A topic to explore in more depth.

The global economic system relies on commoditizing, on making objects legible to the cybernetic and economic systems that control the world. A major and unrecognized layer of this infrastructure is “testing”. This takes a number of forms:

  • Identity: what is this object?
  • Purity: what percent of this mass is the object that you’re labelling it? Does it contain any problematic contaminants?
  • Function: does this work as expected?
  • Safety: does this cause harms?

I first began thinking about this when I was dating someone who worked as a laboratory chemist. Customers would send in samples, and her job was to test those samples for purity, usually related to harmful heavy metal contamination. Does this food contain cadmium? Is there lead in these shoes which were made in China?

This lab, part of a respected nationwide corporation, had extensive manuals on how to operate their expensive machines. But things were always breaking, and kludges and hacks abounded. I remember one, in particular, where they had immense trouble properly calibrating zinc testing because the dust in the lab had such a high concentration of it.

The findings from these lab tests would be accepted as truth by government bodies, in courtrooms, and by corporations. Depending on what they found, a product might be pulled from the shelf, a lawsuit settle one way or the other, a corporation survive or go bankrupt. But conflicts of interest abound: the lab wants repeat business, and they don’t go out and gather their own samples…

To the extent that the global system relies on this testing layer – can we treat it as reliable?

A few years ago two news stories broke in quick succession which made me question this.

First, the Tetra Tech / Hunter’s Point scandal1. There Hunter’s Point Navy base in San Francisco was closed in 1994 and declared a Superfund cleanup site due to radioactive contamination. The Navy paid $250 million dollars to the Tetra Tech corporation to clean the site; as part of the cleanup they were required to test soil samples to prove that the soil was no longer contaminated. But allegedly they engaged in large-scale fraud. Two particular allegations caught my eye:

  1. They were required to test soil samples from the site to prove they were clean. Instead, they tested soil samples from somewhere else, a known clean site.
  2. They were required to test soil as it left the facility, and take it to a different disposal site depending on its contamination level. Allegedly they just waited until the testers went home, and then shipped contaminated soil out to the “regular” disposal site.

Second, the Monsanto Roundup testing scandal. In short, Monsanto’s Roundup is an extremely common pesticide with the active ingredient glyphosate. There have been concerns about its health effects for decades, but the FDA did not test foods for it until 2016. When they did begin testing, the official samples came back negative, but some chemists brought in their own samples: food from their local grocery store, or from their shelves at home. Many of those tests came back positive! But the agency did not update its findings or methodology, as best I can tell.

Are these stories the tip of an iceberg? Or just a few bad apples?

I would love read an in-depth investigation of these issues, if one exists.

  1. Disclosure: I once did a small consulting project for a Tetra Tech subsidiary on a completely unrelated topic.