The Harbinger Home Page
Front Page

September 22, 1998

PVC: Purely Venal Commerce

by Woody Justice

Environmental and public-safety advocates are continually fighting a David vs. Goliath battle with the anything- for-a-buck capitalists. It often seems to be a fruitless pursuit, as the underfunded Don Quixote's tilt against windmill corporations that wield financial power beyond that of most countries. These industrial giants form alliances and trade groups that focus their combined resources on denying the facts, diluting the truth, and disputing the motives of the "green" menaces to unfettered progress.

We've seen it time and time again with the automobile manufacturers, the pesticide pushers, and the most recent revelations in the tobacco industry's long and (until now) successful suppression of the known health effects of nicotine. The game plan is a generic one: hide and falsify their own research; hire academic shills to discredit others' results; feed legislators a diet of lies and bribes (called "campaign-contributions"); and when the revelations become too apparent to hide, they call for prudence and common-sense and years of additional studies. When threatened with liability they can always fall back on the position that they met government regulations -- the ones they fought hard to weaken.

The Shintech Corporation, a subsidiary of the Japanese firm, Shin-Etsu, has plans to build the world's largest polyvinyl chloride (PVC) production facility in Convent, Louisiana, despite firm opposition by the vast majority of local residents. The predominantly non-white community feels that the additional groundwater contamination and air pollution -- from both the industrial process itself and the operation of an on-site waste-incinerator -- would seal the fate of their community, adding tons of cancer-causing toxic chemicals to an area that is already heavily polluted. The residents fear more industrial accidents and unrecorded releases on top of the permitted pollution. (See "PVC: POOR, VICTIMIZED COMMUNITY" in the previous issue.)

Who can blame the people living there for not wanting another polluting industry? Who can fail to understand that they grew up there, raised families there and they have a sense of belonging that outweighs the profit-making interests of big business, that they have a desire to keep their community from declining further, from ending up as a vacant ghost- town -- another Morrisonville, another Reveilletown? (And that end may even be welcome after the inevitable period of deteriorating health and early deaths among its citizens.) Who indeed, except corporate behemoths accustomed to making token concessions and empty promises and then bulldozing over any feeble resistance that remains in the way of progress?

The skids have been greased with a $130 million Industrial Tax Exemption for the $700 million facility and with administrative procedures that hinder the opposing voices while helping the welcoming minority with funding and coordination. The permits approved by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality are suspect. The state's executives have spoken vehemently of their strong intention of getting the factory in operation. The governor is trying to inhibit free legal assistance provided to the Shintech opposition group, St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment.

Assisted by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic and local and national environmental groups, St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment filed a petition under the Clean Air Act asking EPA to review the state-granted air-pollution permits. This prompted a two-day public hearing and effectively stalled the project, much to the ire of the pro-business governor and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. In addition, EPA is investigating environmental racism and civil rights charges.

Peter Montague, in Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly #615 reports on the corporate backlash against EPA's Title VI initiative, led by the National Association of Manufacturers. Critics of this perspective claim that enforcing the civil rights law in this case will derail other federal programs, such as brownfields, EPA's plan to find new uses for Superfund sites in rundown urban areas. Defenders say there is no conflict: a well-run brownfields project would not violate the civil rights of people of color because the program requires meaningful community participation in the design and implementation processes. (Not to mention that not one of the 58 Title VI complaints filed with EPA has involved a brownfields project.) Nor would citizens object to a project if they saw that it provided jobs without threatening their health or environment. As Congressman William Jefferson (D-LA) put it, "dirty industries are not the only option for revitalizing poor communities."

EPA's decision on the civil rights aspect of the case was due this past summer. In an effort to appear more scientific and less political, EPA asked its Science Advisory Board to review the techniques used for assessing disproportionate "burden." According to the 1995 Toxics Release Inventory, ten facilities within four-and-a-half miles of the two elementary schools in Convent emitted over 16 million pounds of toxic air pollutants, an average of 250,000 pounds per square mile; the national average is 382 pounds per square mile. (TRI data comes from self-monitored, industry-reported figures; no official inspections or audits question their accuracy.) In a previous attempt at compromise, EPA has offered to lower emission levels from existing industries to offset the operation of the Shintech facility. Residents countered with the argument that area industries should be reducing overall emissions anyway.

