A dozen dirty documents
Twelve documents that stand out from the Center’s new oil and chemical industry archive
By Kristen Lombardi for The Center for Public Integrity
The Center for Public Integrity, along with researchers from Columbia University and the City University of New York, on Thursday posted some 20,000 pages of internal oil and chemical industry documents on the carcinogen benzene.
This archive, which will grow substantially in 2015 and beyond, offers users a chance to see what corporate officials were saying behind the scenes about poisons in the workplace and the environment.
Here are 12 examples of what the petrochemical industry knew about benzene; the impetus behind industry-sponsored science; and the corporate spin that often occurs when damning evidence against a chemical threatens companies’ bottom lines.
What the industry knew:
The industry knew the dangers of benzene exposure at both high and low concentrations, as illustrated by this 1943 report for Shell Development Company by a University of California researcher.
“Inasmuch as the body develops no tolerance to benzene, and as there is a wide variation in individual susceptibility, it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero.” That was a conclusion reached in a 1948 toxicological review of benzene prepared for the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association.
Benzene’s dangers known in 1943 (pg 2)
This 1943 report, prepared for Shell, is among the earliest to suggest that any prolonged exposure to benzene may be harmful.
No safe exposure level (pg 4) This 1948 review, prepared for the oil industry’s main trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, continues to torment the industry in litigation alleging benzene can cause various types of leukemia and other diseases of the blood-forming organs. In essence, it says the chemical is so potent that there is no safe exposure level.
A 1950 consultant’s memo to Shell lists benzene as having “established carcinogenic qualities.”
Benzene recognized as a well-known carcinogen (pg 1)
This 1950 memorandum from a consultant for Shell Development Company notes that benzol — an obsolete name for benzene — is a well-known carcinogen. As the author states, the memo was prompted by “an increased concern about the incidence of cancer” among Shell workers.
Motivations for industry involvement in research:
In 1995, a benzene study by the National Cancer Institute caught the attention of Exxon scientists, who closely monitored it.
Industry interest in cancer research (pg 1)
An Exxon scientist, B.F. Friedlander, explains that he and industry colleagues are “monitoring” a series of studies by the National Cancer Institute because of their focus on “health risks at low benzene exposures.” The memo shows the petrochemical industry’s early interest in the work of the NCI, which has examined the effects on Chinese workers exposed to benzene at levels below the legal occupational limit in the United States.
While attempting to gain support for a proposed study of benzene toxicity in Shanghai, China, the American Petroleum Institute cites “a tremendous economic benefit” to companies, which could gain data to combat “onerous regulations.” A project overview explains that publications linking benzene to childhood leukemia may cause concerns about the chemical to “resurface.”
‘Tremendous economic benefit’ from the industry study (pg 1)
The six-page overview touts the proposed Shanghai research as a way for the petrochemical industry to gain an “accurate understanding” of benzene’s health effects, which, in turn, would bring “tremendous economic benefit.”
A 2000 summary of the API’s research strategy, drafted by the group’s Benzene Task Force, explains that the research program “is designed to protect member company interests.” The anticipated results could “significantly ameliorate further regulatory initiatives” to curb benzene emissions.
Protecting industry interests (pg 2)
The summary describes the intent of the API’s research program as being “designed to protect member company interests.”
An email exchange explains how “HSE [health, safety and environment] issues surrounding benzene as well as the litigation claims” against the industry compel companies to participate in the industry-sponsored study.
Motivations for research (pg 2)
An email from one Shell executive argues that the “litigation claims we continue to see” are prime reasons for the company to spend millions of dollars on the proposed Shanghai research.
A PowerPoint presentation from 2001 lists “significant issues of concern” to encourage financial support for the API’s research on benzene-exposed workers in China. Among them is “litigation alleging induction of various forms of leukemias and other hematopoietic diseases.” The study, according to the presentation, could provide “strong scientific support for the lack of a risk of leukemia or other hematological diseases at current ambient benzene concentrations to the general population.”
Significant issues of concern (pg 3)
This PowerPoint slide suggests “significant issues of concern” that the proposed Shanghai research might help combat, which would save the petrochemical industry “millions of dollars in expenses.” The issues include more stringent regulations and litigation from benzene exposure.
“Litigation support” and “risk communication” are listed as goals in this 2007 memorandum describing an API risk management program. Further objectives are to establish current regulations as “protective” and avoid additional action.
Oil lobby’s risk management program (pg 1)
The memorandum details the oil lobby’s benzene “risk management” program, intended to “develop scientific data” for it and its member companies to use for “science advocacy” and “litigation support.”
An undated litigation defense guide written by a senior Shell attorney acknowledges the 1948 report on leukemia and offers a “comprehensive strategy” on how to respond to litigation, including releasing benzene-related documents only on court order.
Acknowledgement of the science showing no safe levels of benzene (pg 4)
Here the author, Richard O. Faulk of Shell Oil’s legal department, references a 1948 Toxicological Review prepared for the American Petroleum Institute. The review found that “the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero.”
After a draft of an API recruitment brief reminds potential study sponsors of “personal injury claims,” an email exchange among members of the Benzene Health Research Consortium urges deletion of “the reference to legal liabilities.”
Don’t mention the legal liabilities (pg 3)
This email from a Shell executive responds to an attached draft of a 2002 recruitment brief that reminds prospective donors about benzene liability costs. In the email, the executive urges colleagues to delete “the reference to legal liabilities” and emphasizes that “the only reason we are doing this is in support of protecting workers.”
A 2001 email from the consortium’s communications committee explains that the perception of the study “needs to be that this is not being done to protect against litigation”
Controlling the message on benzene (pg 1)
The email shows the companies behind the Benzene Health Research Consortium working hard to control their message. It lays out the “scope of public affairs” for the consortium’s communications committee, which includes countering any “perception” that the Shanghai study was “done to protect against litigation.”
Click on the link below to access original article and archival documents.