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What You Don't Know May Be Killing You

March 29, 2001 [ Printer-friendly version ]

So far, George W. Bush's go-to applause line during his presidency has been: "It is not the government's money, it is the people's money."

He used it not once but twice during his big economic speech in Kalamazoo, Mich., this week. But money is not the only thing of value in the world. There is also, well, the world. And what the president doesn't seem to grasp is that it's also the people's air, the people's water and the people's lungs.

The urgency of this truth was all the more apparent on Monday night when Bill Moyers unleashed "Trade Secrets," an explosive PBS documentary that used a million pages of internal chemical industry documents to expose the long-term cover-up of the poisonous effects of chemicals on unsuspecting workers and consumers.

Obtained by lawyers representing Elaine Ross, whose husband died of brain cancer at the age of 46 after working at a chemical plant in Louisiana for 23 years, the documents -- many of them stamped "secret" and "strictly confidential" -- conjure up a moral universe in which deadly hazards to human life are nothing more than impediments to ever healthier bottom lines.

What makes Moyers' wake-up call so timely is that it comes at the dawn of an administration that has already declared war on the environment. Arsenic limits cramping your profitability? No problem. Gone. Carbon dioxide regulations putting a dent in your annual report? Say no more.

The Chemical Papers, as the documents at the heart of "Trade Secrets" are being called, come across as the toxic twin to the infamous Tobacco Papers. With any justice, they should turn the chemical companies they've exposed -- including Dow, DuPont, Shell, Conoco and B.F. Goodrich -- into the political pariahs tobacco companies have become.

Consider a 1959 Dow Chemical memo that concedes that extended exposure to one of the company's products "is going to produce rather appreciable injury," then shockingly adds: "As you can appreciate, this opinion is not ready for dissemination yet, and I would appreciate it if you would hold it in confidence." In other words, this stuff causes cancer -- but keep it under your hat.

So here we are at the moment of a harmonic convergence between an industrial sector determined to limit regulation, limit testing, limit disclosure and limit liability and a president whose record, both in Austin and in Washington, clearly demonstrates that he puts the benefits to industry ahead of the costs to people -- no matter how devastating.

As governor of Texas, Bush signed an "audit privilege" law that allows companies to "keep secret all information about toxic chemical releases, spills and other environmental problems" -- even from state regulators and citizens trying to sue. But if it is the people's air, water and health, how can one possibly assert "privilege" in violating them?

Yet every day around the country they are being violated. In Los Angeles, chromium 6 -- the same carcinogenic chemical that was at the center of "Erin Brockovich" -- has recently been detected in the water system at levels that are spurring scientific debate over safety limits. The Brockovich case involved hundreds of victims; those affected by contaminated water in the L.A. basin could potentially number in the hundreds of thousands.

That's why the right-to-know is so fundamental -- and so resisted by the chemical industry. When a group in Ohio, for instance, spent $150,000 trying to pass a right-to-know ballot measure in 1992, Big Chemical poured $4.8 million into defeating it. Such victory-at-any-price tactics have proven extremely effective -- the last right-to-know initiative to pass was in California in 1986.

The industry has been equally effective at preventing government regulation of all but a fraction of the 80,000 synthetic chemicals created in the last 50 years. Instead, we rely on the industry's self-regulation. But since the honor system never works with people who have no shame, we are in effect allowing the chemical company foxes to guard the toxic henhouse.

To try and keep its profits soaring, the chemical industry has been stepping up its contributions to our political class. A 1980 industry memo fretted over the polluters' "political muscle, how much we've got, and how we can get more." Since then, the industry has doled out $117 million in political contributions. And now it's payback time.

Meeting with Moyers two days after the documentary aired was a little like being in the presence of an Old Testament prophet. He speaks with authority and passion about the "vast chemical experiment" being irresponsibly conducted on our children.

"I was walking in Central Park with my grandson," Moyers told me, "and he asked, 'How old are you, Pa?' I told him that I was 66. Then he looked up at the sky and asked: 'What is the world going to be like when I'm 66?' And the truth is, I couldn't tell him. We just don't know."

But we do know that breast cancer, brain cancer in kids, testicular cancer in teens, infertility and learning disabilities are all on the rise. And we do know that if we ended the noxious collusion between the chemical industry and our political overlords, that little boy would have a better chance of making it to 66.

The president is obsessed with giving us our money back, implying that it's the moral thing to do. So how about giving us back our air, water, earth and lungs, too?

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