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Chemical Week Cover Story

Responsible Care

Soft Sell, Hard Facts

Bill Schmitt

The stakes are rising for Responsible Care. An avalanche of information about the health effects of chemicals will arrive over the next several years with the potential to further erode the industry's image. Executives say they are girding for a battle to answer the industry's critics and bolster its image worldwide. They plan to use ACC's 13-year-old Responsible Care initiative, with its product stewardship principles and long-term vision of zero accidents, injuries, and environmental impact, as a crucial weapon.

"This is the first time we've been called upon to deliver on the product stewardship side of Responsible Care," says Hugh Campbell, environmental manager at DuPont and vice chairman of the Alliance for Chemical Awareness (ACA; Washington), a coalition of 26 consumer product and chemical companies and associations including ACC. The group is offering companies help to answer the questions likely to be raised as reports emerge from research programs including the high production volume (HPV) chemical testing project and studies of effects on children's health and endocrine disruption (CW, Jan. 17, p. 10). "This is something that could trigger product de-selection, at least for specific uses," says Campbell.

ACC is getting ready for the upcoming release of data by offering its 182 member companies information and strategies "framed around Responsible Care," says Richard Doyle, ACC v.p./Responsible Care. Companies will "be able to address, through their commitment to Responsible Care, the questions and the issues that are going to come as a result of that wave of information," says Doyle. Members' commitments and records of accomplishment in environment, health, and safety (EHS) performance are expected to add credibility as companies react to the findings and tell their side of the story, he says.

The current level of attention on the potential health effects of chemicals is a "right-to-know challenge," says Tom Reilly, chairman and CEO of Reilly Industries and chairman of ACC's executive committee. The information, most of it generated or financed by industry, will be flowing to a public that has a heightened interest in health effects from products and has come to expect that the industry know and reveal those effects, says Reilly.

"There is considerable pressure, from the public as well as the increasingly sophisticated nongovernmental organization community, for increased transparency in our decision-making processes," says Reilly. "The advent of the Internet and 24-7 news reporting means that the public now expects this information to be available in real time."

The information flow has already begun at EPA's chemicals right-to-know Web site, and a lot more is on the way (table, p. 29). Companies and consortia conducting more than 2,000 HPV tests will file "test plans" for each chemical or chemical group; those plans will summarize available data, and more data will follow from any additional tests deemed necessary. Children's health effects data also will be reported to EPA. The international chemical industry's long-range research initiative will yield articles in peer-reviewed journals (p. 36). Plans for endocrine disruption testing are still taking shape, says ACC.

There have been delays in the HPV program, and ACC says its timetable of expected reports, based on estimates from late last year, may not be precise. There will be no change in the number of chemicals being tested, however, says ACC No one can predict what the data will reveal about particular chemicals and their hazards, says ACC. "It will be very technical in nature," says Terry Yosie, ACC's senior v.p./strategic communications. "There's likely to be a range of results, some of which challenges products on the market, some of which reinforces why these products are efficacious." ACC is "putting together guidance for member companies on how to manage that information once it's made public," says Yosie.

Companies, not trade associations, will bear the primary responsibility for helping the public interpret the information posted on EPA's Web site, says Campbell. ACA, which is focused on the HPV results, says it will "assist interested parties in the development and communication of exposure information on chemicals." It is crucial that EPA's information on hazards be interpreted in light of what is known about exposure, he says. The information could become a double-edged sword, damaging a company and its sales if public concerns are not handled well but giving some companies "a competitive advantage" if they communicate effectively with the public, he adds.

The handling of negative information on chemicals gained the industry's attention earlier this year when the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) televised "Trade Secrets," an expose by journalist Bill Moyers on occupational exposure to chemicals. The show unleashed a series of claims and counterclaims by Moyers, industry, and environmental groups about accuracy and fairness on both sides of the debate (CW, April 4, p. 9). ACC criticized the show's reporting as unbalanced. Environmental Defense (ED; Washington) has demanded that Yosie retract a comment made on the show that chemicals in the market are safe "because they've been tested." ED senior attorney David Roe says the dispute with ACC has "injured" the cooperative relationship between the two groups in the HPV chemicals testing initiative (p. 36). ED is preparing a mid-year report on the industry's participation in the HPV program, and Roe says "things have been moving slower than we'd like."

Criticism from other environmental groups has also increased, coupling comments about "Trade Secrets" with concerns about the HPV program in light of the Bush Administration's support for more environmental regulation through voluntary corporate self-policing. "In a situation like that, things have to be very transparent, and as much public information has to be provided as possible," says John Coequyt, director/chemical industry archives at the Environmental Working Group (EWG; Washington). "We don't see that happening under Responsible Care."

ACC's approach to the Moyers exposé reflected the same problem, says Coequyt. "The way the industry dealt with the show was another use of public relations to try to discredit its adversaries rather than an honest review," he says. EWG has used its Web site to post scores of industry trade group documents that were subpoenaed as part of a lawsuit filed by workers against vinyl chloride monomer producers--documents used by Moyers.

