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100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: The Dangers of Consumption

In 1927, responding to the seemingly overpowering claims of advertisers and mass marketers, engineer Frederick Schlink and economist Stuart Chase published Your Money’s Worth, which argued for an “extension of the principle of buying goods according to impartial scientific tests rather than according to the fanfare and triumphs of higher salesmanship.” Your Money’s Worth became an instant best-seller, and the authors organized Consumers' Research, a testing bureau that provided information and published product tests in a new magazine, Consumers' Research Bulletin. The 1929 stock market crash heightened suspicion of consumer capitalism, and the magazine had 42,000 subscribers by 1932. In 1933, Schlink and Arthur Kallet (executive secretary of Consumers' Research) published 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics. The book struck a responsive chord in depression-era America—it went through thirteen printings in its first six months and became one of the best-selling books of the decade. The book’s first chapter (“The Great American Guinea Pig”), gave a flavor of their vigorous arguments.

In the magazines, in the newspapers, over the radio, a terrific verbal barrage has been laid down on a hundred million Americans, first, to set in motion a host of fears about their health, their stomachs, their bowels, their teeth, their throats, their looks; second, to persuade them that only by eating, drinking, gargling, brushing, or smearing with Smith’s Whole Vitamin Breakfast Food, Jones' Yeast Cubes, Blue Giant Apples, Prussian Salts, Listroboris Mouthwash, Grandpa’s Wonder Toothpaste, and a thousand and one other foods, drinks, gargles and pastes, can they either postpone the onset of disease, of social ostracism, of business failure, or recover from ailments, physical or social, already contracted.

If these foods and medicines were—to most of the people who use them—merely worthless; if there were no other charge to be made than that the manufacturers‘, sales managers’, and advertising agents' claims for them were false, this book would not have been written. But many of them, including some of the most widely advertised and sold, are not only worthless, but are actually dangerous. That All-Bran you eat every morning—do you know that it may cause serious and perhaps irreparable intestinal trouble? That big juicy apple you have at lunch—do you know that indifferent Government officials let it come to your table coated with arsenic, one of the deadliest of poisons? The Pebeco Toothpaste with which you brush your teeth twice every day—do you know that a tube of it contains enough poison if eaten, to kill three people; that, in fact, a German army officer committed suicide by eating a tubeful of this particular toothpaste? The Bromo-Seltzer that you take for headaches—do you know that it contains a poisonous drug which has been responsible for many deaths and, the American Medical Association says, at least one case of sexual impotence?

Using the feeble and ineffective pure food and drug laws as a smoke-screen, the food and drug industries have been systematically bombarding us with falsehoods about the purity, healthfulness and safely of their products, while they have been making profits by experimenting on us with poisons, irritants, harmful chemical preservatives, and dangerous drugs.

Just how we consumers are being forced into the role of laboratory guinea pigs through huge loopholes in obviously weak and ineffective laws is described at length in the chapters that follow. A brief glance at a few cases that show our present helplessness will suffice here.

William J. A. Bailey, an ex-auto-swindler, thought he could make money by dissolving radium salts in water and selling this water to rich men to cure their ills. Bailey’s radium water has sent at least two men to horrible deaths, and a similar fate may be awaiting scores or hundreds of others who drank this deadly fluid.

Kora M. Lublin read or heard that thallium acetate had once been used by physicians in an ointment to remove hair in certain disease conditions. She did not bother to learn or did not care that this method of hair removal had been abandoned by physicians after several patients died; she marketed a depilatory cream containing a large percentage of thallium acetate. The medical journals have reported case after case of dreadful illness and suffering by women who used the cream, and the company exploiting it has gone bankrupt with $2,500,000 in damage suits as liabilities, and $5 assets; yet the cream continued to be sold.

A manufacturer seeking a cheap adulterant for Jamaica ginger came upon tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate. Jamaica ginger extract containing this chemical, sold in drug stores in many states, has caused terrible deformity and paralysis in from fifteen to twenty thousand victims, many of whom have died.

What, you may ask, has happened to these men and women who have killed and maimed? Nothing. William J. A. Bailey is now engaged in other ventures similar to his deadly radium water. Persons in the company that sold the thallium acetate depilatory are now manufacturing and selling another depilatory called Croxon. Nobody knows who supplied the chemical that was used to make Jamaica ginger into a deadly poison for which there is no known antidote and nothing could be done to him if he were known.

