Moyers' investigation into chemical industry pollution murders

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Wed Apr 4 12:57:51 MDT 2001

Chemical reaction

Moyers investigation seen as a potential catalyst.

by Curt Guyette
4/3/2001 5:00:00 PM

It's not just industry workers who are at risk.

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,

Although no industry executives were interviewed as part of Moyers' 90-minute report,
two representatives participated in a 30-minute roundtable discussion that immediately

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

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

"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 The chemical
industry's response is at

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