CORPORATE POWER (Part 2): HEALTH IMPACTS

Here’s issue #20 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, writtten 2/26/12. The last issue looked at the mortgage foreclosure settlement that was very favorable for the corporations involved. Here are some different examples of corporate interests trumping the greater good.

Corporations frequently find ways to avoid costs and risks, while maximizing profits and paying huge amounts to corporate executives. These include avoiding paying for the costs of impacts on the environment and on public health.

One example is air pollution that is bad for health. Another is the use of antibiotics in animals for non-medical reasons (they grow more quickly) that jeopardizes public health.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued standards for the release of mercury into the air by power plants. As you probably know, mercury, even at very low levels, harms brain and nervous system development in young children and fetuses. More than 300,000 children are born each year with exposure to unsafe levels of mercury. Because airborne mercury accumulates in fish, pregnant women are advised to avoid eating many types of fish.

These regulations have been delayed for 20 years by corporate power, through campaign contributions, lobbying, and inside influence. The utility companies and their allies in Congress are continuing to try to block them today. A cost-benefit analysis shows that the public benefits are huge, $90 billion per year is a very conservative estimate, and the costs relatively small, $10 billion per year in slightly higher electricity costs. Despite this, the companies claim the regulations would kill jobs, disrupt electricity supplies, and lead to soaring electricity rates. These are the same arguments they made when acid rain regulations went into effect and none of these things happened. [1]

In a similar situation, the US Food and Drug Administration recently dropped plans to regulate the use of human antibiotics in animal feed. Livestock consume roughly 80% of the antibiotics sold in the US. This practice contributes to the presence of drug resistant bacteria. This problem was first identified in 1977 and it was recommended then that approval for the non-therapeutic use of penicillin and tetracycline be rescinded, but no action has been taken. The European Union has banned the use of antibiotics in animal feed for healthy animals. Many scientific and medical organizations have called for similar action by theUS, including the American Medical Association, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the Pediatric Infectious Disease Society, and the World Health Organization.

Over 100,000 Americans die each year from bacterial infections and 70% of these involve bacteria resistant to the commonly used treatment drugs. Last summer over 36 million pounds of turkey was recalled after it was found to contain drug resistant salmonella. Outbreaks of disease from drug resistant E.coli have also occurred in the last year. [2]

These two are particularly egregious examples of corporate interests trumping public health. Other examples will be presented in future newsletters along with examination of the ways corporations obtain and wield this kind of influence and power, for example through campaign contributions, lobbying, and the revolving door where public officials move between government positions and positions working for or with corporations.


[1]       Krugman, P., 12/26/11, “Springtime for toxics,” The New York Times

[2]       McVeigh, K., 12/29/11, “FDA draws criticism after U-turn on antibiotics in animal feed,” The Guardian

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