“Trade Secrets,” Cancer, and the Environment

What the Bill Moyers Program “Trade Secrets” Revealed

by Roland Sheppard

[Roland Sheppard is a retired Business Representative of Painters Local 4 in San Francisco, a lifelong socialist and social activist. In 1995, he became a victim of occupational cancer due to his 31 years as a working painter. In the course of doing the scientific research to win his workers compensation lawsuit, he became more aware of the destruction of the environment and the hazards of work.  Since then, he has been actively writing about the environment and occupational health and safety issues since 1998.]

On March 26, 2001, a “Bill Moyers Special” television program on PBS (the Public Broadcasting System), entitled “Trade Secrets,” documented the chemical industry's conspiracy of silence and refusal to properly inform hundreds of thousands of workers about the risks of cancer and other diseases associated with the manufacturing of vinyl chloride (VC) and its polyvinyl chloride (PVC) product.

The program was based on a Houston Chronicle article written by Jim Morris in 1998, with the headlines “Rules for hazardous chemicals evolve slowly/ Industry challenges frustrate regulation.” 

According to www.mycounsel.com, “A ‘trade secret’ is any piece of information used in a business that isn’t generally known to the public. This is valuable because the information is kept secret. Trade secret law can apply to a broad variety of information, including formulas, patterns, business plans, designs, and procedures. The law provides some protection against others from misappropriating, or improperly obtaining, your secret.” Companies in the chemical industry have applied “Trade Secret Protection” to their studies of health effects caused by the chemicals they produce.

Usually, these “Trade Secrets,” or “Smoking Guns” do not become known until a successful lawsuit is filed against a company and their files are opened.

This was the case with the tobacco companies, and this was also the case with the manufacturers of vinyl chloride. The PBS show made it clear that the drive for profits superseded precaution for workers lives in particular and life in general.

The show was a good introduction to the hazards of capitalist production. It demonstrated the endemic problems of capitalist production and its effects on the environment. It will help increase the general awareness of the causes of cancer and other diseases. However, the program only showed the “tip of the iceberg” about the daily catastrophe of production for profit at the expense of human lives and the future of humanity.

The chemical industry is well aware of the environmental health consequences of its products. The following is from “Environmental Illness Briefing Paper” published by the Chemical Manufactures Association, Washington, D.C. (1990).

“There is no doubt these patients are ill...and deserving of compensation, understanding and expert medical care...The primary impact on society would be the huge cost associated with legitimization of environmental illness.”

The conclusion in the above statement is absolutely correct. There is currently a huge cost in human life and the pursuit of happiness. The cost they talk about are the huge costs, in compensation for victims of chemical diseases, if all of the “Trade Secrets” become public knowledge, forcing the recognition and “legitimization of environmental illness”!

In reality, “Trade Secrets” only get exposed after a sufficient number (“body count”) of workers and others die from a common exposure to a chemical. The increase in cancer begins with the expansion and development of the chemical industry since World War II. The development and production of synthetic organic chemicals, used in everyday life in the United States, has increased over 100 fold since World War II. The increase has been geometric, doubling every seven to eight years. In the United States, by the late 1980s, production had reached over 200 billion pounds per year. Many of these new compounds and medicines have been to the benefit of humanity.

Unfortunately, only approximately 3 percent of these chemicals have been tested for their toxicity and potential long-range harm. Under the banner of “Better Living Through Chemistry,” life and production changed. The “miracle fiber” asbestos was used everywhere and everything was dusted with DDT. Twenty years after their introduction, the death toll from cancer caused by these two substances began to come in.

In her book Living Downstream, Sandra Steingraber wrote:

“In 1964, two senior scientists at the National Cancer Institute, Wilhelm Hueper and W.C. Conway, wrote, ‘cancers of all types and all causes display, even under already existing conditions, all the characteristics of an epidemic in slow motion.’ The unfolding epidemic was being fueled, they said in 1964, by ‘increasing contamination of the human environment with chemical and physical carcinogens and with chemicals supporting and potentiating their action.’

“And yet the possible relationship between cancer and what Hueper and Conway called ‘the growing chemicalization of the human economy’ has not been pursued in any systematic, exhaustive way....

