Tuesday, September 16, 2003


The industry response to Tufts University’s report on the “Costs of Preventable Childhood Illness,” and the push for a law it inspired, has left me burning with rage.

The law “would offer state incentives to companies that agree to use” less-dangerous chemicals, Jennifer Heldt Powell writes in today’s Boston Herald, and necessarily “require(s) companies using chemicals to determine if there were safer alternatives.”

Opponents complain of “a costly bureaucratic process” that would drive away industry, and that such a process “unfairly discriminates against companies doing business in Massachusetts.” Robert Rio, of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, also says that the bill “doesn’t make clear what would be considered a safer alternative.”

Powell imputes the best of motives to Rio and the industries he represents and, in suggesting their fears aren’t unfounded, describes prohibitive costs at which her article only hints.

But the history of business in America is rotten with profitmongering at the expense of workers. And Rio’s responses stink of self-serving sophistry. They beg the questions: Industries such as dry cleaning don’t try to gauge which chemicals it uses are dangerous? It doesn’t care? It considers gauging the dangerousness of chemicals, whether in Massachusetts or anywhere in the nation, to be just “a costly bureaucratic process”? And that line about the bill not delineating safer alternatives is ridiculous. If it’s the place of a law to do so at all, I’d say a “safer alternative” is one that tests show isn’t as dangerous as another. (And, well, duh.)

The first example at hand illustrating my suspicions comes from Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber’s “Trust Us, We’re Experts!” (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2001) describing chemical manufacturers’ response to proof that vinyl chloride causes liver cancer. Manufacturers said new federal regulation would cost 2 million jobs and $65 billion. “The standard is simply beyond compliance capability of the industry,” their trade association said. But, the authors note, after the regulation was forced on vinyl chloride use, “the industry continued to flourish, without job losses and at 5 percent of the industry’s estimated cost.” This kind of alarmism over regulation is common, and consistently proven to be simply that: alarmism.

What’s even more striking about Rio’s response is that it comes as I.B.M. and other semiconductor manufacturers have been hit with dozens of lawsuits claiming that chemicals in their workplaces were dangerous, resulting in premature death and a score of horrific birth defects -- and that the manufacturers knew it. Bob Herbert has been writing about this in The New York Times for the past couple of weeks. The manufacturers deny responsibility, because they deny a problem exists, and are presenting their defense through Jones Day, one of the law firms used by the tobacco industry to fight smoker lawsuits.

It’s a mystery why industry doesn’t just do what it can to avoid liability, thus avoiding the public relations and legal nightmares, as well the moral implications, that inevitably follow. Actually, it’s not: The return on investment must be better than doing the right thing.

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