The following text is courtesy of the the Center for Media & Democracy, (www.prwatch.org) which publishes a quarterly publication, PR Watch.

Excerpt from Trust Us, We’re Experts by Sheldon Rampton & John Stauber
© Center for Media and Democracy

Without Propaganda, Pollution Would Be Impossible

As evidence began to mount in the 1970s about the harmful effects of chemicals such as DDT, PCBs, vinyl chloride and benzene, companies – including Mobil Oil, Monsanto, and Union Carbide -- launched multiple massive advertising and public relations campaigns, using slogans like Monsanto's "without chemicals, life itself would be impossible." Union Carbide's propaganda efforts alone involved some 200 company managers, coordinated by the company's communications department as they pumped out speeches, tapes, canned editorials, educational films for public schools, and articles for newspapers and magazines.1

The propaganda effort relied heavily on questionable statistics designed to create the impression that excessive regulation was stifling American creativity and prosperity. Faced with proof that vinyl chloride caused a rare form of liver cancer, chemical manufacturers announced that a proposed federal standard for vinyl chloride exposure would cost two million jobs and $65 billion. "The standard is simply beyond compliance capability of the industry," declared their trade association. After the screaming was over, the standard was adopted and the industry continued to flourish, without job losses and at 5 percent of the industry's estimated cost.2

Information on occupational health hazards is rarely collected and even more rarely reported in the news. In the early part of this century, the concept of industrial safety was a novelty in the United States when Alice Hamilton, the country's first industrial physician, began to investigate what she came to call "the dangerous trades." In her autobiography, Hamilton described how she became aware of the problem: "It was also my experience at Hull House that aroused my interest in industrial diseases. Living in a working-class quarter, coming in contact with laborers and their wives, I could not fail to hear talk of the dangers that working men face, of cases of carbon-monoxide gassing in the great steel mills, of painters disabled by lead palsy, of pneumonia and rheumatism among the men in the stockyards." Hamilton went to the library "to read everything I could find on the dangers to industrial workers, and what could be done to protect them. But it was all German, or British, Austrian, Dutch, Swiss, even Italian or Spanish--everything but American. In those countries, industrial medicine was a recognized branch of the medical sciences, in my own country it did not exist."3

Decades later, Rachel Scott found the situation had not changed much when she set out to research her 1974 book, Muscle and Blood, which examined conditions affecting workers in steel foundries and other industrial settings. "At the library I had hoped to find some explanation of hazards to foundry workers--mortality studies, perhaps, which would shed some light on whether foundry employees showed higher incidences of diseases commonly associated with dusts and fumes, such as heart disease, respiratory disease, or lung cancer. I found French studies, Italian studies, German studies, and a few British studies, but in the American literature, nothing … In spite of my failure at the library, I could not believe there were no studies of present-day American foundries. But calls to federal and state officials confirmed that, indeed, no one knew how foundry workers may be reacting to their often hazardous environment."4

Even today, the situation is not much better. "We have better data on cattle slaughter in the United States than we do on work-related deaths and injuries," says Joseph Kinney of the National Safe Workplace Institute in Chicago, which he founded in 1987 after his brother died in a workplace accident for which the employer was fined only $800.5

Industry-financed propaganda campaigns like the Air Hygiene Foundation have helped create this vacuum of information, along with the notion that other people's problems are not our own and that the benefits of modern society outweigh the dangers. There is a cost, however, attached to this disregard for what happens to workers in their places of employment. Like coal-mine canaries, workers are often the first to encounter and recognize hazards in the broader environment that affects us all. Exposures to harmful chemicals are typically more severe and frequent in the workplace than elsewhere, and workers who fall sick often serve as early warnings that the solvent, metal, or pesticide with which they are working may be a threat to the broader community. Often, in fact, it has been workers themselves--not doctors, scientists, scholars, or government officials – who have discovered and raised the first alarm about a new health risk.

FOOTNOTES:

1. David F. Noble, "The Chemistry of Risk," Seven Days, vol. 3, no. 7 (June 5, 1979), p. 24.

2. Ibid., p. 25.

3. Quoted in Rachel Scott, Muscle and Blood (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1974), p. 40.

4. Scott, p. 41.

5. William Serrin, "The Wages of Work," The Nation, vol. 252, no. 3 (January 28, 1991), p. 80.

The above text is courtesy of The Center for Media & Democracy, (www.prwatch.org) which publishes a quarterly publication, PR Watch.