Thursday, July 03, 2003

Who Will Tell The People?

Covering Up The Corporate Coverups?

David Egilman MD, MPH, Clinical Associate Professor Brown University, wrote last week on the Occupational and Environmental Medicine listserve that he
recently had a manuscript rejected without review because the editor of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM) thought the topic of the corporate cover-up of adverse toxicologic study results was not a "high priority" for the readers of the journal.
Not to be silenced, he placed the material in a two- page advertisement in the back of the journal along with a poll coupon that seeks to survey the readership on the interest that they have in this topic. A copy of the advertisement can be found here.

I found his article/advertisement interesting and upsetting for a number of reasons. First, we live in a country where chemicals are treated like people: they are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. The Toxic Substances Control Act was intended to require some screening of new and old chemicals, but it is ineffective. Recent court rulings and Congressional actions have made it almost impossible for regulatory agencies like EPA and OSHA to adequately regulate toxic chemicals.

Europeans, on the other hand, are now adopting the “precautionary principle” requiring companies (European and American) to test chemicals and prove them safe before humans are exposed to them. (See here and “Business Meets Its Match” in the current American Prospect –July/August 2003 Electronic version not available.)

Most chemical testing in this country is done by the companies that manufucture the chemicals. Egilman points out that “Dow Chemical Company operates one of the largest private toxicology research units in the United States.” In an ideal world, this information will be peer-reviewed and then publicized. The regulatory authorities could then use the information to decide whether or not exposure to the substance needs to be controlled or eliminated. Even without regulation, workers and consumers could use the information to take some kind of action.

In fact, some conservative think tanks argue that we don’t even need regulations because once workers obtain information that a substance they are working with is hazardous, they can either quit their jobs and find another safer job, or they can demand higher wages to make up for the fact that their work may affect their health or kill them. (You think I’m joking? Check this and this out.)

But none of this works – the regulatory process or (mythical) worker choice – if scientific information about the health effects of chemicals is covered up. Egilman has uncovered results of animal studies kept secret by Dow that show that certain forms of asbestos may be more toxic than previously thought when they're heated and mixed with other substances. Dow also tried to explain away the results of an epidemiological study of workers that showed increased incidence of mesothelioma – an 100% fatal cancer of the lining of the lung caused only be asbestos -- as not work-related even though the employees worked in areas with high exposures. These studies were only discovered as the result of a law suit filed against Dow.

Why the cover-up? According to Egilman, “Dow explained its reluctance to publish adverse study result …due to its desire to protect sales and shield itself from liability suits.” Translation: Why would we tell people our products kill them? People wouldn't buy them and we'd get sued -- and lose. Do you think we're complete idiots?


“Unfortunately," Egilman points out, "while keeping study data secret might have decreased Dow’s vulnerability to liability claims, it is likely to have increased the number and severity of injuries that resulted from exposure to Dow’s products and manufacturing processes.”

Now, it's hardly surprising that chemical companies are not anxious to have workers, consumers and communities learn that their products will kill them. Although it still does sometimes amaze me.

Anyone with a pulse who reads the newspapers knows that there is currently a battle raging in Congress over how to compensate million of asbestos victims, after dozens of huge companies have gone bankrupt attempting to compensate their former employees (or employees of firms they purchased) and all because the fact that asbestos causes cancer was covered up for decades by the corporations that produced asbestos-containing products.

But still, it’s disappointing. It’s stupid. It’s criminal (or it should be.) But it’s not surprising.

Anyway, even if the corporations cover it up, we have scholarly journals that will reveal this information once it’s uncovered and expose the evildoers. Right?

I guess not, according to the editors of the JOEM. What is surprising – and disappointing – is the fact that the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine thought that this article “is not likely to be a high priority for the majority of JOEM readers.”

Compare that with the Mission and Vision of the Academy of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM), which publishes the JOEM:

ACOEM Vision:

ACOEM is the pre-eminent organization of physicians who champion the health and safety of workers, workplaces, and environments.

ACOEM Mission:

ACOEM provides leadership to promote optimal health and safety of workers, workplaces, and environments by:

· educating health professionals and the public;
· stimulating research:
· enhancing the quality of practice; guiding public policy;
· and advancing the field of occupational and environmental medicine.
And the JOEM is supposed to be
a leading scientific, peer-reviewed monthly publication in the specialty of occupational and environmental medicine. It serves as an indispensable source to in-depth, clinically oriented research articles and technical reports that keep readers up-to-date on cutting-edge medical developments in the field.
So one might ask how ACOEM thinks its members can “champion the health and safety of workers, workplaces, and environments” when it won’t even consider Egilman’s article. Nor does this action seem to “educating health professionals and the public” or "keep readers up-to-date on cutting-edge medical developments in the field." Finally, how much respect can the editors of the JOEM have for their readers if they think that an article about corporate cover-ups of workplace health and safety information “is not likely to be a high priority for the majority of JOEM readers?”

Hopefully the JOEM editors are not correct about their readers' priorities. Workers may not expect complete honesty from chemical manufacturers. (This is not a prejudice. It's history.) But they are in far worse off than I ever imagined if the JOEM is correct and this country’s leading occupational physicans don’t consider the need to fight against these cover-ups to be essential to "advancing the field of occupational and environmental medicine.”

If this seems like a problem to you, print out the coupon and send it back in to Dr. Egilman.