Chemical industry documents reveal deceptions
In the wake of recent well-publicized exposés of the chemical industry’s reckless endangerment of workers and the public, cover-ups and other dastardly deeds, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has posted online 50 years and 25,000 pages worth of insider industry documents.
Pried open by lawsuits and regulatory actions, the vast collection of memos, policy papers and directives formed the basis for Bill Moyers’ recent PBS documentary Trade Secrets, and reports in the New York Times and other major newspapers.
The documents reveal, in their own words, how chemical executives knowingly exposed workers and the public to cancer-causing chemicals, polluted whole communities and devoted vast resources to covering up the truth. The searchable archive of documents is available at www.ewg.org.
Journalists and concerned citizens can examine the Chemical Industry Archive to see for themselves how the tragedies of Bhopal and Love Canal were treated as public relations problems, how companies hid the truth about cancer and other diseases from their own workers, and how the industry manipulates science and public opinion to protect its profits.
The database is easily searchable by keyword, so typing in the word “Sacramento” offers a peek into the chemical industry’s efforts to shape public perception and influence legislation in California as far back as 1966.
That was the year the industry executives formed the Chemical Industry Council (CIC) in Northern California. The 35-year-old report states “the need for CIC was based on the need for improvement in the public image,” and that the “CIC appears to be a fine tool” to recruit college graduates into the industry “by exerting stimulating influence on youngsters in high school.”
Besides softening the harsh image of the chemical industry, CIC was used, and still is, to employ industry advocacy resources in Sacramento. In 1986, as much as $6.75 million was spent and as many as 50 contract lobbyists and employees were hired by oil and chemical companies to sway politicians into reducing industry regulations.
Two organizations, the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) and the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance (CCEEB), shown by documents to be founded decades ago to push the chemical industry’s agenda, are still active today.
As organizations such as Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen Litigation Groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club were improving the public’s right to know about chemical exposures, “the Pacific Legal Foundation was established in 1973, in Sacramento, California, to counteract the activities of the above groups by supporting the free market system and traditional concepts of personal property and competition,” read a Manufacturing Chemists Association memo.
Harold Johnson, an attorney for the PLF, denied claims that their organization is in the pocket of the chemical industry, saying they represent small landowners and individuals “who think they are aggrieved by government, by an arbitrary or unconstitutional government.”
Another industry document discusses the formation and funding of CCEEB to combat proposed legislation and ballot measures designed to stiffen toxics regulations and penalties. In this regard, it used its own experts to compile a softer list of hazardous materials to present to lawmakers, provided a critique of California regulations, and conducted a public opinion poll to improve industry messages.
A CCEEB representative who would identify herself to the SN&R only as Cindy said, “We are not a front group for the chemical industry,” noting that its board includes representatives from businesses, labor and the general public. She said her group is well-thought-of by the NRDC and Sierra Club, although sources within these environmental group say the CCEEB is little more than the voice of industry.
The documents that brought all this to light eventually found their way to the public mostly via lawsuits against chemical companies and tire manufacturers for worker deaths and illnesses from exposure to vinyl chloride. Vinyl chloride, one of the building blocks of plastic, causes liver and brain cancer. After dozens of worker deaths, and over the chemical industry’s objections that it would go out of business, the U.S. government finally established a strict standard for vinyl chloride exposure in 1976.
In a letter to the California Air Resources Board (ARB) in 1989, the Vinyl Institute challenged the ARB’s findings on the dangers of vinyl chloride, even suggesting that some other variable is responsible for vinyl chloride’s toxicity. Calling the ARB’s results “a dramatic overestimate of likely human risk,” the letter goes on to cite other studies in an effort to suggest that humans may be able to endure higher levels of vinyl chloride than the ARB initially decided.
While documenting efforts to influence public policy debate in Sacramento, the archive collection outlines even more serious deceptions and manipulations on the national level.
The denial, cover-up, and disregard for workers and public health revealed in documents from the 1960s and 1970s continue today. Last year, 3M abruptly discontinued Scotchguard, a $200 million-a-year product. Why would a company suddenly drop one of its most profitable items? The archive reveals that 3M knew since the 1970s that Scotchguard, believed to cause reproductive harm, was contaminating the bloodstreams not only of its workers, but the public and wildlife worldwide.
“These documents could do for the chemical industry’s public image what the tobacco papers did to the cigarette companies,” said EWG president Ken Cook. “Anyone who reads the documents can tell that chemical companies knew 25 years ago their products were unsafe and that workers were in danger. It’s time for Congress to step in and investigate what the industry knows today but isn’t telling us.”
AScribe News Service contributed to this report.