These people violated no law. They were all carrying on “legitimate business,” and the law gives them the right to experiment on the public whatever the consequences to the human beings involved. In the eyes of the law we are all guinea pigs, and any scoundrel who takes it into his head to enter the drug or food business can experiment on us. He may be uneducated, even feeble-minded. If he decides to become a manufacturer, it is his privilege to take down a dozen bottles from a shelf, mix their contents together, advertise the mixture as a remedy for indigestion, or asthma, or coughs, and persuade us to buy it. The mixture may contain strychnine, arsenic, carbolic acid, and other deadly poisons. But—in most States—he will have violated no law, indeed will not have offended the ethical sense of the average judge or legislator. (This statement is made advisedly, after a careful study of many cases in the courts and before legislative hearings.) When the experiment has failed and several of us have died, damage suits may make the business unprofitable and so for the time being end it. But its owner may again take down the same dozen bottles and start over with a new name.

The Federal Food and Drugs Act prohibits false labeling of drugs shipped across State lines; but if no claims are made on the label, if the ingredients are not stated on the label, the Act does not apply. The Act does prohibit the addition of poisonous substances to foods. Yet even with foods the public must be the guinea pig, since the manufacturer is not required to prove that the substances he adds are safe for human consumption; his customers by dying or by becoming ill in large numbers—and in such a way that the illness can be directly traced to the foodstuff involved and to no other cause—must first prove that it is harmful before any action will be considered under the Food and Drugs Act. If prohibition of the poison will not interfere with the business of any large and influential interest, the Government may then take action.

If the poison is such that it acts slowly and insidiously, perhaps over a long period of years (and several such will be considered in later chapters), then we poor consumers must be test animals all our lives; and when, in the end, the experiment kills us a year or ten years sooner than otherwise we would have died, no conclusions can be drawn and a hundred million others are available for further tests.

To manufacturers and regulatory officials, the question—in the surprisingly few cases when it occurs to them to question—is whether the particular adulterant or preservative they are at the moment considering is, of itself, poisonous. A negative answer brings joy to the manufacturers, but not to the consumer. His question, on the other hand, is this: Will all of the adulterants, alkali and acid preservatives, legally permitted residues of insecticides, and other poisons acting concurrently for the rest of my life cause me to suffer more often and more seriously from illness, and bring about disability or death one year or ten years sooner?

A dozen eminent authorities help answer the consumer’s question. Typical of the answers is that given by one of the most capableof these authorities, Dr. Edwin Oakes Jordan, chairman of the Department of Hygiene and Bacteriology of the University of Chicago. Dr. Jordan deplores the lack of knowledge concerning the action of various chemical substances in food. But—he says—

“until such information is forthcoming we do well to err on the side of caution. The desirability of adopting this attitude is especially borne in upon us by the apparent increase in recent years in certain diseases of the alimentary tract. For aught we know to the contrary, the relatively high death-rates from degenerative changes in the kidneys, blood vessels, stomach, and other organs may be in part caused by the use of irritating chemical substances in food. Although no one chemical by itself, and in the quantities in which it is commonly present in food, can perhaps be reasonably accused of producing serious and permanent injury, yet, when to its effect is superadded the effect of still other poisonous ingredients in spiced, smoked, and preserved foods of all kinds, the total burden laid upon the excretory and other organs may be distinctly too great.”

Dr. Jordan speaks only of chemical preservatives. Add to these the variety of poisons other than preservatives ingested with foods and common drugs, and the hazard assumes still greater proportions. The possibility of an exceedingly large number of resulting fatalities suggests itself when, for example, we read the report of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company that the death-rate from cancer has surged upward at an alarming rate since 1930. No cause could be found for an increase in the cancer death-rate of over seven percent in 1931 and an additional nine and one-half percent in the first half of 1932. “We are confronted with some influence that is increasing the true incidence of cancer,” said the statisticians. Common sense would at least demand that we inquire whether or not that influence might be found in our food and drug supplies—in our fruits and vegetables contaminated with arsenic insecticide, for example. It has been known for 40 years that small quantities of arsenic, continued for a long period, may give rise to growths of a cancerous nature.

It will be helpful, in understanding how absurdly small are the amounts spent by the nation and the States on food and drug control, to make a rough estimate of the losses caused by the wholesale poisoning of the public. When industrial statisticians wish to evaluate the seriousness of an accident hazard, or of the industrial losses resulting from illness, they figure the total number of work days lost, and the amount this represents in wages. Let us try to make a similar approximation for the poison hazard to the American population.

