Uncovering a cover-up of chemical killers

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How the industry went after Moyers–and us

Bruce King, the former governor of New Mexico, once said with alarm: “We don’t want to open a box of Pandoras.” When it comes to toxic chemicals, however, the lid of Pandora’s box was lifted long ago by petrochemical corporations. They’ve since released some 70,000 different synthetic compounds that now saturate our land, air, water, food, bodies, and babies.

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The industry has reaped enormous profits manufacturing everything from plastics to pesticides, vinyl siding to aerosol sprays, medicines to computer chips, and it constantly pats itself on the back with expensive PR campaigns to tout its bountiful contribution to America’s way of life.

Fine. But what the industry doesn’t want you to hear about, much less think about, is its contribution to America’s (and the globe’s) way of death. A plethora of cancers, poisonings, gruesome birth defects, malfunctioning-to- nonfunctioning immune systems, and reproductive disorders—not to mention global warming and other ecological disasters in the making—also are products of the chemical “revolution” of the past 60 years or so.

The industry’s knowing complicity in all this was the focus of a powerful two-hour television documentary by Bill Moyers and producer Sherry Jones, recently broadcast by PBS. Moyers and Jones used internal industry documents to reveal that these corporations have known for decades that their products and manufacturing processes are killers, and that they have engaged in an outright conspiracy to cover up this knowledge, deliberately withholding it from workers they knew were dying, from the workers’ doctors, from government regulators, and, of course, from We the People.

But this Lowdown is not about the Trade Secrets story, which tells itself, but about the story behind the story: the unrelenting effort by the chemical industry to trash this documentary, and the industry’s ongoing use of evasions and lies to conceal the deadly facts from the public.

This is a story called “How Things Work”—a story that no establishment-media outlet has chosen to mention, even though it’s readily available, like a bird’s nest on the ground.

The preemptive strike

Two months before the program’s broadcast date, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which is the industry’s Washington lobbying and PR front, began huffing and puffing, trying to blow down Moyers’ house. It had learned that the documentary was in the works, and it sicced its man Terry Yosie, VP for “strategic communications,” on Moyers.

Yosie strategically dispatched a letter on February 6, demanding to be told what would be in the report and arrogantly instructing Moyers that “the Council expects the story to be accurate, balanced, and fair”—three standards that the ACC has never tried to live up to.

Good grief, you can imagine them thinking, doesn’t PBS know that ACC members are the top campaign contributors to the congressman who oversees public broadcasting’s appropriations? Or that ACC members such as ExxonMobil are major corporate underwriters of PBS programs?

Two days later, Moyers replied to Yosie, noting that the program was “a work in progress for which I haven’t even done the narration,” and informing him that the final half-hour of the program would consist of a panel discussion of the issues raised. The panel would have two industry representatives (one of which turned out to be Yosie himself), one public-health expert, and one environmentalist.

This was not good enough for the industry, which continued to paper PBS with letters, including a three-pager to PBS’s president from the top dog at the ACC, Fred Webber. He reiterated that the documentary had to be previewed by the industry and altered to reflect its views. He also asserted that Moyer’s report (which he had not seen and which was not yet finished) was a “scare story,” “inappropriate,” and “advocacy masquerading as journalism.” Webber even sent a copy of this letter to PBS’s general counsel, as if to say, “Stop Moyers, or we’ll see you in court.”

Letters were the least of it. The ACC hired the media hit-firm, Nichols-Dezenhall Communica-tions Management Group, to go after the Trade Secrets program. Nichols- Dezenhall brags that it’s no mere PR firm, but a hired attack dog ready to maul anyone who challenges its corporate clients. Indeed, their proud slogan is “Nail ’em” and their website features a snarling dog.

Known for hiring ex-snoops from the CIA and FBI, and with a reputation for rooting through the trash bins of its targets and even “using deceit” (as one of the firm’s founders so candidly put it), Nichols-Dezenhall spent at least eight weeks trying to snatch an early script of the show. Its operatives also besieged Jones and Moyers with increasingly hostile phone calls, and both PBS and some of its stations got calls as well.

