Exposed: Decades of denial on poisons

Published — December 5, 2014 Updated — December 9, 2014 at 5:10 pm ET

A dozen dirty documents

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Twelve documents that stand out from the Center’s new oil and chemical industry archive

Introduction

The Center for Public Integrity, along with researchers from Columbia University and the City University of New York, on Thursday posted some 20,000 pages of internal oil and chemical industry documents on the carcinogen benzene.

This archive, which will grow substantially in 2015 and beyond, offers users a chance to see what corporate officials were saying behind the scenes about poisons in the workplace and the environment.

Here are 12 examples of what the petrochemical industry knew about benzene; the impetus behind industry-sponsored science; and the corporate spin that often occurs when damning evidence against a chemical threatens companies’ bottom lines.

What the industry knew:

  • The industry knew the dangers of benzene exposure at both high and low concentrations, as illustrated by this 1943 report for Shell Development Company by a University of California researcher.
  • “Inasmuch as the body develops no tolerance to benzene, and as there is a wide variation in individual susceptibility, it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero.” That was a conclusion reached in a 1948 toxicological review of benzene prepared for the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association.
  • A 1950 consultant’s memo to Shell lists benzene as having “established carcinogenic qualities.”

Motivations for industry involvement in research:

  • In 1995, a benzene study by the National Cancer Institute caught the attention of Exxon scientists, who closely monitored it.
  • While attempting to gain support for a proposed study of benzene toxicity in Shanghai, China, the American Petroleum Institute cites “a tremendous economic benefit” to companies, which could gain data to combat “onerous regulations.” A project overview explains that publications linking benzene to childhood leukemia may cause concerns about the chemical to “resurface.”
  • A 2000 summary of the API’s research strategy, drafted by the group’s Benzene Task Force, explains that the research program “is designed to protect member company interests.” The anticipated results could “significantly ameliorate further regulatory initiatives” to curb benzene emissions.
  • An email exchange explains how “HSE [health, safety and environment] issues surrounding benzene as well as the litigation claims” against the industry compel companies to participate in the industry-sponsored study.
  • A PowerPoint presentation from 2001 lists “significant issues of concern” to encourage financial support for the API’s research on benzene-exposed workers in China. Among them is “litigation alleging induction of various forms of leukemias and other hematopoietic diseases.” The study, according to the presentation, could provide “strong scientific support for the lack of a risk of leukemia or other hematological diseases at current ambient benzene concentrations to the general population.”
  • “Litigation support” and “risk communication” are listed as goals in this 2007 memorandum describing an API risk management program. Further objectives are to establish current regulations as “protective” and avoid additional action.

Corporate spin

  • An undated litigation defense guide written by a senior Shell attorney acknowledges the 1948 report on leukemia and offers a “comprehensive strategy” on how to respond to litigation, including releasing benzene-related documents only on court order.
  • After a draft of an API recruitment brief reminds potential study sponsors of “personal injury claims,” an email exchange among members of the Benzene Health Research Consortium urges deletion of “the reference to legal liabilities.”
  • A 2001 email from the consortium’s communications committee explains that the perception of the study “needs to be that this is not being done to protect against litigation”

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