It is exceedingly likely that the poisons legally and systematically fed to the American public will, by disturbing the bodily functions, overtaxing the kidneys and other organs, and upsetting the digestive processes, bring the onset of old age and functional weakness and infirmity earlier than it would otherwise have come; and in individual cases, by lowering the normal resistance, opening the way to such diseases as pneumonia, tuberculosis, arthritis, or colitis, will subtract several decades from a person’s normal expectancy of life.

Such shortening of the average life can conservatively be estimated at from three to ten years. Our statistical score of time lost does not, however, end here. A large part of all disabling and partially disabling illness, such as headaches, obscure pains, indigestion, constipation, “nerves”, general weariness, “laziness”, and lethargy, arise from no known causes. They come, and we accept them as unavoidable. They may not incapacitate us completely, but they do decrease producing power, general health and vigor, and, even more, the joy of living. It is certain that many of these obscure types of illness are due to poisons in food and in drugs. In addition to these slight and passing ailments, much serious disease invited by lowered resistance must also be added to the score. A very conservative estimate of the average time lost from productive activities through both slight and serious illness and untimely death might be put at five years, or, for the total population, 625,000,000 years: a tremendous tribute of human life to the carelessness or avarice of the producers and to the indifference of legislatures and courts—the equivalent of the total life span of over ten million persons.

Is our crude, approximate figure too high? Divide it by two, or by ten. It still is intolerably high. Divided by ten, it is equivalent to the needless sacrifice of thousands upon thousands of lives each year.

Let us give each year of life the low cash value of $500, appropriate to the times in which we find ourselves. On this basis we estimate that the economic waste attributable to the slow poisoning of the public is over 300 billion dollars. This is equivalent to nearly 5 billion dollars annually, or, if you prefer to divide this by 10, 500 million dollars. As against this figure, we have a figure of approximately one million dollars, or one cent per capita per annum, spent by tile United States Government for the enforcement of its feeble and obsolete Food and Drugs Act.

The States and some municipalities also have regulations for the control of food and drugs. Some aspects of local control activities are mentioned briefly in later chapters. It is sufficient to say here that the control of food and drugs in most States and municipalities falls but little short of being completely lifeless and ineffective. A left-handed sort of control over some advertising of dangerous medicinal products is exercised by the Federal Trade Commission, which may stop advertising that is considered unfair to the advertiser’s competitors. Thus, if a product is advertised as safe and is not safe, the Commission may consider this unfair to the makers of relatively safe products. It seems needless to say that this is not the type of protection on which the consumer can rely. The Fraud Order division of the Post Office has an effective weapon against the most obviously dangerous medicinal products sold by mail order—when, in due course, someone takes the trouble to bring the fraud to the attention of the postal authorities. Against the less obvious frauds, it doesn’t even come near to working. The total of the expenditures of the various governmental divisions for the protection of the consumer, directly and indirectly, certainly does not amount to more than four or five cents per year per person. The inadequacy of enforcement with these few pennies pitted against commercial and political dollars has been neatly summarized by the National Civil Service Reform League, of which George W. Wickersham is a vice-president, following an investigation of food inspection—a vital link in food control.

Says the League’s report (1925, but known to apply more fully in 1932):

"The trusting confidence of the American public in the efficiency of laws was never more clearly shown nor more grossly betrayed than in the matter of food inspection.

"We have enacted ‘pure food’ laws and ordinances, therefore, presumably we have ‘pure food.’ But between the law and the ‘pure food’ lies a most important factor—the human element charged with the interpretation and the administration of these laws and ordinances. This element—given great powers of discretion; power to make ‘rules and regulations’ to an extent practically nullifying the intent of the law; subject to overwhelming commercial and political pressure—is the weak link in the chain, and practically the end of the effect of the law.

"The consumer in his effort to conserve his health selects his food with ‘nutriment,’ 'calories‘ and ’vitamins' in mind, happily unaware that a considerable part of the food he buys, though well cooked and daintily served, may be in a condition of expertly disguised but dangerous state of disease, decay or adulteration. He has relied on the law to protect his food from its initial stage through the processes of gathering, slaughtering, handling, packing, etc., all by men definitely dealing in food for the money to be made out of it.

"Avarice and the pressure of competition are weighed in the balance with the evil of selling diseased, spoiled, verminous and adulterated food disguised as and sometimes labeled wholesome, with the result almost invariably in favor of the former. The dealer or producer ‘cannot afford’ to lose the profit on diseased, decayed, or adulterated foods unless he is compelled to do so.

