The "Five-Part Quiz on Corporate Ethics" offered to readers of Outlook two weeks ago by the DuPont public affairs office contended that critics of business morality have failed to appreciate the complexities of the ethical problems that face business executives. A fuller understanding of such issues, the article suggested, would vindicate the actions of DuPont, for one.
At least one of the examples cited in this article deserves further discussion. This was an account of Dupont's discovery in the 1930s that workers manufacturing dyes using an intermediate called Beta-naphthylamine were developing cancer. Whereupon, "We made full disclosure in the medical journals, cleaned up the process, and took care of employes to the best of medical science's ability."
The cancer hazard in dye making was brought to the attention of the DuPonts by the late Dr. Wilhelm C. Hueper, who is widely regarded as the father of environmental cancer prevention. Fortunately, Dr. Hueper and others who were involved in this struggle in the 1930s and '40s have left the account of industrial history and ethics which follows. This story will even be informative to the DuPont public relations writers, whose "Mobil ad" view of past events was as incorrect as it was self-serving.
Dr. Hueper had emigrated from Germany and was working under the tutelage of a physician at the University of Pennsylvania in the eary 1930s. This gentleman was also the personal physician of Ireneee DuPont. One day old DuPont had a cold and Hueper came along for the house call. Dr. Hueper asked to see the DuPont Company's dye works, and this was arranged within a short time. He was horrified to find dyes being made with benzidine and Beta-naphthylamine, with absolutely no industrial hygiene precautions taken. White, powdery dust was everywhere, and the work areas where the deadly amines were handled were in no way cordoned off from the larger chemical works. Hueper noted that it had been known since the turn of the century in Europe that these conditions led to a very high incidence of cancer of the bladder. Hadn't DuPont had that experience, too? The quick answer was "No," but within a few months there were 23 cases of bladder cancer noticed among past and present workers.
A few years later Hueper was working for DuPont Company, and someone seriously suggested that maybe they should just hire people for two years apiece in the dangerous areas and then lay them off. Hueper explained that if they did that, they would be mass-producing cancer. Meanwhile, Swiss dye chemists found other routes of dye synthesis that obviated the need for Beta-naphthylamine, which was abandoned in Switzerland in 1938.
Hueper's most brilliant research was done while he was at DuPont. For 40 years, it had been known that workers exposed to Beta were getting bladder cancer, but when the substance was tested on rats it produced no effect. Dr. Hueper tested Beta on dogs, and it produced numerous bladder tumors. He theorized that there were species-specific metabolic pathways for this substance, which itself was not carcinogenic. However, in some species Beta was metabolized into an active form, which accumulated at high concentration in the urine. The dog "digested" the chemical much the way man did, but the rat was able to pass it off without chemically converting the Beta to its deadly form. Hueper even identified the carcinogenic metabolite in the urine of his dogs.
Word soon got around that the head of the DuPont research labs had announced to the local papers that he had made this discovery. Hueper, enraged, went to see the editor, saying that the big shot had never set foot in his laboratory. "I call that theft," fumed Hueper. The editor calmed him down and called the lab director, who admitted that the work was not his after all. "By then, I knew my days at DuPont were counted," Hueper told me. The scientific report was published in 1938, around the time Hueper left DuPont. After that time, Hueper said, DuPont toxicological research that was bad for business was treated as a trade secret and withheld from publication.
Wrote Hueper in 1943:
"Industrial concerns are in general not particularly anxious to have the occurrence of occupational cancers among their employees or of environmental cancers among the consumers of their products made a matter of public records. Such publicity might reflect unfavorably upon their business activities and oblige them to undertake extensive and expensive technical and sanitary changes in their production methods and in the types of products manufactured. There is, moreover, the distinct possibility of becoming involved in compensation suits with extravagant financial claims by the injured parties. It is, therefore, not an uncommon practice that some pressure is exerted by the parties financially interested in such matters to keep information on the occurrence of industrial cancer well under cover."
In this paper, Hueper called upon industry to find substitutes for carcinogenic substances such as secondary aromatic amines and asbestos.
DuPont finally stopped using Beta in 1955. But Beta's chemical cousin, benzidine, persisted as a mainstay in the manufacture of numerous dyes for cotton, paper and leather. Hueper had told DuPont that benzidine was carcinogenic in 1936, but benzidine proved to be not so easily substituted as Beta.
An important international medical congress was held in London in 1948, at which the chief medical officer of the DuPont Company presented a paper to show that benzidine was not a cause of industrial cancer, and that all the cases of bladder cancer in his factories could be laid at the door of Beta, whose use he said was being abandoned.
In the early months of 1949 the medical officer to the Imperial Chemical Industries Dyestuffs Division - visited the DuPont Chambers Works dye plant. This man, the late Dr. Michael Williams, was accompanied by another British researcher, and they were shown around by the corporate medical director who had given the paper at the London medical congress. After the plant tour, he drove Dr. Williams and his colleague to their next destination, quite a long drive. Dr. Williams, who often recounted the story, noticed that his companion in the back of the car had his eyes closed, and said to the DuPont doctor, "Look, you are a company man, and I am a company man, and Dr. So-and-So is asleep. Can you explain to me why, after the records and so on that you have shown to us today, you are so certain that benzidine is not causing any of the trouble?"
He got the reply, witnessed by the other Briton, who was in fact not asleep but thinking, "We here know very well that benzidine is causing bladder cancer, but it is company policy to incriminate only the one substance, Beta-naphthylamine."
Dr. Williams had only recently joined the giant Imperial Chemical firm, where he later became known as an ardent campaigner against occupational cancer hazars.
DuPont did not withdraw from the benzidine dye business until 1973. According to company records, there were 339 known cases of urinary bladder cancer ascribed to benzidine and Beta among DuPont workment during the years 1956-1974. Even accounting for the 20-25-year lapsed period between onset of exposure and development of cancer, it is obvious that this continuing epidemic of cancer was both foreseen and preventable.
The DuPont public relations department was not content to merely rewrite history, but went on to lecture The Post's readers about morality, of all things. The writer admonished that "we give up the Moral Rectitude Race. If we consider the possibility that most people in business have pretty much the same bases of values as most of their critics..." I could well imagine Dr. Hueper's reaction to the suggestion that he was the moral equivalent of the DuPont executives and their medical minions.
He called them chiselers, the callous businessmen who saved a few thousand dollars on industrial hygiene engineering. He railed at them for suppressing the deadly truth from their workers, with their "flexible" front-men in medicine, law and public relations. Bill Hueper learned about business ethics and occupational cancer from the people who wrote the book. "The only thing they understand is jail and bad publicity."
The public's fears and suspicions of business will only be allayed when outfits like DuPont, Velsicol (Tris), Firestone (Radial 500 tires), Ford (Pintos), Hooker Chemical (Love Canal) and their ilk stop giving business a bad name. Until then, sanctimonious varnish over criminal business conduct serves only to warn us that the danger persists.