“Avoid disclosure. Deny liability.”

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Hotline, Summer 2001

by John Warren, GASP Board Member

One in every ten women of childbearing age in the United States is at risk of giving birth to a child with neurological problems caused by exposure to mercury from the mother’s body, according to a study released on March 2, 2001 by the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The report is based upon the first nationally representative sample of mercury in human blood and hair in the United States. Earlier reports on the public health impact of mercury were based on estimates of human fish consumption. The study found that at least ten percent of women of childbearing age have levels of mercury in their bodies in excess of what the EPA considers acceptable.

Mercury is released into the atmosphere by air pollution from power plants, waste incinerators, and industrial processes. Rain transfers it from the air to oceans, lakes, and streams, where it is ingested by fish. People and animals ingest mercury when they consume the fish.

At a time when coal-fired power plants loom large in the Bush Administration’s energy plans, the mercury study provides an important cautionary note. However, if you catch yourself reacting to the study by thinking “This sounds awfully familiar,” you are certainly not alone. In listening to such reports on the radio, perhaps you find yourself wondering, at the end of the story, “Now was that mercury they were talking about, or was it arsenic, or maybe dioxin?”

Over the past half-century, we have immersed ourselves in an environment laden with chemicals. On March 26, in a PBS program titled “Trade Secrets,” Bill Moyers explored the public health consequences of releasing more than 75,000 chemicals into the environment.

The program was based in part upon thousands of previously secret documents that were made public through a lawsuit against thirty chemical companies and trade associations. The action was initiated by Elaine Ross of Lake Charles, LA. Her husband, Dan, died of brain cancer in 1990, after working with vinyl chloride for 23 years in a Conoco chemical plant. Her lawyer, William Baggett, Jr., filed a wrongful death suit against the plant, won a settlement, and then filed the broader suit, alleging that the chemical industry had suppressed evidence of the health effects of vinyl chloride.

According to Jim Morris of the Houston Chronicle, the documents that came out in the lawsuit suggest 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.”

According to Morris, 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.”

The 1986 federal Emergency Planning Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) covers more than 600 designated toxic chemicals (out of about 75,000), requiring industries to reveal the amounts they release. The EPA posts industry data in the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI).

Information about potentially harmful chemicals in consumer goods is sketchier. Labels do not always list every ingredient, and companies may claim trade-secrecy exemptions on exact formulations.

In spite of its limited coverage, the TRI has evolved into a powerful tool for citizens and communities in fighting polluters, and has nudged industries into reducing toxic releases. A few years after the law took effect, a Dow Chemical executive told the Atlanta Constitution that “mandatory disclosure has done more than all other legislation put together in getting companies to voluntarily reduce emissions.” Even so, the chemical industry continues to mount vigorous campaigns in Congress and the states to roll back right-to-know provisions.

To explore the issues raised by “Trade Secrets,” visit the program’s web site, which includes a transcript of the broadcast. Thousands of documents made public through the lawsuit can be viewed online. Go to the web site of the Environmental Working Group and click “Chemical Industry Archives.”