"Who or what is going to compel him? Certainly not the mere existence of the law. . . .

“Actual regulatory inspection by the Federal Government seems to be almost negligible except in the case of meat. . . .”

“The United States Department of Agriculture is permitted to make and enforce regulations which to a considerable extent nullify the intent of the Meat Inspection Act, presuming that it was to eliminate diseased meat.” (Italics ours.)

There can be no doubt that the legal forms of consumer protection have failed. Can we look for aid outside the law—in the integrity of the manufacturer, in the watchfulness of the scientist, in the scrupulousness of publications carrying food and drug advertising ?

All of the propaganda agencies of business have skillfully conditioned the public to believe that the only safeguard needed is the integrity of the manufacturer. There are rare cases where the public welfare is a major concern in small businesses owned and controlled by a few persons. The better manufacturers of jams, jellies, and preserves come very near to forming a trade operating in a way to produce pure and wholesome products prepared under sanitary conditions and honestly labeled and marketed. But, on the whole, this first link in the chain of consumer protection is the weakest. In case after case, the manufacturers have demonstrated that their chief and most consistent interest is in profits; and we speak here not only of the small herb compounder and cancer quack, but also of the largest and most reputable drug and food houses. Read, for example, in a later chapter, how dozens of shipments of anesthetic ether put out by great drug manufacturers have been so bad as to be destroyed by the Government; how the important firm of Hynson, Westcott & Dunning persuades the public to buy its dangerously ineffective antiseptic; how the fruit packers send out apples coated with more lead and arsenic than even the tolerant Government officials permit. Case after case demonstrates only too well that the average manufacturer will resist to the end any interference with his business, any attempt to deprive him of his vested interest, even when it has been proved beyond doubt that his product is a menace to health and life.

This does not prove, however, that food and drug manufacturers are exceptional, or that their members have been drawn from a peculiarly ruthless class. On the contrary, it means only that they are the norm in a society which has sanctified the fastest acquisition of the greatest number of dollars as the standard for high achievement of the individual; in a society where misrepresentation and exploitation are the unfailing handmaidens of success, in all business which deals with the ultimate consumer in the mass.

Nevertheless, the passage of the Food and Drugs Act twenty-five years ago and the passage of similar acts in nearly all States at about the same time were evidence that the public demands protection from poisoning even though the pattern of behavior resulting in the poisoning is normal in our business civilization. Drinking gin and speeding in a powerful automobile are normal, too; but if a drunken driver kills a child while racing down Main Street at sixty miles an hour, we feel justified in bringing him to bar as a criminal and imprisoning him for a month or two.

The food and drug manufacturers also kill. Perhaps we should name a new crime for them and call it statistical homicide. But whatever we call it, they are responsible for the death of very large numbers of persons—death through premature old age, disease of stomach, bowels, and kidneys, which weakened organs cannot resist, and death because good medicine or medical care was needed, and a patent medicine for pneumonia or tuberculosis or cancer was taken instead.

Nothing illustrates the irresponsibility and indifference of many manufacturers better than the following quotation from the August, 1932, issue of Food Industries:

"Not more than a year ago there appeared in one of the current magazines the advertisement of a food manufacturer, depicting a chemist seated at a desk peering very intently through a microscope. Nicely arranged in front of him on the desk were bottles and cans representing the product of this manufacturer. The descriptive matter accompanying the picture was cleverly worded in a manner to give the reader the impression that every product of this manufacturer was produced under the closest supervision of a food chemist. . . . The ‘Chemist’ was none other than the production manager, and the microscope had been borrowed from a local hospital. . . .

“The ‘questionable’ manufacturer . . . will violate without compunction any regulation which interferes in the least with the carrying out of his own policies. . . . Against the advice of the chemist, the manufacturer may use raw materials of an inferior grade, from which it is impossible to produce goods which comply with Federal Food Law regulations. . . . Even after a warning from the chemist that the products are below standard, the manufacturer in some cases deliberately orders the products shipped out, with the hope that they will ‘get by’.”

Other links in the chain of non-legal consumer protection are nearly as weak. Can we, for example, safely put our trust in the scientists who vouch for the safety or quality of a product? The associate dean of the College of Pharmacy of Columbia

Source: Arthur Kallet and F. J. Schlink, 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs, Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1932), 3–18.