Self-Regulation Means No Regulation: Five Lessons We Should Have Learned from Agent Orange Peter Sills lays out the lessons we should have learned from the aftermath of Agent Orange and illustrates why smart regulation is better for everyone

NASHVILLE, Tenn., April 2, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- Economic crises. Foodborne disease outbreaks. Oil and chemical spills. According to Peter Sills, each is the natural result of the widespread demonization of a tool our government should wield more often. Regulation.

"All three of these crises are 'old' problems that have started resurfacing ever since conservative politicians slashed the budgets of our regulatory agencies," says Sills, author of Toxic War: The Story of Agent Orange (Vanderbilt University Press, 2014, ISBN: 978-0-8265-1962-7, $39.95, www.vanderbilt.edu/university-press).

In Toxic War Sills writes about an industry that's especially averse to government regulation: the American chemical industry. Its leaders see regulation as more than an inconvenience; they argue that it puts the nation's freedom at risk.

Yet, as Sills' book describes, such attitudes led directly to the poisoning of American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians.

Many politicians and industries push for self-regulation, and Sills says that might actually work in a perfect world. But in the real world, he insists, it won't—and here are five reasons why:

If a hard, unpleasant task is optional, then most companies won't do it (especially if it will cost them money). Consider Wyeth Pharmaceuticals' refusal to change the label requirements on Phenergan even though it knew the method suggested could lead to infection and amputation. Wyeth finally made the change after being sued by a patient who had lost most of her arm.

"Sometimes, for the safety of the public, it is necessary for the government to force companies into performing unpleasant tasks," says Sills.

Companies don't want to admit that big problems exist. When a company acknowledges that a problem causes injury or illness, it opens itself up to public anger, expensive lawsuits, and Congressional investigations, causing the same government involvement it was trying to avoid in the first place.

"For example, when the world finally learned that herbicides sprayed in Vietnam might contain dioxin, the industry found itself under attack," says Sills. "Congress held hearings and passed laws to restrict the use of these compounds and to help sick veterans."

A harsh reality: For corporations, profits come first, public safety second. "I've learned that chemical companies will choose profit over protecting the public almost every time, even if it means people might die," notes Sills.

Silence and cover-up are more cost effective than tackling problems head on. Companies in the tobacco and asbestos industries knew that their products caused cancer and other diseases, and yet they hid the truth from the public. Why? Because admitting it would have opened up a whole host of other problems—problems that would have been costly to fix and would have outraged the public. The companies realized it would be much easier to simply cover up the wrongdoing, push forward with business as usual, and keep the profits coming.

When silence fails, companies can go to Plan B—faulty "science." In Toxic War, Sills describes how an herbicide industry group quickly responded to a scientific study proving that dioxin caused birth defects in animals. They argued, with the help of friendly scientists, that this study couldn't possibly apply to humans, even though they already knew there were dangerous levels of dioxin in their products. 

"It's not necessary for these friendly scientists to prove that the product is actually safe," Sills says. "All that's necessary is that they create uncertainty, to manufacture enough doubt to make the issue seem more complicated than it really is."

Sometimes, an industry can't avoid at least the appearance of regulation. But even then, powerful business interests can have enough political clout to control, or even kill, the process.

And it should be noted that the government is far from blameless. It has been known to get involved in cover-ups and to side with offending corporations. That's why public pressure is so important.

"Political pressure cuts both ways," Sills concludes. "Even though businesses have more money and clout, the public can also influence the regulatory process. It takes a lot of patience and hard work to move the system in your direction, but it definitely can be done."

About the Author:
Peter Sills is the author of Toxic War: The Story of Agent Orange (Vanderbilt University Press, 2014, ISBN: 978-0-8265-1962-7, $39.95, www.vanderbilt.edu/university-press). He is an attorney and helped represent the Vietnam Veterans of America in the Agent Orange class action lawsuit.

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