Toxic Crimes: Examining corporate victimization of the general public

“These findings are enough to establish that corporations and industries that produce pesticides and dioxins show a blatant disregard for the effects of their products and by-products on human and animal populations. The fact that corporations continue to choose to produce commodities and waste that generate such a potential threat is a sign of their disregard for life that can only be equated with ordinary acts of crime such as robberies, muggings, assaults, and homicides.”

Lynch, M., Stretesky, P., 2001.  Toxic Crimes:  Examining corporate victimization of the general public employing medical and epidemiological evidence.  Critical Criminology 10: 153-172

Abstract. This article examines the issue of corporate harm and violence using evidence from medical literature and related studies that focus on the health consequences associated with toxic waste, pesticide and dioxin exposure. These studies provide a useful alternative measure of the harms produced by corporate crimes of violence that are unmeasured in more traditional sources of data. Further, the kinds of health consequences associated with modern industrial production of toxic waste products can be thought of as “criminal” in the broadest sense since alternative, nontoxic methods of production are often available. Examples of these alternative methods of production are provided, along with a discussion of the impact current practices have on minority health.

[from body of paper]

Recently, criminologists have expressed increased interest in toxic crimes and harms committed by corporations through the production, distribution, storage, and disposal of hazardous chemicals and wastes (Pearce and Tombs 1998, 1997; Lynch et al. 2001). In some cases, these actions violate regulatory law (Clifford 1998); in others, the “harms” are not illegal but are morally questionable, socially unacceptable, or widely debated (Pearce and Tombs 1998). In either case, controversy exists over the risks and benefits to humans. This article examines medical and related health research on the human health risks associated with three main categories of toxic chemicals: pesticides, dioxin, and hazardous waste. The goal is to demonstrate ways criminologists can employ medical evidence to identify toxic harms where other forms of data (e.g. standardized measures like the UCR) do not exist. This article also addresses issues of responsibility and culpability for toxic crimes employing scientific evidence on human health effects and the neglect of alternative, nonpolluting productive practices and alternative technologies. To provide some background for our study, we begin with a brief discussion of the deviance and legal definition of toxic crime.

The legal aspects of defining toxic harms are contentious and pits governmental, corporate, and public interest against one another. In some cases, the government takes the lead in protecting citizens from harm. In others, the government and corporations misrepresent the harmful effects of toxin exposure (Fagin and Lavelle 1996; Karliner 1998), leading to a lack of protective legislation. In cases where public health laws fail to satisfy citizens’ demands, grass-roots political activism (Bullard 1993; Gibbs 1995) and moral crusades (Friedrichs 1996: 17–19) sometimes emerge to alter public health laws. Each of these efforts affects whether legal rules apply to toxic hazards. The question of whether these laws adequately reflect harms can be clouded by the nature of the law-making process. Consequently, it is necessary to assess the question of harm independently of definitions provided by law. The deviance model provides criteria useful to this effort. The deviance perspective identifies three conditions useful for identifying egregious behavior. First, evidence that the products/processes in question are reasonably expected to harm human health must be presented. Second, toxic harms can be placed in context by comparing them to other harms society considers serious (i.e., street crimes). As an example, Montague (1996) compared harm from assault rifles and pesticides to legislation trends. In 1994, there were an estimated 250 assault rifle homicides in the U.S., which caused Congress to ban the sale of assault rifles. In contrast, pesticide exposure kills 10,400 people each year, yet Congress is reluctant to pass legislation restricting pesticide use and production (for other examples see: Frank and Lynch 1992; Reiman 1998; Simon 1999). Third, evidence that corporations have knowledge of the risks they create, or are indifferent to these risks, should be provided. This evidence is often difficult to obtain because corporations employ elaborate mechanisms to conceal the harms they produce (e.g., destruction and falsification of records and scientific results; misinformation campaigns) (see for example, Fagin and Lavelle 1996; Stauber and Rampton 1995; Lappe 1991). Nevertheless, research has revealed corporate knowledge that their products and practices cause harm (Fagin and Lavelle 1996; Gibbs 1995; Glantz et al. 1996; Karliner 1998; Stauber and Rampton 1995). Corporations demonstrate indifference to toxic risks when they evade laws designed to prevent human harm, such as when they dump pesticides banned in the US in foreign nations lacking legal restrictions (Ruttenburg 1985; Silverman and Lydecker 1982; Waldo 1985; Weir and Schapiro 1982). Indifference is evident when corporations act to increase environmental and workplace maximum toxin exposure standards (Castleman and Ziem 1989, 1988; Roach and Rappaport 1990) or when corporations avoid using safe alternatives (e.g., solar energy, organic farming, rototilling) to polluting and harmful technologies.

