Q&A: Investigative Reporter Unearths Petrochemical Industry’s Dirty Secrets

The Breast Cancer Fund recently spoke with Center for Public Integrity Reporter Kristen Lombardi, whose recent exposé, Benzene and worker cancers: ‘An American tragedy’ focused on the petrochemical industry’s efforts to counteract damning science on the carcinogen benzene.

BCF: How did you get interested in this issue?

Lombardi: I’m on the environment team at the Center for Public Integrity, and last year we did a series called Toxic Clout. This series examined the chemical industry’s role in research on chemicals. The seeds were planted by an attorney who was working on a childhood leukemia case. He had obtained documents via the American Petroleum Institute, which had created a benzene taskforce dedicated to tracking research on benzene. We hadn’t looked at the API on the toxic clout series, but we thought, this is another big, powerful industry lobby. Once we looked into benzene we realized it’s ubiquitous and it kind of grew from there.

BCF: Tell me about the process of reporting this. What have been some of the biggest challenges you faced working on this story?

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Lombardi: I spent some time trying to figure out who handles benzene litigation and who might have internal company records about benzene in their possession. I called lawyers and asked if they knew anyone who could help with this. Pretty soon, I came across Robert Black who is mentioned in our story. He has 10 years worth of benzene lawsuits filed by sick and dying workers. He obtained 16,000 pages of previously secret documents submitted by oil companies and he offered to give it all to me. He also referred me to some other lawyers who had the bulk of other interesting documents, and they were also willing to give up their documents. These litigation lawyers thought the average person might be shocked to learn that the industry is funding its own science to downplay health effects.

Once I got the documents, the biggest challenge was to get through them—there were 20,000 pages. The attorneys gave me what the oil companies gave them, and there was no chronological order, no index to tell you what you were reading. You just had to read them and digest them and put them into context. I built a spreadsheet outlining key documents, dissected these documents, and conducted dozens of interviews with lawyers, public health officials and regulators.

I needed to understand how the industry–funded research was being used today. I used research funded by five petrochemical companies in Shanghai. They had a lot of documentation on that study, which lasted a decade and cost $36 million at the end of the day. In talking with public health historians who follow the corporate corruption of science, they saw this research as the most exhaustive, expensive and elaborate effort ever on the part of any industry. One of the challenges was to understand how that study was being used today. We quickly discovered that there have been 30 journal articles that are helping defend against worker claims—and they’re being used to beat back legal liability. I used that to weave together this story.

BCF: Why did you decide to focus on workers in your reporting?

Lombardi: Benzene litigation is overwhelmingly about occupational exposures because high exposures occur in occupations where benzene is prevalent. In occupational tort cases, the dots are easier to connect than in environmental exposure cases.

BCF: How far have we come since then and how far do we have to go?

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Lombardi: That was a toxicological review of benzene and is often cited as a smoking gun document. Industry knew in 1948 that there was no safe level. Since then, the oil industry has fought pretty hard against regulation. We have a legal occupational limit of one part-per-million (ppm), which has been the benzene standard for several years. It was first proposed by federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as far back as 1977. It was made final in 1978 and then there was a 10-year legal battle waged by the oil industry, which went to the Supreme Court.

Since then, the research has become much more damning, showing that not only is benzene linked to leukemia, but it’s linked to other bone marrow cases and other diseases. We’ve seen more and more research that lower and lower exposure levels can cause harm and adverse health effects. The most recent industry-funded study shows harmful health effects at levels below one ppm. The regulation now is woefully inadequate in terms of protecting workers. NIOSH recommends .1 ppm, but if you talk to people familiar with OSHA they’ll tell you they’re not about to take on benzene any time soon, there’s no political will for that kind of fight. We have quite a ways to go in terms of instituting a limit that is protective.

BCF: How have the chemical industry’s tactics mirrored those used by the tobacco industry?

Lombardi: The tobacco industry coined the infamous phrase “manufacturing doubt,” which was their modus operandi when the science around tobacco’s link to lung cancer was being debated. The tobacco industry has written a playbook, and a lot of industries have taken pages from it. Some tactics include hiring scientific consultants to poke holes in research, submitting reviews to regulatory agencies, funding their own research with an eye to getting advantageous results and more. The petrochemical industry has done all that. It also launched a systematic campaign to undercut the science linking benzene to cancer, which they refer to as a benzene research strategy. It was a strategy that was meant to further company interests, not meant to further public health.

BCF: Are you planning to work on any additional chemicals?

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Lombardi: The archive is being done in collaboration with City University of New York and Columbia University. It will be a chemical archive. We have documents on other chemicals like vinyl chloride. We have millions of documents that will show how the plastic industry spun the science linked to plastic and vinyl chloride. There are other chemicals that we’re going to add. The goal is to create an archive like the Tobacco Archives, which is an archive of all the discovery of the tobacco industry through litigation.

BCF: In your piece you write: “Experts say the petrochemical industry has bankrolled more research — at greater cost — than anyone but Big Tobacco.” Why have they put so much money into this?

Lombardi: It’s pretty clear it comes to economics. Benzene is a component of gasoline. Companies also package benzene to be used for other purposes. It’s a ubiquitous chemical and they make a lot of money from it. What companies feared most were what they called “tremendous costs” that come from stricter regulations, and legal liability, which would be more expensive than funding research.