Daily News Archive
From March 28, 2001

Chemical Industry History, Ancient and Modern

Bill Moyers' special, "Trade Secrets", aired on PBS Monday, March 26, 2001. For those who follow the issues, the most shocking thing was that this forthright program was broadcast at all. Moyers, PBS, and your local PBS affiliate should all be thanked!

Most of the program focused on revelations from documents obtained in a lawsuit following the death of a worker in a vinyl chloride plant in Louisiana. The boxes of documents, totaling over a million pages, show a long trail of cover-up and deception by the industry and its trade association. The goal was clearly to limit public knowledge and potential liability from hazards which the industry's own scientists documented.

The record is cynical in the extreme. Some consumer uses of vinyl chloride were secretly phased out because they posed unlimited liability. But production workers, whose coverage by worker's compensation limited their ability to sue, were kept in the dark about risks as production, exposure and use continued. The industry fought lowered exposure standards that it knew would be more protective; a retired NIOSH official estimates that delay in implementing the new standards cost almost five hundred lives.

References in the papers to the consequences to the industry of public disclosure of health effects included avoiding expose' a la Silent Spring or Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed. These documents were never meant to see the light of day.

Moyers had his own blood tested to see what if any chemicals he carried in his body. Scans revealed more than eighty modern synthetic chemicals. Of these, only lead might have been in his grandfather's blood. There is no testing to know what affect this mixture would have on him.

In the round table discussion that followed, two industry representatives stressed that the program was biased, that it did not fairly represent their views, that the public does not care what happened forty years ago, and that products now on the market are tested and safe.

Moyers defended the nature of the program as one which presented the documents. Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group pointed out that if the products now being produced were all "tested and safe", why was the industry now engaged in a high profile effort to test them for their health effects. And why had this project not produced any results in a couple of years.

The argument that "the public doesn't care" about this ancient history is unbelievably cynical. Those who have already died from liver or brain cancer are not in a position to complain, but many of their family members are still here and feeling their loss. Untold others -- the program included some examples -- are suffering the non-fatal effects of exposures that they were told were safe when their employers knew that not to be so.

Below is one example of current history that documents that "trade secrets" continue into the present.

In 1994, CBS TV learned that DowElanco chemical company had withheld hundreds of reports of adverse incidents involving the common pesticide chlorpyrifos, the most common trade name of which is Dursban. Dursban is an organophosphate insecticide which is a nervous system poison widely used in agriculture, homes and schools. It became the termite poison of choice after the banning of chlordane in the late 1980's and was used around millions of homes. Public interest advocates had long argued that EPA should revoke its registration. EPA said it did not have enough evidence to take action.

Pesticide makers are required under the federal pesticide law (FIFRA) to submit adverse effects reports to EPA promptly. DowElanco had reported some but not all incidents for about ten years. Only when CBS was about to broadcast a report on "Eye to Eye with Connie Chung" based partly on EPA's files did DowElanco submit the additional incident reports. Most related to personal injury claims that might involve litigation. Effects documented included persistent neurological problems including peripheral neuropothy, numbness, muscle weakness, headaches, disorientation, depression, asthma, birth defects, and multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS).

EPA considered DowElanco's action in withholding the documents so severe that it assessed a record fine of $732,000. The company appealed and an administrative law judge found the withholding of information so serious that the fine was actually increased to $890,000 in August, 1995. The company settled for
$876,000. The new information, though long delayed, was critical in restrictions on Dursban announced last year. Though it is still available (check labels carefully for chlorpyrifos!) the registration for most of household uses are now banned, heavily restricted, or being phased out. EPA has allowed the use of existing stocks for
termite control. Thus, the practice of cover up in the industry is not some ancient practice but one which affects products, and health, today.

Just last year, a couple of months before EPA announced its restrictions on Dursban last year, a local pest control operator told the town of Carrboro that it was perfectly safe for application -- in the quantity of hundreds of gallons -- for a new community center. And this month, a friend shopping for diatomaceous earth was
told that Dursban was a safe substitute. Specifically, it was safe for animals. Right.

Reply or comment to [email protected] Allen Spalt is the Director of the Agricultural Resources Center, Carrboro, NC and is a Board Member of Beyond Pesticides/NCAMP.