The criteria discussed above are part of law making processes directed at defining toxic harms. Law making processes that define toxic harms are heavily influenced by corporate interests expressed in corporate sponsored research (Colburn et al. 1997; Erhlich and Erhlich 1996; Fagin and Lavelle 1996) and public relations campaigns (Karliner 1998; Stauber and Rampton 1995). Independent scientists sometimes refute corporate claims and state policies designed to protect public health (Carson 1962; Erhlich and Erhlich 1996; Steingraber 1998). In the long run, however, industry interests have held greater sway, resulting in laws favoring corporate profit making over public health interests.

To promote an understanding of these issues, we review medical literature that attributes cancer to individual level lifestyle explanations. This paradigm does not fully explain larger patterns of disease, and ignores important effects based on social class, gender and race. This literature also ignores the role that increased exposure to a host of toxic industrial chemicals plays in cancer causation and trends. To explore these alternatives, we review medical literature on toxic exposure outcomes in three areas: pesticides, dioxin, and hazardous waste.

Increasingly, research is moving toward exploring the environmental dimensions of illness and discounting genetic explanations (Colborn et al. 1997). Birth defects, for example, have been specifically linked to exposure to environmental toxins. A Norwegian study of subsequent births by mothers who had a first child with birth defects discovered that such mothers were 11.6 times more likely than a control group to have a second child with a birth defect. This finding appeared to support biological/genetic explanations for the presence of birth defects; however, researchers found an unexpected result: women who had previously given birth to a child with a birth defect and moved away from the municipality in which they lived during their first birth saw a significant decline in the rate of birth defects among second children (to 5.1 times; Terje et al. 1994). This difference could only be attributed to environmental factors. In sum, “there is abundant scientific evidence that birth defects in laboratory animals and in humans have occurred as a result of exposure to five classes of pollutants: radiation; pesticides; metals . . . ; solvents; and dioxin-like chemicals including PCBs” . . . (Montague 1994a; see also, Clarkson 1985; Kristensen et al. 1993).

Preventable Harm: The Myth of Living In Modern Society

A typical response to the evidence of the harm posed by pesticides is that the risks are exaggerated, unavoidable, necessary, and beneficial in a broader sense. These beliefs are false. Speaking to these issues, Wargo (1996: 6) asks, given imperfect knowledge, “why would policy makers presume that pesticides – intentionally toxic substances – pose no significant threat to human health?” With respect to necessity, consider the following: a 1993 National Academy of Sciences study found that organic farms appear more profitable than inorganic farms. Further, between 1945 and 1989, chemical use on US farms increased 10 fold with no increase in arable land. During this “chemical war” on pests, food loses to insects doubled (Wargo 1996). For particular crops, the story was even worse: despite “a thousand fold increase in the use of insecticides on corn, losses to insects have increased 400 percent” (Wargo 1996: 7). Pest resistance causes escalating use of pesticides and a search for more powerful, broad- spectrum products.

Also, in 1990, Cuba was cut-off from agrochemicals due to embargos and deteriorating relations with socialist block nations. Facing farming without pesticides, many feared the worst for Cubans, including famine. The famine, however, never happened. Cuba experienced the “largest . . . conversion from conventional agriculture to organic . . . farming in human history” (Rosset and Benjamin 1994: 82), relying on predatory insects and microbial antagonists. Organic farming methods have proven effective in Cuba, and represent “a savings, after costs, of 15.6 million dollars per year” (Rosset and Benjamin 1994: 37). Increased reliance on natural pesticides has also enhanced the potency of synthetic pesticides, when needed as a supplemental control, because insects do not develop resistance.

Dioxin: The Modern Industrial Nightmare

A second toxic threat comes from dioxin, a controversial chemical with outspoken critics (Gibbs 1995) and staunch corporate safety claims. Dioxin is the generic name for a family of chemical waste by-products that results from chlorine, pesticide, and polyvinylchloride (PVC) production, as well as paper-milling, bleaching, and waste incineration (Gibbs 1995; Erhlich and Erhlich 1996). Dioxin exposure is widespread in the US and world population. Many believe dioxin to be one of the most toxic human-waste products encountered in our environment (Colborn et al. 1997; Gibbs 1995).

