Like Brockovich, the paralegal-turned-movie icon who fought against toxic polluters in California, Ross was determined to uncover the truth. She wanted to know what had killed her husband, a Lake Charles chemical plant worker, at the untimely age of 46.
She teamed up with crusading lawyer William "Billy" Baggett Jr., and together they have become central figures in a David-and-Goliath battle. Now, in the latest chapter of the story, a team led by Bill Moyers has created the PBS special report Trade Secrets that will air nationally Monday evening, March 26. In the special, Moyers takes the public behind the closed doors of the chemical industry, and uncovers a set of documents suggesting the industry obfuscated, denied and hid dangerous effects of chemicals on unsuspecting workers and consumers.
Elaine Ross' husband, Dan, spent 23 years working at the Conoco (later Vista) chemical plant in Lake Charles. After being diagnosed with brain cancer, according to Jim Morris of the Houston Chronicle, "Dan Ross came to believe that he had struck a terrible bargain, forfeiting perhaps 30 years of his life through his willingness to work with vinyl chloride, used to make one of the world's most common plastics."
"Just before he died [in 1990] he said, 'Mama, they killed me,'" recalled Elaine. "I promised him I would never let Vista or the chemical industry forget who he was."
And she hasn't. With Baggett, she filed a wrongful death suit against Vista. Baggett won a settlement for Ross, but she wasn't satisfied with just the money. Believing that her husband's death wasn't an isolated incident, she told Baggett to take the fight to the next level. Baggett did, suing 30 companies and trade associations including the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now called the American Chemistry Council) for conspiracy, alleging that they hid and suppressed evidence of vinyl chloride-related deaths and diseases.
The companies tried to get the suit thrown out of court. But Judge Fred S. Silverman allowed Baggett to proceed and gave him access to thousands of previously secret documents. These "Chemical Papers," as they are becoming known, chronicle virtually the entire history of the chemical industry, much of it related to vinyl chloride -- including minutes of board meetings, minutes of committee meetings, and consultant reports.
"There was a concerted effort to hide this material," said Dr. David Rosner, a professor of public health and history at Columbia University who has reviewed many of the documents as part of a research project. "It's clear there was chicanery."
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.
Almost 80 percent of Americans think that the government tests chemicals for safety, which is untrue. Aside from chemicals directly added to food or drugs, there are no health and safety studies required before a chemical is manufactured, sold or used in commercial or retail products. As health advocates have long complained, self-regulation simply isn't enough. Says public health advocate Charlotte Brody, a former nurse: "That's like relying on the tobacco industry to assess the risk of tobacco."
In addition to the 90-minute special, the Moyers program will include a 30-minute roundtable discussion among industry representatives and advocates for public health and environmental justice. Rallying around the upcoming special, a coalition of grassroots groups called "Coming Clean" has bonded together to oppose the chemical industry. Across the country, thousands of events and viewing parties are being organized, timed to coincide with the Moyers show. The Whole Foods supermarket chain has agreed to carry Coming Clean's flyers in all of its stores, and many email listserves, chat rooms and message boards are buzzing about the March 26 show. Eventually, the coalition hopes to harness public outcry to push for government regulations and class action suits against the chemical giants.
Some organizers are calling for public hearings that will put chemical corporation honchos in front of television cameras. "We urge Congress to force chemical industry executives to testify under oath about the toxic secrets they are withholding from the American public," said Gary Cohen, a leader of the Boston-based Environmental Health Fund and co-coordinator of the group Health Care Without Harm. "The American people deserve to know what chemical executives knew and when they knew it."