April 2, 2001 -- Chemical companies have withheld vital information that affected the health of workers and the public, according to a recent report by Bill Moyers on the PBS television network. Through internal memos, board room minutes, and interviews, Moyers shows how companies such as B.F. Goodrich, Union Carbide, Conoco, and Dow discounted the risk posed by hazardous chemicals and sought to limit their corporate liability.
Vinyl Chloride Toxicity Kept Under Wraps
The case of Dan Ross, an employee exposed to high levels of vinyl chloride, illustrates the problems surrounding the chemical industry. Ross worked with raw vinyl chloride, which is used in the manufacture of PVC plastic, for 23 years. He eventually developed a rare form of brain cancer, most likely caused by his high level of exposure to the chemical. Although Ross's employer, Conoco, assured him that the workplace was safe, his exposure records were marked "exceeds short term exposure" and were not sent to the company's headquarters, according to the Moyers report.
Bernard Skaggs spent 37 years as a vinyl chloride worker for B.F. Goodrich. He developed skin rashes and a disabling disease that slowly dissolved the bones in his hands, but his employer said that his condition had no connection with his job. In a confidential memo, B.F. Goodrich had secretly informed other companies that, "... skin lesions, absorption of bone of the terminal joints of the hands, and circulatory changes can occur in workers associated with the polymerization of PVC."
Based on memos analyzed by medical historians and ten years worth of documents unearthed by Dan Ross's legal counsel, the Moyers report concluded that chemical companies were aware of vinyl chloride's potential harm as early as the 1950's and 1960's, but kept that information secret. Various vinyl chloride companies met in the 1970's to try to minimize any fallout from the dangers of vinyl chloride and to hide damaging studies produced by their own medical experts, according to the report.
Hazards of Benzene and DBCP Ignored
In the late 1970's, the chemical industry challenged the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's proposed rule that lowered the level of benzene exposure in the workplace. Documents revealed that just as with vinyl chloride, the chemical industry's own medical officers had known of benzene's toxicity for a very long time. "The science at the time was that benzene caused leukemia," said Peter Infante, Director of Standards Review for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in an interview with Bill Moyers.
The chemical industry's pattern of secrecy was also detrimental to workers' health after it learned about the dangers of the pesticide DBCP. As early as 1958, Dow Chemical's research laboratory wrote about DBCP in an internal, confidential study: "Testicular atrophy may result from prolonged repeated exposure. A tentative hygiene standard of 1 part per million is suggested." Dow neither changed the exposure level nor made its information public. Another internal memo, dated 1975, discussed DBCP contamination of local wells.
Synthetic Chemicals for Everyone?
The Moyers report confirms that the chemical industry is risking the health of the public as well as that of its workers. We do know that toxic chemicals have been part of many common household products. Vinyl chloride, for example, was once a propellant for hair spray and deodorants.
A current study at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine is measuring the level of synthetic chemicals in our bodies (called the "chemical body burden"). Preliminary results indicate a wide range of chemicals in study participants. At present, we do not have complete information about how this chemical soup affects us nor of the future health problems it may pose.
The Moyers report raises serious questions about whether we are sacrificing the public health for the economic gain of chemical corporations. Arianna Huffington, a former Republican activist, points out that the Bush administration is conducting an all-out war on the environment, helping the chemical industry pollute while its profits soar. "The president is obsessed with giving us our money back, implying that it's the moral thing to do. So how about giving us back our air, water, earth and lungs, too?" she asks.
The complete transcript of the Moyers report may be found at http://www.pbs.org/tradesecrets/transcript.html