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Cancer, Chemicals and History | The Nation

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Cancer, Chemicals and History

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The bigger issue for the companies stems from the role of vinyl chloride monomer as a propellant in aerosols in the 1950s and '60s. In 1974 the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency asked for the recall of hairsprays (along with insecticides and other aerosols) that were still on the shelves with vinyl chloride monomer as the propellant--one hundred products in all. No one has studied whether people who worked in beauty parlors, or women who used hairspray, have had higher rates of cancer. But the industry started worrying in the early 1970s that the liability problem could be bigger than that for workers in chemical plants. The problem was "essentially unlimited liability to the entire US population," as one chemical company supervisor wrote in a 1973 memo. Hairspray was a particular concern.

About the Author

Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine. His most recent book is How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey...

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The documents served as the basis for two chapters of Rosner and Markowitz's book, published in 2002 to stellar reviews in the news media as well as medical and scientific journals: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared that the book "ought to give thousands of corporate executives insomnia" (the key documents have been posted on the Internet at www.chemicalindustryarchives.org/dirtysecrets/vinyl/1.asp).

The documents are of a kind that outsiders have rarely been allowed to see: private corporate records, including internal reports of meetings where corporate officials made decisions about making and marketing products that caused health problems for workers and the public. For example, the key chapter on vinyl chloride in the book is titled "Evidence of an Illegal Conspiracy by Industry." That phrase is not the authors'; it comes from a key 1973 document in the files of the chemical company trade group, the Manufacturing Chemists Association, worrying that a legal memo on concealing the vinyl chloride-cancer link "could be construed as evidence of an illegal conspiracy by industry if the information were not made public or at least made available to the government."

At issue now in US district court in Jackson, Mississippi, is the claim by another former chemical worker that Airco and other companies are liable for his liver cancer because he was exposed to vinyl chloride monomer on the job. Markowitz is a key expert witness for the plaintiffs, because of the research he and Rosner published in Deceit and Denial. But the judge is being told that Rosner and Markowitz's research is "not valid," that the publisher's review process was "subverted" and that Rosner and Markowitz have "frequently and flagrantly violated" the American Historical Association's code of ethics.

Those charges come from another historian enlisted by the chemical companies: Philip Scranton of Rutgers University, who wrote a forty-one-page critique of Deceit and Denial and of the ethics of the historians who wrote it. Scranton teaches business history at Rutgers-Camden, where he is University Board of Governors Professor of the History of Industry and Technology. He also works at the Hagley Museum, a museum of early-American business history at the "ancestral home" of the Du Pont family, as it's described on the official website. Scranton directs the museum's research arm, the Center for the History of Business, Technology and Society. He also testified recently for the asbestos companies in their liability litigation.

Although Scranton is serving in this case as an expert witness for the chemical companies, he's not an expert on cancer-causing chemicals; he's best known for his prizewinning book on the textile industry in Philadelphia. In this case, he doesn't claim to be an expert on the postwar chemical industry; instead, he offers himself as an expert on Markowitz's ethics. Markowitz, in contrast, is a genuine expert on the central issue in the case: the question of what the chemical companies knew, and when they knew it.

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