Profile of the Chemical Industry: Power, Corruption & Lies

This week the Chicago Tribune published a remarkable 4-part series about the chemical industry and its deeply dishonest campaign to perpetuate the use of toxic flame retardants in household products.   This series is essential reading for every parent, every person who sits on furniture or stares at a computer every day, and every politician (and staffer for a politician) who is ever going to be faced with a vote that pits the interests of the chemical industry against public health.

I can’t adequately summarize the series, but here is a sentence about each of the four installments:

Part One:  The most appalling of the four parts – describes the chemical industry’s creation of a front group to campaign for fire safety and its employment of a doctor paid to provide graphic false testimony all across the country to prevent regulation;

Part Two: Documents the roots of our current saturation in toxic flame retardants in the tobacco industry’s opposition to making safe cigarettes, and the creation of a market the chemical industry has aggressively defended via the same methods of deception (and some of the same players) as the tobacco industry;

Part Three:  Demonstrates the chemical industry’s common practices of distortion and manipulation of scientific findings, including creating its own dubious studies to suit its purposes, and misrepresenting the conclusions of legitimate independent scientist;

Part Four:  Illustrates the fundamental flaws of our national law intended to protect us from unsafe chemicals – The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) – and the failure of our political system – so far – to respond to a slow-motion crisis that has led to contamination of the public with both unsafe chemicals and chemicals whose safety (and even identity) is unknown.

As sweeping and compelling as this series is, it needs to be understood that it is not just an aberration in the chemical industry’s history and practice, but a microcosm, a case study.  The industry’s history is a virtually uninterrupted tale of defending dangerous chemicals as “safe” – manufacturing evidence in support, while hiding evidence to the contrary, and a willingness to spend or say anything to weaken, delay or prevent any possible regulation whether at the state or federal level.  That history carries right up to the present day (really, whatever day you are reading this).  The list of toxic substances that illustrate this history is long: lead, asbestos, vinyl chloride, arsenic, dioxin, formaldehyde, styrene, hex-chrome, TCE, PCE, PFOA, PCBS, PBDEs, perchlorate, phthalates.  That’s just a starter list. 

Even a partial understanding of this history can only lead to the conclusion that the chemical industry has a pro-cancer agenda.  That was well established when the industry infamously hid evidence of liver cancers in workers exposed to vinyl chloride, and in lab animals tested in industry sponsored-studies, and has only been confirmed in the years following.  As our understanding has grown about the impacts on our health associated with exposure to toxic chemicals – including the capacity of many chemicals to interfere with the proper operation of our hormonal systems – it might be more accurate to say that the industry has a pro-cancer, pro-learning disabilities, pro-infertility agenda.  Given its sordid history, and it’s clear anti-health agenda, it is surprising that the industry has any credibility at all, or that it’s claims regarding science, health, or the need for regulation are taken seriously by members of Congress and their staff, the White House and key federal agencies like EPA and FDA.

The public is onto the chemical industry, which is why it is held in such low public esteem, and why support for strengthening our laws to increase protection from toxic chemicals consistently polls off the charts.  But the chemical industry rolls on, spending tens – maybe hundreds -- of millions of dollars each year on scientists-for hire, lawyers, lobbyists and “public relations” professionals to undermine independent science (and scientists), manufacture doubt, and prevent the adoption of real protections.  When will politicians in Washington catch up with the people?  The vast gulf between public concern about unsafe chemicals and the near-total lack of action by either Congress or the Obama Administration – illustrate the chemical industry’s success at buying inaction. Legislation that would reform the system and address the problem – The Safe Chemicals Act -- has languished for years largely due to the maneuvering of the chemical industry.   Meanwhile, House Republicans recently held a hearing at the behest of, and on behalf of, the styrene and formaldehyde industries – to attack a government agency, the National Toxicology Program, for listing both chemicals as carcinogens. Meanwhile, the White House has blocked, delayed or weakened virtually every effort by EPA to make small advances with its limited existing authority (a point made in a supplementary video that accompanies the Tribune series).  Even worse, rather than standing-up to industry attacks on the government’s own scientists – the White House has abetted the industry’s efforts.  A White House staffer who had been the most aggressive in supporting the chemical industry’s agenda, recently left the government -- to take a job with the industry’s main lobbying group.  

The Chicago Tribune series is a tremendous contribution to the public record of the way the chemical industry continues to operate – using power, corruption and lies in pursuit of its pro-cancer agenda.  If the reporters at the Chicago Tribune are inclined to continue their series, the next installment should look in greater detail at the industry’s influence on Congress including:

 And its cozy relationship with the White House which:

  • Prevented EPA from proposing rules requiring testing and reporting of significant new uses of brominated flame retardants (PBDEs) for more than a year – until the industry met with the White House and asked for EPA’s proposal to be released – prompting immediate action;
  • Held up and then weakened EPA’s proposed and final rule to increase chemical industry reporting on the chemicals it manufactures and imports and their uses – including delaying key elements for an additional five years;
  • Has blocked EPA from proposing to create a small list of “chemicals of concern” for two years -- under a process that ostensibly provides 90 days for review of such proposals;
  • Has done nothing to counter, and in some respects quietly supported the chemical industry’s campaign against EPA’s IRIS Program and the National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens which provide independent assessments of the hazards posed by certain chemicals.

The Chicago Tribune deserves tremendous credit (and awards) for its work on this important series.  But there are many more elements of this story that still need to be told.

About the Authors

Daniel Rosenberg

Senior Attorney, Health & Environment program

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