Noting these heavy-handed tactics in a speech he gave to the National Press Club just prior to the broadcast date, Moyers said: “Now you know why we don’t take public funds for reports like this.” (Instead of PBS money, he finances his documentaries with foundation support, and money from a longtime corporate underwriter, the Mutual of America Life Insurance Company—funding that allows him, as he said in the speech, “to do programs that the networks dare not contemplate.”)

Despite the onslaught, PBS stayed hitched and the program aired as scheduled. That would have been that, except the industry’s cluck-headed response to this exposé of its history of lies was to go on the attack during the show and afterwards with a fresh passel of lies.

The case of the dissolving bones

Besides Yosie, the industry’s other spokesman on the panel discussion was Ted Voorhees. Hailing from the powerhouse lobbying firm of Covington & Burling, Voorhees jumped on Moyers right from the start for what he termed a “slanted” and “misleading” characterization of vinyl chloride.

The documentary had featured the story of Bernie Skaggs, who worked for 37 years at a B.F. Goodrich plant that produced vinyl chloride, an ingredient in PVC plastics that turned out to be highly toxic and a cause of cancer.

Bernie’s job was to jump into the emptied vats of vinyl chloride and clean out what was left behind. After a while, his hands began to get sore and swell up, and the problem steadily got worse over the years. Finally, his hands were X-rayed, and he was shocked to learn that the bones of some of his fingers didn’t show up. They were gone, dissolved by vinyl chloride.

On the panel, Voorhees attacked the interview with Bernie, crowing that B.F. Goodrich itself had detected this problem. “[A]s soon as the problem was found,” he asserted, the company dealt with it. How? The company’s doctor reported his findings about the dissolving bones in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1967 for all to see.

Aside from the fact that Bernie doesn’t happen to read this particular journal, and that B.F. Goodrich didn’t ever bother to break the news directly to him, his personal doctor, or other workers, there’s another little problem with Voorhees’ feigned outrage: Bernie first went to a doctor for his hand problems in 1959, not 1967.

B.F. Goodrich not only knew much earlier than ’67 that vinyl chloride could cause workers’ bones to dissolve, but the company wrote a 1966 memo to the effect that “the confidentiality of this data is exceedingly important.” Even in the 1967 JAMA article about the bone problem, Goodrich’s doctor covered the company’s ass, writing that “The specific causes are unknown” and that perhaps the employees themselves were constitutionally inclined to such bone-dissolving.

Yet the industry continues to lie. On a website put up by the ACC to attack the documentary (www.abouttradesecrets.com), there still is the flat assertion that B.F. Goodrich was the one that “first observed the problem” and rushed to report it in 1967.

Not content to sit on this lie, the ACC boasts that “industry enlisted the University of Michigan to conduct an epidemiological survey of exposed workers” that led to “changes to work procedures and rules . . . to reduce exposure to the hands.” Yes, U. of M. medical researchers were hired, and they reported in 1969 that there was a clear-cut connection between working with vinyl chloride and dissolving bones.

Two months later, the chemical corporations on the industry’s health committee met to consider U. of M.’s stunning report. They voted seven to three to reject the very report that the ACC now hails as proof of the industry’s good will. The committee went further, actually altering the report by eliminating the recommendation that workers’ exposure to vinyl chloride be drastically reduced.

Workplace changes, including better ventilation and special gloves, were not adopted until six years after the university research was begun, and then only after OSHA ordered the industry to implement them.
The Fred letters

Moyers reported that Dan Ross died of brain cancer in 1990, precisely 23 years from the day he started working in a Conoco vinyl chloride plant. He was only 46, and his wife Elaine said on camera that Dan died horribly.

Conoco never told him or other workers that it knew as early as 1970 that its toxic product causes cancer, nor that its officials had even noted in Dan’s file that he was being overexposed.

The industry is extremely sensitive to revelations about such cancer cover-ups—so it continues to lie about them. The ACC, for example, proclaims that Trade Secrets was in “ERROR” when it reported that the industry concealed vinyl chloride’s link to liver cancer. Instead, it says, “Industry played a major role in discovering [the cancer link] and acted swiftly to make its workplace safe.”

