Feature Stories


Ana Toepel, Green Impact, November 2018


The Poison Papers: Changing the Conversation about Toxic Chemicals

UCSF is a leader in advancing the prevention of disease caused by harmful chemical exposure through the work of its Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE) and Environmental Health Initiative (EHI). On September 13 UCSF launched an exciting addition to the UCSF Industry Documents Librarythe Poison Papers, which expose the problematic relationship between the chemical industry and federal regulatory agencies that have served to conceal the dangers of certain chemicals on the market. Tracey Woodruff, Director of the PRHE, shared that for UCSF one of the benefits of housing this collection is to continue to have scholarship in this field and create a basis for advancing evidence-based policies that protect public health.

At the morning event, Dr. Jonathan Latham of the Bioscience Resource Project, introduced the new collection. In the afternoon, there was a panel discussion exploring what the public can learn from internal industry documents. Stanton Glantz, UCSF Professor and lead author of the book The Cigarette Papers, expressed the importance of these document collections being available: “It’s about changing the conversation.”

What are the Poison Papers?
The Poison Papers consist of 20,000 rediscovered chemical industry and regulatory agency documents and correspondence dating back to the 1920s that provide evidence that the EPA and other agencies concealed the science that showed certain chemicals were hazardous to human health and the environment. Specifically, the papers cover products such as pesticides, dioxins, and PCBs and identify such companies as Monsanto and Dow as colluding with the EPA to keep harmful chemicals in use.

As Dr. Latham shared in his presentation, one of the most significant discoveries revealed in these documents is that the system of testing chemicals that go into products on the market, and its supervision, is fundamentally flawed and has left the public exposed to dangerous chemicals. The papers document fraudulent testing and research that occurred at Industrial Bio-Test Labs (IBT) between 1976 and 1983. EPA continued to rely on IBT, accepting unsigned reports, cobbled together experiments, and low-quality data. Latham expressed that this “brings into question the EPA’s concern for public health and shows an inappropriate relationship between the chemical industry, IBT, and the EPA.” Many of these chemicals are still on the market today.

The nearly three tons of material that went into the Poison Papers was largely collected over a period of 40 years by Carol Van Strum, Diane Hebert, Eric Coppolino, and Peter von Stackelberg, who served as custodians of the documents, gathering, storing, scanning, and distributing them. Their ultimate goal was to make the documents accessible to anybody and everybody who might need them. The Bioscience Resource Project, Center for Media and Democracy, the Park Foundation, and the late Rosalind Peterson helped fund this endeavor and bring this goal to fruition. 

Recognizing that the UCSF Industry Documents Library would further ensure their accessibility to the public in perpetuity, Dr. Latham brought the collection to UCSF.  Once UCSF raises sufficient funds for assigning meta-data tags and archiving each document, the collection will be archived in UCSF’s Industry Documents Library.

Poison Papers Event Focuses on the Big Picture
According to Dr. Latham, in the business model that’s used, the EPA treats chemical corporations as their customers, avoiding confrontation and instead trying to please them. Latham used the term “proactive collusion thesis” to describe what happens within the regulatory process, where the unwritten rule of the EPA is to bury any information that might embarrass the regulated industry. This culture of collusion stifles the discussion of relevant scientific issues because scientists feel pressure from the chemical industry.

Potential remedies for this problematic situation were shared during the presentation, such as making regulators independent of the presidency, supporting whistleblowers, and separating the rulemaking and enforcement functions of the EPA (they are now combined). Latham noted that testing should be done in house at the EPA, which would make them subject to the Freedom of Information Act. An EPA whistleblower attending the event, William Sanjour, said further that “the responsibility should shift from a focus on testing products to companies needing to prove they’re safe.”

Learn More
• If you missed the events or want to experience them again, watch the videos:
    - Failing for Forty Years: What the Poison Papers Tell Us About the EPA and How to Reform It
    - Unsealing the Science: What the Public Can Learn from Internal Chemical Industry Documents

• View UCSF’s industry document collections and find out firsthand what makes them so important:
    - Chemical Industry Documents Archive
    - The Poison Papers

Make a Contribution
You can support the Industry Documents Library and the efforts to incorporate the Poison Papers into its archives; click here to make a donation.