The planned pollution factory (remember, it is not a "plant" -- plants discharge only clean air and water) would make half a million tons of explosive vinyl chloride each year. And while the immediate hardship would be on St. John Parish, the commodity and its production threaten the health of people globally. PVC products and the chemicals used to create them are linked to cancers, reproductive disorders and impaired mental development. Key among these chemicals is dioxin -- a family of chemicals known to cause a range of effects at low exposures -- possibly the most toxic substance ever introduced into the environment. Greenpeace researchers and many others believe that there is no safe level of dioxin and, because we all already carry a significant quantity in our bodies, no new sources should be acceptable.

Why the great push for Shintech and another facility near Lake Charles? Greenpeace suggests that growing pressure to eliminate dioxin from industrial effluents has reduced the demand for chlorine. PVC and its building blocks, ethylene dichloride (EDC) and vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), are the next-largest users of chlorine -- and sources of dioxin -- now that the pulp and paper industry has started to clean up its act. As a consequence, the chemical conglomerates have a vested interest in promoting the growth of PVC markets that will in turn raise the demand for chlorine. The result is an investment in new PVC production infrastructure (another facility is planned for Lake Charles) and the extensive marketing of all kinds of cheap PVC products.

Shintech promises jobs for an economically depressed area, and that is the mantra that pro-development forces always parrot. State officials and company spokesmen also promise a safe industry providing a safe product. The reality is 165 permanent jobs that are too technical for a population base where fewer than half the adults have high-school diplomas. The unspoken repercussions include discounted electrical power subsidized by citizens and other businesses, tax breaks that siphon resources from local infrastructure needs, accidental spills, leaks and explosions, the generation of a stew of toxic chemicals, and high rates of worker-related illnesses, including liver and other types of cancer.

The Houston Chronicle recently ran a special series on the dangers of PVC production entitled "In Strictest Confidence." Employee health records and early laboratory studies from Europe and the U.S. showed a growing body of evidence that PVC exposure was dangerous in levels far below what workers were experiencing. Documents obtained by the paper's investigative reporter show that the major chemical manufacturers conspired since the 1950s to hide research and occupational information that confirmed PVC's toxic effects. The examination of memoranda and minutes of meetings portrays a public relations effort coordinated by the industry's main trade association that mirrors what has been seen in other recent cases, most notably -- but by no means limited to -- dioxin and tobacco.

The complete series is available on the internet and includes some of the incriminating memos uncovered during the investigation, and interviews with industry employees, some of them now dead. As usual, the industry claims that things are much better now, but that is only because of government-mandated controls that limit worker exposure. For forty years the hellish alliance stonewalled, hid important data and lied to federal regulators in order to fight these same controls that they now brag about in the chemical industry trade group's "responsible care" commercials. (Do corporations really lie in commercials to improve their public relations? Corporations do!)

Excerpt from the Chronicle: "In a prepared statement, the Chemical Manufacturers Association called such charges 'irresponsible.' The group said that it promotes a policy of openness among its members. 'We took the problem seriously,' said Dr. Theodore Torkelson, a retired Dow Chemical toxicologist who chaired the CMA's vinyl chloride panel for 11 years in the 1970s and '80s. 'We did what we thought was ethical, scientifically sound and morally responsible.' The documents present another scenario: That the chemical companies, through their silence and inertia, subjected at least two generations of workers to excessive levels of a potent carcinogen that targets the liver, brain, lungs and blood-forming organs. Although they freely shared health information among themselves, the companies were evasive with their own employees and the government. They were unwilling to disrupt the growing market for polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, used in everything from pipe to garden hoses."

In 1974, after nearly two decades with no worker protection (OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, was not formed until 1969), B. F. Goodrich finally admitted to a few cases of angiosarcoma, an extremely rare form of liver cancer caused almost exclusively by exposure to vinyl chloride (VC), in factory workers. At the time VC had widespread application in consumer goods as an aerosol propellant up to fifty percent by weight in some products, such as hairspray. It took more than four years for the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) to enact a ban on the sale of VC-propelled aerosols; this was due to repeated industry challenges in court that successfully forestalled mandated recalls of existing stocks.

