The Chemical Papers:

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Every powerful story about fighting for truth and justice has its heroes. This story, a tale of the secrets and lies behind America's chemical industry, is no exception.

Like Erin Brockovich, the paralegal-turned-movie icon who fought against toxic polluters in California, Elaine Ross was determined to uncover the truth. Ross wanted to know what had killed her husband, a chemical plant worker in the bayous of Louisiana, at the untimely age of 46. She teamed up with crusading lawyer William "Billy" Baggett Jr., the son of a famous Southern litigator, and together they have become central figures in a David-and-Goliath battle to protect the health of all Americans, especially workers.

Now, in the latest chapter of the story, a team led by Bill Moyers has created a PBS special report called Trade Secrets that aired on March 26. The special, based on a secret archive of chemical industry documents, explored the industry pattern of obfuscating, denying and hiding the dangerous effects of chemicals on unsuspecting workers and consumers.

At its core, the Moyers show asks a deeply troubling question: With more than 75,000 synthetic chemicals having been released into the environment, what happens as our bodies absorb them, and how can we protect ourselves? As part of the report, Moyers took tests designed to measure the synthetic chemicals in his body — a measurement known as "chemical body burden." Moyers learned that his body contained 31 different types of PCBs, 13 different toxins and pesticides such as malathion and DDT.

The Moyers special energized veteran health activists and medical professionals in their fight against a growing problem — unregulated and untested chemicals flooding the commercial market place. This public heat, coupled with a burgeoning grassroots resistance to chemical producers, may set the industry on the defensive like never before ... but that's getting ahead of the story.

Legal Battle in the Bayou

Elaine Ross' husband, Dan, spent 23 years working at the Conoco (later Vista) chemical plant in Lake Charles, Louisiana. After being diagnosed with brain cancer, according to Jim Morris of the Houston Chronicle, "Dan Ross came to believe that he had struck a terrible bargain, forfeiting perhaps 30 years of his life through his willingness to work with vinyl chloride, used to make one of the world's most common plastics."

"Just before he died (in 1990) he said, "Mama, they killed me,'" recalled Elaine. "I promised him I would never let Vista or the chemical industry forget who he was."

And she hasn't. She teamed up with Billy Baggett to file a wrongful death suit against Vista. Baggett won a multimillion-dollar settlement for Ross in 1994, but she wasn't satisfied with just the money. She knew that her husband's death wasn't an isolated incident — that many other chemical plant workers were dead, dying or sick because their employers weren't telling them about potential health hazards. And Vista certainly wasn't the only culprit.

So Ross told Baggett to take the fight to the next level. Baggett did, suing 30 companies and trade associations including the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now called the American Chemistry Council) for conspiracy, alleging that they hid and suppressed evidence of vinyl chloride-related deaths and diseases.

As a result of the litigation brought on Ross' behalf, Baggett has been able to obtain what he says is more than a million previously secret industry documents over the past decade. These "Chemical Papers," as they are becoming known, chronicled virtually the entire history of the chemical industry, much of it related to vinyl chloride — minutes of board meetings, minutes of committee meetings, consultant reports, and on and on.

According to Jim Morris of the Chronicle, the documents suggested that major chemical manufacturers closed ranks in the late 1950s to contain and counteract evidence of vinyl chloride's toxic effects. "They depict a framework of dubious science and painstaking public relations, coordinated by the industry's main trade association with two dominant themes: Avoid disclosure and deny liability." The chemical companies were hiding the fact that they had "subjected at least two generations of workers to excessive levels of a potent carcinogen that targets the liver, brain, lungs and blood-forming organs."

"Even though they (the chemical companies) may be competitive in some spheres, in others they aren't," Baggett told Morris. "They have a mutual interest in their own employees not knowing (about health effects), in their customers not knowing, in the government not knowing."

"There was a concerted effort to hide this material," said Dr. David Rosner, a professor of public health and history at Columbia University who has reviewed many of the documents as part of a research project. "It's clear there was chicanery."

And while the documents show that the industry freely shared health information among themselves, "the companies were evasive with their own employees and the government," wrote Morris. "They were unwilling to disrupt the growing market for polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, used in everything from pipe to garden hoses." The whole case and others like it "accentuate the problem of occupational cancer, which, by some estimates, takes more lives (50,000) each year than AIDS, homicide or suicide, but receives far less attention."

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