Column

We have met the enemy and it is us-unless we learn to become our own watchdog

Warner Troyer October 9 1978
Column

We have met the enemy and it is us-unless we learn to become our own watchdog

Warner Troyer October 9 1978

We have met the enemy and it is us-unless we learn to become our own watchdog

Column

Warner Troyer

In 1940, before he joined the Canadian Army, my father worked for a time in a munitions plant outside Montreal where many of the workers were afflicted with TNT poisoning by vapors from the “cooking” explosives. Symptoms were especially acute among women who suffered severe menstrual disorders. Factory doctors, more patriotic than sympathetic, avoided “down time” by giving the workers pills to “. . . clear this problem up. In a few hours you’ll see the poison being excreted in your urine, and you’ll be fine.”

Sure enough. Within 12 hours the workers who’d sought medical help were passing bright, violet-colored pee. They should have. Their “medication” consisted entirely of encapsulated dyes. And the plant production schedules were met.

But that’s history; and despite the ardors of World War II, history from a much simpler time.

Today virtually every personal act requires a suspension of disbelief, a leap of faith enabling us to believe the engineers, the quality controllers, watchdog agencies and government inspectors are infallible. How else could we dare enter an elevator, use our toothpaste, trust our furnace, our auto brakes, the x-ray machine in our dentist’s office? How could we dare eat, drink, breathe, nurse our infants? Good questions: Because those leaps of faith, it develops, have been close to terminally ingenuous. Michigan mothers have been administering potentially lethal mutagenic PBBs with their breast milk; Belleville and Brantford, Ontario, residents have been imbibing alarmingly high levels of chloroform carcinogens with their drinking water; in Beauharnois and Shawinigan, Quebec, and at Dalhousie, New Brunswick, citizens are bombarded by airborne mercury poison up to 10 times the “firewall” maximum allowed under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

What demands examination in these cases is that the data I’ve cited come from government studies financed by our taxes and unpublished until they were uncovered by journalists. Time and again and beyond all dispute, the men and women we elect and employ to protect our safety and health hide information we need for survival.

Private industry is no better than public bureaucracy. Remember the Pinto? On Sept. 12, Robert B. Alexander, vice-president, technical group, Ford Motor Company, U.S.A., said: “Product integrity and the quest for su-

perior quality always have been top priorities at Ford . . . The best way to describe our efforts is through the motto we’ve adopted: ‘Good quality is the result of doing it right the first time.’ ”

The “first time” Ford produced Pinto and about 2.5 million times more, it was in response to an internal cost-benefit study which recommended that the company not spend an extra 11 bucks per car to make their gas tanks less likely to explode in rear-end collisions. This, because computer printouts indicated about 180 people would be incinerated in consequent fires and another 180 severely burned, costing Ford a projected $49.5 million in damage suits as measured against the $137-million cost of fixing the hazardous cars. The modifications, said Ford engineers in a memo that surely landed on Mr. Alexander’s desk would not be “cost effective.”

The simple truth is that survival with any decent quality of life is wholly impossible in modern society without full disclosure of the hazards around us; and anyone who fails to give us the information we need for our survival should be charged with criminal negligence.

It’s time we recalled the “Nuremberg principle”: That each of us has a loyalty to our fellows that supersedes loyalty to our employer—whether that employer operates gas ovens, builds autos or agonizes over the next general election.

We need, for openers, to understand that corporations and bureaucracies are neither good nor bad: They are, as entities, ethical castrates. Corporate groups, public or private, have, like the DNA molecule, only one goal: survival. As the human body is host to the DNA, the body politic is host to our corporate interests; they feed off our nutrients (economic, in this case) in a blind, instinctual drive to self-perpetuation. They need to be informed of the limits of our tolerance. How bad is it? In Ontario io, as in the federal civil O service, those at the public lt; trough take an oath of se§ crecy so puerile that, § “taken literally, civil ser° vants aren’t supposed to speak to each other,” according to Ontario’s research director for a commission on freedom of information, John McCamus.

Section 202(1) of the Criminal Code says:

“Everyone is criminally negligent who in doing anything, or in omitting to do anything that it is his duty to do, shows wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons.”

All we need do is replace “duty” with “ability.” Then the engineers and technicians who studied Shawinigan, Dalhousie, Belleville and Pinto might be moved to tell us where we must temper our leaps of faith.

Civilized society can’t function without accountability. Edmund Burke said it all: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

Warner Troyer is author of No Safe Place, an exposé of environmental pollution.