The industry's public perception has not suffered as a result of the PBS show, says Yosie. But the experience has led to discussions within the industry about how to approach the public. "We needed to acknowledge there are still fears out there and to say we've come a long way, and to promise to continue to provide quality information that responds to concerns," says Kathleen Shaver, director/Responsible Care at Socma.

ACC continues to modify Responsible Care to better respond to policy challenges, public concerns, and trends in the industry, says Yosie. The model being advanced among ACC's members and its Responsible Care partner companies and associations, including Socma, calls for a six-pronged effort to give the industry a platform to address the maelstrom of information, criticism, and concern (table, p. 31).

Its first agenda item is improved performance in each of the six codes of management practice: employee health and safety, process safety, pollution prevention, distribution, product stewardship, and community awareness and emergency response. New categories of data may be added next year, says Eugene Ervin, corporate director/property management at Air Products and Chemicals and a member of ACC's Responsible Care team (p. 32).

The agenda also includes spreading the Responsible Care ethos through ACC's partnership program to reach members' suppliers as well as distributors, transportation companies, and customers. ACC has modified its criteria for partner companies in an attempt to expand the kinds of companies eligible to join.

ACC's third agenda item calls for greater application of Responsible Care principles worldwide, reflecting the increasingly global nature of the chemical industry (p. 56). "Our stakeholders are increasingly sophisticated in how they're communicating with one another," says John Brigance, manager/Responsible Care at ACC. "We're all in this together, and a black eye in any part of the globe is really a black eye for all of us."

The International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA; Brussels) continues to bring more national chemical industry groups under the Responsible Care umbrella. South Korea's industry association was added last year, and Israel is up for consideration at ICCA's convention next month.

The industry is also looking for ways to make its standards and measures of performance more consistent worldwide. Lessons learned from standards applied in other countries could play a part in modification of ACC's management systems verification (MSV) process, says Barry Stutts, manager/Responsible Care at Bayer.

The first result of the MSV review is expected to be an option for ACC companies to pursue ISO 14000 environmental management system certification simultaneously with an MSV inspection. This certification option has separate standing as a fourth item on Responsible Care's agenda. It reflects how Responsible Care modifications are being undertaken not only for image reasons but also because, as ACC says, there are good business reasons to pursue EHS excellence.

Customers will require chemical firms to have a formal ISO certification in the future, but ACC does not want to shed the most popular attributes of an MSV, which include review of Responsible Care management systems by chemical industry peers and input from public representatives, says Doyle. A hybrid MSV-ISO protocol also has appeal "from a regulatory reform standpoint," because voluntary programs such as Responsible Care, especially if independently certified, may lead to more regulatory leeway for companies with proven EHS commitments, he says.

The industry's fifth agenda item calls for incorporating sustainable development principles more fully into Responsible Care. The industry will seek to link Responsible Care more closely with sustainable development because "it allows opportunities to link our performance to outcomes that populations in any country desire--better living standards, better air and water quality, and greater transparency among institutions," says Yosie.

The remaining item on ACC's agenda is a closer tie between Responsible Care and the "Good Chemistry" image-building campaign that ACC launched last year (p. 35). ACC cites research that shows "informed Americans" are receptive to industry's messages about the benefits of chemicals (CW, July 5/12, 2000, p. 38), but it says it does not plan to settle for a holding position amid the current flows of criticism and information.

ACC recently finished trial runs of "an integrated air and ground campaign" to increase the public's positive impressions of the chemical industry. The ground component refers to events celebrating "the business of chemistry" in local communities nationwide. A "Good Chemistry Day" was held this spring at a Pirates baseball game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, one of the three cities where pilot testing of a print and radio advertising campaign took place (CW, May 2, p. 16). More advertising with the slogan "Good Chemistry Makes It Possible" is under consideration.

ACC will pursue a policy of "open doors and open dialogue" to improve communication with the industry's audiences, says president and CEO Fred Webber. A Chemistry Advisory Panel, with representatives from government, NGOs, academia, and local plant communities, will be named by this fall to advise Webber on all areas of ACC's activities, including Responsible Care, says Doyle.

The ambitious use of Responsible Care to promote positive messages and defend against criticisms is encountering cynics, however. EWG says it is on guard for any corporate efforts to obfuscate information about chemical health effects. "We'll respond to any spin the industry tries to put on the data," says Coequyt. The wave of industry-generated information over the next few years may only lead to confusion, "especially if the industry uses Responsible Care to spin this as industry accountability and as industry taking its responsibility toward consumers to the highest possible level," he says.

But, after 13 years of implementation, the Responsible Care program remains ACC's chief weapon and peacemaker. "The performance strides made through Responsible Care color much of what we do," says Webber. "Taken together, Responsible Care and our research efforts give us an excellent story to tell." Yosie acknowledges that, given the upcoming series of discussions and debates in which "Trade Secrets" was just an opening salvo, even an expanded Responsible Care will not guarantee an easy road to greater popularity or credibility for the industry. "For the next several years, we're in for a very lively time," he says.

last updated: july.23.2001

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