The Inside Story
Arsenic and Old Lies
Arsenic provides yet another example of how the chemical industry cannot be trusted for consistent and sound scientific information on chemical toxicity.
When it suits their purposes politically or in the media, the chemical industry has acknowledged that arsenic is extremely toxic and even offered it up as a red herring to put regulators and independent scientists off the trail of other toxic substances. On the other hand, when arsenic-based chemistry is found toxic and in need of regulation, the industry responds with strained attempts to criticize individual studies as a way of deflecting regulation of arsenic compounds.
When the nightmare that vinyl chloride plant workers were contracting the rare liver cancer, angiosarcoma, became clear to the manufacturers, at least one of these companies (Dow) attempted to point the finger at arsenic as the source of the rare liver cancer. Arsenic is one of the few compounds besides vinyl chloride that causes angiosarcoma, a good indicator of arsenic's potent cancer causing properties.
For the chemical industry, this grim fact created an opportunity to befuddle public officials investigating the dangers of vinyl chloride. In a letter to a British chemical company which outlined Dow's efforts to thwart legal action related to cancers among chemical industry workers, Dow's company doctor suggested that arsenic be put forth as the "suspect material" which could be causing angiosarcoma, no doubt hoping to downplay attention to vinyl chloride use as a suspected cause. (view entire document)
Yet when the industry was faced with regulations to curb arsenic exposure in the workplace and the environment, the industry attempted to belittle the dangers of arsenic, criticizing scientific studies that the industry itself had commissioned which linked arsenic to cancer.
The Chemical Manufacturers Association created its Arsenic Program Panel in January of 1981 in response to growing attention being paid to arsenic by various agencies within the Reagan Administration. This committee was a part of CMA's Biomedical and Environmental Special Programs Division, which is designed "to provide manufacturers, processors, and/or users of a chemical or chemicals with the opportunity to support collectively research and/or advocacy on specific chemicals." (view entire document)
The Arsenic Program Panel set out to investigate the health effects of arsenic and to lobby governmental agencies working on arsenic regulations. The panel's first action was to jointly sponsor a symposium with the National Bureau of Standards in November 1981 in order to "provide a means for industry and government agencies to come to an understanding of cost-effective regulation of arsenic as a hazardous material." (view entire document)
The Panel also hired scientists to conduct literature reviews on arsenic in order to identify the need for further research, as well as to gather materials to potentially use in the Panel's "advocacy regarding present and proposed arsenic standards." (view entire document)
The Panel commissioned two occupational exposure studies to examine a link between respiratory cancer and arsenic. Both of them found arsenic to be a potent cause of human cancer. Rather than accept the results, which only confirmed years of study of this highly toxic metal, in both cases the industry took steps to undermine the conclusions of the work that it had paid for.
The first CMA-sponsored arsenic study, prepared by a scientist at the University of Pittsburgh and presented to CMA in February 1985, concluded exactly what industry didn't want to hear: "The report concludes that arsenic exposure was related to an increased risk of respiratory cancer in Tacoma Smelter workers in every category of exposure." (emphasis added) (view entire document)
The industry did not accept these results, and raised a number of "concerns" with the report's findings, which it expressed in a cover letter attached to the report when it was sent to various government agencies. (view entire document)
The second study, conducted by University of Michigan scientists, confirmed a previously established relationship
between arsenic exposure and lung cancer in Anaconda Smelter workers. Industry attempted to downplay the severity
of the problem, noting that workers hired earliest had the greatest risks, overlooking the fact that all workers had
an increased risk. (view entire document)
last updated: march.27.2009