clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

TV to air 'dirt' on chemical industry

Moyers documentary is already raising corporate concerns

There is little doubt that plastics have revolutionized modern life in every imaginable way, from bandages on a child's cut to computer paraphernalia.

But America's chemical giants have for decades kept a dark, dirty secret: The wonder chemicals used to make plastics and other products resulted in deadly cancers among industry workers and may have exposed consumers through products as seemingly innocent as hair spray.

In "Trade Secrets" (Monday at 8 p.m., KUED), veteran journalist Bill Moyers uses mountains of corporate documents to detail how the industry knew beyond a doubt the chemicals were dangerous, but corporate officers conspired among themselves to keep their research secret from the government, public and employees.

It was a conspiracy motivated entirely by preserving corporate profits. And companies wanted to avoid the kind of public backlash that occurred with such environmental expos´s as "Silent Spring" and "Unsafe at Any Speed."

No one in the chemical industry has yet seen Moyers' documentary, which, according to sources in the documentary, detail a conspiracy akin to the tobacco industry's cover-up of the harmful effects of smoking. But the report is already causing ripples of concern throughout the industry.

And they are certainly being felt at Salt Lake-based Huntsman Chemical, the nation's third-largest chemical company and a major world player in the production of chemicals used in plastics.

"I'm just not comfortable commenting on it without seeing what the allegations are," said Don Olsen, Huntsman senior vice president for public affairs.

"To the best of my knowledge, they (Moyers and his producers) made no effort to contact anyone in our industry, not in the preparation of the documentary, not afterwards."

According to John Adams, a publicist for the American Chemistry Council, none of the almost 200 chemical-company members of the association were allowed to comment on the allegations.

"Mr. Moyers' intransigence on what is a bedrock element of journalism ethics has pushed this issue beyond the merely shocking," said council President Fred Webber. "The program is an example of journalistic malpractice."

Industry representatives have been promised a Monday screening of the program before it airs Monday night.

Moyers told the Washington Post the documents are a matter of fact, not opinion. "We wanted to lay the record down, and then we want the industry to respond to the whole," he said.

Conceivably, Huntsman could escape the aftermath with little more than a black eye from being involved in an industry that collectively and willingly disregarded the health of its employees.

Most of the allegations in the documentary, a copy of which was provided to the Deseret News, involved incidents that occurred in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, long before billionaire Jon M. Huntsman began purchasing chemical companies.

"We are a relatively new player, and it seems he is talking about things that happened before we were remotely connected to the industry," Olsen said.

The first 30 minutes of the 90-minute documentary focus on an industry conspiracy to keep secret the cancer-causing effects of vinyl chloride, the chemical used to make PVC pipe. Huntsman has never been involved in the production of vinyl chloride or its use in the manufacture of other products, Olsen said.

The documentary also focuses on the harmful effects of benzene, a volatile chemical once used in a variety of consumer products from gasoline to hair sprays. Huntsman doesn't manufacture benzene but once used the chemical in its production of styrene monomer and it still uses it to produce polyurethane.

The use of benzene and all other chemicals is strictly regulated by the government, Olsen added.

"If his report is based on information 10 or more years old, then it lacks a fundamental fairness," he said. "Since we have been in the business, there have been stringent environmental controls."

Moyers' report does not identify Huntsman Chemical in any of its catalog of misdeeds, but it does target a virtual who's who in the chemical industry, including Dow Chemical, Union Carbide, Shell and Conoco.

Huntsman has had business dealings with companies named in the documentary, and he has purchased chemical plants from his competitors. It is not known if any of the plants purchased by Huntsman were at any time involved in cover-ups detailed in Moyers' report.

Olsen said he could not comment on allegations that chemical companies sacrificed the health of their employees. But he said the corporate philosophy at Huntsman places worker safety first.

"There is nothing more important. Nothing," he said. "It is our corporate culture."

The documentary will be followed by a 30-minute panel discussion that will include representatives of the chemical industry.

Utah-based Families Against Incinerator Risk has scheduled two screenings of the program to focus attention on the problem of industrial pollutants. Activist Chip Ward will lead a discussion Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Church, 569 S. 1300 East. The group will host another screening at The Shop, 1167 Woodside Ave., Park City.

The documentary comes at a time when the nation's attention has turned increasingly toward the harmful and persistent effects of chemicals on the human body. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the nation's first report measuring exposure of the U.S. population to 27 environmental chemicals.

As part of his documentary, Moyers participated in a pilot study by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine to measure the synthetic chemicals in the human body. In his blood, doctors found 31 different types of PCBs, 13 different toxins and the pesticides malathion and DDT.

"If workers, the public, journalists and government regulators had known what the industry knew about the health risks of its products — when the industry knew it — our laws today might be profoundly more protective of human health than they are," Moyers said.