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Chemical killers 

by Don Hazen


A very powerful story about fighting for truth and justice has its heroes. This story, a tale of the secrets and lies behind America's chemical industry, is no exception.


Like Erin Brockovich, the paralegal-turned-movie icon who fought against toxic polluters in California, Elaine Ross was determined to uncover the truth. Ross wanted to know what had killed her husband, a chemical plant worker in the bayous of Louisiana, at the untimely age of 46. She teamed up with crusading lawyer William "Billy" Baggett Jr. the son of a famous Southern litigator, and together they have become central figures in a David-and-Goliath battle to protect the health of all Americans, especially workers.


Now, in the latest chapter of the story, a team led by Bill Moyers has created a PBS special report called Trade Secrets that will air on Monday, March 26. The special, based on chemical industry documents, will explore allegations that the industry obfuscated, denied and hid dangerous effects of chemicals on unsuspecting workers and consumers. At its core is a troubling question: With more than 75,000 chemicals having been released into the environment, what happens as our bodies absorb them, and how can we protect ourselves?


When it hits the air, Moyers' special is expected to reenergize veteran health activists and medical professionals in their fight against a growing problem -- unregulated and untested chemicals flooding the commercial market place. This public heat, coupled with a burgeoning grassroots resistance to chemical producers, may set the industry on the defensive like never before... but that's getting ahead of the story.





Battle in the Bayou


Elaine Ross's husband, Dan, spent 23 years working at the Conoco (later Vista) chemical plant in Lake Charles, La. After being diagnosed with brain cancer, according to Jim Morris of the Houston Chronicle, "Dan Ross came to believe that he had struck a terrible bargain, forfeiting perhaps 30 years of his life through his willingness to work with vinyl chloride, used to make one of the world's most common plastics."


"Just before he died [in 1990], he said, 'Mama, they killed me,'" recalled Elaine. "I promised him I would never let Vista or the chemical industry forget who he was."


And she hasn't. She teamed up with Billy Baggett to file a wrongful death suit against Vista. Baggett won a settlement for Ross, but she wasn't satisfied with just the money. She knew that her husband's death wasn't an isolated incident -- that many other chemical plant workers were dead, dying or sick because their employers weren't telling them about potential health hazards. And Vista certainly wasn't the only culprit.


So Ross told Baggett to take the fight to the next level. Baggett did, suing 30 companies and trade associations including the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now called the American Chemistry Council) for conspiracy, alleging that they hid and suppressed evidence of vinyl chloride-related deaths and diseases.


The companies fought back, trying to get the suit thrown out of court. But in a crucial decision, Judge Fred S. Silverman said no to the motion, allowing Baggett to proceed with his suit and giving him access to thousands of previously secret documents. These "Chemical Papers," as they are becoming known, chronicled virtually the entire history of the chemical industry, much of it related to vinyl chloride -- minutes of board meetings, minutes of committee meetings, consultant reports and more.


According to Jim Morris of the Chronicle, the documents suggested that major chemical manufacturers closed ranks in the late-1950s to contain and counteract evidence of vinyl chloride's toxic effects. "They depict a framework of dubious science and painstaking public relations, coordinated by the industry's main trade association with two dominant themes: avoid disclosure and deny liability." The chemical companies were hiding the fact that they had "subjected at least two generations of workers to excessive levels of a potent carcinogen that targets the liver, brain, lungs and blood-forming organs."


"Even though [the chemical companies] may be competitive in some spheres, in others they aren't," Baggett told Morris. "They have a mutual interest in their own employees not knowing [about health effects], in their customers not knowing, in the government not knowing."


"There was a concerted effort to hide this material," says Dr. David Rosner, a professor of public health and history at Columbia University who has reviewed many of the documents as part of a research project. "It's clear there was chicanery."


And while the documents show that the industry freely shared health information among themselves, "the companies were evasive with their own employees and the government," wrote Morris. "They were unwilling to disrupt the growing market for polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, used in everything from pipe to garden hoses." The whole case and others like it "accentuate the problem of occupational cancer, which, by some estimates, takes more lives (50,000) each year than AIDS, homicide or suicide, but receives far less attention."


"What I hope to achieve is that every man who works in a chemical plant is told the truth and tested on a regular basis in the proper manner," Elaine Ross told the Chronicle. "I want the chemical companies to be accountable for every little detail that they don't tell these men."


In a prepared statement, the Chemical Manufacturers Association called such charges "irresponsible." The group said that it promotes a policy of openness among its members.





From Courtroom to TV


Award-winning TV producer Sherry Jones had also been taking a close look at the chemical industry and its secret ways. She brought her findings to Bill Moyers, with whom she had previously worked.