Following concerns raised by dioxin-associated illnesses, large dioxin generating companies, Monsanto, BASF, and Dow initiated reanalysis of dioxin effects studies of previously exposed populations in West Virginia and West Germany that showed negative health outcomes (increased mortality and cancer rates; Suskind and Hertzberg 1984). Corporate researchers, however, manipulated sample data and eliminated statistically significant differences in death and illness rates (see, Gibbs 1995, 2–11; on similar null- findings and unethical practices affecting Dow Chemical’s Agent Orange, see Erhlich and Erhlich 1996). Chemical manufacturers used these data to successfully defend themselves from tort suitsuntil plaintiffs proved these studies were manipulated (Gibbs 1995). Further, as Colborn et al. (1997: 117) point out: “Dioxin might be more dangerous than anyone had suspected, but contrary to what many had thought, its greatest threat was not cancer. The newly emerging hazard was its power to disrupt natural hormones.” Dioxin is an endocrine disrupter, and thus prevents normal development in animals and humans. For example, even a small dose of dioxin equivalent to exposure levels in the US, Japan, and Europe can drastically affect pre-natal development, causing reduced fertility and diminished intelligence (Colborn et al. 1997). Research has also shown high levels of dioxin in mothers’ breast milk – a significant source of dioxin contamination in infants (Schester et al. 1994b). Dioxins have also been connected to immunological diseases in both animals (Fernandez- Salguero et al. 1995; Ross et al. 1995) and humans (Hoffman et al. 1986; Reggiani 1980, 1978; for other health consequences see, Colborn et al. 1997; Gibbs 1995; Steenland et al. 1999; McGregor et al. 1998).

Reducing Dioxins in the Environment

The paper pulp industry, which uses chlorine to bleach paper, is one of the largest dioxin producers in the world. Significant reductions in dioxin could be achieved if paper producers would simply use existing chlorine free paper technology (Erhlich and Erhlich 1996; Gibbs 1995; O’Brien 1997). Some segments of the paper industry have move toward chlorine-free production and admit that dioxin is a health risk (O’Brien 1997). Most, however, have lobbied against the movement to chlorine free technologies and actively participated in the dissemination of misinformation concerning the dangers of dioxin (Erhlich and Erhlich 1996). Contrary to paper industry claims, chlorine free technologies are also less expensive than older paper technologies (Gibbs 1995). The federal government has attempted to reduce dioxin through demand-side economics by requiring the use of chlorine free paper (e.g., in EPA Region 10), again with great resistance from the paper industry.

Alternative to Old Polluting Technologies

Despite the evidence reviewed above, industries and corporations continue to deny a role in causing illness and death in American society and the rest of the world (Karliner 1998; Weir and Schapiro 1982). Instead, chemical industries continue to press for the increased use of pesticides that produce toxic wastes such as dioxins. Also, corporations support incineration of toxic waste because it reduces the volume of solid waste, is assumed safe, and has fewer disposal requirements. But problems associated with incineration of pesticides and the production of dioxin are evident at numerous governmental facilities in the US. For example, one government facility in Jacksonville, Arkansas routinely failed to meet government air quality standards, emitting 400 times more dioxins than law allows (Costner 1992a). Research also indicates troubling waste incineration problems at other government facilities (Costner 1992b; on related effects of incineration see, Hardy et al. 1987a, b; Cross et al. 1987). While incineration reduces waste, it is not a safe postproduction solution. Changing how we produce things is a more effective strategy for controlling waste.


This review of environmentally induced, health related illness and disease has explored only a portion of the literature available on these issues. This literature establishes that it is reasonable to assume that corporate products and practices threaten public health. There is a likely relationship between increasing rates of illness and disease, especially cancer, and increased exposure to chlorine based inorganic chemicals and wastes. Further, this review shows that the industries that produce the products responsible for increasing levels of pesticides, herbicides, PCBs, and resultant dioxin waste seem to know these products and by-products have human health consequences. As was the case with the tobacco industry (Glantz et al. 1996), pesticide, herbicide, and PCB manufacturers manipulated scientific data to influence conclusions concerning the safety of their products and by- products, and hid important findings from the public/consumers.

These findings are enough to establish that corporations and industries that produce pesticides and dioxins show a blatant disregard for the effects of their products and by-products on human and animal populations. The fact that corporations continue to choose to produce commodities and waste that generate such a potential threat is a sign of their disregard for life that can only be equated with ordinary acts of crime such as robberies, muggings, assaults, and homicides.