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