Moyers agreed that the story needed to be told. The result of their collaboration is Trade Secrets, the 90-minute special that will be followed by a 30-minute roundtable discussion among industry representatives and advocates for public health and environmental justice. Coming as it does on the night after the Academy Awards, where Julia Roberts may very well receive an Oscar for her portrayal of Erin Brockovich, this one-two punch of mass audience attention could deal the chemical industry quite a blow.


Citizen activists and health experts have been fighting for decades to protect their families from untested and unsafe synthetic chemicals. It has been a difficult battle, due in part to public misconceptions. Almost 80 percent of Americans think that the government tests chemicals for safety, which is untrue. Aside from chemicals directly added to food or drugs, there are no health and safety studies required before a chemical is manufactured, sold or used in commercial or retail products. The same is true for cosmetic products and the chemicals in them.


So if the government isn't regulating chemical safety, who is? Unfortunately, the chemical industry itself.


As health advocates have long complained, this self-regulation simply isn't enough. "For the most part, we rely on chemical companies to vouch for the safety of their products," says public health advocate Charlotte Brody, a former nurse. "That's like relying on the tobacco industry to assess the risk of tobacco."


Take the case of Dursban, Dow Chemical's indoor insecticide product. Even after 276 people filed lawsuits claiming that they were poisoned by Dursban, Dow didn't reveal information about the product that proved its toxicity. When the truth finally came out in 1996, the company was fined a miniscule $740,000 by the Feds for withholding information from public officials.


Critics say that government regulations would prevent such fiascoes, and with Trade Secrets and the Chemical Papers as ammunition, they may be closer to getting their wish than ever before.





fighting back


Using Moyers' special as a rallying point, a coalition of grassroots groups called "Coming Clean" has bonded together to oppose the chemical industry. In early March, dozens of national leaders -- health professionals, scientists, activists and media experts -- gathered for a weekend retreat in Northern Virginia to plan the elements of this long-term assault. Charlotte Brody, currently Coming Clean's head organizer, expressed the anger and outrage behind the meeting.


"For decades, chemical companies kept secret the hazards of chemicals they produce," Brody says. "These chemicals are in our food, our water, the air we breathe. Now, they're in all of us. Every child on earth is born with these synthetic chemicals in their bodies, and only a small percentage of these chemicals have been adequately tested."


Dr. Mark Mitchell, a physician from Hartford, Conn., and one of the leaders of the national effort, insists that to protect ourselves and our children from the harm of toxic chemicals: "We must phase out all dangerous chemicals over the next 10 years, beginning with those for which there are safer alternatives. And we must stop making the same mistakes, by prohibiting the introduction of any new chemicals that pose a threat to our health and our children's health."


Eventually, the coalition hopes to harness the public outcry to push for government regulations and class action suits against the chemical giants. Some organizers are hoping that Congress finally wakes up and focuses a spotlight on the chemical industry, while others are calling for corporate accountability.


"The American people deserve to know what chemical executives knew and when they knew it," says Gary Cohen, a leader of the Boston-based Environmental Health Fund and co-coordinator of the group Health Care Without Harm.





Chemical Backlash


In all likelihood, the chemical industry will trudge out familiar responses to Trade Secrets. They will bring in experts to argue the scientific validity of chemical poisoning. They will say, for example, that doses are so low that animals would have to drink 50,000 bathtubs of contaminated water to suffer any harm. But health professionals counter that small doses can have measurable impact in humans, and that people are often more sensitive to toxic substances than test animals. Furthermore, no tests have been done on the cumulative effects of small doses.


The industry also likes to tell the public that it has changed since the '50s, '60s and '70s, when chemical companies stonewalled at every hint of danger. Major incidents like the debacle over Dursban undermine that claim. Thus, despite millions of dollars of effort over the years, the public ranks the industry next to last in terms of public confidence (trailing only the tobacco industry).


So the chemical industry has essentially abandoned its efforts to change public opinion. As in most industries with health and safety issues, the chemical giants focus instead directly on Congress, where lobbying and campaign contributions are often more effective ways to wage their battle. Their goal is a simple one: to make sure that no laws would ever require them to perform health and safety testing for the compounds they produce.


Needless to say, they have been totally successful thus far. But the time may be ripe for change. Polls show public sentiment is increasingly anti-corporate. According to a recent Business Week poll, 82 percent of the public feels that corporations wield too much power. According to a recent Roper poll, half the population feels that environmental regulations haven't gone far enough.


With the chemical industry at the bottom of the public's "good corporate citizen" list, a critical mass of citizens may soon come together to fight back.





Trade Secrets airs on Monday, March 26 at 9 pm on KSPS, Spokane Channel 7.
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