The recent Bill Moyers documentary Trade Secrets outlines what it claims is a pattern of vinyl chloride industry coverups of workers getting sick and dying from exposure factories.
It's a powerful tale. And it brought a swift response from industry, claiming Moyers omitted key facts.
Here's our two cents. Moyers did not present an even-handed version of events. But the industry, in its response, engages in troubling distortions.
The documentary itself is one-sided because industry members are not given a chance to respond during the 90-minute report. Instead, they are relegated to sharing a 30-minute discussion after.
Moyers accuses the industry of conspiring to keep secret a study by Italian researcher Cesare Maltoni showing that vinyl chloride exposure caused liver cancer. But U.S. industry argues that Maltoni did not want to share the early data, so the companies entered a confidentiality agreement that allowed them to see preliminary results — viewers should have been made aware of this.
In other areas, like phthalates, Moyers' treatment is misleadingly brief. He says that one phthalate, DEHP, was found in 1980 to be carcinogenic in animals. Industry met several times behind closed doors with the Environmental Protection Agency, and the EPA decided to take no action, Moyers says.
But the debate is much more complex. A panel of government scientists last year, for example, raised concerns about some medical uses for DEHP, but said in most cases people are not getting anywhere close to harmful levels. And the panel noted that DEHP use in medical products carries benefits.
On the other hand, we also feel that the industry offered some misleading versions of events. Take the Italian study on liver cancer. The American Chemistry Council claims U.S. government officials were told of that very important study in July 1973.
But ACC neglects to mention that the director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Dr. Marcus Key, said quite clearly that industry did not talk about the link with liver cancer in the July 1973 meeting.
Key told Congress in an August 1974 hearing: "I would like to re-emphasize that no information about liver cancer was given. If there had been, I think we would have taken an entirely different course of action in view of the widespread use of this material."
ACC also was taken to task by the group Environmental Defense for telling Moyers that information about chemical testing has been disclosed. It has not, which is why ACC is partnering with ED to release the information.
It's troubling if the public comes away from Moyers' documentary thinking that U.S. chemicals policy is determined chiefly by default, by a spineless government that lets industry do what it wants. That's simplistic.
But it's also going to be very difficult for the public to trust the chemical industry until executives and trade association leaders are able to own up to past mistakes honestly.