Indicative of the regulation problem is the fact that exposure limits (whether they are suitably conservative or not) are only instituted for the PVC manufacturing industry. Companies that have applications using PVC products or use it as a feedstock for their own products have no protective guidelines. And malignant health effects are not limited to manufacturing employees; PVC products carry a host of problems.

In order to give it the properties desired in the final product, PVC must be combined with a number of additives that have their own unintended consequences. These additives are not bound strongly and they can leach out, pass into other materials or be lost to air. Examples of potential human exposure are as numerous as the PVC products themselves: plasticizers can be directly transferred from PVC plastic "cling film" to food; children teethe on vinyl toys that contain lead and cadmium as well as other toxic additives; in 1996 the CPSC discovered that PVC miniblinds were giving off lead dust, long-known to cause brain-damage in children; studies indicate that toxic chemicals can leach out of water pipes made from PVC; construction and household items release toxic hydrogen chloride gas (as well as dioxin) in building fires; and finally, plastic throw-away items are commonly incinerated, releasing their toxins to the global atmosphere.

It should be obvious that control of long-lived toxins does not work and the only solution is eliminating their discharge, even if that means eliminating the manufacture and use of their parent products. Industry voices are raised in alarm whenever their bottom-line is threatened, no matter what environmental and health consequences are linked. Abolishing lead as a gasoline additive and eliminating the use of DDT are only two examples of many in which the sky did not fall despite corporate forecasts. For years Greenpeace has advocated the phase-out of industrial chlorine, and this may sound radical to many Americans, but it is an accepted goal in European countries that consider environmental protection an important government trust. (Greenpeace offers sources for PVC-free building materials on their website, as well as contacts to find out if your toy purchases are safe. The Environmental Working Group provides a report on "greening" hospitals on its internet site -- most PVC-containing medical waste ends up incinerated.)

Recently, Nike announced it would stop using vinyl in its shoes: "In reaching this decision, Nike considered a broad range of scientific information from its own consultants, industry sources, government agencies and independent monitoring groups. Many of these findings indicate that PVC may pose a risk of harm to living systems, particularly if it is manufactured or disposed of improperly. Nike is actively pursuing alternatives to PVC that better meet our sustainability criteria while still meeting our high athletic performance standards."

This prompted a ludicrous response from the Vinyl Institute, an industry trade group. Their press release states that "The decision by Nike to stop using vinyl in its products is based on false or misleading information supplied by Greenpeace and will hurt rather than help the environment." (No justification was given on how this could possibly hurt the environment.) Vinyl Institute executive director Robert Burnett said in a letter to Nike CEO Phil Knight "Over its nearly 70- year history, all aspects of vinyl's life cycle have been rigorously tested. It's one of the most thoroughly researched materials in existence." No one can deny that statement -- especially after reading the Houston Chronicle report -- but still the industry refuses to admit to the truth revealed in the volumes of data; one has to wonder if they retain the same PR firms as the tobacco industry.

Website for The Houston Chronicle special report on the PVC industry

Environmental Working Group homepage

Greenpeace toxics campaign site that provides research-supported allegations and solutions

Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly (formerly Rachel's Hazardous Waste News) offers a free e-mail newsletter. Current & back-issues can be found on-line at and

Just as The Harbinger was going to print, Shintech announced that it had given up plans to build in Convent. Hoping to avoid a national test case over "environmental racism," the company stated that they will instead try to open the factory in Plaquemine near Baton Rouge.

Warmest congratulations to St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment and their allies, and deepest commendations to them for vowing to keep up the fight: "Hopefully, we can stop them opening this kind of facility anywhere, because nobody should have to live with production of vinyl chloride in their community," one member of St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment.

No government power can be abused long. Mankind will not bear it. . . . There is a remedy in human nature against tyranny, that will keep us safe under every form of government.

--Samuel Johnson

The Harbinger, P.O. Box U-980, Mobile, AL 36688-0001