Safe from regulation, that is. It was an Italian researcher who actually discovered the liver- cancer link in 1972. American companies promptly met with the European producers who had sponsored the research. Rather than agree to take action to protect workers, however, officials from Conoco, B. F. Goodrich, Dow, and others signed a non-disclosure agreement with their European counterparts, pledging “to hold such information strictly in confidence” among themselves. Workers continued to be exposed, even as the companies conceded to each other that their workers were being exposed to cancer.

In 1973, the jig was almost up when the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) requested all research information that the companies had on vinyl chloride, published or unpublished. The companies hastily convened a closed- door meeting, where they agreed to stonewall the government: “We should not volunteer reference to the European project,” read the minutes of this session.

They also agreed not to mention to NIOSH the danger to consumers from vinyl chloride in aerosol products, reasoning that consumer safety was not “pertinent” to NIOSH, which, after all, was looking into worker safety.

The Fred letters

Like a myna bird that knows only one phrase, Terry Yosie kept repeating during the Trade Secrets panel discussion that all 9,000 chemical products on the market are safe because “we test our products,” “they have been tested,” “they are tested using the best scientific methods,” etc. But it’s another lie, and this whopper led to a public rift between the chemical boys and their favorite green group.

Environmental Defense (ED) is a big, well-funded outfit that has long played an unseemly game of footsie with the industry. Yosie even cited the ACC’s “major partnership” with ED as evidence of the industry’s “commitment to openness and transparency.”

But Yosie’s over-the-top performance about chemical testing and safety was too much for his old ally, Fred Krupp, the head of ED. Krupp’s group recently had done an analysis of the 3,000 top-selling chemical products, and found that only 43% of them had ever been tested for toxicity to humans, and only about 10% for their impacts on the much more vulnerable bodies of babies.

So Fred Krupp fired off a hot letter to Fred Webber, the ACC’s jeffe. “Telling the public today that industrial chemicals are safe when you know the information isn’t there is akin to telling workers 30 years ago that there was no evidence vinyl chloride [was] harmful. In both cases, your organization’s file cabinets know better.”

Chemical Fred wrote back with some gobbledygook about test methodology, averring that he “deeply regret[s] any misunderstanding” this might have caused. Krupp wasn’t buying his crap this time, though. He fired off another missive, this one saying the public doesn’t give a damn about methods, but about the fact that no testing at all has been done to check the safety of every six out of 10 chemicals the industry sells.

Enviro Fred told Chemical Fred that the only way the public will be assured of the industry’s safety claims is for it to “post publicly the relevant tests for each, as you committed to do years ago.”

And he had, too. In 1998, the ACC held a big pre-Earth Day press conference to report that industry didn’t need government regulation to do what was right. By golly, it would begin forthwith a $26 million voluntary testing program, evaluating 100 chemicals a year and reporting the results until all 3,000 of the most-used compounds were certified as safe. Webber himself was the misty-eyed spokesman that day.

Three years later, not one test result has been produced.

Let them eat propaganda

Instead we got “Responsible Care,” an industry PR campaign intended to convince a skeptical public that chemicals are good for us and that chemical makers are in business to protect our health.

But ICEM—the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions—has a clear-eyed view of “Responsible Care,” having spent two years negotiating to put real content into this program, which is otherwise nothing but corporate window-dressing. They were making progress, until talks suddenly hit a wall this year. ICEM reports bluntly that the U.S. chemical industry “deliberately destroyed this international process.”

It’s no secret that the ACC and its members don’t like government regulation. But, as ICEM learned, the industry also doesn’t want any real self-regulation. As for public criticism, as Moyers knows, the industry is willing to lie and keep on lying in order to continue business as usual, no matter whose health is ruined or what damage is done to the planet.

In the panel discussion, Moyers gave the last word to Terry Yosie, who looked into the camera and said with a straight face that his employers “are committed to improving our environmental health and safety performance.”

Last month, Yosie was in Orlando for a conference with the industry’s health and safety managers. “In a roundabout way, Moyers may have done something important for us,” he told them. He didn’t mean that Moyers had finally awakened the industry’s executives to the need for honesty and genuine reform.

Rather, he announced an exciting expansion of their PR efforts, telling the managers that the ACC already was testing “a print and radio advertising campaign stating the benefits of chemicals.”

I’m making moves!

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