Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
A recent investigative report on the chemical industry by U.S. journalist Bill Moyers has spurred calls from a wide range of U.S. groups for immediate congressional hearings.
The video documentary Trade Secrets, which aired March 26 on the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), details several decades of effort on the part of the chemical industry to hide clear scientific evidence showing dangerous health effects of exposure to various chemical products. The report is based on secret documents released by the industry in response to a wrongful death lawsuit in Louisiana. The suit was brought by the wife of Dan Ross, a worker who died of a rare brain cancer after working in a vinyl chloride production plant.
The report shows that, beginning in the late 1950s, industry executives suppressed evidence that several rare cancers and other systemic illnesses were linked to exposure to vinyl chloride. Health effects were found at exposure levels much lower than those experienced by workers and, in some cases, consumers. The documents also show that government actions to limit exposure to one chemical, benzene, were delayed for years due to the chemical industry's coordinated efforts to undermine the scientific consensus regarding the link between benzene exposure and leukemia.
The show also highlighted the pesticide DBCP. Industry documents confirm that the manufacturing companies, Dow Chemical Company and Shell Chemical Company knew in the late 1950s that exposure to DBCP could cause testicular atrophy and sterility. Workers, however, did not learn of the reproductive hazards until 1977, when sterility among 35 workers in one plant was linked to DBCP exposure.
On the political front, the report highlights confidential memos and meeting minutes from the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now the American Chemistry Council) detailing an industry campaign to block citizen "right to know" initiatives at the state level. More than US$4 million, for example, was spent to defeat an initiative in the state of Ohio that would require that chemicals be tested for carcinogenicity and reproductive effects (including birth defects), and also require consumer notification of those test results. The successful adoption of such legislation in California (Proposition 65) spurred industry efforts to block further laws. Major U.S. pesticide producing companies such as Dow Chemical Company and Monsanto were active participants in these and other efforts to influence legislation and regulations.
Industry has responded to the report by arguing that it was not balanced, and that the industry's practices have improved tremendously since the 1960s and 1970s, when most of the documents were produced. They assert that all of their products are thoroughly tested and safe, for both consumers and workers. According to public health practitioners quoted in the documentary, however, nearly half of the chemical products considered "high volume production" (a total of over 3,000 products) have never been tested. The Moyers report also highlights the chemical industry's launch of a voluntary testing program in the late 1990s, through which the industry committed to spend millions of dollars testing products for various health effects and to submit the results to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Moyers reports that to date, no results of this testing program have been submitted.
Organizations throughout the U.S. and Canada concerned with environmental health issues organized more than 100 public viewings of the Moyers documentary in 28 states, Washington, DC and Ontario. The resulting Coming Clean campaign is now calling for congressional hearings of the chemical industry, focusing on the historical evidence represented by the documents and specifically on the clear evidence of the chemical industry's efforts to suppress scientific results and to limit legislative and regulatory restrictions on their industry. Congress is also being asked to investigate the possibility that chemical industry executives have additional information about the health effects of their products that they have not made public.
As a member organization of the Coming Clean campaign, PAN North America urges our U.S. affiliates and supporters to contact their legislators and call for congressional hearings of the chemical industry.
For further information on the Coming Clean campaign and to send a message to your legislator, visit http://www.comeclean.org. For more information about Trade Secrets or to purchase the video, visit http://www.pbs.org. To view the secret industry documents, visit http://www.ewg.org.
Sources: PANNA, PBS press release (March 29, 2001), American Chemistry Council press release (March 26, 2001).