The Ghost Quartet: Part I



If we zoom out and look with cynicism at the health care crisis in America, we see a remarkably effective business plan: Grow the burgeoning health care business even larger from its current $4.5 trillion per year in spending, and do so using two other lucrative industries — the chemical/industrial/agriculture partnership and the ultra-processed food industry.

By design or by default, these four industries — the “ghost quartet” — are an extraordinarily profitable business model. They make money making you sick and even more money trying to cure you.

Starting with the chemical/agricultural complex: The Great Lakes, the largest source of fresh water in America and the source of much of America’s drinking water is now toxified with PFAS, the “forever chemical.” Unlike some toxics, these chemicals endure in nature; 99% of humans, including fetuses have measurable levels of PFAS in their bloodstreams, as do most animals. The presence of PFAS in our bodies is linked to altered immune and thyroid function, liver disease, lipid and insulin deregulation, kidney disease, adverse reproductive and developmental outcomes, cancers and low birth weight in newborns.

By the 1970s, half a century ago, scientists at 3M knew that PFAS were appearing in human blood samples and that the chemicals were toxic. Virtually everyone now has at least one PFAS compound in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to an environmental chemist from Harvard University, given their presence in everyone, the chemicals are “reducing public health on an incredibly large scale.”

Other chemicals used in agriculture can also pose a danger. From a review published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences: “Glyphosate, a non-selective systemic biocide with broad-spectrum activity, is the most widely used herbicide in the world. It can persist in the environment for days or months, and its intensive and large-scale use can constitute a major environmental and health problem.” It’s marketed worldwide by Monsanto as “Roundup.”

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency decided it’s “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

But the scientific review I cited previously states, “… it is unequivocal that exposure to glyphosate produces important alterations in the structure and function of the nervous system of humans, rodents, fish, and invertebrates.”

The insecticide chlorpyrifos is so dangerous it was banned for household use more than a decade ago. But a ban on crop use was overturned late last year, and this toxic insecticide may be used on thousands of acres of crops during the 2024 growing season despite having been linked to neurological damage and developmental problems in young people.

Dicamba, a brand of weed killer used in industrial agriculture, has been reported by farmers to have damaged millions of acres of crops, endangered species and natural areas. It was banned for a few months in 2020 but the Trump administration reversed the ban and it’s being applied again.

And just this May, Gov. Phil Scott vetoed House bill 706, which would have banned the use of seeds treated with neonicotinoid pesticides in most instances. Although the most deleterious effect of “neonics” is on pollinators, on which we depend for regenerative agriculture, they may also have a deleterious effect on humans. The science is new but there are potential effects on human brain and nervous systems, especially in the young.

On another front, microplastics have now been found in blood clots in heart, brain and legs.

So one practice of the ghost quartet is to poison our soils, waterways, and air to make us sick. Number two is to market us ultra-processed foods.

These are foods that contain ingredients “never or rarely used in kitchens, or classes of additives whose function is to make the final product palatable or more appealing,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

One nationally known example: Kraft Heinz Foods is marketing “Lunchables” to our school systems in place of traditional school cafeteria meals. They’ve been found to contain deleterious levels of lead and sodium and phthalates in their trays which can disrupt hormones in growing kids.

According to National Geographic, consuming ultra-processed foods that are typically high in salt, sugar and fat — and cheap and accessible — may boost the risk of heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression and cognitive decline.

According to MedPage Today, a study showed that higher intake of ultra-processed foods upped the incidence of cognitive impairment or stroke. It also is believed to be one of the causes of early onset puberty in our children.

These reports are just the tip of the iceberg. Medical literature is rife with stories of the cognitive and physical damage caused by ultra-processed foods and the benefits of eating foods consistent with those found in nature. akin to the Mediterranean diet.

These industries spend a combined $250M lobbying Congress to forestall regulation that might protect their customers from toxic agents. (Chemical: $65M / industrial food industry: $28M / agribusiness: $170M)

Now that you’re sick, let’s look at the two world-class businesses we rely on to cure you: our cutting-edge pharmaceutical industry and the burgeoning and lucrative business of health care. To give you a sense of their market power, pharma’s share of U.S. GDP is 3.2%, at $625 billion, just $200 billion below our U.S. defense budget. But health care spending  is 17.3% of GDP — $4.5 trillion in all, or $13,493 per person, almost five times the defense budget.

Granted, from the consumer standpoint, there’s a fault in this business model in that much of the damage caused in the customer base isn’t yet curable. Science still has a lot to learn about recovery from many of the illnesses caused and some of you die prematurely, reducing the customer base. Setting that aside, the business model works.

Let me spare you further sarcasm and clarify my point if I have been too abstruse:

As a society, we must decide whether we are about the expansive accretion and concentration of wealth and power for the few. Or whether we’re about the common good of our citizens, our communities and, perhaps most important, our children who will inherit the ills or our venality.

As a friend, Will Patten, has written in a forthcoming book, the concentration of power that has cycled up and down throughout U.S, history is not about the intrinsic evil of capitalism. Capitalism is simply an economic tool to either enrich us all or just the few. That depends on whether or not we’re willing to regulate our capitalist system and tax it appropriately.

In The Age of Enlightenment, starting in the late 17th century, capitalism became the way out of poverty and dependence for peasants who were otherwise in thrall to the king who owned everything, and the Church which controlled all knowledge. Capitalism gave succeeding generations the opportunity to earn income by adding value through manual labor and making possible independent businesses. This ultimately gave rise to a middle class and also a series of bloody revolutions against oligarchy.

Our failure today to slow the ascent of monopolies through regulation and to tax business appropriately is creating a new era of economic aggression that may well make our children and grandchildren a new generation of peasants.

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