Houston Chronicle on "Trade Secrets"
March 25, 2001
HEADLINE: CHEMICAL WARFARE;
Bill Moyers tackles industry head-on in 'Trade Secrets'
SOURCE: Staff BYLINE: ANN HODGES, Houston Chronicle TV Critic
BILL Moyers' new PBS special has all the elements of a blood feud,
and Moyers takes a blood test to prove it. He was tested for 150 industrial
chemicals, and when he learns there are 84 of them running around in his
bloodstream, he goes for blood.
His paper trail of "trade secrets" ends at the doorstep of the chemical
industry. And it is not a happy ending for the big-name chemical producers.
Moyers hits them on two fronts: secrecy and politics.
Trade Secrets (9 p.m. Monday, Channel 8) is a provocative, single-sided
attack against an industry that for 50 years, Moyers charges, has covered up
dire consequences of working and living with an ever-growing list of
synthetic chemicals. The companies have "compromised the public's right to
know about the health and safety of man-made chemicals in the human body,"
Their chemicals "are everywhere in our daily lives, and our children are the
experimental animals," he says. "Chemicals are presumed to be safe and to be
innocent until they are proven guilty."
The host and co-writer of this report (with producer Sherry Jones) promises
to "reveal the secrets a powerful industry has kept hidden for almost 50
years." That done, Moyers moves on to the political strategy that has
accounted for what he totes up as $ 33 million in campaign-fund donations
from the chemical industry in the past three years.
Chemical industry spokesmen say Moyers never contacted them to get their
side. They have set up a new Web site - AboutTradeSecrets.com - "to provide
information about the safety and benefits of the products of chemistry and
the safety net currently in place to protect chemical workers, the public
and the environment."
The site, sponsored by the American Chemistry Council, the Chlorine
Chemistry Council and the American Crop Protection Association, includes the
industry's correspondence about the program with Moyers and PBS.
Moyers gave his reason for not having them on this controversial show: "The
chemical industry has a track record of very aggressive public relations to
sway opinion and mute investigative journalism."
Instead, he said, he has invited industry representatives to join health
experts in the last 30 minutes of this 90-minute program. That is still to
be taped, and it will run unedited.
Moyers and Jones found these "trade secrets" close to our home - in the
300-mile stretch of Texas/Louisiana coast that is the largest petrochemical
complex in the world. "Many who live here call it Cancer Alley," Moyers
Dan Ross worked for 23 years at Conoco's plant in Lake Charles, La., before
he died of brain cancer at 46. His death, Moyers explains, resulted in a
10-year legal battle charging a conspiracy of the chemical industry and its
Washington trade association to conceal the risks of working with the
chemical that Ross' wife believes caused his cancer. She's interviewed
Through that case, Ross' lawyer acquired rooms full of boxed-up papers and
correspondence from the records of major chemical companies. Moyers surveys
this cache that spans the past 50 years and says, "In these rooms is the
legacy of Dan Ross -- the secrets of the chemical industry."
Moyers shows excerpts from those records to make his case that industry
officials knew there were health hazards and even discussed what to do about
them. What they did not do, was tell workers the dangers they faced working
there, he says.
He recites case after case of serious health problems, and some come with
interviews of the workers. Bernard Skaggs worked at B.F. Goodrich's plant in
Kentucky for 47 years, and his job of cleaning out vinyl chloride tanks
dissolved some of the bones in his fingers. Company correspondence indicates
they feared that vinyl chloride might cause systemic problems, but they
didn't tell the workers.
In the '70s, European scientists found that vinyl chloride caused cancer in
rats and might possibly be taken to the human brain in body fats.
"Determined to keep it secret," Moyers reports, Conoco, B.F. Goodrich,
Shell, Dow Chemical and Union Carbide signed a secrecy agreement about their
Vinyl chloride in aerosol sprays put hazards in hair salons or just about
anywhere spray cans were used, but the chemical industry gave up the aerosol
business "because the liability was so great," Moyers says, "and it never
went public with why."
In more recent years, there have been problems with toxic wastes; abandoned
chemical dumps; contaminated wells; PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) in
lakes, rivers and even cow's milk; and benzene scares, Moyers reports.
In his own alarming judgment, "Half a century into the chemical revolution,
there's a lot we don't know, but we do know" that incidences of breast
cancer, brain cancer in children, testicular cancer in teen-age boys,
infertility in young adults and learning disabilities in children are all
In Trade Secrets, Moyers draws battle lines, and the first salvo is his.
Stay tuned for the open discussion that is scheduled to end this shocking
smack-down from the best investigative journalist in TV today.
Trade Secrets, 9 Monday on PBS/Channel 8. Grade: A.
GRAPHIC: Photo: Bill Moyers takes it personally when he thinks about the
effect of synthetic chemicals on our lives. He had his blood tested for 150