Anti-chemical activists are using the recent PBS broadcast of Trade Secrets: A Moyers Report to kick off their latest campaign against chemicals and the chemical industry. But if Trade Secrets is the activists' best shot, the public should rest easy.
The program focused on allegations that the chemical industry concealed information from workers about the potential health effects from very high occupational exposures to the chemical vinyl chloride.
Trade Secrets host Bill Moyers dwelled on 40-year-old internal industry documents labeled "confidential" that discussed the vinyl chloride issue. Using a few excerpted lines taken out of context from rooms full of litigation documents, Moyers cast the documents as evidence of a sinister conspiracy to cover-up knowledge that vinyl chloride posed a serious health risk to workers.
Moyers apparently never considered the possibility the documents reflect early internal industry discussions about a new and potentially important — but not very well understood — issue.
Very high exposures to vinyl chloride were eventually associated with substantially increased risk of a specific form of a rare liver cancer called angiosarcoma. A 1999 study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Biostatistics reported, "angiosarcoma is the only [cancer] causally associated with vinyl chloride exposure ... data do not support a causal association for any [other disease]."
A 1991 study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine reported that of 10,173 men who worked at 37 U.S. vinyl chloride plants from 1942-1982, there were 15 "extra" deaths from angiosarcoma.
That's the "smoking gun" that Moyers and his compatriots at the activist Environmental Working Group are using as an excuse for their current attack.
The vinyl chloride cancer deaths are regrettable, but they should be placed in perspective. They resulted from exposures that occurred when the chemical industry was young and not much was known about the occupational hazards of chemicals. The industry learned and today's working conditions are safer.
Work is not and never has been risk-free. Sixteen U.S. workers are killed daily at work, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Chemical industry work is safe compared with other occupations. Retail sales and government employees, for example, die at rates more than 10 times higher than chemical industry employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Generally speaking, chemical industry workers live longer and are healthier than the general population. Focusing on vinyl chloride is missing the forest for a tree.
This unfortunate bit of history is no reason to demonize today's chemical industry that goes to great lengths to work with government regulators and environmental groups to safeguard worker and public health — and the environment.
Trade Secrets attempted to leverage the vinyl chloride story into concern for kids and chemicals. The program led off with activist-researcher Philip Landrigan saying, "We are conducting a vast toxicologic experiment, and we are using our children as the experimental animals."
Landrigan later repeated the two biggest myths about children and the environment: That childhood cancer has risen and chemicals in the environment are the cause; and that children are more sensitive to chemical exposures than adults.
Since the 1970s, childhood cancer incidence has changed little, according to studies in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. A modest increase in childhood brain cancer during the 1980s is attributed by researchers to improvements in diagnosis and reporting.
Even the Environmental Protection Agency backed off claims childhood cancer was on the rise and acknowledges, "the overall incidence of new cancers in children remains relatively unchanged."
The notion children are more susceptible to chemicals is intuitively appealing, but lacks factual support. Though no one tests chemicals on children, there's extensive information on how children process therapeutic drugs. This data indicates children's bodies clear drugs much faster than adults. This might compensate for any increased organ sensitivity during development.
The drug data doesn't settle the question about children's sensitivity to chemicals in the environment. But it's relevant information that Landrigan — who holds himself out as a pediatrician — conveniently ignores in favor of fearmongering.
Trade Secrets was very slanted. No contrary views were sought or included in the piece. Moyers' bias was no surprise. He heads the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, a $90 million foundation that funds environmental activists, including the Environmental Working Group. It was, however, somewhat surprising to see such unabashed bias on the taxpayer-funded PBS.
After the program, a 30-minute roundtable discussion was broadcast that included two industry representatives, Landrigan, the head of the Environmental Working Group and Moyers. This was inadequate opportunity, though, to provide much-needed balance and correction.
Moyers tried to smear the chemical industry with Trade Secrets. But once you cut through the drama and get to the facts, you learn the biggest secret of all: The anti-chemical extremists have no clothes.