Twenty of the biggest chemical companies in the United States have launched a campaign to discredit two historians who have studied the industry’s efforts to conceal links between their products and cancer. In an unprecedented move, attorneys for Dow, Monsanto, Goodrich, Goodyear, Union Carbide and others have subpoenaed and deposed five academics who recommended that the University of California Press publish the book Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner. The companies have also recruited their own historian to argue that Markowitz and Rosner have engaged in unethical conduct. Markowitz is a professor of history at the CUNY Grad Center; Rosner is a professor of history and public health at Columbia University and director of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia’s School of Public Health.
The reasons for the companies’ actions are not hard to find: They face potentially massive liability claims on the order of the tobacco litigation if cancer is linked to vinyl chloride-based consumer products such as hairspray. The stakes are high also for publishers of controversial books, and for historians who write them, because when authors are charged with ethical violations and manuscript readers are subpoenaed, that has a chilling effect. The stakes are highest for the public, because this dispute centers on access to information about cancer-causing chemicals in consumer products.
For Rosner and Markowitz the story began in 1993, when they traveled to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to look at what they were told was “a warehouse of material” about vinyl chloride and cancer. The address they were given turned out to be a “decrepit hovel in the desolate center of town,” as Markowitz describes it. They found it “full of chemical industry documents, lining every wall and filling every corner.” The material, Rosner told me, was “incredible. Not just company documents but records of meetings of the trade association for the chemical companies. No one had ever seen anything like it.”
The material had been obtained through the discovery process by a local attorney, Billy Baggett Jr., who was working alone with a single client: A woman whose husband, a former worker in a chemical plant, had died of a rare cancer, angiosarcoma of the liver, caused by exposure to vinyl chloride monomer. She was suing the chemical company where he had worked. Baggett “had become obsessed with the case and dropped all the other cases he was supposed to be working on in his father’s firm,” Rosner told me. “He had not been able to bring the case to trial. So his father went to a bigger law firm asking for help. They asked us to go down to Lake Charles, Louisiana, and find out–is there anything there in the documents? Or is this guy just an obsessive?”
Baggett had sued thirty companies and the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now called the American Chemistry Council) for conspiracy, arguing that they had concealed evidence of disease and death related to vinyl chloride. He had received hundreds of thousands of documents in response to his discovery motions. Apparently the chemical companies had flooded him with material in the belief that he would be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity, and that as a result nothing would happen.
The question about the chemical companies and the health risks of vinyl chloride is the classic one: What did they know, and when did they know it? Rosner and Markowitz used the Baggett materials to show that in 1973 the industry learned that vinyl chloride monomer caused cancer in animals–even at low levels of exposure. Since vinyl chloride was the basis for hairspray, Saran Wrap, car upholstery, shower curtains, floor coverings and hundreds of other consumer products, the implications for public health were massive. Yet the companies failed to disclose that information about cancer to the public and to the federal regulatory agencies.