As if the headlines from 1998 aren't tough enough, now the vinyl industry faces a ghost from its past: its lamentable safety record prior to 1974, before the U.S. government regulated workers' exposure to vinyl chloride monomer.
The Houston Chronicle, in a series of stories June 28-29, gave a brutal recap of the vinyl industry's efforts to thwart studies that linked VCM to cancer.
The newspaper cited industry documents, many of them more than 20 years old, that, according to the newspaper, ``depict a framework of dubious science and painstaking public relations. ... There are two dominant themes: Avoid disclosure and deny liability.''
Although the vinyl industry doesn't like the parallel, casual readers see this kind of description and think ``tobacco industry.''
Some more excerpts:
``The chemical companies, through their silence and inertia, subjected at least two generations of workers to excessive levels of a potent carcinogen that targets the liver, brain, lungs and blood-forming organs.
``Although they freely shared health information among themselves, the companies were evasive with their own employees and the government. They were unwilling to disrupt the growing market for PVC plastic, used in everything from pipe to garden hoses.''
Yes, this is an old story. Even critics would agree that vinyl resin production is much safer today. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration deserves nearly all the credit for the improvement; OSHA in the mid-1970s imposed tough VCM exposure regulations despite objections of the chemical industry.
Although the VCM battle was won long ago, the Chronicle story is a must-read for vinyl processors, suppliers and compounders. Why? The charges it repeats still echo through the plastics industry.
They echo in Greenpeace's frequent, powerful attacks on vinyl.
They echo in Shintech Inc.'s protracted struggle for approval to build a new PVC resin plant in Convent, La.
And they are certain to echo once more in a lawsuit that one of the newspaper's key sources now threatens to bring against 29 chemical companies, the Chemical Manufacturers Association and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., charging that they obfuscated evidence of VCM-related deaths and diseases.
SPI's Vinyl Institute, and the industry itself, now is stuck trying to explain policies that PVC companies abandoned decades ago. Yes, vinyl plant workers are safe today. Angiosarcoma of the liver, the cancer most often associated with VCM, is a distant memory for contemporary PVC plants — VI claims no employee who started working in a PVC plant since the OSHA standard was put in place has been diagnosed with the disease.
But the story of VCM, and industry's response, still is a black cloud that hangs over the industry, and threatens its very survival.