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Unsafe for Mice or Men
Published on Tuesday, March 27, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Unsafe for Mice or Men
We Know Now We Can't Trust Anything the Chemical Companies Tell Us
by Joan Ryan
 
RAY REYNOLDS is dying at age 43 from toxins that seeped into his nerve cells from 16 years of working at a Texas chemical plant. Now it has spread to his brain.

"They told me," he says of his bosses, "there were no long-term problems from exposure."

They lied. They have been lying to all of us, workers and consumers alike.

Last night, Americans learned they are being poisoned. And they learned that the perpetrators have known about the poisonings for 50 years and have spent millions of dollars to keep us from finding out.

"It was a story we never were supposed to know," Bill Moyers says in his PBS special, "Trade Secrets," which premiered last night.

Moyers brings to light thousands of memos and scientific reports that show a vast coverup within America's chemical companies. Industry executives had research showing evidence that chemicals like vinyl chloride caused cancer and other health problems. But, time after time, the companies agreed to keep the findings from the public and their own workers.

In one example, an Italian researcher in the early 1970s told the chemical industry that vinyl chloride caused angiosarcoma, a rare liver cancer, in lab animals. His finding was the clearest link to date between an ingredient in plastic and cancer. But the heads of such companies as BF Goodrich, Dow, Shell, Union Carbide and Conoco signed a secrecy agreement to keep the findings from the public.

Even when the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health asked the industry to provide all known research on vinyl chloride, among several other chemicals, the industry withheld the findings.

In 1974, BF Goodrich announced that four workers in its Louisville, Ky., plant had died of angiosarcoma - but still said nothing about the research linking the cancer to vinyl chloride.

I always assumed there was some federal process by which chemical products - from weed killer to furniture polish to plastics - are deemed safe for human use. But there isn't. Of the 15,000 chemicals produced in the United States every year, only 43 percent have ever been properly tested to see if they cause injury to humans.

As a result, our bodies are archives of our chemical exposure, dating to birth. For the show, Moyers took part in a nine-person study that tested for 100 chemicals in each person's body during a 24-hour period. Moyers' body contained 84. He had 31 different polychlorinated biphenyls, a now-banned family of chemicals and 13 different dioxins. Except for lead, none of the chemicals existed at the turn of the century.

Surely it is no coincidence that breast cancer rates have tripled since 1940, brain cancer among children is up 26 percent, testicular cancer among adolescent men has doubled, learning disabilities have skyrocketed.

San Francisco's Andrea Martin, founder and executive director of Breast Cancer Action, took part in the nine-person study with Moyers. She also had around 80 chemicals in her body. "I was blown away," she said by phone yesterday. "The body is not up to meeting the modern chemistry of our world."

For Martin, the issue is personal. She has had breast cancer twice. "Most people think we're being protected. But the industry has controlled the standards. They do the research and then they bury it."

We know now we can't trust anything the chemical companies tell us. We must assume chemicals are guilty until proven innocent. And we must assume that unless we regulate the industry, the lab mice in this free-for-all chemical experiment will always be us.

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle

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