Journalist Bill Moyers last week delivered what had been promised: a devastating indictment of the U.S. chemical industry. His televised special on PBS, “Trade Secrets,” exposed in graphic detail what happens when a powerful special interest uses secrecy, deceit and political influence to maximize corporate profits at the expense of its workers, the public and the environment.
Particularly unsettling were the accounts of chemical plant employees suffering horrific health problems as a result of exposure to substances executives knew were dangerous. Tragic tales piled up one atop another — workers left sterile, workers whose fingertip bones were eaten away, an interview with a worker as he lay dying from chemical poisoning that first attacked his nerve endings and then his brain.
The basis for the program is a million-page cache of documents obtained by a Louisiana lawyer suing 32 chemical companies and their industry trade association on behalf of a woman whose husband died from exposure to vinyl chloride.
But, as the show hammered home, it’s not just industry workers who are at risk. As part of the program, Moyers had a chemical test conducted on his blood. Dr. Michael McCally of the Mt. Sinai school of medicine told Moyers that of the 84 toxic chemicals found, only one — lead — would have shown up in his blood had Moyers been tested 60 years ago when he was just a boy of 6.
“It was a devastating show,” says environmental activist John Coequyt, who watched the program with about 100 people in Washington, D.C. The viewing event was one of more than 100 held nationwide.
“The room was very quiet as we watched,” says Coequyt, who is in charge of putting on the Web the documents obtained by attorney Billy Baggett Jr. during a decade of litigation. The project is being conducted by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, which has established an easy-to-use searchable database that provides access to hundreds of thousands of documents — many of which are stamped “secret” or “confidential” —at its Web site, www.ewg.org.
Although no industry executives were interviewed as part of Moyers’ 90-minute report, two representatives participated in a 30-minute roundtable discussion that immediately followed.
Instead of demonstrating contrition, the industry reps came out swinging.
“If I were a member of the viewing audience tonight, I would be very troubled and anguished if I thought that the information presented during the proceeding 90 minutes represented a complete and accurate account of the story,” Terry Yosie, vice president of the industry-funded American Chemistry Council, told Moyers.
The industry’s message seemed to be that, even if some of what Moyers reported was true, many of the cases he focused on were 30 or 40 years old, and things are different now.
For Diane Hebert, a longtime activist in Midland, the broadcast really hit home. Living in the shadow of Dow Chemical, she has fought for more than 20 years to pry information from the company. The open, honest and benign industry described by Yosie, she contends, is a fiction.
“It is absolutely still going on,” she contends. “It’s a constant battle to get accurate information. And they are constantly trying to downplay the dangers of what they are doing. I don’t see what has changed. I wished it had.”
Activists around the nation, however, see the report as an opportunity to reignite both a grassroots movement and the legislative process.
“A coalition of environmental groups is calling for a congressional investigation into whether there are adequate safeguards, and also into what this industry continues to hide,” says Tracey Eastehope, director of the environmental health project at the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor. Michigan activists will be particularly interested in the Dow documents posted on the Ecology Center’s Web site at www.hvcn.org/info/ecaa.
But, like the chemicals we’re exposed to, the real effect of the Moyers report and the availability of hundreds of thousands of previously secret documents won’t be known immediately.
“I think it is going to be like a time-release capsule and not an explosion,” says Dave Dempsey, policy adviser at the Michigan Environmental Council. “I think there will be a long-term effect.”
A transcript of “Trade Secrets” and documents that formed the basis of the investigative report can be found online at www.pbs.org/tradesecrets/. The chemical industry’s response is at www.abouttradesecrets.org.Curt Guyette is the Metro Times news editor. Call 313-202-8004 or e-mail [email protected]