The first thing you notice about room 104 in the new Hamilton High School is the smell. The school only opened its doors six months ago and it still has that new-building smell. It’s an odor that’s difficult to define in clearer terms than “new-building” but Doug Soehren’s wife identified it immediately as the residue of chemicals one often encounters in newly constructed buildings, especially in institutions like schools—formaldehyde in the carpet and God knows what else.
Soehren was one of about 30 people who attended a public viewing Monday night of “Trade Secrets,” journalist Bill Moyers’ documentary indictment of the chemical industry in the United States, and broadcast by PBS.
The public viewing in Hamilton was one of about a hundred such viewings held around the country Monday night, organized by Coming Clean, a collaborative campaign launched by four groups: the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, the Environmental Health Fund and Women’s Voices for the Earth.
The nationwide “Trade Secrets” TV event was Coming Clean’s first project in a broader campaign to make Americans aware of the chemicals in their environment.
According to Moyers, and Coming Clean, America’s chemical industry has been given a virtual free pass by regulatory agencies, many of which were established well after the industry got its start following World War II.
Consequently, cosmetics, toys, construction materials and carpeting, to name a few widely used consumer products, are not required to undergo any public health testing prior to marketing. “This explains … why products such as hair spray, hair dye, pacifiers, stain repellents, glues, construction materials and plastic wraps … are put into commerce for decades before their dangers are discovered …,” according to a fact sheet put out by Coming Clean.
Since the 1950s, scientists for the chemical industry have known of the extreme toxicity of products like vinyl chloride, which has caused the bones in the fingers of some of industry workers to dissolve. And they’ve lied about it, covered up “confidential” memos, failed to come clean to workers or nearby homeowners about the dangers of chemicals, and invested millions of dollars into efforts to defeat ballot initiatives around the country that targeted the industry, demanding the truth.
At Hamilton High Monday night, the crowd was just old enough to remember Life magazine ads which proclaimed that “Eight out of 10 doctors prefer Camels.” One remembered running and playing in clouds of DDT sprayed on the suburban lawns in the neighborhood where he grew up.
And after the show was over, that same man told the others that his mother had died of breast cancer in 1987, with just enough of a question in his voice to make the rest of us wonder.