Monday, September 6, 2010

Covert Operations

I found this New Yorker piece on the Koch brothers, two major funders of libertarian think tanks and Tea Pary organizations, quite fascinating. I do wonder about the way that the Kochs are set up in this article (could you write a similar article about any number of political financiers?), but there are many, many pieces of evidence presented that show their enormous power in shaping the political debate in this country. Among the many, these two stand out shockers stand out in my mind:

The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, is a multimedia exploration of the theory that mankind evolved in response to climate change. At the main entrance, viewers are confronted with a giant graph charting the Earth’s temperature over the past ten million years, which notes that it is far cooler now than it was ten thousand years ago. Overhead, the text reads, “HUMANS EVOLVED IN RESPONSE TO A CHANGING WORLD.” The message, as amplified by the exhibit’s Web site, is that “key human adaptations evolved in response to environmental instability.” Only at the end of the exhibit, under the headline “OUR SURVIVAL CHALLENGE,” is it noted that levels of carbon dioxide are higher now than they have ever been, and that they are projected to increase dramatically in the next century. No cause is given for this development; no mention is made of any possible role played by fossil fuels. The exhibit makes it seem part of a natural continuum. The accompanying text says, “During the period in which humans evolved, Earth’s temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere fluctuated together.” An interactive game in the exhibit suggests that humans will continue to adapt to climate change in the future. People may build “underground cities,” developing “short, compact bodies” or “curved spines,” so that “moving around in tight spaces will be no problem.”

And this mini-expose on David Koch's relationship with the National Cancer Institute:

Scientists have long known that formaldehyde causes cancer in rats, and several major scientific studies have concluded that formaldehyde causes cancer in human beings—including one published last year by the National Cancer Institute, on whose advisory board Koch sits. The study tracked twenty-five thousand patients for an average of forty years; subjects exposed to higher amounts of formaldehyde had significantly higher rates of leukemia. These results helped lead an expert panel within the National Institutes of Health to conclude that formaldehyde should be categorized as a known carcinogen, and be strictly controlled by the government. Corporations have resisted regulations on formaldehyde for decades, however, and Koch Industries has been a large funder of members of Congress who have stymied the E.P.A., requiring it to defer new regulations until more studies are completed.

Koch Industries became a major producer of the chemical in 2005, after it bought Georgia-Pacific, the paper and wood-products company, for twenty-one billion dollars. Georgia-Pacific manufactures formaldehyde in its chemical division, and uses it to produce various wood products, such as plywood and laminates. Its annual production capacity for formaldehyde is 2.2 billion pounds. Last December, Traylor Champion, Georgia-Pacific’s vice-president of environmental affairs, sent a formal letter of protest to federal health authorities. He wrote that the company “strongly disagrees” with the N.I.H. panel’s conclusion that formaldehyde should be treated as a known human carcinogen. David Koch did not recuse himself from the National Cancer Advisory Board, or divest himself of company stock, while his company was directly lobbying the government to keep formaldehyde on the market. (A board spokesperson said that the issue of formaldehyde had not come up.)

James Huff, an associate director at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, a division of the N.I.H., told me that it was “disgusting” for Koch to be serving on the National Cancer Advisory Board: “It’s just not good for public health. Vested interests should not be on the board.” He went on, “Those boards are very important. They’re very influential as to whether N.C.I. goes into formaldehyde or not. Billions of dollars are involved in formaldehyde.”

Harold Varmus, the director of the National Cancer Institute, knows David Koch from Memorial Sloan-Kettering, which he used to run. He said that, at Sloan-Kettering, “a lot of people who gave to us had large business interests. The one thing we wouldn’t tolerate in our board members is tobacco.” When told of Koch Industries’ stance on formaldehyde, Varmus said that he was “surprised.

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