Toxic Sludge Excerpt #1: What You'll Swallow

All Lynn Tylczak wanted was to keep a few kids from being poisoned.Tylczak, an Oregon housewife, was intrigued by a PBS documentary that showed how Europeans use denatonium benzoate as a "bitterant" in poisonous household products. Denatonium benzoate is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most bitter substance ever discovered. Two drops will make a gallon of liquid taste so vile that children spit it out the instant it enters their mouths.In Europe, denatonium benzoate is used as an additive in antifreeze, whose sweet taste and smell belies its highly poisonous nature. As little as two teaspoons of antifreeze can cause death or blindness. It continues to claim the lives of children and pets who drink it by accident in the United States, where bitterants are not widely used, .Tylzcak launched the "Poison Proof Project" to get bitterant added to U.S. antifreeze. Her crusade was featured in the New York Times and Oprah Winfrey, and prompted a stiff backlash from antifreeze makers. When Tylczak began pushing for legislation to require bitterant in antifreeze, the industry hired National Grassroots & Communications, a public relations firm which, according to CEO Pamela Whitney, specializes in "passing and defeating legislation at both the federal and state levels."National Grassroots organized a stealth campaign to discredit the Poison Proof Project, which would have remained covert if Whitney hadn't made the mistake of bragging about it at a PR trade seminar titled "Shaping Public Opinion: If You Don't Do It, Somebody Else Will.""The key to winning anything is opposition research," Whitney explained. "We set up an operation where we posed as representatives of the estate of an older lady who had died and wanted to leave quite a bit of money to an organization that helped both children and animals," she said. "We went in and met with this organization and said, 'We want to bequeath a hundred thousand dollars to an organization; you're one of three that we are targeting to look at. Give us all of your financial records. Give us all of your [tax exemption records], give us all of your game plan for the following year, and the states you want to target and how you expect to win. We'll get back to you.'"Whitney grinned as she boasted, "We got this information and found out she had let her [tax exempt] IRS standing lapse, which put her in not very good standing. Also, we found out that her money came from--surprise, surprise--the companies that make bitterants. Without leaving any fingerprints or any traces we then got word through the local media and killed the bill in all the states."Whitney's revelation prompted an angry response from Tylczak. "She's got a very foolish client," Tylczak said. "Her story has got more bullshit than a cattle ranch."Tylczak said she was suspicious the moment Whitney's spy called claiming that he represented a Texas-based foundation called the "Citadel Trust." In fact, the sting operation "was done so ineptly that I called both Texas and Oregon state officials. . . . After talking to them, I sent her 'trust' a bogus gameplan/budget that hopefully convinced her client to waste lots of time and money."Tylczak said the money she had received from bitterant makers totalled less than $100 to pay for photocopying costs, compared to $50,000 that she had spent personally out of her family savings. And contrary to Whitney's claim that her PR firm "killed the bill in all the states" where it was introduced, Tylczak pointed out that a law requiring bitterant in antifreeze was passed by the Oregon state legislature in 1991, and went into effect in May of 1995.Did Whitney's PR firm succeed in killing similar legislation in other states, or was her boast merely empty puffery intended to impress other PR pros and potential clients? We may never know the answer to that question, just as we never learn about many of the public relation industry's most successful campaigns. Unlike advertising, public relations carefully conceals many of its activities from public view. This invisibility is part of a deliberate strategy for manipulating public opinion and government policy. "Persuasion, by its definition, is subtle," says another PR exec. "The best PR ends up looking like news. You never know when a PR agency is being effective; you'll just find your views slowly shifting."Making the World Safe From Democracy The PR industry did not even exist prior to the twentieth century, but it has grown steadily and appears poised for even more dramatic growth in the future. No one knows exactly how much money is spent each year in the United States on public relations, but $10 billion is considered a conservative estimate."Publicity" was once the work of carnival hawkers and penny-ante hustlers smoking cheap cigars and wearing cheap suits. Today's PR professionals are recruited from the ranks of former journalists, retired politicians and eager-beaver college graduates anxious to rise in the corporate world. They hobnob internationally with corporate CEOs, senators and US presidents. They use sophisticated psychology, opinion polling and complex computer databases so refined that they can pinpoint the prevailing "psychographics" of individual city neighborhoods.Press agents used to rely on news releases and publicity stunts to attract attention for their clients. In today's electronic age, the PR industry uses 800-numbers and telemarketing, advanced databases, computer bulletin boards, simultaneous multi-location fax transmission and "video news releases"--entire news stories, written, filmed and produced by PR firms and transmitted by satellite feed to hundreds of TV stations around the world.Video news releases are designed to be indistinguishable from genuine news, and are typically used as "story segments" on TV news shows without any attribution or disclaimer indicating that they are in fact subtle paid advertisements."Most of what you see on TV is, in effect, a canned PR product. Most of what you read in the paper and see on television is not news," says a senior vice-president with Gray & Company public relations.The PR industry also orchestrates many of the so-called "grassroots citizen campaigns" that lobby Washington, state and local governments. Unlike genuine grassroots movements, however, these industry-generated "astroturf" movements are controlled by the corporate interests that pay their bills. On behalf of the Philip Morris tobacco company, for example, Burson-Marsteller (the world's largest PR firm) created the "National Smokers Alliance" to mobilize smokers into a grassroots lobby for "smokers' rights."Deceptive PR has become so cynical that sometimes it staggers belief. To fight former Attorney General Ed Meese's Pornography Commission, Playboy and Penthouse magazines had Gray & Company PR create a front group called "Americans for Constitutional Freedom," to "assist in countering the idea that those who opposed the commission's efforts were motivated only by financial self-interest" or were "somehow 'pro-pornography.'" To defeat