“Industrialized countries have far more cancers than countries with little industry (after adjusting for age and population size). One-half of all the world’s cancers occur among people living in industrialized countries, even though such people are only one-fifth of the world’s population. From these data, WHO (the World Health Organization) has concluded that at least 80 percent of all cancer is attributable to environmental influences.”

One of the most alarming factors is that the original safety standards that the Occupation Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) adopted in 1971 were the standards set by a private organization called the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH). The ACGIH is a group composed of industrial hygienists from state and local governments, plus academics and industry consultants. From that point on it has been nearly impossible to improve the standards to protect lives.

In the late 1970s, OSHA administrators estimated that the agency’s proposed legislation would produce a 20 percent drop in cancer rates. Since all such regulations are a battle between businesses with their “Trade Secrets” and science independent of corporations, the proposed legislation to eliminate 20 percent of all cancers was never approved by the capitalist politicians.

In fact, the current “body count” is that over 40 percent of the people in the United States will get cancer. Such is the tragedy of “Trade Secrets.”

The most glaring example is the occupational environment, where workplaces have become “killing fields.” In the United States, in 1990 the American Public Health Association estimated that at least 350,000 workers get occupational diseases (cancer, etc.) and 50,000 workers will die each year from these diseases. Given the steady decline in occupational health, these estimates are now most likely much higher!

Blue-collar workers and agricultural workers all have higher rates of cancer and other diseases because they receive higher doses of the toxic chemicals at the workplace than the rest of the population. Eventually, these toxins spread to the entire working class as they become part of the environment.

An example of this fact is the population living “downwind” from the many oil refineries in Contra Costa County in the San Francisco Bay Area. People living near these refineries have very high rates of cancer. In EPA terms, this is called a “cancer cluster.” The EPA, in its corporate manner, determined that the high rates of cancer was caused by high rates of smoking in the area and not from the refineries’ carcinogenic pollutions!  However, under the rules of Proposition 65 in California and after several years of litigation, the Gasoline Refining Industry had to post this warning in the February 24, 1999, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle:

WARNING: Chemicals known to the State to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm are found in gasoline, crude oil, and many other petroleum products and their vapors, or result from their use. Read and follow label directions and use care when handling or using all petroleum products. 

“Chemicals known to the State to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm are found in and around gasoline stations, refineries, chemical plants, and other facilities that produce, handle, transport, store, or sell crude oil and petroleum and chemical products.

“Other facilities covered by this warning include, for example, oil and gas wells, oil and gas treating plants, petroleum and chemical storage tanks, pipeline systems, marine vessels and barges, tank trucks and tank cars, loading and unloading facilities, and refueling facilities.”

The contradiction between the social need for environmental and health protection and the inadequate functioning of government agencies is part and parcel of the overall problem highlighted by “Trade Secrets.” By keeping most of the old pre-OSHA standards and by not even enforcing the regulations that exist due to understaffing and underfunding, the government regulatory agencies are not protecting workers or the public; they are protecting the polluters who are poisoning humanity.

The following is an article that I wrote on this subject that was published in The Voice, the newspaper of San Francisco Painters District Council #8's, as well as in Organized Labor, newspaper of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council.  


Why Painters Should Wear Respirators and Skin Protection At All Times

In our safety classes you are taught to read “MSDS sheets.”

*.  For prevention of cancer, these sheets are of no value.  The reason is that NIOSH, the scientific part of OSHA, does not set the permissible legal (OSHA) limits of particles in the air while you are working.  From the following examples from the 1994 NIOSH Pocket Guide To Chemical Hazards, one can see what is wrong with OSHA.

Benzene .1 ppm 1 ppm
Ethylene Oxide .1 ppm 1 ppm
Formaldehyde .0165 ppm .75 ppm

(From Page 342 of the Pocket Guide:  “NIOSH has not identified thresholds that will protect 100% of the population.  NIOSH usually recommends that occupational exposures to carcinogens be limited to the lowest feasible concentration.”)

From these facts about two known carcinogens and one probable carcinogen, common in paints, one can tell that OSHA can not prevent occupational cancer. Especially for painters, who are exposed to over 150 known and suspected carcinogens and over 3,000 hazardous substances daily. As you can see, people getting cancer are part of the equation; OSHA pel’s are at least ten times higher than those of NIOSH; therefore, the OSHA “feasible” risk for cancer is at least ten times higher. (This is the usual difference between NIOSH and OSHA.)

