In 1978, managers at a chemical plant in Texas City, TX started to panic when they realized workers were dying of brain cancer at rates twice the national average. What was going on? They asked. How was their plant causing so many cases of fatal brain cancer? Owned by Union Carbide (a subsidiary of Dow Chemical), the plant manufactured plastic materials containing the toxic substance vinyl chloride. Health investigators eventually discovered that 23 employees had died of brain tumors – making the Union Carbide plant the site of the largest cluster of work-related brain cancer ever reported.
The obvious, or at least “the most humane” course of action by Union Carbide executives would have been a reevaluation of their chemicals and their factory’s safety protocol. Instead, the company launched a malicious campaign to hide and deny the dangers of vinyl chloride. Chemical industry lobbying groups paid off scientists to publish studies built off of incomplete and outright false data. Those studies deliberately excluded workers who had been exposed to vinyl chloride in order to skew data in the industry’s favor. Not until these studies were cross-examined by the Center for Public Integrity was attention called to the their deeply flawed design and the overwhelming evidence of corporate tampering.
The greatest problem revealed by the vinyl chloride incident in Texas City is that impartial, government-funded science has been declining since the 1970s, while during the same period, industry sponsored studies have only increased. Federal agencies like the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have seen a 23 percent decrease in funding since 2003. This lack of funding prevents agencies from hiring promising scientists to conduct impartial tests and analyses. On the other hand, chemical companies aren’t reliant on Congress for their money and have billions to spare on so-called “research.” The sad fact is that in the United States, money can go a long way towards changing any given scientific “fact.”
Early Recognition of Vinyl Chloride Danger
Vinyl Chloride (VC) is an ingredient in polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC), used in an array of products, most notably the white plastic pipes found in almost every single home and business. In addition to causing cancer, exposure to high concentrations of vinyl chloride (25,000 parts per million or higher) can cause unconsciousness or death. Steady, constant exposure to the chemical can cause kidney, liver, and lung damage. Long-term employees in vinyl chloride plants are at risk for severe circulation problems that may turn their hands perpetually white or cause the bones in their fingers to break down.
By the late 70s and early 80s, major media outlets like the New York Times were reporting on these side effects as well as the alarming rates of brain cancer among chemical factory workers in general and workers at the Union Carbide plant in particular. At about the same time, in 1979, the IARC published a detailed report on vinyl chloride, finding, “exposure to vinyl chloride is associated with multiple systemic disorders.”
While the dangers of vinyl chloride were known as early as 1973, by 2008 little had been learned about the chemical and no steps had been made to regulate its widespread use. What happened during those 30-plus years? The chemical industry used money and outright deception to tamper with the case studies analyzed by both private scientists and public health agencies from 1974 through 2008. Their lies were so effective that the IARC retracted its previous findings from the 70s and instead stated that the health risks of vinyl chloride “remain[ed] unclear.”
Flaws and Loopholes: How Corporations Buy Scientific Fact
A major chemical lobbying group called The Manufacturing Chemists’ Association hired a scientific consulting firm in 1973 to start gathering data on the cancer risk associated with workers at many vinyl chloride plants. This study would later become the largest and most long-lasting piece of research on vinyl chloride – and, unfortunately, it was plagued by questionable practices.
Not only had vinyl chloride been linked to high incidents of brain cancer, but workers at a BF Goodrich plant had suffered abnormally high rates of the extremely rare cancer, angiosarcoma of the liver. Angiosarcoma is so rare there are generally only 25 annual cases in the entire U.S.; the BF Goodrich plant had 4 cases all on its own, proof that something was not right.
Knowing that the true data on vinyl chloride would be incriminating, The Manufacturing Chemists’ Association skewed the information that it sent to scientists. Instead of allowing the consulting firm to gather its own data, the lobbying group cherry-picked bits of data as it saw fit and excluded much else – virtually anything that could be at all linked to adverse health issues.
Companies like Union Carbide deliberately found excuses to exclude brain tumor victims from the study, even though the victims had definitely been exposed to vinyl chloride. At the Union Carbide plant alone, 10 brain tumor victims were excluded from the study because the plant claimed they didn’t have “clear cut” exposure.
Paid for or not, the scientific consulting firm admitted in its report that the methods used were “subjective” and that it was “impossible” to determine the exposure rates from the information provided by the chemical manufacturers. Memos between Union Carbide executives reveal that the plant blatantly prohibited scientists from adding new and insightful case studies to the test group. As more companies withheld information, the study – which was first published in 1974 and was based on 431 case studies – shrank with each successive update over the course of a decade. By 1984, nearly half of the exposed workers had been excluded from the analysis, decreasing the study’s sample size down to 289. This reduction in the study group made vinyl chloride look safer and made it harder for scientists to reach definitive conclusions.
Union Carbide performed its own internal study on the relationship between vinyl chloride exposure and brain tumors; however, they found creative ways to exclude the majority of the 23 brain-tumor victims from their analysis, often claiming that many of those individuals weren’t exposed to vinyl chloride at all. This claim is almost certainly a lie, especially when one considers that in 1974 Union Carbide alone was pumping into the air 12 times more vinyl chloride exhaust than all current U.S. chemical plants combined. Everybody in the plant and everybody living within a few miles of it was being exposed – daily – to a toxic chemical.
The Truth Is Coming Out, But Not Soon Enough
Thanks to the efforts of organizations like the Center for Public Integrity, corporate corruption is being exposed and chemicals like vinyl chloride are currently being re-evaluated by major health agencies. In a recently published update, the IARC states definitively that vinyl chloride is a carcinogen.
Though vinyl chloride is finally being regulated a little more strictly, chemical manufacturers are still causing environmental and health disasters. In 2014, chemical corporations cumulatively released 500,000 pounds of vinyl chloride into the air. Similarly, in the late 90s and early 2000s, a Dow chemical plant gave 33 residents in McCullom Lake, Illinois the same rare brain tumors that plagued workers at Union Carbide. Just as corporations continue to pump toxins into surrounding communities, so too do they use “rented” scientists to duck any blame.
Science conducted on behalf of the public’s well-being cannot be funded by private corporations who are more concerned with selling products than keeping workers healthy and families safe. The same organizations that synthesize millions of tons of toxic substances like vinyl chloride – and make billions of dollars from doing so – cannot also be the ones in charge of analyzing or regulating that chemical’s health risks. This kind of behavior isn’t unique to Dow Chemical, but is endemic throughout many industrial sectors. It will only get better when government agencies are armed with the funding and staff they need to conduct real science –science that is aimed at uncovering the truth rather than promoting the profits of shareholders.