environmentalists, PR firms have created green-sounding front groups such as "The Global Climate Coalition" and the "British Columbia Forest Alliance."In defense of these activities, the PR industry claims that it is simply participating in the democratic process and and contributing to public debate. The secrecy it uses to conceal its activities belies this rationalization.Today's PR industry is related to democracy in the same way that prostitution is related to sex. When practiced voluntarily for love, both can exemplify human communications at its best. When they are bought and sold, however, they are transformed into something hidden and sordid.There is nothing wrong with many of the techniques used by the PR industry--lobbying, grassroots organizing, using the news media to put ideas before the public. As individuals, we not only have the right to engage in these activities, we have a responsibility to participate in the decisions that shape our society and our lives. Ordinary citizens have the right to organize for social change--better working conditions, health care, fair prices for family farmers, safe food, freedom from toxins, social justice, a humane foreign policy. But ordinary citizens cannot afford the multi-million-dollar campaigns that PR firms undertake on behalf of their special interest clients, usually large corporations, business associations and governments. Raw money enables the PR industry to mobilize private detectives, attorneys, broadcast faxes, satellite feeds, sophisticated information systems and other expensive, high-tech resources to out-maneuver, overpower and outlast true citizen reformers.Eat Sludge and Die One of the PR industry's most remarkable disasters-in-progress is a current campaign, in partnership with the US Environmental Protection Agency, to transform the image of sewage sludge so farmers can be persuaded to spread it on their fields as fertilizer. We learned about this campaign by accident while writing an expose about the PR industry, satirically titled Toxic Sludge Is Good For You. Advance publicity for the book prompted a call from Nancy Blatt, the "director of public information" for an organization called the "Water Environment Federation" (WEF)."We're launching a campaign to get people to stop calling it sludge," Blatt said. "We call it 'biosolids.'" She didn't think the title of the book would be helpful to our cause. "Why don't you call it Smoking Is Good For You?" she suggested. "That's a great title. People will pick it up. I think it has more impact."Further investigation revealed that Orwellian name changes are a PR technique of choice for the Water Environment Federation. Formerly known as the "Federation of Sewage and Industrial Wastes Associations," the Federation is actually the sewage industry's main trade, lobby and public relations association, with over 41,000 members and a multi-million-dollar budget that supports a 100-member staff.WEF's constituency includes 15,000 sewage treatment plants, which generate over 10 million pounds of toxic sludge per year as a byproduct of the sewage treatment process. Described by the HarperCollins Dictionary of Environmental Science as "a viscous, semisolid mixture of bacteria- and virus-laden organic matter, toxic metals, synthetic organic chemicals, and settled solids," sewage sludge contains over 60,000 toxic substances and chemical compounds, including PCBs, chlorinated pesticides, dioxins, bacteria, viruses, parasitic worms, petroleum products, industrial solvents and radioactive materials flushed down the drain by hospitals, businesses and decontamination laundries.Ocean dumping of sewage sludge has been outlawed by Congress after oceanographers discovered that it was killing fish and creating vast contaminated dead seas. Other disposal options include incineration (which releases pollution into the air) and burial in landfills. Faced by budget cuts in the 1980s, the EPA and WEF turned to land farming of sewage sludge. Considered hazardous until the 1970s, this method has the advantage of being the cheapest disposal method available.Anxious to solve their disposal problem, EPA and WEF have ignored and minimized complaints from citizens around the country who have experienced noxious odors, respiratory problems, damage to nervous and immune systems, and even death after sludge application near their homes. In Islip, New York, for example, 25-year-old Harry Dobin began suffering health problems that led to his death while working at a Long Island railroad station 1000 feet away from a sludge composting site. A lung biopsy discovered aspergillus fumigatus, a common byproduct of sludge composting. Outside Sparta, Missouri, dairy farmer Ed Rollins had his cows fall sick and die. Tests of a dead cow revealed lead, cadmium, fluoride in the liver, kidneys, bones and teeth.Dr. Stanford Tackett, a chemist and expert on lead contamination, became alarmed about sludge on the basis of its lead content alone. "The use of sewage sludge as a fertilizer poses a more significant lead threat to the land than did the use of leaded gasoline," he says. "All sewage sludges contain elevated concentrations of lead due to the nature of the treatment process. . . . Lead is a highly toxic and cumulative poison. Lead poisoning can cause severe mental retardation or death. It is now known that lead interferes with the blood-forming process, vitamin D metabolism, kidney function, and the neurological process. From the standpoint of lead alone, sludge is 'safe' only if you are willing to accept a lowered IQ for the young children living in the sludge area. And what about the other toxins?"Tackett is appalled "that the government would take the citizens' money and use it in such an odious way. The land spreading program for sewage sludge is a scam of enormous proportions, driven mainly by money," he charges. "The high-sounding justifications such as 'sludge is a beneficial resource' and 'sludge is just as safe as manure' are clever excuses designed to fool the public."To mastermind its "Biosolids Public Acceptance Campaign," the Water Environment Federation has hired Powell Tate, a blue-chip Washington-based PR/lobby firm that specializes in public relations around controversial high-tech, safety and health issues. Powell Tate's contributions include a catchy slogan describing "biosolids" as "a vitamin pill for the earth."The campaign discourages sewage plants and government agencies from using the word "sludge" in official publications, and WEF members are doing their best to eradicate the word from usage elsewhere. In addition to attempting (unsuccessfully) to rename our book, they are lobbying Merriam Webster to add "biosolids" to their dictionary."It looks like we are making progress on getting it included in a future edition," states an internal memo by Peter Machno of WEF's Name Change Task Force. "I am pleased that the term 'sludge' will not appear in the definition of biosolids... In the wastewater industry it is not 'politically correct' to use the term sludge any longer."

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.