Cancer being a part of painting is guaranteed by OSHA. Children and spouses of painters also have high rates for cancer.

One must also remember that ethylene glycol is the base for most latex paints and radiator fluid. NIOSH recommends when working with ethylene glycol that you should prevent skin and eye contact, wash when contaminated and change clothes daily. OSHA and MSDS sheets can not protect you from occupational diseases.  Work safe! Be smart! Wear respirators, gloves, goggles, and long-sleeve shirts at all times when painting.  Protect yourself and your family from occupational diseases.

OSHA tried to correct itself in the 1970s but with no success.  If, as OSHA administrators estimated, during the Carter presidency, their proposed legislation would produce a 20 percent drop in cancer rates, then Ronald Reagan was a carcinogen, and a potent one at that. Today, one can add Clinton and Bush to the list.

(In a video taped interview, Peter Infante, Director of Standards for OSHA, stated that NIOSH includes one more cancer per 1,000 workers exposed as “feasible.”)


The scientific technology exists to prevent the high rate of occupational diseases, but the profit motive and capitalist competition prevent the implementation of preventive action and proper safety precautions.

Science and technology are not an obstacle to maintaining a safe environment.

The barrier to a safe environment is capitalism and its paramount principle of production and science for profit. Most environmental studies demonstrate that environmental destruction has become globally intertwined with production for profit in our society and that the globalization of capitalism has quickened the destruction of the planet.

The struggle for environmental health and safety is directly against the very fiber of capitalist production.  In fact, environmental illness is so intertwined with the present form of production in our society that it requires all of humanity to act, in their overall interests for survival as a species, to correct the problem. It requires a society where humanity has social control over the entire environment, social, economic, and political—a socialist society in which science is in the interests of humanity in harmony with nature.


(The following is a press release of March 23, 2001, from the Coalition to Prevent Cancer that PRNewswire, the nation's largest news wire service, refused to issue on "legal grounds.”)

“Trade Secrets” Exposes the Latest in a Long Line of Conspiracies, charges Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.

Bill Moyers is to be warmly commended for his March 26 program "Trade Secrets.” This PBS Special will document the chemical industry’s conspiracy in denying information on the grave cancer risks to hundreds of thousands of workers manufacturing the potent carcinogen vinyl chloride (VC) and its polyvinyl chloride (PVC) product.

As newsworthy is the fact that there is a decades-long track record of numerous such conspiracies involving a wide range of industries and chemicals, besides VC. These conspiracies have resulted in an escalation in the incidence and mortality of cancer, and chronic disease, among workers and the general public unknowingly exposed to toxics and carcinogens in the workplace, air, water, and consumer products—food, household products, cosmetics, and toiletries.

This misconduct involves negligence, manipulation, suppression, distortion, and destruction of health and environmental data by mainstream industries, their consultants and trade associations, notably the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA). These practices are so frequent as to preclude dismissal as exceptional aberrations and, in many instances, arguably rise to the level of criminality as illustrated below:

(For supporting documentation of the above charges, see the author's: “Testimony on White Collar Crime,” H.R. 4973, before the Subcommittee on Crime of the House Judiciary Committee, 12/13/79; also, The Politics of Cancer, 1979; and The Politics of Cancer, Revisited, 1998.)

Hopefully, the public and the media will be outraged by this longstanding evidence of recklessness and conspiracies, graphically reinforced by Moyers’s program. The public and the media should finally hold industry accountable, and demand urgent investigation and radical reform of current industry practices besides governmental unresponsiveness. The Moyers program has already galvanized formation of a coalition of grassroots citizen groups, “Coming Clean,” to demand more responsible and open industry practices, including phasing out the use and manufacture of toxic chemicals.

Criticism should also be directed toward the multibillion-dollar cancer establishment—the National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society—for their failure to warn Congress, regulatory agencies, and the general public of the scientific evidence on the permeation of the totality of the environment with often persistent industrial carcinogens, thus precluding corrective legislation and regulation, besides denying workers and the public of their inalienable right-to-know.

SOURCE: Cancer Prevention Coalition

CONTACT:  Professor Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.

Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition

Professor of Environmental & Occupational Medicine

University of Illinois School of Public Health Chicago