doyle, Tim, "Dissent Within the Environment Movement" in Social Alternatives, 13/2, July 1994, pp. 24-26

Ensign, Tod and Glenn Alcalay, "Duck and Cover(up): U.S. Radiation Testing on Humans" in CovertAction Quarterly, 59, Summer 1994, pp. 28-35, 65

Epstein, Samuel S., "Corporate Crime: Can We Trust Industry-Derived Safety Studies?" in The Ecologist, 19/1, 1989, pp. 23-30

Fagin, Dan, Marianne Lavelle and the Center for Public Integrity, Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law, and Endangers Your Health, Secaucus, NJ: Carol, 1996

Graham, Jr., Frank, Since Silent Spring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970

Hunt, Geoffrey (ed.), Whistleblowing in the Health Service: Accountability, Law and Professional Practice, London: Edward Arnold, 1995

Insight Team of The Sunday Times, Suffer the Children: The Story of Thalidomide, London: André Deutsch, 1979

Marks, John, The Search for the "Manchurian Candidate": The CIA and Mind Control, New York: Times Books, 1979

Martin, Brian, "Nuclear Suppression" in Science and Public Policy, 13/6, December 1986, pp. 312-320

Martin, Brian, Scientific Knowledge in Controversy: The Social Dynamics of the Fluoridation Debate, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991

Martin, Brian, "Intellectual Suppression: Why Environmental Scientists Are Afraid to Speak Out" in Habitat Australia, 20/3, July 1992, pp. 11-14

Martin, Brian, "Critics of Pesticides: Whistleblowing or Suppression of Dissent?" in Philosophy and Social Action, 22/3, July-September 1996, pp. 33-55

McCoy, Alfred W., The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, New York: Lawrence Hill and Co, 1991

Medvedev, Grigori, The Truth about Chernobyl, New York: BasicBooks, 1991

Medvedev, Zhores A., Nuclear Disaster in the Urals, New York: Norton, 1979

Moore, Thomas J., Deadly Medicine: Why Tens of Thousands of Heart Patients Died in America’s Worst Drug Disaster, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995

Moss, Ralph W., The Cancer Syndrome, New York, Grove, 1980

Pring, George W. and Penelope Canan, SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996

Otake, Hideo, "Corporate Power in Social Conflict: Vehicle Safety and Japanese Motor Manufacturers" in International Journal of the Sociology of Law, 10, 1982, pp. 75-103

Rosner, David and Gerald Markowitz, "A ‘Gift of God’? The Public Health Controversy over Leaded Gasoline during the 1920s" in American Journal of Public Health, 75/4 (1985), pp. 344-352

Stauber, John and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge Is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995

Van den Bosch, Robert, The Pesticide Conspiracy, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978

Vidal, John, McLibel, London: Macmillan, 1997

Walker, Martin J., Dirty Medicine: Science, Big Business and the Assault on Natural Health Care, London: Slingshot, 1993

Yaroshinskaya, Alla, Chernobyl: The Forbidden Truth, Oxford: Jon Carpenter, 1994